This article was written by David Greisen
The number of professional baseball players active in the area known as the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin reached its pinnacle during the 1940s and 1950s, after the formation of the Class D Wisconsin State League in 1940. Left-handed pitcher John Henry Van Cuyk, who began his professional career in that league, eventually had a brief major-league career with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Van Cuyk was born to Henry and Anna Van Cuyk in Little Chute, Wisconsin, on July 7, 1921. Little Chute, directly east of Appleton and the Fox River, has been known for its Dutch ancestry since the 1800s. Henry was born in the Netherlands in 1896 and came to the United States with his parents, Johannes and Gertrude. They settled in Kimberly, Wisconsin, near Little Chute.
John was one of five children, four boys and a girl. His youngest brother, Chris, was a left-handed starting pitcher for parts of three seasons (1950-52) with the Dodgers. “He had much better baseball ability than I had,” John said. He was six feet seven and weighed 260 pounds and by God, could he throw that ball. But it went to hell because if a lady winked at him, boy, be careful.”
As a child, John was known as “the kid that plays ball.” “I’d walk up and down the street early in the morning with a bat, glove, and ball and get a bunch of kids together and walk across the river to Little Chute and play all day. All summer long, that’s all we did. From seven in the morning until it was dark at night.” When Van Cuyk told others he was going to be a professional baseball player when he grew up, they laughed. “Nobody thought it was possible for someone from Kimberly to make it to the Major Leagues,” he said.
Van Cuyk became a five-sport varsity letter winner at Kimberly High School. He was a standout for the Papermakers in football, basketball, and baseball and also ran track and boxed. “In football I was an end and could run like a damn deer. My dad used to say, ‘If you get in trouble, throw the ball to John. He can run like hell when somebody’s chasing him.’ The six-feet-one, 190-pound Van Cuyk tried fighting as an amateur boxer, but it didn’t go as well. “I got the [bleep] kicked out of me in boxing.” Van Cuyk is enshrined in the Kimberly High School athletic hall of fame and is one of very few athletes in the school’s history to earn five varsity letters in a single year.
Van Cuyk’s professional baseball career began in 1940 with the Appleton Papermakers, an unaffiliated team in the Wisconsin State League. Van Cuyk personified the typical Wisconsin State League player: He was young, inexpensive, and a long shot to make the majors. His salary with Appleton was $65 a month, but he earned additional cash—“50 bucks a start”—throughout the season by pitching for the village team in Kimberly.
Van Cuyk was back with Appleton in 1941, by which time the Papermakers had become a Cleveland Indians affiliate. He had a combined 10-16 record for the two seasons, before putting his baseball career on hold because of World War II. He was drafted by the army, served as a military policeman, and advanced to the rank of sergeant. “I had it pretty good in the service, but it was all because I could play ball,” Van Cuyk said.
He pitched mostly for the battalion team at Camp Grant, Illinois, but after being transferred to an Army facility in Los Angeles, he heard about a semipro team sponsored by Paramount Studios in Hollywood. He asked for a tryout, made the team, and pitched in thirty-five games, winning thirty-one of them. Van Cuyk struck out 530 batters in 302 innings. And the competition wasn’t easy—many of the teams he pitched against were loaded with professional stars. Best of all for Van Cuyk, he was paid $100 for each game he pitched.
Tom Downey, a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Van Cuyk immediately after he finished his military obligation. “When I signed with the Dodgers I got a $20,000 bonus, which at that time was like getting millions nowadays.” When he told his dad about the money, his dad replied, “Nobody’s worth that kind of money!”
In the spring of 1946 Van Cuyk trained with the Dodgers before they assigned him to the Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League. His pitching was strong and steady throughout the year. He finished with eighteen victories and eight defeats for the regular-season champions and led the league in ERA (1.42), strikeouts (207), and shutouts (6). Van Cuyk was the Game One starter in the opening round of the Texas League playoffs, shutting out Tulsa on two hits. After the season, he returned to Kimberly to work at a local coal yard and live with his wife, Josephine, and her parents.
As the result of his impressive season in Fort Worth, Van Cuyk appeared on the front cover of the April 1947 edition of Baseball Digest as a rookie-of-the-year candidate. He made the Dodgers’ opening-day roster, but within weeks was pitching for the International League’s Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s top minor-league team.
Van Cuyk was 12-9 when Brooklyn recalled him in September. He made his major-league debut on the September 18 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field. Van Cuyk had entered the game in the fifth inning with two outs, the bases loaded, and the score tied, 3–3. He allowed a run to score and then pitched a scoreless sixth inning before Eddie Miksis pinch-hit for him in the top of the seventh.
Miksis walked and scored on a home run by Jackie Robinson, putting Van Cuyk in line for the win in what would have been the pennant-clinching victory. But Wally Westlake’s home run in the bottom of the ninth gave Pittsburgh an 8–7 win. Van Cuyk made his second, and final, appearance of the season in Brooklyn’s next game, on September 20 at Ebbets Field, throwing the final two innings of an 8–1 loss to the Boston Braves.
While Van Cuyk was eligible to pitch in the 1947 World Series against the New York Yankees, he never saw action. Nevertheless, he cited the seven-game series as one of his fondest memories in baseball. “Yankee Stadium was altogether different from any ballpark I ever played in,” he said. “To walk in there and see 60,000 people up in those seats was a thrill.”
Van Cuyk was fond of playing for Leo Durocher, the club’s manager in 1948. He called Leo “the greatest manager in baseball,” adding, “I never saw Durocher chew anybody out in front of anybody. If you had an ass-chewing coming for something—you made a mistake on the mound or something like that—he’d call you into his office and tell you, and it was done. No other manager did that.”
Van Cuyk’s next two seasons were much like his rookie year. He spent the majority of the season pitching for Montreal and made a combined five relief appearances for the Dodgers. His last trip to the mound in a Dodgers uniform came on May 9, 1949, in a 14–5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. He finished the season in Montreal, compiling a 10-10 record, the third straight time he had won ten or more games for the club. The Royals won the 1949 Governors’ Cup by defeating the Buffalo Bisons four games to one for the International League championship. After the season, Van Cuyk appeared in two games for Cienfuegos in the Cuban Winter League.
In 1950 Van Cuyk began the season with the American Association’s St. Paul Saints, the Dodgers other Triple A affiliate. He made thirty-eight appearances for the Saints, primarily as a reliever. Back in St. Paul the next year, Van Cuyk appeared in thirty-six games, including ten starts. It was the sixth consecutive year he saw action in at least thirty minor league games.
Van Cuyk’s tenure with the Saints came to an end when he was purchased by the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League before the 1952 season. He appeared in sixty-one games for manager Mel Ott, all but one in relief, and had a 9-3 won-lost record and a 2.67 ERA. On May 6, 1953, the Oaks sold Van Cuyk to the San Diego Padres of the PCL. He appeared in seventeen games for Oakland in 1953, but a dispute with the ballclub over money eventually led to his retirement. “I retired and was offered a job to manage in Albuquerque for the Dodgers. I turned it down (for family reasons) and Tommy Lasorda took the job.”
Van Cuyk returned to Kimberly with his family, which included his wife and two sons, John Jr. and Lonny, both of whom were adopted in Montreal while he was playing for the Royals. He resumed working at the coal yard that regularly employed him during the offseasons. In 1954 he received an offer that would prompt yet another change of address for the family. “Ben Sternberg, from Rochester, Minnesota, called and wanted me to come there and play semipro baseball in the Southern Minny League with the Rochester Royals,” he said. That wasn’t all: Sternberg, a real estate businessman, also had an opening in his company, and so Van Cuyk became a real-estate agent. He continued to play for the Royals until the league disbanded for financial reasons in March of 1960.
Van Cuyk and his wife moved back to Kimberly in the early 1970s and he started a second long-term, post-baseball career in automobile sales. In the mid-1970s the couple moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, and Van Cuyk worked at a Ford dealership as a sales manager. They spent roughly five years out West before he took a similar position at a Ford dealership in Appleton. Altogether, Van Cuyk put in thirteen years in the real-estate industry, and eighteen in the automotive field. In his later years he worked part time at a golf course in Rochester and commented, “I like it there because all we talk about is baseball.”
In January 1988 Van Cuyk’s high-school sweetheart and wife of forty-six years, Josephine Fiers, died of bone cancer. She was sixty-two years old. The two were married on January 3, 1942, shortly before he entered the army.
After Josephine’s death, Van Cuyk moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to live with John Jr. and his family. While he was there, he began dating Kaye Canfield, a friend from Rochester, Minnesota, whose husband had just died. According to John Jr., “The next thing you know, they got married.”
The couple made a permanent home in Rochester, with the exception of a one-year stay in Las Vegas. John said they were deeply attached to baseball and watched as many Minnesota Twins games as possible. The former major leaguer’s heart remained with the Dodgers, however. “They’re still my team, and they always will be,” he said.
Throughout his life, Van Cuyk served as a role model for others, most notably his two sons. “He was very competitive, but he never pushed us into baseball,” they said. “While he always worked hard, he and Mom took the time and came to our events and were always very complimentary.”
While his days with the Brooklyn Dodgers were numbered and he never had a pitching decision in the majors, Van Cuyk collected an ample store of major-league memories. He appeared on a World Series roster, played for Hall of Fame managers Leo Durocher and Mel Ott, and witnessed the successful integration of baseball by teammate Jackie Robinson. The franchise rewarded him for his “outstanding consistent relief pitching from 1947-49” by inducting him into the Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Fame in 1999.
Van Cuyk died in Rochester on July 10, 2010, three days short of his eighty-ninth birthday. He is buried at St. Agnes Cemetery in Kellogg, Minnesota. Van Cuyk was survived by his wife, Kay, sons, Lonny and John, six grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.
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Nicollet Park (Minneapolis) by Stew Thornley, The Baseball Biography Project.
http://www.fwcats.com (The 1946 Fort Worth Cats.).
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John and Kaye Van Cuyk, interview, February 5, 2009.
Mark Van Cuyk, telephone interview, February 9, 2009.
Lonny Van Cuyk, telephone interview, March 17, 2009.
Johnny Van Cuyk Jr., telephone interview, March 17, 2009.
John and Kaye Van Cuyk, telephone interview, March 26, 2009