This article was written by Nelson ‘Chip’ Greene
Considering how dreadful his first full professional season was, it’s a wonder Mike Cvengros made it to the major leagues at all. Yet make it he eventually did, and he went on to win 25 major-league games over parts of six seasons, plus 177 in the minors. Over the course of his career, two themes constantly recur: the lefthander’s diminutive size, which led journalists to frequently refer to him as “little” Mike Cvengros, and what must have been the relative complexity of pronouncing his unique last name. A “tonguetwister,” the scribes liked to call it. (Contemporary efforts to discover the correct pronunciation have proved fruitless.) No doubt sluggers like Babe Ruth knew just how to say the pitcher’s name.
Pana, Illinois, Cvengros’s hometown, lies in the heart of coal country. The fifth of the nine children of Michael J. Cvengros, a laborer, and Helen (Buray) Cvengros, Michael John, the future major leaguer, was born on December 1, 1900. According to Cvengros’s Hall of Fame file, his parents were natives of Austria, as were their parents. In 1923, after Cvengros joined the Chicago White Sox, manager Kid Gleason told the New York World that Cvengros “is Czecho-Slovak.”[fn]New York World, June 9, 1923.[/fn] In 1927, when Cvengros pitched for the pennant-winning Pittsburgh Pirates, newspapers described him as the son of Polish parents.[fn]Pittsburgh Sunday Post, January 16, 1927.[/fn] Triangulating from these separate sources, it’s a safe guess to say that Cvengros’s parents’ homeland was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which before World War I encompassed parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Young Michael labored for a time in the coal mines; a newspaper described him as a “powerful youngster who got that way in the coal mines of Central Illinois.”[fn]Undated clipping in Cvengros’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.[/fn] He learned to play baseball with teams in and around Pana before he found his way at the age of 19 to Little Rock of the Southern League. How he ended up there is unclear, but Cvengros’s professional baseball career had begun.
There appears some contradiction over his first season. Online sources indicate that Cvengros first took the mound professionally in 1921, for Chickasha, Oklahoma, in the Class D Western Association, and that he joined Little Rock in 1922. However, a January 16, 1927, article in the Pittsburgh Sunday Post said that Cvengros had been “given two trials with Little Rock by Manager Kid Elberfeld. In his first trial [in 1920] he relieved J. Hank Robinson after the fifth inning in a game against New Orleans at Little Rock on August 27,” and “allowed just 3 hits in 4 innings” during a 6-1 Little Rock victory. Two days later, the article said, Cvengros pitched in relief against Memphis and was lifted after walking five batters in less than an inning. Cvengros “never appeared again that season,” the article said, but he “was reserved for Little Rock for 1921.” Those two games appear to be the true beginning of Cvengros’s professional career.
After spring training with Little Rock in 1921 during which he received “no chances to pitch,”[fn]Pittsburgh Sunday Post, January 16, 1927.[/fn] Cvengros was sent to Chickasha. It’s difficult to imagine what that experience must have been like for the 20-year-old. To contemplate the statistical story of that season is to envision a constant barrage of baserunners and runs scored by the opposition, as in 152 innings over 47 games he compiled a mind-boggling WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) of 3.104 and lost 22 games (although he also won 17). Perhaps the team was short on pitchers, or maybe Cvengros’s batting skills (he played 17 games in the outfield and produced averages of .275 batting and .358 slugging) gained him a reprieve; nevertheless, he remained with the Chicks the entire season and apparently learned some lessons. For by the following season, his performance resulted in a dramatic change of fortunes. After a nightmarish 1921 season, Cvengros found himself atop a big-league mound in 1922.
Returning to Little Rock in 1922, the 21-year-old Cvengros caught the eye of major-league scouts while posting 17 wins, a 2.88 ERA, and a 1.372 WHIP. He also batted .295, and even played a game in left field. New York Giants scout Dick Kinsella saw Cvengros and recommended him to Giants manager John McGraw. In September the Giants signed Cvengros, and on September 30 at the Polo Grounds in New York, he made his major-league debut, starting against the Boston Braves. Though he lost, 5-1, Cvengros pitched a complete game and allowed just six hits, although his four walks assuredly didn’t help his cause. (The New York World commented the next season that Cvengros’s pitching “made folks sit up and take notice.”[fn]New York World, June 9, 1923.[/fn]) Just two years removed from the coal mines, Cvengros was a major leaguer. Staying there, though, often proved problematic.
Tracking down what kind of player Cvengros was and gauging his ability is frustrating; there’s not much available reference material. What is readily apparent, though, is that at 5-feet-8 and just 159 pounds he was “somewhat undersized”[fn]Undated clipping in Cvengros’s Hall of Fame file.[/fn] for a major leaguer. Over his career Cvengros often struggled with control, as attested by his 1.582 WHIP; he also walked more batters (285 in 551 innings) than he struck out (201). Cvengros was an effective hitter, particularly in the minors, where he sometimes played the outfield and frequently pinch-hit. In 1,309 minor-league at-bats, the left-handed swinger batted .265 and smashed six home runs.
Of his contemporaries, Cvengros probably bore the closest resemblance as a pitcher to another man of similar stature. In June 1923, the New York World suggested that Cvengros “gives promise of being something of the same sort of pitcher as Dickey Kerr,” of the White Sox, also a lefthander, who was just 5-feet-7 and weighed 155 pounds. That Kerr would be offered as an example was probably not a mere coincidence. In 1923 Cvengros and Kerr had become teammates.
Fresh from his major-league debut, Cvengros returned home to Pana after the 1922 season and joined the local ballclub. He was sensational. On October 16 he pitched a no-hitter against Nokomis, giving up just one walk. On the 22nd he handed the Decatur All-Stars and their 51-year-old pitcher, Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity a 7-1 defeat. At the end of January 1923 Cvengros joined 19 other pitchers at the Giants’ spring-training camp at Marlin Springs, Texas. “McGraw apparently thinks very well of Cvengros,” said a sportswriter, “and seems to think the Pole has quite an opportunity before him.”[fn]Bridgeport (Connecticut) Telegram, February 16, 1923.[/fn] But on Opening Day, April 17, Cvengros was returned to Little Rock, which released him the same day.
Cvengros wasn’t without a team for long. During his previous stay with Little Rock, White Sox manager Kid Gleason had seen him work and been impressed with the southpaw’s skills. So when Little Rock waived Cvengros, Gleason “was quick to grab him.”[fn]New York World, June 9, 1923.[/fn] Cvengros joined Chicago for the 1923 American League season and posted a 12-13 record for the seventh-place team. Cvengros spent three seasons with the White Sox, and if his work that first season was respectable, it was a performance he was never able to replicate. After that, in fact, he was just not very good. (In 88 career appearances for the White Sox, Cvengros finished 18-34 with a 4.74 ERA.) Cvengros did, however, produce a few highlights for the White Sox, particularly in 1923. In his debut appearance, on April 22 at St. Louis, in relief of starter Ted Blankenship, he was the winner when the White Sox came from behind to beat the Browns, 4-3; in 4⅓ innings, he allowed just two hits. On June 8 at Yankee Stadium, he pitched a complete-game victory, twice striking out Babe Ruth. In late July he pitched complete-game victories against the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox, allowing just one run in each contest.
In 1924 things fell apart. Perhaps it was the loss of his benefactor, Gleason, who had been fired after the 1923 season and replaced by Frank Chance (who was himself replaced by Johnny Evers after Chance became ill prior to Opening Day; he died on September 15). From his first appearance, the season was a disaster for Cvengros; he won just three games while losing 12 and posted a 5.88 ERA. On April 26, at Detroit’s Navin Field, Cvengros again made his season debut by relieving starter Ted Blankenship. In four innings the Tigers rocked Cvengros for nine hits and 11 runs (six earned). In the fifth inning, after giving up five runs, Cvengros “walked out of the box and went to his hotel.”[fn]Undated clipping in Cvengros’s Hall of Fame file.[/fn] Asked to explain his sudden disappearance, Cvengros tersely replied, “I took myself out.”[fn]Pittsburgh Sunday Post, January 16, 1927.[/fn] Evers later fined the pitcher $200. Cvengros never recovered.
Neither did he ever solve The Bambino. Like many other pitchers of his era, Cvengros struggled mightily against Ruth. With the exception of the two strikeouts in 1923, Ruth usually got the best of their confrontations. During his career Cvengros allowed 24 regular-season home runs, five of them by Ruth. None was more dramatic than the first. In 1944, in a syndicated newspaper series called “My Biggest Baseball Day,” Ruth recalled that blast.
“One day we were playin’ in Chicago against the White Sox,” Ruth told sportswriter John P. Carmichael, “and Mark Roth, our secretary, was worryin’ about holdin’ the train because we were in extra innings. He was fidgetin’ around behind the dugout lookin’ at his watch, and I saw him when I went up to hit in the 15th. ‘All right, quit worrying,’ I told him.’ I’ll get this over with right now. Mike Cvengros was pitchin’ and I hit one outta the park [on the first pitch]. We made the train easy. It was fun.”[fn]Winnipeg Free Press, November 13, 1944.[/fn] In a Herculean effort, Cvengros lost the complete-game 15-inning affair, 3-1.[fn]The game took place on May 22, 1923, at Comiskey Park.[/fn]
Cvengros’s final season with the White Sox was 1925. Working that year for manager Eddie Collins, he pitched in just 22 games, 11 as a starter, and finished 3-9. On September 1 he was released by Chicago, and the next day signed with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association. He took the mound that same day for New Orleans, and over the remainder of the season went 4-0. Returning to the Pelicans in 1926, Cvengros posted an impressive 18-5 mark and batted .352, as he was often called on to pinch-hit. After the season the Pirates drafted him, and, just one season removed from the big stage, Cvengros returned to the major leagues.
There were few highlights for Cvengros during the 1927 season. Having won the World Series just two years before, Pittsburgh fielded a veteran team. With solid starters Lee Meadows, Vic Aldridge, and Ray Kremer returning, there seemed few opportunities for Cvengros, and he was rarely used, making just four starts among 23 appearances and pitching just 53⅔ innings as the Pirates marched to the pennant. Cvengros hadn’t had much of a season, but he was in the World Series, against the Yankees.
The seldom-used Cvengros didn’t appear to have much chance of working in the World Series. Bush said he “probably would use no left-handed pitchers against the Yankees unless emergency relief so demanded.”[fn]Twin Falls (Idaho) Daily Times, October 4, 1927.[/fn] As Emil Yde and Cvengros were the only “port-side hurlers and neither is in Class A,”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Cvengros undoubtedly prepared to spend the Series on the bench.
But Cvengros did indeed take the mound against the Yankees. In Game Two, at Forbes Field, with New York leading 4-1, he relieved starter Aldridge with one out in the top of the eighth and the bases loaded. He hit the first batter he faced, Earle Combs, forcing home a run, then gave up a single to Mark Koenig, allowing another run to score. Ruth and Lou Gehrig grounded out. Cvengros was pinch-hit for in the bottom of the inning.
The next day, at Yankee Stadium, he again met his nemesis. With one out in the bottom of the seventh, three runs in and runners on second and third with the Yankees now leading, 5-1, Cvengros relieved starter Meadows. The first batter Cvengros faced was Ruth and The Babe crushed a three-run homer, putting the game out of reach. Cvengros then struck out Gehrig and Bob Meusel. He allowed a single and coaxed three groundouts in the eighth before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the ninth. Cvengros worked 2⅓ innings in his two Series appearances and allowed three hits, including the Ruth home run, in the only postseason action of his career.
The 1928 season once again found Cvengros in the minor leagues. The Pirates’ offseason acquisition of left-hander Fred Fussell from Wichita Falls of the Texas League made Cvengros expendable, and he and catcher Ike Danning were sent to Wichita Falls to complete the Fussell deal. Again Cvengros was outstanding against minor-league hitters, going 21-8 (his career mark in 408 minor-league appearances was 177-130, with a 3.29 ERA),and again drawing the attention of major-league scouts. On October 3 the Cubs drafted him, and Cvengros returned to the major leagues.
Things were looking up in Chicago. In 1928, their third season under manager Joe McCarthy, the Cubs had produced 91 wins and finished third. Management felt all the pieces were in place to improve, save for a big-time bat. Then came the blockbuster: the acquisition of second baseman Rogers Hornsby from the Boston Braves in exchange for five players and $200,000. One of the five players was left-handed pitcher Percy Jones, who had tossed ten wins that season for the Cubs. Seeking to replace Jones’s productivity, the Cubs added Cvengros to their roster for 1929.
In an experience similar to that with the 1927 Pirates, Cvengros was again used sparingly. He nonetheless made his presence felt. Starting on April 23, Cvengros had five consecutive scoreless relief appearances, working 12⅔ innings and allowing just seven hits. On May 21 Cvengros made his first start and was hammered, surrendering nine hits and six runs in 4⅔ innings. For the season he pitched in 32 games, four as a starter, and produced five wins, all in relief. He did not pitch in the World Series. In December the Cubs sent him to Indianapolis of the American Association in exchange for pitcher Arthur “Bud” Teachout. It was the final major-league deal in which Cvengros was involved. After 25 wins in 144 games, he never again appeared on a major-league roster.
Cvengros pitched eight more seasons in the minor leagues. After going 15-9 for Indianapolis in 1930 and opening the 1931 season with the club, he was traded during that season to league rival Columbus. After a 10-10 season Cvengros was traded to Houston of the Texas League, where in six seasons he compiled a record of 79-62 (including 21-11, 2.38 in 1933). After a 4-16 season in 1937, the 36-year-old Cvengros retired.
In 1932 Cvengros had married Dolores Mary Hurve Vandalia, Illinois. By 1937, Cvengros’s final season, the two were living, apparently childless, on Clay Avenue in Houston. Cvengros had a job as a laborer for the Gulf Brewing Company.
In February 1938 Cvengros was announced as the manager of Abbeville of the Class D Evangeline League,[fn]Biloxi Daily (Mississippi) Herald, February 23, 1938.[/fn] but by May he had “resigned due to ill health.”[fn]San Antonio Light, May 17, 1938.[/fn] That appears to be Cvengros’s final connection with Organized Baseball.
A final reference to Cvengros appears in the 1940 US Census, which recorded Mike and Dolores living, with no children, in Ramsey Township, Fayette County, Illinois. He was a tavern keeper and she a tavern helper.
Cvengros died August 3, 1970, aged 69, at St. Joseph Hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Three months earlier he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer with metastasis. He was buried in the Calvary Cemetery, in Hot Springs.
This biography appears in “Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs” (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.
My sincerest appreciation to SABR member Bill Mortell for his diligent genealogical research.
Mike Cvengros player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.
Biloxi (Mississippi) Daily Herald
Bridgeport (Connecticut) Telegram
Decatur (Iowa) Daily Review
Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Leader
Kingston (New York) Daily Freeman
Newark (Ohio) Advocate
New York World
Oakland (California) Tribune
Ogden (Utah) Standard Examiner
Pittsburgh Sunday Post
San Antonio Light
Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press
Twin Falls (Idaho) Daily Times
Uniontown (Pennsylvania) Morning Herald
Winnipeg (Manitoba) Free Press