Ralph Kraus

This article was written by Bill Lamb

Ralph Kraus (COURTESY OF BILL LAMB)As the manpower needs of World War II drained the baseball talent pool, major league ball clubs resorted to stocking their rosters with those available: veteran players overage for military service, the physically unfit, and others unlikely to be conscripted, including a handful of high school students. One of these was Ralph Kraus, a 17-year-old infielder signed by the Cincinnati Reds in January 1945. A decent showing in spring training earned the youngster an Opening Day spot on the Reds bench. And there Kraus remained. He never appeared in a regular season major league game. When unconditionally released on July 19, the rookie had been available for use but had seen no field action over the Reds’ first 76 games.

Depending on the criteria used,1 his extended period of inactivity while in Cincinnati Reds uniform may confer upon Kraus the dubious distinction of being major league baseball’s longest-tenured “phantom,” or almost-major league player.2 Several unproductive seasons in the minors followed his stint in Cincinnati livery before Kraus quit the game to join the workaday world. After 30 years in school maintenance, he retired to dabble in local politics. Otherwise, he lived quietly until his death in 2015 at age 88. The paragraphs below recall the life and stillborn career of this not-quite major leaguer.

Ralph Earl Kraus was born on July 14, 1927, in North Bend, Ohio, a village located about 15 miles northwest of Cincinnati. He was the youngest of nine children3 born to farmer Edward Kraus (1888-1937) and his wife Susie (née Bachman, 1889-1930), both Ohio natives. Ralph’s early years were marred by family tragedy. His mother died when he was only three, and his father was killed in a farming accident in March 1937. Nine-year-old Ralph was taken in by an aunt and raised on a farm in nearby Cleves, the Cincinnati outskirt that he would call home for the remainder of his life.

During his teen years, Kraus attended small Taylor High School in Cleves, where he starred in sports. In the fall, he was the quarterback of Taylor’s six-man football team. Over winter, he was a starting forward on the basketball five. Where he really excelled, however, was on the baseball diamond. A right-handed batting and throwing infielder, he broke into the Taylor lineup as a standout freshman shortstop in 1942. He later did some high school pitching, as well. But where Kraus first attracted significant press attention was as the third baseman for the crack Bentley Post American Legion team of 1944.

Composed of players from Cincinnati-area high schools who were no older than 17, the Bentley Post nine was loaded with talent. The pitching corps was anchored by future major leaguer Herm Wehmeier, then a Western Hills High star just coming off a winning streak of 52 consecutive high school games. The team’s best all-around player was standout catcher Norbert Ranz. With third baseman Kraus and others providing ample support, Bentley Post swept through American Legion regional qualifying before heading to the title round, a double-elimination tournament staged in Minneapolis.

The championship was decided before more than 7,000 fans on the evening of September 2, 1944. A Legion team from Albemarle, North Carolina, avenged an earlier tourney loss to Bentley by beating Wehmeier and the Cincinnatians, 6-2, to begin the action. This outcome necessitated a winner-take-all third game between the teams. Then, calamity struck the Bentley side when designated starter Dick Holmes developed a sore arm during warm-ups and was unable to pitch. Stepping into the breach as emergency replacement was Kraus.

Although touched for nine base hits, Kraus was tough in the clutch, striking out seven enemy batsmen. He helped his own cause by stroking a pair of singles and handling six defensive chances flawlessly. Clinging to a 3-2 lead after four innings, “the man of the hour” held Albemarle scoreless over the final five frames to clinch Bentley’s one-run victory and the 1944 American Legion championship.4 Minneapolis sportswriters subsequently named Kraus the third baseman on the all-tournament team.5

Soon thereafter, Kraus returned to Taylor High for his senior year. Returning a punt that fall, he suffered a dislocated shoulder, an ill-treated football injury that later had devastating consequences on his baseball career. Late in life Kraus stated that “back then, people just told you to pop it in.” The damaged shoulder, however, would not stay in place and ultimately ruined his batting swing.6 That debility, however, was not yet obvious, and several major league clubs, including the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, were interested in the 17-year-old Kraus.7 But in the end, the youngster chose his hometown club, signing a major league contract with the Cincinnati Reds in January 1945.8

The year before, precedent for the signing of underage area talent by the Reds had been established when 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall was auditioned and given a major-league contract. The Kraus signing was preceded by the Reds’ inking of Wehmeier, then not quite 18. Wehmeier’s pact included a handsome $6,500 bonus.9 Kraus did almost as well, getting $5,500 from the Reds.10 Reds general manager Warren Giles accompanied the announcement of the signing with a commitment to refrain from taking prospects who still had American Legion ball eligibility remaining. He added, “We signed two boys who played Legion ball last year – Herman Wehmeier and Ralph Kraus – and believe we got the cream of the crop.”11

In early March, underaged and undersized (5-feet-8½, 150 pounds)12 Kraus was among the roster candidates who reported to the Reds spring camp in Bloomington, Indiana. Cincinnati manager Bill McKechnie was not overly impressed with the material on hand, declaring “this season will be brutal for us. We simply lost too many players” to military service. A fourth-place finish was the best that McKechnie hoped for.13 His American Legion recruits, however, made a good first impression on the veteran skipper. After an early workout, McKechnie advised gathered sportswriters, “Put this down in your little black book – that Wehmeier boy is going to make quite a pitcher. I also liked the way young Ralph Kraus handled himself.”14

The progress of the club’s kiddie corps was impeded when Wehmeier, Kraus, and catching prospect Bernie Westerkamp had to return home for a week of catch-up high school study.15 Before they left, however, Wehmeier and Kraus cemented their standing with McKechnie via more good work in intrasquad games for the younger reserve unit nicknamed the Colts. In the estimation of Cincinnati scribe Lou Smith, “Ralph [Kraus]’s play at short for the Colts was easily the outstanding defensive feature of the day’s play. He covers plenty of ground and has a fine arm.”16 More important, “McKechnie, who seldom goes overboard on youngsters, becomes loquacious every time young Ralph Kraus’s name is mentioned. The Deacon says that the former Bentley Post American Legion star has all the hallmarks of an outstanding field star. He had Kraus working at short with the second infield today, and the youngster really looked like money in the bank.”17

Years later, Kraus revealed, “I was on Cloud 9.”18 But while still able to field and throw, his injured shoulder prevented him from hitting as expected. Upon belatedly realizing that he had signed damaged goods, GM Giles “was furious.”19 Notwithstanding that, Kraus made Cincinnati’s Opening Day roster as a backup infielder.20

From his vantage point on the Reds bench, Kraus had a close-up look as Cincinnati started the 1945 campaign with a 10-inning, 7-6 Crosley Field triumph over the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 17. He remained there as Pittsburgh won the next two contests but was left home when the Reds made a three-game road trip to St. Louis.21 Kraus was back in uniform but saw no action for the five-game return set against the Cardinals that closed out April.

Light-hitting but more experienced Kermit Wahl got the call whenever an infield replacement was needed. Thus, Kraus remained glued to the Reds bench as the season continued. In a late-life anecdote, Kraus related that “a month or so into the season, … McKechnie promised to let [me] play if [I] could get though an exhibition game without injury.” But reinjury of Kraus’s shoulder while sliding into second derailed that plan.22 He did see action of a different sort at Crosley Field on June 19, however. Responding to the shrieks of a female fan, Kraus vaulted into the stands and stomped on a rat that had brushed the lady’s leg.23 Dismissing the heroics with a shrug, the Reds rookie related: “I’d seen plenty of rats on the farm.”24

By early July, injury and attrition left Kraus the only utility infielder on the Reds roster.25 But he still saw no game action. Behind the scenes, however, the youngster was enveloped in contract turmoil. Although the details are somewhat murky, it appears that the $5,500 signing bonus accorded Kraus by the Reds was contingent upon his remaining on the club roster though July 1. Shortly before that date, the Reds nullified the bonus by quietly releasing Kraus, and thereafter signing him to a new, bonus-less contract, “with the rookie consenting to the ruse.”26 The new contract, however, did not pass the smell test with the Commissioner’s Office. Finding that Cincinnati had taken undue advantage of Kraus, still a minor and without parents, to boot, Special Assistant to the Commissioner Leslie M. O’Connor released Kraus from the pact and declared him a free agent.27

Whether a preemptive move or a response to the O’Connor ruling, Cincinnati unconditionally released Kraus just prior to the start of a July 19 doubleheader against the Boston Braves.28 The rookie had been on the Reds roster for the first 76 games of the 1945 season and had not seen action in any one of them. As far as can be determined, this makes Kraus the longest-tenured phantom or almost-major leaguer in the annals of the game. Not that the youngster was suffering, at least financially. Within days of his release, he signed a contract with the Syracuse Chiefs of the Class AAA International League, receiving a $2,500 signing bonus, as well.29 Presuming that the Reds remained on the hook for the original $5,500 contract bonus – contemporary reportage is vague or silent on this point – Kraus had accumulated $8,000 without having played an inning of professional baseball. Not bad for a youth who’d just turned 18, particularly when a deadly global conflict occupied many of his age group.

On July 31, 1945, Kraus finally made his debut in professional baseball, playing second base for Syracuse in a twin bill against the Rochester Red Wings. The occasion was not an auspicious one. He went 0-for-6 at the plate and made three errors (in 17 fielding chances) as the clubs split the two contests. Two evenings later, Kraus broke into the base-hit column with a single during a 7-6 Chiefs win over Montreal. His name then disappeared from Syracuse box scores.30

While Kraus was apparently taking his leave of Syracuse, a momentous event that would have dramatic effect upon his professional ballplaying prospects occurred: the Allies achieved victory in World War II. With hordes of major and high minor league veterans returning to the ranks for the 1946 season, marginal talents like Kraus were hard-pressed to find an engagement. Yet somehow, he landed a berth with the Quebec Alouettes, the Chicago Cubs affiliate in the Class C Canadian-American League. But even mid-minor league play seemed too fast for the youngster. In 109 games, he batted a tepid .208, with only 10 extra-base hits in 366 at-bats. His defense at third base (135 putouts, 238 assists, and 42 errors, for an .899 fielding percentage) was no better for a last-place (41-79, .342) Quebec club.

Notwithstanding his lackluster numbers, Kraus was reengaged by the Alouettes for the following season. The results, however, remained much the same. In 134 games, Kraus batted a homerless .201, although his defense improved markedly (a combined .950 fielding percentage at second and third base). Quebec, meanwhile, went 45-91 (.331) and stayed anchored in the Can-Am League basement. This second straight season of subpar performance in the low minors substantiated the 1945 judgment of Cincinnati club brass: Kraus simply was not a major league-caliber talent. Although still only 20 years old, his time in Organized Baseball had come to an end. Reflecting back decades later, he had no regrets, but mused wistfully, “I’ve often thought of what might have been if I’d had a good shoulder.”31

His professional playing days may have been over in 1947, but Kraus had his entire adult life ahead of him. He rooted himself in his adolescent hometown of Cleves and soon took a local girl, Marty (Martha Jane) Schuh, as his bride. In time, the couple had five children, all of whom, like their father, were given a first name beginning with the letter R: Richard, Rebecca, Ronald, Roger, and Renee. A carpenter by trade, Ralph found work in local school maintenance and retired 30 years later as maintenance supervisor of the Three Rivers School District.

In fall 1987, as a 60-year-old retiree, Kraus stood for election to the Three Rivers School District Board of Education, campaigning on a pledge to foster vocational training for blue collar students.32 Although a political neophyte, he proved the election’s top vote-getter and was sworn into office the following January. The following month, Kraus spearheaded the Board’s rejection of an offer upon a neighborhood playground tendered by a local developer.33 But, curiously, he thereafter seemed to lose interest, skipping board meetings without explanation.34 When he remained truant into early 1989, fellow board members were constrained to relieve Kraus of his duties.35 A former board member was subsequently tabbed to fill Kraus’s position.36

Kraus lived the remainder of his life out of the limelight. The last discovered press mention of his name listed him among those attending American Legion festivities in August 2004.37 He died under hospice care in Cleves on August 4, 2015. Ralph Earl Kraus was 88. Survivors included his wife of more than 60 years, five children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.



This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and David Bilmes and fact-checked by Gary Rosenthal.



Sources for the biographical info provided above include the Ralph Kraus profile by Joe Heffron and Jack Heffron in The Local Boys: Hometown Players for the Cincinnati Reds (Birmingham, Alabama: Clerisy Press, 2014); US Census data, draft card info, and a 1945 baseball questionnaire completed by Kraus, all accessed via Ancestry.com.; and certain of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Unless otherwise specified, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.



1 Excluded from consideration here are those players whose time on a major league roster was spent on the disabled list. The active player with the games-watched streak nearest to Kraus’s appears to be pitcher Bruce Swango, who spent 69 games on the bench of the Baltimore Orioles before his release during the 1955 season. The writer is indebted to SABR colleague Bill Hickman for this info. For more on almost-major-leaguers, readers should consult the Hickman spreadsheet accessible via the Research Collection on the SABR website.

2 Probably the most famous major league phantom player is Boston Celtics star and basketball Hall of Famer Bill Sharman, who was called up from the minors by the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers but never got into in a game.

3 Preceding Ralph were Hazel (born 1910), Hilda (1914), Edward, Jr. (1919), Martin (1923), and Ruth (1925). Three other siblings did not survive infancy.

4 See “Taylor Star,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 3, 1944: 10; “Cincinnati Wins American Legion Title,” (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) Berkshire Evening Eagle, September 2, 1944: 5; “Cincinnati Wins Legion Tourney,” Zanesville (Ohio) Times Recorder, September 2, 1944: 6.

5 Per, “Taylor Star,” above.

6 See the Ralph Kraus profile by Joe Heffron and Jack Heffron in The Local Boys: Hometown Players for the Cincinnati Reds (Birmingham, Alabama: Clerisy Press, 2014), 111.

7 As reported in “Reds Sign Second Legion Star,” The Sporting News, February 15, 1945: 15; “Red Club Signs Third Baseman of Legion Team,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 30, 1945: 13.

8 Same as above.

9 See Lou Brown, “Sport Sparks,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 26, 1945: 11.

10 Same as above. See also, “Reds Sign Second Legion Star,” above, which placed the Kraus bonus at “around $5,000.”

11 “Reds to Keep Hands Off ’45 Legion Field,” The Sporting News, February 22, 1945: 8.

12 The size specified by Kraus himself in an August 13, 1945 questionnaire completed for the American Baseball Bureau, accessible on-line. Contemporary news accounts had Kraus slightly larger.

13 See “Woe Is Me,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 22, 1945: 12.

14 “Flager Is Praised,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 25, 1945: 25.

15 As reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer, March 27, 1945: 14.

16 Lou Smith, “Big Hermie,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 28, 1945: 20.

17 Cincinnati Enquirer, March 30, 1945: 18.

18 Heffron and Heffron, 111.

19 Same as above.

20 See “Vest Pocket Roster No. 16 – Reds,” Chicago Times, March 30, 1945: 51. See also, Cincinnati Enquirer, April 1, 1945: 25, doubting that either Wehmeier or Kraus would remain on the Reds roster for long. After his high school graduation in early June, Wehmeier was sent to the Reds farm club in Syracuse and did not make his major league debut until September 7, 1945.

21 As noted in “Redlegs to Open at Card Park Today,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 21, 1945: 11.

22 Heffron and Heffron, 111.

23 As reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer, June 20, 1945: 12.

24 Heffron and Heffron, 110.

25 Per Cincinnati Enquirer, July 3, 1945: 11.

26 According to Herb Simons, “Heard in the Dugout,” Chicago Times, July 31, 1945: 4.

27 Same as above.

28 See “Reds Release Ralph Kraus: Paid Player $5,500 to Sign,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 20, 1945: 14; “Reds Hand Ralph Kraus Unconditional Release,” Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, July 20, 1945: 4; “Reds Release Rook,” Piqua (Ohio) Call, July 20, 1945: 6.

29 See again, Herb Simons, “Heard in the Dugout,” above. See also, “Walters to Face Cubs Today; Syracuse Signs Ralph Kraus,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 27, 1945: 14.

30 Baseball-Reference has Kraus playing seven games for Syracuse but provides no other data. The writer, however, only found Kraus in four of the Syracuse game box scores published in The Sporting News. In those four contests, Kraus batted (1-for-12) .083 and posted a .937 FA.

31 Heffron and Heffron, 111.

32 See “Candidates Tout Quality Education,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 20, 1987: 50.

33 Per “Playground to Stay,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 16, 1988: 44.

34 See “School Board Member Declared Truant,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 21, 1989: 46.

35 “Three Rivers Board Ousts Absent Member,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 18, 1989: 47. Kraus did not attend the meeting wherein his removal was to be considered, and thereafter offered no explanation for abandonment of his board responsibilities.

36 See “Former Board Member Appointed to Vacancy at Three Rivers School,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 16, 1989: 67. Newly-installed board member Helen Gillham was one of the candidates whom Kraus had defeated in the November 1987 board election.

37 See “Past West Side Champs,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 15, 2004: 38. The event reunited the now 77-year-old Kraus with several of his teammates from the Bentley Post team of 1944.

Full Name

Ralph Earl Kraus


July 14, 1927 at North Bend, OH (US)


August 4, 2015 at Cleves, OH (US)

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