Thursday, April 1, 2021

Life Enjoyed - a baseball story

This might be a lot of text, but it's worth the read, at least I think it is.  But then, I love old grizzled ballplayers and the history of the game.  If you don't, just skip to the end for the inspiration for this post.

When I was just a lad, looking through the beat up treasures that were my uncles old baseball cards, I recognized a lot of names due to my obsession with reading about baseball's history.  I saw cards of Mays, Musial and Aaron.  Banks and Koufax.  Lot's more.  But being a baseball obsessed kid, I really dug into the cards and found a few players that looked good to me, even if they weren't famous enough to have risen to my attention yet.  Those old, vintage card backs featured the basic stats that aren't seemingly as important today.  And along with Home Runs, the biggest stat on the backs was Batting Average.

And because of batting average, one of the guys who rose to my attention was Harvey Kuenn.  

I specifically remember his 1960 Topps card, which I will show later in the post.  On the back of that card, I saw that Harvey hit .353 in 1959, and at that at point his career BA was .314.  Those were numbers that grabbed my attention!  Why was this guy not one of the heroes I had been reading about in the books from my local library? Well, honestly, I still don't fully understand why some excellent ballplayers don't get the same recognition as others, but its not a big deal.


HOWEVER.  Kuenn's story is worth looking into, as for me, it shows both the mans love of the game and the love he got from those around him.  And while he was an excellent ballplayer, it turns out he had an impact that surpassed his skills on the diamond.

Since this is a card blog, not a book, I am going to keep this as short as I can, but there are plenty of stories that would add to Harvey Kuenn's mythos.  I'll leave you to google around for those if you are interested.

Courtesy  Kaline, Teddy Ballgame and Kuenn

Kuenn was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and seemed to have a strong connection to the city his whole life.  In his baseball career, he never played a game for the Milwaukee ballclub.  He did play for: 

Detroit Tigers (1952–1959)
Cleveland Indians (1960)
San Francisco Giants (1961–1965)
Chicago Cubs (1965–1966)
Philadelphia Phillies (1966)

However, Kuenn was signed and activated by the Brewers for the last two weeks of 1970, in order for him to qualify for a pension. He never appeared in a game, though.  That shows me that Milwaukee and Kuenn were connected.  And after that, he spent the rest of his baseball career in Milwaukee.

From Wikipedia: Kuenn became a Milwaukee Brewers coach in 1972 and served as an interim manager in 1975. He suffered a series of medical complications beginning in the mid-1970s, including heart and stomach surgeries, and in February 1980, he had his right leg amputated just below the knee after a blood clot cut circulation. He returned to coaching only six months after the operation.

In 1982, Kuenn managed the Milwaukee Brewers to their only World Series appearance to date after taking over the team in mid-season. He was selected by the Associated Press as the AL Manager of the Year, after taking the Brewers in June from a 23-24 start to the AL East title with a 95-67 record. Milwaukee then won the AL pennant...They ultimately lost the 1982 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

Kuenn was fired as manager after the Brewers finished fifth in the AL East with an otherwise respectable 87-75 record in 1983. He compiled a 160-118 managerial record. During his tenure, the hard-hitting Brewers were known as Harvey's Wallbangers. At the time, their roster included Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie, Gorman Thomas, and future Hall of Famers Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons and Robin Yount.

Courtesy Getty Images.  Check the right leg to see the prosthetic.

You don't see a lot of MLB managers with an amputated leg!  In my mind, Kuenn probably should have retired at that point.  But I guess he loved the game.  Or the people.  I don't know for sure, but I do admire those who push through adversity to do what they love.

Future Hall of Famers Yount and Ted Simmons are among those who say Harvey Kuenn was like a dad, and his wife Audrey like a mom. In Spring Training, the Kuenns had players over for dinner. During the season, they often gathered a few blocks away at a tavern in the shadow of County Stadium run by Audrey and Harvey. Both tended bar, Harvey getting around on a wooden leg after his right lower leg was amputated in 1980.

"We were like a family," Audrey Kuenn once said. "It was just the neatest group of people you ever wanted to meet. I don't think we'll ever see it again, not like it was then. Where can you find a one-legged manager that has a tavern across the street from the ballpark?"

Where indeed.  I'd have like to have gotten to know Harvey Kuenn.  Sounds like one of the good ones.

So what you have really come here for, here is one of my favorite cards of Harvey Kuenn, his 1984 Topps Glossy All-Stars.  Yes, all this text was just so I could show this card for this year's April event created by Diamond Jesters!!

At the time this card was created, Harvey looked much older than his 53 years.  He had it a bit rough with health issues.  But he looks happy to be in uniform and at the ballpark.  A Milwaukee treasure!  And here is his 1960 Topps card I promised earlier in the post:
29 years old, so young and full of promise!

And the back of the card that initially peaked my interest!