Name: Anthony Kubek
Born: October 12, 1935 (Milwaukee, WI)
Yankee Years: 1957-65
Primary number: 10
Yankee statistics: 1,092 G, .266/.303/.364, 178 2B, 30 3B, 57 HR, 85 wRC+, 18.3 rWAR, 17.8 fWAR
Few people in baseball history had as long a life in the game as Tony Kubek. He evolved from a well-regarded young shortstop on of baseball's best dynasties to become one of its most familiar voices, broadcasting for 30 years on NBC and earning the 2009 Ford C. Frick Award for his efforts. Kubek's education in the game with the Yankees helped him perfect his craft on air, and his fine playing career made him a three-time World Series champion.
Milwaukee sandlot meets Milwaukee World Series
Anthony Christopher Kubek was born on October 12, 1935 to a Milwaukee family that was already experienced with baseball. His father, another Tony Kubek, was a Milwaukee native as well who toiled for five years with the then-minor league Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. An outfielder, the elder Kubek played well with a .308 batting average and a .431 slugging percentage, but he never made it to the major leagues.
Although the St. Louis Browns offered a tryout around the time that his son was born, he turned it down for the opportunity to make more money outside the game. Coincidentally, Kubek's last baseball job was in 1936, when he played 47 games for Class C Akron, a Yankees affiliate. Young Tony became fascinated with the game, too, and his father encouraged him. Later on in life, Kubek recalled "He always made sure that there was a bat -- nails in it, electrical tape around it. He supported me and gave me the opportunity to play any time I wanted to."
Kubek played baseball all throughout his childhood, even when local Bay View High School dropped the program after his freshman year. At age 16, he was accomplished enough to be invited to the Hearst Sandlot Classic across the country at Yankee Stadium. Several teams wanted to sign Kubek following his graduation, but it would be Yankees scout Lou Maguolo who inked the deal.
Kubek wanted to sign with the Yankees, anyway. Already a savvy thinker, he realized that former All-Star shortstop Phil Rizzuto only had a few more years left in his career and an opportunity could open up there very soon. So in 1954, the Yankees and Kubek came to an agreement on a contract with a $1,500 bonus. He began his career that summer in Kentucky with the Owensboro Oilers of the Class D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League, and he immediately tore it up with a .344 average and a .518 slugging percentage.
One year later, he wreaked similar havoc on Class B Quincy's team, posting nearly identical numbers and earning a late-season promotion to the doorstep of the majors with the Triple-A Denver Bears. In 1956, a remarkable 24 of the 31 players on the 1956 Denver roster turned out to be major leaguers. Managed by future Yankees skipper Ralph Houk and playing opposite future double play partner Bobby Richardson at second base, Kubek raked with a .331/.371/.461 triple slash, smacking 31 doubles, a total exceeded by just six other Triple-A players. The club finished 20 games over .500, and it was evident that Kubek was on his way to the major leagues.
In spring training of 1957, Kubek completed his third year in Yankees skipper Casey Stengel's instructional school, and he was more impressive than ever. People watching him that spring thought that Kubek was the most exciting young player in camp since Mickey Mantle six years prior. Kubek was clearly ready for the pros, but there was one big question: the Yankees already had an All-Star shortstop in Gil McDougald, so where would Kubek play?
To Stengel though, this was no question. From his camps, he knew that Kubek was talented enough to play just about anywhere on the diamond, so in spring training, he trained him at shortstop, third base, and the outfield. Sure enough, Kubek made the major league roster and played everywhere during his rookie season, spelling McDougald and third baseman Andy Carey while also platooning with the blossoming Elston Howard in left field, who was also off his natural position. Kubek remained unaffected by his pinball positioning, and he hit .297/.335/.381 with 21 doubles and a 99 wRC+ over 127 games in his debut, ending up the near-unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
Assisted by Kubek's efforts, the Yankees captured their eighth AL pennant in nine seasons and met the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series. The teams split the first two games at Yankee Stadium and went to County Stadium in Milwaukee for Game 3. It was a surreal feeling for Kubek, who grew up nearby without a major league team even there; the Boston Braves had only moved to Milwaukee in 1953. Just three years after graduating high school a mere five miles away, Kubek was starting in left field in the World Series. Undaunted, the 21-year-old stunned Braves pitching by smashing a pair of homers to lead the Yankees to a 12-3 victory even though he had homered only three times all year long. After the game, Stengel told Kubek "Go home and thank your mother and father for me."
Although Kubek slugged .500 in the seven-game set, the Yankees fell to Hank Aaron and World Series MVP Lew Burdette's Braves. The Game 7 defeat came just five days before his 22nd birthday. Fortunately, more playoff glory was in his future.
The Milkshake Twins
Stengel was so taken by Kubek's performance that in 1958, he shifted the soon-to-be 30-year-old McDougald to second base to give Kubek a home at shortstop, where he was much more defensively adept. It was an exciting yet bittersweet move for Kubek, as McDougald's move to second meant that his newfound best friend Bobby Richardson would not see nearly as much playing time.
Kubek and Richardson were inseparable, and they shared qualities that ran the gamut from baseball to religion and more. They were dubbed the "Milkshake Twins" for their squeaky clean lifestyles compared to the more raucous lives of, say, hard-partying teammates Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. (One time, a Yankees executive instructed a spy to follow a pair of Yankees around the night after a game, and he mistakenly had him tail Kubek and Richardson rather than Mantle and Ford. Instead of drinking and night clubs, he saw ping pong.)
Kubek and Richardson were also the recipients of bizarre treatment from Stengel. Whereas once Stengel had been more nurturing of young players, he was now in his late sixties and more impatient. Any time a rookie or someone of that ilk made an error, Stengel ripped into him, once calling Kubek and Richardson "Little Rock" and "Big Rock" after the duo made crucial mistakes in a game. All they could do was take the abuse, but Kubek at least fought back from time to time. With the team slumping at one point in '58 and Stengel yelling at him, Kubek coolly retorted "You're not going so hot yourself lately."
Nonetheless, Stengel still clearly held deep respect for them, as he put Richardson on the All-Star team in '57 and Kubek on the All-Star team in '58 despite neither of them having particularly good years during those seasons. That '58 campaign did represent a sophomore slump for Kubek, whose performance dipped in no small part to a painful thigh muscle pull. His World Series rematch with Milwaukee was a 1-for-21 disaster, but it was salvaged when the Yankees roared back from a 3-1 series deficit to take home the crown and Kubek's first championship.
Although Kubek rebounded with a more meritorious All-Star nod in '59, the Yankees finished in third place. During that year, Stengel shuttled him around the field again, but that changed when the Yankees traded for Roger Maris in the off-season. Now permanently at shortstop with Richardson also back at second, Kubek could focus on his game there, and he responded with both a superlative year on defense and a career-best 14 homers. He slugged .401 and even finished 11th in AL MVP voting, a title narrowly claimed by Maris over Mantle.
The Yankees won the AL pennant again and seemed to overpower the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series with multiple blowout victories while Kubek hit .333. However, the Bucs nipped out a few narrow victories and it headed to Game 7 in the Steel City. That day featured the most remembered moment of Kubek's career. The Yankees had a 7-4 lead in the eighth inning. Often in 1960, Stengel swapped out Kubek or moved him to left field to spell Yogi Berra's knees in favor of the even more superlative shortstop Joe DeMaestri. Yet on this day, Stengel kept him on the bench. Who knows if it would have made a difference, but after a leadoff single, Bill Virdon sent a smash on the poorly-maintained Forbes Field infield toward Kubek.
It hit a pebble, took a weird bounce, and struck the surprised Kubek in the throat. It hurt him so much that he couldn't speak, there was blood on the field, and he was forced to leave the game. ("A pebble! What in the world is a PEBBLE doing out there in the clinching of a World Series???" exclaimed writer Peter Golenbock years later.)
Just a few batters later, the Pirates took the lead on a stunning three-run homer from backup catcher Hal Smith. A Yankees ninth inning rally tied the game, but Bill Mazeroski's unforgettable blast off Ralph Terry ended the World Series in shocking fashion. Stengel's Yankees tenure was over, as the Yankees fired him and replaced him with Kubek's old Denver Bears skipper, Ralph Houk.
Interrupted glory and an early ending
With Houk at the helm, the Yankees assembled one of their greatest teams. The 1961 Yankees won 109 games, second at the time to only the "Murderer's Row" 1927 squad in franchise history. They of course had Maris breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home run record with Mantle in close pursuit, but the infield of Bill "Moose" Skowron at first, Richardson at second, Kubek at short, and Clete Boyer at third base was regarded as one of the game's best, rarely letting balls by them on defense.
Kubek's bat also chipped in 38 doubles, good for second-best in the league, and he earned his third and final All-Star appearance. The World Series was no contest, as the Reds were dismantled in five games. Shortly after the Fall Classic though, Kubek found out that he would be in a different sort of camp the next spring.
Back in October 1958, Kubek was added to the U.S. Army Reserve and almost missed time during the '59 regular regular season before being discharged just a little before Opening Day. Now though, he was recalled to active duty in Fort Lewis, Washington, and there was a chance that he would miss the entire '62 campaign. While that would not be the case, his time in the Army did lead to an accidental injury that probably brought a premature end to his career, as recounted by SABR's Joseph Wancho:
Kubek thought the neck injury might have happened in 1961, when he was playing touch football at Fort Lewis. He was upended on a play and landed upside down. His neck did not feel right, and for three days he went to the base clinic. But because so many people were seeking care, he was unable to get medical attention so he stopped going. The doctors were surprised that he had not had more trouble, but cautioned that a jarring or sudden movement might cause paralysis.
Kubek's neck wasn't bothering him too much when he returned to the Yankee that August. Indeed, he looked as though he never left, crushing a three-run homer off the Twins' Camilo Pascual in his first at-bat back. Eventual Rookie of the Year Tom Tresh had capably filled in for Kubek at shortstop, and any potential awkwardness was avoided when Tresh made a seamless transition to left field. Kubek's defense, which Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio once described as the best in the American League, remained sharp despite a little rust.
Kubek hit .314/.357/.432 down the stretch with a 117 wRC+ as the Yankees captured another AL pennant. He followed it up with a .276 average during the dramatic seven-game victory over the San Francisco Giants. It would be the last championship (and playoff victory) in Kubek's career.
The 1963 season brought the first of Kubek's chronic back problems, as a spasm suffered upon fielding a grounder forced him to miss some spring training games, and he limped to a .205/.241/.295 triple slash through two months. Bad luck struck again in a Fenway Park collision with Tresh in left field hurt both neck and his leg, forcing him to the DL for two weeks. The time off helped, as he hit a more normal .275/.313/.361 from mid-June onward, but his ailing back clearly sapped him of some power. The Yankees won another pennant but were swept by the pitching-rich Dodgers in the World Series.
The end was not pretty for Kubek, whose neck continued to bother him in an even more severe manner. He hit just .224/.268/.320 over his final two seasons and was so miserable that in September of '64, he pulled a "Kevin Brown" and punched the front door of the clubhouse, spraining his wrist and ending his season early. The Yankees fell to the Cardinals in the World Series in seven games.
After another disappointing season and a team tumble to the second division, Kubek sought help at the Mayo Clinic in October of '65. The diagnosis was scary--nerve damage to the top of his spine likely sustained from that injury in Fort Lewis. Having never played past his 30th birthday, Tony Kubek retired after a nine-year career with his defensive excellence the only positive remaining in his game. One year later, Richardson joined him in retirement and the Yankees finished in last place. It was the end of an era.
No one would have guessed that Kubek would end up in broadcasting after he retired. He was always short with the media, declining to even appear on the legendary Red Barber's baseball shows. However, NBC knew that he was a learned man with considerable baseball acumen, and NBC Sports president Chet Simmons encouraged him to give it a try.
A six-week trial became 30 years in the booth. Kubek was a constant at the All-Star Game, the playoffs, and on the NBC Game of the Week for decades. He worked on local broadcasts for the Blue Jays from 1977-89, and then back with the Yankees from 1990-94. Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson remarked that Kubek's "straightforward style, quick and detailed analysis and no-nonsense commentary on the game's nuances gave viewers an insider's look at what the players were experiencing on the field."
When he rejoined the Yankees on MSG, he was not shy about criticizing owner George Steinbrenner, whose careless ways had sent the team into disarray. Despite the clashes, agents behind the scenes kept the status quo between the two sides until the players' strike hit in August 1994. For the first time in a century, Major League Baseball was forced to cancel the World Series, most notably ruining both the promising Expos franchise and the Yankees' possible first playoff appearance in 13 years.
Disheartened with what the game had become, Kubek wrote a 16-page letter to acting commissioner Bud Selig detailing baseball's problems and possible solutions. It was never answered. With all these factors at play, Kubek left baseball in a flash, never to return. To this day, he maintains that he has never even watched a Major League Baseball game since 1994, though he was honored in 2009 with the Hall of Fame's highest award for broadcasting, the Ford C. Frick Award.
Kubek maintains a private but rewarding life these days. His family is very active in helping the Hmong community of Appleton, Wisconsin, families of refugees from Southeast Asia who moved in the years following the Vietnam War. To his credit, Kubek maintains his friendships within the game (like Richardson) and states that he doesn't hate baseball, or anything like that. "I just got a different life," he says.
All power to him. Not many baseball icons would be content to simply move on from the typical Yankees retirement with Old Timers' Day reunions and all that pomp and circumstance. Kubek is certainly admirable and unique, though his presence in baseball is missed. He's still a Top 100 Yankee and one of the last links to the days of Mantle and Stengel.
Andrew's rank: 65
Tanya's rank: 67
Community rank: 60.55
WAR rank: 67
|NYY (9 yrs)||1092||4493||4167||522||1109||178||30||57||373||29||23||217||441||.266||.303||.364||.667||85||1518||18.3||17.8|
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