Full Name: Anthony Christopher “Tony” Kubek
Born: October 12, 1935 (Milwaukee, WI)
Yankee Years: 1957-1965
Primary number: 10
Yankee statistics: 1,092 G, .266/.303/.364, 178 2B, 30 3B, 57 HR, 29 SB, 85 wRC+, 18.4 rWAR, 17.8 fWAR
Tony Kubek was the Yankees’ shortstop during one of the most successful periods in franchise history. He went to four All-Star Games and won three World Series rings with the Bombers during the ‘50s and ‘60s, locking down the six for Casey Stengel and Ralph Houk’s dominant squads. Even if he didn’t have an explosive bat, he had big moments in Fall Classics, particularly in 1957, and shared a clubhouse with some of the most talented people ever to put on a Yankees uniform.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Kubek then proceeded to have an even more successful career as a television broadcaster for NBC. After a well-regarded 30-year career, he received the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award in 2009.
A Multi-Sport Star
Born on October 12, 1935 in Milwaukee to Jennie and Anthony Alfonse Kubek, Anthony Christopher Kubek grew up as the middle child in a family of five between two sisters, Carol and Christine. As the son of a baseball player (among numerous other occupations), the game was a part of his life from a very early age.
The elder Tony played six seasons of minor league ball in the early 1930s, with almost his entire career coming before his son was born. Primarily an outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, the lefty hitter topped out with a .309 average and .424 slugging percentage in 123 games in 1933, but he never got the call to the majors beyond a no-guarantee tryout invite from the the lowly St. Louis Browns. Coincidentally though, Tony’s final season came with a Class-C team in Akron that was affiliated with the team that was forever connected with his son’s life: the Yankees.
Thanks to his father, Tony the younger developed a natural affinity for baseball (as well as a swing from the left side of the plate), but at Bay View High School in Milwaukee, he was actually very good in football, basketball, and track. Baseball had been dropped off the school program after Kubek’s first year there, but he kept playing ball in sandlot leagues across Milwaukee, and soon impressed New York scout Lou Maguolo.
When Kubek was 16, in 1952, he played in the big Hearst Sandlot Classic at Yankee Stadium. It was virtually a youth All-Star Game (age 16-18) played annually in New York City from 1946 through 1965 and it became so prestigious that it was often called the Hearst Diamond Pennant Series.
By the time Kubek turned 18 in 1954, teams were very interested and saw considerable potential in the left-handed hitter, as told by Curt Smith in the Sports Broadcast Journal. Kubek’s father, on the other hand, wanted him to play several years in the minor leagues to mature as a player.
Only The Yankees
“There were quite a few clubs interested in me,” said Kubek per his SABR bio, “but the only one I was interested in was the New York Yankees. Money never occurred to me. I wanted to play, so I wasn’t interested in any kind of money that would make me a bonus player.”*
“Forget a big deal. Their rules make you stay with the [parent] club,” Kubek’s father told him.
*For those unaware, MLB had a “bonus baby” rule at the time dictating that anyone signed for $3,000 or more had to spend two full years on the big league roster before playing in the minors. This often led to development stagnation, as they were typically unprepared for the caliber of MLB pitching and managers would not play them much.
So Kubek decided to sign for $1,500 in June 1954 and report to the Owensboro Oilers of the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League. It was a little disappointing to turn down the potential extra money, but a little ways down the road, things would work out for the best. “If not for him, I’d have never signed with the Yanks,” the player once said about his dad.
Kubek tore up Class D with a .344/.429/.518 triple slash in 113 games, and he was off and running.
One year later, Kubek 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, Kubek raked with a .331/.371/.461 batting line, 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?
Rookie of the Year, Fall Classic heroics
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 cut 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 (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.
Once the regular season came to a close Kubek experienced one of the highest points of his career. In the 1957 World Series, the Yankees faced the recently-relocated Milwaukee Braves of Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Red Schoendienst, and Warren Spahn.
There, in Game 3, Kubek took center stage. The teams had split the first two contests in Yankee Stadium and then headed to Milwaukee, Kubek’s hometown. In front of family and friends, he hit not one, but two home runs at County Stadium to lead New York to a 12-3 victory.
In the end, it wouldn’t be enough as the Braves ended up taking the Fall Classic in seven exciting games, but with a .786 OPS in his first playoff series, Kubek showed the world that he had the talent to stick around and have an amazing career.
The Yankees would return to the Fall Classic in 1958, and this time, they did win it all with Kubek playing an important role. He wasn’t good with the bat (.265/.295/.317, 71 wRC+), but his defense lifted him to a 1.9-fWAR season in 138 games as he earned his first World Series ring.
Kubek’s most fruitful years came while sharing the middle of the infield with second baseman/roommate Bobby Richardson. The two 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.)
A Rough Start to the ‘60s
Kubek’s finest individual campaign was probably 1960, when he slashed .273/.312/.401 with a 95 wRC+ and had a career-high 14 home runs and 3.8 fWAR. Oddly enough, he didn’t make the All-Star team, something that happened in 1958, 1959, and twice in 1961.
Following that 1960 campaign, Kubek had 10 hits in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a talented team led by prime Roberto Clemente. Plenty of fans still argue that the back-and-forth series truly turned for good on an infamous play in Game 7. The Yankees held a 7-4 lead in the eighth and were six outs from winning it all. Bill Virdon hit a sure-fire double-play ball to Kubek, which took a weird hop off a spike cut in the infield and pelted him straight in the throat.
Kubek was in deep pain, couldn’t speak, and had to leave the game. Meanwhile, the Pirates rallied to take the lead back and eventually walk it off on Bill Mazeroski’s heartbreaking walk-off homer to end the 1960 season.
In 1961, Kubek would have a close seat to witness history, as teammate Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record with 61. Kubek pitched in with eight of his own, plus a career-high 84 runs scored and 170 hits (38 of which were doubles, second in the AL) en route to winning his second Fall Classic as a Yankee.
Then, Kubek had an eventful offseason: he got married Margaret Timmel and he was drafted, entering the Army Reserve. He missed most of the 1962 campaign but returned in August, homered in his first at-bat back, and hit .314/.357/.432. He went on to win his third Fall Classic with the Yanks that year, notching hits in six of the seven games against the Giants.
The outburst following his return from the Army was short-lived. Kubek began a deep decline in ‘63, as he hit just .238/.279/.330 across the following three seasons.
The Yankees were swept out of the Fall Classic by the Dodgers in ‘63 and after punching a door in frustration late in ‘64, he strained his wrist. Kubek was thus absent from the ‘64 World Series, which the Yankees lost in seven. After another miserable year in ‘65, he saw doctors at the Mayo Clinic. They discovered that he had a neck injury that led to “nerve damage at the top of his spinal column” per SABR. So Kubek was forced to retire, barely after turning 30.
Kubek’s playing days ended with a .266/.303/.364 line, 57 home runs, a .667 OPS, and an 85 wRC+. He also finished with 17.8 fWAR — all in pinstripes.
Brilliance in the Booth
Not too long after hanging up his cleats, an NBC official approached him and offered the chance to be a commentator/broadcaster.
At first, Kubek became a color commentator in the newly created NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week telecasts, together with play-by-play announcer Jim Simpson on the network’s backup games from 1966 to 1968. After that, he joined Curt Gowdy and together became the lead crew in 1969. Kubek was also joined by longtime broadcaster Joe Garagiola, who had close connections to the Yankees through his childhood friend, Yogi Berra.
In 24 years at NBC, Kubek worked with Simpson, Gowdy, Garagiola, and Bob Costas. Additionally, he was on local broadcasts for the Toronto Blue Jays on The Sports Network and CTV starting from 1977-89, and for the Yankees on MSG from 1990-94.
For his excellent work bringing the game to fans’ homes for years, Kubek was given the Ford C. Frick Award in 2009. When Costas himself earned the honor as well in 2018, he spoke about his admiration for Kubek and his generosity toward a young broadcaster:
Fans of a certain age will no doubt recall that back in the day, Kubek was a huge critic of then-Yankees owner George Steinbrenner:
“George’s legacy is not the World Series winners of ‘77 and ‘78 or having the best record of any team in the ‘80s. His legacy is these past five seasons. Teams with worse and worse records culminating in last year’s last-place finish.
“George talked a lot about tradition, but it was all phony, it was just him trying to be part of the tradition. You can’t manufacture tradition in a plastic way. You have to have a certain class to go with it.”
That was Tony Kubek: a straight shooter, a tell-it-like-it-is guy who didn’t feel he needed to sugarcoat things to make a proper analysis. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
True to form, Kubek abruptly left baseball after the strike-shortened 1994 season, leaving money on the table of his contract. He was exhausted by the greed he perceived on both sides of the negotiating table and decided that a hard split was best. He never returned to the booth and indeed has kept a very low profile at home in Wisconsin in the years since.
On top of his Cooperstown honor, Kubek was inducted to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016. Here is what the institution has to say about Kubek:
“During his 13 seasons in the booth for the club, he educated tens of thousands of Canadian viewers on CTV and TSN about the sport. On top of the insights he could provide as a former player, Kubek’s no-nonsense style and quick and extensive analysis made him one of the best and most respected analysts of his era. While with the Blue Jays, aside from his analysis, he was one of the first broadcasters to ask to communicate with the director in the production truck to suggest camera shots during the game that would improve the broadcast.”
Kubek was also inducted to the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
Tony and Margaret had four children during their marriage: Tony Jr., Jimmy, Anne, and Margaret, and five grandchildren. He built a family, played at the highest level, won multiple World Series, made All-Star teams, was the league’s best rookie back in the day, served his country in the Army, and built a long, successful career as a broadcaster. In baseball, and in life, that’s an incredible list of achievements.
Kubek is part of a contingent of talented players who manned shortstop for the New York Yankees. He actually replaced Phil Rizzuto, and shared the position with Gil McDougald for a couple of years until the latter retired. Even if his offensive numbers didn’t exactly jump to the eye, Kubek’s spot in franchise history is unquestioned as a valued member of a team that won multiple championships. He turned 88 in October and we can only hope that he’s doing well.
Staff rank: 86
Community rank: 71
Stats rank: 72
2013 rank: 67
Wancho, Joseph. SABR bio