Grave Story: Joe Just (1916-2003)

Here lies Joe Just, who served as a backup catcher for the Cincinnati Reds during World War II. He played in a total of 25 games for the Reds in 1944-5. Though his MLB career was short, he persevered through a litany of injuries that would have driven most players to an early retirement.

One side effect of the War, at least as far as baseball goes, was that many minor leaguers got their change to play in The Show as the major leaguers were drafted, and many major-league careers were extended by a couple of years as team struggled to fill their roster. In Just’s case, he was a 28-year-old rookie when he finally was brought up to the majors by the Reds, and he’d been in the minors for seven seasons to that point. Born as Joseph Erwin Juszczak in Milwaukee, Wis., on January 8, 1916, Just was a first-generation American from Polish parents. He was a catcher on his high school team, and when he entered professional baseball in 1936, he quickly showed his abilities with the bat. In his first season with the Fieldale Towlers of the Bi-State League, he hit .269 with 16 home runs. He improved his average to .290 while playing for the Hopkinsville Hoppers of the Kitty League (Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League), with 10 long balls.

Joe Just 2

What led to the name change? A favor to the media, he said.

“The sports writers had tough going with Juszczak. The printers had a worse time,” he told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in 1957. “One day one of my sports-writing friends said: ‘Joe, why don’t we just make it Just?’”

Just hit .261 for his hometown Milwaukee Brewers—then a member of the American Association—in 1938, but his season, and career, was slowed by a serious injury. He was hit in the head by a swinging bat during batting practice and missed about two months.

“The doctors said Joe had a fracture, a brain concussion and a broken nose,” said his wife of 63 years, Naomi. They had just started dating when the accident occurred. They were married in 1940, which was the year that he was hit in the head by a pitched ball and also by a flying bat. “Why, it could be that’s how I got him to say ‘I do,’” she quipped.

The head injuries could be one reason why Just’s production slipped. He hit just .168 in 66 games for Milwaukee in 1939 and was only slightly better in 1940, the year he suffered the aforementioned head injuries. He was a .220 hitter for Milwaukee as a backup catcher in 1941 and was traded to Birmingham for the 1942 season. Just when he started to show signs of getting his career on track, he fractured the thumb on his throwing hand twice in a nine-week span. The injuries limited him to 64 games.

Just didn’t play at all in 1943. While the head injuries made him 4-F and safe from the draft, he spent the year working in the cost-auditor’s department at machinery manufacturer Allis-Chambers in Milwaukee while taking care of his mother, who died that year.

He returned to baseball in 1944, signing with the Cincinnati Reds in Spring Training. Finally, after all the injuries and the loss of his mother, he was on a big-league roster… only to be stuck behind Ray “Iron Man” Mueller. Mueller was an All-Star for the Reds that season and played in 155 games and 1348 out of the Reds’ 1396 total defensive innings. Just was basically stuck as a late-inning replacement, appearing in 11 games and catching 35 innings even though he was on the big-league roster for the full season. He managed 2 hits in 11 at-bats for a .182 average.

Mueller was drafted into the Army prior to the 1945 season, leaving the catching job wide open. Just went 1-for-3 with a walk in the Reds’ Opening Day win over the Pirates and held onto the catching job for a brief time, but he failed to hit. The bulk of the catching duties went to Al Lakeman and Al Unser, and Just appeared in just 14 games, with 5 singles in 34 at-bats. He was sent to Syracuse at the end of May, leaving with career MLB totals of a .156 batting average, with 7 hits (all singles), 4 walks and 2 RBIs.

Just played in the minors for a few more seasons, with his last games coming in 1950. He coached in the high minors before being given a chance to manage the Eau Claire Braves, a minor-league affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves, in 1955. He proceeded to lead Eau Claire to two straight Northern League pennants, with an 81-43 record in 1955 and a 70-52 record in 1956. He did so with rosters that boasted relatively few future major leaguers. One of his catchers in 1956 was the immortal Bob Uecker, in fact.

The Braves assigned Just to the Corpus Christi Clippers in 1957. Texas was thrilled to have Just as a manager, and the local papers interviewed him and Naomi at every opportunity. In those interviews, Just comes across as a pretty straightforward baseball lifer, more interested in talking about pitching and batting than he did about his life or non-Clippers topics. When asked about his team for the upcoming season, he offered this response:

“I mean that baseball is a game. It’s a great game. You play it for keeps. But, if you can’t play, while working, you don’t belong in baseball. Huh? You say that doesn’t make any sense. Well, let’s put it this way. Do you have fun on your job? If you don’t, you can’t do your best on that job. I believe that.”

His managerial approach must have made sense to his players, because Just led the Clippers to a 69-58 record before changing jobs in June. The Braves sent him to manage the Jacksonville Braves following the resignation of manager Mickey Owen. That partial season was the only time that he had a sub-.500 record as manager, with a 76-78 record. He got the team back on track the following season, achieving a 76-64 before being released in August 1958. They were in second place at the time. “Unconditional release” was the official version, per general manager Spec Richardson. Just, not one to mince words, offered a more succinct version.

“I wasn’t released, I was fired,” he said. “I just couldn’t see eye-to-eye on some matters with the front office.” His managerial career over four seasons ended with a career .558 winning percentage, with 372 wins against 295 losses.

From what I could find, Just returned to Wisconsin. He was a Little League coach for some time and involved in several youth organizations. There was also a Joe Just who was a court clerk for Port Edwards, Wis. in the 1960s and who tried to reorganize Wisconsin school districts for almost 30 years. That Just stayed involved in school board politics via letters to the editor up until October 2003, just before our Joe Just died, so it is very possible that it’s the same person.

Joe Just died on November 22, 2003 at the age of 87. He is buried in St. Adalbert Cemetery in Milwaukee.

Follow me on Twitter: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Instagram: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Facebook: ripbaseball

Support RIP Baseball

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s