Obituary: Joe Presko (1928-2019)

RIP to Joe Presko, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals (1951-54) and Detroit Tigers (1957-58). He died on February 5 in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo. He was 90 years old.

Joseph Edward Presko was born in Kansas City on October 7, 1928. He graduated from North Kansas City High School in 1946 and played for a couple of seasons locally in the amateur Kansas City Ban Johnson baseball league. He was the league’s MVP in two straight seasons before he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as an amateur free agent prior to the 1948 season.

Here’s the thing about that — Presko didn’t play a game of baseball until he was 17 and a high school senior. His high school didn’t have a baseball program until his senior year, and he originally was a third baseman who had to be convinced to pitch by his high school coach, who loved his arm.

Standing 5’9″ and weighing in at 165 pounds, Presko was given the nicknames “Little Joe” or “Baby Joe.” The Yankees passed on a chance to sign him because of his small size, but the Cardinals welcomed him to the organization. In three seasons in the minor leagues, Presko won 16, 14 and 16 games. The Cards added Little Joe to the starting rotation in 1951, and he responded with a 7-4 record and a fine 3.45 ERA. He struck out just 38 batters in 88-2/3 innings, but he only walked 20 and had an ERA+ of 115. His season ended after injuring a shoulder tendon in late July.

“Little Joe” Presko. Source: The Tennessean, May 27, 1953.

Presko returned in 1952, but he didn’t have the same level of success. Once again, arm problems cropped up and limited his pitching, but he still managed 18 starts and 10 relief outings. He had a 7-10 record, and his ERA rose to 4.05. He did toss 5 complete games and 1 shutout.

Presko spent most of 1953 in the starting rotation, but his ERA rose nearly a run to 5.01, and his walks per 9 innings rose from 2.0 in his rookie season to 3.6 in ’53. His record dropped to 6-13. Presko’s 1954 season included a shutout of the Phillies in mid-May, but he spent most of his time in a mop-up reliever’s role. His ERA jumped to 6.91.

He spent the next two seasons in the minor leagues, in the Cardinals and Tigers systems. Detroit had taken Presko in the Rule V draft in November 1955. He appeared in a combined 14 games for Detroit as a reliever in 1957 and 1958 and was effective, with a 2.49 ERA in 21-2/3 innings, but he was in his late 20s by then. He threw his final professional innings in 1959, pitching for the AAA Charleston Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs.

In his 6 big-league seasons, Presko won 25 games and lost 37, with a 4.61 ERA. He fanned 202 batters in 490-1/3 innings and completed 15 of his 61 starts, with 2 shutouts.

According to his obituary, Presko coached amateur teams in the Kansas City area for decades. One of the players he coached was David Cone, who would go on to be a Cy Young-winning pitcher for the Kansas City Royals.


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