R.I.P. to Gary Kolb, a catcher/infielder/outfielder who played parts of seven seasons in the major leagues. He died in Charleston, W.V., on July 3 after a lengthy illness at the age of 79. Kolb played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1960, 1962-63), Milwaukee Braves (1964-65), New York Mets (1965) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1968-69). His cousin Danny was a reliever for several teams in the 2000s.
Gary Kolb was born on March 13, 1940 in Rock Falls, Ill., and he attended Rock Falls High School. He was an All-State player in both football and basketball there and attended the University of Illinois. The Cardinals signed him as a sophomore in May 1960 after hitting .345 for the baseball team. He was also a halfback for the Illini football team. Cardinals scout Joe Monahan called him one of the top prospects in the area.
Kolb wasn’t in the minors long before getting a taste of the major leagues. After stops in Winston-Salem and Keokuk, the Cardinals brought him to the majors that September. He went from being a college sophomore to a Cardinal in a little over three months, which is pretty unheard of now. He pinch ran in 8 games and went 0-3 in the Cardinals last game of the year. He played all three outfield positions in his limited time in the field that year.
That was an interesting thing about Kolb. He was one of the most versatile players of his era. The Cardinals’ Branch Rickey originally signed him as a catcher, but he was moved repeatedly throughout his career. In the 188 games he played defensively in the majors, he played played every single position except shortstop. That includes 78 games in right field, 57 in left field, 18 in center field, 20 as a catcher, 13 at third base, 7 at second base and 1 at first base. In the minors, he also pitched in a total of 41 games and played every position (including 18 games at short).
Kolb spent all of 1961 with the Lancaster Red Roses of the Eastern League and hit .261 with 10 home runs. He then moved on to the Tulsa Oilers in 1962-63 and hit at or around .300 there. He had a successful September call-up with the Cards in 1962, getting 5 hits in 14 at-bats. He then got his first extended stay in the majors in 1963, playing 75 games with St. Louis. After a brief stay in the majors at the start of the ’63 season, Kolb was sent to Tulsa. He was recalled in July and smacked home runs in the first two games he started, both off the Braves. He had a successful month or so as the team’s starting right fielder, but he ended the year on the bench, mostly serving as a late-inning defensive replacement for left fielder Stan Musial, who was playing in his final season. Overall, Kolb slashed .271/.403/.479 in 75 games.
Right before the 1964 season was to begin, Kolb and catcher Jim Coker were traded to Milwaukee for Bob Uecker. Yes, the Cards thought so much of Uecker that they traded two players for him. Kolb reported to the Denver Bears and hit .281 there. The Braves brought him to the majors, but he struggled with a .188 average. He bounced back in 1965 by hitting .259 with Milwaukee in 24 games, but he was traded to the Mets in mid-July for catcher Jesse Gonder.
“Maybe they are trying to tell me something,” he said after being traded from a potential pennant-winning team twice within two years. Still, he looked on the bright side. “Now I’ll have a chance to play and that’s what we are all in this business for.”
Kolb hit .167 with the Mets in 40 games in 1965 and spent the next three seasons in the minors. He was traded to Pittsburgh in December 1966 and returned to the majors with the Bucs in 1968. The Pirates decided to try and keep Kolb at one position — catcher.
“I know the change will give me a better chance to play, but I really don’t like switching,” he told the Lancaster (Pa.) New Era. “I had a real good year with the glove and bat last year at third base [for Columbus, the Pirates top minor-league team]… I’ve got to start all over again to play in the majors. That’s tough. Being there, that’s the thing. This way, by being a catcher, I can do it, but it’s hard.”
Kolb hit .218 for the Pirates in 1968. When he played in the field, he was primarily a right fielder. For all their talk about making Kolb the #2 catcher behind Jerry May, he ended up backing up Roberto Clemente in right. With an outfield of Willie Stargell, Matty Alou and Clemente, Kolb had no chance to crack the lineup there. When the Pirates brought Manny Sanguillen to the majors in 1969, he fell even further back in the catching depth chart as well. Kolb had just 3 hits in 37 at-bats for Pittsburgh in 1969 and never returned to the majors after that season.
For his career, Kolb played in 293 games. He ended up with a .209/.281/.296 slash line, with 94 hits that included 9 doubles, 6 triples and 6 homers. He stole 10 bases as well. Kolb played in the minor leagues until 1973 and hit .260 in 11 seasons. He also had an 0-1 record and a 4.20 ERA as a pitcher.
Kolb ended his career with the Charleston (W.V.) Charlies of the International League. He joined the Charlies’ front office after his playing days were done and lived in the Charleston area until his death.