Grave Story: Joe Kuhel (1906-1984)

Here lies Joe Kuhel, a slugging first baseman who had an 18-year career as a player and a couple years as a manager. Kuhel played for the Washington Senators (1930-37, 1944-46) and Chicago White Sox (1938-43, 1946-47).

Joe Kuhel was born in Cleveland on June 25, 1906. A story about him from 1932 said that he was orphaned at a young age. He went to Brooklyn Heights High School in Cleveland for a year and then quit to become a leatherworker. He worked at the trade for two years while playing baseball on the weekend. He was the first baseman on the Cleveland Chiropractic College team. He came under the tutelage of Doik Novario, a semi-pro manager of some renown in Cleveland, and he placed Kuhel with a team in Flint, Mich.

Source: Brooklyn Times-Union, December 25, 1932.

Starting in 1924, Kuhel spent two seasons with the Flint Vehicles of the Michigan-Ontario League. He performed pretty well and was acquired by the Kansas City Blues of the Double-A American Association. They farmed him out to various minor leagues for a couple of years before he landed with the Blues full time.

Kuhel became a prospect worth watching in 1926, when he hit .339 with 10 home runs for the Springfield Senators of the Three-I League. He would have had 11 round-trippers, as he hit a line drive that an opposing right fielder on the Decatur Commodores snagged just before he fell over an embankment in right field, dropping the ball. Kuhel raced around the bases while the umpires conferred about whether or not the ball was caught. They eventually appealed to the press box, where the gathered reporters called Kuhel out.

It wasn’t just his hitting that was noteworthy. He was a fine-fielding first baseman. Columnist John Bentley was inspired by Kuhel’s efforts during a 1927 game to write, “The manner in which Joe Kuhel deports himself around first base is my idea of beauty… He leaps in the air and reaches all around the bag for throws.”

His performance in the low minors eventually earned him a promotion to the Blues. Kuhel would spend most of his minor-league career in Kansas City, not to mention a good portion of his post-baseball life – it was his wife’s hometown, and he lived there with his family in the offseason. He certainly did some fine hitting there, with a .327 average in 1928 and a .325 average in 1929. Some major-league teams started to make inquiries for Kuhel, but the one drawback was that he was not a power hitter. When he started the 1930 season by hitting .372 with 8 homers, he got his shot at the majors. The Washington Senators acquired him for cash (reported to be from $35,000 to $65,000), first basemen Harley Boss and Charley Gooch and a third player to be named later.

The Senators had veteran first-sacker Joe Judge, who was still a productive player at 36 years old, so Kuhel’s chances to play were few and far between. Judge actually gave Kuhel his first start. When manager Walter Johnson took time off after the death of his wife, Judge served as interim manager, and he let the rookie play both ends of a doubleheader on August 3. He picked up 3 hits and drove in 4 runs that day. In 18 games, Kuhel hit .286 with 18 RBIs.

Kuhel started the 1931 season in Baltimore, with the agreement that he would be recalled on 24 hours’ notice should Judge get injured. Sure enough, Judge went down on the first of May with appendicitis, and Kuhel was called up to the majors. By the time Judge was out of the hospital and ready to play again, Kuhel was hitting around .300 and playing excellent defense. Judge stayed with the Senators for a couple more seasons, but he’d lost his starting first baseman’s job for good. If there was any bad feelings between the two men, they kept it hidden from the press.

Judge, who had fended off the competition for close to a decade, said Kuhel “is the first first baseman who has been a real competitor and made the grade.” Kuhel, for his part, said, “If I am a better first baseman now than when I joined Washington late in 1931, it is because of Joe Judge. Not only have I learned by watching him but Joe is such a great fellow he took me in hand and coached me.”

Kuhel finished the year with a .269/.335/.410 slash line. He managed 8 home runs and drove in 85 runs. He followed that up with a .291 mark in 1932, though Judge had a good year as well and cut into the youngster’s playing time. By 1933, the competition was over. First base was Kuhel’s. He had one of the best years of his career, and the Senators would win 99 games and advance to the World Series.

A broken ankle ended Kuhel’s 1934 season and forced him to spend his 28th birthday in the hospital. At least he received some presents from well-wishers. Source: The Evening Sun, June 26, 1934.

Kuhel received votes for AL MVP five different times in his career, starting in 1933. In 153 games, he slashed .322/.385/.467. He topped the century mark in RBIs with 107, and he hit 34 doubles, 10 triples and 11 homers. He was simply brilliant in the field, with a .996 fielding percentage. He was 6th in the AL in hitting, and his 194 hits were good enough for 8th place. Unfortunately, the offense vanished in the World Series. Kuhel hit .150 in 5 games, as the Senators were handcuffed by the New York Giants, led by pitchers Carl Hubbell and Hal Schumacher, and lost 4 games to 1. It would be the only postseason of Kuhel’s career.

The Senators tumbled into seventh place in 1934, and Kuhel missed six weeks after breaking his ankle while trying to steal second base in late June. He was hitting .289 at the time. The injury never healed properly, ending his season. When he returned in 1935, he had little power and slumped to a .261 average. At least he set an MLB record by participating in 150 double plays at first base, topping the previous mark of 149 set by Jim Bottomley in 1927 with the St. Louis Cardinals.

After two down seasons, Kuhel returned to form in 1936 with a .321 batting average, along with career highs in RBIs (118) and doubles (42). He hit 16 home runs, stole 15 bases and added 64 walks. He ended up finishing 6th in the MVP race; perhaps he would have done better with the voting sportswriters if he hadn’t tried to attack three of them after a game in Washington on June 12.

The Senators were playing the White Sox when Rip Radcliffe was ruled safe at first on a ground ball. Kuhel was initially given an error when umpire George Moriarty ruled that his foot was off the bag, but the official scorer later changed it to a hit. After the game, Kuhel went after sportswriters Richard McCann and Francis Stan and had to be held back by manager Bucky Harris. Later, he ran into Shirley Povich and tried to go after him as well. Apparently he hadn’t been told about the official scoring change and was still sore about the error. Regardless, Senators boss Clark Griffith fined Kuhel $100 for losing his cool.

Years later, Povich recalled that a few days after the fight, Kuhel received a letter with $50 inside. There was also a note that read, “Dear Joe, here’s fifty bucks to pay half your fine for swinging at Povich. I’d send you the other half if you hadn’t missed.”

Kuhel got into a couple of scraps the next year, but it was hardly his fault. The Senators and Yankees played on July 3, and New York’s Jake Powell attempted to evade a tag on a ground by slamming into Kuhel, knocking him down and knocking the ball out of his hands. He was safe on the play and later scored the winning run. About a week later, the two teams rematched at Yankee Stadium. This time, Kuhel bumped into Powell as Powell was running out a grounder. Punches were thrown, and the benches cleared. Kuhel and Powell were both ejected.

A common occurrence in baseball: Joe Kuhel spiking an opponent. Source: Detroit Free Press, July 9, 1939.

Fisticuffs aside, Kuhel tied a major-league record by hitting three triples in a game against the White Sox on May 13. While he hit 11 triples on the season, he only had 6 home runs. In March of 1938, the Senators traded Kuhel to the White Sox for first baseman Zeke Bonura. Bonura, considered the better power threat, responded to the deal by hitting 22 home runs for Washington. He lasted the one season before being traded – Bonura tended to wear out his welcome frequently. Kuhel stuck with the Sox for six seasons and was a solid contributor at the plate. He was also a much better defender than Bonura and was much less of a headache for owner Charles Comiskey.

Kuhel’s first year with the Sox was a little underwhelming, and he injured his foot on a slide and missed time to recover. He hit an even .300 in 1939 with 15 home runs, even though that was the last thing on his mind. “Singles and doubles are plenty good enough,” he said. “Those fences are a long way out and tough to reach.”

Kuhel ran into more on-field problems, this time in Detroit. He was involved in a brief and ugly brawl with Hank Greenberg after he slid into first base and spiked the Tiger. Greenberg responded by slugging Kuhel. Greenberg was ejected, but police had to be called out to keep the fans in check. This was a rather infamous moment in Greenberg’s career, because he’d been taunted with anti-Semitic slurs before the game. Afterwards, he ventured into the White Sox clubhouse and demanded the person who’d called him “yellow Jew bastard” to stand up. Nobody moved, and Greenberg stared down each player before he left.

I have not seen any indication that Kuhel was the one that uttered the slurs, or that the spiking was motivated by anti-semitism. A week after the fracas with Greenberg, the teams played each other again. Kuhel singled in the first inning, ran past Greenberg, headed to second and slid – spiking Tigers second baseman Red Kress in the process. Both men denied that it was intentional, and no fists flew.

Kuhel may have thought that the outfield fences were far away in 1939, but he had no problem reaching them in 1940. He belted 27 homers, far and away the best of his career. He drove in 94 runs and scored 111 runs, also a career best. Kuhel’s production with the White Sox began to wind down after that year. By 1943, the 37-year-old’s batting average was down to .213. He was sold back to the Washington Senators after the season.

Kuhel rejoined the Senators at just the right time. Their young first baseman, Mickey Vernon, was out of baseball for military service. Manager Ossie Bluege gave the starting job to Kuhel, who turned 38 in June. And for a couple of seasons, he was able to recapture some of his old form. In 1944 and ’45, he hit .278 and .285, finishing both seasons with an OPS+ of over 100. He didn’t have much home run power, but he hit more than 25 doubles each season, and he managed 13 triples in 1945. He was the team’s clean-up hitter that year and was second on the team with 75 RBIs. Kuhel hit the only Senators home run at Griffith Stadium in 1945. It was an inside-the-park shot. The Senators, who were a last-place team in 1944, surged up to second place in ’45 with 87 wins. Old-timers like Kuhel and catcher Rick Farrell, another 39-year-old, were a couple of the unlikely heroes.

He wasn’t finished yet, either. He announced his intent to return in 1946, and owner Clark Griffith was glad to have him. “He was a better ball player last season at 29 than he was 20 years ago,” Griffith enthused. “That fellow is still the best fielding firstsacker in the business and he’s learned to use his head at bat. He tightened up his swing and hit the ball where he wanted it to go.”

Joe Kuhel, member of the Society of American Magicians, demonstrates his card tricks to some fans. Source: Des Moines Register, October 10, 1947.

By the start of the 1946 season, though, Vernon had returned from the armed forces, and he reclaimed his first base job. Vernon would go on to win the first of his two batting titles in 1946 with a .353 average. Kuhel hit .150 in 14 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter. He was released by the Senators and signed with the White Sox on June 12. He did well with the White Sox, albeit in a limited role. In 64 games, be batted .273 and hit 4 home runs. He was also one of the few players left who could make 39-year-old Luke Appling merely the second-oldest player on the field.

Kuhel’s legs finally gave out in May of 1947, when he was released by the White Sox. He managed three pinch-hit at-bats for the team, striking out all three times. He took a job as player-manager of the Class-C Hot Springs Bathers for a time, but he was back in the big leagues soon enough – this time as manager of the Washington Senators. Griffith hired Kuhel in October after Bluege was dismissed.

In his 18 seasons in the majors, Kuhel slashed .277/.359/.406. He had 2,212 hits, including 412 doubles, 111 triples and 131 home runs. He drove in 1,049 runs, and while he was no speed merchant, he stole 178 bases. He also walked 980 times while recording 612 strikeouts. His career fielding percentage at first base was an above-average .992, and he was considered one of the premier first basemen in the league right up to his retirement.

When he was named manager, the papers noted that Kuhel was an ace at card tricks and was a member of the Society of American Magicians. Not even the greatest magician of the era could have made the Senators look good. Aside from Vernon at first base and starter Early Wynn, there wasn’t much talent. He tried youngsters like outfielder Gil Coan and Junior Wooten and second baseman Al Kozar, but they all underperformed. Even Vernon failed to hit .250 in 1948, and Wynn lost 19 games.

The ’48 Senators finished 56-97 to end up in seventh place. In 1949, now without Vernon and Wynn (both of whom had been traded to Cleveland), the team lost 103 games, and Kuhel lost his job. His final record with the team was 106-201-1. He summed up his experience as the Senators manager by saying, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers.”

Kuhel spent 1950 managing the Kansas City Blues, by then a AAA affiliate for the New York Yankees. He was let go after one season when the team lost 99 games. He remained in Kansas City after getting out of professional baseball, but he remained a part of the city’s local baseball scene. He ran training camps and organized a team of former major-leaguers to battle Satchel Paige’s All-Stars in 1953. His son, Joe Jr., pitched briefly in the White Sox organization.

According to Kuhel’s SABR biography, he was the district sales manager for Roper Sales Corp. until his retirement in 1971. He died at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., on February 26, 1984, after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 77 years old and is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City, Mo.

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