Obituary: Eddie Kasko (1931-2020)

RIP to Eddie Kasko, an All-Star infielder as well as a Red Sox manager, scout and executive. Kasko died on June 24 at the age of 88 — three days shy of his 89th birthday. Kasko played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1957-58), Cincinnati Reds (1959-63), Houston Colt .45s/Astros (1964-65) and Boston Red Sox (1966). He also managed Boston from 1970-73, part of a nearly three-decade association with the team that lasted into the mid-1990s.

Edward Kasko was born on June 27, 1931 in Elizabeth, N.J. He played for the Linden, N.J., American Legion team while attending Linden High School. Over the summer of 1949, Kasko signed with the Baltimore Orioles — the AAA Orioles of the International League, that is. The teenager had spent most of his post-graduation time working out with the team. Manager Jack Dunn liked his glove and gave him a few chances to play toward the end of the season. In what I believe was his first professional ballgame, Kasko picked up a couple of singles and made some fine plays in at shortstop, with one throwing error. That one game was enough that The Evening Sun (Baltimore) called him a future prospect.

The Orioles farmed Kasko out to the Class-D Suffolk Goobers of the Virginia League. He hit around .250 for the Goobers in 1950 and the Schenectady Blue Jays in 1951. He was primarily a singles and occasional doubles hitter, though the one home run he hit for the Jays in ’51 was a grand slam that single-handedly beat Elmira 4-2.

Kasko spent two years out of organized baseball for military service in 1952 and ’53. He played on the Fort Leonard Wood team in Missouri, first as a utility infielder then as a starter when shortstop Eddie Waytula (a long-time Phillies minor-leaguer) was injured. Upon his return to baseball, Kasko’s contract was transferred from Baltimore to the Richmond Virginians of the International League. The minor-league Orioles were disbanded to make way for the major-league Orioles, which made its debut in 1954 when the St. Louis Browns moved to town.

Kasko spent 1954 and 1955 with the Virginians, where he was managed by Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling. He had a hard time recognizing Kasko, who had grown a half-inch, donned glasses and bulked up during his time in the Army. “They told me in Baltimore he was a little guy,” Appling commented. “He must have gained 15 pounds in the Army. Nothing little about him now.” It was actually 20 pounds, Kasko said. The extra weight didn’t hurt his play, as he quickly became the most exciting prospect in Richmond’s training camp in 1954. Appling tried to dampen the enthusiasm so as not to put undue pressure on Kasko, who had been out of baseball for two years. But even he liked the kid’s play. “Kasko has been bouncing along pretty good… I do feel better at shortstop than I did,” Appling said.

Kasko hit just .238 in 1954, but he regained his hitting stroke the following season, hitting .267 in 1955 with four home runs. His fielding, also a work in progress, improved as well, and Kasko credited Appling for helping him at the bat and in the field. He had one of the strongest infield arms in the IL. At the end of the ’55 season, the Cardinals acquired him from Richmond for shortstop Al Richter and cash. “I feel I can make the club,” Kasko said about the Cardinals. “At least I’ll try like hell.”

Kasko didn’t make the Cardinals in 1956, but he topped the .300 mark for Rochester, their AAA affiliate, with a career-high 9 homers. He was named to the IL’s All-Star team and began his major-league career the next season.

Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 21, 2015

The 1957 Cardinals had Al Dark at shortstop, so Kasko was moved to third base. Reds manager Fred Hutchinson put Ken Boyer in center field to accommodate Kasko at third, at least for that season. For the rest of Kasko’s career, he regularly moved between third base and shortstop and occasionally played second base as well. His fielding, regardless of position, was above or pretty close to league average. His offense in ’57 was pretty reflective of his career as a whole as well: a .273/.319/.334 slash line. He hit decently well, with a few doubles and a few walks mixed in. He struck out 53 times in 519 plate appearances, but that was the highest strikeout total he’d ever have in the majors.

The Cardinals moved Kasko to shortstop in 1958, though several other players saw significant time there as well, including Dick Schofield and Ruben Amaro. His average dropped to .220, though he did steal the show from Ernie Banks in a game on September 9. Banks slugged his 45th home run, breaking his own record for most homers in a season by a shortstop. The Cubs still lost 8-7, thanks to Kasko’s grand slam off Cubs reliever Bill Henry.

After the season, Kasko, outfielder Del Ennis and pitcher Bob Mabe were traded to the Cincinnati Reds for first baseman George Crowe, infielder Alex Grammas and pitcher Alex Kellner. Kasko would put together some surprisingly productive seasons for the Redlegs. He batted .283 in 1959 and had his best season in 1960, reaching career highs in virtually every offensive category. He slashed .292/.359/.378 with 21 doubles, a triple and 6 home runs. He knocked in 51 runs and walked 46 times. He shuffled around the infield to fill in for injured players, and he even moved to the leadoff spot in the batting order. But none of the changes slowed him down. He had an OPS+ of 101, which is the only time he was above 100 in his career.

Oddly enough, Kasko didn’t receive any accolades in baseball until after he’d had his best offensive seasons. His batting average tailed off to .271 in 1961, but he was named to both All-Star teams. He saw action at shortstop in the July 31 All-Star Game and singled off Boston’s Don Schwall in his only at-bat. He also took part in a couple of double plays in the field. The ’61 Reds won the NL pennant and faced the Yankees in the World Series. They proved to be no match for the Maris & Mantle-led Yankees, but Kasko did his part. He picked up 7 singles over 5 games and an RBI for a .318 batting average.

Kasko had the first hit of the ’61 World Series. Years later, he recalled the memories of that time, including getting to the field early to watch Mantle and Maris take batting practice. After the first two games, the Series was tied 1-1 and headed back to Cincinnati, where the Yankees won all three games. “When we won the second game, it was like, ‘Hey, who knows.’ We came back to Cincinnati and just got the hell kicked out of us.”

Kasko received a single MVP vote for his 1962 season, in which he hit .278, drove in 41 runs and hit a career-best 26 doubles. He was the first player to ever come to bat in the brand-new Dodger Stadium, and he promptly doubled off Johnny Podres. He also hit a 10th-inning grand slam to beat the Cubs in an August game. Kasko hit 3 bases-loaded home runs in his career, and they all came against the Chicago Cubs. He played in a career-high 134 games, but he was playing on borrowed time. The Reds wanted slugging third baseman Gene Freese in the lineup, but he fractured his ankle and was lost for most of the season. Kasko filled in admirably at third, but Freese would reclaim the spot once he was healthy in 1963. Furthermore, the Reds had youngsters like second baseman Pete Rose and shortstop Leo Cardenas coming into their own. Kasko spent 1963 as a part-time third baseman and hit .241.

As a 32-year-old veteran, Kasko was making about $20,000 a year, which is more than the Reds wanted to pay a backup infielder. In January of 1964, the team dealt him to the Houston Colt .45s, which needed some veteran leadership to balance out all the untested rookies on the roster. He joined the likes of Nellie Fox and Al Spangler, along with youngsters Jim Wynn, Jerry Grote, Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub.

Houston was searching for an identity (literally — they changed their name to the Astros in 1965), and Kasko spent 1964 as the team’s starting shortstop. He hit .243 in what would be his last season as a regular. Injuries limited him to just 68 games in 1965, but he contributed to the team as Houston’s first-ever team captain. “I’m going to tell the team that when Eddie says something, it is the same as me saying it,” said Astros manager Lum Harris. “I need somebody on the field to take charge. This guy is a real leader, and I think the team will benefit by his being the captain.”

The Astros sent Kasko to the Boston Red Sox in April of 1965 in exchange for Felix Mantilla. Kasko played in just 58 games and hit .213. He was also hospitalized in May for a back ailment. The Red Sox released him as a player after the season, but his association with the team was just getting started.

Over his 10 seasons in the majors, Kasko had a slash line of .264/.317/.331, with 935 hits that included 146 doubles, 13 triples and 22 home runs. He had 261 RBIs and 411 runs scored. He played 544 games at shortstop with a .971 fielding percentage, 426 games at third base (.957) and 63 games at second base (.974).

Kasko could lay claim to being one of the best golfers in Major League Baseball. In February of 1959, he won a tournament against his fellow ballplayers, beating Yogi Berra, Al Dark and White Sox manager Al Lopez in the opening rounds before dethroning reigning champ Albie Pearson in 19 holes in the final match. It was his first golf tournament, and it took place on his first wedding anniversary. He and his wife, Catherine, married in 1958 and were together until her death in 2015.

Shortly after his release from the Red Sox, Kasko headed back to AAA, as the new manager of the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. He replaced Dick Williams, who started his managerial career with the Red Sox in 1967. Kasko had demonstrated an eye for talent back in 1966. As the team was playing out the season in the bottom half of the AL, some of the veterans were grumbling about the way young star Carl Yastrzemski played. “Let me tell you one thing,” Kasko said. “If he ever gets with a pennant contender he’s going to be a helluva ball player.” Yaz didn’t get too many chances to be on a pennant contender, but he certainly became a helluva player, alright.

Kasko spent a season in Toronto in 1967 and headed south with the ballclub when they became the Louisville Colonels in 1968. He also helped the big-league club by providing a scouting report on the St. Louis Cardinals before the Sox played them in the 1967 World Series. Kasko guided the Colonels into the International League playoffs in 1969. Though they lost in the first round, the Red Sox tabbed him as their new manager — replacing Williams, again.

Kasko, who was soft-spoken, bald, bespectacled and looking older than his 39 years, was a questionable choice as manager for some Red Sox watchers and sportswriters. But his Red Sox teammates and AAA players lauded him for his development skills. “He’s the greatest man I ever played ball for in my life,” said Tony Muser, who was a Louisville prospect at the time. “Eddie Kasko has imagination, he talks to his players all the time, and he’s anything but shy. He has a great senses of humor.” Decades later, Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda said that his one year with the Red Sox (1973) was one of his favorite seasons, mainly because of how well Kasko treated him.

The life of a manager. Kasko drags a dead 12-foot-long boa constrictor off the field in spring training. Source: The Boston Globe, March 1, 1973.

Kasko let it be known that he was not a firebrand, but that he didn’t expect to have serious communication problems with his team, either. That issue was part of Williams’ undoing as the Sox manager. “I’ll try to treat the players as men,” he said in his introductory press conference. “I always enjoyed being treated as a man. I enjoyed being spoken to as a player… I don’t consider myself a strict disciplinarian. If you treat them as men you more or less get their respect. Then you don’t need to be a disciplinarian. Fair and firm is better than discipline.”

Over his four years as Red Sox manager, the team came in third twice and second twice, finishing just a half-game out of first place in 1972. He helped ease the likes of Carlton Fisk and Dwight Evans into the majors. It was part of the most successful stretch that team had since the late-40s/early-50s, but it was a disappointment that the team never won a pennant. Kasko did what he said he would do — treat his players like men — and he seemed to have held the respect of his players. There was occasional bickering. Yastrzemski questioned some moves, Rico Petrocelli wasn’t happy being a mere contender. The biggest problem that Kasko seemed to have was that the Boston media couldn’t drum up enough controversies with the Red Sox like they could when Williams was around. That made them try harder to find problems.

When Yastrzemski was accused of telling people he was the “real” manager of the team, he gave a full-thoated defense of his skipper. “What do I think of [Kasko]? I love him. Absolutely love him…. Everybody thinks he’s so easy-going. He’s tough. The only thing is he never bawls a player out publicly or rips him to newspapermen. Don’t make any mistake about him though. He’ll grab a guy alone, close the door and really let him have it. He’s done it more than once already.”

Kasko was fired before the last game of the 1973 season, when an 89-73 record left them 8 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. In his four years at the helm, the Red Sox had a 345-295 record, good for a .539 winning percentage. He was immediately named Boston’s executive scout, a role he held through 1977.

One interesting footnote of the Kasko managerial era was that the team went electronic. They bought a camera system that allowed them to photograph each player’s swing and pitching delivery. Kasko and his coaches could detect any instances of players falling out of their rhythms or getting into bad habits. They only used the photos when players were slumping, so they could see how they looked when they were playing well and make adjustments. “Why show Yaz pictures when he is doing everything right?” Kasko reasoned. “That would be like telling a golfer who’s at the top of his game, ‘I didn’t know that you did that on your backswing.'”

Kasko moved into an executive role in 1978, after being named Director of Personnel Procurement (aka scouting director). He was put in charge of the team’s 22-man scouting staff. Some of the players he helped draft and develop were Mo Vaughn, Jeff Bagwell, Ellis Burks, Oil Can Boyd, Mike Greenwell and Roger Clemens. Kasko was promoted to vice president of player development in 1992 and then became vice president of baseball in 1994. His job then was to scout National League teams. It was his final year with the team.

Kasko lived in Richmond, Va., in his retirement. In 2010, Kasko was named to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame, along with Don Zimmer, Jimmy Piersall, Tommy Harper and John Valentin. He was physically unable to attend the ceremony and was represented by his two sons.

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