Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A New Player/Manager Collection: Harvey Kuenn

In the midst of a Cardboard Border War with Jaybarkerfan, I was lucky to hit the weekend where my monthly card show I attend popped up.  I took good care of my Tider friend at the show -- just check out the first package I sent to him (and, to be clear, that's not all that's coming to North Alabama) -- but I also found the time to buy cards for myself too.  I mean, why not, right?

Especially when there are deals to be had.  By that, I mean I went back to the seller from whom I bought the Aaron, Mathews, and Spahn cards last time.  He had a ton of more "common" vintage priced at $1 a card.  I bought enough from him that he made it something closer to about 75 cents a card.  

It was well worth it, because two of those cards go immediately into my newest player collection: West Allis, Wisconsin's own Harvey Kuenn.  As his SABR Biography mentions, Kuenn was a star player at UW-Madison before signing with the Tigers.  He grew up not far from where Milwaukee County Stadium stood and now Miller Park stands.  As the biography puts it, "[t]he Kuenns were the typical German-American blue-collar family that so heavily populated Milwaukee.  Both of Harvey's parents worked for a paper and packaging processing firm in Milwaukee. Harvey Sr. worked on the dock as a shipping clerk while Dorothy ran the company's credit union."

He also married a former Miss Wisconsin, Dixie Sarchet.  

He signed for the Tigers for $55,000. He took some of that money and bought his parents a new house.

Kuenn was the 1953 Rookie of the Year, an 8-time All-Star, won the Batting Title in 1959 with a .353 batting average, led the American League in Hits in 1953, 1954, 1956, and 1959, and led the AL in Doubles in 1955, 1958, and 1959.  After the 1959 season and in a trade despised in Cleveland to this day, Harvey left Detroit and the Tigers received reigning AL HR champion Rocky Colavito -- both of whom had been holding out for better contracts.

Here's his pre-batting title 1959 Topps card.  With Detroit from 1952 through 1959, Harvey hit 53 HRs, drove in 423, walked 322 times, and struck out just 205 times in 4749 plate appearances with a .314/.360/.426 slash line and 1372 hits.  

It was not as if he was terrible in Cleveland, though.  In his one season there, he hit .308/.379/.416 and was an All-Star.  But, he became the scapegoat for Frank "Trader" Lane's player moves in the offseason and for the Indians' decline from 89-65 in 1959 to 76-78 in 1960.  

So the Indians rid themselves of Kuenn -- though the alleged "Curse of Rocky Colavito" may be continuing to undermine Cleveland to this day, if you believe in such things as curses -- and traded Kuenn to the San Francisco Giants, where he was in 1964 for Topps to release this card:

Kuenn finished up his career by splitting 1965 between the Giants and Chicago Cubs and splitting 1966 between the Cubs (just 3 games) and the Philadelphia Phillies.  For his career, Kuenn finished with 2092 hits, 97 HR, and a slash line of .303/.357/.408.  He remained on the Hall of Fame Ballot for the entire 15-year run, never gaining more than 39.3% of the vote (accomplished in 1988, shortly after he passed away) nor less than 14.9% (in his first season of eligibility).  

Again going back to his SABR biography, Kuenn sounds to me like your typical Wisconsin German.  During the 1950s, he and Al Kaline were the Tigers two big names but they were very different people.  Kaline was shy and quiet.  On the other hand, Kuenn almost always had a mouthful of tobacco and "was known to like his beer."  There's one Wisconsin thing.

As an aside, in most photos you see of Harvey, he has his tobacco.

The other Milwaukee point: in his off-seasons as a baseball player, he stayed in shape "by bowling. Kuenn maintained good winter conditioning by bowling three times a week."  Yeah, I don't know how much exercise one gets by walking four steps and launching a sixteen-pound ball down a lane then sitting down and drinking beer while your teammates do the same, but apparently, it worked for him.

He retired as a player in 1967 to return to Milwaukee and serve as the sports anchor at WVTV in Milwaukee for two years.  Now, I recall WVTV was a UHF station with no news department, so that should tell you why Kuenn left there -- they dropped the programming and didn't need a sports anchor.

He went on to join the coaching staff of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1971 as the Brewers hitting coach.  He was activated as a player in September of 1971 to give him additional service time to improve his pension, but he never played.  But he stayed with the team as the batting coach for many years.  He got divorced in 1971 and, three years later, remarried to Audrey Cesar.  Bob Uecker was his best man at that wedding.

He served as the interim manager for 1 game in 1975 (which he won).  He hoped to be the Brewers manager permanently at that point, but the team went a different direction and hired Alex Grammas.  That was a good thing, in the end, because Harvey underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1976 (at the age of 46...must have been the beer-and-bratwurst Wisconsin diet).  Kuenn then spent four months in the hospital in 1977 due to Crohn's Disease.  Finally, he suffered from a blood clot in his leg in 1980 that required amputation of Kuenn's right leg below the knee.  It's why when Harvey was the manager for the team, relievers always got a few extra warm up pitches in -- it took Harvey longer to get to the mound!

After going through all of that, Kuenn grew close to then-owner Bud Selig due to Selig's sticking with Harvey and keeping him on the payroll despite all the health issues.  When Buck Rodgers became manager in 1981 after George Bamberger left the team, Harvey rejoined the team as well.  When Rodgers was fired in May of 1982 after a 23-24 start, Harvey took over and presided over a season that led his hometown Brewers to the 1982 World Series.

The guy was as Wisconsin as it gets -- owning a bar (Cesar's) that his second wife's parents had owned and living next to it and, even while managing the team, coming out to the bar to hang out with the patrons, sign autographs, and tell stories.  

Harvey passed away on February 28, 1988 at the age of 57. That season, the Brewers wore a commemorative patch on their left sleeves to honor their former manager.

I'm still in the process of pulling cards together for his PC.  I have 
four listed currently, but I know I have more.  It's a horrible omission that I didn't include him initially as a player collection, so I have now rectified that.


  1. I'll keep an eye out for his cards at future card shows. Have you looked to see if you have any Brewers cards where the players are visibly seen wearing the commemorative patch?

    1. Actually, one of the most common Robin Yount images Topps has used is one that you see on Topps Tribute last year -- hands on knees, leaning toward the camera, with the H/K patch displayed prominently.

  2. I'm going to join a bowling league. If it works for Harvey Kuenn it works for me.

    1. Well, he did die at the age of 57....not sure how well that worked.