Classic Yankees: Tony Kubek

Sometimes, in watching a game, I get tired of the bombastic announcers. You know the kind, the ones who are all “shtick,” no substance, who think that we are watching the game to see and hear them instead of the game itself. It’s times like those that I miss the old NBC “Game of the Week,” when I would hear Tony Kubek doing games with Curt Gowdy and later, Bob Costas.

Before becoming a Hall of Fame broadcaster, Kubek had a nine-year career with the Yankees as a shortstop and outfielder. He came up in 1957 and won the Rookie of the Year Award after a season in which he hit .297-3-39, OPS+ 97.

While primarily a shortstop, Kubek also played all outfield and all three other infield positions in his career. 1957 was an especially good example of his versatility as he played 50 games in the outfield, 41 at short and 38 at third. He finished 26th in MVP voting that year.

Just shy of his 22nd birthday, he hit two home runs in Game 3 of the 1957 World Series in his hometown of Milwaukee. For the Series, he was 8 for 28 with those two homers and four RBI’s. Alas, the Braves won the Series.

In 1958, the Yanks returned to the World Series and this time came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Braves. Kubek was an All-Star, the first of three times he would gain that honor. He hit .265-2-48, OPS+ 72 but had a terrible Series, going 1 for 21 with one RBI.

Kubek went .279-6-51 in 1959, OPS+ 96 and was once again an All-Star. He led the league with 13 sac bunts.

In 1960, Kubek finished 11th in the MVP voting. He hit .273 with career highs in HR (14) and RBI (62), with an OPS+ of 97. He was 10 for 30 with 3 RBI in the Series, but it came to a surprising end.

With the Yankees leading 7-4 in the bottom of the 8th of Game 7, the Pirates had one man on with no out. Future Yankees manager Bill Virdon hit a sharp grounder to Kubek, a sure doubleplay ball it seemed. The ball hit a pebble (Forbes Field had a notoriously rocky infield) and the bad hop struck Kubek in the throat, injuring him badly. Kubek had to be taken to the hospital, and the Pirates scored five runs in the inning (later in that inning, Jim Coates made a huge error in failing to cover first base). Although the Yankees tied it in the top of the ninth, the Pirates won the Series on Bill Mazeroski’s HR.

From Wikipedia: Kubek was sensitive about the Bill Virdon incident. When future broadcasting partner Bob Costas once referenced Virdon’s smash on the air, Kubek put his hand on Costas’ thigh to stop him.

Kubek hit .276-8-46, OPS+ 90 in 1961, when he was named an All-Star for the third and final time. He was five for 22 in the Series with one RBI. He missed most of the 1962 season due to military service. While in the service, an incident in a touch football game would prove to end his career prematurely. Kubek did hit .314-4-17 in 45 games in 1962, OPS+ 115. He was 8 for 29 with an RBI in the Series. The 1962 injury didn’t seem to surface in 1963. Kubek hit .257-7-44, OPS+ 78 and finished 27th in the MVP voting. He was 3 for 16 in his last World Series.

In 1964, Kubek started having back problems which stemmed from that touch football incident in 1962. His average slumped to .229-8-31, OPS+ 70. The injury forced Kubek to miss the World Series. Phil Linz took his place at SS.

In 1965, Kubek was advised of his condition. He was warned that he risked paralysis if he kept playing, due to three fused vertebrae in his back. After a .218-5-35 season, OPS+ just 58, Kubek retired. Kubek was one of many Yankees at that time that had injury strike and who were never the same. Kubek, Mantle, Maris, Ford, Howard… the Yankees dark ages had begun.

Kubek doesn’t like to talk about 1964 and 1965. Like with the Virdon incident, those memories are painful.

He played his last game just nine days before he turned 30 and homered in his final at bat. Kubek retired with a .266 average, OPS+ 85. His 162 g. average was .266-8-55. He played in six World Series in total, hitting .240 with 2 HR and 10 RBI. He played on seven pennant winners and three World Champions.

Kubek became a broadcaster upon retirement, working for NBC, as well as CTV and TSN (Toronto Blue Jays). After the Game of the Week on NBC ended in 1989, Kubek joined MSG doing Yankees games from 1990 to 1994, when he retired.

Upon retiring, Kubek stated (from Wikipedia):

I hate what the game’s become—the greed, the nastiness. You can be married to baseball, give your heart to it, but when it starts taking over your soul, it’s time to say whoa. I want to go home and spend more time with my family. They deserve it more than anyone. I don’t need that ego stuff. I feel sorry for those who do.

Kubek’s resignation coincided with the bitter strike that wound up cancelling the 1994 World Series. In a 2008 New York Times article, Kubek claimed not to have seen a major league game since his retirement from broadcasting. On December 22, 2008, Tony Kubek won the 2009 Ford C. Frick Award, an honor bestowed on broadcasters by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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