Eddie Kazak: Bayoneted, buried and blown up, but not broken

 

I sometimes get the side-eye when I tell people I write about baseball history. Sure, it’s not Constitutional law or the history of science, but in my opinion, it is just as valuable. For me, studying baseball history is another way of looking at everything from racial issues and ethnic studies to pop culture and psychology. It’s just done through a game called baseball.

And, if baseball is good for one thing, it is providing examples of how to overcome adversity and succeed – Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, Pete Gray and Wing Maddox playing pro ball with only one arm, or Babe Ruth going from rejected and forgotten orphan to the most beloved and recognized man in the world. Baseball history is full of inspirational stories, and what you are about to read is one that I have often thought of when life’s problems had me down for the count. During those dark and trying times, I often thought of a now-forgotten ballplayer named Eddie Kazak. More than once his story helped me re-gain the strength I needed to get back up and keep fighting.

Eddie Kazak was born Edward Terrence Tkaczuk in 1920, the second of Joseph and Sophia Tkaczuk’s five children. His parents were immigrants from Poland and, like many of his recently arrived countrymen, Joseph sought work as a coal miner. After some years in Steubenville, Ohio, the Tkaczuk’s moved to Muse, Pennsylvania, a mining town 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. In school, Eddie excelled in baseball and soccer. One of his classmates was Andy Seminick, a catcher who would eventually make the majors with the Phillies.

When he graduated high school, Eddie joined his father and most of his classmates, including Andy Seminick, in the Muse coal mine. Work in the mine was a terribly dangerous profession, a lesson Eddie learned first-hand in December of 1939. Rail cars carrying Eddie and the rest of the night shift workers into the mine overturned, seriously injuring the teenager and two others. The three were rushed to a hospital in Pittsburgh, where Eddie was treated for several crushed ribs. According to a baseball scout whose territory included the Pennsylvania coal towns, Eddie was injured in a second mining accident when a “lalling slate caught him one day and crushed his leg.” Those accidents made Eddie realize that a future as a miner wasn’t a healthy career choice.

Fortunately, unlike most of his co-workers, Eddie had a way out. Back before World War II, the mining towns Pennsylvania fielded talented semi-pro baseball clubs, and Eddie starred for his local team every Sunday afternoon. After one game, Jack Reider, a scout for the minor league Knoxville Smokies, approached Eddie to see if he’d be interested in playing pro ball. Reider was almost knocked over with the teen’s enthusiastic reply of “yes!”

Still, Eddie was conflicted by accepting his golden ticket out of the mines. His family relied on his paycheck to stay afloat. At his current job he was making $50 every two weeks; a pro contract would mean $75 a month and that only lasted six months. Eddie went to his father for advice, to which his pop immediately said, “Take anything, son, to get out of the mines.”

The Knoxville Smokies were an independent team in the Class A-1 Southern Association, the equivalent of today’s Double A. As an independent, Knoxville was not affiliated with any big league team and had to scout and sign their own players, which they then developed and sold to the majors for profit. Also, like many independent teams, Knoxville had a working agreement with a club in a lower classification league, and Eddie was sent to the Valdosta Trojans of the Class D Georgia-Florida League.

Upon arrival in Valdosta, Trojans manager Bill Morrell took one look at the card bearing his name and said, “T-K-A-C-Z-U-K? How in the world do you pronounce that?” The new ballplayer immediately chopped off the “T” to become “Kaczuk,” which was later modified to “Kazak.”

In 130 games Eddie hit just south of .300. In the meantime, Knoxville’s working agreement with Valdosta broke down and Eddie’s contract with the parent club was voided. St. Louis Cardinals scouts, tipped off by a rival manager whose team suffered under the onslaught of Eddie’s bat, gave the Trojans a check for one thousand bucks and shipped the 19 year-old over to their farm team in Albany, Georgia.

The Cardinals scouts marveled at Eddie’s swing, often described in prose such as “pure and beautiful,” and “absolutely flawless.” Eddie murdered the ball during the 1941 season. In the words of Jack Reider, he “proceeded to break all the league batting marks except in the home run department.” Eddie’s sweet swing made him the Georgia-Florida League batting champ with .378 while also winning the crown in hits, doubles, and total bases.

The Cards moved him up to the Houston Buffaloes in the Texas League for 1942. This season proved to be disappointing as he batted a low .257. However, he may have been distracted; while with the Buffaloes, Eddie had made the acquaintance of Thelma Gregg, a coed at the University of Texas. Although Thelma wasn’t a baseball fan, the pair hit it off and a romance developed. Unfortunately, the couple would have to shelve any future due to World War II.

Days after the season ended, Eddie joined the Army Air Force at Brooks Field in San Antonio. He was later shifted to the paratroop infantry and shipped overseas. In August 1944, Eddie was in the thick of the fighting as part of the American assault on the French port fortress of Brest. 40,000 Germans held the fort and surrounding towns with orders to fight to the last man. In a small village outside Brest, a German soldier charged Eddie, thrusting his bayonet through his upper left arm, just above the elbow. Eddie later said, “I think I must have shot him then, because suddenly I was free.”

When he was taken to a field hospital, medics marveled at how the bayonet had miraculously missed a main artery. While the wound wasn’t fatal, it was described as “severe.” A doctor sewed his arm back together with nineteen stitches, and Eddie was quickly returned to the battle. By now the Germans had managed to swing their heavy fortress artillery around from the sea to face the American infantry attacking from the rear. One of the German barrages caught Eddie’s unit as it passed through a small town. The men took shelter in a building which was then pulverized by one of the massive shells. Shrapnel and flying debris tore off part of Eddie’s right elbow and left him buried under what was left of the structure. Decades later, Eddie’s youngest son Gregg told the Austin Statesman, “He was trapped in the building for three days.”

A succession of stretchers, ambulances, trains, and ships brought Eddie from the battlefields of France to Palm Springs, California. For a year, his arm was immobilized in a cast at a 90 degree L-shape angle. Three of the fingers on his right hand were paralyzed. The Sporting News even reported that his arm had been amputated. Eventually, Eddie was put in the care of a skilled surgeon who delicately removed the pieces of crushed bone, replacing it with plastic. Eventually, movement returned to his fingers, but Eddie would never be able to touch his right shoulder with his right hand. He was discharged in December of ’45, the doctors advising him to forget about baseball. Eddie shook his head, “No, I won’t forget about baseball.”

Eddie was determined to play pro ball again, but first he made a stop in Houston. He and Thelma had kept in contact throughout the war and the first thing he knew he wanted to do as a civilian was make her his wife. Eddie proposed, Thelma accepted, and then he raced off to Columbus, Georgia where the Cardinals had a farm team in the Class A South Atlantic League.

In Columbus, Eddie worked his way back into baseball shape. While many of the returning GIs battled the extra weight they put on while eating service chow, Eddie’s hospital stay had left him 25-30 pounds lighter. His demolished elbow also meant he needed to re-think how he swung at the ball. Moreover, just throwing a ball sent a shockwave of pain radiating through his body. Despite all the obstacles standing in his way, Eddie managed to keep his average around the .300 mark.

In June, Eddie and Thelma were ready to get married. Eddie had asked his manager, Kemp Wicker, for a day off for a honeymoon but was refused, his skipper telling him, “You’re a ballplayer now, son. No days off when the club’s scheduled.” The two were married on June 24 without Eddie missing a game. He capped off a memorable year by hitting .298 and leading the league with 14 home runs.

The Cardinals were impressed and sent Kazak to spring training with the Rochester Red Wings, their top farm team. From the start, Eddie wowed the coaches, with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle opining, “Kazak has won the most attention and seems set to start the season on second base.” However, it became apparent that Eddie’s arm had been too damaged to withstand the stress of playing every day; the pivot-snap throws that were expected of a big league-level second baseman were beyond the limitations of his re-built elbow.

By now it was a few weeks into the season, and Eddie’s backstory had become common knowledge throughout the International League. The story of his grave wounding and dramatic comeback after being told he’d never play again resonated with the postwar public. Despite his now obvious shortcomings at second base, the Cardinals management refused to give up on Eddie, instead giving him a chance at third base. Having never played the hot corner before, Eddie was predictably shaky, but as the April 23, 1947 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle wrote, “Everybody in Wingville is pulling for the plucky ex-GI to come through…” Unfortunately, learning on the job at the highest level of the minors is not the smart way to master a brand new position, and on May 17 Eddie was optioned to the Omaha Cardinals of the Class A Western League.

The Omaha Cardinals club Eddie joined turned out to be a peculiar team for 1947. According to Omaha World-Herald columnist Robert Phipps, “the Omaha Cardinals were a split personality team.” The clubhouse was evenly divided between those players who cared about the game, and those who didn’t. This is odd for the time because due to the end of the war there were now more players than ever trying to find a place in pro baseball. Aging war veterans like Eddie Kazak had to compete with teenagers fresh outta high school for a spot on the roster, so it is strange that the Omaha club had to contend with players who did not seem to be passionate about the game.

According to a season’s end column by Robert Phipps, the main reason for the discontentment was that several of the older players were bitter at being dropped down from a higher level. While this was certainly reasonable, Phipps went on to point out that “players optioned down still draw the higher salary scale.”

Regardless of what some of his teammate’s attitudes might be, Eddie saw his demotion to Omaha as an opportunity to rebuild himself as a player and learn to play third base. Away from the bigger cities and interference from too many front office “experts,” Eddie started putting together the hard lessons he learned dealing with the limitations of his war-torn body after his first season back in the game.

He was able to beat out the younger players for a starting spot and worked on strengthening his arm. Omaha let him split his time between second and third, allowing Eddie to gradually acclimate himself to the unfamiliar position. As Eddie later told St. Louis sportswriters, his arm got stronger and less painful as time went on and playing third meant he no longer had to contend with the pivot and snap throws that were expected of a second baseman.

Because his right arm was stiffened after being shattered and rebuilt with plastic, Eddie had to drastically alter his batting style. Gone was his graceful pre-war swing, replaced with a more compact motion that switched the power to his wrists. It wasn’t pretty, but it quickly began paying dividends.

By mid-season, Eddie was among the batting leaders of the Western League, his new batting style allowing him to hit at a .350 clip. His switch to a wrist-powered swing added much more pop to his bat, and he was soon hitting tape-measure home runs instead of long singles. On August 31 Eddie hit his 20th homer, tying him with Tony Jaros for tops in the league.

In the beginning of September, Eddie was sidelined with another injury. This time it was sciatica, an especially nasty injury that radiates pain from the lower back and down the legs. It wasn’t said whether this new problem stemmed from his wartime injuries, but regardless of the cause, Eddie was back in the lineup come playoff time. Though Omaha went down 3 games to 1 in the first round, Eddie was selected for the Western League All-Star Team. For the season Eddie hit .326 and came in second in homers with 20. With his time split between second and third base, he doubled his value to the Cardinals and had proven he was ready for advancement. The bigwigs in St. Louis agreed, and Eddie was instructed to report to spring training with Rochester.

1948 saw Eddie batting .309 in 140 games with Rochester, all spent at third base. This last part was important, because third base was the only starting position on the Cardinals with a question mark. During the war years, third base was manned by Whitey Kurowski, an All-Star despite missing several inches of bone in his throwing arm. By 1948, Kurowski’s arm finally gave out and he was replaced by aging journeyman Don Lang. The team was on the prowl for a fresh third sacker, and Eddie was called up to the big club at the end of September to show what he could do. He made his big league debut on September 29 as a late inning replacement against Pittsburgh. Kazak went 0-1 in that initial game but hit a nice .286 in the last five games of the season.

Nineteen forty-nine turned out to be a great season for baseball, with the Dodgers and Cardinals battling all summer for the pennant. In spring training, the Cardinals auditioned Eddie and Tommy Glaviano for the open third baseman’s spot. In the end, it was Glaviano who won out, the Cardinals coaches labeling Eddie with the dreaded “good field – no hit” tag. Despite losing out on the starting third baseman’s job, the Cards kept Eddie on the Opening Day roster. For the first few games of the season he was used as a pinch hitter before replacing weak-hitting Glaviano. In Eddie Kazak, the Cardinals found their new starting third baseman and more. At once Eddie made a difference with his bat, hitting a ripe .385 for the month of April, followed by .364 in May. After an 11-game hitting streak, Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer moved Eddie up in the batting order to the number four slot, right between future Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter. Dyer went on to tell the press, “The boy is a natural. He’s been the club’s best player to date.”

Seven decades after Eddie’s rookie season, it’s difficult to put into perspective just how big of a deal he was, but this may help: In a year that featured an incredible crop of rookie position players – Monty Irvin, Steve Bilko, Del Crandall, Wally Post – it was Eddie Kazak who was the sole rookie picked for the All-Star Game. And not only did he make the team, but he also brought in 1,298,573 votes, the most of any third baseman and the seventh largest total of any National Leaguer that year. And beyond that, when he took the field in the first inning of the game at Ebbets Field, Eddie was only the fourth rookie position-player chosen to start a mid-summer classic. Capitalizing on that rare honor, Eddie went a perfect 2 for 2 against the AL’s best, singling off Boston’s Mel Parnell in the second and hitting an RBI single off Tigers ace Virgil Trucks in the 3rd. Interestingly, Eddie’s old friend from Muse, Andy Seminick, had also made the National League All Star team and, coincidentally, both wore the number 21 on their backs.

Off the field, the story of St. Louis’ newest star filled sports pages coast-to-coast. Writers fell over themselves predicting Eddie Kazak as that year’s Rookie of the Year. The story of his overcoming his wartime injuries added to the hype. Besides the national newspapers and sports magazines, Collier’s published a lavishly illustrated multi-page feature on Eddie’s remarkable rookie season.

And when the papers tired of writing about Eddie’s harrowing wartime experience and miraculous comeback, his name “KAZAK” became fodder for trivia buffs because it was thought he was the first big league player whose surname was spelled the same both backwards and forwards.

Eddie’s sudden popularity coincided with an influx of talented Polish-American ballplayers in the majors. Besides Cardinals teammates Stan Musial, Whitey Kurowski and Steve Bilko, other Polish-American players making good in the National Pastime included Ted Kluszewski, Eddie Lopat, Jim Konstanty, Stan Lopata, Eddie Miksis, Dick Kokos, George Shuba, Eddie Stanky, Hank Borowy, and Gene Hermanski.

Going into the last week of July, the Cardinals and Dodgers were vying for first. The two clubs had been bitter rivals since the late 1930s and, by 1949, every game between them was a pitched battle. On July 22, the Cardinals came to Ebbets Field for a 3-game series, trailing Brooklyn by 2 games in the standings. St. Louis won the first game 3-1, the brutality of the rivalry illustrated by Preacher Roe beaning Marty Marion twice and Red Munger plunking Gene Hermanski three times.

The next afternoon found the Cardinals one game out of first; a win would tie them with Brooklyn. The Dodgers took an early lead by scoring one in the first. In the top of the second, Enos Slaughter hit a one-out triple to center. That brought up Eddie with the tying run 90 feet away. After taking the first pitch for a ball, Eddie hit the next one against the left field wall, scoring Slaughter easily. With the game and the pennant on the line, Eddie raced past first, watching as the ball unexpectedly ricocheted off the wall and right into center fielder Duke Snider’s glove. As Snider whipped the ball to second baseman Jackie Robinson, Eddie slid late, but eluded the tag. The Brooklyn stands erupted with boos as the umpire called him safe. However, after the dust settled, Eddie lay in a crumpled heap in the dirt. The late slide had caused his right leg to double up on the bag, severely injuring his ankle. Then, as Eddie rolled around in agony, Robinson tagged the writhing ballplayer with his glove. While Eddie was put on a stretcher and carried off the field, Robinson argued that the runner was out, but the ump held firm, and the play went down as an RBI double.

In the clubhouse, Eddie managed to stand on the injured ankle, so at first it looked like it wasn’t too serious. He was taken by taxi to a hospital where x-rays showed no bones were broken. Back at Ebbets Field, the Cardinals edged Brooklyn 5-4 to tie them for first place.

Eddie’s injury turned out to be more serious than everyone thought. He would miss the next six weeks trying to rest the ankle that wouldn’t heal. In the meantime, his batting average was frozen at .303. Tommy Glaviano took his place at third and was hitting great. Talk of him being Rookie of the Year also faded as rookie pitcher Don Newcombe was making headlines as the Dodgers new ace. In the standing, St. Louis had overtaken the Dodgers for first and was clinging to a slim lead going into September.

Finally, on September 5, Eddie was back in uniform. The Pirates were in St. Louis for a Monday double header. After winning the first game, the Cardinals were down 4-1 in the second game when Eddie was sent in to pinch hit in the seventh inning. After limping to the plate, Eddie hit the first pitch into the bleachers for his sixth homer of the year. The home crowd went berserk as Eddie managed to hobble his way round the bases. St. Louis eventually lost the game but still had a game and a half lead over Brooklyn.

As September played out, the Cardinals couldn’t shake Brooklyn. While St. Louis went a decent 13-9, Brooklyn poured it on with a 16-6 record to take the pennant by one game. Down the stretch Eddie was called on to pinch hit four more times but managed to get just a one hit. He ended the season with a .304 average while Don Newcombe took home the Rookie of the Year Award for pitching Brooklyn to the World Series.

After the season ended, Eddie was still having problems with his ankle. A second opinion showed that the bone had been broken all along and an inch long bone chip had formed. An operation was performed, but Eddie never regained the promise he showed in the first half of his rookie year. He hit .256 in 1950 as a part-time third baseman and pinch hitter. Twenty-three games into the 1951 season Eddie was sent down to Houston. His .304 average got him a second chance in St. Louis in ’52 but was sent down again after just a few games. Cincinnati picked him up as a pinch hitter, but the magic was gone from Eddie’s bat. He was signed by the Tigers in 1953, and while Topps produced a baseball card of him, Eddie never made it back to The Show.

Eddie hung on in the Pacific Coast League for a handful of seasons before retiring. He returned to Austin where he took a job with the post office. Eddie and Thelma raised four kids, Karol, Karen, Kathleen and Gregg, before splitting up in 1977. Eddie put in 25 years at the post office and spent his retirement years cheerfully responding to a stream of autograph requests, returning each one with a personal note.

Eddie Kazak passed away in 1999, leaving behind a single great rookie season and countless reasons for us to find inspiration in all he accomplished despite everything that tried to block the path to his dream.

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This week’s story is Number 41 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 3 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 030 and will be active through December of 2021. Booklets 1-29 can be purchased as a group, too.

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