How far could you go with a name like Joe Cool? How about 18 seasons and more than 2,000 games in the big leagues? That’s what Joe Kuhel (pronounced COOL) did, even though he faced adversity and toiled in the shadows of legendary players.
The flashiest defensive first baseman in the American League in the 1930s, Joe Kuhel starred for the Senators and White Sox, and managed the former. Kuhel was a power hitter in the minor leagues, where he put up gaudy numbers for Kansas City in the American Association, but D.C.’s mammoth Griffith Park hampered his home run production in the majors. After being traded to the Windy City for big-nosed Zeke Bonura in an unpopular deal, Kuhel tied Zeke’s Chicago franchise homer mark, with 27 in 1940. Kuhel later returned to Washington, but ping-ponged his way back to the White Sox.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 25, 1906, Joe was adopted by immigrant Slavakian parents, who operated a neighborhood grocery store. Joseph Anthony Kuhel aspired to be a ballplayer at a young age. “I always loved physical activity,” Kuhel recalled, “it didn’t matter what season, I desired to play ball.”
Able to attend a few Indians’ games each year, Kuhel, a natural left-handed thrower and batter, chose a role model to emulate. “When the Browns came to town I never took my eyes off George Sisler,” Kuhel said of the St. Louis star. “I’d watch every move and play he made around first base and then I’d try to imitate him on the neighborhood sandlot. He was the greatest defensive man around the bag I ever saw.”
Kuhel gained attention as a slick-fielding first baseman on Cleveland’s sandlots, and in 1924 he was signed to play for the Flint Vehicles in the Michigan-Ontario League. Though that was a really great name for a team, the Flint Vehicles stunk. In two seasons revving his engine in Flint (sorry), Kuhel stood out. When the team owner needed quick cash, he sold the 19-year old first baseman to Kansas City. With that move, Joe Kuhel leaped to one of the best circuits in the country. He would spend parts of five seasons in The City of Fountains, which was fine with him.
“Young players should never attempt to make the big leagues without the benefit of three or four years in the minors,” Kuhel said. “Too many times they fail to make the grade and their spirit is broken. But with the necessary ability, seasoned minor leaguers have a better chance to stick when they do graduate.”
Before George Brett four decades later, Kuhel was possibly the most popular player to ever wear a Kansas City uniform on a diamond. In five years with the Blues, he never batted below .325, and his excellent defense at first base drew cheers from the locals.
On July 29, 1930, Kuhel’s contract was purchased by the Washington Senators for the lofty sum of $65,000, the largest amount Clark Griffith had ever spent on a minor league prospect. The Washington Post reported: “In Kuhel, the Nats have acquired the outstanding player in the American Association, according to glowing reports forwarded to the Washington owner by scout Joe Engel, who has had the first baseman under observation for weeks and unhesitatingly declares him to be the best first baseman in the country.” At the time, Kuhel was hitting .372 with a league-best 12 triples. The move was a bit puzzling in retrospect, since the Senators had Joe Judge, who was batting over .330 at the time, ensconced at first. Also on the Washington roster was a touted young first sacker named Art Shires, who had been acquired from the White Sox just six weeks earlier. Shires, a powerfully built Texan dubbed “Art the Great” by admiring minor league fans, was never able to nudge the veteran Judge from the lineup and was released later that season.
Two days after his contract was purchased, 24-year old Kuhel made his big league debut, but with Judge playing well, the rookie saw little action during the 1930 campaign. In 18 games, Kuhel batted .286 and displayed decent extra-base power, slugging three triples — his specialty. The next spring, Kuhel was with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, “on-loan” and under orders to be recalled to Washington if needed. In May, when Judge suddenly collapsed on the field in Boston, Kuhel had the chance he needed to make the first base job his own. For at least five years, the Senators had been seeking a replacement for Judge, who was popular and handy around the bag, but lacked long-range pop in his bat.
The Post reported on May 16, 1931: “Of all the first sackers who have tried to oust Joe Judge from his job as regular, Joe Kuhel appears to have the best chance and, at that, he has a big advantage over his predecessors. Being the latest of the challengers, he not only can count on more help from ‘Father Time’ in slowing Judge up, but the popular veteran is recuperating from an acute appendicitis operation.”
In his first game in a Senator uniform in 1931, Kuhel doubled in two runs in a 6-2 victory. Judge never did return from his appendectomy that season, and Kuhel appeared in 139 games, batting .269 with eight homers and 85 RBI as a rookie.
That first full season, Kuhel suffered from comparisons to Judge, who was regarded as one of the finest fielding first baseman of his time, but within a few years, Kuhel had won respect with his glovework. A much larger man than Judge, Washington infielders enjoyed throwing to Kuhel, who was a good target at the bag.
In 1932, manager Walter Johnson awarded the first base job to Kuhel in spring training, while Judge was rumored to be dealt to Detroit. That trade fell through, but Kuhel started the season at first base and maintained the starting job for the first two months. Then, with Kuhel struggling in the .260s, 38-year old Judge returned from the bench. But Judge’s best days were behind him, and Kuhel was back in the lineup in August. When the season ended, Kuhel had played 85 games at first, Judge had played 78, and both had posted mediocre offensive numbers. Kuhel hit .291 but failed to provide the power Johnson and Griffith wanted. Nonetheless, he was back at first in 1933, when he enjoyed a breakout season.
The 1933 Senators relied heavily on their pitching and defense. The club paced the league in fielding while committing 17 fewer errors than any other team. Offensively, the Nats led the AL with a .287 average, and despite being severely out-homered by the Yankees and A’s, Washington won the pennant by seven games. Kuhel was instrumental to the team’s success: his .322 average was second on the team to outfielder Heinie Manush, and his 107 RBI were second to shortstop Joe Cronin. Buddy Myer, Fred Schulte, and Goose Goslin set the table, and Cronin, Manush, and Kuhel drove them in. Called “the most dangerous sixth-place hitter in the league” by manager Cronin, Kuhel’s 11 home runs led the club. He also drew raves for his baserunning, clutch hitting, and glovework at the initial bag. That year, “Joe Cool” committed just seven miscues at first base.
The highlight of Kuhel’s season came on September 21, when he raced in to score at Griffith Stadium for a walkoff victory. The win clinched the pennant for the Senators, their first in eight seasons.
Unfortunately, in the World Series, the Senators were shackled by the pitching staff of the New York Giants. In a five-game loss, the Senators batted just .214, with six extra-base hits. Kuhel hit a dismal .150 with just three singles to his credit. It was the only chance he ever got at the post-season.
Kuhel seemed headed to another solid season in 1934, but then, on July 18, he suffered a broken ankle in a game against the Detroit Tigers. In a freak play, he suffered the injury trying to avoid hurting Detroit second baseman Charlie Gehringer as Kuhel attemped to steal second base. “The catcher’s throw brought Charley right between me and the sack,” Joe said. “I had already started my slide and tried to use my left leg as a brake. It caught in the dirt, bent under me, and snapped. If Gehringer had not been between me and the base, as he was, the accident never would have happened. And if I hadn’t tried to check myself, I probably would have spiked Gehringer.” Kuhel was out for the remainder of the season, his batting average frozen at .289 with three homers in 63 games. With injuries to other key players, and the collapse of their pitching staff, the Senators sank to seventh place in 1934.
Kuhel was healthy in 1935, but inconsistent, hitting .261 in 151 games. The next year, he moved up in the order and posted a career-best 118 RBI, while hitting .321 with 16 homers. Hampered by playing in Griffith Stadium most of his career, Kuhel’s power numbers were never as good as they may have been in a park with less cavernous alleys. For his career, he slugged .395 at Griffith Stadium, as opposed to .420 elsewhere.
After finishing sixth in AL Most Valuable Player voting in 1936, Kuhel slumped in 1937, batting .283 with a slugging percentage more than 100 points lower. A month before the 1938 season was to begin, the Senators traded Kuhel to the Chicago White Sox for slugging first baseman Zeke Bonura, in a swap of players with dissimilar skills. Bonura was a sloth-footed, power-hitter with little interest in honing his defensive skills. Kuhel was the most respected defensive first baseman in the loop. Chicago fans, who adored Zeke’s zany antics and long home runs, balked at the deal. In Kuhel’s first game against his former mates, he laced a game-winning double to defeat the Senators.
In six years with the Sox, Kuhel made the fans forget Bonura, who played just three more seasons in the big leagues. In the more forgiving Comiskey Park, Kuhel hit for power, averaging 18 homers from 1939-1941, and tying Bonura’s franchise record with 27 circuit blows in 1940.
It was while he was in a White Sox uniform that Kuhel had an infamous run-in with Tiger first baseman Hank Greenberg, who battled anti-semitism in the big leagues. Prior to a game in Detroit, Kuhel promised his teammates that he would get the best of Greenberg, one way or another. During the contest, Kuhel jockeyed Greenberg from the bench with anti-semitic insults. A few of Kuhel’s Chicago teammates suggested that if Kuhel reached base he should take a long lead to ensure he’d draw a throw. Once the throw came, they urged Kuhel to spike Greenberg. That scenario became reality later in the game, and despite the fact that Greenberg retaliated with a hard tag to Kuhel’s face, the Detroit slugger wasn’t through. After the game, Hank marched into the visitor’s locker room where he confronted the stunned Chicago ballclub, singling out Kuhel for his most stern commentary. Not a single Chicago player responded to Greenberg’s challenge, and Kuhel sat quietly and let Hank have his say. After that episode, Greenberg and Kuhel never had another harsh word on the field.
Kuhel’s best seasons came from 1936 to 1945, which overlapped the careers of Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, and New York’s “Iron Horse,” Lou Gehrig. With those three slugging first basemen in the same league, Kuhel never once earned an All-Star selection, and he suffered by comparison.
Kuhel had a large adam’s apple and prominent, fleshy ears. He had brown eyes and an “aw-shucks” smile that made him seem approachable. He loved parties, though he was not much of a drinker. Kuhel was a performer: he taught himself magic and loved to perform tricks for his teammates on train rides and in the clubhouse. His best friend in baseball was Ossie Bluege, who spent five decades working for the Senators, and also managed the team after retiring as a player.
After struggling to a .213 season in 1943, 37-year old Kuhel was let go by Chicago. In November, he re-signed with the Senators. Back in the Capital, Kuhel was rejuvenated, hitting .282 in his first two seasons back in a Senators uniform. But when Mickey Vernon returned from World War II in 1946, Kuhel was expendable, and in June he was sold back to the ChiSox. The veteran, now more than 40 years old, stepped in as the Sox regular first baseman in 1946, batting .264 in little less than half a season. After three pinch-hit appearances in 1947, when he struck out each time, Kuhel retired as a player. He had played more than 2,000 games at first base in the big leagues, with 2,212 hits, 412 doubles, 111 triples, and 131 homers. His career average stood at .277, with 1,236 runs scored, and 1,049 RBI.
In 1948, Kuhel was brought back to D.C. by penny-pinching owner Calvin Griffith to manage the Senators.
I’ve watched Joe for a long time,” Griffith declared. “He’s my type of fellow. He’s always been loyal and has always given his best. That’s the type of man that succeeds as a manager.”
Ah, but he didn’t: Kuhel led the Senators to 201 defeats in two seasons and Mr. Griffith showed his old pal the door. Not quite done with the game, Kuhel returned to Kansas City to skipper the Blues, the sight of his most beloved years in professional ball. A friend offered him a sales job that paid three times what the Blues were paying, ad Kuhel jumped at it. He spent two decades working for the company in Kansas City before retiring. Kuhel died in 1984 at the age of 77.