By Glen Sparks
Was there ever a more unlikely Most Valuable Player than Jim Konstanty? Before you say “Zolio Versalles,” read on.
Casimir James Konstanty, born March 2, 1917, didn’t even pitch in his first big league game until he was 27 years old. He did this after going 4-19 in 1941 for Springfield, Mass., of the Eastern League and struggling with the Syracuse Chiefs, a Cincinnati Reds farm club.
The Reds shipped the right-hander to the Boston Braves in 1946. Boston sent Konstanty to the Philadelphia Phillies two years later. Would Philly be his last stop? Would the Phillies show some confidence in this bespectacled journeyman?
Konstanty’s baseball resume was full of holes. Going into his age-32 season (1949), the pride of Strykerville, N.Y., west of Buffalo, had compiled a 7-5 won-loss record and logged less than 150 innings.
Konstanty majored in physical education at Syracuse University. Maybe a high school team in upstate New York needed a coach.
The Phillies hired Eddie Sawyer to manage their club on July 26, 1948. Konstanty found a believer, finally. Sawyer, who had a master’s degree in biology from Cornell University, said he always liked Konstanty.
“I have never seen him get hit real hard,” Sawyer said shortly after the pitcher arrived in Philly, according to Baseball’s Most Valuable Players by George Vescey. “He is murder to good hitters.”
Not only that, Sawyer said. He gets better as he tires out. His pitches break more sharply as he goes along.
After giving up just one earned run in 9.2 innings of work in September of ’48, Konstanty enjoyed a strong follow-up campaign. He appeared in 53 games, all in relief, and finished 27. Over 97 innings, Konstanty posted a 3.25 ERA with a 9-5 won-loss record.
The Phillies were putting together something special. Following decades of sour play (above .500 just one year from 1918 through 1948), Philly finished 81-73 and in third place in ’49. The Whiz Kids had nearly arrived. Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis, “Granny” Hammer, Willie Jones and Andy Seminick led a talented, young group of players.
Konstanty tossed a nasty slider and a wicked palmball. He pitched in nearly half of Philadelphia’s games in 1950 and enjoyed a streak of 22 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball at one point.
It should be noted that this was a different era for relief pitchers. Take Sept. 15, 1950, for example. Sawyer brought in Konstanty from the bullpen in the ninth inning. The pitcher lasted 10 innings and gave up two runs. (He did walk six.)
The young Phillies (average age 26.4 years) beat out the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant, the team’s first since 1915. Konstanty pitched in 74 games (finishing 62) and 152 innings. He ended up 16-7 with a 2.66 ERA and 22 saves (not yet an official stat).
Philadelphia met the New York Yankees in the World Series. Sawyer named Konstanty his team’s Game 1 starter. Ace Robin Roberts to close out the season. The Phillies needed him to close out the season.
Konstanty lost. But, he pitched quite well. Over eight innings, he gave up four hits and one run. Vic Raschi, though, tossed a two-hit shutout, and the Yanks won 1-0. Konstanty pitched a scoreless third of an inning in Game 3 and gave up three runs in 6.2 innings of relief work in Game 4. New York won 5-2 and swept the Series.
A few weeks later, Konstanty was awarded the MVP award. He beat out, among others, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Stan Musial (second in the voting), the New York Giants’ Eddie Stanky (third) and Ennis (fourth).
Konstanty never enjoyed a year anywhere near as good as that 1950 campaign. He dropped to 4-11 in 1951 (4.05 ERA) and went 5-3 in ’52 (3.94). The reliever started 19 games in 1953 and went 14-10 but was saddled with a 4.43 ERA.
He retired in 1956, a Cardinal at that point. He was 39 and had a 66-48 record and 3.46 ERA (112 ERA+). Following his playing career, Konstanty ran a sporting goods store in Oneonta, N.Y. He did some minor league coaching for St. Louis and served as athletics director of New York’s Hartwick College from 1968 to 1972.
A member of the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, Konstanty died June 11, 1976, at the age of 59.