By Glen Sparks
George “Whitey” Kurowski was a tough guy and an unlikely baseball star. His big-league dreams could easily have died after he slipped off a fence when he was just seven years old. He nearly lost his right arm.
Instead, he played nine seasons in the majors, all with the St. Louis Cardinals. He made five All-Star teams and banged out 106 home runs. Kurowski, nicknamed “Whitey” because of a thick mop of blond hair atop his head, batted .286 lifetime with a .366 on-base percentage. The right-handed hitter, born on this date in 1918, finished in the top 10 in the MVP race two times.
Kurowski did all that, and he supposedly couldn’t hit the outside pitch, all due to that ugly mishap while growing up in his hometown of Reading, Pa.
The youngster fell onto a pile of broken glass and cut up his right arm. Blood poisoning set in afterward. That led to osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone and bone marrow.
Doctors thought about amputating the limb. Instead, they removed three inches of bone above Whitey’s wrist, making the arm weak and with an unusual bend. (Baseball legend Mickey Mantle also dealt with osteomyelitis. Someone kicked him in the shin during a high school football game. Doctors gave him penicillin, which reduced the infection and saved the leg. More recently, pitcher Rick Rhoden wore a brace on one leg as a youngster due to the effects of osteomyelitis. He went on to win 151 games in the big leagues, mostly with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970s and ‘80s.)
Kurowski kept playing ball. Not only that, he started playing third base, a position that requires a strong throwing arm. He compensated for his deformed appendage by developing a powerful group of muscles in his shoulders and back.
Whitey signed with the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1937. He made a quick and favorable impression, hitting .339 as a rookie for Caruthersville, Ark., of the Class D Northeast Arkansas League. He batted .386 the following year for Portsmouth, Va., of the Mid-Atlantic League.
The Redbirds called up Kurowski late in 1941. He played with the club throughout World War II. His boyhood injury had left him ineligible for military duty. Over the next several seasons, Kurowski teamed with Stan Musial, Marty Marion and Red Schoendienst on some great Cardinals teams.
As mentioned, Kurowski could not hit the outside pitch, in part because his right arm was so much shorter than his left. He compensated by crowding the plate. That led to some bumps and bruises. Whitey led the league in 1947 when pitchers plunked him 10 times.
Also, he turned over his right wrist rather dramatically when he swung the bat. That made Kurowski a dead-pull hitter to left field. Some teams utilized a shift against him, moving the second baseman over to the left side of the infield.
Kurowski played on World Series winners for the Cardinals in 1942, 1944 and 1946. His greatest moment on a baseball field came Oct. 5, 1942, in Game 5 of the Series against the New York Yankees. With the scored tied 2-2 in the ninth inning, Whitey blasted a two-run home run off New York’s Red Ruffing to give St. Louis a championship.
”We nearly killed Whitey when he crossed the plate,” Marion said. ”I remember tackling him, and we mobbed him until he begged for us to let him go.”
The fans back in Reading loved their hometown hero. They honored him with a parade. Kurowski also did a radio spot with bandleader Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. “I got $25 and a record album,” Whitey recalled years later.
Whitey enjoyed his best seasons in 1945 and 1947. He batted .323 with 21 home runs and 102 RBI in ’45, finishing fifth in the MVP voting. Two years later, the line-drive hitter ripped 27 homers, drove in 104 and batted .310. He ended up ninth in the MVP race.
Kurkowski retired early in the 1949 campaign. He had hit just .214 the previous season. Most people didn’t know it, but that bad throwing arm always bothered him. He underwent 13 operations during his playing days and suffered from pinch nerves and other problems.
Later, Kurowski got into managing, first with Lynchburg of the Piedmont League in 1950. He skippered several teams over the next few decades, for the Cardinals, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians.
Eventuallly, he retired to a life of playing golf and signing autographs. Whitey Kurowski died Dec. 9, 1999, in Pennsylvania, age 81. He lived a big-league dream, an unlikely one at that.