Thursday, September 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Win one for Konstanty

Win one for Konstanty

 

Philadelphia was remarkable in its own right. Almost unthinkably—although it wasn’t known at the time—the National League Most Valuable Player award would go to a relief pitcher, 33-year-old veteran Jim Konstanty, who logged almost unheard-of numbers out of the Phillies’ bullpen. Konstanty appeared in 74 games, threw 152 innings, saved 22 games and won 16 more, lost only seven and posted an ERA+ of 152.

-- Hardball Times

Jim Konstanty was Philadelphia in a nutshell   -- spunky, totally unexpected, given to occasional spurts of brilliance, and at the end of the day...cursed.

He was a 1950 "Whiz Kid" and when he couldn't win the World Series that way, he jumped at the end of his career to the Yankees, only to excel for the only incarnation of the Bronx Bombers during the decade from 1949 to 1958 to not play in a World Series, their 1954 squad that lost the pennant to the Cleveland Indians. He was released from the Yanks midway through the 1955 season, and a year later he was home in upstate New York, a virtual relay throw from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He never did win that ring.

That said, Casimir James Konstanty -- a farmer's son, big and bespectacled, armed with a degree from Syracuse University and, eventually, a palmball -- still reached heights that most of mortals could not dream of, winning a pennant and an MVP award and then starting Game 1 of the World Series against Casey Stengel's Yankees, still the only team to win five baseball championships in a row. 

But what's most remarkably is that Konstanty accidentally invented a job that didn't exist before he came along -- relief ace. Although he toiled for several years in the bullpen in Shibe Park in the late 1940s, his magical year would be 1950, when he stood out on a team with two future Hall of Famers, Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn -- the only Phillies squad to go to a World Series between 1915, when America had not yet entered World War I, and 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected. He set what were at that time Major League records for most games pitched in a season (74) and most games finished (62). Pitching solely in relief, Konstanty won 16 games, and his importance increased dramatically when one of the team's two top starting pitchers, Curt Simmons, was called up by the U.S. Army in the September stretch drive.

So when Roberts pitched the pennant clincher over the Brooklyn Dodgers on the last day of the 1950 season, Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer decided his only chance to upset the defending world champions in the Series was to turn to Konstanty as his Game 1 starter. How big a gamble was it? Konstanty hadn't started a game since 1946, with the Boston Braves, and after appearing in those 74 games he would now have to outduel Yankees' ace Vic Raschi. If he succeeded in his impossible mission at 22nd and Lehigh, the Phils would have Roberts throwing in Game 2, and they could have pulled the thing off.

It almost happened. Konstanty pitched eight innings that Wednesday afternoon, in the days when the nation stopped for the World Series under bright midweek daylight, and he pitched the game of his life, allowing only one run on a sac fly to a lineup that included Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra. Unfortunately, the Phillies' offense was even more burned out by October 1950 than its pitchers, and managed only two hits off Raschi in a crushing 1-0 defeat. The next afternoon, it took 10 innings and a DiMaggio homer to defeat Roberts -- and rest is history, punctuated by nearly six decades of what-night-have-beens.

Konstanty actually became a starter for the Phils in 1953 and won 14 games. By the late 1950s, after his Yankees' stint, he was back in beloved Finger Lakes where he ran a sporting good store and was briefly athletic director at Hartwick College. Sounds from this online account from a family friend that he was a good guy, too, who knew his place in baseball history and relished it:

Uncle Jim retired to run his sporting goods store in Oneonta and in the late fifties he traded in a life insurance policy to buy a small fishing cottage on Lake Otsego about five miles north of Cooperstown.

In the mid-sixties I got to know my Uncle Jim and Aunt Mary with several summer trips to the cottage on Lake Otsego. Uncle Jim would take us into Cooperstown and on to Abner Doubleday Field where he taught my two older brothers and me not only how to play the game, but also to truly appreciate the game (to this day I will go to any game anywhere--and just about anytime). We would then head over to the Hall of Fame where the director was a friend and my entire family would get in free.

Baseball was in his blood, quite literally -- today his grandson Mike is a first baseman in the Cincinnati Reds farm system. But Konstanty died too young, at age 59 in 1976. He didn't live long enough to see the Phillies finally win a World Series, let alone get their second crack at the reviled baseball dynasty in the Bronx. It must have been hard to fathom that day back in 1950 that it would be 59 long years for the Phillies -- exactly as long as Jim Konstanty was on this earth -- to get their next opportunity to defeat Yankees -- but it is finally here. Like they say down the road from Yankee Stadium, on Broadway...no day but today.

Cliff Lee, Brad Lidge -- whose job was invented on the now-buried dirt of Shibe Park -- and the rest of the Phillies have some unfinished business to take care of. They need to win one for Jim Konstanty.

About this blog

Will Bunch
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected