The undertaker who brought Jim Konstanty to life | Frank's Place

PSRELIEF31-22062018-0001
Phillies relief pitcher Jim Konstanty.

Andy Skinner must have felt strangely helpless when, on June 11, 1976, the body of Jim Konstanty arrived at his Worcester, N.Y., funeral home.

In the past, this small-town undertaker had always been there for his bespectacled friend. Now there was no advice to be offered, no lesson to be learned, nothing to be done but ready his corpse for a Sunday afternoon funeral.

Skinner thought back to the winter of 1947, when he and Konstanty, then a 30-year-old minor-leaguer going nowhere, first talked about pitching during a long car ride.

The funeral director had never played baseball, but he was an avid bowler and pool-shooter and knew a lot about spin. The next day the two met in a high school gym, where Skinner showed Konstanty how to improve his palm-ball change-up, slider, and curve.

The pitches, the pitcher, and to some extent baseball itself were transformed.

The story of Konstanty, who as a Whiz Kid almost 70 years ago virtually invented the position, has a peculiar relevance in 2018 as Gabe Kapler tries to stabilize another young Phillies team by identifying a closer in a crowded and chaotic bullpen.

In 1948, Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer told the pitcher he’d just acquired from Toronto of the International League that he’d be used exclusively in relief, especially in the closing innings.

That was unusual strategy then. But it worked so well that two years later, Sawyer’s Whiz Kids captured an unlikely pennant. Konstanty became the Associated Press’ Athlete of the Year and the only Phillies pitcher and National League reliever ever to earn an MVP award.

1950 NL MVP Votes
1. Jim Konstanty, Phillies 286
2. Stan Musial, Cardinals 158
3. Eddie Stanky, Giants 144
4. Del Ennis, Phillies 104
5. Ralph Kiner, Pirates 91
6. Granny Hamner, Phillies 79
7. Robin Roberts, Phillies 68
8. Gil Hodges, Dodgers 55
9. Duke Snider, Dodgers 53
10. Sal Maglie, Giants 51
Also
15. Jackie Robinson, Dodgers 23

 

He never had much of a fastball. Hitters Konstanty beaned, Giants manager Leo Durocher once joked, didn’t even get headaches. But in 1950 the rest of his stuff baffled the NL.

He made a then-record 74 relief appearances that season, finished 62 games, won 16, saved 22. And when the Phils needed an emergency starter for the World Series opener, Konstanty limited the big, bad Yankees to a single run and four hits in eight innings of a game he nonetheless lost, 1-0.

Baby-boom Philadelphians grew up with Whiz Kids stories. Like many, I had a photo of that championship team on my bedroom wall. Konstanty, I used to think, looked like the young Phillies’ chaperone. Turns out he practically was.

Hardly a Whiz Kid at 33, he was married with two children, and often brought his wife on the road. He wore thick horn-rimmed glasses, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and didn’t care for those who did.

 

 

“Konstanty was not really one of the boys,” C. Paul Rogers III wrote in the pitcher’s Society for American Baseball Research biography. “Richie Ashburn remembered that he and Konstanty used to talk a lot. `We never agreed on much but we talked a lot’… Eddie Sawyer thought Konstanty `had a difficult personality.’ ”

Born in Strykerville, N.Y., in 1917, Casmir James Konstanty majored in physical education at Syracuse, where he was just the second athlete to letter in four sports – baseball, basketball, soccer, and boxing.

His mostly undistinguished minor-league career began in 1940. Four years later, the 27-year-old rookie appeared in 20 games with Cincinnati, going 6-4 with a 2.88 ERA. Traded to Boston, he threw only 15 innings in 1946 before the Braves, needing roster room for Warren Spahn, sold him to Toronto.

His manager there, Sawyer, was impressed enough by the changes Skinner helped the pitcher make that soon after getting the Phillies job in 1948, his team obtained Konstanty. In 53 games in 1949, the relief specialist went 9-5.

By then, Konstanty was dependent on Skinner. Whenever he needed a fine-tuning, he summoned the undertaker to Philadelphia or some road city. Sawyer gave them remarkable leeway.

Sometimes before games, Skinner would stand in the bullpen, behind catcher Andy Seminick, and watch Konstanty throw, offering suggestions or changing his grip. He was such a frequent presence in the box seats behind Shibe Park’s visitors dugout, from where he counseled the reliever, that radio announcers noted his presence.

“Jim wouldn’t listen to anybody but him,” Maje McDonnell, the late Phillies coach, said in 1990. “Us coaches, we stayed away. It was kind of crazy. I mean, an undertaker? But it worked so we were all like, `Let it go.’ ”

As 1950 progressed, the pitching-thin Phils increasingly relied on the rubber-armed Konstanty. And the more he worked, the better he got. In one stretch of July and August, he allowed no runs in 22 1/3 innings, gave up a home run to Ralph Kiner — in a nine-inning relief stint — then followed that with 24 more scoreless innings.

For whatever reason, the magic stopped after that Game 1 Series loss. And for his career’s final six years – with the Phillies, Yankees, and Cardinals – even Skinner couldn’t rekindle it.

Konstanty returned to Oneonta, N.Y., where he’d taught high school and refereed. He operated a successful sporting-goods store and coached briefly in the minors. In 1967, he was named athletic director at Hartwick College, transforming that small school into a national soccer power.

Cruelly, the teetotaler had cancer of the liver, which  was diagnosed in the winter of 1976. He was dead before summer.

On Sunday afternoon, June 13, viewers lined up outside Andy Skinner’s Main Street funeral home to pay their respects to a man who’d nearly done the impossible, who’d almost pitched the long-suffering Phillies to a first World Series championship.

Four years later, of course, the Phillies finally got that long-sought title, and Konstanty and Skinner deserve some credit.

As a minor-league pitching coach with the Yankees and Cardinals from 1962 through 1966, Konstanty, utilizing tips from Skinner, helped young St. Louis pitchers develop sliders.

One of his best students was a lanky lefthander.

His name was Steve Carlton.