For Kubek, A Deserved Nod
By 1939, Lou Gehrig was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a hardening and collapsing of the spinal cord. On July 4, he gave baseball’s Gettysburg Address. “Some may think I’ve been given a bad break … Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Segue to 1960. A World Series break tears limb, not life. In Game Seven, Gino Cimoli singled to start Pittsburgh’s eighth inning. Bill Virdon grounded to Tony Kubek. “A sure double play,” said the Yankees shortstop,” except the ball hit something” — pebble, divot, or Forbes Field rough spot, no one knows — “and hit me in the larynx.”
Tony fell, grabbed his throat, began to choke and cough blood, and was carted to the hospital. En route, Bill Mazeroski swung. In 1965, doctors found that Kubek had broke his neck, likely from Virdon’s grounder. Three vertebrae had fused: a collision could paralyze him. Ironically, the bad break spun identity: the average guy knew who Tony was.
Retiring, Kubek, 29, was to fly home to Milwaukee. “I was going to sell [Laughing Cow] cheese,” he laughed. Instead, NBC poo-bah Dave Kennedy cornered him at Mr. Laffs, Phil Linz’s Manhattan club. The Peacocks had just acquired Game of the Week. Would Tony audition as a backup analyst? Unlike Gehrig, luck had bounced Kubek’s way. This year it will carry the 1966-94 bigs Voice to Cooperstown.
Home-Town Boy Made Good
On July 26, Tony will become the Hall of Fame and Museum’s 33rd recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence. It is an historic pick: the first analyst-only honoree. Inducted, Tony may recall a time when teams broke the bank for a bonus baby: in his case, 1954, each wanting the “painfully shy” 17-year-old who never dated in school. Papa took a longer view. “‘Forget a big deal,’” said the ex-Triple A Milwaukee Brewer. “Their rules make you stay with the [parent] club.” Dad wanted his string bean to mature in the bushes. Agreeing, New York gave him just $3,000 to sign.
In 1957, Kubek made the Yanks, became Rookie of the Year, and homered twice in World Series Game Three at — Milwaukee. “Local people called my parents, heckling them.” Next year Tony played shortstop, third base, and the entire outfield in one Series game. “Casey [manager Stengel] liked to be cute.” He was fired in 1960, making Kubek the daily shortstop. “He’ll play there, period,” new skipper Ralph Houk said, and did, leading 1961 shortstops in chances per game.
“Don’t write about me, write about Kubek,” Roger Maris told a writer. “He plays great every day, and fans don’t know.” Maris encored as MVP. He and Mickey Mantle had 115 homers. Whitey Ford went 25-4. “Ellie [Howard, catching] was a star. Moose [Skowron] at first, Kubek and Bobby [Richardson] up the middle, [Clete] Boyer at third,” said Voice Mel Allen. “Ft. Knox had more holes.”
The Yanks hit 240 homers, went 109-53, then won the Series. Tony got married, was drafted, entered the Army, and returned to home in his first Yanks at-bat. Thomas Wolfe thought he would never die. Kubek could not imagine their meridian might end. Each year Allen and Red Barber invited him on their post-game TV show. Tony appeared once: The camera made him twittery. “I was the last guy you’d ever think of going into it,” he said. At NBC, Kubek began by throwing up.
New York, April 1966. About fifty baseball, network, and ad officials discuss Game‘s first year. Strangely, its primary match — Detroit-New York, with Curt Gowdy and Pee Wee Reese — aired everywhere but there. “Blackout rules gave them the B [backup] game,” said NBC producer Scotty Connal. Tony and Jim Simpson beamed Reds-Cubs into Motown and the Apple.
A rain forecast was read for Tiger Stadium. Another report said that Simpson had laryngitis. The crowd looked at Kubek. “If Simpson’s got laryngitis and somebody thinks I’m doin’ the” — gulp, national – “Game alone, I’ll be in the bathroom ’cause I’m going to be sick.” Weather cleared. Simpson healed. Kubek reverted to the B’s.
One Saturday morning the A game was rained out. “We learned the whole network is our,” said Charlie Jones, Simpson’s sub. “I’m thrilled. Everybody’ll see us.” Excusing himself, Kubek left the booth. “Thirty minutes before the game, no Tony. Twenty, no Tony. Fifteen, no Tony.” Finally, Tony. “Where you been?” said Jones. “Throwing up,” said Kubek. “I’m not ready to go national.”
By 1968, he was. “The problem,” said Connal, “is being hidden on the backup.” That fall a good Series hop found Tony’s glove: He wowed as a field reporter. “Tony wormed his way around, but I wasn’t bitter,” said Reese, soon fired. “I just think if you don’t have anything to say, you should shut your mouth.”
Kubek had a lot to say, though at first didn’t say it well. “I stuttered, talked too fast,” he said. “In the early ”70s, Curt suggested that I work offseason on my delivery.” Buying a recorder, Tony often read poetry aloud for 20 minutes a day. One night Monday Game of the Week guest Howard Cosell began trashing baseball. “No amount of description can hide the fact that this game is lagging insufferably.”
“Baseball’s athletes top everyone’s,” Kubek countered. Cosell smirked, “No, my friend, try auto racing.” Tony was almost speechless. It did not become a trend.
Honesty His Best Policy
In 1973, NBC launched the “Celebrity in the Booth.” Kubek panned it at a network luncheon. Cosell? Bobby Riggs? Danny Kaye? A great guy, but come on.” Why not Marcel Marceau, Harpo Marx, and Linda Lovelace? Designated hitter? “Dumb rule.” Salary structure? “Complete irrational.” Replacement players? “I’m a union guy. They’d have to be called scabs.”
Tony called the 1969-75 All-Star Game, L.C.S., and Series. In 1972, Oakland’s Bert Campaneris, knocked down, threw his bat at Detroit’s Larrin LaGrow. “It’s justified,” said Tony. “Any pitch like that,” aimed squarely at Bert’s legs, “endangers his career.” Incensed, baseball’s sugar daddy, Motown’s Chrysler Corporation, phoned Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called, who called NBC, which pressured Kubek. A day later he stiffed them all.
Would Tony speak offseason? “Some guys write jokes for you. It wouldn’t be me.” National ads found the can: “I don’t need the money.” Winter meant family. “I got hunting, coach junior high basketball, and wait for baseball.” To The Sporting News, he had “really no sense of humor, speaks a little too often, and may be too much in love with his sport.” Still, “One listens, as in the 1975 World Series.
Cincy’s Cesar Geronimo reached first in Game Three’s 10th inning. Boston catcher Carlton Fisk then flung Ed Armbrister’s bunt into center field. “Armbrister interfered [with the attempted forceout]“! charged Kubek. Plate umpire Larry Barnett disagreed. Joe Morgan plated the 6-5 winning run. Barnett blamed Tony for death alarum. Later Tony got 1,000 letters dubbing him a Boston stooge.”
“It would be unfair to call him the last honest network broadcaster,” wrote columnist Jack Craig. “But he may be the most honest.” The critique still stands.
Joe G. and Rapid Robert
In 1976, Gowdy, Tony’s favorite partner, was axed for Joe Garagiola. Game‘s tone and feel changed. “I grew up with a baseball of legend,” said Lindsey Nelson. Antipodal: sport as job, not lore. “To players, it’s a livelihood. That’s how they treat it.” Vin Scully’s and Harry Caray’s menu starred wine and beer, respectively. Joe’s and Tony’s blared meat and spuds.
“A great example of black and white,” said Connal. A pitcher throws badly to third. “Joe says, ‘The third baseman’s fault.’ Tony: ‘The pitcher’s.’” Media critic Gary Deeb termed “[theirs] the finest baseball commentary ever carried on network TV.” In 1978, Kubek targeted another critic: Boss George.
“He’s got an expensive toy,” Tony said of George Steinbrenner. “Baseball’s tough enough without an owner harassing you.” Irked, the Yanks’ memoed each owner, Kuhn, and NBC about “biting the fan that feeds it.” Tony: “George likes to use people as pawns.” King George: “No player will grant [Kubek] an interview.” Tony: “A lot of owners were ready to cave to Steinbrenner’s bullying,” said Kubek. Diogenes would not.
Most Voices would kill for an Olympics. Tony’s pact forebade it. He seemed as immutable as 27 outs until Scully joined NBC, Garagiola became his partner, and Bob Costas joined Kubek on B. “I’m not crazy about being assigned to the backup game but it’s no big ego deal.” NBC’s tunicate doubled salary to $350,000. Costas roved a newcomer, not neophyte. “I think my humor loosened Tony, and his knowledge improved me.”
Increasingly, many preferred them even to Vin’s musings and Joe’s asides. Then, in late 1988, Kubek went back to a future where he never expected to reside.
Farewell, Then Cooperstown
“I can’t believe it,” Tony said of baseball leaving NBC for CBS. On September 30, 1989, he aired the Peacocks’ 981st and last Game from SkyDome, having manned Canada’s The Sports Network since 1977. “Kubek educated a whole generation of Canadian baseball fans without being condescending or simplistic,” said the Toronto Star. In 1990, he joined the Yanks’ Madison Square Garden Network. Steinbrenner’s ode spurned joy.
“Kubek’s style is not cuddly,” wrote The New York Times‘ Richard Sandomir.” His intensity costs popularity.” Ask Ken Burns and David Halberstam. “I wouldn’t talk with them,” said Tony. “Interlopers coming in to take over our game.” Ex-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth: “To say that baseball’s drug-free [as he had], the big-lie theory lives.” Steinbrenner, firing skipper Bucky Dent: “If you are really a winner,” Kubek told MSG, “you should not have handled this like a loser.”
In 1994, “the last honest broadcaster” picked up a scorebook, scrapped a final $525,000 MSG year, and simply walked away. “I hated what the game’s become – the greed, the nastiness. You can be married to baseball, give you heart to it, but when it starts taking over your soul, it’s time to say whoa.”
The moved stunned industry brass. What could he be thinking? Actually, priorities that sanity might cheer. “I want to go home [Menosha, near Appleton] and spend more time with my family” – also, in his new life, teach refugees English. “I don’t need that ego stuff. I feel sorry for those who do.” He had made enemies – and a name.
For 15 years, arguably baseball’s best-ever analyst spurned détente, “not watching a single baseball game.” Better late than never. This year Kubek will visit baseball’s birthplace. His choice is worthy of the place, and man.