Top 100 Baseball Blog

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How Stan Musial Gave Dickey Kerr of the Chicago Black Sox His White Picket Fence

The Chicago “Black Sox” (White Sox) are the most infamous team in the annals of baseball. In 1919, led by the likes of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte, the team roared into the World Series and shocked the country by losing to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. It subsequently came out that eight players on the team had conspired with gamblers to lose on purpose, thus changing the color of their eponymous socks forever. One of the honest players, pitcher Dickey Kerr, never found the ultimate success he was deserving of as a player, but he did go on to play a major role in the life and career of Stan Musial, which was rewarded in a unique way in 1958, as Stan the Man was collecting his 3,000th career hit.

Kerr was a diminutive left-handed pitcher who was born in St. Louis in 1893. Despite his small stature he tore his way through the minor leagues, winning 117 games from 1913-1918. His production was rewarded when he joined the Chicago White Sox for the 1919 season. Although he was overshadowed by 20 game winners Cicotte and Lefty Williams, Kerr more than held his own during his rookie season, going 13-7 with a 2.88 ERA in 39 games, helping the team into the post-season.

Chicago fans didn’t come to truly appreciate Kerr until the World Series. In the first two games, started by Cicotte and Williams, the White Sox lost both to the surprise of many. With suspicion of a fix rippling through the city, Kerr was tabbed to start Game 3. He responded by throwing a complete game shutout, and then followed that by hurling a complete game win in Game 6. Unfortunately his heroics were not enough, as the team bowed out in 8 games, thanks to eight players who allegedly gave less than their best for pay outs from gamblers.

Over the next couple of seasons Kerr flourished as the White Sox disintegrated around him with the eight “Black Sox” players being banned from organized baseball for life following the 1920 season. During 1920-1921 Kerr won 40 games and threw over 560 innings. Miserly Chicago owner Charles Comiskey, never one to miss an opportunity to pinch a penny, refused to reward one of his most true and productive players with a raise from the $4,800 he was making as of 1921. As a last-ditch effort to receive some recognition for what he brought to the club, Kerr asked for just $1 more added to his contract for 1922, but that too was dismissed by Comiskey.

With professional baseball players having careers of undetermined length, capitalizing on making money while still viable has always been a strong consideration. Having been turned down for his raise, Kerr began playing in exhibition games with some of his banned former teammates. He was promptly blackballed by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who wielded his authority with an iron fist and saw Kerr’s actions as defiance to his efforts to clean up baseball.

Kerr was eventually pardoned and came back to the White Sox in 1925, but was not the same pitcher. He struck out only 4 batters in 36.2 innings, and gave up hits in bunches, failing to win even a single game. He stuck around the minors through 1927 before hanging up his glove and becoming a college and minor league coach.

In 1940 Kerr was managing the Class-D Daytona Beach Islanders; a remote outpost of the minor leagues. One of the bright spots on that year’s team was a young southpaw pitcher named Stan Musial. The 19 year old Musial had gone 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA, and despite some wildness (145 walks) looked to have a bright career on the mound. Toward the end of the season Musial had a freak accident where he fell on and injured his pitching arm. Although he was also a gifted hitter who had frequently been used in the field on days he was not pitching, he thought his career might be over.

Kerr stepped in to encourage the beleaguered youngster, who was making less than $100 a month and had a pregnant wife, to keep playing and focus on being a position player. Kerr later said “I convinced him that he wasn’t much of a pitcher anyway. And as a batter he was a natural. You might say Stan’s was a million dollar accident.”

The manager invited the Musial and his wife to live with him and his family as he transitioned into a full time hitter. It was an extremely generous gesture, as Kerr was not making much money himself, but saw something special in Musial. The families grew so close that when the Musial’s son was born they named him Dickey in honor of their benefactor and friend.

Without Kerr’s intervention Musial might not have become a baseball legend. He took to playing outfield so well that he was in the major leagues with the Cardinals at the end of the 1941 season and never looked back.

By the spring of 1958 Kerr was out of baseball and working at the age of 65 for an electric company in Houston, Texas, while Musial was 43 hits away from the magical career total of 3,000. By happenstance Musial came to Houston to play a spring exhibition game and saw his old friend. Before leaving he made sure that his aging former manager was provided with a little more comfort, by purchasing him a white frame bungalow in a sub-division as a birthday present.

The houses in Kerr’s new neighborhood were being sold for $10,000 to $20,000 at the time, representing a significant portion of the $100,000 player’s salary Musial drew that year. Kerr, who once claimed that he “never got anything out of the game but what it paid me,” was blown away by the gift. He later told reporters “this is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me in my life. I couldn’t be happier.”

Musial never said a word about helping out Kerr, but the story broke nationally, about a week after he collected his 3,000th hit on May 13th, 1958. Had it not been for his kindly manager he may never have become a baseball legend and one of the most respected players in the history of the game.

Kerr lived in the house he received from Musial until his death of cancer in May, 1963. He didn’t achieve the goals he once aspired to as a player, but he made more of a mark on baseball than most. While Kerr may have never gotten the respect and recognition he craved from his former owner, Comiskey, Stan Musial made sure that in the end he received his just rewards.


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