The flashiest defensive first baseman in the American League in the 1930s, Joe Kuhel starred for the Senators and White Sox, and later managed Washington. Kuhel was a power hitter in the minor leagues, where he put up gaudy numbers for Kansas City in the American Association, but mammoth Griffith Park hampered his home run production. After being dealt to Chicago for Zeke Bonura in an unpopular trade with Sox fans, Kuhel tied Zeke’s Chicago franchise homer mark, with 27 homers in 1940. Kuhel later returned to Washington, but finished his career back with the White Sox. An inconsistent performer who struggled with injuries, Kuhel still managed to play more than 2,000 games and collect 2,214 hits in his 18-year big league career.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 25, 1906, to immigrant Slavakian parents, Joseph Anthony Kuhel aspired to be a ballplayer at a young age. “I always loved physical activity,” Kuhel recalled, “it didn’t matter what season, I desired to play ball.”
Able to attend a few Indians’ games each year, Kuhel, a natural left-handed thrower and batter, chose a role model to emulate. “When the Browns came to town I never took my eyes off George Sisler,” Kuhel said of the St. Louis star. “I’d watch every move and play he made around first base and then I’d try to imitate him on the neighborhood sandlot. He was the greatest defensive man around the bag I ever saw…”
“Young players should never attempt to make the big leagues without the benefit of three or four years in the minors,” Kuhel said. “Too many times they failt to make the grade and their spirir is broken. But with the necessary ability seasoned minor leaguers have a better chance to stick when they do graduate.”
On July 29, 1930, Kuhel’s contract was purchased by the Washington Senators for the lofty sum of ,000, the largest amount Clark Griffith had ever spent on a minor league prospect. The Washington Post reported: “In Kuhel, the Nats have acquired the outstanding player in the American Association, according to glowing reports forwarded to the Washington owner by scout Joe Engel, who has had the first baseman under observation for weeks and unhesitatingly declares him to be ‘the best first baseman in the country,’.” At the time, Kuhel was hitting .377 with a league-best 12 triples. The move was a bit puzzling in retrospect, since the Senators had Joe Judge, who was batting over .330 at the time, ensconced at first. Also on the Washington roster was a touted young first sacker named Art Shires, who had been acquired from the White Sox just six weeks earlier. Shires, a powerfully built Texan dubbed “Art the Great” by admiring minor league fans, was never able to nudge the veteran Judge from the lineup and was released later that season.
Two days after his contract was purchased, 24-year old Kuhel made his big league debut, but with Judge hitting well, the rookie saw little action during the 1930 campaign. In 18 games Kuhel batted .286, but displayed decent extra-base power, slugging three triples — his specialty. The next spring, Kuhel was with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, “on-loan” and under orders to be recalled to Washington if needed. In May, when Judge suddenly collpased on the field in Boston, Kuhel had the chance he needed to make the first base job his own. For at least five years, the Senators had been seeking a replacement for Judge, who was popular and handy around the bag, but lacked long-range pop in his bat. The Postreported on May 16, 1931: “Of all the first sackers who have tried to oust Joe Judge… from his job as regular, Joe Kuhel appears to have the best chance and, at that, he has a big advantage over his predecessors. Being the latest of the challengers, he not only can count on more help from ‘Father Time’ in slowing Judge up, but the popular veteran is recuperating from an acute appendicitis operation…” In his first game in a Senator uniform in ’31, Kuhel doubled home two runs in a 6-2 victory. Judge never did return from his appendectomy that season, and Kuhel appeared in 139 games, batting .269 with eight homers and 85 RBI.
That first full season, Kuhel suffered from comparisons to Judge, who was regarded as one of the finest fielding first baseman of his time, but within a few yeras, Kuhel had won respect with his glovework. A much larger man than Judge, Washington infielders enjoyed throwing to Kuhel, whow as a fine target at the bag. In 1932, manager Walter Johnson awarded the first base job to Kuhel in spring training, while Judge was rumored to be dealt to Detroit. Taht trade fell through, but Kuhel started the season at first base and maintained the starting job for the first two months. Then, with Kuhel struggling in the .260s, 38-year old Judge returned from the bench. But Judge’s best days were behind him, and Kuhel was back in the lineup in August. When the season ended, Kuhel had played 85 games at first, Judge had played 78, and both had posted mediocre offensive numbers. Kuhel hit .291 but failed to provide the pwer Johnson and Griffith wanted. Nonetheless, he was back at first in 1933, when he enjoyed a breakout season.
The 1933 Senators were well balanced, but relied heavily on their pitching and defense. The club paced the league in fielding while committing 17 fewer errors than any other team. Offensively, the Nats led the AL with a .287 average, and despite being severely out-homered by the Yankees and A’s, Washington won the pennant by seven games. Kuhel was instrumental to the team’s success: his .322 average was second on the team to outfielder Heinie Manush, and his 107 RBI were second to shortstop Joe Cronin. Buddy Myer, Fred Schulte, and Goose Golsin set the table, and Cronin, Manush, and Kuhel drove them in. Called “the most dangerous sixth-place hitter in the league” by manager Cronin, Kuhel’s 11 home runs led the club. He also drew raves for his baserunning, clutch hitting, and glovework at the initial bag. That year, Kehul committed just seven miscues at first base.
Unfortunately, in the World Series, the Senators were shackled by the pitching staff of the New York Giants. In a five-game loss, the Senators batted just .214, with six extra-base hits. Kuhel hit a dismal .150 with just three singles to his credit. It was the only chance he ever got at the post-season.
Kuhel seemed headed to another solid season in 1934, but then, on July 18, he suffered a broken ankle in a game against the Detroit Tigers. In a freak play, he suffered the injury trying to avoid hurting Detroit second baseman Charlie Gehringer as Kuhel attemped to steal second base. “The catcher’s throw brought Charley right between me and the sack,” Joe said. “I had already started my slide and tried to use my left leg as a brake. It caught in the dirt, bent under me, and snapped. If Gehringer had not been between me and the base, as he was, the accident never would have happened. And if I hadn’t tried to check myself, I probably would have spiked Gehringer.” Kuhel was out for the remainder of the season, his batting average resting at .289 with three homers in 63 games. With injuries to other key players, and the collapse of their pitching staff, the Senators sank to seventh place in 1934.
Kuhel was healthy in 1935, but inconsistent, hitting .261 in 151 games. The next year, Kuhel moved up in the order and posted a career-best 118 RBI, while hitting .321 with 16 homers. Hampered by playing in Griffith Stadium most of his career, Kuhel’s power numbers were never as good as they may have been in a park with less cavernous alleys.
After finishing sixth in AL Most Valuable Player voting in ’36, Kuhel slumped in 1937, batting .283 with a slugging percentage more than 100 points lower. A month before the 1938 season was to begin, the Senators traded Kuhel to the Chicago White Sox for slugging first baseman Zeke Bonura, in a swap of players with very dissimilar skills. Bonura was a sloth-footed, power-hitter with little interest in honing his defensive skills. Kuhel was the most respected defensive first baseman in the loop. Chicago fans, who adored Zeke’s zany antics and long home runs, balked at the deal. In Kuhel’s first game against his former mates, he laced a game-winning double to defeat the Senators.
In six years with the Sox, Kuhel made the fans forget Bonura, who played just three more seasons in the big leagues. In the more forgiving Comiskey Park, Kuhel hit for more power, averaging 18 homers from 1939-1941, and tying Bonura’s franchise record with 27 circuit blows in 1940. It was while he was in a White Sox uniform that Kuhel had his infamous run-in with Tiger first baseman Hank Greenberg, who battled anti-semitism to challenge stereotypes of Jews in the years leading to World War II. Prior to a game in Detroit, Kuhel promised his teammates that he would get the best of Greenberg, one way or another. During the contest, Kuhel jockeyed Greenberg from the bench with anti-semitic insults. A few of Kuhel’s Chicago teammates suggested that if Kuhel reached base he should take a long lead to ensure he’d draw a throw. Once the throw came, they urged Kuhel to spike Greenberg. That scenario became reality later in the game, and despite the fact that Greenberg retaliated with a hard tag to Kuhel’s face, the Detroit slugger wasn’t through. After the game, Hank mached into the visitor’s locker room where he confronted the stunned Chicago ballclub, singling out Kuhel for his most stern commentary. Not a single Chicago player responded to Greenberg’s challenge, and Kuhel sat quietly and let Hank have his say. After that episode, Greenberg and Kuhel never had another harsh word on the field.
After struggling to a .213 season in 1943, 37-year old Kuhel was let go by Chicago. In November, he re-signed with the Senators. Back in the Capital, Kuhel was temporarily rejuvenated, hitting .282 in his first two seasons back in a Senators’ uniform. But when Mickey Vernon returned from World War II in 1946, Kuhel was expendable, and in June he was sold back to the ChiSox. The veteran, now more than 40 years old, stepped in as the Sox regular first baseman in ’46, batting .264 in little less than half a season. After three pinch-hit appearances in 1947, when he struck out each time, Kuhel retired as a player. He had played more than 2,000 games at first base in the big leagues, with 2,212 hits, 412 doubles, 111 triples, and 131 homers. His career average stood at .277, with 1,236 runs scored, and 1,049 RBI.
In 1948, Kuhel was brought back to D.C. by owner Clavin Griffith to manage the Senators. After two terrible seasons that produced a seventh and eighth place finish, Kuhel and Griffith parted ways.