NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 54: GEORGE “WHITEY” KUROWSKI
Investments the Cardinals made in Branch Rickey’s innovative farm system paid off with a prospect-rich jackpot in the early 1940s.
Those so-called St. Louis Swifties — which included, among others, Stan Musial, Marty Marion, Max Lanier and George “Whitey” Kurowski — fashioned the core of a Cardinals team that won four National League pennants and finished no worse than second place the entire decade.
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Such a wealth of inexpensive young talent also drew the attention of Jorge Pasquel, the Mexican League executive who set out to raid the rosters of major leagues teams with the lure of generous salaries.
It was Kurowski, the stocky and blond-haired third baseman, who lobbied his teammates not to bite. His words had weight, according to biographer Rick Swaine, because he’d been involved in a bitter salary dispute with owner Sam Breadon, but insisted he was “honor bound” to hold up his end of the contract.
Three Cardinals made the leap to Mexico in 1946, including Lanier. The rest of the team rallied behind Kurowski to its third World Series Championship in five seasons.
When he was 7 years old, he fell off a fence and cut up his right arm on broken glass. Infection spread through his bloodstream and into the bones. About 4 inches of bone had to be removed from his his right arm, leaving it deformed and significantly shorter than the left. It wasn’t known at the time, but Kurowski endured 13 surgeries during his playing career to relieve pinched nerves and muscle tears in that misshapen limb, according to Swaine.
Nonetheless, in the spring of 1942, Kurowski beat out Jimmy Brown for a starting role he would hold through six of the most successful seasons in franchise history.
Kurowski hit just .254 during his rookie year in 1942, but was a hero in the World Series against the heavily favored New York Yankees, who had won championships in each of their previous eight tries going back to 1926. The Cardinals 24-year-old third basemen clinched the series winner in the ninth inning of Game 5 with a tie-breaking, two-run home run off eventual Hall of Famer Red Ruffing.
United Press International reported on the Cardinals’ wild celebration in their Yankee Stadium locker room. Kurowski tussled the hair of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, while his teammates carried the venerable old baseball commissioner on their shoulders. He then shredded the straw hat of National League President Ford Frick.
“How’d you like that one, fellows?” Kurowski crowed. “Old Whitey pulled that one out of the hat for you bums!”
St. Louis won the National League pennant again in 1943, but the Yankees took back their championship in the World Series. In ‘44, Kurowski belted a career-best 20 home runs with 87 RBIs, then contributed five hits and an RBI against the Browns in the all-St. Louis “Streetcar Series.”
The Chicago Cubs interrupted the Cardinals’ string of NL championships in 1945, but Kurowski slashed .323/.383/.511 with 21 home runs and 102 RBIs, his best season as a big leaguer.
He batted .301 in 1946 and was a standout in a best-of-three playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers that settled a first place tie in the NL standings. Kurowski drove in three runs and scored three more in a two-game sweep that propelled the Cardinals to another World Series title against the Boston Red Sox.
It was another career year for Kurowski in 1947. He reached career highs in home runs (27), RBIs (104), runs (108), on-base percentage (.420) and slugging (.544). He also got hit by pitches a league-leading 10 times which was owed, in part, to a crouching, over-the-plate stance that helped him reach outside pitches with his deformed arm.
But chronic pain in that right limb limited Kurowski to just 77 games and a .214 batting average in 1948. After just 10 games and 14 at bats in 1949, he called it quits at age 31.
Five times from 1943 through ‘47, he finished among the top 10 in the National League in home runs and three times ranked among league leaders in average, obp, slugging, total bases and RBIs. Defensively, the five-time All-Star led NL third basemen in putouts three times and in fielding twice.
Kurowski was a minor league coach for years after his retirement, working first for the Cardinals and, later, with the New York Mets.
As for those 18 players who bought into Pasquel’s promise of greener pastures in Mexico, all were either out of baseball or back with their original teams within two seasons.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1942-1949
.286/.366/.455 | 5x All-Star | 3 WS rings | 24.0 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 2.97