Bob Kennedy (Part 1)

He isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but his presence was widely felt on the major league landscape for decades.

He was never an All-Star, indeed only intermittently a regular, yet his big league playing career—interrupted not once but twice by combat duty as a Marine aviator—spanned 19 years, and he appeared in nearly 1,500 games. His major league managing career lasted fewer than four seasons, yet it included not one but two dramatic 20-plus win improvements.

He worked in the front offices of five different franchises, including one nearly five-year stint as general manager. Two of his sons became professional ballplayers, and one was a four-time All-Star and has since become a minor league manager.

Yet Bob Kennedy today seems almost completely unknown to younger fans. Low-key and rock-solid, a rough, tough straight-arrow hard worker who was never quotable but always dependable, Kennedy had 56 years in pro baseball that were eventful indeed.

In the shadow of the Black Sox

Robert Daniel Kennedy was born on Chicago’s South Side in the late summer of 1920, just as the explosive revelations about the fix of the 1919 World Series were hitting the newspapers. Being a South Sider, Kennedy was a White Sox fan, a street-tough Irish kid devoted to a team enduring lean and hard times. Their glory days behind them, shrouded in the shame of the Black Sox scandal, the White Sox of the 1920s and ‘30s were a perennial also-ran. Meanwhile the uptown Cubs were a consistent top contender and won several pennants.

Kennedy worked as a vendor at Comiskey Park, and he played baseball. He grew tall and strong, and his youth-ball exploits didn’t go unnoticed by the White Sox, hungry for a local-boy star to help improve their sagging fortunes. On June 22, 1937, the 16-year-old Kennedy sold popcorn as the ballpark hosted the heavyweight title match between Jim (“Cinderella Man”) Braddock and Joe Louis. The next day the Sox signed him.

The White Sox in this period were just beginning to build a farm system. They sent young Kennedy far from home, to play for their Vicksburg (Miss.) Hill Billies farm club in the Class D Cotton States League. One can only wonder how lonely and scared the adolescent might have felt through that hot and humid Deep South summer, but it’s clear that professional pitching was a challenge for him: Playing third base in 41 games, Kennedy batted .192 with zero home runs. Nevertheless the White Sox organization promoted Kennedy late in the season, all the way up to the Dallas Steers of the Texas League (Class A1, equivalent to today’s Double-A). There, the teenager’s bat showed signs of life, as he put up a .300 average in 60 at-bats, but it was powerless, with a lone double as his only extra-base hit, and he drove in just two runs.

For 1938, the organization assigned Kennedy to the Longview Cannibals (where have all the great team nicknames gone?) of the Class C East Texas League. Kennedy tied for the league lead with 14 triples, but beyond that he hit poorly. His .261 average was among the lowest of the league’s regulars (10 guys in this eight-team league hit over .330), and he hit just three homers, drew 37 walks, and struck out 102 times. But he played third base in 136 of the Cannibals’ 138 games, and led the league’s third basemen in putouts and assists.

In 1939, Kennedy was sent back to the Texas League, where the White Sox affiliate was now the Shreveport Sports. This time the third baseman hit .284 with eight homers, pretty good numbers given that this wasn’t a particularly high-scoring league. He had only 22 walks, but reduced his strikeout rate to 63 in 493 at-bats. And at the end of the season the White Sox invited him to The Show. Kennedy made his major league debut on Sept. 14, 1939, less than a month past his 19th birthday. He appeared in three games over that season’s closing weeks, going 2-for-8 at the plate.

Plunged into the deep water

Those 1939 White Sox were a pretty good ball club: Their 85-69, fourth-place finish was their second-best since the team had been torn apart in the fall of 1920. But they had a gaping hole at second base. So for 1940, manager Jimmie Dykes shifted incumbent third baseman Eric McNair to second, and entrusted the third base job to the still-teenaged Kennedy.

Rarely in history has such a young player been shown such confidence. It’s an open question to what degree this was Dykes’ independent decision, and how much it was a direct order from ownership, eager for Kennedy to be showcased as the local-kid-makes-good. (Chris Jaffe’s phenomenal research on managerial tendencies throughout history, presented at last month’s national SABR convention, identifies Dykes as one of the most veteran-reliant managers of all time, suggesting that this strategy was imposed upon him.) In any case, Kennedy wasn’t just a regular at third base in 1940, he was a fixture. He played in 154 of the team’s 155 games, handling all but seven of the ball club’s 540 hot corner total chances.

The rookie’s defensive work wasn’t spectacular, but it was solid; his 5.7 fielding Win Shares ranked fourth among the league’s eight regular third basemen, close behind Harlond Clift, Cecil Travis and Red Rolfe, and well ahead of anyone else. This was fortunate, because Kennedy’s hitting was unspectacular to say the least: He wasn’t good at hitting for average, at drawing walks, or hitting for power. His .252/.301/.315 line in 655 plate appearances yielded a paltry 59 OPS+.

Still, Kennedy’s rookie-year play impressed somebody: He received three points in that season’s American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting, tying him with no less than Charlie Gehringer and Joe Gordon for 23rd place. (It would be the only MVP consideration ever granted to Kennedy.)

But the good-field, no-hit package wouldn’t keep Kennedy in the White Sox lineup indefinitely. In 1941 his batting average drooped to an abysmal .206 (and his OPS+ to 41), and over most of the second half Dykes had him riding the bench. In 1942, at the age of 21, Kennedy’s bat perked up, but it still wasn’t good, and while he got most of the playing time at third base, he wasn’t there full time, and Dykes also occasionally deployed him as a backup in left and right field.

The bloom off the rose

Kennedy’s career was at a crossroads. While he was still plenty young enough to blossom as a hitter, he distinctly hadn’t yet. And if he didn’t, while his strong defensive aptitude would render him useful in a utility role, the lackluster bat wouldn’t allow him to sustain regular status, let alone develop into the star the White Sox had hoped he’d become.

But those concerns would have to wait. In October of 1942 the United States was nearly a year into full engagement in World War II, and Kennedy was drafted into the Navy. He was selected for aviation, trained as a pilot, and transferred to the Marines. Kennedy would be deployed in combat action through the war, though he took advantage of one furlough and married Claire Ellensohn, on June 9, 1945. He was finally discharged in January 1946, nearly half a year following V-J Day.

Kennedy rejoined the White Sox that spring. Early in the 1946 season, Dykes was fired as manager, and his replacement, Ted Lyons, decided to fully shift Kennedy from third base to the outfield. The wisdom of this is highly questionable, from two perspectives: First, even as mediocre as Kennedy’s hitting had been, the White Sox didn’t have any clearly better alternatives at third base; and second, Kennedy’s skill set seemed better suited to third base than to the outfield.

Though he was a big guy—the guidebooks of the time list Kennedy at 6-feet-2 and 193 pounds—the 25-year-old Kennedy hadn’t produced any power at the plate; if his hitting was an issue at third base, it was even more so as a corner outfielder. And though he ran pretty well, Kennedy didn’t have the range to handle center field regularly: Over the course of his career, only 3.6 percent of his outfield appearances would be in center. The one asset that every description of Kennedy’s playing mentions is his arm; it was both strong and accurate, one of the best of his era. While that weapon could certainly be put to good use in the outfield, especially in right, it would serve him just as well at third base.

Nonetheless in 1946, ’47 and ’48 Lyons deployed Kennedy as a semi-regular, mostly in right and left field, and seldom at third. In those seasons Kennedy’s hitting was slightly better than it had been before the war, but it still wasn’t good, certainly not for a corner outfielder. Approaching his late 20s, it was obvious that Kennedy was never going to be more than a journeyman.

Cleveland

The White Sox came to that conclusion, trading Kennedy in early June of 1948, to Cleveland in exchange for two players (outfielder Pat Seerey and pitcher Al Gettel) who’d shown promise but had fallen on hard times.

Kennedy was joining one of the most intriguing ball clubs of that or any other era. Under the dynamic direction of owner-GM Bill Veeck, the Indians were the only racially integrated team in the American League (Larry Doby was already on the roster, and Satchel Paige would be added in July). They had a superb infield (with player-manager Lou Boudreau at shortstop, Joe Gordon at second base and Ken Keltner at third), and a tremendous pitching staff (headed up by Bob Feller and Bob Lemon). At the point Kennedy joined the team, the Indians were 23-12, in second place just a half-game behind 86-year-old Connie Mack’s surprising Philadelphia A’s.

On this outstanding club, Kennedy wasn’t a first-stringer; Boudreau deployed him as a defensive replacement in right field, and as a pinch hitter. Kennedy would fulfill that role (and hit .301 in 73 at-bats) amid one of the most vibrant pennant races in history. The Athletics would fade, but the defending-champ Yankees would be strong all year, and the Red Sox would come on like gangbusters after a slow start. Along the way, the Indians, with Veeck’s promotional wizardry linked to a great team in a great race, shattered all attendance records, attracting 2.6 million fans to Municipal Stadium. The pennant verdict came down to one-game playoff between the Red Sox and the Indians, which Cleveland won 8-3, capturing its first flag in 28 years.

In the ensuing World Series, Kennedy appeared as a defensive replacement in three of the six games, contributing an RBI single in two at-bats as the Indians defeated the Spahn-and-Sain Braves.

A second-chance regular

With the Indians in 1949, the 28-year-old Kennedy began the year still in a utility role. But when right fielder Allie Clark slumped, Boudreau turned to Kennedy as the starter. Kennedy responded with the best hitting of his career, and over the course of the season established himself as the new Cleveland regular right fielder. He would hold that status all through 1950, and for most of 1951.

Though Kennedy’s hitting through this period was his personal best, all it amounted to was league-average (he produced his career-high OPS+ in 1949, an even 100), which means below-league-average for a right fielder. There’s no reason to doubt that Kennedy’s defensive work, particularly his throwing, was first-rate, but he was a decidedly light-hitting right fielder.

I’ve written at length about the dubious wisdom of the Cleveland decision to play Kennedy as a first-string right fielder in these seasons. The issue wasn’t whether Kennedy was a better all-around player than the slow-footed, power-hitting, journeyman Clark; probably he was. The issue was that Kennedy and Clark didn’t comprise the full list of right field options available to the Indians in 1949-50-51: A blindingly obvious alternative was Minnie Miñoso, a vastly better all-around player than Kennedy. Cleveland had Miñoso in its organization but gave him no opportunity to compete for the right field job. The Indians kept him in the minors throughout 1949-50 while he tore up Triple-A, and then traded him away for questionable return early in 1951.

The Indians’ organization deserves commendation for its trailblazing role in the integration of the American League (not only under Veeck in 1947-49, but also under the ownership that succeeded him, a syndicate that included Bob Hope among its investors), but that doesn’t mean the franchise was color-blind in every talent-deployment decision. It strains credulity to believe that a white player of Miñoso’s ability would have been handled as he was. Kennedy performed all right in the opportunity Cleveland provided him in 1949-51, but it seems clear that the opportunity itself was a function of the racial preference that pervaded baseball in that era, and indeed for a very long time following 1947.

Off to war, and on the road

Only three major league ballplayers were drafted into military service in both World War II and the Korean War: Ted Williams, Jerry Coleman and Kennedy. Notably, all three were fighter pilots; the scarcity of their skill caused Uncle Sam to call them up a second time. Kennedy missed most of the 1952 season, serving again in the Marine Corps.

Back with the Indians in 1953, at the age of 32 Kennedy was no longer a regular. Manager Al Lopez now deployed him in a backup role, generally as a defensive replacement in either right or left field. Early in the 1954 season, the Indians traded Kennedy to the Baltimore Orioles for journeyman outfielder-third baseman Jim Dyck.

Thus began the nomadic closing phase of Kennedy’s playing career. He would never be a regular again, but a succession of teams made use of him as a utility man, leveraging his sound defense at third base, right field and left. After a little over a year in Baltimore, Kennedy returned to his hometown White Sox; a year later he was off to the Detroit Tigers, then back with the White Sox a year after that.

Finally, he spent most of the 1957 season with the Dodgers. On Sept. 29, Brooklyn lost to Philadelphia, 2-1, before 9,886 Shibe Park fans. Kennedy was in the starting lineup that day, batting fifth and playing left field. He went 0-for-4. His final at-bat, a flyout to Phillies center fielder Don Landrum, ended the game, the last at-bat of Kennedy’s career, and the last at-bat ever taken by a Brooklyn Dodger.

Kennedy’s career in professional baseball had spanned more than 20 years. He wasn’t yet halfway through it.

Next time

The post-playing career.

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