Casimir Kwietniewski

Suppose there was an infielder, primarily a second baseman, who put up a major league career something along the lines of this:

 Year  Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
 1943   17    2    7    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0 .000 .000 .000 -100
 1944   18   27   68    4   12    4    1    0    5    2    5 .176 .200 .265   33
 1945   19  129  445   47  109    8    5    2   54   37   28 .245 .307 .299   78
 1946   20   91  291   37   75    8    0    1   22   29   36 .258 .333 .296   80
 1947   21  110  355   31   97   15    4    3   34   39   28 .273 .350 .363  102
 1948   22  145  484   47  120   12    6    5   56   69   42 .248 .344 .329   82
 1949   23  154  561   73  173   27    9    6   83  101   50 .308 .417 .421  125
 1950   24  147  554   81  172   25   11   14   78   64   37 .311 .382 .469  121
 1951   25  149  533   67  155   29    7    7   72   81   43 .291 .384 .411  117
 1952   26  150  565   65  158   22   10    6   75   92   50 .280 .381 .386  111
 1953   27  154  603  103  197   35    8   16   80   89   49 .327 .414 .488  139
 1954   28  150  579   92  181   30   13   10   79   77   43 .313 .393 .462  131
 1955   29  149  557   89  168   21    6   17   84   79   59 .302 .388 .452  124
 1956   30  151  572   93  155   23    4   15   62   84   64 .271 .364 .404  102
 1957   31  148  529   81  152   29    4    9   63   72   57 .287 .373 .408  113
 1958   32  139  467   59  119   17    1   11   51   53   59 .255 .331 .366   93
 1959   33  127  390   49  105   21    4    3   47   52   37 .269 .355 .367  100
 1960   34  102  265   33   64   11    1    9   34   35   35 .242 .330 .392   95
 1961   35   95  294   34   78   14    2   10   39   40   34 .265 .353 .429  109
 1962   36   70  174   20   42    6    0    5   23   25   24 .241 .337 .362   89
 1963   37   37   81    8   18    4    0    0    6    9   13 .222 .300 .272   64
Total      2425 8374 1113 2351  360   96  148 1048 1129  792 .281 .366 .400  106

Pretty doggone impressive, yes? Not a Hall of Famer, but a genuine star for a number of years, a rock-solid pillar of the Hall of Very Good.

Alas, this particular career never took place. But it might have, if things had gone plausibly well for the Polish-American ballplayer who made it easy for typesetters and broadcasters alike, and went by the name of Cass Michaels. The career we see above, in fact, was exactly that of Cass Michaels until mid-1950; from that point on it becomes an imagined career.

In the actual career, things didn’t go nearly that well.

Young Casimir

Still going by his given name of Kwietniewski (and if you can properly prounounce that, the plate of pierogi and the glass of Debowa are on me), the 17-year-old Detroit native Michaels was one of the country’s elite high school baseball prospects. In an era when high school phenoms tended to sign with the local big league organization, Michaels bucked the trend, accepting an offer from the Chicago White Sox ahead of his hometown Tigers.

The White Sox rushed Michaels to the majors, giving him just 54 games in the minors (in the Southern Association in 1944, in which Michaels hit .354). To be sure, the ball club’s eagerness to deploy the teenager at the big league level was partly, if not largely, a function of the World War II player shortage. But it’s also a function of just how highly regarded a prospect Michaels was. The team did have other choices, yet in 1945 it was the 19-year-old Michaels whom manager Jimmie Dykes deployed as his first-string shortstop. (Dykes did so despite the fact that Dykes was strongly disposed toward playing veterans ahead of youngsters).

Michaels wasn’t really ready to be a major league regular; in that 1945 season he struggled both at the plate and in the field. But he wasn’t overmatched. His performance wasn’t strong but neither was it embarrassing. And in 1946, with the return of the full complement of ballplayers (most relevantly, star shortstop Luke Appling), Michaels wasn’t farmed out.

Dykes gave him the role of primary utility infielder, playing mostly second base but also some third and short (and that deployment was continued by Dykes’ mid-season replacement Ted Lyons). The 20-year-old Michaels more than held his own. Even as the quality of pitching he faced distinctly improved between 1945 and ’46, Michaels’ offensive rate stats relative to the league slightly improved.

In 1947, Michaels’ development rapidly progressed. His hitting was just plain good, and over the course of the season Lyons made him a semi-regular at both second base and third. Michaels’ apprenticeship was drawing to a close, and the White Sox were prepared to make room for him in the starting lineup on an ongoing basis.

Move over, Luke

Lyons and the ball club decided not to futz around in making room for Michaels. They decided to replace Luke Appling as the White Sox shortstop.

This was, to say the least, a big deal. Appling had been (except for his 1944-45 military service) the White Sox regular shortstop since 1931. Over that long period he’d been a solid fielder and a terrific hitter, and with his cheerful, lively, outgoing personality, an enormous fan favorite. Appling was more than a fixture on the south side of Chicago; he was an institution.

Despite his advancing age, Appling had continued to play extremely well. He was 40 years old in 1947, yet he’d delivered another full-time shortstop season, complete with his customary over-.300 batting average and All-Star team berth.

Still, he was 40 years old. The White Sox reasoned that “Old Aches and Pains” was going to have to be replaced at some point soon. Why not now, before his performance significantly deteriorated? And why not now, with Michaels ready to step in?

The 1948 plan wasn’t to retire Appling, or even relegate him to the bench. Instead it was the entirely sensible arrangement of shifting Appling to the less demanding position of third base, and allowing Michaels (still barely more than half of Appling’s age) to cover the shortstop ground. Journeymen Don Kolloway and Floyd Baker, with whom Michaels had competed for playing time at second and third in ’47, would battle for the second base job.

Ah, but sometimes even the most sensible plans don’t work out. Or perhaps it ‘s just that sometimes teams fail to exercise the patience to allow plans sufficient time to become successful. At any rate, in 1948 Michaels failed to hold the shortstop job that was handed him. His fielding was less than dazzling, and his hitting regressed, and by the second half of the season Lyons had moved Appling back to shortstop. Yet Michaels remained a regular, shifting over to second base (while Kolloway and Baker now fought it out for third).

It was no doubt a disappointing turn of events for Michaels. Yet the outlook for him remained bright: He was a big league regular at the age of 22, strong enough defensively to handle second base if not shortstop. If he could regain the hitting stroke he’d demonstrated in 1947, there was every reason to expect Michaels would be a big league regular for a long time to come.

Breakthrough

In the autumn of 1948, the White Sox hired a new general manager, one Frank Lane. The rookie GM showed confidence in his young second baseman: Early in 1949 Lane traded away Kolloway, the main competiton for the second base job. And new field manager Jack Onslow confidently wrote Michaels’ name on the lineup card as his second baseman every single day for the entire 1949 season.

Their confidence was well repaid: Michaels stepped forward with a glittering performance. His .308 batting average was sixth-best in the American League, and it wasn’t a soft .308: He was in the top 10 in doubles and triples. Most impressively for a young player, Michaels exhibited extraordinary strike zone discipline, drawing the sixth-most walks in the league. His fielding percentage was slightly better than the league average for second basemen, and he led the league in assists and double plays, and was second in putouts.

The 23-year-old Michaels was the starting second baseman for the 1949 American League All-Star team, getting the nod ahead of such luminaries as Joe Gordon and Bobby Doerr.

Trader Lane: Act I

In such a circumstance, it could be seen as curious that almost immediately upon the completion of the season the White Sox would engineer a trade to acquire a young second baseman. But let’s bear in mind that the White Sox general manager was Frank Lane; this was his initial stint as a big league GM, but he was already well into the non-stop flurry of trademaking that would earn him the nicknames “Trader Lane” and “Frantic Frankie.”

And, certainly, the trade Lane struck in October of 1949 was amazingly advantageous; it bore far less resemblance to a trade than it did to the proverbial “steal.” Lane surrendered a humdrum 27-year-old backup catcher named Joe Tipton straight up to the Athletics for 21-year-old second baseman Nellie Fox.

To be sure, Fox hadn’t yet blossomed into the star he would become. Nevertheless the notion of swapping him for a workaday spare part such as Tipton was daft. It would appear nothing more or less than Lane capturing the 87-year-old Connie Mack, still owning and operating the Philadelphia American League franchise, in an egregiously senior moment. (And if it was one of Mack’s lieutenants who swung the deal on the old man’s behalf, it was a case of Lane capturing Mack being guiity of trusting incompetent lieutenants.)

From the White Sox vantage point, one can accept as an explanation for the trade simply this: Lane encountered an opportunity to significantly upgrade his talent, and even though the upgrade met no immediate positional need (indeed it just created a logjam at second base), Lane was shrewd enough to accept his good fortune and deal with its secondary considerations down the road.

For the moment, Lane didn’t worry about it. He opened the 1950 season with both Michaels and Fox on the team; Michaels continued to play every day while Fox warmed the bench. And Michaels picked up right where he’d left off in 1949, hitting wonderfully and playing a stellar second base. Through the end of May, Michaels was hitting .312 (though he wasn’t drawing walks as frequently as he had in ’49, his power output was improved), and he’d turned 36 double plays in 35 games.

Trader Lane: Act II

It was at this point that Lane chose to unclog the second base jam. He dangled Michaels—at that moment likely the most attractive talent on the White Sox roster—in front of the Senators, and they responded by offering power-hitting first baseman Eddie Robinson as the key ingredient in a multi-player package.

While one can debate the wisdom of the specific six-player deal Lane consummated with Washington, he was in the position to make it because he had Fox on hand to replace Michaels. So at its heart the parlay effectively came down to Tipton-for-Robinson, and that exchange was overwhelmingly positive. The Fox and Robinson acquisitions would be two of the most significant in the brilliant sequence of deals Lane orchestrated to convert the White Sox from a perennial second-division doormat into a strong contender.

As for Michaels, he was a 24-year-old .300-hitting second baseman, and though he would now be starring for the Senators rather than the White Sox, the future remained aglow.

Poof

Many young players of great promise fail to pan out. Thus it has always been, and always will be. But in most cases of disappointment, it isn’t possible to mark an exact point, a specific day, when the smooth highway to glory suddenly turned into a rutted path to obscurity. For Cass Michaels it is, and that day is May 31, 1950: the day upon which he was traded from Chicago to Washington.

I don’t know what injury or injuries Michaels sustained with the Senators in 1950. I don’t even know with certainty that he sustained any injury at all. But I would bet big money that he did; every sign indicates that in the summer of 1950 Michaels first encountered some manner of physical impairment that would take the sting out of his bat and the spring out of his step, for the rest of his career. It wasn’t a serious injury, not traumatic enough to put him out of action for any extended period, but instead something chronic and nagging. I suspect it was a knee, or perhaps it was his back, or maybe it was a wrist or elbow problem, or, who knows, some combination of those and/or something else.

Whatever it was, upon his trade to Washington in 1950, the terrific hitting Michaels had displayed since the beginning of 1949 vanished. His batting average with the White Sox through May 31 had been .312; over the remainder of the year it was .250. His slugging percentage had been .486; the rest of the way it was .322. He was able to improve his walk rate, and so his on-base percentage dropped only from .375 to .345, but Michaels’ offensive production overall just dried up: His OPS+ through May 31 was 122; the rest of the way it was 75.

Further suggestion of injury is that Michaels had played in all 154 games for the White Sox in 1949, and 36 of their 37 through May 31 in 1950, but with Washington he missed 12 of the remaining 118 games. Michaels was selected to the All-Star team again in 1950, but clearly that was on the basis of his strong early-season performance.

Michaels hadn’t become a bad player, but he was, all of a sudden at the age of 24, not nearly as good as he’d been. He went from a top-drawer star to a blah mediocrity, overnight.

Plodding along

Say this for Michaels: His distinctly lower level of production was one he was able to sustain with dreary consistency. His performance in 1951, his first full year with the Senators, was virtually the same as it had been for them over the balance of 1950. By May of 1952, Washington had seen enough, and traded Michaels to the St. Louis Browns, and it’s a mark of how far his stock had fallen in just two years that instead of netting a prominent slugger in trade, this time he yielded a utility infielder and a second-line pitcher.

For the Browns, Michaels delivered more of the bland same (the only difference was that they used him at third base instead of second); they were so underwhelmed that after just three months they let Michaels go on waivers to the Philadelphia A’s.

Over the rest of 1952, and throughout 1953, Michaels was good enough to hold onto the Athletics’ regular second base job (though missing quite a few games in ’53, again quite evidently with nagging injuries), but he impressed no one. He was just 27 years old, but playing in a manner that seemed a decade removed from his All-Star form of 1949 and early 1950. In December of 1953, the A’s put Michaels on the trade market, and were satisfied to accept nothing more than a cash consideration from—how about this—Frank Lane’s White Sox.

Back to Chicago

In the time since Michaels had left the White Sox and seen his career nosedive, the trajectory for Nellie Fox had been exactly the opposite. He was now fully established as an All-Star second baseman. So there was no hope for Michaels to dislodge him.

But manager Paul Richards made good use of Michaels nonetheless. He deployed him at third base, not as a full-timer, but as a semi-regular, playing roughly three games out of four, and frequently pinch-hitting or otherwise making partial-game appearances. And in this modified workload—the sort commonly given to veterans far older than the 28-year-old Michaels—the infielder thrived. His hitting rebounded, not quite to his 1949-50 standard, but close to it; his batting average was so-so, but he was demonstrating outstanding plate discipline and good power.

This might have represented a significant career resurrection for Michaels. He might have been reborn as a platoon third baseman, a supersub type who could provide highly effective service for years to come.

But we’ll never know.

Wham

Aug. 27, 1954, Michaels batting in the first inning against Athletics right-hander Marion Fricano. Here’s how it was observed by A’s shortstop Joe DeMaestri:

… Fricano was another starting pitcher who wasn’t very good. He had an okay fastball, but he couldn’t overpower batters, so he relied mostly on breaking stuff—only he couldn’t get many guys out with it.

Fricano and Cass Michaels had been teammates on the Athletics in 1953. In 1954, Cass went back to the White Sox, who he played for in the ’40s. One night Fricano started against Chicago in Philadelphia. Cass batted sixth for the Sox. The first five guys came to the plate and it was just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and the score was five to nothing with no outs in the top of the first. Then Cass came up to bat.

I was playing short and I looked at Marion. He had turned away from the plate and was looking out toward the outfield and rubbing the ball. I just knew that the next guy up was going to get hit or thrown at.

Well, Cass had the craziest stance. He stood real wide over the plate with his left shoulder facing the pitcher and his jaw on his chest. It was the perfect stance for a pitcher who wanted to hit a batter in the head.

The sad part is that Marion threw at him. In those days, batters just wore a protective liner, not a full helmet. And that fastball hit Cass right on the temple. It was the hardest I ever saw anyone hit. Either Cass didn’t see the ball or he just froze. He never moved. He just went straight down and was bleeding from the nose, the ears, and the mouth.

Fricano wasn’t kicked out of the game. (A’s manager Eddie) Joost just took him out. There was nothing done to him …

Michaels was in a coma in the hospital for a while. I visited his room. At the time he had lost some of his ability to talk and he stuttered. Chicago gave him another shot in spring training, but he got dizzy and had to quit.

His athletic career prematurely finished, Michaels returned to the Detroit area. Eventually he came to operate a popular neighborhood bar in Warren, but Cass Michaels would pass away at the age of 56, adding a too-short life to a too-short baseball career.

References & Resources
The DeMaestri quote is from Danny Peary, ed., We Played the Game (New York: Black Dog and Leventhal, 1994), pp. 265-266.

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