By Aaron Stilley
Mystery Ball ’58 Guest Blogger
Ready for a little Bob Cerv lore?
Most baseball fans are probably familiar with Cerv, the fourth outfielder on the potent early 60s Yankee teams (and played amiably by Chris Bauer in Billy Crystal’s 2001 HBO film about Roger Maris), but in 1958, he was a legitimate MVP candidate for the fledgling Kansas City Athletics. If you want to talk Strat-O-Matic realism, his Mystery Ball stats through July 22 are .330, with 26 homers, 72 RBIs and a .615 slug. In real life on that same date: .325, with 24 homers, 66 RBIs, and a .629 slug.
Heading into ‘58, though, Cerv was a 32-year-old marginal major leaguer. After seven years in the Yankees organization that included plenty of cups of coffee but no regular major league gig, the Kansas City A’s purchased his services before the ’57 season. A full-time starting spot was finally his, but he had a disappointing year. He was looking at the possibility of being platooned in ’58, if he won a job at all. Motivated by the sense that ’58 was a now or never year, Cerv shed 15 pounds in the off-season, earned the right to remain the A’s full-time left-fielder, and shot out of the gates like a bucking bronco. Just 25 games in, Cerv had 11 homers (equaling his ’57 total) and 30 RBI. But On May 17, Cerv made the curious decision to try to score from second on a squeeze play. Not surprisingly, Detroit catcher Red Wilson was waiting for him at the plate with the ball. Cerv slammed into Wilson, who held onto the ball, and Cerv came away with a broken jaw.
Cerv said, “From opening day one I had a hot bat…And now here I was, flat on my back at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, waiting for them to set my jaw and listening to a nurse tell me it might be six weeks before I could play ball again. The last thing I remember thinking just before going to sleep was thinking over and over to myself, ‘Not me! They won’t keep me out six weeks—or even six days!’” Cerv’s jaw was wired shut to allow it to heal. His teammates sent him a gift basket of chewing tobacco and gum as a prank. Incredibly, Cerv forced his way back into the lineup after missing just three games. After a swing and miss in his first game back, his jaw hurt so much Cerv thought he’d “jarred it out of place.” He played the next month subsisting on a liquid diet and in a great deal of pain. Cerv said, “Whenever I threw hard, I thought my teeth would come right out of my mouth. And when I slid, which wasn’t often, my whole face hurt.” He couldn’t breathe naturally so sucked on an oxygen tank in the dugout. During a road trip in Washington, Cerv dumped his hotel room service dinner into a blender and sent it flying around the room when he forgot to put the lid on. Somehow he clouted six round trippers in that miserable month and still led the league when the wires were removed on June 16.
On July 1, Cerv broke a toe but only sat out two games. He hit home run number 22 in his first game back. Cerv started the All-Star game on July 8, where he collected a single and an intentional walk in three trips to the plate to go along with a “sparkling” catch in left. As a team, the A’s were off to a surprisingly good start, clinging to a winning record of 38-37 at the All-Star break, good for second place. The team success, of course due in large part to Cerv’s heavy hitting, motivated Cerv to stay in the lineup despite the serious injuries.
In addition to his broken jaw and toe, Cerv also busted his hand running into a wall, sprained his knee on a slide, and was stung by pitches to the hand and elbow during the year. “One thing’s for sure,” said A’s teammate Joe DeMaestri, “Cerv leads the major leagues in pain this year.” The toe may have been the worst of them because it forced him to ease up on his swing. Bob Cerv Night took place at KC’s Municipal Stadium on July 22nd, with former President Harry Truman and the governors of Kansas, Missouri, and Cerv’s native Nebraska making presentations in Cerv’s honor. Cerv was presented with an organ, color TV, washing machine, and side of beef.
His torrid home run pace slowed down, though slightly, in the second half. The only home run drought of any significance came during August when Cerv played 22 games without going yard. He bounced back with nine homers in the season’s final month to finish with 38, good for fourth in the AL. After the break, the A’s had resumed their losing ways, and quickly tumbled down to more familiar territory in fifth, sixth, then seventh place, where they would end the year. Still, their 73-81 record was the best a Kansas City A’s team would muster in 13 seasons, and Cerv’s season was the best individual year ever by a Kansas City A’s player.
“I Played Without Eating,” Bob Cerv, Saturday Evening Post, July 19, 1958
The Sporting News
The Kansas City Athletics, John E. Peterson
In addition to guest managing our ’58 A’s, Aaron Stilley is the creator of Royal Heritage, a great historical site celebrating Kansas City baseball past and present.