EDITOR'S NOTE: Frequent BCB readers may recall that about a year ago I reviewed one of my favorite new baseball books, Chris Jensen's Baseball State by State. After reading the book I've asked Chris to join us for a 12-part series in 2013 on the best players born in Wisconsin. What follows is part 12 of that series. - KL
Whether you want to consider him a shortstop or an outfielder, Harvey Kuenn is the most notable Wisconsin player born in December. Although Kuenn played 826 games in the outfield compared to 748 at short, he was selected as Team Wisconsin's all-time best shortstop in Baseball State by State, edging out Tony Kubek.
Kuenn started his career as a shortstop for the Tigers, winning AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1953 after batting .308 and leading the American League with 209 hits and 679 at-bats. He was an All-Star in his first eight seasons, five of them as a shortstop.
As a shortstop Kuenn led the AL in putouts (twice) and assists, then later led AL outfielders in putouts and AL right fielders in fielding percentage. Kuenn set career highs in hits, runs, homers and RBI while playing short, so he's legitimately qualified to be the shortstop for the All-Time Wisconsin team.
Kuenn, who was born December 4, 1930 in West Allis, led the league in hits four seasons, going over 200 hits his first two years, and he also finished first in doubles three times. He led the AL in batting with a .353 average in 1959 and batted over .300 nine times in 15 seasons, including eight of his first 10 seasons. In a strange footnote to history, Kuenn made the last out in two of Sandy Koufax's four no-hitters.
Kuenn was part of a controversial trade in 1960 when he was traded to the Indians for their star slugger, Rocky Colavito. Although he batted .308 in his one year with the Tribe, Kuenn's skill as a singles hitter did not win over fans and he was traded at the end of the season to the Giants. He hit .304 in 1962 as the Giants won the pennant, then played four more years before retiring in 1966 with 2,092 hits and a .303 average.
He later gained notoriety as an interim manager, taking over for Buck Rodgers as the skipper of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982. Kuenn guided the Brew Crew to a 72-43 record down the homestretch and won the AL pennant with a team that was known as "Harvey's Wallbangers" due to its hitting prowess. That Brewers squad, which featured Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Ted Simmons, Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie and Gorman Thomas, slugged 216 home runs but fell 4-3 to the Cardinals in the World Series.
Three other Wisconsin players with December birth dates deserve mention: Joe Randa, Fred Merkle and Pink Hawley. Randa (born Dec. 18, 1969 in Milwaukee) ranks as Wisconsin's third-best third baseman behind Lave Cross and Ken Keltner. Randa, nicknamed "The Joker," collected 1,543 hits including 123 home runs during a 12-year career.
Merkle (born Dec. 20, 1880 in Watertown) spent his entire career being called "Bonehead" for a base running gaffe he committed with the Giants in the heat of the pennant race in 1908, failing to touch second as the trail runner while the supposed winning run was scoring. Given new life, the Cubs went on to win the pennant and a second consecutive World Series, although the team hasn't won another title since.
The problem with crucifying Merkle for his youthful exuberance was that touching the base under those circumstances seemed to be an optional thing in those days. Furthermore, it's not like it was the last game of the season-the Giants played 17 more games that year (including the makeup game) and won 11 of them. Still, an intelligent, skilled ballplayer spent the rest of his career getting asked about the cursed play instead of being appreciated for his many accomplishments.
Merkle helped lead three different teams to five pennants, but lost each time in the Series. He ended up with 1,580 hits, a .273 average and 60 homers, finishing in the top 10 in RBI five times and top 10 in homers four times. He ranks as the second-best first baseman in Wisconsin history, behind Ed Konetchy. Merkle Field is named in his honor in Watertown and he is also honored with a memorial monument at the Octagon House-Watertown Historical Society.
Hawley (born Dec. 5, 1872 in Beaver Dam) was listed as Wisconsin's fifth-best right handed starter in Baseball State by State. He played for five teams over a 10-year career, finishing with a 167-179 record and 3.96 ERA. He won 31 games for the Pirates in 1895 while leading the league with 441 innings pitched that season. He won 22 games for the Pirates the next season and later won 27 games for the Reds in 1898.
Chris Jensen is the author of Baseball State by State: Major League and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites, which was published in 2012 by McFarland. It features a chapter on each state covering state baseball history, an all-time team, stats leaders, historic baseball places to see, future stars, player nicknames and the state's all-time best player.