Saturday, May 9, 2015

May 9, 1949: War Hero Eddie Kazak Slams The Dodgers

     On May 9, 1949, a pair of rookies led the way to a 14-5 victory, as the Cardinals steamrolled the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Eight different players picked up hits for the Redbirds. However, it was a pair of rookies that led the charge: third baseman Tommy Glaviano picked up three hits, which included a single, a double, and a three-run homer in the third that put the Birds up 6-1, while Kazak knocked in five men, which included an eighth inning grand slam that buried Dem Bums from Brooklyn. The grand slam artist was also a war hero that knew he was lucky to be standing on that diamond as he was about to embark on an All Star campaign.

     Kazak finished that day with five ribbies and three runs scored. He was top hitter in the National League with a .389 average, and it would balloon to .397 before it gradually began to come down. He caught the attention of the fans and would get the nod to start the game. He picked up two hits in the contest as he stood next to some of the greatest to ever player the game  Less than two weeks later disaster struck when he tried to take second base in another game against the Dodgers and broke his ankle.

     However, his career ended up being derailed by a broken ankle that came just 11 days after that All Star game was played. Kazak hit .304 during the injury-shortened year 1949,  he then returned to the club in 1950 and saw his average dip to .256, which led to him becoming a bench player. He played in just 16 more games for the Birds, before being sold to the Reds in May of 1952, where he played in 13 more before being sold to the Detroit Tigers in early July. Eddie Kazak's days in the majors were over. He received an invite to Spring Training in '53, but broke his hand before the end of camp. He spent seven seasons in the minors before hanging up the cleats.

     While Kazak's moment in the sun was brief, his story is truly remarkable. He grew up in Muse, Pennsylvania, which is just 30 miles away from where Stan The Man grew up in Donora. His last name had been Tkaczuk, but he had changed it because people had a hard time pronouncing it. His father was a coal miner and after graduating high school Eddie would end up in the mines as well. He nearly lost his life in 1940, when a mine car carrying some crew members came around a bend too fast, flew off the track, and pinned him against a wall. Lucky to walk away from the incident, Kazak found a ticket out of there by playing ball on team that was organized by the other miners. During that time he was approached by a scout that offered him $75 a week to play the game. He had been making $25 a week up to that point, so one could imagine he was an excited young man who had more money in his pocket and a major league dream in his head.

     He spent one year with an independent club by the name of the Valdosta Trojans of  the Georgia-Florida League and hit an impressive .292. In 1941, Kazak's contract was purchased by the Cardinals. He did not disappoint, as he hit .378 for the Albany affiliate who also called the Georgia-Florida League home. Kazak began to climb the ladder in 1942, then duty called. Eddie Kazak was off to war and he would be lucky to return, as he was nearly killed by an enemy soldier who stabbed him with a bayonet. I would imagine the other soldier did not live to tell the tale. Lucky to survive that attack, Eddie had his elbow crushed while under mortar fire in Brest, France. He spent the next 18 months in hospitals as doctors tried to repair the elbow by inserting a plastic piece to replace lost, as well as, trying to restore movement to fingers that had been paralyzed on his hand  It looked like he would never be helping any team win a ballgame ever again. His doctors even told him to put his days on the diamond behind him.

      Eddie Kazak was not hearing it. He refused to let the dream go. Despite pain and discomfort, Kazak worked his way back to the diamond. He joined the Cardinals Class A affiliate in 1946, then jumped to Triple A in 1947, before getting the call late in 1948. He found an opportunity at third base as Whitey Kurowski's career was coming to an abrupt end, due to arm issues of his own. When he was inserted in the lineup during the fifth game of the '49 campaign Kazak made the most of it, hitting safely in 11 straight games. As he found his name splashed across the  headlines. He looked to be a star in the making.

     While his star shined briefly, Eddie Kazak lived a long fulfilling life, had a family, and eventually retired from a job with the postal service in 1984. In his brief time in the majors he hit .273 with 11 home runs. One of those dingers was a grand slam that put the Dodgers to bed. It would be the lone grand slam of his career.  It had to be a thrill as he made the round trip. He was living the dream.

Check out the box score here:
Eddie Kazak passed away in 1999. He was much more than a ballplayer; he was a war hero. Thank you to all of our veterans. Past, present, and future.


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