This week’s Blast from the Past takes a look at another St. Louis Cardinals standout from the decade of the 1940s. This third baseman played his entire nine-year major league career with St. Louis. Arm issues ended his playing days at the age of 31.
George John “Whitey” Kurowski was born on April 19, 1918 in Reading, Pennsylvania. He was the sixth of 10 children born to Anthony and Victoria Kurowski. When George was seven years old, he fell off a fence and cut his right arm on a pile of broken glass. The cut became infected and in turn he came down with osteomyelitis, which is an infection of the bone. Doctors removed four inches of infected bone and muscle in order to save the arm from amputation. The result was a right arm that was several inches shorter than the left as he grew into adulthood.
Kurowski’s father was a coal miner, and his older brother was killed in a mine cave-in when George was a teenager. He wanted nothing to do with the mines and turned to baseball. Kurowski played the game in high school and in American Legion ball, but after high school he didn’t get any offers because scouts were leery of his shortened arm. The manager of the Cardinals Class D Northeast Arkansas League affiliate finally gave 19-year old George a shot in 1937.
George obtained his nickname “Whitey” early in life because his hair turned prematurely white. Whitey hit for a .339 batting average in his first year of professional baseball. The next year, with the Portsmouth Red Birds of the Mid-Atlantic League, he topped the Class C circuit in batting average (.386), hits (209) and runs scored (133).
Kurowski played for the Rochester Red Wings of the Triple-A International League for the next three seasons. During the St. Louis’ 1941 pennant race, Kurowski was called up. At the age of 23, Whitey made his major league debut on September 23, 1941, a week after teammate Stan Musial.
Kurowski began spring training with the Cardinals in 1942, but had to leave to make funeral arrangements for his father, who died of a heart attack. After his return to camp, Whitey landed the starting third base job over veteran Jimmy Brown.
The Cardinals won the pennant and played the Yankees in the 1942 World Series. Kurowski became the hero when his deciding home run in the ninth inning of Game 5 off future Hall of Famer Red Ruffing broke a 2-2 tie.
Kurowski was an integral part of that championship dynasty which went on to win the World Series again in 1944 and 1946. Whitey was considered one of the best third baseman in baseball during that time and was an All-Star in every season except 1945, when the Game was suspended due to World War II. He hit more than 20 home runs in three seasons to set a major league record for third basemen, and batted over .300 three times. Other accomplishments included leading the National League in putouts three times, fielding percentage twice, and double plays once. He received MVP votes in five years.
When several other Cardinals left to play for the Mexican League before the 1946 season because of a salary dispute with owner Sam Breadon, Whitey refused to follow, as he felt honor bound to his contract with St. Louis. Kurowski urged other players to do the same and no more players left the team. The Cardinals won the pennant and the World Series that year, beating the Red Sox in seven games.
Kurowski’s best season was 1947, when he slashed .310/.420/.544 in with 27 home runs and 104 RBI. The home runs and RBI, plus 108 runs scored and 87 walks, were all career highs. It also turned out to be Kurowski’s last full season, as his right arm began to give him serious problems. He developed a pinched nerve and muscle damage that required 13 surgeries. That led to Kurowski playing in only 77 games in 1948 and hitting only .214.
Whitey spent most of the 1949 season in the minor leagues trying to rehab his arm. He played in only 10 games for the Cardinals that season, and his playing career was at an end at the age of 31.
Kurowski’s time in baseball was not over, however, as he began a second, even longer career starting in 1950 as a minor league manager and coach. Kurowski worked for the Cardinals organization for a decade before joining the newly-created New York Mets organization. Whitey continued in baseball until 1972, when he retired and returned to Pennsylvania.
Kurowski passed away on December 9, 1999 at the age of 81. He was survived by his wife Joan, four children, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
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