There are coaches and managers who approach baseball with a Lombardi-like focus on winning without the trademark Lombardi philosophy of striving to obtain psychological, emotional, and physical fulfillment through 100% effort. Their desire to win is pure. Their process, deadening.
Harvey Kuenn was not one of these leaders.
“Look, you guys can flat out hit, so go out there and have fun. Don’t be stone-faced on the bench. If a guy breaks a bat, laugh about it and he’ll laugh with you. When you laugh and have fun, you get relaxed,” said Kuenn, when he ascended from being the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach to managing the team in the middle of the 1982 season, according to an article by Skip Myslenski in the Chicago Tribune, before the American League playoffs. Kuenn steered the Brewers around after taking over the team with a 23-34 record; the Brewers finished the season at 95-67.
Harvey’s Wallbangers, a pun nickname, reached the World Series in 1982—the Brewers lost to the Cardinals in seven games.
Kuenn shot to baseball prominence when he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 as a member of the Detroit Tigers. “The rookie’s success is a rare example of general baseball prophecy coming true,” stated the New York Herald-Tribune. “From the start of spring training last year, a brilliant future was predicted for Kuenn. However, Fred Hutchinson, the Tiger manager, said only that Harvey would start the season at short. Kuenn not only started, but finished there, playing in 155 games.”
Kuenn played for the Tigers, the Indians, the Giants, the Cubs, and the Phillies in a 15-year major league career as a shortstop, a third baseman, and an outfielder. With a .303 career batting average, Kuenn ranks in the upper echelon of batters. He does not, however, have a Hall of Fame plaque. Though a .300 plateau is not, perhaps, an automatic measure for Cooperstown, Kuenn’s other achievements, collectively, boost advocacy for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame:
- Led the American League in hits four times and the major leagues once
- Won the 1959 AL batting championship
- Made the American League All-Star lineup eight consecutive years
- Led the American League in doubles three times and the major league twice
One argument against Hall of Fame inclusion is Kuenn’s career RBI figure—671—though one can counter that RBI is a function of opportunity rather than hitting ability. Also, though Kuenn’s career 950 runs scored is not an overwhelming statistic, by any means, a similar counter applies; if Kuenn is on base safely, which occurred regularly, a teammate must perform for scoring to occur.
When the Tigers traded Kuenn to the Indians for Rocky Colavito at the beginning of the 1960 season, team president Bill DeWitt certified the rationale. “I have a high regard for Kuenn’s ability as a player,” said DeWitt in an Associated Press article. “But we felt we needed more power at the plate and we’re hopeful this move will help us score more runs.” Tiger manager Jimmie Dykes revealed, “It was a deal in which we had to trade consistency for power.” Indeed. In 1959, while Kuenn led the American League in batting average, Colavito led in home runs—42.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 5, 2016.