From an empirical standpoint, Johnny “Yats” Kucab failed as an Anniston Ram. It’s an undeniable but brutal truth. In 1946, the year the Rams won their only Southeastern League championship, the right-hander from Pennsylvania pitched in one early season game at Johnston Field, and he was so awful, so repugnant, and offered so few hints of future potential, that the Rams released him soon after.
Four years later, Kucab made the Major Leagues as a member of Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics pitching staff. Which isn’t wholly relevant.
Four months before his lone appearance in a Ram uniform, Kucab was stationed in the Philippines, serving the final days of a four-year World War II stint in which he deployed with the 7th Army and the 103rd Infantry Division and fought in the European and Pacific theaters. The ’46 Rams didn’t get a former minor-league pitcher whom their parent club, the Pittsburgh Pirates, believed in. They got a soldier who hadn’t touched a baseball since Pearl Harbor.
Before the war, Kucab was a man of options. He went to Miami (Ohio) University on a football and baseball scholarship but preferred professional baseball and signed with the Cincinnati Reds when he was 20. Limited to only one game in Class D Lenoir, North Carolina, after he cut his foot in a swimming accident, in 1941 he pitched 25 games for Class C Harrisburg, Virginia, and two more for Class B Columbia, South Carolina, before being drafted by the Army.
Kucab pitched in only 27 professional games before the war.
The Army discharged him at Fort MacArthur, California, in December 1945. Birmingham of the Southern Association signed him, but Kucab simply couldn’t shake the rust that had enveloped his right arm during his military service. The Barons shipped him to Anniston during spring training.
In 1951, when Kucab was enjoying his first spring in a Major League camp with the A’s, an Associated Press reporter in West Palm Beach, Florida, detailed the war’s toll on the 31-year-old Pennsylvanian’s career.
“Johnny Kucab is a perfect example of how far back the last war set baseball,” he wrote. “… By all standards, Kucab could have had his first big league trial back in 1942 or ’43 when he was 22 or 23 — but in January 1942, he went into the Army and came out with an honorable discharge 47 months later as a sergeant in the infantry.” Kucab’s European Theater of Operations ribbon, the AP reporter wrote, contained two battle stars. “Kucab has been in organized ball since 1940, but he has played only five full seasons … A lot of fellows would have lost their incentive by this time, but not Kucab.”
In a sense, the scars Kucab earned on April 21, 1946, in Anniston’s bumbling 11-1 loss to Gadsden became his career nadir. The war had delayed his promising career and rendered his return improbable. He didn’t know it at the time, but when he gave up nine hits and seven runs in three innings of relief against the Pilots, never again would he sink so low.
The Anniston Star’s Jack Scott, normally effusive, wrote the truth.
“It was the kind of ball game no one would like to see again,” Scott wrote. “All four Ram pitchers used yesterday were not in shape.”
The Rams released Kucab on April 29.
Then 26, Kucab faced a question: try again elsewhere or get on with his postwar life? The man who had left college to give professional baseball a try didn’t waver. He signed with Class C Youngstown of the Middle Atlantic League, stayed there four seasons, weathered a knee injury and won 21 games in 1949. The reclamation of his career was underway.
If that Sunday afternoon in Anniston was his baseball low point, its climax happened in September 1950 when the soon-to-retire Mack called Kucab up from the A’s Western League farm team in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he’d won 16 games. The former Army sergeant with combat experience made his Major League debut on Sept. 14 at Comiskey Park, where he held the Chicago White Sox scoreless in five innings of relief, giving up only four hits.
Johnston Field was well in his past.
Two weeks later on the season’s final day, Kucab tossed a complete game in a 5-3 win over the Washington Senators at Shibe Park, eternally recording the former Anniston cast-off as the final pitcher to throw for Mack, the legendary Hall of Fame manager.
And yet, Kucab received no guarantee of a roster spot in 1951.
“I hope to make it,” he told the AP that spring.
He did. In fact, he pitched in 30 games for Philadelphia that season and 25 more in 1952. When the New York Yankees bought his contract from the abysmal A’s in January 1953, it may have seemed a bit surreal — a curveballer derailed by war, discarded by a Southeastern League team, now desired by the game’s most iconic franchise.
Kucab never pitched for the Yankees. They sent him to Birmingham, their Class AA team, that spring. Barons manager Mayo Smith didn’t mind. “I was impressed by Kucab’s work,” he said one day that March. “He showed the fine control that I heard he had. And from what I saw today, I think Johnny will be a big help to us.” He rose to New York’s Class AAA team, the Kansas City Blues, that summer and pitched for them the following year. When the franchise relocated to Denver to make room for the Athletics’ move to Kansas City, Kucab went with it to Colorado. He played four seasons with the Bears, giving him six seasons with the Yankees’ top farm team but not pinstripe call-up.
Though 38, he likely would have had a seventh season with Denver had he not been severely injured in an accident in Campbell, Ohio, that December. When his car skidded on a icy road, down a hill and into a telephone pole, Kucab’s career essentially ended. Among with a fractured jaw, a broken nose and a concussion, his right shoulder and arm were “black from the shoulder to the elbow,” he told the Scrantonian-Tribune in Pennsylvania, and his weight dipped more than 25 pounds because he couldn’t eat solid food.
Kucab never again pitched in professional baseball. He won 133 games in 15 seasons, going 5-5 in the Majors with the A’s.
Likewise, Cooperstown never beckoned. But in 1976, when the Scranton Area Sports Hall Of Fame planned his induction, Kucab’s older brother, Stanley Kucab, donated a baseball to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It was the baseball used for the final out of Mack’s career, given to him years earlier by the pitcher — his brother — who threw it.
The Scranton hall inducted Kucab in September. Seven months later, on May 26, 1977, Johnny Kucab died of a heart attack at age 57. He’s buried in St. John the Baptist Cemetery in Campbell, Ohio.