It’s Ball In the Family

With over 350 sets of brothers and more than 100 father-son combinations, major-league baseball has had far more family acts in its history than any other sport. This doesn’t include the rarer examples of nine sets of twins who played the game or the four instances of players over three generations – grandfather, father and son. There’s even a very rare case of baseball spanning four generations (while skipping two) as in the case of Jim Bluejacket, who pitched for Brooklyn and Cincinnati in 1914-16, and his great-grandson Bill Wilkinson, who pitched for the Mariners from 1985-88. Don’t get alarmed, I didn’t know most of this stuff or anything, I looked it up at a nifty feature of the site called The Baseball Family Tree, which lists all of this in detail.

The biggest set of baseball-playing brothers were the five Delahanty boys from Cleveland – Ed, Tom, Joe, Jim and Frank – who all played in and around the turn of the century, 1888-1915. Tom, Joe and Frank had relatively short and spotty careers, but Jim played for thirteen seasons in the big leagues and put up some pretty decent numbers. Ed, the eldest, was the real talent in the family though, a major star outfielder of his day, posthumously enshrined in the Hall of Fame since 1945. He hit .346 lifetime and drove in nearly 1,500 runs in a career cut short in the middle of its sixteenth year by his mysterious and sudden death at age 36.

Ed was something of a sport, a big socializer and drinker, a hail-fellow-well-met. On the evening of July 2, 1903, he was put off a train by a conductor for rowdy and drunken behaviour, somewhere near Fort Erie, Ontario. Having nowhere to go and being a bit lit up, he decided it would be a good idea to walk back to the U.S. across the trestle bridge spanning the Niagara River. Somewhere on it, a railway employee accosted him, shining a lantern in his face and asking him to identify himself. The railway man looked away for an instant then heard a splash. Delahanty had gone off the bridge into the Niagara, where he drowned. It’s never been clear whether he slipped or jumped, but either way his bizarre and dramatic death rocked the baseball world; imagine this happening today to a revered veteran like Albert Pujols or David Ortiz to get some idea of its impact back then.

There have been a number of brother troikas and oddly enough, they often played the same position, as in the case of the most famous trio, the DiMaggios, who each played centrefield. Joe, who was…. well, you know. And Dom, who was fast and really smart, very good with the Red Sox from 1940-53 despite his small size and myopic vision, necessitating coke-bottle glasses. The eldest, Vince, played his whole career in the National League and was not equal to his younger brothers with the bat, though he always maintained he was the best defensive outfielder of the three. Sure Vince, whatever you say buddy.

I thought third base was the province of all three of the Boyer boys, but I got fooled here. Ken was a great-hitting third-sacker who won an MVP with the Cardinals in 1964, and Clete was a standout defensive one who had a good career with the Yankees among other teams. The two faced each other in the 1964 World Series, with the Cards winning a close one in seven. Their older brother Cloyd is not as well-known and I just assumed he played third base too, but no, he was a so-so pitcher with the Cards and A’s from 1949-55. Given the weird names of Clete and Cloyd, it’s too bad there weren’t other Boyer offspring in the majors; we might have had a Clod, Clap, Clit, or maybe a Clepto, but definitely not a Charles, film acting is a whole other field.

Then of course there were the Alou brothers – Felipe, Matty and Jesus –  from the Dominican Republic, who at one point all patrolled the outfield for the San Francisco Giants in the early-’60s before being split up. Felipe was the power-hitter of the three with 206 homers, while Matty won a batting title, hitting .342 with the Pirates in 1966. Felipe of course went on to become a successful manager and his son Moises had a good major-league career which ended recently.

The best-matched sets of brothers were probably the Meusels and Waners, all outfielders. Emil Meusel (who for some reason was called Irish) and his younger brother Bob spent a good part of their careers roaming the outfields of New York City; Irish mostly with the Giants (1921-6) and Brooklyn (1927), Bob with the Babe Ruth-led Yankees from 1920-29. The brothers faced each other in the World Series three straight years 1921-23, with the Giants coming out on top in the first two. In 1925, the year of Babe Ruth’s famous ‘belly-ache’ slump, Bob Meusel led the league in homers and RBI. The two were very closely matched, had both power and speed and were good leftfielders. Irish had a career average of .310, with 106 homers and 819 RBI, Bob finished at .309 with 156 homers and 1,067 RBI.

Paul and Lloyd Waner both played the outfield with the Pirates, the elder Paul in right from 1926-40 and Lloyd in center from 1927-40. They were both small, fast, hard-drinking slash-hitters and terrific outfielders; Paul had a little more pop with the bat and was maybe more handy with a whisky bottle, but they were very close, Paul hitting .333 for his career and Lloyd .316. They’re both in the Hall of Fame, the only pair of brothers to be so honoured.

There were sets of brothers who played different positions of course, such as Wes Ferrell, who was a very fine pitcher, and his older brother Rick, who was a good, durable defensive catcher. They played with different teams but formed a battery with the Red Sox from 1934-7 and were traded together to the Senators in mid-1937, teaming up there for about a year. The thing about the Ferrell brothers is they present a unique fraternal Hall of Fame controversy. Rick was inducted by the Veteran’s Committee around 1984, in what many regard as one of the worst Hall decisions ever, a laughable case of cronyism. Rick Ferrell was a good, smart, well-liked catcher who played pretty well for a long time – 1929-47 – but was a marginal hitter, even for a catcher. His career average is an OK .281, but he hit just 28 home runs and drove in only 734 runs in 18 seasons; many are convinced they put the wrong brother in. Wes Ferrell was a tough, right-handed power-pitcher from 1927-41, going 193-128 in his career and winning 20 games six times between 1929 and 1936. He had a reputation for being a bit of a hot-head and a sore loser which didn’t win him many friends, but he sure could pitch. He was also maybe the best-hitting pitcher ever not named Babe Ruth, with a career average of .280 and 38 homers, 10 more than his brother hit in almost 5,000 more at-bats! Another good brother-battery was formed by Mort and Walker Cooper, who played separately but were together with the Cardinals 1940-44, with Walker doing the catching and Mort the brushback work.

There have been famous pitching brothers, the most notable tandems being Stan and Harry Coveleski, way back in the teen years; Phil and Joe Niekro – both knuckleballers – and the Perrys, Gaylord and Jim. These last two pairs each won over 500 games between them and one of each set is in the Hall of Fame – Stan, Phil and Gaylord. In all there are 25 Hall of Famers who had a family member who also played major-league ball.

Sometimes the talent distribution between two ballplaying brothers was a little lopsided, as in the case of the Bretts. Older brother Ken was a decent, journeyman pitcher with a career record of 83-85, both as a starter and reliever, whereas George was a superstar, one of the very greatest third basemen to ever play the game, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. This divergence in talent was never more extreme than in the case of Hank and Tommie Aaron, the first two names you come across in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Tommie was five years younger and played all of his seven-year career alongside Hank in Milwaukee and Atlanta, often in a back-up role at first base or the outfield, hitting .229 with 13 homers all told. Hank hit .307 and probably bopped 13 homers in a month occasionally, on his way to eventually breaking the most famous record in sports. Sometimes life is really not fair and I’ve always felt sorry for Tommie Aaron having to spend his career in such a huge shadow, although there was no tragedy involved and, to his credit, he didn’t want or need anybody’s sympathy. He bore his ordinariness and extreme second-best status with good grace and humour, knew who he was and cheered his great brother on anyway. You can’t ask more of a man than that in a case like this.

Some of the father-son combos are similarly skewed, talent-wise. As in the cases of second baseman Eddie Collins and centerfielder Earl Averill, both in the Hall of Fame and each with ballplaying sons bearing their first name (with “Jr.” after it) but there the resemblance ended; each son was ordinary at best. Or the Camillis; Dolf was a slugging first baseman who won an MVP award with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941, whereas son Doug was a second-string catcher who finished his career with the tragically sub-Mendoza Line batting average of .199. Ouch. Maybe the best example of this is the Berras; Yogi cast a bright light through the game both on and off the field, while Dale had an up-and-down career at third base marred by underachievement and cocaine problems.

Sometimes though, the sons outdid the fathers, as in the recent cases of the Griffeys, Ken and Ken Jr., and Bobby and Barry Bonds. The fathers were both terrrific players, the sons even more so. Griffey, Sr. is the only one with any World Series bling though, playing on two champion Reds teams 1975-6. Some fathers have been especially fertile, producing two good ballplaying sons, like Sandy Alomar, Sr., who sired Sandy, Jr. and Roberto. Recently we’ve seen fathers and sons taking the field together in the cases of the Griffeys with the Reds and Tim Raines, Sr. and Jr., who played a game together with the Baltimore Orioles in 2001, which is neat.

The three-generation groups include the lesser-known Hairstons, mostly infielders (grandfather Sammy, son Jerry and his sons Jerry, Jr. and Scott) and the Colemans, all pitchers (Joe Sr., Joe Jr. and Casey.) The better-known clans are the Bells and Boones. Gus Bell was a good slugging outfielder with the Reds in the ’50s; his son Buddy was a top-notch third baseman with the Rangers and others in the ’70s and ’80s; Buddy’s sons David and Mike both played in the majors. Ray Boone was a good shortstop, who begat Bob, a very good catcher, who begat Bret and Aaron, both of whom had significant careers in the big leagues. Whatever these guys had, it ran in the family, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see further generations of these clans playing major-league ball.

The most recent twins to play are Ozzie and Jose Canseco. I guess you could say Jose had most of the talent, but Ozzie scooped most of the “normal genes.” The Edwards boys were also recent and unusual in that Mike and Marshall were the twins and their other brother Dave also played in the majors. I always thought Solly and Sammy Drake were twins because they looked so alike and were so similarly innocuous, but no, they were just regular brothers. My favourite set of baseball twins are Johnny and Eddie O’Brien, who weren’t only identical twins, but actually formed the double-play combo for some of the worst teams ever assembled, the Pittsburgh Pirates of the early to mid-’50s. With career batting averages around .230, the O’Brien boys were up to this task, believe me. They were so marginal and joined-at-the-hip that often they didn’t even rate their own baseball card. I’ve seen several Topps cards with the two brothers in uniform, kneeling beside each other with bats over their shoulders, grinning idiotically out at the camera as if to say, “Don’t worry Ma, we’ll be home soon, they’re throwing us the curveball now.”

I mention all this (OK, OK I got carried away again) because just last week I completely by accident stumbled upon maybe the most obscure set of ballplaying brothers of them all. I was doing some research on an article I’m trying to write that involves the great old Brooklyn fireballer Dazzy Vance, so I turned to his entry in the pitcher section of the Baseball Encyclopedia. After taking in the dizzying stats and career of the Dazzler, my eye drifted down the page toward the bottom and I saw two entries for the same unusual name – Van Cuyk. Being about as sharp as a thimble, I thought, hmmm……with an odd name like that, I bet these two were related. Yep, right again your grace, Johnny and Chris Van Cuyk were brothers, both left-handed pitchers from Wisconsin.

Given the thousands of guys who’ve played in the majors and the mountains of data they’ve left behind, even a lifetime, obsessive baseball nut like me can only know or retain a sliver of it all, so I wasn’t surprised that these names were new to me. But as I noticed the famous team the brothers pitched for – and when – my baseball “spidey sense” started to tingle and I was a little shocked I hadn’t come across the Van Cuyk brothers before. Though not together, they pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers during part of their most famous run from 1947-52. The elder Johnny pitched for the Dodgers in 1947-9 (Jackie Robinson’s first year and two pennants), while Chris pitched for them 1950-52 (one pennant in ’52 and two of the most famous and dramatic second-place finishes ever.)

Those Dodger teams were of course famous for many reasons. A lot of it was the Jackie Robinson/race factor, the fact they had a roster of great stars and played in New York. They dominated their league, had a colourful and rabid fan base, a bitter rivalry with the crosstown and aristocratic Giants, plus they were the only team to represent a borough, albeit one bigger than most cities. Also, they almost always faced the Yankees in a Subway Series, leading to reams and reams of stuff being written about the Bums. I reckon I’ve read most of it, so much so that, not only is my memory stuffed with the names of their stars, it’s also scarred and blotted with the names of their second-stringers. At any given time and with no prompting, I can produce the names of a dozen or more Brooklyn scrubereenies. Fresco Thompson, Pete Coscarart, Billy Loes, Bobby Bragan, Eddie Miksis, Bruce Edwards, Erv Palica, Gino Cimoli, Jack Banta, Rube Walker, Cal Abrams, George Shuba, Don Hoak, Joe Pignitano, Ed Roebuck. Make it stop, please. I’m not bragging here, but rather confessing; this is more of a curse than something to be proud of.

But Johnny and Chris Van Cuyk? I never heard of either of them, don’t even know how to pronounce the name, which I presume is Dutch, or maybe German. Maybe if they’d played for the Dodgers together they would have made more of an impression, but they just missed this, their careers passing in the night like a couple of faceless security guards changing shifts. “Evenin’ John, g’night Chris”, like the Warner Brothers cartoon with the sheepdog and the wolf. A closer look at their records explains their obscurity though.

The older brother Johnny pitched so little as to be almost invisible. He threw 3.1 innings in 1947, 5 in 1948 and just 2 in 1949, all in relief. This represents his whole career, his record is a tidy but minimal 0-0, with a not so hot ERA of 5.23. Clearly he was one of those guys who got called up from the minors occasionally when the Dodgers had a severe case of the pitching shorts.

Chris Van Cuyk was seven years younger and much bigger, at 6′ 6″ and 215 pounds. He was also considerably better than Johnny, enough so that he actually started some games. He appeared in 12 games in 1950, starting 4 of them, throwing 33.1 innings and going 1-3. In 1951, he started 6 of 9 games, with 29.1 innings and a record of 1-2. 1952 was his best year, 16 starts, 4 complete games, a record of 5-6 over 97.2 innings. Overall, he was 7-11, with an ERA not much better than his brother’s, at 5.16. And then, like Johnny, he was gone, never to appear in the majors again.

So, OK, it’s a little strange that two brothers of such negligible pitching ability both appeared on such a powerhouse and in such an eerily consecutive pattern, but even the Dodgers had holes back then; the brothers might have stuck longer with also-ran teams like the A’s, Browns, Pirates, Senators or Cubs. It’s not in the least important, beyond trivia really, and apropos of nothing at all. It’s just yet another example of the odd and arcane stuff you can trip over when you’re dealing with baseball. It never ceases to delight me; there are more of these weird little happenstances in the recesses of baseball’s vaults than almost anywhere else I can think of.

Neither brother got close to appearing in any of the three World Series Brooklyn played in during their careers. It’s perhaps easy and natural, maybe even fun, to belittle such modest and marginal records as the Van Cuyks’, especially against the achievements of the big Dodger stars. As fans, we tend to lavish most of our attention and admiration on the superstars, maybe have the odd favourite who’s a role player or utility guy, while generally looking down our noses at those whose stats don’t measure up, who are found to be wanting. I’m as guilty of this as anybody, but when you step back and think about it with some perspective, this represents a skewed way of thinking.

Pro baseball has a lot of levels, and anybody who reaches even the lowest rung is a very good ballplayer, better than 99.9 % of the general population. This is truer the higher up a player goes. Guys who spend their whole career at AAA ball are routinely seen as failures because they didn’t “make it to the show”, but in fact they’re really, really good baseball players. Those that reach the major leagues, even for so short and humble a stay as the Van Cuyk brothers, are the very best of the best. This was particularly true when they played; there were just 16 teams in the majors then, meaning there were only 400 jobs to be had there at any given time. The Van Cuyk brothers are in that strange no-man’s-land, as their Encyclopedia entries show. They were good enough to play in the major leagues for a great team, but were on the very low end of this elite totem pole.

So I think about this whenever I come across cases like this; yeah, it’s too bad they didn’t play longer, didn’t get into a Series game or two, weren’t able to do better. But, they got there. They maybe don’t have Series rings or flashy numbers to brag about, but they must have had some amazing souvenirs, photographs, some great anecdotes and memorabilia that came out at family gatherings. And above all, they must have had priceless stories and memories of sharing the field, the clubhouse and road trips with the likes of Reese and Robinson, Snider and Campanella, Erskine and Newcombe, Furillo and Hodges. Nobody can take that away from them, and it’s more than most of us can say.

In my fantasy world of fantasy worlds, I sometimes wish I could have had even this small a sniff of paying major-league baseball, that maybe in an alternate universe I once hit a double off Robin Roberts or scored a run on a close play at the plate, just beating Wes Westrum’s tag. Or that l had some old faded photos of me in uniform with a team as great and heroic as this, maybe a bat or glove signed by all of these immortal teammates. I can’t complain of course, I have plenty of good memories from a life in jazz; gigs, stories, characters, adventures, friendships and laughs I wouldn’t trade for anything.

If you ever saw me play baseball though – or any other sport for that matter – you would know the odds of me ever getting anywhere near the major leagues were impossibly long. There was a greater chance that Oscar Peterson would slow down, that Tony Fruscella would play a loud note on the trumpet higher than the middle of the treble clef staff, that Sid Catlett would stop swinging. It just wasn’t going to happen, there was zero chance. As they would say in Brooklyn, “Fuggetaboutit!”

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “It’s Ball In the Family

  1. I think you made the ‘Right Choice’, Steve… Your career as a musician is longer than one would have as a ballplayer. Except maybe Minnie Minoso — didn’t he finagle somehow playing pro ball in 7 decades? (Why should I ask? You’ll know!)

    • Yeah Ted, and the bread in jazz is so much better too, tee-hee. Speaking of Minnie, you’re right, it was six or seven decades. Which reminds me, I wrote a piece about Minnie years ago and I’ve been meaning to clean it up and post it, thanks for the reminder.

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