Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Remembering Steve Kraly

With the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals playing spring training games and the beginning of the major league season just a few short weeks away, it seemed an opportune time to look back at a time when baseball was undeniably our national pastime and the boys of summer played games in southwest Missouri.

The name Steve Kraly only passes the major league baseball record books as a fleeting notation, as he pitched a handful of games, including three starts, after being called up from Binghamton for the New York Yankees' 1953 stretch drive.

Kraly's best major league game was a loss, as he went the route, giving up only one run to Cleveland. The problem was, his opponent, future Hall-of-Famer Bob Lemon pitched a shutout for the Indians.

That year was the only year Steve Kraly spent in the major leagues, as he compiled an 0-1 record with a save, but he earned a World Series ring as the Yankees won the world championship for the fifth straight year, a feat that had never been equaled.

When Kraly died last week at age 86, his obituary barely touched on the year when the soft-tossing lefty was the toast of southwest Missouri. At age 21, Kraly dominated hitters as he posted an 18-6 record for the Joplin Miners.

It couldn't have been easy for Kraly to maintain his concentration since his roommate for the season, a Commerce, Oklahoma, native named Mickey Mantle, was already well on his way to becoming a legend at the art of drinking and carousing following games.

Mantle, who later became superb outfielder, was anything but as the Miners' shortstop, as Kraly related during an interview with baseball historian Nick Diunte in 2011:

“If there was an infield pop-up, we’d tell him to get out of the way! He had such a strong arm, when he threw to first, nobody sat in the box seats behind first base.”

With the stellar season at Joplin behind him, Kraly was considered a cinch to make a major league roster in 1951, having spent a short time with the Yankees in 1949, but while Mantle was breaking in with the major league team, Kraly was heading for Korea for a two-year stint.

When he returned from serving his country, Kraly pitched better than ever, leading the Binghamton team to the Eastern League championship with a 19-2 record and receiving the late season callup from the parent team.

The five games Kraly pitched ended up being the extent of his major league career as a shoulder injury forced him to retire following the 1953 season. The injury nagged him late during that season and kept him from making what would have been his only World Series appearance, since Manager Casey Stengel had scheduled him to start game five against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

While his brief time with the Yankees created memories that stayed with Kraly for a lifetime, he never forgot the places where he played in the minor leagues. He remained in the Binghamton area after his retirement becoming the official scorekeeper for the minor league team in 1992 and serving in that capacity for two decades. In 2008, Kraly, still remembered for his stellar 1953 season was honored with a bobblehead.

Kraly also had a treasure trove of memories from his time in Joplin. He was shocked on May 22, 2011, when the city, which had so meant so much to him, was hit by an EF-5 tornado:

“I was shocked when I saw that on television. There are a lot of nice people there. It hurts to see a town get wiped out where I was able to play and meet the people there. If they released the names, I probably could remember some of them. The people were nice; they gave us gifts when we performed on the field.”

Kraly always appreciated the fans, something that was noted prominently in his obituary:

Steve had many athletic achievements and enjoyed speaking to groups and schools and never turned down a request for an autograph only wanting in return to see a smile on a fan's face. Steve always said, "If it wasn't for the fans, players would have nothing."

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