Friday, November 21, 2014

Philography: Jim Konstanty

Based on physical appearance, Jim Konstanty is one of the least likely looking winners of the National League Most Valuable Player award. But for the incredible ‘Whiz Kids’ team of 1950, that is exactly what the Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher became.
The right-hander pitched in parts of 13 big league seasons, 7 of those in Philly. The story of this bespectacled young man’s rise from the western New York farmland to MLB All-Star and MVP is worth knowing by any true Phils fan.
His real full name was Casimir James Konstanty, and he was born towards the tail end of World War I in the western New York farm country, raised there not far from Buffalo. In 1939 he graduated from Syracuse University, where he played basketball from 1936-39. His degree was in Physical Education, and so he then went to work as a P.E. instructor.
In 1941, already aged 24, the newlywed Konstanty tried out for and made the roster of the unaffiliated Eastern League baseball team in Springfield, Illinois. He didn’t have a lot of success as a pitcher, but showed enough that he was given a chance the following season with the Cincinnati Reds AA farm team in Syracuse.
Over the next couple of seasons his pitching improved, and in 1944 he was called up to Cincinnati. He had a nice rookie season with the Reds at age 27, going 6-4 over 112.2 innings spread over 20 games, including 12 starts, with 5 complete games and a 2.80 ERA.
In 1945, Konstanty entered the U.S. Navy towards the end of World War II, and missed the entire baseball season as a result. Coming back in 1946, he was dealt prior to the season to the Boston Braves. He pitched in Boston through early May, but was then sent to the minors. He would pitch at AAA-Toronto into the 1948 season.
In September of 1948, the Phillies, who had taken over the Toronto affiliate from Boston, finally gave Konstanty another shot at the big leagues. He rewarded the Phils by pitching well in 9 late season outings, and set himself up for a regular role in the 1949 season.

The Phillies had been one of the worst organizations in all of baseball for decades entering that 1949 season. But with some new blood, the team seemed to be making progress at long last. They finished that final season of the war-torn 40’s with a winning 81-73 record. It was just the club’s 2nd winning record since 1917.
Konstanty was a big part of the Phils sudden success. At age 32, the righty fashioned a 3.25 ERA in 97 innings across 90 appearances. His slider and changeup had developed to the point where they were true weapons, and he proved to be one of the top relief specialists in the game in what was a breakout season for both him and the team.
The 1950 season dawned full of hope for the Fightin’ Phils. Manager Eddie Sawyer had a young club that had challenged the season before, and that many thought had a chance to be very competitive once again. Their spirited play earned them the nickname ‘The Whiz Kids’, with the kids part a nod to their youth.
Eddie Sawyer1 in CardHolder 2

That 1950 club had 23-year old Richie Ashburn manning centerfield alongside 24-year old Del Ennis. 24-year old 3rd baseman Willie Jones and 23-year old shortstop Granny Hamner also started for the club. 
Even the veterans in the starting lineup: outfielder Dick Sisler, catcher Andy Seminick, and 2nd baseman Mike Goliat, were all still in their 20’s. Only 1st baseman Eddie Waitkus, at exactly 30 years of age, had exited his 20’s.
On the mound, the Phils started 23-year old righty Robin Roberts and 20-year old lefty Curt Simmons as their 1-2 in the rotation, with 23- year old Bob Miller and 26-year old Russ Meyer seeing regular action. At age 33, Jim Konstanty was an old man compared to this wet-behind-the-ears bunch.
These young Phillies got hot in early May to move well above the .500 mark, and then as the summer wore on, they took over first place in the National League. With a hot month during the dog days of August, they stretched their lead out to a steady half-dozen games. By as late as September 20th, the Phils led the N.L. by 7 1/2 games, and their first World Series since 1915 seemed a sure thing.
But then the combination of the pressure of what they were trying to finish, combined with a sudden burst from the talented Brooklyn Dodgers, saw the lead shrink. A 4-10 stretch in the final two weeks collapsed the once-safe lead down to a single game, with the Phillies and Dodgers squaring off head-to-head. The Phils would finally pull out a dramatic extra-inning victory in Brooklyn to clinch the Pennant.
Konstanty was the single most irreplaceable piece to that Pennant-winning club. The reliever took his game to another level, and Sawyer rode him hard. He pitched an incredible 152 relief innings allowing just 108 hits that season over 74 games, registering 22 Saves with a 2.66 ERA and 1.039 WHIP.
When the time came for voting for the National League’s Most Valuable Player award, Konstanty easily out-polled Saint Louis Cardinals outfielder Stan Musial and New York Giants 2nd baseman Eddie Stanky. He received 18 of 24 first place votes. Ennis (4), Hamner (6), and Roberts (7) all finished in the MVP top 10 of the voting results.
The Phillies moved into the World Series against the perennial power New York Yankees. Having burned out his starters in the final drive to the NL Pennant, Sawyer turned to his workhorse MVP Konstanty to start the opening game after the righty had not started a single game all season.
Konstanty delivered a tour-de-force performance against the powerful Yankees lineup. In that opener, Konstanty went 8 innings, allowing just 4 hits. The Yanks scored in the 4th on a leadoff double by 3rd baseman Bobby Brown, who then scored thanks to consecutive sacrifice flies.
Unfortunately for Konstanty and the Phillies, his masterful effort was one-upped by the Yanks’ Vic Raschi. The righty had won 21 games that season, and in this World Series opener he shutout the Phils on just 2 hits. The 1-0 victory put New York up 1-0 in the Fall Classic.
After two more tight losses to the Yankees by scores of 2-1 and 3-2, the Phillies were frustrated and had their backs to the wall. Sawyer again called on Konstanty to start the 4th game. This time the Yanks got to him early, scoring 2 runs in the 1st inning. Yogi Berra led off the 6th with a solo homer, and then New York added 2 more for a 5-0 lead. They would win 5-2 to take the World Series in four straight games.
In both 1951 and 1952, Konstanty continued to be a workhorse out of the Phillies bullpen. The ’51 team disappointed, falling back to losing ways. But in 1952 the team rebounded to finish with 87 wins, 20 games over the .500 mark. However, it was only good enough for 4th place.
1953 was an interesting season for both the team and for Konstanty. He was moved into the rotation frequently, getting a career-high 19 starts and pitching a career-most 170.2 innings at age 36. He went 14-10 with a 4.43 ERA, while also pitching 29 games out of the bullpen and registering 5 Saves. The team moved up to 3rd place, but it would prove to be a last hurrah for the ‘Whiz Kids’, and for Konstanty in Philly.
In August of 1954, the now 37-year old Konstanty was struggling and the Phillies were losing. The team released him, but he would not go unemployed for long. The Yankees, perhaps remembering his 1950 World Series heroics against them, picked him up. 
Rejuvenated, the veteran pitched well, allowing just 11 hits in 18.1 innings, mostly in September. The Yanks would win 103 games, but it still wasn’t enough. They finished 8 games behind an incredible 111-win Cleveland Indians team in the A.L. standings.
In 1955, Konstanty was part of an American League Pennant-winning Yankees team. He went 7-2 in 73.2 innings across 45 appearances, with a career-best 2.32 ERA. But amazingly, he saw no action as the Yanks lost a 7-game World Series to the Brooklyn Dodgers that fall. It would prove to be his final shot at a title.
54Konstanty520
The Yankees returned to, and this time won, the World Series in 1956, avenging the previous year result with a 7-game victory over the Dodgers. But Jim Konstanty wasn’t with the club to celebrate. He had a poor outing on May 13th against Baltimore, and the Yanks released him 5 days later. 
Konstanty caught on with the Saint Louis Cardinals, and finished the season with them. But that would prove to be the swan song for the 39-year old.
On retiring, Konstanty became a pitching coach with the Cardinals organization. In 1948 he had opened a sporting goods store in Oneonta, in central New York, and he would operate the store until 1973. In 1968, Konstanty took the job as Director of Athletics with Hartwick College in Oneonta, a job which he held until 1972.
Stricken with cancer, Konstanty died at just age 59 on June 11th, 1976. One of his grandsons, Michael Konstanty, would go on to play in the Cincinnati Reds organization from 2008-2010. Jim Konstanty currently ranks both 13th in Saves and Games as a pitcher on the All-Time Phillies rankings.
Although he only had that one truly dominating 1950 season, he was not a flash-in-the-pan. A late bloomer who didn’t reach the majors until age 27, he nonetheless would throw nearly 1,000 big league innings. Jim Konstanty is an indelible part of Philadelphia Phillies history. Winning the league MVP during a Pennant-winning season will do that.

No comments: