If ever there were a team made in the image of one of its players, it would be the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies, who made it to the World Series on the back of its slovenly, uncouth, clubhouse leader. Kruk may have looked straggly and unathletic, but he also managed to finish his career with a batting average of exactly .300 and the adoration of many fans. One of his most memorable quotes, and a fine example for his broad popularity, came in response to an older woman who chastised him for smoking and drinking as a professional athlete: “I ain’t an athlete, lady,” he replied. “I’m a baseball player.”
Known as a good-hitting speedster coming up through the San Diego Padres organization, Kruk batted over .300 in his first two major-league seasons. In 1987, the burly first baseman hit .313 with 20 dingers, notched 91 RBIs and a truly incredible 18 stolen bases. He slumped to .241 in 1988, and though he sharply rebounded in 1989, San Diego traded him mid-season to the Phillies with Randy Ready for outfielder Chris James.
It was in Philadelphia, home of the cheese steak and surly fans, that Kruk found a home and become the respected clubhouse leader of, as reliever Mitch Williams famously put them, “just a bunch of gypsies, tramps, and thieves.” The 5’10”, 210 pound-Kruk was born in West Virginia, listened to loud country music, and drove a pickup truck and refused to mince words. “No mascots on the field,” Kruk once replied when asked what changes he’d make in to the game. “Shoot anything that looked like it escaped from Sesame Street.”
Kruk was no power hitter — he exceeded ten home runs just four times in his career — but he did consistently have a batting average around .300 and an on-base percentage around .400 during his five-and-a-half years with the Phillies. But it was his contagious personality as much as his statistics that helped turn the club around from last place in 1992 to first place in 1993. Teamed with other tobacco-chewing, hard-nosed players like Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, and Dave Hollins, Kruk led the fighting Phils to the 1993 World Series. The team ultimately lost in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays, but Kruk batted .348 with four RBIs in the cause.
Kruk’s body type certainly lent itself to the derisive cheers from opposing fans. One of the more imaginative catcalls came from the Wrigley faithful, who infamously chanted “Fee fi fo fum, John Kruk is a big fat bum.” But that large, memorable personality led him to become a household name in the Phillies’ big year. In October 1993, obese comic Chris Farley gave a rousing rendition of Kruk to a national television audience’s delight on Saturday Night Live.
Despite undergoing testicular cancer surgery in pre-season, and sustaining a cartilage tear in his right knee shortly after, Kruk still managed to bat .302 in 1994. He signed with the Chicago White Sox in May 1995, but shot knees and a lost competitive spirit forced Kruk to call it quits after one memorable final at-bat. On July 30, 1995, after the portly ballplayer stroked a single off pitcher Scott Erickson of the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning, he simply said goodbye to his teammates in the dugout, and left Camden Yards with his family.
After his first career came to an end, Kruk appeared as a baseball teammate of Wesley Snipes in “The Fan” with Robert DeNiro. A year later, he predictably opened up a bar in West Virginia. When asked why he called the bar “Third Base,” Kruk replied: “Third base is the last stop before you go home.”
In December 2000, Kruk returned to organized baseball as the hitting coach for the Phillies’ Double-A team.