Kiki Cuyler

Curly-haired, hazel-eyed Kiki Cuyler played with competitive zeal, yet was admired amidst rough and tumble teammates for his gentlemanly qualities. He hit .300 ten times in his major league career. When the Pirates benched this superstar late in their 1927 pennant-winning year and kept him out of the World Series with the Yankees, the general public was mystified and Pittsburgh fans were outraged. When the 27-year-old Cuyler was traded for journeyman infielder Sparky Adams and rookie outfielder Pete Scott after the season, it created one of the mysteries of baseball history. That he became an even greater star for the Chicago Cubs removed suspicions that Cuyler’s skills had lessened.

Cuyler, a hard-swinging batter who hit line drives to all fields and led the NL with 26 triples in 1925, had protested being moved from third to second in the lineup by Pirates first-year manager Donie Bush, who wanted Cuyler to replace Hall of Famer Max Carey, Pittsburgh’s longtime number-two hitter (Carey had been traded the year before). Like Carey, Cuyler could steal bases. Carey had won ten titles; Cuyler would retire with four (and lead the NL twice in runs scored). However, where Carey was an adept bunter and sliced hits behind the runner, Cuyler swung from the heels, struck out more often than the average player of the era, and was not suited to bat second. Cuyler accepted his manager’s decision but it rankled him. He chafed under Bush’s expectations and batted below his usual level, dropping to .309 after seasons of .354, .357 and .321.

Cuyler, who ran the bases with abandon, was benched after he went into second base standing up in a risky effort to block a double play relay to first. When the baseman bobbled the ball, but managed to tag out Cuyler, Bush fumed that Cuyler would have been safe if he had slid. Cuyler had also angered Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss by winning a salary dispute before the season. When Lloyd Waner jointed his brother Paul on the 1927 Pirates, the owner apparently feared the payroll impact of three superstar outfielders more than he appreciated the distinction and success they could bring.

Cuyler had become a Pittsburgh favorite in 1925 when he finished a close second to triple crown winner Rogers Hornsby for MVP. He also became the hero of the World Series that year against Washington. Walter Johnson had won Game One 4-1 and shut out Pittsburgh 4-0 in Game Four. Johnson began the eighth inning of Game Seven with a 7-6 lead. Cuyler came to bat with the bases loaded and two out. He hit a tremendous drive to the right-centerfield wall, clearing the bases with an apparent inside-the-park home run. However, the umpires ruled the ball had become entangled in a tarpaulin rolled up against the wall. Cuyler was given a ground rule double but the score was now 9-7 and the demoralized Senators were blanked in the top of the ninth.

Cuyler was called “Cuy” by his school teammates. It was while winning the MVP title of the Southern Association with Nashville in 1923 that he acquired the euphonious Kiki nickname. Fans heard the players shout for him to take the ball when he rushed in a short fly. The shortstop would yell, “Cuy,” and the second baseman would echo the call. In the pressbox the writers turned this into “Kiki.” Older fans wince to hear him called “Keekee.”

Like Rogers Hornsby, whose batting style he copied, Cuyler didn’t drink or smoke. After attending West Point during WWI, Cuyler returned home and married his high school sweetheart. He found a job in the Buick plant in Flint, Michigan, and switched to Chevrolet to play on the company’s baseball team in the fast Detroit Industrial League. Soon the professional scouts found him. He kept his contacts with the automotive industry and between seasons served as athletic director for a 12,000-man program.

When a broken foot in 1932 and the passing of seasons slowed Cuyler, his final averages fell below his eventual lifetime .321 mark. He played his final years with second-division teams in Cincinnati and Brooklyn, serving as a playing coach. He returned to the Southern Association to manage and was called back to coach the Cubs early in the 1940s. He was a Boston Red Sox coach when he died suddenly, only 50 years old, before the 1950 season began. Cuyler was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1968.