Kansas City home run king Bob Cerv just turned 90 — and he still doesn’t miss a trick
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The doctors told him it’d be six weeks. Bob Cerv was back on the field in three days.
"It was the part afterward that bothered me more," the former Kansas City Athletics outfielder says now. "(There) was nothing that hurt when you had me wired up."
You did what you had to. Cerv was a Navy veteran who had served in the Pacific during World War II. He had started his college and big-league baseball career late, and had mouths to feed. He had also just turned 33 and was having the season of his life — hitting .344 and slugging .789 — on May 17, 1958, when he made the turn that would change his summer.
His Athletics were hosting Detroit at old Municipal Stadium, and Cerv was trying to score from second base, rounding third like a bull. At 6-foot, 220 pounds, with nothing but the sound of his heart and the pounding of spikes to argue, he decided he was better off bowling over Tigers catcher Red Wilson at the plate than trying to slide around the tag.
Cerv lowered his shoulder. The left side of his face crunched into Wilson’s shoulder blade.
Wilson held on.
Cerv’s jaw collapsed.
Rather than rest, he played with the jaw wired shut for more than a month. Which meant weathering a liquid diet, anything that could go into a straw. As you’d imagine, he lost weight and energy, saw his prodigious strength sapped. Teammates teased him by sending over prank gifts of chewing gum and tobacco. As he stood silently in left field, fans would cry out:
"HEY, BOB! BOB! SPEAK TO ME!"
"BOB! BOB! DON’T YA LIKE US?"
The closest he could get to smiling, really, was to bare his teeth, the way actor Richard Kiel did in those old James Bond movies. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
"He also had a broken nose," Bob’s son Joe recalls.
"So he would run, and he couldn’t breathe. So he’s (wheezing) through his teeth and one day, he ran down a ball in center field and almost collapsed (in the dugout). They grabbed an oxygen canister from the hospital across the street, and he went over to the oxygen to clear his head."
Next time up: A home run.
"And everybody went over," Joe says, "and tried to take oxygen before they hit."
Bob Cerv’s ’58 is the stuff of legend now. Or rather, it should be. Despite the nose, despite the straws and the pain, Cerv would bang out six home runs with a broken jaw, and 38 home runs that season — the most ever by a Kansas City major league baseball player in a single season, a record that still stands, long after the Athletics (who moved to Oakland after the 1967 season), long after Municipal Stadium (demolished in 1976), long after Red Wilson (passed in 2014) have all gone.
A few Royals have come close, with Steve Balboni the closest: 36 in 1985.
"That was quite a few years ago," Cerv tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com from his home in Blair, Nebraska. "Usually, records don’t last long."
And yet there’s Cerv’s record, still standing. There’s Bob Cerv, celebrating his 90th birthday earlier this month, still sharper than a Ginsu blade.
"About 10-11 years ago, my wife died," he says. "I didn’t think I would live very long (after that).
"But that was 11 years ago. Time goes by."
Sometimes, slowly. Sometimes, in a blink. Cerv moves with the aid of a walker these days, some 150 feet to meals, some 150 feet back. The jaw feels fine. It’s the rest of him that needs a kick in the pants every now and then.
"I’m doing something right," Cerv cracks. "I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here, but I’m 90."
The Royals host the Yankees this weekend, and there’s kind of a Turn Back The Clock feel, in a good way, all over the place. The two franchises lead the American League Central and American League East, respectively, going in, a callback to the epic Yankees-Royals postseason series of the disco era from 1976-80.
But it’s of special significance to the Cerv family, too. Bob was signed by the Yankees in 1950, got sent to the minor league Kansas City Blues that year, called up to the big club in 1951, was shipped to the big-league KC A’s in 1956, then traded back to the Yankees in the spring of 1960. Joe Cerv, who resides in Overland Park, has brought his dad to at least one Royals-Yankees contest each of the past 11 years or so, a chance to reconnect with the future — his grandchildren and great-grandchildren — and to glories past.
"I enjoyed it," Bob says of Kansas City, where he plans to watch Saturday’s tilt, in person, weather permitting. "That’s where I finally made some money. Because when I went (back) to the Yankees, there weren’t too many ahead of me. I think in those days, the best (salaries) were (Ted) Williams, (Joe) DiMaggio, (Ralph) Kiner, Willie Mays — they were the only ones making $100,000. Hell, (Mickey) Mantle never made $100,000. Yogi (Berra) didn’t, either."
There are remarkable lives, blessed lives, and there is Cerv’s life. A child of the Depression, he was a radar man on the USS Claxton, went to college on the G.I. Bill, won two Big Seven titles with the Nebraska Cornhuskers baseball team and notched another two for the Huskers’ basketball squad in ’49 and ’50 — to date, still the last regular-season conference crowns in Big Red hoops history.
He landed with the Blues at the age of 25, and was called up to the Yankees the next year. He started in left for the AL All-Stars in 1958 over Williams. He roomed with Mantle and Roger Maris in 1961, the year they chased the Babe. A few months before that, he was the first-ever starter in left — batting behind Ted Kluszweski in the five-hole — in a regular-season game for the expansion Los Angeles Angels.
He hung ’em up the next season at age 37, a good 12-year run, helped manage a hotel, sold some cars. He coached baseball at Southeast Missouri State College and became a professor and coach at John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo, Nebraska. He raised 10 kids, driving a giant station wagon with the young ones piled in the back, a trailer with all the family suitcases in it hitched underneath. He met ex-President Harry Truman when he was with the A’s, and the two remained friends the rest of Truman’s life.
"I used to stop by (his home); my kids went to Catholic school in Independence," Cerv says, chuckling. "A real average guy. He was everybody’s friend, really. And he wasn’t afraid to cuss."
Cerv was your prototypical country-strong, country-tough hombre when he signed with the Yankees, who seemed to sign them by the dozens in those days. He was also one of the many who shuttled between Kansas City and Yankee Stadium in the early ’50s when the Blues were the Bronx Bombers’ top farm club — a shuttle that started up again in the mid ’50s, when the now-big-league Athletics pretty much were run the same way, moving many of their best players to New York in their prime, while taking, in return, green prospects or over-the-hill types off the Yankees’ hands.
But a move to Kansas City also meant a chance to play, of which Cerv took full advantage, cowboying through bad jaw, nose and toe to put together the greatest season — .305, 38 dingers, 104 driven in — of a solid, if unspectacular, big-league career. In the winter of 1959, he even was invited to Los Angeles to participate in the television show "Home Run Derby" — later introduced to Gen X-ers when ESPN ran it in the late ’80s — along with Hall of Famers such as Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson, a who’s-who of icons from the Mad Men era. Cerv knocked off Robinson in his first competition, but was eliminated in the next show by Bob Allison, then of the Washington Senators.
"I beat Frank Robinson and the next day, I was so (expletive) tired," Bob says now. "I ached all over. I should’ve known better. I wasn’t in shape. I was just starting to train then."
The Yankees left Cerv unprotected for the Angels to pluck in the December 1960 expansion draft, only to reacquire his services the next May as a right-handed pinch hitter. He was on the bench in the summer of ’61, when the M&M Boys feasted on expansion-thinned pitching, rooming with Maris, another former Athletics star, in an apartment at Flushing Meadows.
"We could look out of our window and watch them play tennis (at Forest Hills)," Cerv says.
They would famously take on a new roomie in Queens that summer, a living arrangement at the heart of Billy Crystal’s 2001 docudrama 61*, helping to tame the hard-drinking, hard-living Mantle.
For a few months, at least.
"(Mickey) said, ‘I’ll be good,’" Cerv recalls. "And he was."
The Yanks traded Cerv to the expansion Houston Colt .45s in June 1962, and the Colts released him a month later, a career ending with a .276 average and 105 home runs, 12 of them the pinch-hit variety, and 31 World Series at-bats. The rest of the Yankee dynasty started to crumble, bit by bit, over the next few years. Maris became a Cardinal. Whitey Ford aged. Mantle moved from the outfield to first base. The amateur draft cut into all those country-strong kids the Yankees used to stockpile, the way scholarship limits in the NCAA would eventually cut into the hoarding by those old, great college football powers.
"Every team had a (great) player or two," Cerv recalls. "But most of them didn’t have the pitching the Yankees had. That’s what made the difference, is pitching."
It still does. About a month ago, Bob moved into an assisted-living residence, where he watches Royals telecasts regularly, taking mental notes. Once a coach …
"It looks like they’re going to be right there this year," Cerv says of the defending American League champs. "They got a bunch of young kids, too. The only thing they don’t have is many power hitters. But very few teams have power hitters."
Even at 90, Cerv makes a point to rarely miss a game.
Or a trick.
"And you’re watching, and he’ll make an offhand comment that ‘That umpire really blew that call on that strike,’ and ‘The second-base umpire thinks so, too,’" Joe says.
"(Bob) is telling me and showing me the hand motions the second-base umpire is giving to the (home-plate) umpire because he missed that call. I never realized that happened.
"No matter how long it’s been, he always comes up with something (where) it’s like, ‘Wow.’"
Time goes by. Funny how some things never change. In 1958, Kansas City had an All-Star Husker in left. In 2015, Kansas City has an All-Star Husker in left.
"He’s not a bad-looking player," Bob says of Alex Gordon. Then he chuckles again. "I had to beat Ted Williams out. He didn’t have to beat Ted Williams out."