Old school baseball lifer. I can’t think of four better words to describe longtime Phillies coach John Vukovich, who died on Thursday from the effects of a brain tumor.
As someone who has attended spring training about a dozen times, I had several opportunities to approach Vukovich and try to interview him. I never did. Why? With that grizzled face, hardcore mustache, and perpetual scowl, I was just too damn intimidated. Vukovich simply didn’t look approachable. I figured some other interview target would be easier, more accommodating. That was my mistake, my loss.
If I had done my own informal background check, I would have found out the real story with Vukovich. Unfortunately, I’m only realizing this now, after reading some of the tributes that have been written to him after his death. Although gruff on the exterior, Vukovich actually liked to talk to fans before games, both in spring training and during the regular season. He willingly signed autographs for fans, no matter their age or appearance. As tough as he appeared to be, he could be just as funny and kind, though he didn’t always show it. And he loved baseball so much that he worked in the game for 41 of his 59 years, including five as a minor league ballplayer, ten as a major league, and roughly 25 as a coach. Anybody who loved baseball that much would rank as OK with me. That’s someone I would have wanted to talk to.
There are a few other attributes of Vuk, as he was affectionately called, that I’ve come to admire. He took pride in wearing the uniform, believed that there was a proper way to wear it, and a proper way to behave while in it. He believed in playing hard and smart. Some would call all of that being old-fashioned; I would call it being proud and professional in the life work that you have chosen. If Vukovich saw a player doing something inappropriate, or making some kind of fundamental mistake, he didn’t run and complain about it to another coach or the manager. He told the player directly, usually with a scowl and a raised voice, that he had done something wrong. I’m sure that many of the players didn’t enjoy being on the receiving end of one of his stern lectures, but most of them must have appreciated being told face-to-face rather than behind-the-back.
For someone who didn’t have much physical talent, Vuk made the most of his career in baseball. A right-handed hitter with little power or speed, he batted .161 over the span of ten seasons with the Phillies, Brewers, and Reds. In fact, of any player eligible for election to the Hall of Fame, Vukovich had the lowest batting average in major league history. Just how did he manage to last for ten seasons? Well, he compensated for his lack of hitting by becoming a terrific defensive third basemen. As well as he played the hot corner, he willingly played anywhere the manager asked him, from third base to shortstop to first base to second base. He did what he was told, usually without question or complaint. He became a good guy to be around, and sometimes that became the tiebreaker between himself and another player who might have had a little more talent, but not the best attitude.
Vukovich lasted long enough in baseball to carve out a nice niche in baseball history. Let’s consider a few of his accomplishments. It’s not a typical list for a lifetime .161 hitter.
*In 1971, Vukovich played third base in Rick Wise’s no-hitter, the same game in which Wise clubbed two home runs. While Wise grabbed most of the glory, Vukovich made several standout plays at third base to preserve the no-hitter. Vuk also recorded the final out of the game, snaring a pop-up and then returning the ball to a grateful Wise.
*Vukovich started the 1975 season as the Opening Day third baseman for the Reds, who were about to win their first of two consecutive World Championships. Vukovich lasted only a few weeks as the starting third baseman; he struggled to hit, so much so that Sparky Anderson once pinch-hit for him during his first at-bat of the game. Anderson eventually benched Vukovich, and moved Pete Rose from the outfield to third base to make room for George Foster in left field. That switch would prove to be the clincher for the Big Red Machine. Still, Vukovich remained a subtle part of the team, filling a role as a jack-of-all trades, play-me-anywhere utility infielder, until the Reds traded him in mid-August. After the season, Vuk would receive a nice reward in the form of a World Series ring.
*One championship would not suffice. Vukovich moved on to the Phillies, where he became a backup on Dallas Green’s 1980 World Championship team. Buying into Green’s no-nonsense approach, Vukovich helped carry the torch as part of a productive Phillies bench that included Keith Moreland, Lonnie Smith, and Del Unser. This time, he stuck around long enough to be a part of the World Series roster. Not bad, two World Series rings for the .161 hitter.
*After his playing days, Vukovich remained in baseball as a coach. When Green became the head of the Cubs’ front office in 1982, he brought Vukovich to Chicago as one of his on-field lieutenants. By 1987, Green thought so much of Vukovich that he gave Vukovich the Cubs’ managerial job on an interim basis before offering him the position permanently. With the press release announcing Vukovich as manager already written, fate suddenly intervened. Green fought with team ownership and lost his job, thereby denying Vukovich of what would have been his first fulltime managerial gig. Vukovich could have remained a coach in Chicago, but he remained loyal to Green, and tendered his resignation.
*Having lost out on the Cubs’ managerial job through no fault of his own, Vukovich returned to Philadelphia the following season. He became a fulltime member of the community–and an institution at Veterans Stadium. Vuk emerged as a staple on the Phillies coaching staff, Philadelphia’s counterpart to longtime Yankee coaches like “Dick” Howser and Elston Howard. Remaining with the club as a coach through the 2004 season, Vukovich became the longest tenured coach in franchise history. Loyal to a fault, he worked for six different Phillies managers in 17 seasons. Along the way, he received another brief term at managing–another one of those interim gigs, this time for nine games–but more importantly established a reputation as a reliable third base coach and as one of the best bench coaches in either league.
*Vukovich could be colorful, too. He liked to play practical jokes and had a well-known temper. He once verbally accosted the Baltimore Bird mascot who had dared to dance on the Phillies dugout. Vuk tracked him down in his dressing room. That was classic Vukovich.
Given all that Vuk accomplished himself, I could just kick myself for not having had more courage to walk up to him and ask him a few questions. I would have been interested to hear some of his stories.
As with a lot of people in baseball today, that’s my loss.