SI Vault
Leonard Shecter
May 13, 1963
To most people, Yankee Shortstop Tony Kubek is a good ballplayer, nothing more. Behind the famous uniform, however, lurks an iconoclastic soul. The Yankee front office has discovered, to its dismay, that Tony Kubek likes to rock the boat
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May 13, 1963

A Rational Rebel In Pinstripes

To most people, Yankee Shortstop Tony Kubek is a good ballplayer, nothing more. Behind the famous uniform, however, lurks an iconoclastic soul. The Yankee front office has discovered, to its dismay, that Tony Kubek likes to rock the boat

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When Tony Kubek left home in 1954 at the age of 17 to become a professional ballplayer, his father offered two bits of advice. "Don't be a clubhouse lawyer," said Anthony Kubek Sr., stretching to reach his son's ear, and "no matter how many errors you make, no matter how many times you strike out, keep hustling. That way you'll at least look like a ballplayer."

Polonius couldn't have said it better and, with a code to live by, Kubek grew up to become the shortstop of the New York Yankees, virtue's true reward. Kubek still speaks softly while running hard, but the things that he says are not so soft anymore. In recent years, Tony Kubek has come dangerously close to stepping on his father's advice.

A clubhouse lawyer has been defined as one who leans on the shaky pillars of the game. Kubek, although his posture is deceptively graceful, leans a lot. His favorite target is the stiff-necked Yankee front office, and a lesser talent would have been sentenced to a Yankee dungeon long before now. But into this low-key war with the establishment Tony brings three things: 1) his unusual baseball ability (General Manager Roy Harney somewhat reluctantly admits that "Kubek is the guy we could least afford to be without for any length of time"), 2) his disarming charm and 3) a penetrating, inquiring mind. In a war in which words are weapons, Tony comes to the battle well armed.

He is a ballplayer (Bay View High School, Milwaukee, '53) who has humiliated a newspaperman (St. John's '56) at Scrabble. He is a ballplayer who once startled the Yankee dugout with a description of the difference between entomology and ichthyology. He is a ballplayer who can decipher anagrams at a glance and, in a contest of vocabularies this spring, stopped cold a Yankee rookie contingent led by Ron Solomini (a student at LIU) with the word "persiflage." He may, in addition, be the only major leaguer who would not be without a Webster's unabridged in his den.

"He's real smart," says Mickey Mantle. "He can run through those crossword puzzles in about six seconds flat."

The vocabulary comes from voracious if undisciplined reading and a driving compulsion for self-improvement. When a friend in Wausau, Wis. interested him in fox farming, a local occupation, he sat down and read a book on fox farming. When he waded through Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, he developed an interest in architecture and sought out a book on that subject. The unabridged Webster's in his den is surrounded by a wealth of books, and when he reads a paperback he thinks has merit he will buy it in hard cover in order to have a permanent copy near him always.

"We used to sit around until the early hours of the morning throwing words at each other," says Mark Freeman (LSU '54), who was always, alas, a better thinker than pitcher and who roomed with Kubek when they both played at Denver in '56. "Every time he writes me a letter he'll shoot some big word in there. When I won my first major league game, I told reporters it was an unmitigated thrill. That was really a secret message to Tony."

There is a certain quality to a mind that enjoys words for the sake of words. Says Freeman, an astute man who majored in psychology, "With the exception of Jim Brosnan, I never encountered such an inquiring mind in baseball." Bobby Richardson, who with Kubek forms not only the best double-play combination in baseball but a friendship at least as impressive, puts it this way: "It's unusual to find a guy—with or without a college education—who knows as much as Tony."

"There was never any question of Tony fitting in with my friends," says his wife Margaret, an ebullient brunette who received her master's degree from the University of Wisconsin and was, until they were married, a social worker. "It was obvious to me as soon as we met that he'd read a lot more than some of the people Ed gone to school with. He has a great interest in a wide variety of things."

Kubek has turned his interest on the traditions of baseball. Typical is his attitude toward reporting to the clubhouse early before a game. The kindest thing a manager can say about a player is that he's first in the clubhouse before a game and last to leave after it. To hear some of the oldtimers tell it, they must have slept on cots in the trainer's room and toasted marshmallows on the alcohol burner for breakfast. Kubek, for years, appeared to be in the same mold; he would show up for an 8:30 game at 3:30 in the afternoon. An example of hustle? "No," he says. "I didn't have anything else to do." Now that he is married, with Tony III eight months old and another baby on the way, he doesn't get to the park so early. "I have something to do now," he says, a big country-boy grin on his face.

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