In Memory of Bob Cerv

Bob Cerv, three-time Yankee and one-time All-Star, dies at 91
Richard Sandomir
New York Times
April 13, 2017


(c) Houston Astros

Bob Cerv's desire to play for the Yankees was roused by a trip to New York with his father, who drove a refrigerated food truck from Nebraska. He was only 11 or 12, but seeing Lou Gehrig hit home runs at Yankee Stadium made him want to play there as well.

Cerv grew into a burly slugger who fulfilled his dream. He made it to the Yankees. Not once. Not twice. But three times. First the Yankees signed him. Then they traded for him. Then they made a deal to get him back again.

Cerv never played regularly for the Yankees, who ruled baseball at the time and were stocked with talent. They won five World Series from 1949 to 1953 and were transitioning from the Joe DiMaggio era to Mickey Mantle's. Cerv found full-time work -- and stardom -- only after the Yankees sold him to the Kansas City Athletics, perennially one of baseball's worst teams.

"Of course, it was wonderful to be with a winner and share in the World Series melon every year," he said in as-told-to article in The Saturday Evening Post. "But I wasn't getting anywhere." He said he was excited to be traded to Kansas City.

Cerv died on April 6 in Blair, Neb., at 91, his son John said.

Cerv (pronounced serve) had been an All-American baseball player at the University of Nebraska when the Yankees signed him in 1950. He hit for power and average in the minor leagues, but that was not enough to break into Manager Casey Stengel's lineup steadily. His path to playing left field was blocked by Gene Woodling, Irvin Noren, Elston Howard and others.

He left the Yankees a few days after the 1956 World Series -- he got a hit in his only Series at-bat -- when they sold him to the Athletics.

After a mediocre start to his Kansas City career, Cerv broke out in 1958, batting .305, hitting 38 home runs and driving in 104 runs. He started for the American League in the All-Star Game. "In Bob Cerv," Sports Illustrated wrote, the Athletics "have a hero in the classical mold who can bust up any ball game with one swing of his bat."

For a month, he played with his jaw wired shut after it was broken in a collision at home plate with Detroit Tigers catcher Red Wilson. Cerv ate a liquid diet and occasionally needed oxygen during games because of his difficulty breathing.

Playing well -- and playing injured -- made him so popular on the moribund A's that he was honored that July at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City with a ceremony attended by former President Harry S. Truman, with whom he became friendly.

Following a less-productive 1959 season, Cerv was dealt back to the Yankees in May 1960, one of many transactions they made with Kansas City in those years. The Yankees treated the Athletics like their own minor-league team, and the trades between them usually favored the Bronx Bombers, raising suspicions about the coziness between the franchises. The Yankees' owners, Del Webb and Dan Topping, were also business partners of the A's owner Arnold Johnson.

When Cerv rejoined the Yankees, they had already acquired his friend Roger Maris, also an ex-Athletic, to pair with Mickey Mantle as a formidable home-run hitting tandem. Cerv returned to his familiar Yankees role: backup.

Tony Kubek, the Yankees' primary shortstop from the late 1950s through 1965, said in a telephone interview, "Cerv was a great asset for a Casey Stengel-type manager. He could use him as a pinch-hitter or a pinch-runner. When he was a pinch-runner, Mickey would stand at the dugout steps and yell to infielders, Here comes Cerv!' I think he scared a few guys."

Cerv played more regularly for the Yankees in 1960 than he had in the past and hit .357 against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, which the Pirates won dramatically with a ninth-inning home run by Bill Mazeroski in a remarkable Game 7.

But after the season, the Yankees left him unprotected for the expansion draft, and he was chosen by the newly formed Los Angeles Angels.

He made one final return to the Yankees a few weeks into the 1961 season, arriving in a trade. But he played sparingly. He became better known for sharing an apartment in Queens with Maris and Mantle, who were battling each other to break Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 home runs. Maris hit 61; Mantle fell short with 54.

Robert Henry Cerv was born on May 5, 1925, in Weston, Neb., to Anton Henry Cerv, a truck driver, and the former Henrietta Staska, a homemaker. Cerv was a basketball player in high school before entering the Navy.

On Nov. 1, 1944, while Cerv was on the U.S.S. Claxton in Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze pilot attacked it, seriously damaging the destroyer's starboard side and killing five men.

After World War II, Cerv entered the University of Nebraska, where he played baseball and basketball.

His baseball career did not end with the '61 Yankees. The club sold him to the Houston Colt .45s, a National League expansion team, during the next season. He played with them for a month and was released. The Yankees did not beckon again.

Cerv later coached baseball and basketball at John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo, Neb., and baseball at Sioux Empire College in Hawarden, Iowa. He also sold cars.

In addition to his son John, Cerv is survived by his daughters Sandy Harrington, Karen Chambers, Phyllis Willis, Dawn Ericson and Melissa Lock; two other sons, Robert Jr. and Joseph; his sister, Bonnie Nelson; 32 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Phyllis Pelton, died in 2005. Two daughters, Sithay Ann Cerv and Denise Mahoney, have also died.

John Cerv said that his father had been thankful for his time in Kansas City and had not resented being acquired and sent away by the Yankees three times.

"He was proud to be a Yankee," he said. "That's who he felt he was."