When you think of fleet-footed doubles hitters, first basemen don’t usually come to mind. Names like Speaker and Biggio are more likely to fit this description, but former Washington Senator Joe Kuhel was such a player. Although he played a power hitter’s position, Kuhel was noted more for his defense and speed than his bat, but he spent the bulk of his career playing in spacious Griffith Stadium – where flyballs go to die.
Kuhel joined the Senators in 1930 then took Joe Judge’s starting post at first base in 1931. Joe showed as a rookie his penchant for the two-bagger, finishing second among AL first basemen in doubles. His breakout year came in 1933 when he drove home 107 runs for the AL champion Senators. Kuhel hit .322 during the season, slapping out 34 doubles and posting a solid on-base percentage of .385. His Senators lost the World Series to the Giants, and although it was only Joe’s third full season in the Majors, he would never again make the postseason.
Washington fell to seventh place in 1934 when key injuries suffered by Kuhel, Joe Cronin, Rocky Stone and Luke Sewell hindered the club. Joe bounced back in 1935, scoring 99 runs. His highwater mark for RBI came in 1936 when he drove in 118 runs on 16 homers. Kuhel slapped out 42 doubles and led all first basemen in the stolen base department.
Unable to capture the same level of success in 1937, Joe was traded to the White Sox after the season for Zeke Bonura – a deal involving first basemen. Bonura was the White Sox best power hitter but skipper Jimmy Dykes pulled the trigger on the deal because Big Zeke cost the ChiSox too many games with his defensive shortcomings. Kuhel, on the other hand, was considered a fine defender. Joining the Pale Hose, Kuhel again led first basemen in the stolen base department.
Free from the confines that limit hitters at Griffith Stadium, Joe began to showcase some power with the White Sox beginning in 1939. He hit .300 while socking fifteen homers. Also, Kuhel continued to flash his wheels, stealing 18 bases and scoring 107 runs. His power reached its pinnacle in 1940 when he swatted 27 homeruns.
Kuhel wasn’t just a swift man for a first baseman – he was a swift man… period. He finished second in the AL in steals in 1941 (at the age of 35) while leading first basemen in runs scored. He then tied for third in the AL with 22 steals in 1942. With World War II underway, Kuhel was able to play through the fighting thanks to his advanced age. During the 1944 season, Joe scored more runs than any other AL first baseman and he tied for the lead in batting average among AL first basemen in 1945.
When the war ended, the younger stars returned to the diamond and Joe, pushing 40 years, received limited action in his last two years at the highest level.
G 2,104/R 1,236/H 2,212/2B 412/HR 131/RBI 1,049/BB 980/SO 611/SB 178/BA .277/SA .406