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A True Tough Guy

Published: April 12, 2010

In 1958, Bob Cerv was having the best season of his pro baseball career. Until then the 32-year-old had been a career backup, known as a role player best suited for pinch-hitting. He had won a few titles with the Yankees and even hit a home run in the 1955 World Series, but even so, seemed destined to go down in history as simply an average ballplayer.

He knew that, at his age, his career was in the ‘now or never’ stage, and it seemed this season was the one that would make it ‘now.’ Through May, Cerv was leading the American League in home runs and RBIs while batting .344 with the Kansas City Athletics’ (now in Oakland).

Then, fate struck.

On May 17, Cerv was rounding the bases trying to score against the Detroit Tigers. As he rounded third, he knew the throw was going to beat him to home plate. There are only a few things a baseball player can do in that situation. One is try to slide below or jump over the tag by the catcher. Unfortunately, at 6 feet and 220 pounds, agility was not Cerv’s forte. This left him one option—lower his shoulder and run head-on into the catcher to jar the ball loose.

Base runners make this decision to this day. It is a scary situation: the catcher is standing still, concentrating on trying to catch a ball often thrown from all the way across the field, while an opposing player is running at him full speed, with every intention of knocking the ball — and the daylight — out of him. (This is why the catcher is typically the stoutest and strongest player on the team.)

In Cerv’s case, it did not work out. Not only was he tagged out, but the collision left him with a broken jaw.

Cerv fractures his jaw as he slides home.

Bob Cerv (right) fractured his jaw in this home plate collision with Detriot Tigers catcher Wilson.

Doctors said he would be out for six weeks, but Cerv was having none of it. He was back three days later. After six weeks playing with his jaw wired shut, Cerv was still batting .310 and leading the American League in home runs and RBIs.

The Saturday Evening Post covered this story in 1958, and we recently caught up with Cerv, for a follow up interview.

Not surprisingly, he is still going strong. “I may be 85, but I still have a pretty strong brain,” Cerv says.

He recalls that season like yesterday, especially eating with his jaw wired shut: “That was my best season. I hit 38 home runs, finished third in hitting; RBIs and runs, and beat out Ted Williams to start in the All-Star Game. I remember when I first had to eat after I broke my jaw. We got a ½ pound of steak, green beans, and potatoes, threw it all in a blender, and I had dinner through a straw.”

Although he was with the Kansas City A’s in ’58, he spent the beginning and end of his career with the Yankees, playing with all-time greats like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Yogi Berra, to name a few. He still stays in touch with the ones that are still around. “I just saw Yogi recently,” says Cerv. “Our birthdays are only a week apart. I was born on May 5, and he was born May 12.”

Cerv was Roger Maris’ roommate when he hit home run number 61. Cerv and Maris often roomed together, because the Yankees’ manager didn’t understand Maris’ personality and wanted Cerv, the seasoned veteran, to help him figure it out. “Roger asked me ‘Why are you my roommate now?’ when I first roomed with him,” recalls Cerv. “I told him, ‘To tell the truth, the skipper wants to know what makes you tick.’ We were best buds after that.”

Bob Cerv removes the wire from his jaw.

Free at last: Cerv could open his mouth, but sore jaws forced him to forgo the sirloin steak he craved.

Cerv also recalls playing with another Yankee legend, Billy Martin. “He was a ballplayer. A little hotheaded, though. He didn’t take any crap.” Many New York fans know this is true. Although Martin played with the Yankees on several World Series teams, he is best remembered as the fiery manager who got in umpires’ faces, got angry with veteran players (especially Reggie Jackson), and won games.

Although his playing days are long over, Cerv still reminisces about his time in the big leagues and compares his experience to players today. “When I signed, it was for $5,000.” Obviously, a little less than what players are making now. “Pitching was the name of the game back then. There were only eight teams in the National League and eight in the American, so teams stockpiled the very best pitchers,” he said. “That was also before they lowered the pitching mound. If you got a hittable pitch across the middle and fouled it off, you screwed up.”

After baseball, Cerv became a family man. He has 10 children, all of whom went through college, 32 grandkids and 10 great-grandchildren (with one on the way). He currently resides in a quiet condo in Nebraska.

Read Bob Cerv’s original 1958 article, “I Played Without Eating” [PDF].

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  • Connie Sharpe

    I babysat for Bob’s children while he was playing in the majors after playing for my Dad, the Coach at the University of Nebraska 1946-1985. I sure would like any information/memories from folks in that era. I remember grinding a Nebraska steak in a blender.

  • RYAN RICHARDSON

    GREAT BALL PLAYER, BUT A BETTER MAN

  • Frank James Davis

    Unlike so many sports stories, this one was definitely worth the read. Thanks, Aaron.

  • sox fan

    they don’t make em like they used to