Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-069314. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.
Hazen Shirley (and if those were your given names, wouldn't you rather be called "Kiki", or maybe ANYTHING else?) Cuyler was born on August 31, 1898 in Harrisville, Michigan. After briefly attending the US Military Academy at West Point, Cuyler returned to Michigan, married his high school sweetheart, and worked, as so many people did in that part of the country in those days, in the auto industry for General Motors. Playing for a company baseball team, his talent was noticed and he actually changed positions in the company, moving from Flint to Detroit, so he could play in a "faster" league, from whence he was signed by the Pirates in 1920.
Cuyler spent most of the next three years in the minors, finally cracking the Pirate starting lineup in 1924, when he hit an impressive .354/.402/.539. The following year, he did even better, .357/.423/.598, scoring 144 runs in 153 games, and led the Pirates to the 1925 NL title and World Series championship, driving in the Series-winning run with a two-out, two-run double off Walter Johnson in the eighth inning of game seven. During that 1925 season, he had a career-high 18 HR, including two inside-the-park home runs on August 28 at the tiny Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. In all, Cuyler hit eight inside-the-park jobs in 1925. It took until 1979 -- when Willie Wilson had five -- for someone to have even close to that many in a season. He'd have won the MVP award easily (he finished second in the voting), except that Rogers Hornsby chose that year to hit .403 with 39 HR and 143 RBI, winning the Triple Crown and thus the MVP. The voting was close -- Hornsby had 73 points and Cuyler finished second with 61.
From there, though, it was all downhill in Pirate-land for Cuyler. Cuyler and the Pirates had a contract dispute before the 1927 season, and then new Pirate manager Donie Bush asked him to play center field and bat second; Cuyler felt himself more effective hitting third (and who wouldn't, after three monster hitting seasons in that slot under the previous manager, Bill McKechnie?) The feud came to a head when Cuyler didn't slide into second base to break up a double play late in the year. Bush benched him for the rest of the season and for the entire World Series as well -- something that clearly didn't help the ballclub, although it isn't likely that any team would have defeated one of the greatest teams of all time, the 1927 Yankees.
Knowing that Cuyler was persona non grata with the Bucs, the Cubs got him for virtually nothing on November 28, 1927, sending a journeyman infielder (Sparky Adams) and outfielder (Pete Scott) for a 28-year-old career .300 hitter who had already been in the top 10 of MVP voting results twice.
Returned to his normal batting and fielding slots as a Cub, Cuyler had a decent .285/.359/.473 year in 1928, and then exploded in 1929; he hit .360/.438/.532 and led the National League with 43 stolen bases (one of four times he led the NL in steals), and the Cubs won the pennant. The stolen base number is even more impressive given that SB were becoming less important in an era given over to power hitters. The next NL player to steal more than Cuyler's 43 in 1929 was Maury Wills, with 50 in 1960.
He suffered a broken foot during the 1932 season, causing him to miss a third of the year. When he returned, he put the entire ballclub on his back and almost singlehandedly carried the Cubs to the pennant. He hit .365 from August 27 to the end of the season -- a Sosaesque performance, and the bedrock of his Cubs reputation. He hit a walkoff homer in one of the most dramatic games in team history on August 31. Bill Veeck said it was the best game he ever saw in person. For a while it held the reputation of being perhaps the greatest single Cubs moment, then Gabby Hartnett's "Homer in the Gloamin'" came along six years later, and Cuyler's game is now forgotten except by history buffs.
Check out what Cuyler did in one week in late August and early September after returning from his injury:
8/27, first game vs. Giants: Three-run homer, Cubs won, 6-1, eighth win in a row. Second game, single and run, nine straight wins. 8/28, vs. Giants Three hits, 8th inning homer, game-winning sac fly, Cubs won 5-4, 1O straight. 8/30, vs. Giants: Two hits, two RBI, 8th inning homer, 5-4 win, 11 straight. 8/31, vs. Giants: Four hits. Singled in a four-run ninth that tied the game at 5-5. Giants scored four in the top of the tenth, taking a 9-5 lead. In the last of the tenth, after the first two men are out, the Cubs score two and have two on for Cuyler, who hits a walkoff HR for a 1O-9 win, their 12th straight. 9/2, vs. Cardinals: homer, fifth in six games, 8-5, 13 straight. The Cubs' winning streak reached 14, then halted on a day Cuyler was hitless; perhaps that wasn't a coincidence.
Here's what Bill Veeck wrote about the August 31 walkoff in Veeck as in Wreck:
I saw him (my father, Wm. Veeck Sr., Cubs president) forget his dignity only once. He was entitled to this one fall, for it came at the end of the greatest ball game I have ever seen... Late in the season, we were playing the Giants to break a tie for first place, a game of such importance that we found Judge Landis sitting with my father. The Giants seemed to have the game sewed up right into the ninth inning when the Cubs scored four runs to tie it up. The Giants bounced right back with four runs in their half of the tenth. In our half, the first two batters went out. Mark Koenig kept us alive with a home run. The next three batters got on to load the bases. Up came Kiki Cuyler, representing the winning run. And Cuyler belted one. The ball was still climbing over the fence when William Veeck, Sr. let out a rebel yell and vaulted over the railing. Marsh (Bill Jr.'s friend) and I had leaped out toward the railing, too, but we were somewhat delayed because we had to untangle ourselves from the harrumphing Commissioner. By the time we got onto the field, my father was in the very center of a mob scene, grabbing for Cuyler's hand.
As in his Hack Wilson story, Veeck didn't get it quite right -- it wasn't a grand slam, it was a three-run walkoff -- but that can't ruin this great story.
And finally, as a fitting climax to this run, five years after they had unceremoniously dumped him, Cuyler finally got his revenge on the team that had cut him loose. On September 20, 1932, in the first game of a doubleheader, he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning against the Pirates with the game knotted at 2. He smacked a bases-clearing triple which broke the game open and clinched the pennant for the Cubs, their second pennant in four seasons (now doesn't that sound great? "Second pennant in four seasons." -- oh, well.).
He broke his leg during spring training in 1933, which caused him to miss half that season, and his production began to decline. In 1935, slowing down at age 36, he was released in mid-season and picked up by Cincinnati, finishing his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938. He finished with 2299 hits; if not for the injuries, perhaps the Cubs would have kept him and he might have approached a 3000-hit career.
Cuyler's best overall year with the Cubs was probably the aforementioned 1929 season, but an argument can be made for his 1930 campaign, where he scored an eye-popping 155 runs in this season (good for 24th on the all time single season list), batting often in front of Hack Wilson as Hack drove in a record 191 runs. Cuyler drove in 134 himself, ranking a distant second on the club. Naturally, all 1930 stats have to be looked at with a somewhat skeptical eye due to the "juiced" (to use present-day vernacular) nature of the ball that year. During that 1930 season, he hit an extra-inning walkoff HR in the most attended single game in Wrigley Field history, the June 27 Ladies Day game, seen by 51,556. In those days, there were more seats to begin with, and they used to cram people in the aisles; this practice went on until the 1970's, when the Fire Department put an end to it. To this day, you can see the fire code signs around various areas of the ballpark, stating the maximum safe capacity of each area.
Off the field, Cuyler was regarded as a gentleman during a time where many players were thought of as somewhat barbaric. He became an idol to women, and as a devoutly religious man, he prayed and crossed himself during games, perhaps the first player to do this in public. His nickname of "Kiki" is derived from the sound of the first part of his last name, so it is pronounced "Cuy-Cuy" and not "Kee-Kee".
After retiring as a player, Cuyler stayed in baseball, managing in the minor leagues (winning the Southern Association pennant in his first year managing, in 1939 at Chattanooga), and then returning to the major leagues as a Cubs coach. He eventually wound up as a coach for the Boston Red Sox, and he was working for them when he suffered a fatal heart attack shortly before he was to depart for spring training in 1950, dying on February 11, 1950 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, aged only 51. He's buried in his hometown of Harrisville, Michigan, a small town about 150 miles north of where he began his journey into baseball in Flint.
Cuyler was given baseball's highest honor posthumously in 1968 when the Veterans Committee made him a Hall of Famer. His death at a young age, more than fifty years ago, makes him one of the most forgotten Cubs of a great era in team history.