This is the story of the St. Louis Cardinal who never played for the St. Louis Cardinals.
His name is Ed Kurpiel. He is a sweet man. A kind man. Will be married 50 years to Katie next January. He has lived a blessed and beautiful life so far, prioritizing family and fun. Had a bunch of baseball success, too. Even made the majors. But when he arrived, the coffee cup he got was empty.
Kurpiel has the bittersweet distinction of being a “phantom ballplayer.” That is a player who was called up to the majors — in Kurpiel’s case, the Cardinals in 1974 — but never got in a game. This is, understandably so, a rare oddity of baseball. It’s tracked by multiple websites — and in the past 50 years, there have been 51 “phantom ballplayers” in Major League Baseball.
The Cardinals have only had one.
Actually, in this case, you could combine the quirk of the “phantom ballplayer” with another baseball kink — the asterisk. See, the Cards have had a second “phantom ballplayer,” but this occurred in the postseason. Last October, the Cardinals called up slugger Juan Yepez for the wild-card game. But he didn’t get in the game, which St. Louis lost, and he has yet to be called up in 2022.
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As for Kurpiel, he was with the ’74 Cardinals for three weeks — a major leaguer who never made his major league debut.
At least “Moonlight” Graham got to play in the field.
Asked about the former New York Giant who was made famous in “Field of Dreams,” Kurpiel said his own situation was “basically the same thing, you know? It was so close and yet so far, as I say.”
If he wasn’t destined for the majors, young Ed Kurpiel was at least earmarked for them. He was eighth overall pick in the 1971 draft by the Cards. He was a 17-year-old first baseman/outfielder out of Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, New York.
Fifty years ago, for the Class A team in 1972, he hit 22 homers in 130 games … including one, estimated by some, to have sailed 670 feet.
Now, some of these homers from yesteryear have taken on a mythical life of their own. In this case, a sportswriter from The Reno Gazette-Journal used a 200-foot fiberglass tape measure to determine the distance of where the ball landed (and, apparently, nearly hit a kid on a bike). That distance was 738 feet.
And there was a confluence of circumstances that enhanced the blast. Playing for Modesto, Kurpiel proposed to Katie the night before — and she made the trip to Reno for the game. So, he came to the plate in the first inning with extra adrenaline. And, there’s the altitude — it’s 4,500 feet above sea level there — and when balls are creamed, they get caught in the jet stream.
“I ended up hitting two home runs in that game,” said Kurpiel, 68, from his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “They talked about in the paper the next day being a long home run, but I didn’t really think much of it until they did the tape measure (years later).”
By 1974, the 20-year-old Kurpiel was a key player on the Cards’ Class AAA team that advanced to its World Series. On the day of Game 7, Kurpiel was told that “win or lose,” he was to report to the St. Louis Cardinals.
“We win the ballgame, and so help me, we partied until the cows came home,” Kurpiel said. “We were in the hotel in Indianapolis with my parents, and we’re eating steak and lobster and drinking champagne and, gosh, probably didn’t get finished until maybe 4 o’clock in the morning.”
He flew to St. Louis and went directly to Busch Stadium. First player there.
Sure enough, the second player to enter the clubhouse was Lou Brock.
“Lou was always an absolute sweetheart, both to myself and my wife,” said Kurpiel, who put Brock in the three previous big-league camps. “And so nice. He came in there, ‘Hey, Eddie, congratulations — I heard you guys won the championship yesterday. And now you’re in the big leagues? I’m so happy for you. I tell you what, when you get dressed, you and I will go off to left field and we’ll get you used to getting some fly balls in the stadium.’”
As they headed out into the vast AstroTurf, the bleachers were already packed. And with each catch, fans cheered the iconic Cardinal and the new Cardinal.
“My feet,” Kurpiel said, “were not even touching the ground.”
Then, Kurpiel went to first base to field grounders. A ball ate him up. Actually cut his index finger. Of all the days. It was so bad, he said, he couldn’t throw a ball. But with the help of a sponge situation, he’d be able to grip a bat. That was, if he even got to beat.
That first night was Sept. 10, 1974. The Cards were in a tight division race (they’d finish 1½ games out of first place). Brock, naturally, led off.
“Everybody’s going ‘Lou! Lou! Lou!,’” Kurpiel said. “I can’t fathom this excitement. He gets on first. Now the stadium’s rocking. Everybody is banging their feet. The stadium is shaking. Then, boom — he goes and steals second. All the guys in the dugout start running out. And you know what my first reaction was? It’s a fight — so I better get out there and start throwing some punches. I run out there. And as I get out there, they’re picking up second base and handing it to him.”
Brock had tied Maury Wills’ MLB record for stolen bases in a season.
Later that game, Brock stole his 105th base, breaking the record.
“I’m saying to myself, ‘You got to be kidding me,’” Kurpiel recalled. “So, this guy took you under his wing and out to left field — a snot-nosed, 20-year-old kid — on his special day?”
Brock finished the year with 118 steals, as the Cards battled in the final three weeks. But with the importance of each game — and the hand injury — Kurpiel was never put in. Now, in one game, manager Red Schoendienst told Kurpiel to get ready to hit. It was late in a blowout. But Red decided to let pitcher Claude Osteen hit and continue the next inning, so the Cards wouldn’t have to use another reliever.
“That was the closest I got to pinch hitting,” Kurpiel said.
With a stacked outfield and young Keith Hernandez coming up at first, the Cardinals decided to trade Kurpiel that offseason for Montreal’s Ron Fairly, a veteran backup. Still only 21, Kurpiel bounced from organization to organization—five counting Montreal, including a second tenure with a Cardinals minor-league team.
One year, he thought he’d make the California Angels, but a trade for Bobby Bonds kept Kurpiel in the minors.
After a 1978 season with the Mets’ Tidewater Tides, he mulled coaching offers. But he told Katie that most coaches and managers he knew ended up getting divorced — and he didn’t want to even risk it. They moved to Virginia Beach. He worked for UPS for years. He had opportunities to move into management, but didn’t want to have to travel or move his family. The proud papa has three children and five grandchildren. He plays a lot of golf—even runs an annual tournament to raise research money for ALS, the disease that took his mother’s life.
He looks back fondly on his baseball career: “The 10 years that I played professionally, went so quick. It was here and gone in a blink of an eye. It just a wonderful time, both not only in my life, but in Katie’s life, as well.”
And as for being a “phantom ballplayer,” well, “Yeah, I’ve read that online, that there are a couple of phantom ballplayers,” he said. “I guess if that’s what you want to call me, that’s fine. I just look at myself as — had a chance, but never got there.”