Bob Cerv, Kansas City’s home-run champ, dies at age 91

Bob Cerv, pictured in 1997, was a .276 career hitter with 105 home runs in 12 seasons.
Bob Cerv, pictured in 1997, was a .276 career hitter with 105 home runs in 12 seasons. The Associated Press

Bob Cerv, who holds the single-season record for home runs by a Major League Baseball player in Kansas City history, died Thursday in Blair, Neb. He was 91.

Cerv, who served during World War II, was friends with former President Harry Truman, played basketball and baseball at Nebraska and, as a member of the Yankees, roomed with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle as they dueled for the home-run title in 1961.

“The thing with him, his stories could go on forever,” said his son Joe.

Cerv was born on May 5, 1925, in Weston, Neb., and joined the Navy after high school. While serving in the Pacific theater, Cerv was on a ship that was hit by a Kamikaze plane not far from the gun mount where he was working. Cerv was the only one in the gun mount who lived, his son said.

After the war, Cerv went to college on a G.I. Bill.

“While he was at the University of Nebraska, a lot of people don’t realize, he led their basketball team and baseball team to two conference championships,” Joe Cerv said.

The Cornhuskers basketball team tied for Big Seven titles in 1949 and 1950. In 1949, Nebraska lost to Oklahoma State in a NCAA playoff game in Kansas City. Cerv was also a baseball All-American.

After graduating, Cerv signed with the Yankees in 1950, and hit .304 that year for their minor-league affiliate, the Kansas City Blues. The next season, Cerv batted .344 with 28 homers and 108 RBIs with the Blues, and the Yankees called him up to the majors.

In six seasons with the Yankees, Cerv was mostly a part-time outfielder/pinch hitter, but he played in two World Series (1955 and 1956), and the Yankees won the 1956 Series. Cerv was sold to the Kansas City A’s after that season.

“I was tickled to death because I could play every day,” Cerv told the Omaha World-Herald in 2015. “And I proved to them that I could play every day.”

Although he was 33, Cerv had his finest season in the majors in 1958 and was named to his only All-Star team during a season in which he hit .305 with 38 homers and 104 RBIs.

The 38 homers were the most hit in a single season by a Kansas City A’s player, and Steve Balboni holds the Royals’ record with 36 homers. Thus, no major-league player has hit more homers in Kansas City than Cerv.

In the 1960 season, Cerv was traded from the A’s to the Yankees, and appeared in the World Series with New York.

After the 1960 season, Cerv was selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the expansion draft, but he was dealt back to the Yankees a few months later.

“He went from New York to Kansas City and then they were short outfielders and they got him back in ’61,” Joe Cerv said. “That was the year he lived with Roger and Mickey in an apartment in Queens while they were hitting all the home runs.”

Mantle and Maris were locked in a battle all season to see if one or both could break Babe Ruth’s single-season record for home runs. Maris eventually did when he hit 61.

Cerv retired after the 1962 season and then coached at John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo, Neb., and Sioux Empire College in Hawarden, Iowa.

Funeral services will be held Monday in Weston, Neb., for Cerv, who had seven daughters and three sons, along with 32 grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife Phyllis, whom he met while they were students at Nebraska.

Although his playing days were long over, Cerv still followed baseball. Joe Cerv, who lives in Overland Park, would take his dad to a Royals game at least once a year through the 2015 season.

He never saw anyone break his single-season record for homers by a Kansas City player.

“Kansas City, he said, was his personally most satisfying season, but he really liked playing for the Yankees and winning lots of games, too,” Joe Cerv said.

Pete Grathoff: 816-234-4330, @pgrathoff