#CardCorner: 1978 Topps Don Kessinger
But Kessinger, a six-time All-Star shortstop, was much more than a footnote in the baseball narrative. For a time, Kessinger was one of the most highly regarded infielders in the game.
Born July 17, 1942, in Forrest City, Ark., Kessinger played his first 12 big league seasons with the Cubs and was a two-time Gold Glove Award winner at shortstop. In those same two seasons – 1969 and 1970 – Kessinger received votes in the National League Most Valuable Player Award race while reaching the 100-run scored mark in both seasons.
It was the peak of a playing career that began as an exceptional high school athlete and ended as the last player/manager in American League history.
Kessinger was a three-time all-state basketball player at Forrest City High School and was also all-state as a quarterback in football. After graduation, he enrolled at the University of Mississippi – located 125 miles from his home.
“I wanted to go to a school with a good baseball team as well as a good basketball program,” Kessinger told the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
In an era where freshman were not eligible for varsity athletics, Kessinger scored 152 points in his first four games with Ole Miss freshman basketball team. He earned All-American status in both basketball and baseball at Mississippi, leading the Rebels to the College World Series in 1964 during a season where he hit .432 as the Rebels’ shortstops. He even received a tryout offer with the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks.
But soon after the season ended, Kessinger signed with the Cubs. The deal, worth a reported $25,000, made headlines around the country in an Associated Press story that reported scouts from 11 big league teams making the trip to Forrest City to see Kessinger in the days before he signed.
The Cubs sent Kessinger to Fort Worth of the Double-A Texas League, where he hit .236 in 77 games. They brought him to Chicago after the minor league season ended, and Kessinger appeared in four games for the Cubs, going 2-for-12 at the plate.
Kessinger returned to the Texas League at the start of the 1965 season, this time hitting .285 with 20 stolen bases in 46 games. The Cubs recalled him in early June and put him at shortstop for the rest of the season, where he .201 in 106 games. But his defense and instincts convinced the Cubs’ brass that they had found their shortstop of the future.
“Don Kessinger is one of the main hopes of the Cubs for future success,” Cubs manager Lou Klein, who inserted Kessinger into the starting lineup when he took over as Chicago’s skipper midway through the season, told the Chicago Tribune. “Kessinger reminds me of Marty Marion the way he bends over in going after ground balls.
“I’m convinced that if he hits no more than .230, he’ll be a great asset to the Cubs.”
Kessinger allayed any concerns about his bat by hitting .274 in 150 games in 1966 for new manager Leo Durocher. A natural right-handed batter, Kessinger began experimenting with switch hitting before Spring Training began in 1966.
“I wanted to try switch hitting because I always hit left-handers better than right-handers,” Kessinger told the Pittsburgh Press.
He finished his big league career with a .252 batting average, 1,931 hits and 899 runs scored over 16 big league seasons. His 6,212 assists rank 15th all-time among shortstops.
His son Keith Kessinger – who was also born in Forrest City, Ark., and played at the University of Mississippi – appeared in 11 games for the Cincinnati Reds at shortstop in 1993.
“I’ve been associated with a great many people,” Veeck told the Associated Press when he dismissed Kessinger, “but never with a man of more class or integrity.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum