When he wasn’t leading Major League Baseball in triples and runs scored, Kiki Cuyler was passing out fruit baskets to elderly residents in his tiny hometown and singing “O Holy Night” at church during the Christmas season.
“He was a complete person,” his granddaughter, KiAnn Kruttlin, said. “He loved baseball, but he was also a community man.”
Cuyler, who was inducted into the Pro Baseball Hall of Fame in 1968, spent one season in the Lowcountry playing for the Charleston Pals, a minor league team in the early 1920s. But that epic year paved the way for his induction into the Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame.
Cuyler, who died in 1950, was inducted posthumously Saturday night at Riley Park prior to the Charleston RiverDogs' game against the Delmarva Shorebirds.
Also inducted Saturday were Citadel pitching legend Mike Montei and longtime baseball coach Tony Cadden.
Montei was a two-time all-Southern Conference selection and the second winningest pitcher in school history when he graduated in 1987. He left with multiple Citadel records, including most innings pitched and most appearances.
Cadden played second base for North Greenville before returning to his hometown to coach rec league baseball in Charleston and American Legion baseball for 20 years. Today he’s an assistant coach at Porter-Gaud and an associate scout for the New York Mets.
Cadden and Montei were selected by fan voting. Cuyler was chosen by the Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame Committee. All three will have their names inscribed on the Hall of Fame list located on the main concourse of Riley Park.
Few things were as humble as minor league baseball in the 1920s.
For perspective, the late, great Ty Cobb was making $20,000 per year in Major League Baseball at that time. Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 pick in this year’s MLB draft, received an $8.1 million signing bonus from the Baltimore Orioles.
But humble is what Cuyler knew, his granddaughter said. It dates back to his childhood in Harrisville, Michigan, a small town in northeast Michigan about four hours from Canada.
Born Hazen Shirley Cuyler in 1898, Kiki (rhymes with sky sky) lived a simple life in the offseason, from hunting birds and moose to ice fishing and conducting community service projects in his hometown.
“Even now, there can’t be more than 500 people here,” Kruttlin said of Harrisville. “It’s a small community and that’s what my grandfather liked.”
‘A serious look’
Cuyler’s professional baseball career began in the Michigan-Ontario league, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. In September 1921, Cuyler made his major league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who signed him to a $2,500 deal.
The outfielder struggled early with the Pirates and was sent to the minors for a couple of years, including one season with the Charleston Pals in 1922.
That season he batted .309 with 56 extra-base hits in 131 games. The Pals played their home games at Hampton Park.
“His play here is where he garnered that popularity,” said Paul Wieters, chair of the Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame committee. “Plus the fact that we had a National Baseball Hall of Famer who played in Charleston … We thought it was time to give him a serious look.”
Kruttlin said her grandfather and his wife, Bertha, fell in love with Charleston during their short stay. Coming from Michigan, they fawned at the old-style homes, friendly atmosphere and the food.
“It was also fun for them being in a bigger city,” she said. “There was a lot in Charleston that they didn’t have in Northern Michigan.”
Cuyler went on to play another 16 years after his season in Charleston. He became an MLB All-Star, won a World Series ring in 1925, and played for three other franchises — the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers.
He finished his career with a .321 average, which is ranked 47th in MLB history.
Back to baseball roots
Cuyler has been on the ballot for years. But over time the Charleston Baseball of Fame, which was established in 2003, has evolved into a celebration of Lowcountry natives who have done great things in the sport.
And while that’s a huge part of it, Wieters said one of the original intents of the hall was to honor those who contributed to Charleston baseball in its early days.
“Kiki and so many of those players from the 20s, 30s, and 40s were really special,” Wieters said. “But it’s become hard for them to get on the ballot because they weren’t here for long. But they’re still part of our history and so we can’t forget them.”
Dave Echols, president of the Charleston RiverDogs, agrees. As a longtime member and advocate for minor league baseball, Cuyler’s award symbolizes everything the farm system stands for, he said.
“It’s exciting to see him get his due,” Echols said. “For us, it’s really about making a correction. He’s in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, so it only makes sense that he’s put in ours for time here in Charleston.”
Kruttlin is appreciative. Back in Harrisville there’s a major highway named after her grandfather and a baseball park. And of course, Cuyler has already been inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame.
He’s one of only two National Baseball Hall of Famers who played minor league ball in the Holy City. The other, Roberto Alomar, was inducted into the Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.