NEW YORK — Johnny Kucks, a sinkerballing righthander who was just 24 when he shut out the Brooklyn Dodgers to clinch the 1956 World Series for the New York Yankees in the seventh game, died Thursday in Saddle River, N.J. He was 81.
The cause was cancer, his daughter Laura-Jean Arvelo said.
Tall and lanky with a sidearm to three-quarters delivery that gave his pitches a downward drive, Mr. Kucks threw, in baseball parlance, a heavy ball. At his most effective, he forced players to hit the top of the ball, resulting in a lot of groundouts. When he was on his game, his infielders were busy, and his outfielders were not.
Mr. Kucks’s big-league tenure lasted six seasons and was mostly undistinguished; he won 54 games and lost 56, with an earned run average of 4.10. But few players have had such a pinnacle experience as the World Series win.
In 1956, Mr. Kucks was in just his second season with the Yankees and was not expected to be part of the starting rotation; he went 8-7 the previous year as a spot starter and reliever.
But when other pitchers faltered, he became the Yankees’ second-most reliable starter, behind Whitey Ford. He won 14 games before the end of July, making the American League All-Star team, and finished the season 18-9, with a shutout of the Chicago White Sox on 73 pitches on Aug. 24.
Still, he was something of a surprise choice to start the seventh game of a World Series. Mr. Kucks had faltered in September, and when he had been called on to pitch in relief against the Dodgers in the first two games, both of which the Yankees lost, he had not fared well. Moreover, Ford was available, having won Game 3 four days earlier.
But Mr. Kucks pitched brilliantly, giving up just three singles as the Yankees clubbed four home runs and won easily, 9-0. Sixteen of the 27 Dodgers outs were recorded on ground balls.
Mr. Kucks struck out Jackie Robinson to end the game — Mr. Kucks’s only strikeout that day — and although no one imagined it at the time, it was Robinson’s final major league at-bat. Traded to the New York Giants afterward, Robinson decided to retire.
The game was also the last time Brooklyn would play in baseball’s postseason. After the 1957 season, the team moved to Los Angeles.
In May 1957, Mr. Kucks was part of a notorious episode in Yankees history when he joined a coterie of teammates — including Ford, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and Hank Bauer — who were celebrating Martin’s 29th birthday at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan.
After a scuffle broke out at the club between the players and members of a bowling team, Bauer was accused of hitting one of the bowlers. He was eventually cleared of all charges, but the players were fined, and the publicity embarrassed the Yankees, who traded Martin to Kansas City shortly thereafter. In 1959, the Yankees sent Mr. Kucks to Kansas City in a trade for Ralph Terry, who three years later became the only other Yankee to pitch a shutout in the seventh game of a World Series.
In the history of baseball, that feat has been performed only nine times, yet Mr. Kucks’s gem is rarely remembered, perhaps because he was overshadowed. He had the misfortune of pitching two days after his teammate Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in Series history. Both men received bonus gifts.
“Larsen got a car,” Mr. Kucks told the Associated Press in 2000. “I got a fishing rod.”