As spring training unfolded in Lakeland, Florida, in 1968, the hopes were high for the Tigers’ chances to contend for the pennant after falling just short in 1967.
There were not many opportunities to make the 25-man roster, and there was virtually no chance that a pitcher who had one year of professional experience and had not pitched in two years could make the team.
He knew that. However, he might have had the best story of any player in camp that spring, and he was one of the first arrivals at Tigertown in 1968.
His name was Charley Kuhn. He was a left-handed pitcher who was 22 years old and had pitched for the Tigers’ Class A affiliate Daytona Beach in 1965. He had a great excuse for not being in camp the previous two springs: He was with the military in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
Kuhn served 19 months of military service in Vietnam, mostly as a military policeman with the 25th Infantry Division.
“I hadn’t pitched in two years, and I was apprehensive about coming back to baseball,” Kuhn said in The Sporting News. “I’m proud of going over there. I spent 12 months with our military police and seven months as an advisor to the South Vietnamese national police. The Vietnamese are intelligent people, and I respect them.”
Kuhn began his professional career in the Chicago Cubs organization in 1965, but that season Detroit acquired him and sent him to the Daytona Beach Islanders of the Class A Florida State League. He was 4-3 with a 2.30 ERA and a 1.340 WHIP at age 19 with Daytona Beach in 1965, and he did not pitch again until the spring of 1968.
“He’s got a fine arm,” Tigers pitching coach Johnny Sain said. “After what he’s been through, he shouldn’t get scared on the mound, should he?”
Kuhn, who never appeared in a Grapefruit League game in 1968, was a frequent batting-practice pitcher that spring for the Tigers. He split the 1968 season between Rocky Mount of the Class A Carolina League and Lakeland of the Class A Florida State League and combined to go 3-5 with a 4.28 ERA.
Kuhn pitched in the minors for Detroit from 1968-73, although he did appear in seven games with Denver, an affiliate of the Washington Senators, in 1970. He had his best season in 1972 with the Montgomery Rebels of the Class AA Southern League. He was 10-9 with a 3.15 ERA, and he struck out 130 batters in 143 innings.
The following spring, Kuhn was a non-roster invitee to the Tigers’ major-league camp. He finished his seven-year career in the minors with a record of 38-42 and a 3.87 ERA. He appeared in 251 minor-league games with 62 starts.
He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from John Carroll University. After baseball, he became an insurance claims adjuster in Pennsylvania. He also built and maintained web sites and was a horse handler at Brandywine Raceway in Wilmington, Del. He spoke five languages, including Vietnamese, Russian and Latin.
Kuhn passed away unexpectedly at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia on April 30, 2016. He was 70 years old.