Longtime friend Chris Wheeler summed up John Vukovich best. "He was a beauty," said Wheeler. Most everybody who came in contact with John Vukovich felt the same way. On a personal note, I remember covering the Phillies in spring training a number of years ago and seeing "Vuk" steal Wheeler's brief case and move it onto the infield between first and second base. Without Wheeler noticing, Vukovich then picked up a bucket of baseballs and a bat and headed for the plate. When Wheeler went to retrieve his brief case, Vukovich started to fire ground balls at him. Everybody had a good laugh at Wheeler's expense, but there was no denying the great bond and friendship between the two. John Vukovich was the sort of person who you knew liked you by how much he teased you.
Vukovich broke into the majors with the Phillies in 1970 and never enjoyed the greatest of careers as a player, but was always one of the hardest workers on the team. He went into coaching and just like his days as a player, never truly reached the top, getting just a temporary managerial job with the Cubs when his friend Dallas Green took over as GM. Before Vukovich could make a move as manager, Green resigned and Vuk followed. From there, Vukovich returned to the Phillies. A year later, he managed the final nine games of the season, replacing Lee Elia on the Phillies bench.
Vukovich hid the fact that he was in failing health. He missed the Winter Meetings last December and there were growing rumors about his health. Only this week, news of just how gravely ill he was began to trickle out around the baseball community. Vukovich missed just two months after undergoing brain surgery in 2001. He had been in relatively good health since then, but had experienced headaches and blurry vision lately.
There are a ton of stories about Vukovich and he, in turn, had a ton of stories to tell. His favorite may have been about how Reds manager Sparky Anderson pinch-hit for him in the first inning of a game in 1975. Now, only the stories about Vukovich will be told. The ones from him have been silenced.