The number of professional baseball players active in the area known as the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin reached its pinnacle during the 1940s and 1950s, after the formation of the Class D Wisconsin State League in 1940. Left-handed pitcher John Henry Van Cuyk, who began his professional career in that league, eventually had a brief Major League career with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Van Cuyk was born to Henry and Anna Van Cuyk in Little Chute, Wisconsin, on July 7, 1921. Little Chute, directly east of Appleton and the Fox River, has been known for its Dutch inhabitants since the 1800s. Henry was born in the Netherlands in 1896 and came to the United States with his parents, Johannes and Gertrude. They settled in Kimberly, Wisconsin, near Little Chute.
John was one of five children, four boys and a girl. His youngest brother, Chris, was a lefthanded starting pitcher for parts of three seasons (1950–52) with the Dodgers. “He had much better baseball ability than I had,” John said. “He was six feet seven and weighed 260 pounds and by God, could he throw that ball. But it went to hell because if a lady winked at him, boy, be careful.”
As a child, John was known as “the kid that plays ball.” “I’d walk up and down the street early in the morning with a bat, glove, and ball and get a bunch of kids together and walk across the river to Little Chute and play all day. All summer long, that’s all we did. From seven in the morning until it was dark at night.” When Van Cuyk told others he was going to be a professional baseball player when he grew up, they laughed. “Nobody thought it was possible for someone from Kimberly to make it to the Major Leagues,” he said.
Johnny Van Cuyk was thought by Baseball Digest to be a
Rookie of the Year candidate in 1947.
Van Cuyk became a five-sport varsity letter winner at Kimberly High School. He was a standout for the Papermakers in football, basketball, and baseball and also ran track and boxed. “In football I was an end and could run like a damn deer. My dad used to say, ‘If you get in trouble, throw the ball to John. He can run like hell when somebody’s chasing him.’” The six-foot-one, 190-pound Van