Born: July 7, 1936
Died: May 4, 1985
William Gustave James Kunkel was born July 7, 1936 in Hoboken. A solidly built right-hander, Bill starred for Tony Calan’s Demarest High School baseball team, which featured catcher Johnny Romano. He was also a star basketball player. Bill was signed in 1955 by the Boston Red Sox and shipped to the Dodgers after one season in the minors. He went 14–12 in 1959, earning a promotion to AAA Montreal in 1960, but when he was not added to the Dodgers’ 40-man roster after the season he was taken by the Kansas City A’s in the Rule 5 Draft.
Bill appear in 58 games for the A’s in 1961, finishing 26 of them. He was one of several pitchers used by manager Joe Gordon as a “closer” although the team lost 100 games so there wasn't much to close. Three of the 11 home runs he gave up in his 88 2/3 innings as a rookie were to Harmon Killebrew; Bill would be the home plate umpire when Killebrew hit the 500th of his career. Bill appeared for the A’s in 9 games in 1962, spending most of the year in the minors. In August he was packaged with Leo Posada (Jorge Posada’s uncle) and sent to the Braves for reliever Orlando Pena. When the Braves left Bill unprotected after the season, he was claimed by the Yankees.
Bill was an important part of New York’s pennant-winning bullpen in 1963, eating up 2 or 3 innings in games when the Yanks were way ahead or way behind. He made 24 relief appearances, finishing 11 games, and also made a couple of starts. His 2.72 ERA was lower than 24-game winner Whitey Ford’s. Bill did not appear in the World Series against the Dodgers that October. Bill’s appearance against his old team, the A’s, on September 21st turned out to be his final one as a big leaguer. He was released by the Yankees and pitched two more years in the minors in the Braves, Orioles and Tigers systems before calling it a career.
While still south of 30, Bill decided the best way to create stability for his growing family and monetize his love of sports was as a referee. He was hired by the NBA in 1966 and officiated for two seasons before moving over to the ABA. During the summers, he umpired in the minor leagues and impressed the American League enough to earn a call-up near the end of 1968. From 1969 to 1978, he was one of the AL’s top umps; from 1979 to 1984 he worked a reduced schedule, taking two leaves of absence after being diagnosed with colon cancer in 1981. Bill saw his first postseason action in the 1971 ALCS between the A’s and Orioles, and worked his first of several All-Star Games in 1972. Bill was part of the World Series crew in 1974 and 1980. He was one of the last umpires to use an outside chest protector.
Bill underwent a colostomy after his cancer returned, and ultimately lost his battle with the disease in 1985 at the age of 48. He lived long enough to see his son, Jeff, become a first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers and play his first game in the majors, in 1984. That spring, he umpired a Grapefruit League game with Jeff just a few feet away, at shortstop. He and Jeff were featured on a 1985 Topps father-son trading card. A park in Bill’s Monmouth County hometown of Leonardo was named in his memory.