Friday, July 30, 2010

40. Frankie Zak, my favorite player

Well, it's only fitting that this is card number 40 and I turn 40 years-old this week. For this post I thought I'd introduce everyone to the ballplayer whose story, more than anyone else, got me into researching obscure players and teams from baseball's past. His name is Frankie Zak and he was a buddy of my grandfather from the old neighborhood in Passaic, N.J. Frankie, like everyone else on Quincy Street was the son of Polish immigrants. Although he grew up athletic, he was no fan of baseball unlike my grandfather and his cronies who were busy inventing ways to sneak into Ruppert Stadium in Newark and Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City for free. But that wasn't for Frankie, he didn't care for baseball.

In the summer of 1941, fresh out of high school, Zak ventured south to visit his school pal (and relative of mine) Eddie Sudol who was playing his first year of organized ball with the Tarboro Orioles in the Coastal Plain League. This was the bottom rung of the minors at the time and the Tarboro team had recently signed a working agreement with the Baltimore Orioles, an independent minor league team at the time. So anyway, Frankie Zak turns up in Tarboro one hot and humid day, only to find the team in desperate need of a shortstop. Zak, who was almost 6', lean and athletic looked the part and was quickly signed to a Tarboro contract. It was only temporary, Frankie didn't care for baseball.

So Zak finishes the season with the 6th place Orioles, bats a lean .255 and fields his position with a .905 percentage, right about in the middle of the league. Not bad for a rookie who never played the position before. In normal times, it would be a tough call to say whether or not his first season at Tarboro was good enough to keep him in professional baseball, but these were not normal times. During the off season the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor and the country was thrust into a two-front war. What able bodied men that didn't rush to volunteer were being scooped up by the draft and baseball at all levels was being affected. It was a time when men like Frankie Zak got their chance at baseball immortality.

So with the war picking up steam, Frankie's rookie season was deemed good enough to be picked up by the Pirates organization who sent the young shortstop to the Class D Hornell Maples in the PONY League. While he didn't exactly tear up the league, he did boost his average to .271 in 129 games as the teams starting shortstop. He had 39 RBI's and belted 2 home runs, the only ones he ever hit in his career. The baseball odyssey of Frankie Zak was underway.

Spring training for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1943 was held in Muncie, Indiana due to wartime restrictions and while Zak didn't impress skipper Frankie Frisch enough to make the big club he was promoted to the Pirates highest minor league team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 1943 club was managed by ol' stubble beard himself, Burleigh Grimes, the cantankerous former Brooklyn spitball pitcher and manager. The clubs outfielder was a young Ralph Kiner. Besides being the teams starting shortstop he became noted for his speed on the bases as well. Zak batted .246 plus 9 doubles and a triple in all 150 games played that year, the only player on the team to do that. He stole 22 bases, was second in the league with 104 walks and lead the league with 104 runs scored as the Maple Leafs won the pennant. He did however commit 50 errors at his position, but then again, who can find fault with that, Frankie never cared for baseball very much...

In 1944 the majors were decimated by the war, by now pretty much every player who could hold a rifle was in the service, leaving mostly 4F (military designation meaning not acceptable for service under the established physical, mental, or moral standards) players and guys just lucky enough not to be called yet. It was under these circumstances that enabled Frankie Zak to put on a uniform with the number 14 on the back and step out onto the field as a Pittsburgh Pirate. Zak's debut was on April 21, 1944 in Forbes Field against the Cincinnati Reds. With the Pirates losing 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth, with 11,377 fans in the stands, Frankie Zak batted for veteran catcher Al Lopez. He popped out. But still, Frankie Zak, the guy from the old neighborhood who didn't care for baseball, was now a major league baseball player! How about that, getting a chance to do what most of us only dream of doing! But the career of Frankie Zak was only beginning.

Throughout the summer the young shortstop played backup to Frank Gustine and got into 87 games, frequently used as a pinch runner. Zak batted a hearty .300 with 3 doubles, a triple and 6 stolen bases thrown in there for good measure. But breaking the .300 mark mark was not the highlight of Zak's 1944 season. Getting named to the 1944 All-Star Game was! Yes, Frankie Zak, rookie back-up shortstop and occasional pinch-runner was named to represent the National League at the 1944 All-Star Game. How the hell did this happen? Well, it's like this. Eddie Miller was picked to play in the game but became injured. Since the game was held in Pittsburgh, Frankie Zak was asked to step in. Although he didn't get into the game (Marty Marion played all 9 innings) he did feature in the official team portrait, mixed right in there with the best players of 1944.

The next year found Zak bouncing between Kansas City and Pittsburgh, playing just 15 games with the Pirates in 1945 and 21 in 1946. But Frankie made up for lack of playing time with a couple of legendary baseball stories that are still told by oldtimers. The first one takes place sometime in the 1944 season. The Pirates are playing Chicago at Wrigley Field and Frankie is trying to score on a double by outfielder Jim Russell. Rounding third Zak is shoved by nasty little third baseman Eddie Stanky and an out of control Frankie tumbles all the way to the dugout. The ump waves in the run but neglects to discipline Stanky. Pirates manager Frankie Frisch vows to even the score for Zak and sure enough on the next play Jim Russell comes sliding into third, spikes high, as does manager Frankie Frisch, sliding in spikes high from the coaches box! The ump, Hall Of Famer Jocko Conlan, calls Russell safe and Frisch out of the game.

It's Opening Day, 1945. Pittsburgh is leading the Reds 1-0 in the fifth at Crosley Field and Frankie Zak beats out a bunt. Now there's two men on base. Reds pitcher Bucky Walters looks in to pitch to Jim Russell and Zak, noticing his shoe is untied, calls time. The first base umpire throws his hand up calling time out but Walters and the home plate ump didn't hear it in time. Walters throws and Russell belts the ball into the right field bleachers for a home run. Only it wasn't. The run wasn't allowed and after much argument, Russell returned to the batters box and Zak hung his head in shame, tying his cleats. The best the Pirates could do was score one run that inning and as luck would have it they lost 7-6. The next day Frankie Frisch got a telegram from Casey Stengel "Am rushing a pair of button shoes for Zak".

The last Frankie Zak story comes from the old catcher, Al Lopez. When he was the manager of the Cleveland Indians he used to tell this story: "I never like to see women in the dugout. In the first place they don't get a very good view. In the second place, they don't know how to duck. I even knew a fellow whose romance was broken up by a foul ball in the stands. His name was Frankie Zak - a shortstop when I was catching for Pittsburgh - and he fell in love with a Chicago girl. There was only one hitch. The girls mother didn't want her daughter to have anything to do with a professional ballplayer. Frankie thought he knew how to break down a mothers prejudice. He arranged for the girl to bring her mother to a game. We were in Wrigley Field and it was Ladies' Day - 20,000 women in the park. And of all those people, who do you suppose got the foul ball in the face? That's right. The girls mother. She was really hurt, too. And that was the end of the romance."

So what happened to Frankie Zak? Well, his contract was sold to the Yankees and he played for the famous Newark Bears, the same team my grandfather and his gang would try to bust into for free years before. He later played in the Pacific Coast League with Portland and San Diego before retiring in 1949, ending a 9 year odyssey in professional baseball. Wait, what about his friend he went to visit in Tarboro back in 1941? Well, Eddie Sudol never made the majors as a player, but he did make it as a National League umpire, working the World Series in 1965, 1971 and 1977 and it was Eddie Sudol who was behind the plate when Henry Aaron hit his 715th career home run.

Well, that's a lot to write about a guy who played only 123 major league games, right? Wrong. It's players like Frankie Zak who make this great game so interesting. For every Mickey Mantle and A-Rod there are thousands of Frankie Zak's out there, everyone of them with a bunch of stories just waiting to be told. It just takes a little digging and you'll find it. I did. Frankie Zak was the beginning of my interest in baseball research. Where else would I have heard of the Tarboro Orioles? Or learned that before the Orioles fielded a major league team in 1954, there was a team by the same name with a proud heritage and enough success that it could support a farm system of its own, independent of the major leagues? Each little story unearthed, every box score and faded photograph launches a million great yarns. That's why Frankie Zak, the guy from the neighborhood who never cared much for baseball, is the Patron Saint of The Infinite Baseball Card Set.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

39. Old Hoss Radbourn - The Man Who Won 59 Games

I remember watching the All-Star Game in 2002 with my old buddy Charlie Vascellaro and the game goes into extra innings... really good game, extra innings, 7-7 tie, the best players in the game at the time, how much more better does this get? Well, not much more, apparently. The teams ran out of pitchers. Everyone was already in the game, and no one wanted to let the present pitchers continue. So what did they do? The officials called the friggin' game! Why didn't and outfielder step forward and say "I'll pitch!" or an infielder, taken with the honor of being picked by the fans of this great game say "it's just so great to be here tonight, give me the ball coach, I love this game!". But none of that happened. They called the game at a tie, just like some European soccer game. The best players in the game, all on one field at the same time, and it ends in a tie. It was such a disgrace, it gives me agida (look it up) just writing about it tonight. In fact, that's all I'll say about that.

To cleanse my palette after that remembrance, let's take a look at "Charlie "Old Hoss" Radbourn. "Old Hoss" as he was known, had a respectable career going for him, winning 25, 33 and then 48 games for the Providence Grays but midway through the 1884 season the irritable Radbourn and the equally surly Charlie Sweeney, the Grays other pitcher, took their rivalry to another level when they fought violently after a game in which Sweeney showed up drunk. Sweeney was suspended, effectively crippling the ballclub. You see, back then, players had to play the whole game, when a pitcher was tired or getting hit bad, instead of heading for the showers, he switched places with an outfielder or infielder, who doubled as a pitcher. Loosing their other starting pitcher mid-season was a death sentence to the Grays who needed to win the pennant in order to stay financially solvent. With his team faced with disbanding, Old Hoss volunteered to start every game left in the season in exchange for a raise and a release from the reserve clause that bound him to his team and be given free agency at the season's end. An agreement was struck and he went on to pitch more than 678 inning and won a staggering 59 games! What a season and for God's sake, what an arm that guy must have had. When guys today pitch 5-6 innings every 4 days at the most, this guy must have been like having 3 tender modern-day pitchers on the Gray's staff.

Radbourn gained his free agency after the season, and elected to stay with Providence. Old Hoss had a good career afterwards, really showing no ill effects from his monstrous season of 1884. In a side not, if you look at the team portrait of the 1886 Boston Beaneaters, there's Old Hoss, back row, far right, giving the cameraman what is probably the earliest documented middle finger salute. After his career ended, the vain Radbourn lost an eye and was disfigured in a hunting accident and spent the rest of his life hidden away in the back room of the saloon he owned in Bloomington, Illinois, dying in 1897. He was elected to the Hall of Fame, class of 1939.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

37. Judy Johnson

Teammates, opponents, sportswriters and fans all agreed on one thing, Judy Johnson was the smartest third baseman ever to grace a diamond. Johnson instinctively knew where a ball was going and how to get at it and put it where it needs to be. His baserunning gave the Hilldale Daisies an edge many other teams couldn’t compete with and his clutch hitting was legendary.

Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and raised in Delaware, Johnson’s father wanted his son to become a boxer and physical training was a part of his life from an early age. As a boy he was batboy for his father’s semi-pro baseball team and decided on making it a career. After working on the New Jersey docks during the first world war, Johnson played for a succession of semi-pro teams and was eventually signed by the mighty Hilldale Daisies from the outskirts of Philadelphia. Hilldale was just at the beginning of its period of dominance over black and white ballclubs and the team was stocked with old professionals and up and coming stars, of which Johnson was one.

The great John Henry Lloyd took Johnson under his wing and taught the promising young ballplayer the ropes. Lloyd’s tutelage paid off in dividends as he turned out to be the preeminent third baseman of the 1920’s and 30’s.Johnson swung a heavy 40 ounce bat and while he did not hit with tremendous power, he smacked out timely base hits that seemed to evade the opposing fielders. Time and time again his clutch hitting saved the day as Hilldale marched to top of the Eastern Colored League in 1923, 1924 and 1925. In 1925 Johnson and the Hilldale Daisies defeated the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League 5 games to 1 in the second Colored World Series.
Throughout his career Judy Johnson consistently batted just under .400 but it was his ability to drive in runs during a clutch and his levelheadedness in any situation that made him such a well respected player. He was known throughout the league for his fair play and good sportsmanship in an era where violence and cheating was just another part of the National Pastime. Johnson studied the game from a scientific point of view and became a world-class sign stealer, knowing exactly what the opposing team was going to do at any time. He became the rock on any team he played for, the steady, quiet influence that players like Lou Gehrig and Gil Hodges were later known for.

When Hilldale folded in 1932 he signed with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and became the cornerstone of what is now seen as the best negro league team of all time. After his playing days were over Johnson became the first black coach in the majors when he joined the staff of the Philadelphia Athletics. Later he scouted for the Phillies organization, signing future stars Bill Bruton and Dick Allen. In 1975 he was elected to the Baseball Hall Of Fame, the sixth negro league player to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Judy Johnson’s great attitude and cheerful disposition was always remembered by those who played with him. I’ll leave the last words to his teammate “Cool Papa” Bell: “He would never let you down. he was always up and optimistic. He brought sunshine into your life. When things got rough for us, Judy would always say, somewhere the sun is always shining.”

Monday, July 5, 2010

35. Sammy T. Hughes

The only problem with the Baseball Hall of Fame is that Sammy T. Hughes ain’t in it yet. During the 1930’s and 40’s Hughes was the best second baseman in black baseball and perhaps all baseball.

Hughes was a true rarity for the time, a franchise player back when contracts meant nothing and jumping from one club to another was just another part of the game. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1910, Hughes started out as a first baseman with his hometown semi-pro Louisville White Sox in 1929 and two years later the team turned pro and joined the Negro National League. 1932 saw Hughes join the Washington Pilots where he switched to second base and when that franchise folded later that year he joined the Columbus Elite Giants. Owned by black businessman Tom Wilson, the Elite Giants started out in Nashville but were destined to keep changing home base as they searched for a good city with an appreciative fan base. Hughes was the Elites’ man at second through their moves from Nashville to Columbus to Washington, D.C. and finally in 1938, Baltimore, Maryland.

In Charm City the Elite Giants found a city with black fans hungry for a team. The great black newspaper, The Afro-American, was based in there and provided good coverage of the Elites during their tenure in Baltimore. The team thrived in the environment and the fans were rewarded in 1939 when they won the Negro National League Championship in a 4-team playoff between the Homestead Grays, Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles and Elite Giants.

Sammy T. Hughes was described by his contemporaries as the complete ballplayer, he was a superior baserunner, solid hitter, rifle for an arm, artful bunter and he played the game smart. Fans acknowledged his skill and he was voted to the annual east-West All-Star game 5 times in his career, more than any other second baseman. He consistently batted over .300, and usually batting second in the lineup, he was considered a great hit-and-run man.

In 1942 the Communist newspaper “The Peoples Voice” arranged a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates for Hughes, fellow Elite Giant Roy Campanella and New York Cubans pitcher Dave Barnhill. Hughes and the other players jumped their teams and travelled to Pittsburgh but the tryout was never held when the Pittsburgh owner got cold feet. However, writers both black and white figured Hughes to be a can’t miss candidate to break the color line.

Black Yankees player Dick Seay had this to say of Hughes: “a nice fellow. He wasn’t one of those guys that was drinking and all. He’d stay in the hotel and go get his girl and visit her.”

After serving with the army in the Pacific he returned for one last year with Baltimore and although he hit only .277 he rendered an even greater service by acting as mentor the Elites’ young second baseman Junior Gilliam, later a star for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. Hughes settled down in Los Angeles and worked Hughes Aircraft Company, passing away in 1981. Cooperstown is not complete until Sammy T gets in there.