Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Frankie Zak: The Reason I Love This Game
For this post I thought I'd re-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. 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. Any able-bodied men who 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. One of the club's outfielders was a young Ralph Kiner. Besides being the Leaf's 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 led 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 girl's 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 girl's 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.