Frank Zupo: A Unibrow Grows in Baltimore

 

This past Saturday I was doing some heavy-duty yard work. It was 95 degrees and humid here in Kentucky, and I was sweating up a storm. I’ll be honest, I can’t stand yard work. I don’t know a weed from a petunia, and all trees tend to look the same. Maybe it’s because I’m colorblind and cannot see the beauty of nature – greens all tend to look brown or grey – or the fact that I lived most of my life in the city and never had time for the niceties of gardening. Regardless of all that, one of the things I tend to do to make summer yard work a bit more enjoyable is to lug my radio outside and tune in to a ballgame. Problem is, because of the virus, union squabbling and the lack of any sort of leadership on any level, there is no live baseball.

Fortunately, YouTube has dozens of full ballgame broadcasts from the 1930s on into the 80s. While cutting down branches, I listened to an early season game pitting the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field in 1949. Red Barber called most of the game, and Jackie Robinson hit a home run. It was great listening to a run-of-the-mill ballgame from so long ago and not knowing what the outcome was, just enjoying the game for what it was.

After that game was in the books, I wasn’t close to being finished with the tree I was trimming, so I selected another ballgame between the same two teams, this time from July 26, 1957. Vin Scully was behind the mic, his voice sounding as fresh and clear as it did up until the day he retired some six decades later. This game was pretty exciting as Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe and Walt Alston were both tossed out of the game before the first inning was done for arguing a call. Carl Furillo hit a grand slam home run and Johnny Podres pitched the whole nine, even though the Dodgers were up by a considerable lead from the 6th inning on. The thought of a pitcher going nine innings today is unthinkable, and even more so when you realize the Dodgers were in a 4-way pennant race at that moment and probably should have rested their ace pitcher. But no, I was listening to baseball when it was baseball, and a guy like Podres was supposed to finish his starts.

Besides the great game that unfolded as I sawed, hauled and burned branches, was the delightful little things that went on during the course of the broadcast. The advertising was priceless, as was Vin Scully trying to fit in plugs for Schaefer beer when the Dodgers did something notable on the field (“That man sure earned himself a Schaefer”).  The updating of scores from other games being played that afternoon in ’57 was fun to listen to as they developed, and it was during one of those updates that I heard the following interesting incident that occurred in Baltimore that afternoon…

The White Sox were playing the Orioles at Memorial Stadium. On the field, before the game began, 17 year-old rookie catcher Frank “Noodles” Zupo was warming up the O’s starter when he was thrown out of the game.

Now, there’s several questions I had while listening to this:

  1. Why did the Orioles have a 17 year-old kid on their roster?
  2. How in the world did he get himself tossed out of a game before the lineup cards were even exchanged?
  3. Who the heck was Frank Zupo?

Turns out, Frank Zupo was one of those interesting characters who, despite a very short big league career, seems to have played an inordinately large part in baseball history.

Frank Zupo was a husky 5’ 11” catcher out of San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory High School. The Orioles gave the high school senior a $50,000 bonus to sign, a move that, while simultaneously making Frank Zupo the richest kid in his class, also inadvertently closed any chances he had at making baseball his career.

When Frank Zupo inked his name on the Orioles contract and cashed the $50,000 check, he became what was known as a “bonus baby.” For decades the more cash-solvent teams had been giving young prospects bonus money to sign with their organizations. However, by the 1940s, the practice had gotten way out of hand, with successful teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox able to out-bid all the other clubs for young players. These teams effectively locked down the flow of good, young players then kept these same kids mired in their minor league systems because of a surplus of talent on the big club. To make recruiting an equal playing field, the geniuses at Major League Baseball HQ decided to enact the “Bonus Baby Rule” in 1947. What this did was stipulate that any recruit awarded more than $4,000 in bonus money had to spend two full seasons on the team’s Major League 25-man roster. In other words, it was an express ticket to the majors without a stop in the minors.

While this might seem like the greatest thing that could happen to a teenager, in practice it ruined countless young ballplayers. By bypassing the minors, a prospect missed out on valuable coaching and playing experience. By going straight to a big league roster, a prospect had little chance of receiving any playing time or coaching advice from the team staff or veteran players who were too busy trying to win ballgames. This relegated most bonus babies to two full seasons worth of pine splinters in their keisters from sitting on the bench. This meant two prime season’s worth of experience down the tube.

By 1957, when Frank Zupo was the latest 17-year-old bonus baby, the practice was roundly regarded as a failure. However, the 50 grand handed over to Zupo sealed his fate and will bring about the circumstances that led me to start this story in the first place.

After high school let out, Zupo travelled east and joined the Orioles. Despite his hefty bonus and high expectations, Zupo was essentially just a big kid. Looking much older than his age, he was dark and swarthy with a big league-level unibrow that would make Wally Moon jealous and Frida Kahlo swoon.

Instead of going to the minors and learning how to play and act like a professional ballplayer, the teenager was used to warming up the pitchers and taking up space in the dugout while the veterans played the game. A teen left to his own devices surrounded by serious men was bound to cause a problem, and on August 26, 1957, it did.

Because he was literally a 17 year-old teenager, Frank Zupo acted accordingly. Naturally a playful sort – his nickname was “Noodles” for gosh sakes –  the rookie thought it funny to fake a hard throw directly at the umpires when the arbiters walked between him and the pitcher during pre-game warmups. While this might have brought the house down back at Frisco’s Sacred Heart, the major league umps did not like it at all. Already the most hated figures on the field, there was no way an umpire could let themselves be shown up in front of the players and fans by a punk kid. Zupo had been warned several times about his fake throw gag, but, a teen being a teen, that gag never got old.

So, on July 26, Zupo was warming up Orioles starter Ken Lehman before the second game of the Saturday doubleheader. There were 23,081 fans in the stands and, chances are, if they were not using the john or standing in line for a Natty Boh and a dog, they were watching the players warm up down on the field. When umpire Ed Hurley crossed between Zupo and Lehman, the kid did his fake throw trick on an unsuspecting Hurley.

There’s no footage of the incident, but I’m gonna give you my take on what happened. Remember, this was just before the start of the second game of a doubleheader, so the stands are already filled. This wasn’t a half-empty ballpark, but a packed Memorial Stadium. Now, imagine most of the crowd watching the field as Ed Hurley, the proud, dignified man in blue, strides across the field. Suddenly, the Orioles catcher snaps what appears to be a rifle throw directly at Hurley. What do you think he did? Of course, he either jumped 6 feet in the air, dove to the ground or winced-up like a scared puppy. Heck, he may have even squealed or shrieked out loud. Whatever the actual circumstances, suffice it to say Hurley lost a lot of face before an awful lot of eyes.

With a flick of Hurley’s thumb, Frank Zupo became the youngest player to be tossed out of a major league game. When questioned by confused sportswriters after the game, all Hurley would say is that, “he just got smart.” Fellow umpire Ed Runge took over from his flustered crewmate and elaborated a bit more on the details, which I recounted above.

You gotta admit, if your name isn’t Ed Hurley, it makes a great story. But after the giggles subside, this Zupo tale is a perfect illustration of what was wrong with the Bonus Baby Rule. A big league team is no place for a 17 year-old fresh out of high school. His continuing to do his dopey fake throw gag even after the adults warned him shows why he should have been in the minor leagues. In a place like Aberdeen, South Dakota where the Orioles had one of their low-level minor league teams, Zupo’s antics might have raised a few yuks before a fatherly coach put his arm around the teen and told him to knock it off. Besides sound professional advice like that, Zupo would have been able to play every day, expounding on the skills that led him to be signed by Baltimore in the first place.

Instead, Frank Zupo languished on the Orioles bench for two long summers, getting into just 11 games and recording one hit in 14 at-bats. On a lighter note, in one of those games, Zupo and Orioles pitcher George Zuverink made alphabetic sports history when the pair formed the only all-Z battery in big league history.

MLB rescinded the Bonus Baby Rule in 1958, and Zupo was mercifully sent to the minors. Unfortunately, two of his prime years were irretrievably gone. He would spend the next four years doing a whirlwind tour of Baltimore’s minor league system from top to bottom – Louisville, Knoxville, Wilson, Asheville, Salem, Yakima, and finally Class C Stockton. Whether it was the humiliation of touring the O’s system in reverse or his maturing with age, Zupo was finally able to gain control of his sinking career with Stockton. He had married over the winter of ’57 and by 1960 he and his wife Joann had a boy and a girl. Now 20 and with no league lower to sink to, Zupo pulled it together with the Stockton Ports. Playing the entire season for a single team for the first time, Zupo hit a career-high .319 with 28 extra base hits including 7 homers. His fine showing earned him a trip to Orioles spring training the following year. At camp, the new-model Frank Zupo impressed the front office with much improved attitude. Talking to a sportswriter that spring, Zupo looked back at his previous immature outlook and wasted opportunities. “I blame nobody but myself” he said, “but I’m a different person now.”

Back with Baltimore to open the ’61 season, Zupo had two hits in four at-bats before he was tossed back into the bush leagues for good. And here’s where the short baseball career of Frank Zupo has one last interesting nugget.

One of the players Zupo played with during his bush league days was a wild left-hander named Steve Dalkowski. Dalko is legendary in baseball circles, known as the fastest man to ever throw a ball as well as the wildest. (There’s a full-page illustration and extended story about Steve Dalkowski in my book, The League of Outsider Baseball). That guy Nuke LaLoosh in the movie Bull Durham was modeled after Dalkowski, though the real character met a much sadder end. After blowing out his arm, Dalkowski descended into a life of homelessness and alcoholism. For a few decades his whereabouts were unknown, that is until his former catcher in the minors decided to track down his old battery mate. That old catcher? You guessed it, Frank Zupo. The former Bonus Baby brought Dalkowski out of the ether and helped him get himself together long enough to be interviewed by a documentary film crew, preserving his place in baseball lore. Zupo’s rediscovery of his old pal led to Dalkowski reuniting with his family and securing him the mental and medical help he needed to live a decent life until just this spring when complications from Covid-19 got him.

Frank Zupo’s baseball career ended back in ’65. He went back to Northern California where he held down numerous jobs in differing vocations. He had a son and daughter, and like almost every retired ballplayer, enjoyed fishing and golf. The one-time Bonus Baby passed away at the age of 65 in March 2005. He left behind two children and numerous grandkids along with a nice portfolio of fun baseball lore that far out-weighed his modest big league career, and made this writer’s exhausting yard work much more bearable.

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