Frank “Dins” Makosky: The Johnny Appleseed of the Forkball

 

 

IN THE FINAL WEEK of September 1936, sportswriters and bookmakers throughout the country were speculating on the odds of the pending World Series. This fall it was an all-New York affair: the Giants vs. the Yankees. Of the pair, the Giants were given the narrow edge. Led by slugging first baseman and manager Bill Terry, the Giants had a nice selection of heavy hitters in Jo-Jo Moore, Dick Bartell, and Sam Leslie, not to mention Mel Ott, whose 33 homers led the National League. But as formidable as their bats were, the Giants real strength was their pitching staff.
“Prince Hal” Schumacher and “Fat Freddie” Fitzsimmons were seasoned starters and veterans of the Giants 1933 World Championship squad. However, it was “King Carl” Hubbell who was the main instrument in the Giants winning the 1936 pennant.

Carl Hubbell’s 26-6 record made him the best pitcher in baseball as he won the MVP Award, becoming the first National Leaguer to win the award twice. The key to Hubbell’s success was his baffling screwball. As a lefthander, Hubbell rotated his arm clockwise as he brought his arm forward, with his palm almost completely underneath the ball as it was released. The ball broke right to left as it crossed the plate, breaking down and away on right-handed batters and down and in on lefties. Because of the unbelievable amount of stress placed on a pitcher’s arm, not many hurlers attempted to throw this pitch, and it was that scarcity of screwballers that made Carl Hubbell’s money pitch downright baffling to opposing hitters.

Yankees manager Joe McCarthy felt confident his lineup of Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey George Selkirk and rookie sensation Joe DiMaggio could give Schumacher and Fitzsimmons a run for their money. However McCarthy knew that neutralizing Hubbell’s screwball was the key to winning the Series. As good as his hitters were, none of them had seen a screwball all season, and that was a problem.

Luckily, one of Joe McCarthy’s strengths was his resourcefulness. A baseball lifer, McCarthy had toiled as an infielder in the high minors for a decade before he found his sweet spot as a manager. After leading the Louisville Colonels to two pennants, he took over the Chicago Cubs in 1926. In a few short years, he had completely turned the Cubs from a third-rate loser into a powerful pennant winner. Among the novel ideas he developed with the Cubs was his use of a dedicated batting practice pitcher. The baseball norm at the time was that starting pitchers on their off-day threw batting practice. In Chicago, McCarthy insisted the club carry pitcher Hank Grampp whose only job was to throw batting practice.

Hank Grampp took his job extremely seriously. A student of the game, Grampp went so far as to mimic a particular pitcher’s unique windup or throwing motion; if the team was facing a submarine pitcher, Grampp served up submarine pitches. If a junkballer was scheduled to start, Grampp threw his assortment of junk. Some said Grampp would not only don facial disguises to further impersonate opposing hitters but was also ambidextrous and able to throw with either hand. While those last two claims have been disputed, what isn’t is that this odd little innovation helped McCarthy’s hitters club their way to the 1929 pennant.

So, when it was clear the Yanks would face the Giants and Carl Hubbell in the World Series, Joe McCarthy looked to his farm system to find a pitcher who could throw a screwball. He only had to look west across the Hudson River to New Jersey.

Over in Newark the Yankees had their top farm team, the Bears. After winning the Little World Series in 1932, the Bears made the playoffs every year since. One of the keys to their perennial success was a local Jersey boy named Frank Makosky who threw a funny pitch called a forkball. Though Makosky was a righty and the forkball was a completely different pitch than a screwball, the way Makosky’s ball broke over the plate was eerily similar to Hubbell’s money pitch. A phone call was placed to Newark, and after a 5-cent subway ride under the river and up to the Bronx, Frank Makosky realized his dream of being a New York Yankee.

FRANK MAKOSKY had grown up in Boonton, New Jersey, just about thirty miles from Yankee Stadium. Researching Frank’s early years was made difficult by the various spellings of his surname: Makosky is the way he was listed when he reached the big leagues, but before that his name appears as “Makovsky,” Makovskey,” and “Makoskey. His parents, Joseph and Mary, were recent Slovakian immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and “Makovsky” was the way they were recorded in census records. Joseph opened a butcher shop and brought his brothers Andrew and George over from the Old Country to work in his shop. Frank was born in 1910, followed shorty afterwards by Joe, Jr, John, and Anna.

Early on, Frank’s classmates at school gave him his life-long nickname of “Dins.” Though archaic these days, a century ago “din” was a commonly used work meaning “loud and boisterous.” The nickname was bestowed ironically, for Makosky was the quietest and least talkative among his peers.

At Boonton High, Makosky let his athletic prowess do his talking. He played varsity baseball, basketball, track, and football, earning 16 letters by the time he graduated. Though he had no less than seventeen athletic scholarship offers, Makosky declined them all, preferring a career in baseball to college, his favorite sport by far, and one in which he was already attracting attention.

WHILE STILL a senior in 1929, Makosky was given a tryout with the Washington Senators. Under the watchful eye of Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, the teenager pitched batting practice to the big leaguers, making “a fine impression.” Makosky was invited to join the team for the remainder of the season, and though no Senators contract was proffered, Walter Johnson thought enough of the youngster to recommend him to former Yankees ace “Bullet Joe” Bush, now manager of the Allentown Buffaloes of the Eastern League.

Bush followed Makosky’s progress during the summer of 1930 in which he played for the St. Mary’s team of Dover in the North Jersey Twilight League, and the following spring offered the pitcher an Allentown contract.

Makosky went south for spring training and emerged as one of the team’s best prospects. He made the team and began the season in Allentown. Almost immediately, Makosky married his girlfriend back in Boonton, Helen Hiler. According to the Allentown Morning Call, the marriage came as a complete surprise to his teammates and, as if to reinforce why his nickname was “Dins,” Makosky “could not be reached” when reporters tried to talk to him.

On the field, Makosky began learning the ropes of pro ball. His teacher couldn’t have been any better, for “Bullet Joe” Bush had been among the best pitchers in the American League in the years just before and after World War I. Bush helped pitch the A’s, Red Sox, and Yankees each to a World Championship, and he pitched a no-hitter in 1916. But the most influential thing Bush passed down to young Makosky was how to throw his famed forkball. While the rookie already had the requisite fastball and curve, this third pitch, when fully mastered, would be Makosky’s ticket to the majors.

On May 16, it was announced that the Buffaloes had to cut five players from their roster to reach the league mandated 16 players. Two players were given their unconditional release and two others traded away. In Makosky’s case, the team decided to “suspend” him for the season. In reality, the suspension wasn’t issued for disciplinary reasons, but as a clerical expediency. By suspending him, Makosky was still under contract with Allentown and no other club could claim him. Not necessarily legal, but no one seemed to raise an issue with it. It didn’t really matter, as Bush recalled Makosky to Allentown two weeks later.

Makosky’s first assignment back was to pitch an exhibition game in Atlantic City against Connie Mack’s World Champion Philadelphia Athletics. This ballclub, regarded by many researchers as the greatest dynasty in baseball history, featured future Hall of Famers Al Simmons, Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, and Jimmie Foxx – quite a daunting lineup to a pitcher in his first season of pro ball. As could be expected, Makosky and the rest of the Allentown crew got clobbered by the World Champs, 17-12. Makosky pitched the first six innings, striking out 1, walking 2 and hitting 2. He left the game ahead 9-7, but the Athletics jumped all over Jake Levy for 10 runs before the game was called because of no more baseballs. Though it wasn’t his best outing, the Allentown Morning Call reported, “Connie Mack took a tremendous liking to Makoskey when he pitched against the A’s at Atlantic City last Friday.”

But all was not well with Makosky – though typically with Dins, he didn’t bother to tell anyone. Just a few weeks after the Philadelphia game, Makosky packed up and went back to Jersey. According to the Allentown Morning Call, “There had been no words between manager and pitcher and Makoskey’s action came as a surprise both to manager Bush and the other players on the club.” The article also went on to say that “Makoskey wrote Manager Joe Bush and told him that he had jumped the club for good and that he planned to pitch independent ball around Newark and Paterson.” No definitive reason was ever given for Makosky’s rash move, but according to that same article, Bush and the rest of the team believed it had something to do with his recent marriage to Helen. Whatever the cause, jumping a team was considered a first degree felony in baseball, and the body that ruled minor league baseball, the National Association, immediately banned Makosky from playing professional baseball for two years.

THOUGH HE WAS OUT of pro baseball, it didn’t mean Dins couldn’t still play. New York and North Jersey had a bustling semi-pro scene back before World War II, and Makosky quickly became a well-known fixture. Playing for Morristown in the Lackawanna League, Dins was not only one of the best pitchers but also led the circuit in hitting with a .389 average. But it was two key games he pitched for the Glendale Farmers in the summer of 1933 that got the attention of the majors. The first was a 3-1 win over an All-Star team led by Jimmie Foxx and featuring big league stars Hank Greenberg and Billy Jurges. Foxx, who had won the Triple Crown and the second of his back-to-back MVP Awards that summer, whiffed twice, and went 1 for 5 against Dins. The other marquee win was a 1-nothing upset of the Brooklyn Bushwicks, recognized as the best semi-pro team in the country, to win the annual “Little World Series.” His 16 scoreless innings streak in the series earned him a place on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s 1933 Semi-Pro Baseball Team and named that year’s “greatest pitcher in semi-pro ranks.” Before October was out Makosky was visited by scout Paul Krichell, who signed him to a contract with the Yankees top farm club, the Newark Bears.

As one of the three top Yankees minor league teams, the Bears were loaded with talent. Of the 30 players who appeared with the Bears on the 1934 team that Makosky joined in spring training, 22 eventually made it to the Big Show. With all that top talent already on the team, early odds were that Makosky would be sent to a lower tier club. However, after showing what his forkball could do, the front office began to have second thoughts about farming him out. The clincher was Makosky’s performance in an exhibition game against the Yankees. In his four innings of work, Dins kept Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the rest of Yankees to just one hit, a lucky single by a career minor leaguer named Norman Kies.

Once the season began, Makosky quickly proved to be the International League’s most effective reliever. In addition to his baffling forkball, Makosky possessed all the things scouts today seek in a relief pitcher: calmness under fire and a desire to go into a volatile situation and take control. His record of 11-6 doesn’t aptly illustrate how much of an impact he had as the Bears raced towards another 1st place finish. As a tribute to how much he had done for the Bears that year, manager Bob Shawkey gave Makosky the nod to be the starting pitcher in what would be the pennant clinching game against Syracuse. The game was a nail biter, tied 1-1 going into the ninth, when Newark catcher Ray Schalk hit a two-out, two-on homer to win, 4-1.

Dins Makosky continued to work out of Newark’s bullpen throughout 1935 and 1936, accumulating great press for his tricky forkball. And that’s where Yankees manager Joe McCarthy found him when he needed a pitcher who could replicate Carl Hubbell’s screwball.

IN THE 1936 WORLD SERIES, the Yankees beat the Giants 4 games to 2. Hubbell was effectively neutralized, winning one and losing one. The Yankees batters, now familiar with the odd break of King Carl’s screwball thanks to Dins’ forkball, were able to hit the Giants ace at a slightly better clip than the National League did during the regular season: 7.8 hits per 9 innings as opposed to 8.4 in the World Series.

Yankees skipper Joe McCarthy apparently liked what he saw from Makosky, and he was invited to spring training with the big club the next year. Almost immediately, Makosky was the object of much newsprint. His forkball was the subject of awe from the sportswriters and players alike. Several remarked on Makosky’s easy delivers, with Cleveland’s ace Johnny Allen quipping, “Hell, that fellow’s ruining the pitching racket. He makes it look so easy out there.”

IF MAKOSKY had been in the farm system of most other big league teams at the time, chances are a relief pitcher like him would not have been given a chance in spring training. In the 1930s most major league teams failed to develop a dedicated bullpen, often relying on washed up veterans or unproven rookies. But the Yankees had a long history of utilizing specific pitchers solely in a relief role. One of the components that made the 1927 Yankees such a powerhouse was their bullpen ace Wilcy Moore. The 30 year-old rookie shocked the baseball world when he won 19 games, mostly out of the bullpen.

The Yankees continued to develop a dedicated bullpen, and by 1936 their marquee reliever was Johnny Murphy, a big fastballer out of Fordham University. Whereas earlier a reliever had a thankless position on the team, Murphy became one of the first players to become respected for his relief pitching. Manager Joe McCarthy was especially generous with his praise of Murphy’s work, a major factor in making the relief pitcher a valued part of a major league team.

For his 1937 bullpen, McCarthy decided to keep Murphy in a closer role with the more general relief work parceled out between veteran Pat Malone and Din Makosky. While Malone was at the tail end of a once brilliant career, Makosky was touted as the future of the Yanks relief corps – in fact, the front office began calling Makosky “the next Wilcy Moore.”

ONCE HE SETTLED IN with the club, Makosky found that he had something in common with the team’s biggest star, Lou Gehrig. Turned out that just like Makosky, Gehrig had played semi-pro ball for Morristown as well, and he confided to the rookie that the longest ball he had ever hit was in Makosky’s hometown of Boonton.

On the road, Makosky was roommates with another future Hall of Famer, Lefty Gomez. The pair both enjoyed mystery novels and when Makosky would finish one, he’d hand it off to his roomie to read. Though it was Gomez who was legendary for his pranks and eccentricity, Dins managed to one up him by routinely spoiling the mystery for Gomez by telling him who the murderer was before he was through.

Makosky finished the year with a nice 5-2 record in 26 games as the Yankees took the pennant by more than a dozen games in front of Detroit. As they had the year before, the Yanks were again pitted against the Giants, and that meant King Carl and his screwball. Makosky served up his forkball every day in batting practice, helping the Yankees lineup prepare. In the ’37 Series, the Yankees knocked off the Giants in five games, with Hubbell winning and losing the two games he pitched. Makosky didn’t get into any of the games – McCarthy sagely deemed his arm was more valuable to the team throwing an endless stream of B.P. forkballs. Unfortunately, the constant strain of throwing the pitch caused arm trouble.

WHEN MAKOSKY SHOWED UP at spring training the next year, the wing just wasn’t the same. The Yankees shipped the forkballer back to Newark and then immediately to Kansas City, the team’s other top farm club. There Makosky went 7-5 out of the bullpen.

Looking back on his 1938 season in KC, Makosky recalled the day the Yankees came to town to play an exhibition game. Mingling with his former Yankees teammates, Makosky was approached by Lou Gehrig. As the pair talked, Gehrig confided to his old teammate, “Frank, I don’t know what’s the matter. I can see the ball and hit it, but I dribble it back to the pitcher and run on my heels.” It would be less than a year later that Gehrig would be diagnosed with the fatal illness that would bear his name.

Makosky improved to 9-3 the next season, but his contract was sold to the Chicago Cubs. He pitched the 1940 and 1941 seasons as a starter for the Milwaukee Brewers but met with mixed success. He retired at the end of the season.

The war brought a second chance to Frank Makosky. In 1945 he was persuaded to put on a Newark Bears uniform once again. His return was much heralded by the local press, and the 35- year old Dins didn’t do too shabbily: 1.83 ERA in 19 games of bullpen work. He played one more season, split evenly between the Yankees two top farm teams, Newark and Kansas City, before retiring for good.

DINS RETURNED to Boonton where he and Helen raised their two sons and daughter. Both boys followed in their father’s athletic footsteps, gaining fame throughout North Jersey during their high school years. Makosky opened a sporting goods store in nearby Morristown and coached Little League. In the mid-1960s Dins took a job coaching baseball for Drew University. Helen passed away from cancer in 1964, and Frank eventually remarried. His second wife, Erna, would pass away in 1979, also from cancer. Dins retired from coaching and did what many old ballplayers seem to do: move to Florida. Makosky spent his retirement playing golf and reminiscing with sportswriters and old teammates. A short illness claimed the Johnny Appleseed of forkballers in 1987 at the age of 76.

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ALTHOUGH MAKOSKY had been out of the game since 1946, his forkball lived on.

One of the promising pitchers he met while with Kansas City in 1938 was Ernie “Tiny” Bonham. Makosky taught Bonham the forkball which he used to devastating effect, winning 79 games for the Yankees from 1940 to 1946. Bonham in turn taught the baffling pitch to Joe Page, who would go on to become one of the most feared relief pitchers of the late 1940s and early 50s.

But the legacy of Makosky’s forkball didn’t reach its apex until Joe Page bestowed its secrets to a young rookie named Elroy Face in 1954. Pitching for the Pirates, Face became known as the “Baron of the Bullpen,” and his frustrating forkball made him the game’s most successful relief ace for the next fifteen years.
In the decades since, several players kept the forkball alive. Roger Craig learned the pitch in the 1950s and taught it to many players during his career as an MLB pitching coach. Tigers ace Jack Morris was Craig’s best pupil, his forkball helping win three World Championships and taking him all the way to the Hall of Fame. More recently, the pitch has gained particular popularity in Japan, and players such as Kazuhiro Sasaki and Hideo Nomo brought it with them when they arrived to pitch in the Major Leagues.

Today, the pitch is not one that is recommended to young players. According to MLB.com, “Because of the torque involved with snapping off a forkball, it can be one of the more taxing pitches to throw.”

So, don’t count on seeing very many forkballs being thrown these days – but if you do happen to see this rare and unique pitch, give a little silent thanks to Dins Makosky – the Johnny Appleseed of the Forkball.

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This week’s story is Number 43 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 4 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.

7 thoughts on “Frank “Dins” Makosky: The Johnny Appleseed of the Forkball

  1. So as far back as 1931, the Yankees were manipulating players’ service time, “suspending” Makosky in order to perpetrate a “clerical expediency” – very nice turn of a phrase there, Gary. Everything old really IS new again, it seems. Astounding research you’ve done for this one, but that’s always a hallmark of your wonderful art. Thanks for the brief history of the forkball and its fraternal twin, the screwball, whose mention I cannot let pass without also paying tribute to its master and creator Christy Mathewson, who called his baffling version of the pitch a “fadeaway.” Love these obscure, untold stories you keep digging up and replanting in our brains!

    1. Thanks Perry – but to be fair, the Allentown Buffaloes who “suspended” Makosky was loosely affiliated with the Washington Senators at the time, not the Yankees. Of course that’s not to say the Yanks or any other team would have pulled the same “clerical expediency” hijinx to keep a player under their control. Thanks for the kind words about my work, that means a lot to me!

  2. Beautiful write-up. Thanks. I was in grades 7-12 with Dins’ son, Frank Jr and still regularly exchange emails with him. I was born in Boonton in 1934 and lived there for 10 years. I left the Boonton AREA in 1970, but I never “really” left, and I will be returned to Boonton when I pass on.
    How do I get a copy of the booklet, and 1 for Frank?

  3. Congratulations on your research on Dins Makosky.
    As for Perry’s comment on Christy Mathewson as the “creator” of the screwball/fade away,
    while Mathewson certainly was the most famous proponent of the pitch, there is considerable
    evidence that in fact the “creator” of the fade away was Rube Foster (Negro National League
    founder and great pitcher in his own right) who, in turn, taught the pitch to Mathewson.
    Thanks, again.
    Gary Growe

  4. I was thrilled to read about my father’s closest friend growing up in Boonton NJ. We moved to Long Island but would go to Boonton often to visit aunts and uncles. When we did visit my father would visit with Mr. Makosky and I was always thrilled to join him on those visits, he was a really nice man and know why he and my father were such good friends. By the he was throwing that forkball for many years before the Yankees and my Dad and he would be backyard battery mates.
    Ironically my father’s youngest brother played within the yankee chain in the East Carolina Coastal and was considered a hot prospect, his name was Larry Quartararo and my father’s name was Ben.
    Thanks,
    Gary Quartararo

  5. Gary…I am Frank Jr. Now 88 years old and I read with keen interest your story of my father’s baseball career. Your story was not only interesting but as far as I know very accurate. I even found many facts that even I didn’t know. The period from when Dins graduated from high school until I was born in 1933 was a time my dad never talked much about and now I know why. I always thought my dad invented the forkball but your story tells it differently. I think that the way he threw the forkball was original because he said that others who held the ball in a similar way had a pitch that acted more like a knuckle ball. As you pointed out in your story my dad’s pitch sunk down and in to a right-handed batter. One thing even I didn’t know about my father until recently is the fact that his contract was sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers around 1946. He never played an inning with the Brooklyn organization but I do have a photo of him and Chuck Connors (The Rifleman) in a Brooklyn uniform. I am so thankful that you wrote Din’s story.

  6. Hello! What a great read about my great uncle. My mother Sue Makosky was Franks niece. My son Samuel Dins Savino relishes in being named after his great great uncle.

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