Frankie Zak: This is where it started

Recently, I was reminded of the ballplayer whose story, more than anyone else’s, got me into researching obscure players and teams from baseball’s past and telling their stories.

Way back when I was a kid, I remember asking my grandfather if he ever knew anyone who made it to the major leagues. My grandfather said yes, as a matter of fact he did know a major leaguer, and his name was Frankie Zak. Frankie was a buddy of my grandfather from the old neighborhood in Passaic, New Jersey, an industrial city a few miles west of Manhattan. Frankie, like everyone else on Fourth Street, was the son of Polish immigrants. Thomas and Victoria, his parents, had immigrated from the Galicia region of Eastern Poland. Born in 1922, Frankie was the youngest of the four Zak kids. 

Just like my grandfather and the rest of the gang on Fourth Street, Frankie played baseball, but the game didn’t really interest Frankie. Sure, he tagged along when my grandfather and his cronies were devising schemes to sneak into Newark’s Ruppert Stadium to see the Yankees top farm club play, but baseball wasn’t Frankie’s thing. Just under 5’-10” and with a lean, athletic build, Frankie excelled at football, tennis, and especially track, where his fast speed earned him medals in the 60-yard dash.

When he graduated Passaic High in 1940, Frankie went to work in a wire cable factory. The stable life of a blue collar factory worker seemed to be his future, but that’s when fate stepped in.

In the summer of 1941, Frankie and a couple neighborhood pals decided to bum around the country in an old jalopy. With $30 bucks between them, they ventured south to visit another neighborhood pal (and an uncle of mine) Eddie Sudol. Back in the neighborhood, Eddie was the guy everyone thought would go all the way to the major leagues one day, and sure enough he was now playing his second year of organized ball with the Tarboro Orioles in the Coastal Plain League. This was Class D ball, the bottom rung of the minors at the time. While most teams at this level were not owned by a big league club like they are today, 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 and his two pals turn up in Tarboro one hot and humid June day. As Eddie told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “That night I went to the park, not because I liked baseball, but just to see my friend play. I wasn’t very much impressed, and the next day was making ready with my two pals to shove off, when my ball-playing friend rushed into the room and said: “Come on to the park. You’re goin’ to play for us tonight.”

In another interview with the Paterson Morning Call, Frankie recalled that Eddie, “came up and told me their shortstop quit and I was going to play that night. I’d played a little amateur and sandlot ball, but didn’t care much about the game. But the manager, Poke Whalen, said he would pay me for it–and I needed the money. So I played. I hit one for three and didn’t make any errors. He signed me to a contract after the game, and I stayed.” But it was only temporary, you know, ‘cause Frankie didn’t really care for baseball.

Though he had been a second baseman back in Passaic, Frankie eased right into his new job. And the sportswriters who covered the Coastal Plain League were delighted with the newcomer because they no longer had to write out the name of the shortstop Frankie replaced: Olesciewicz!

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 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 Japanese 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.

With the war picking up steam, Frankie’s rookie season was deemed good enough to be picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. The Bucs sent the 20-year-old shortstop to the Class D Hornell Maples in the Pennsylvania-Ohio-New York League (mercifully known as the PONY League). While he didn’t exactly tear up the circuit, he did boost his average to .271 in 129 games as the Maples’ 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 fully underway.

Spring training for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1943 was held in Muncie, Indiana due to wartime restrictions, and Frankie worked out under the tutelage of the greatest shortstop who ever played, Hall of Famer Honus Wagner. Though he didn’t seem ready for the majors quite yet, Frankie always managed to endear himself to those around him. This included the legendary managers he played for, such as Casey Stengel, Frankie Frisch, and Burleigh Grimes – all gruff veterans and Hall of Famers who did not normally take to young ballplayers. Yet, something about the kid from Passaic made these normally taciturn skippers take on an almost big brother role when it came to Frankie.

Throughout his career, the slight but enthusiastic ballplayer who was descried in an Associated Press wire story as “dynamic, effervescent,” never failed to make a positive impression on those around him. He was ever eager to hone his craft, showed unselfishness at the plate, willing to take a walk and get on base instead of swinging for the fences, and was a non-stop chatterbox of whistles and encouragement to his teammates when he was manning shortstop. The other ballplayers began calling Frankie, “The Voice.”

While Frankie didn’t impress Pirates skipper Frankie Frisch enough to make the big club, he was promoted to Pittsburgh’s highest minor league team, the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. The 1943 Leafs were managed by Burleigh Grimes, the cantankerous former Brooklyn Dodgers spitball pitcher and later manager. Grimes quickly became a Frankie Zak fan, singing his praises to both the young ballplayer and the press. The Leafs skipper told one sportswriter that his shortstop, “is better than Pee Wee Reese was when he came to the Dodgers” and Frankie later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Grimes “told me I would be a star in the majors, but I thought it was just encouragement, that’s all.”

Besides being the Leaf’s starting shortstop, Frankie became noted for his speed on the bases. He batted .246 with 9 doubles and a triple in all 150 games played that year, the only player on the team to do that. He swiped 22 bases, led the league with 104 runs scored, and was second in the league with 104 walks as Toronto won the pennant. He did, however, commit 50 errors at his position – but then again, who can find fault with that, ‘cause Frankie didn’t care for baseball very much…

In 1944, the major league talent pool had been decimated by the war. By then, pretty much every player who could pull a trigger was in the service. Those still playing were high school aged kids, geezers too old for the service, guys who were just plain lucky their draft number hadn’t come up yet, and those given a 4-F deferment by the draft board. 4-F was given out for a wide variety of reasons, but, in most cases, a person was not acceptable for military service because of a physical ailment. Afflicted with what was described in newspapers as a “kidney ailment,” Frankie was one of the 4-F’s.

It was under these circumstances that Frankie Zak put on a Pirates uniform with the number 14 on the back and stepped out onto the field as a real major leaguer.

Frankie’s big league debut came on April 21, 1944 in Forbes Field against the Cincinnati Reds. With the Pirates losing 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth, and with 11,377 fans in the stands, Frankie Zak was put in to pinch hit for veteran catcher Al Lopez. He wound up being stranded on first when the next batter hit into a forced third out – but still, Frankie Zak, the guy from the old neighborhood who didn’t care for baseball, was now a major league baseball player!

Pirates manager Frankie Frisch continued to use Frankie exclusively as a pinch hitter through the first two months of the season until his regular shortstop, Frankie Gustine, went into a batting slump. Frankie made his batting debut on June 1 in Ebbets Field against the Brooklyn Dodgers. In his first major league at bat, Frankie hit a single off Curt Davis in the top of the third. With Rip Sewell at the plate, the over enthusiastic Frankie danced too far off the bag and was picked off by Davis. However, Davis’s throw was off target and Frankie scampered into second on the error. Frankie clipped Davis for another hit in the fifth before he was taken out for a pinch hitter in the eighth inning.

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 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 heck did that happen? Well, it’s like this: The 1944 All-Star Game was to be played on July 11 at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Marty Marion of the Cardinals and Eddie Miller of the Reds were picked as the National League shortstops for the game. However, on the eve of the game, Miller was injured and could not play. National League manager Billy Southworth needed a backup to Marion ASAP, but because of wartime travel restrictions it would be impossible to import a player from out of town. He needed to grab someone present in Pittsburgh.

Southworth’s first choice was the Pirates second baseman, Pete Coscarart. Unfortunately, Pete was using the All-Star break to go on a fishing trip out of town. Fortunately, Frankie Zak had decided to stay in town. And just like that, Frankie Zak, the guy who didn’t care for baseball all that much, became an All-Star.

Although he didn’t get into the game (Marty Marion played all 9 innings), Frankie had the best seat in the house as the National League won, 7-1. He did, however, manage to get into the official team portrait, mixed right in there with the best National Leaguer players of 1944.

Frankie, who was batting .330 at the All-Star break, cooled down slightly to an even .300 at the end of the season. Though he more than held his own in his rookie season, Frankie’s major league career would last only 36 more games spread over the next two years. But Frankie Zak made up for lack of playing time with a couple of legendary baseball stories that are still told by old timers.

The first one takes place sometime in the 1944 season. The Pirates were playing Chicago at Wrigley Field, and Frankie was trying to score on a double by outfielder Jim Russell. As he rounded third, the Cubs nasty little third baseman, Eddie Stanky, gave him a hard shove. Thrown off balance and now out of control, Frankie careened out of the basepath and tumbled all the way to the dugout. The ump waved in the run but neglected to discipline Stanky. Pirates manager Frankie Frisch vowed to even the score for Frankie, 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 coach’s box! The ump, Hall of Famer Jocko Conlan, calls Russell safe and Frisch out of the game.

Another great Frankie yarn took place on Opening Day, 1945. Pittsburgh was leading the Reds 1-0 in the fifth at Crosley Field and Frankie Zak beat out a bunt. Now there’s two men on base. As Reds pitcher Bucky Walters began his pitch to Jim Russell, Frankie noticed his shoe was untied and called time. The first base umpire threw his hand up and called time out, but Walters and the home plate ump didn’t hear it in time. Walters threw, and Russell belted 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 batter’s box while Frankie 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, Pittsburgh lost the game 7-6. The next day Frankie Frisch got a telegram from Casey Stengel “Am rushing a pair of button shoes for Zak.”

Then there’s the time in spring training when the Pirates were playing an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians. Frankie was the leadoff batter in the Pirates half of the first inning. The pitcher was a giant Native American from Oklahoma named Allie Reynolds. Eager to show his stuff, Reynolds wound up and threw his hard one. Frankie swung and connected solidly – everybody heard it – but nothing happened. There Frankie was, standing at home plate, his hands empty and his bat laying on the ground – Reynolds threw so hard it literally knocked the bat out of Frankie’s hands! Pirates manager Frankie Frisch fell off the bench laughing so hard. Allie Reynolds would go on to be known for his overpowering fastball and pitch the New York Yankees to a couple World Championships.

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 mother’s 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 became of Frankie Zak? As the war wound down in the summer of 1945, former big leaguers began rejoining their old clubs. Frankie bounced back and forth between the Pirates and their farm team in Kansas City. He made the most of his demotion, leaving anyone who saw his work at shortstop come away impressed. The Kansas City Star went so far as to call him, “one of the more talented tenders of that position in Kansas City’s baseball history.”

The start of the 1946 season marked the return of real baseball and replacement players like Frankie Zak became redundant. To allow both the returning vets and the replacements to have a fair shot at staying in the majors, the usual 40-man roster was enlarged to 48 players for the season. Frankie opened the season with Pittsburgh, but after batting a flat .200 in 20 at bats he was given his release by Pittsburgh. Fortunately, Frankie’s time in KC the previous summer had impressed his manager, Casey Stengel. Even though he was now managing the Oakland Oaks, when Casey heard the Pirates had cut Frankie loose, he contacted his former bosses in Kansas City and told them to sign Frankie ASAP. As Kansas City was now a Yankees farm club, Frankie was now part of their vast organization.

Again, Frankie’s fielding and speed made him stand out, with the Kansas City Star musing, “the fact remains he is considerably above the average shortstop in fielding and is a definite threat on the cushions. His inability to drive in many runs is all that prevents his becoming outstanding as a major leaguer.”

After the ’46 season, Frankie became eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. This was MLB’s way of preventing teams such as the Yankees from keeping too many talented players down in the minors when they could be used by another major league club. The St. Louis Browns snatched Frankie up, but before he could report he was thrown in to sweeten the pot of a Browns-Yankees trade and he again found himself part of the Pinstripe Empire.

The Yanks sent him to their top farm club, the Newark Bears, the same team Frankie and my grandfather’s gang would try to sneak into watch years before. He batted a weak .206 for 1947 and then spent the next three seasons with Portland, San Diego, Oklahoma City, and finally Tacoma.

His nine-year baseball odyssey at an end, Frankie returned to Pittsburgh. He had married a Smoke City gal named Helen in 1945 and had two daughters. Sometime in the late 1950s Frankie made his way back to Passaic and took a job at United Wool. He stayed active in the area’s semipro baseball scene and, in 1967, was inducted into Passaic High’s Athletic Hall of Fame along with his old pal Eddie Sudol, the same guy who started Frankie on his unlikely baseball career. The National League All-Star passed away of a heart attack just a few days before his 50th birthday in February 1972.

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, every one of them with their own bunch of stories just waiting to be told. It just takes a little digging, and you’ll find them. I did.

Look up Frankie Zak today and you’ll find a bunch of mediocre articles churned out by lazy sportswriters that label Frankie “The Worst All-Star of All-Time” or some similar click-bait title. They rehash the ’44 All-Star Game replacement story and how Frankie hit just .269 in his three year MLB career and essentially was a nobody that went nowhere. The one thing all those articles have in common is that the writers didn’t look any futher into Frankie’s story than his entry in Wikipedia or maybe his stat line on Baseball-Reference.com. They don’t go into how and why Frankie got to the time and place that made him an accidental All-Star. Their curiosity ceases after the 36 games Frankie played after his All-Star Game season.

Do a bit of research and you find that far from being a joke at the time, contemporary sportswriters found Frankie Zak’s story inspiring. He was given the title of “Baseball’s Cinderella Man.” Like the original “Cinderella Man,” James J Braddock who, in 1935, went from being a washed up thirty-year-old New Jersey fighter to the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, the sportswriters appreciated how Frankie made the most of his unlikely career and turned into a real major leaguer. In 1944, Frankie’s story was an inspiration, something people could hold onto when their options looked bleak. Frankie proved that any man could become a “Cinderella Man.”

And that label of “worst All-Star?” Frankie was batting .330 at the All-Star break. If we use the same level of research those writers put towards their stories, one can make a case that the mantle of “worst All-Star” could be given to Willie Mays, who played in the 1972 game despite hitting a sad .211 on the year – or Hank Aaron, who was an All-Star in 1975 despite batting a sub-Mendoza .234. But do Mays and Aaron deserve title of “worst All-Star?” No, of course not, once you look past the numbers. And neither does Frankie.

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? I learned every box score and faded photograph holds the potential to launch a great yarn. 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.

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FRANKIE’S PAL FROM PASSAIC

 

Wait, what about Frankie’s friend that he went to visit in Tarboro back in 1941?

Well, Eddie Sudol worked his way steadily up the minor league ladder, hitting above the .300 mark at every stop. His contract changed hands between the Athletics, Indians, Giants, and Cubs.

Eddie made it as far as the Baltimore Orioles in 1943. The Boston Braves were hot to snatch up the power hitting outfielder, but before he could make it up that one last step up to majors, Uncle Sam came calling. After a couple years in the army, Eddie returned to baseball but couldn’t regain his footing.

He slowly slipped down the minor league ladder until he retired in 1953. Though Eddie didn’t reach the majors as a player, he did as a National League umpire in 1957.

He became known as “Extra Inning Ed” after umpiring a 23 inning game in 1964, 24 inning game in 1968, and 25 inning game in 1974 – interestingly, all featuring the New York Mets!

Eddie worked the World Series in 1965, 1971 and 1977 and All-Star Games in 1961, 1964 and 1974. And it was Eddie Sudol who was behind the plate when Jim Bunning tossed his perfect game in 1964 and worked second base when Henry Aaron hit his 715th career home run.

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NOTE: If anyone made the connection that the title of this piece, “This is where it started” was taken from the first line of the song “Six Bells Chime” by Crime & the City Solution, I salute you for your taste in 1980s new wave classics.

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This story is Number 71 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 6 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 066 and will be active through December of 2024. Booklets 1-65 can be purchased as a group, too.

 

 

1 thought on “Frankie Zak: This is where it started

  1. Became interested in baseball history when researching my Great Grandfather, MLB Umpire Jim Johnstone. He invented the catcher’s mask (patent 1922). Officiated in 1906 & 1909 World Series. Highlight was home plate (Bill Klem on bases) on 10/8/1908 playoof game Giants hosting Cubs due to Fred Merkle’s bonehead play in September 1908. Story continues as Johnstone was inducted into the NJ Inventor’s HOF February 1994. Later captured in Jim Johnstone-SABR article written by a retired amateur umpire from Illinois who found documentation submitted by me to Cooperstown. Prototype of mask donated to the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center is on permanent display.

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