Frankie Zak: The accidental All-Star

Frankie Zak, illustrated by Gary Joseph Cieradkowski, was in the right place at the right time in 1944. Courtesy of Gary Joseph Cieradkowski

There are two Pirates shortstops in the second row of the 1944 National League All-Star team photo.

Second from the right is the 70-year-old honorary captain, Honus Wagner -- perhaps the greatest shortstop who ever lived.

Fourth from the left, trying to look like he belongs, is 22-year-old rookie Frankie Zak.

You're forgiven if you've never heard of him. Frankie Zak had only 208 at-bats in his three major league seasons, batting .269 and driving in a not-so-grand total of 14 runs.

So what was he doing sitting in between Cubs first baseman Phil Cavarretta and Reds pitcher Bucky Walters in that photo? How did he come to be in the same stellar group with the likes of young "Stan The Man" Musial, old "Master Melvin" Ott and Joe "Ducky" Medwick?

Well, it's a short story that's part of another short story. Here's the first one, as written by Arthur "Red" Patterson in the New York Herald-Tribune of July 12, 1944: Frank Zak was substituted at the last moment for Pete Coscarart, who was picked to replace Eddie Miller but went fishing before he could be notified. "They'd never find that Zak far from Forbes Field," cracked a Pittsburgh sports scribe. "He got a break. He thought he'd have to pay his way in."

Translation: Because the war was going on, and things were tight, NL manager Billy Southworth of the Braves needed a local infielder to replace the injured Eddie Miller of the Reds. His first choice was second baseman Pete Coscarart, who was off fishing. Pirates backup shortstop Frankie Zak just happened to be hanging around, so he was told to suit up -- too late to get into the press notes for the game.

He did get into the team photo, though. As for actually playing ... well, Cardinals shortstop Marty "The Octopus" Marion played all nine innings of the NL's 7-1 victory.

But that doesn't mean Zak didn't make his presence felt. You see, he also had a nickname, just like his more famous teammates.

"Because of his incessant chatter," wrote one correspondent, "teammates of Frankie Zak have nicknamed the Pittsburgh infielder 'The Voice.'"

If Zak was an accidental All-Star, well, it's only fitting because he was an accidental baseball player to begin with. Nobody knows his foretelling tale as well as Gary Joseph Cieradkowski, a Kentucky artist who used Zak to launch his Infinite Baseball Card Set, a very cool series of portraits that bring the footnotes of baseball history to life.

"My grandfather grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Passaic, New Jersey, with Frankie Zak," says Cieradkowski. "That's how I got interested in his story."

In the summer of 1941, fresh out of high school, Zak decided to visit his pal Ed Sudol, who was playing for the Tarboro (North Carolina) Orioles in the Coastal Plain League. Frankie didn't much like baseball, but he was fast and athletic, and Tarboro needed a shortstop. So the next thing he knew, he was a professional baseball player.

And a pretty good one at that.

"That's the funny thing," says Cieradkowski. "He was very talented."

Zak caught the eye of Pirates scouts, and after a year at Class D Hornell, he was invited to spring training in 1943. There's an old wire-service photo of Frankie comparing his hand to that of coach Honus Wagner.

Zak spent that '43 season with Pittsburgh's highest minor league affiliate, the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing alongside the young Ralph Kiner for Hall of Famer Burleigh "Old Stubblebeard" Grimes.

Keep in mind that pickings were slim in those wartime days. But at one point during that season, Grimes raved to a New York writer that Zak "is better than Pee Wee Reese was when he came to the Dodgers."

Pirates manager Frankie "The Fordham Flash" Frisch also took a liking to Zak and kept him on the big club in '44 to back up regular shortstop Frankie Gustine and pinch-run. At one point, the future Hall of Famer suggested he try batting left-handed to become a switch-hitter; but all of a sudden, Zak got hot and took the job away from the other Frankie. At the time of the All-Star break, Zak was batting .330. So his last-minute selection wasn't all that outrageous.

He came down to earth after his star turn, though, finishing at an even .300 with a slugging percentage of just .331.

But he did set off some fireworks that season when he tried to score from second on a hit by Jim Russell. As he rounded third, Cubs third baseman Eddie Stanky shoved Zak hard enough to send him tumbling into the dugout. The umpire waved him home, but Frisch was so irate that when Russell slid spikes high into Stanky on the very next play, so did Frisch -- from the third-base coach's box!

Zak started the '45 season with the Pirates, but the opener at Cincinnati's Crosley Field did not go well. Zak beat out a bunt in the fifth, but as he stood on first, he noticed his shoe was untied and called time -- just as the Reds' Bucky Walters threw a pitch to Jim Russell. The ball landed in the right field bleachers, but the first-base umpire waved off the three-run homer, saying he had granted time. Zak hung his head in shame as the Pirates went on to lose 7-6 in 11 innings. "Frankie kept apologizing, so I couldn't get too mad at him," said Russell.

After the game, Casey Stengel, the manager of the Kansas City Blues farm team, sent a telegram to Frisch: "AM RUSHING A PAIR OF BUTTON SHOES FOR ZAK." What Zak really needed, though, was a bigger bat, and soon enough, he found himself playing for Stengel in Kansas City.

Zak got one more cup of coffee for the Pirates in 1945, then spent the next four seasons bouncing from minor league town to minor league town: Kansas City, Newark, New Jersey, Portland, Oregon, Oklahoma City, San Diego.

For someone with only 208 at-bats, Zak inspired more than his share of stories. Yet another Hall of Famer, his old Pirates teammate Al "El Senor" Lopez, liked to tell about the time Zak fell in love with a girl from Chicago and invited her and her mother to attend a game at Wrigley. Unfortunately, the mother was hit in the face by a foul ball. "And that was the end of the romance," Lopez said.

Zak did ultimately marry a girl from Greenfield, Pennsylvania. They settled in Passaic, New Jersey, where he died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 49.

His was a short life. But he did get to see his old friend Ed Sudol umpire in two World Series, 1965 and 1971. If he was as talkative as his nickname suggests, he could tell people that he played for, with and against a slew of Hall of Famers. If he wasn't still embarrassed, he could tell them about the time his untied shoes cost the Pirates a game.

And he could claim to be the first player whose last name starts with Z to make an All-Star team.

Zak was long gone when his name came up again in the newspaper. Back on Oct. 2, 2000, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story about the last game at Three Rivers Stadium that included interviews with two elderly sisters who had been going to Pirates games for decades. One of the sisters, Helen, was wearing one of the 25 special Pirates hats she had designed over the years.

"We've really had a wonderful time at the games," she told the reporter.

She was identified as the widow of Frankie Zak, "who played shortstop for the Pirates in the early 1940s and even played in an All-Star Game."

Well, he didn't exactly play, but still ... it's nice to know his wife also had the knack for being in the right place at the right time.