SABR

Norm Zauchin

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Aloysius “Wish” Egan was one of the top scouts in the Detroit Tigers system. Among the players he signed in his 40 years of scouting were Jim Bunning, Hal Newhouser, and Dizzy Trout. Egan even scouted the Lakeland, Florida, site the Tigers have used for spring training since 1934. All scouts have regrets; one of Egan’s biggest was Norbert Henry Zauchin.

Norm Zauchin grew up in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, about 15 miles from Briggs Stadium, home of the Tigers. Norm was about 12 years old when he lost his father, Charles Zauchin, a foreman for road contractor R.D. Baker Co. Charles had been born in Poland as Casmer Zauchin and emigrated to the United States in 1914. Fortunately, Norm had three older sisters, and a mother, Catherine, who worked in a factory, as so many women did, during the Second World War. “His mother really supported him in everything that he did with his sports, and his sisters did, too,” said Norm’s wife, Janet.

Zauchin had apparently first set his sights on professional basketball as a career, until the Detroit Falcons franchise folded after one season, 1946-47.1 “He had basketball scholarships offered to him everywhere,” said Janet Zauchin. “He even had some hockey scholarships offered.”

When he graduated from Royal Oak High School, Norm had “agreed to terms” with Egan, the Tigers’ scout. “Wish said he’d be back the next day with the contract,” Zauchin told Gerry Hern of the Boston Post. “I was so anxious to sign with the club that I didn’t leave the house that day, or the next. Finally, I figured they were giving me the brush-off, but to be fair I gave them another day. Didn’t leave the house because I didn’t want to miss signing with the Tigers.” After waiting in vain for three days, he phoned the Boston Red Sox scout, Maurice DeLoof, and signed with him. “I was mad then, but I’m glad the way it happened now.”2

Zauchin was born on November 17, 1929, in Royal Oak. He apparently lived in nearby Hamtramck for a while as well. After DeLoof signed him in 1948, he was assigned to the Milford Red Sox, a Class D (Eastern Shore League) team. Zauchin appeared in 120 games that summer for the Delaware affiliate, and performed extremely well, the league’s most valuable player, setting a record for the most doubles in a season with 44. His .353 average wasn’t tops, but his 33 homers, 323 total bases, and 138 runs batted in each led the league.

The next year, 1949, he was jumped from Class D all the way to Triple-A, and the Louisville Colonels decided to make him a catcher. Louisville president Eddie Doherty explained, “The organization is well set on first basemen.” Zauchin knew he’d have a better chance to move up if he could prove successful behind the plate. They worked closely with him for five weeks during Colonels spring training in Bradenton, Florida.

He played a total of two regular-season games as Louisville’s catcher, and then was optioned to Scranton, Pennsylvania, early in May. Zauchin appeared in four games for Scranton, Boston’s Single-A Eastern League team, and within a month was sent further back down to the ladder, to Class C with the San Jose (California) Red Sox. He was also moved back to first base and never caught again in Organized Baseball. Experiment concluded. With San Jose, Zauchin batted .332 in 101 games, hit 22 homers, and generally regained his game.

In 1950, he was assigned to the Birmingham Barons of the Double-A Southern Association. The Sporting News correspondent George K. Leonard wrote in April that Zauchin was “regarded by some as another Walt Dropo at first base.”3 It was a theme picked up by other writers; Frank McGowan’s article in The Sporting News was headlined BARONS HAIL ZAUCHIN AS DROPO No. 2. McGowan said the Barons were so certain of Zauchin’s success that he was the only first baseman brought to camp. Zauchin was putting together quite a closet full of new menswear; every home run hit at home earned Birmingham batters a new suit from J.B. Blach & Sons.4 His 35 homers surpassed the Southern Association single-season mark of 29, set 25 years earlier, but Memphis Chicks outfielder Bill Wilson hit one more. Norm was still only 20 years old.

In 1951, Norm stuck with Louisville, and was headed for a third year knocking in 100 or more runs when he sprained his ankle on August 7. In September, the Sox called up Sammy White, Ike Delock, Zauchin, and three other prospects.

Norm had his major-league debut on September 23 in a game against the Yankees, with Boston not far from the brink of elimination from the pennant race. He took over at first base for Walt Dropo, was 0-for-1 at the plate, and handled the one chance in the field that came his way, a putout. On the 29th, he was 2-for-7 in a doubleheader, the only hits he’d get in major-league ball for more than three years.

Norm had a big year in 1952. First, he married Janet Louise Mooney of Bessemer, Alabama, on February 16. On the 27th, he was inducted into the United States Army. The induction was apparently a surprise to the Red Sox.5

Zauchin was assigned to Camp Gordon, Georgia, and promptly joined the base’s baseball team. It was a strong team, and had won 44 home games in a row but lost the day of Zauchin’s military baseball debut, playing a game against the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers.6

On December 20, 1952, the Zauchins welcomed their first child, David Stanley Zauchin. Norm remained in the Army throughout 1953, and was discharged on February 25, 1954 – in time to report for spring training. The competition at first base looked to be among incumbent Dick Gernert and rookies Zauchin and Harry Agganis. As a returning veteran, Norm had the right to stay on the big-league roster for the full 1954 season, but he requested that he be sent to Louisville instead, where he’d have a chance to play. He prospered again for the Colonels despite two years out of organized ball, batting .289 in 145 games, with 18 home runs.7

One of the more interesting stories from his year in Louisville took place the time a ball hit off a giraffe’s neck and prevented Zauchin from hitting a homer. It wasn’t a real giraffe, but part of an advertising sign affixed to Parkway Field’s 35-foot-high left-field scoreboard. The neck stretched above the rest of the scoreboard. On April 24, Zauchin hit a hard drive to the very spot and the ball bounced off the giraffe’s neck and bounded back onto the field. His luck began to change after a slow start and one early game saw him hit a double, a triple, and a grand slam for six RBIs in all.8

By August 15, Zauchin was back to the century mark in runs batted in. His second grand slam of the season came on August 22 and added to his total. The Colonels won the American Association playoffs and the Little World Series, helping Pinky Higgins move up to manager of the Red Sox. Zauchin had 13 RBIs in the Colonels’ 12 postseason games. Both Norm and Pete Daley hit grand slams in Game Five of the LWS for a 14-9 win.

From A to Z, incoming manager Higgins foresaw Agganis and Zauchin competing for the first-base job. Sam Mele maybe had an outside shot. Higgins said he was surprised to learn that Agganis hadn’t fielded as well as had been expected in his rookie season. He thought Zauchin, fresh from winter ball in Venezuela, might have the edge as a right-handed hitter in Fenway Park. Zauchin looked forward to playing again for Higgins, his manager at Birmingham in 1950 and Louisville in 1951 and 1954. “He’s been like a father to me,” Zauchin said, “helping me along when the going got a little rough. I imagine a lot of other fellows on this ballclub feel the same way.”9

Neither Agganis nor Zauchin impressed in spring training, and Higgins thought out loud about platooning them – but one game seemed to make a big difference. Zauchin had been hitting just .214 in Florida, but after Higgins suggested that he close his stance he started to hit as the team traveled north. Zauchin finished the spring with a .318 average. On April 3 in Charleston, South Carolina, Zauchin hit a three-run homer off Robin Roberts of the Philadelphia Phillies to give the Red Sox the 4-2 win. Earlier in the game, he’d singled in the first run.

Unfortunately Zauchin was 0-for-12 in the first three games of the season, with five strikeouts, and that landed him on the bench. His first hit was a bloop fourth-inning single on April 20 which won the game, 1-0, for Willard Nixon. Four days later, he did it again: Another bloop in the top of the ninth off New York’s Eddie Lopat won another 1-0 game for Nixon. “It wasn’t much of a hit,” Zauchin said, “but it sure looked sweet dropping in there.”10

For a week in early May, Agganis was getting most of the starts but after going 5-for-10 in the May 15 doubleheader, Agganis became ill and couldn’t play. Norm won a home-run-hitting contest at Fenway Park on the 23rd, and then hit two more during an exhibition game against the New York Giants. Through May 26, however, Zauchin was hitting only .214 with one home run and five RBIs despite having appeared in 24 games. This wasn’t the production the Red Sox were looking for.

Then all of a sudden, he exploded – hammering out three home runs and a bases-loaded double, driving in 10 runs, in a May 27 game against the visiting Washington Senators. Each of Zauch’s three round-trippers was off a different pitcher. The Red Sox won the game, 16-0, as Tom Brewer threw a six-hit shutout. Ted Williams had rejoined the club from Marine duty in the Korean War and been put on the active list. He didn’t play during the big game, but Norm said having him around talking hitting had helped – and that he might have had a fourth home run if he’d followed Ted’s recommendation to expect a fastball on the first pitch. Sure enough, a fat one came right in, but Norm hadn’t really expected it. “I got to figuring on my own instead of listening to The Master,” he said.11

His 10 runs batted in and three homers in a game remain, as of 2010, Red Sox records, shared with other Boston batters. Zauchin hit four more homers over the next nine games and drove in nine runs.

Agganis came back and started games on June 1 and 2, going 3-for-8, and then never played baseball again. He had to be re-hospitalized with pneumonia and then, shockingly, died on June 27 in Cambridge.

Zauchin played first base in almost every game the rest of the year, finishing just short of his two targets – he hit 27 homers (not 30) and drove in 93 runs (not 100), but it was a very good year, with a high-water mark of .280 near the end of June – though he led the league with 105 strikeouts and batted only .239, dragged down by a horrendous slump at the end of July. Slow afoot, he somehow stole three bases.

His most unusual hit of the year didn’t involve a giraffe but a brown bear from Maine – a live one. August 14 was State of Maine Day at Fenway Park, and the governor offered a live bear cub (named Homer) to whoever hit the first home run. As it happens, Janet Zauchin’s father was active in raising funds to build a zoo in Birmingham, and 3-year-old David asked his dad to win the bear. Zauchin homered in the fifth inning and then, for good measure, hit another in the eighth.12

After his fine rookie year, Zauchin did some postseason barnstorming in New England and Canada with a team put together by Yankees pitcher Spec Shea. Norm was named by The Sporting News after the season as its rookie All-Star first baseman. He recorded an excellent .995 fielding percentage, leading all first basemen (tied with Walt Dropo of the White Sox). The Washington Post’s Shirley Povich dubbed him “extremely agile for his size.”

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Zauchin (once described as a “mastodonic fellow” by Povich) did not see much duty in 1956. Despite his 27-homer season, the Red Sox had acquired two-time batting champion Mickey Vernon in November. Vernon was a left-handed batter, but Higgins talked not so much about platooning as going with the guy with the hot bat.13 Vernon’s bat proved much hotter; he batted .310 and drove in 84 runs. Zauchin was definitely his understudy, getting only 84 at-bats (.214, two homers, 11 RBIs). As the 1956 season progressed, since the Red Sox were carrying only two catchers, Higgins asked Zauchin to catch batting practice so that he might be ready to step in behind the plate. “Maybe one of these days, they’ll need me,” Norm said in the July 4 Sporting News. It never came to pass.14

Vernon dropped off to .241 in 1957, but there was some three-way sharing going on with Dick Gernert’s return at first base. Gernert hit only .237, though, and Zauchin batted .264 in just 91 at-bats. He hit three homers and drove in 14 runs, and with a fractured left wrist on August 27 sliding into second base during a game in Detroit; he was out for the season. Oddly, second baseman Ted Lepcio had his wrist broken by a pitch two days later, on the 29th, also in Detroit.

On January 23, 1958, the Red Sox sent both the 6-foot-5 Zauchin and the 5-foot-5 Albie Pearson to the Washington Senators for infielder Pete Runnels, who was coming off a subpar .230 season. Runnels hit over .300 with two American League batting titles in the next five seasons.

Norm was happy with the trade, “grateful for the chance to play regularly,” as he told the Washington Post. “I’m a free-swinger and I wasn’t very good at getting off the bench and pinch-hitting. I was getting rusty. With Washington, I feel I’m getting a real chance and I intend to make the most of it.”15 The cast had come off his wrist, and he was playing golf on a regular basis, which seemed to be helping his wrist regain its strength. Zauchin took part in offseason player golf tournaments over the years and invariably placed among the top three or four.

Zauchin hit well in the early going in 1958, batting over .300 through mid-May. A 3-for-4 game against the Red Sox on April 20 included his first home run of the season. He talked about the trade, telling Ed Rumill, “I can’t criticize Mike Higgins for trading me. He wanted Runnels badly and Pete will be a good ballplayer for Boston. … However, I’ll always wonder what I might have done here in Boston. I mean, I hit 27 home runs my first year and drove in 93 runs, which wasn’t bad. How do we know I couldn’t have hit 50 home runs the next year, if I’d played every day? They just wouldn’t play me. But I guess Mike had his reasons.”16

On May 22, he was still hitting .283, but he hurt his shoulder diving for a grounder in Cleveland. He said he couldn’t swing the bat right, but when he volunteered to catch batting practice, that apparently put him in Lavagetto’s doghouse. Cookie felt he ought to be able to bat if he could do that.

Zauchin appeared in only two games between May 22 and June 15. He told the Post’s Shirley Povich that “anybody saying he wasn’t giving his best was a liar.” Povich said that Lavagetto declined to comment but that “he hasn’t fancied the things Zauchin has been doing or refrained from doing for the Senators.” Lavagetto later offered, “I have a feeling that his mind isn’t entirely on baseball. I’m not saying he’s ‘faking,’ but he doesn’t seem to be too interested in holding his job.” Zauchin defended himself, saying he’d be a dope to pass up the opportunity the Senators had given him, adding, “I’ve never played less than the best in my life.”17 A story in the Post called him “angered and upset,” quoting him at length. “I resent being called a prima donna and a guy who’s laying down on his job. I’m no quitter. This is a ballpark where I ought to hit 25 or 30 homers.” He admitted to some personal problems at the time, but said he hadn’t let them affect his playing. It was the shoulder injury that prevented him from swinging properly.18

Zauchin got back in the lineup, hitting consistently but with a slowly eroding average. At one point, he was assessed a $5 fine for chatting with a spectator in violation of league rules, but the money was refunded when he explained that the man was his doctor and that they were talking about his still-hurting shoulder.19 On July 22, he hit a home run in the top of the 12th to provide the winning run in the first game of two against the Indians. On August 27, another long drive was momentarily in the glove of Chicago’s Jim Rivera, but as he banged into the left-field fence the ball popped out and fell into the stands for a home run.

Though it had started with a real sense of optimism, by the time the 1958 season was over, Norm thought it was one of his worst; hobbled by injuries throughout, he never really got going effectively. It was a much better year for Albie Pearson, who was voted Rookie of the Year. Zauchin had 303 at-bats and batted only .228. He hit 15 homers but drove in only 37 runs. Right after the season, Shirley Povich concluded that Zauchin was “a mere .250 man.”20 When he passed through Washington in January 1959, Ted Williams said, “You know, I always thought you guys (Washington) would be all right with Norm Zauchin. I felt he really had it in him to be a good hitter. He might surprise you yet.”21

Zauchin apparently took a bit of a pay cut in 1959. When the Nationals started work it looked as though Norm was penciled in again at first base, if Julio Becquer didn’t challenge, as Norm tore it up during spring training. Zauchin didn’t get as much play early on, but there was apparently some interest expressed by the Tigers, so Lavagetto kept him in the lineup to see if he could produce.22 From mid-May on, however, Roy Sievers was moved in from the outfield and became the main man at first. Zauchin was not hitting at all, batting just .211 after appearing in 19 games. In 71 at-bats, he hit three homers and drove in just four runs in all. On May 12, he was sold to the Miami Marlins, the Triple-A International League affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. His major-league years were over. The 27 homers he’d hit in 1954 were more than half of his career total of 50. The 93 runs batted in during that first year of promise were nearly 60 percent of the 159 that he delivered.

In Miami, Zauchin hurt this throwing arm and needed a couple of cortisone shots, but they did not help. On July 21 he was placed on the disabled list due to strained ligaments. Zauchin came back later in the season, but he didn’t play much. He hit for a .242 average, and homered only six times in 165 at-bats.

In 1960, he played most of the season with Miami again but was sold to the Buffalo (New York) Bisons (also in the International League) on July 30. In his August 4 debut, he homered in the ninth inning to tie the game against Jersey City, and then came up in the 12th with the bases loaded and one out. He hit an infield grounder but hustled to beat out the attempted double play and see the winning run score. A week later, Norm drove in three runs and scored the fourth as Buffalo beat Richmond, 4-3. It was perhaps his last real hurrah in Organized Baseball. His combined 1960 totals showed him playing in 123 games, and he had 363 at-bats, but produced only a .215 average with eight homers and 31 RBIs. He was still young, but the shoulder still hindered his ability to swing the bat as he needed to. It was time to hang ’em up.

“He was down about that for a while,” Janet Zauchin remembered. In early 1962, he worked in Florida at a winter baseball instruction camp under Red Sox scout George Digby. He’d sold insurance during offseasons, but primarily he became involved with bowling. He belonged to the Professional Bowlers Association and bowled competitively for a long time. For many years, Norm worked as manager of the local lanes, Holiday Bowl in Bessemer.

No longer traveling, other than to occasional golf tournaments, he was able to spend time with his family that had grown to include two daughters, Jean Anne and Susie. David played Little League from age 5, high-school baseball, and all four years at the University of Alabama, a first baseman and pitcher. Red Sox scout Milt Bolling was a close friend of the family, Janet said, adding, “He said he would have loved to have signed him, but he was just a little too slow.”

Janet worked in the intensive-care unit for the hospital in Bessemer. When David became the golf pro at the local country club, she ran the golf shop for about four years “and really loved it – we became a golfing family.” Norm won the club championship and played in a lot of tournaments with retired baseball players. He followed baseball “religiously … he loved Boston,” but the family also became Braves fans, given the proximity to Atlanta.

Norm enjoyed playing golf and playing cards at the country club until he became sick with prostate cancer, from which he died on January 31, 1999.

 

Sources

Janet Zauchin, telephone interview, January 8, 2009.

Jeff Samoray for Royal Oak research.

Maurice Bouchard for additional information.

 

Notes

1 The Sporting News, April 10, 1957.

2 Hern’s article appeared in The Sporting News, March 30, 1955, after Zauchin made the big leagues with Boston. Hern wrote that Zauchin started as a pitcher in one game, relieved in five others, and caught in 15, but available minor-league records do not show him as anything other than a first baseman.

3 The Sporting News, April 12, 1950.

4 McGowan wrote, “Zauchin may wind up with enough suits to open a store in Royal Oak next winter.” See The Sporting News, May 31, 1950. Janet remembers the growing wardrobe: “I think he won about 23 or 24 suits in one year. It was a very fine department store.”

5 The marriage had an element of happenstance to it. Arthur Daley of the New York Times told how the couple met at Rickwood Field as Norm pursued a “twisting foul ball into a front row box. He clutched frantically. He missed grabbing the ball but he did grab a girl, Janet Mooney. This might not be considered a proper introduction by Emily Post but it worked for Zauchin. He married the gal. Nope. Don’t underestimate an opportunist like that.” New York Times, March 11, 1954.

6 The Sporting News, April 16, 1952.

7 The Sporting News, April 28, 1954.

8 The Sporting News, May 5, 1954.

9 Christian Science Monitor, March 4, 1955.

10 Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 1955.

11 Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 1955; The Sporting News, June 8, 1955.

12 He really cleaned up on the prizes, winning those offered for the first hit, the most hits, and the most RBIs. He wound up with sacks of Maine potatoes, dozens of lobsters, and some chickens. Ted Williams scored the first run, on Zauchin’s first-inning single; that earned him a case of sardines. See The Sporting News, August 24, 1955. Homer the bear was donated to the Birmingham zoo.

13 The Sporting News, February 8, 1956.

14 There was one thing Norm was good at: In March 1957, The Sporting News named him the “best bench jockey” on the Red Sox.

15 Washington Post, February 26, 1958.

16 Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 1958.

17 The Sporting News, June 18, 1958.

18 Washington Post, June 10, 1958.

19 The Sporting News, July 16, 1958.

20 The Sporting News, October 8, 1958.

21 Washington Post, January 11, 1959.

22 Washington Post, May 3, 1959.

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