SABR

Frank Oceak

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf.

After hitting his dramatic walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, Bill Mazeroski excitedly circled first and then second base, waving his arms with his cap in his hand. As he reached third base he was greeted by Pirates third-base coach Frank Oceak, who gave him a slap on the back and ebulliently followed him to the melee of players, fans, and police at home plate. For Oceak, whose number 44 jersey can be seen clearly in historic footage of the hit, the 1960 World Series championship was the culmination of almost three decades primarily toiling as a player and manager in the lower minor leagues, Class B, C, and D, and a testament to his love of the game. "Frank Oceak was an extremely hard worker and patient," said Virgil Trucks, who had retired in 1959 and pitched batting practice for the Pirates in 1960. “He was one of the best coaches I ever worked with.”1

Frank John Oceak was born to Frank and Ann Oceak on September 8, 1912, in the tiny coal-mining town of Pocahontas, Virginia, on the West Virginia border. In 1920, when he was 8 years old, Oceak and his parents, immigrants from the Abauj region in northeastern Hungary, left Appalachia and moved to Cliffside Park, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City. In this urban setting, Oceak learned how to play baseball. After graduating from Cliffside Park High School in 1931 during the height of the Great Depression, Oceak followed his passion and embarked on a 40-year career in baseball.

Quick and agile, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound, right-handed Oceak had a 17-year minor-league career as a shortstop and later as a second baseman and third baseman. He never made it to the major leagues as a player. After a tryout, Oceak signed in 1932 with the Cumberland (Maryland) Colts in the Class C Middle Atlantic League, a New York Yankees affiliate, but played in just seven games.2 Much later he recalled: “I only stayed about five or six weeks. I was only 17½ [actually 19½] at the time and became so homesick that I went back home.”3 Like many minor-league teams during the Depression, Cumberland struggled financially, and disbanded at the end of the season. For 1933 Oceak was picked up by the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Johnnies in the same league, nominally affiliated with the Yankees and managed by Leo Mackey, for whom Oceak played the previous season. He remained in the Yankees’ organization for two more years and bounced around from Akron and Wheeling in the Middle Atlantic League to Norfolk in the Class B Piedmont League, batting typically in the .280s to .300 with little power. Oceak’s one chance in Class A baseball was in 1934, when he started the season with the Binghamton (New York) Triplets in the New York-Pennsylvania League, but he batted just .236 in 16 games and was demoted. At Binghamton he was managed by Billy Meyer, who later piloted the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1948 to 1952. Even if Oceak had been a top prospect, it would have been difficult to dislodge Yankees stars Frank Crosetti from shortstop or Tony Lazzeri from second base. Oceak was released after the 1935 season.

Oceak’s career shifted personally and professionally when he signed with the St. Louis Browns in 1936. He wound up back in Johnstown, where he played for two years, hitting .287 and .304. While in Johnstown he met his future wife, Mary Ann. Together they made the Johnstown area their permanent residence for most of the rest of their lives. Oceak’s managing career began in 1938 when the Browns sent him to the Lafayette (Louisiana) White Sox of the Class D Evangeline League as player-manager, a position he held for numerous teams for the next 12 years in an era when player-managers were common.4 In 1939 Oceak led the Fayetteville (Arkansas) Angels to a 79-42 record and was called the best second baseman in the league.5 He guided the Angels to the playoff finals and did the same with the Beaver Falls Browns in the Class D Pennsylvania State Association in 1940. He batted .310 in 1939 and .305 in 1940, part of a string of six straight seasons in which he batted over .300.

The low point of Oceak’s career occurred at a Beaver Falls game on June 6, 1940, when he assaulted umpire Len Burgher. Team officials attempted to cover up the severity of the situation, including an apparently coerced statement from Burgher claiming he was the instigator. League President Elmer Daily fined Oceak $50 and suspended him for ten days and the umpire for 90 days for being the aggressor. Because of the seriousness of the situation and the threat to the integrity of baseball, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis intervened, rebuked Daily for his findings, overturned the umpire’s suspension, and wrote, “Oceak was guilty of assault on Umpire Burgher.”6 Landis suspended Oceak for the entire 1941 season. (He gave four Beaver Falls team officials lesser suspensions.) The Browns cut their ties with Oceak and his future was in jeopardy. Years later, Oceak recalled: “[The year away from baseball] taught me a lesson never to blow my top. That year I worked in a steel mill and never thought I’d get back. I played semipro ball on Saturdays and Sundays.”7

After a year away from baseball, Oceak began a 30-year relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates (interrupted by one year with the Cincinnati Reds) when he was hired in 1942 as a player-manager for the Oil City Oilers, a Pirates farm team in the Pennsylvania State Association, and responded with a career-high .343 average in 111 games. Except for 1944 and 1945, when he served in the Navy Seabees (Construction Battalion) in the Pacific Theater during World War II, Oceak managed eight different Pirates farm teams from 1942 through 1957. He no longer played after 1947. His career batting average was .299 and he had 1,343 hits in 1,230 games.

Oceak reached the Triple-A level when he managed the Columbus Jets of the International League in 1957. In preparation for the task, he piloted the Poza Rica Oilers in the Veracruz Winter League in Mexico for the 1956-57 season.8 When Branch Rickey was named general manager of the Pirates in 1951, he invited Oceak and Danny Murtaugh, who had finished his playing career with the Pirates in 1951 and had been named skipper of the team’s Double-A affiliate, the New Orleans Pelicans (Southern Association), to the Pirates’ rookie camp in 1952 to work with emerging players.9 In subsequent years, Oceak regularly worked with prospects and rookies at Pirates camps.

Murtaugh replaced Bobby Bragan as Pirates manager in August 1957. In 1958 he hired the “die-hard optimist”10 Oceak as third-base coach. Oceak spent the next seven years in that job – including the magical 1960 season – until Murtaugh retired for health reasons in 1964. Oceak had definitely paid his dues: He managed 12 minor-league teams, ten of them in the Pirates organization, as well as Poza Rica in Mexico and Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Winter League. Pirates sportswriter Les Biederman wrote of Oceak, “He made it up the hard way. . . . He drove the team bus, handed out meal money, even wrote publicity.”11 In an interview with the author, former Pirates pitcher Bob Friend said, “The players respected Oceak for all he’d done in baseball and recognized his loyalty to the Pirates and Danny Murtaugh. They had a close relationship.”12

Oceak managed in the Pirates’ farm system from 1966 through 1969. When Murtaugh came out of retirement to manage the Pirates again in 1970, he made Oceak his third-base coach again, underscoring their close relationship. Oceak coached another three years, including the 1971 World Series championship season, and retired after the 1972 season.

Throughout his career, Oceak developed a reputation as an astute observer of the game and as an attentive, patient instructor, especially for infielders. Having played shortstop, second base, and third base, Oceak stressed proper technique in fielding groundballs and executing double plays effectively. “He knew how to develop infielders from all of his years in the minors,” backup catcher Bob Oldis said in an interview with the author.13 He worked diligently with Bill Mazeroski and is often seen as one of Mazeroski’s fielding mentors. Mazeroski won his first Gold Glove award in 1958 in Oceak’s first year as third-base coach. “He’d always say, ‘Catch the ball, then block it. Keep the ball in front of you!,’ ” remembered Bob Oldis.

During Oceak’s two tours as third-base and infielders coach, the Pirates were typically considered among the best fielding teams in the National League. In his ten years with the Pirates, they were recognized as having the best double-play combination in baseball, led the National League in double plays in eight of the ten years, and ranked second and third in the other two. This can be traced to the fielding genius of Mazeroski, and to Oceak’s development of other infielders, including shortstops Dick Schofield and Gold Glove winner Gene Alley and second baseman Dave Cash, who supplanted Mazeroski in 1971. Oceak even had the unenviable task of developing Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart as the Pirates’ first baseman in 1958.14 Oceak taught his players to recognize how infields and outfields play differently in various stadiums. On an offday after Game Two of the 1960 World Series, Oceak showed his outfielders how differently the ball caromed off the wall in Yankee Stadium and spun around the curve of the outfield than it did at Forbes Field.15 “Oceak taught us to be aware of the game and the situation,” catcher Hal Smith mentioned in an interview author and added, “Some players called him Suicide because he wanted us to be aware of the suicide squeeze.”16

Oceak spent one season with the Cincinnati Reds in 1965 as first-base coach and infield instructor, charged with developing the fielding of third-year second baseman Pete Rose. “Frank wants me to cheat a little toward second,” Rose said. “It’s easier to make the play on your gloved-hand side than to the right. Maz cheats that way and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.”17 Rose responded by leading the National League in putouts and was named to his first All-Star Team. Oceak lost his job when manager Dick Sisler was fired at the end of the 1965 season.

Despite his one season with the Reds, Oceak was a Pirate at heart and a trusted and respected instructor. The Pirates rehired him at the end of 1965 and from 1966 through 1969 he managed the Class A Clinton (Iowa) Pilots in 1966, the Double-A Macon (Georgia) Peaches in 1967, and the Class A Gastonia (North Carolina) Pirates in 1968 and 1969. At Gastonia he tutored future Pirates Milt May, Rennie Stennett, and Frank Taveras. His posted a career record of 1,310 wins and 1,383 losses in 21 seasons as a manager.

During the offseason, Oceak lived with his wife and two daughters in Johnstown, where he once owned a tavern, the Third Base Inn. In 1967 his wife died after a long illness. A year later he married Julia Patti of Johnstown, a widow whom he had known since the early 1940s.18

Oceak experienced the excitement of another World Series championship in 1971 when the Pirates were again overwhelming underdogs, this time to the Baltimore Orioles. The turning point in the Series may have come in Game Three after the Pirates lost the first two games in Baltimore. In the bottom of the seventh inning, clinging to a 2-1 lead against 20-game winner Mike Cuellar, the Pirates had Roberto Clemente on second base and Willie Stargell on first. Slugger Bob Robertson, who had crushed the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series with a record-breaking four-home-run performance but was hitless so far in the World Series, was at bat. Playing for a run, manager Murtaugh gave Oceak the bunt sign to flash to Robertson, who had not had a sacrifice the entire season and only one in his career. Robertson either did not see the bunt sign or ignored it and didn’t square to bunt; Clemente can be seen in historic footage attempting in vain to call time. But it didn’t matter. Robertson belted a three-run homer and the Pirates went on to win the game, 5-1. Postgame discussion focused on this play and Oceak quipped sarcastically, “With all the decoys I gave Robertson, he must have missed the sign.”19 The Pirates ultimately won the World Series. Murtaugh and Oceak were the only team members remaining from the 1960 championship club.

Bill Virdon, who was named manager for 1972 after Murtaugh retired for the second time, retained Oceak as his third-base coach. “Bill and I had an understanding,” Oceak said, “that when Maz retired, he would be offered the third-base coaching job. So when Bill told the club that this [1972] would be his last, I knew it would be mine.”20After a disappointing and dramatic loss to the Reds in the NLCS, the Pirates reduced their coaching staff from five to four, citing economic reasons.21 The 60-year old Oceak, hitting coach Joe Morgan, and pitching coach Don Osborn were dropped, and soon thereafter Oceak officially retired from baseball. He harbored no ill feelings toward Virdon or the Pirates and stayed close to the organization. In 1976 he briefly came out of retirement in midseason and served as first-base coach when coach Don Leppert was hospitalized.22 In the early 1970s, Oceak’s name popped up as a candidate for managerial vacancies, such as with Houston for the 1972 season;23 however, he was never offered a managerial position in the major leagues.

Reflecting on his long career in the minors, Oceak recalled in an interview in 1958, “Billy Meyer [his former manager with Binghamton in 1934] told me that I’d never make it to the majors. I could make the double play, but I could not run. I wanted to be in baseball. Billy did me a great favor. He told me to try to become a manager.”24 The unpretentious Oceak persevered and ultimately spent 40 years in Organized Baseball. He was a players’ coach who could relate to their concerns, frustrations, and anxieties as players, and had the ability to calm their nerves. “Players got along with Oceak very well,” Bob Friend said. “He was a low-key kind of coach, but he would get on to players, too.” Hal Smith recalled, “Oceak had a great personality and told jokes. He was a relaxed coach.” Oceak died on March 19, 1983, in his longtime hometown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He was buried at St. Joseph Cemetery in Geistown, Pennsylvania, just a few minutes from his home.

 

This biography is included in the book "Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Sources

Statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.

David Cicotello and Angelo J. Louisa, eds., Forbes Field. Essays and Memories of the Pirates Historic Ballpark, 1909-1971 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2007).

Rick Cushing, 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates Day by Day: A Special Season, An Extraordinary World Series (Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., 2010).

David Finoli and Bill Ranier, eds., The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2003).

Dick Groat, The World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates (New York: Coward-McCann, 1961).

David Maranis, Clemente: The Pride and Passion of Baseball’s Last Hero (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

Richard Peterson, ed., The Pirates Reader. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003).

Jim Reisler, The Best Game Ever: Pirates vs. Yankees October 13, 1960 (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007).

 

Notes

1 The author would like to express his gratitude to Virgil Trucks, who was interviewed on March 20, 2012.

2 Cumberland (Maryland) Evening Times, February 18, 1932, 10; J. Sutter Kegg, “Tapping the Kegg,” Cumberland Evening Times, October 20, 1972, 10.

3 J. Sutter Kegg. “Tapping the Kegg,” Cumberland Evening Times, October 16, 1960, 38.

4 The Sporting News, January 27, 1938, 6.

5 The Sporting News, July 13, 1939, 6.

6 The Sporting News, February 13, 1941, 2.

7 Frank Eck (Associated Press), “After 25 Years in the Minors, Frank Oceak Has His Day,” Oneonta (New York) Star, April 29, 1958, 12.

8 The Sporting News, January 16, 1957, 23.

9 The Sporting News, February, 27, 1952, 18.

10 The Sporting News, August 14, 1957, 38.

11 Rick Cushing, 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates Day by Day: A Special Season, and Extraordinary World Series. (Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., 2010).

12 The author would like to express his gratitude to Bob Friend, who was interviewed on March 19, 2012.

13 The author would like to express his gratitude to Bob Oldis, who was interviewed on March 19, 2012.

14 The Sporting News, March 26, 1958, 15.

15 Bruce Markusen, “Cooperstown Confidential: The 1960 World Series,” at The Hardball Times: http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/cooperstown-confidential-the-1960-world-series-part-2/

16 The author would like to express his gratitude to Hal Smith, who was interviewed on March 20, 2012.

17 Si Burick, “200 Grounders a Day. They Could Put Pete Rose in the All Star Game.” Baseball Digest, July 1965, 80.

18 The Sporting News, July 28, 1968, 43.

19 The Sporting News, October 31, 1971, 6.

20 J. Sutter Kegg, 10.

21 The Sporting News, October 28, 1972, 12.

22 The Sporting News, August 14, 1976, 11.

23 The Sporting News, September 11, 1971, 28.

24 Frank Eck, 12.

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