SABR

Jack Damaska

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

A perennial International League All Star, this “firebrand…of the Eddie Stanky mold”1 made only five plate appearances in the major leagues. Blocked from advancement by notables such as Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat, Jack Damaska spent 17 years toiling in the minor leagues earning accolades from both teammates and opponents alike while also mentoring other budding prospects. More than four decades later there exists not the slightest hint of bitterness as he laughingly recalls his first major league at bat against Sandy Koufax – certainly a tough means by which to make a first impression – and securing the last professional base hit surrendered by Satchel Paige.

Jack Lloyd Damaska was born August 21, 1937, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, to William Frederick Damaska and his wife, Hazel Elizabeth (nee Butcher). A steel mill worker in the small community located in the western portion of the state, William was a fair amateur athlete who passed along his able-bodied prowess to both his sons – Jack’s younger brother William also played professional baseball briefly in the 1960s, and was released by the aforementioned Stanky when the latter was serving as the farm director for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ironically, a professional career in baseball happened despite an early diagnosis of a heart murmur that prohibited participation in any sport during Jack’s early teens – a false diagnosis, as he passed the requisite physical to play baseball on the Beaver Falls High School squad a few years later. While still in his teens he began playing with much older teammates in the adult leagues in Beaver County where his exploits soon attracted major league attention from both the St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles. In the fall of 1956 Jack signed with Cardinals’ scout Ollie Vanek – himself a career minor league player, he is best remembered for initially signing and managing Stan Musial. Stan’s mother was never hesitant in reminding Vanek that he’d signed her son for so little, and he remained true to form when inking Damaska to a $200/month minor league contract (approximately $390/month in 2013 dollars). “To this day I still don’t know how I survived,” Jack recalls.

With his meager earnings the 19-year-old trekked nearly 1,000 miles due south the following spring to don the uniform of the Daytona Beach Islanders in the Class D Florida State League. Among the youngest on the Islanders’ squad, Damaska promptly made himself at home by placing among the team leaders with a .271 batting average. Similar success followed in 1958 while playing for the Stockton Ports in the Class C California League – including a team record 20 home runs for a shortstop – that eventually led to a jump to Class A ball to start the 1959 campaign.

Success would not follow Damaska to his home state of Pennsylvania when he was assigned to the Cardinals’ York affiliate in the Eastern League. As part of a four-player platoon at shortstop, Jack saw little playing time and his offense suffered similarly. Reassigned to the lower minors, Damaska endeared himself immediately to his new Billings, Montana, teammates by stroking a single and two home runs a mere 30 minutes after arriving from York by train. He garnered the bulk of playing time at shortstop for the Pioneer League Mustangs for the remainder of the season. Management was impressed enough to warrant another jump to Class AA ball to start the 1960 campaign.

In joining the Southern Association’s Memphis Chickasaws, Damaska was aligning himself with some of the future components of the world champion St. Louis Cardinals that included Tim McCarver and Mike Shannon. In the midst of such superb talent, it was the scrawny 5’11”, 168 pound middle infielder – the organization began using Jack at second base as well – who led the team in round-trippers while also placing among the leaders in all other offensive categories. But while McCarver and Shannon were promoted to Triple-A in 1961, Damaska would remain behind due in part to the logjam of fine middle infield prospects sprinkled among the franchise’s two Class AAA affiliates (a problem further compounded in the winter of 1962 with the parent team’s acquisition of National League All-Star shortstop Dick Groat).

Undeterred, Jack continued his offensive onslaught against Class AA pitching, this time with the Tulsa Oilers in the Texas League. His 19 home runs in 1961 compared favorably with future New York Yankee Joe Pepitone’s 21 dingers, whereas his 102 runs scored tied for second to the league leading 103 scored by Jose Tartabull (who would go on to carve a nine-year major league career). Seemingly, Jack was poised to proceed to the big leagues along with the wave of other sluggers that represented his immediate competition.

The long-awaited promotion to Triple-A ball finally arrived in 1962, but not before Damaska was required to fulfill a military commitment with the U.S. Army that caused him to miss nearly 80 percent of the season. He returned in time to help the Atlanta Crackers take the Governor’s Cup in the seven-game playoff championship series against the Jacksonville Suns – his contributions serving as prelude to the fine season forthcoming.

Jack opened with a blistering .321 batting average through the first 27 games of the 1963 season and suddenly the sporting world took notice. “Damaska, not previously rated among the prized possessions of the parent Cardinals [emphasis added], got away to a bright start”2 – raising the question: What was Jack required to accomplish before the 1963 season to be considered a “prized possession?” This tendency to overlook the Pennsylvania native – in spite of the successful campaigns both before and after the 1963 season – would serve to haunt Damaska throughout the remainder of his professional playing career as he watched other prospects receive the nod to the big leagues.

An injury on the parent team caused the Cardinals to look to their affiliates for temporary help, and they beckoned to Jack for what turned out to be his “cup of coffee.” Within a 18-day span in July 1963, he would make five plate appearances (four as a pinch hitter) while also serving as a defensive replacement, in one instance replacing Hall of Famer Stan Musial in left field on July 11. In collecting his only major-league base hit, Jack garnered a run-scoring single in the seventh inning and eventually came around to score the decisive tally in a comeback victory over the Milwaukee Braves. When relief pitcher Bob Humphreys returned from the disabled list on July 25, Damaska was returned to Atlanta. The short stay prompted broadcaster Jack Buck to later concoct the following fictitious telegram to Cardinals manager John Keane: “‘Congratulations, John, sorry I didn’t get to meet you.’ Signed: Jack Damaska.”3 In the winter Jack’s name was prominently mentioned among the draft-eligible players likely to be acquired for the $25,000 waiver fee, but there were no takers and the following spring he reported to the newly relocated Class AAA affiliate of the Cardinals in Jacksonville, Florida.

Recently aligned into the International League, the east Florida city was witness to a 91-loss campaign the preceding year as a Cleveland Indians’ affiliate. Under the guidance of veteran manager Harry Walker, the championship season from the new Cardinals’ entry was undoubtedly a welcome addition to the community. Moved exclusively to second base, Jack Damaska’s efforts were no small contribution to this success – often with dramatic flair. A three-run, ninth-inning dinger on May 24 resulted in a come-from-behind victory that hung the loss on Pirates’ prospect Earl Francis, the pitcher Jack would soon be traded for (in part). Another ninth-inning smash on August 29 was the difference maker in a close 3-2 victory, while a home run on September 8 staked the Jacksonville Suns to the lead on the way to clinching the league pennant. Jack was selected to the All-Star squad and his 30 doubles not only paced the entire league but established a Jacksonville club record. Yet at no time during this sustained success did St. Louis beckon – the palpable reality of the parent team’s championship-caliber infield that had garnered 18 All-Star invitations over a six-year span.

Newly appointed to take over the helm of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Harry Walker helped engineer a trade to secure both Damaska and another familiar prospect, Ron Cox, from the Cardinals. Out from under the shadow of the fine St. Louis talent, Jack spent the next four years with the Triple-A Columbus Jets with little hope of dislodging future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. Nonetheless, Jack continued his streak of All Star appearances – missing hitting for the cycle in the 1965 match by a double – while garnering considerable attention for International League’s most valuable player award. The trophy for “outstanding player” (as determined by the Central Ohio Home Plate Club) was awarded to him as he led the Jets to a championship flag in 1965. The team barely missed a second consecutive pennant when Damaska, seemingly destined to score the tying run in the last game of the season, was instead returned to third base on a ground-rule double. Stranded there by the next batter, the loss essentially handed the flag to the Rochester Red Wings. Interesting, no less an authority on infield play than Rochester’s Mark Belanger – later a perennial Gold Glove winner for the Baltimore Orioles– would, when asked to assess the skills of his second base counterpart, reach out to Damaska as his ultimate comparison.4

Reporting on the aforementioned 1965 All-Star Game in which Jack was the hitting hero, The Sporting News touched on the number of International League stars toiling below the highest level of play and hoping for change “[w]hen the major leagues start talking about expansion again.”5 Sadly, Damaska’s career was sandwiched between the first two instances when major league baseball mushroomed from 16 to 20 teams (1961-62) and again to 24 (in 1969). Jack was not selected in the first round of expansion because, at the time, he had not established himself beyond Double-A. When a second round was instituted, no one was willing to take a flyer on an older minor league star (the latter expansion consisted of players either already rooted in the major leagues or – with few exceptions – minor leaguers less than 26 years old). The Pirates were similarly enamored with youth when, with the advancing years overtaking Mazeroski, they looked to groom Dave Cash, a much younger candidate, to fill the anticipated void. Thus a 31- year-old Jack Damaska was traded to the Atlanta Braves organization in the winter of 1968.

In 1969 the Braves captured the first-ever National League Western Division flag. That same year, second baseman Felix Millan garnered the first of three consecutive All-Star appearances, leaving little room in which Damaska could maneuver onto the parent squad. Jack instead spent three years in the Braves minor leagues garnering an additional (and final) All-Star nod – teamed with Dave Cash on the 1969 squad – before eventually being replaced by a younger prospect and being assigned to the Class AA affiliate. With the Braves, he was able to garner one very memorable experience: In an exhibition game on April 3, 1969, Jack collected the last base hit ever surrendered by Satchel Paige, who days later retired from the game altogether.

In 1972 Damaska signed with the Montreal Expos where he became a player-coach within the organization. Two years later he took over the reins as manager of the Kinston, North Carolina, squad – a job he held for only one season when the Expos released one of its two Class A affiliates. These ventures should have come as no surprise: both teammates and management alike held Jack in great esteem throughout his playing career. An informal poll of International League managers awarded the “title as the smartest player”6 to Jack in consecutive seasons, and he was savvy enough to pull off the oldest trick in the game: the hidden ball play. He also spent a great deal of time shepherding younger talent. He once took a 20-year-old prospect under his wing in Richmond in 1969 later to see that same person – Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker – reward that kindness four decades later with an offer of free game tickets. Furthermore, Jack recalls remaining with teammates of color who were not allowed into eating establishments in the 1950s-’60s – playing card games in the back of the team bus while sandwiches were delivered.

At 29, Jack was still enjoying the life of the unattached, but that was to change. Jack met Brenda Kathleen (“Kathy”) Snyder, an industrious young woman from Cadiz, Ohio, juggling two jobs. She worked as an executive secretary by day, and at night was a waitress at a Columbus Italian restaurant. It was there she was introduced to Damaska by the owner. For their first date, Kathy gave Jack directions to Cadiz and told him to “meet me at the [only] red light in town.” In 1970, Damaska asked Kathy if she’d be interested in joining him on his travels south to spring training. She only agreed when he added, “we can get married along the way.” They took their vows before a Winchester, Virginia, justice of the peace on March 14. Kathy is quick to remind that they spent at least the start of their wedding night watching a televised broadcast of Beaver Falls playing for the high school basketball state championship. Ever the sports fan, Jack still found time to raise three children over the following years – daughters Jill and Joy, and son Dirk – and by 2013 he and Kathy were blessed with three grandchildren.

In times when Jack was not playing in the winter leagues in either Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic, he would always spend his off-seasons in the town of his birth. After his brief managerial experience in 1974, he returned home permanently. Beaver Falls forever had a sentimental hold on Jack: both parents spent their entire lives there, and both he and his brother remain. He proudly recalls a professional game in 1963 where the small Beaver Falls community was well represented within the margin of a few feet: himself at the plate, with fellow natives Joe Lonnett and John Haddad as catcher and umpire, respectively. The community never forgot him either; in 1985, Jack Damaska was inducted into the Beaver County Sports Hall of Fame, joining other local dignitaries such as Tony Dorsett, Terry Francona, Joe Namath and Hal Woodeshick.

When Jack retired from baseball, he went to work for the local Babcock & Wilcox branch in Beaver Falls, an industrial manufacturing plant where he eventually was promoted to a foreman’s position. There he remained for 11 years until he retired in 1986. In his spare time he enjoys playing golf, shooting pool and was once a fair outdoor sportsman. In a 12-year span beginning in 1991, Jack and Kathy both survived life-threatening illnesses, but still enjoy travel and visiting with family.

Jack had his “Field of Dreams” moment with his one and only major league base hit in Busch Stadium on July 11, 1963, a memory he vividly recalls as if it all occurred yesterday. While posting minor league numbers comparable to the Joe Pepitones and Jose Tartabulls of his day – players who went on to successful major league careers – Jack toiled behind the perennial All-Star campaigns of the Dick Groats, Bill Mazeroskis and Felix Millans. Once described as a player in the Eddie Stanky-mold, Jack – impressively – has nothing but fond memories of his days in professional baseball. Yet to the casual fan it is both difficult and sad in retrospect to fathom how this once-talented infielder garnered little more than a fleeting glance.

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank Jack and Kathy Damaska for their time ensuring the accuracy of the narrative herein. Further thanks are extended to Kenneth (“Woody”) Woodeshick, Merritt Clifton and Don Hammack.

 

Sources

http://Baseball-reference.com

http://ancestry.com

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2142e2e5

http://bcshof.org/halloffamers/damaska1985.htm

 

Notes

1 “Jet High-Flyers Aiming Guns at Players Awards,” The Sporting News, August 8, 1965, 33.

2 “Hit Author in Dugout Helps Atlanta Kids Pert Up as Batsmen,” The Sporting News, June 15, 1963, 45.

3 “Redbirds Riding High With Iron-Man Infield,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1964, 13.

4 “Once Ugly Duckling, McGuire Now Wings’ Bird of Paradise,” The Sporting News, August 27, 1966, 33.

5 “Damaska Leads Int All-Stars To Victory Over Milwaukee,” The Sporting News, August 14, 1965, 30.

6 “ Bahnsen Leads Int’s Skipper Poll As Loop’s Top Pitching Prospect,” The Sporting News, September 17, 1966, 35.

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