SABR

Hank Majeski

This article was written by Mark Hodermarsky.

Many baseball enthusiasts recall the bottom-of-the-tenth pinch-hit home run that gave the underdog New York Giants a dramatic win over the Cleveland Indians in Game One of the 1954 World Series. Many remember that Dusty Rhodes was the batter, that Bob Lemon was the pitcher, and that the ball barely cleared the 258-foot-deep right-field wall. And most will not forget how Rhodes’ homer and “The Catch” by Willie Mays two innings earlier established the direction and tone of the shocking sweep by the New Yorkers. What a good number of fans don’t recollect, however, is the other pinch-hit home run in the Series or, more importantly, the hitter responsible for the round-tripper: Hank Majeski.

Hank Majeski played for the Indians during the twilight of an impressive 13-year major-league career. Before taking up duties as a dependable reserve third baseman and second baseman for the Tribe from 1952 through 1955, Majeski, who debuted in the major leagues in 1939, had strung together five solid seasons at the plate and in the field, most notably for the Philadelphia Athletics.

Heeney – his nickname from childhood – enjoyed his best year in 1948 as the Athletics’ third baseman (plus eight games at shortstop). He batted .310, hit 12 home runs, drove in 120 runs, and set a major-league record with six two-base hits in a doubleheader. Considered one of the finest defensive third basemen of his era, in 1947 Majeski committed only five errors and set an American League record with a .988 fielding percentage,. (Don Money of the Milwaukee Brewers broke the record in 1974 with a .989 mark.)

In seven minor-league seasons between 1936 and 1942, Majeski never hit less than .303. Playing for Eau Claire of the Class D Northern League on August 3, 1936, he went 7-for-7 (three singles, two doubles, a triple, and a home run). He reached with major leagues with the Boston Bees (the once and future Braves) in September 1939. Though his career numbers don’t match those of the future All-Stars and Hall of Famers who also debuted in 1939 (Hal Newhouser, Dizzy Trout, Mickey Vernon, Ted Williams, and Early Wynn), his career demands respect. In 3,421 at-bats in 1,069 games, Majeski batted.279, collected 956 hits, and knocked in 501 runs. In 1948 he ranked in the top ten in most batting categories. In two consecutive years, 1947 and 1948, he led American league third basemen in fielding percentage. And in 1954 Majeski was a key role player in Cleveland’s record-shattering pennant-winning season, in which the Tribe piled up 111 wins and only 43 losses.

Majeski grew up during the Depression on Staten Island, New York, the son of Polish-American parents, and never forgot his roots. Born on December 13, 1916, the son of a factory worker, he became a determined, talented, and humble athlete and later an esteemed coach and steady friend. Except for his baseball travels, he never strayed far from the place he most loved – his home, Staten Island.

By the age of 6, Henry was obsessed with baseball, as were most boys of his generation, and was called Shorty by neighborhood boys because of his short legs. Later he was nicknamed Heeney for reasons unknown. When Henry was 8, his father, who had worked at the U.S. Gypsum Co. plant on Staten Island making wallboard and paint, died, leaving five children. The oldest brother, Walter, assumed the role of father figure to his brothers Henry and Eddie, and his two sisters, Sadie and Sophie.

Young Henry dreamed of becoming a big leaguer as soon as he discovered baseball. A family friend gave him his first glove, which the man had been saving for a son who had died young. He offered the glove with these prophetic words: “Now you take it and become a big leaguer.” When Majeski was in the major leagues, he told a sportswriter he could “never forget” the day his first pair of baseball shoes arrived. He was 11. “It was pouring rain, but I slipped into the kitchen, took some grease, rubbed it on the shoes, and ran around the block five times,” he said.1

At Curtis High School, the future alma mater of another baseball great, Bobby Thomson, Majeski had not yet achieved a growth spurt and stood only about 5-feet-5. But his coach, Harry O’Brien, believed in him. Majeski said that “in high school I was too small to play anything but baseball. But Harry O’Brien felt I had the stuff to play on the team, and his confidence in me got me started.”2

After high school, Majeski’s sturdy build, with his powerful neck and strong shoulders, made him appear bigger than his actual frame. He eventually grew to 5-feet-9 and 180 pounds. (Al Simmons, a coach with the Athletics when Majeski was on the team, said, “Majeski’s power is in his wrists. He snaps that bat pretty quick.”3) Majeski aroused the interest of major-league scouts with his slashing line-drive hitting, excellent batting eye, and deft fielding at second base.

As with most players coming out of high school during Majeski’s time, the road from amateur to professional baseball was winding and bumpy, even for the likes of the gifted Staten Islander. After he had spent two years playing sandlot baseball for the Staten Island team in the Police Athletic League, the Boston Red Sox signed him to a contract in 1935 to play for Class D Eau Claire. The Chicago Cubs picked up the Eau Claire franchise, as well as Majeski, after the 1936 season. In 1937, with Moline in the Class B Three-I League, Majeski hit .345. For Birmingham of the Southern Association in 1938 he batted .325. After that season the Bees bought his contract.

Boston manager Casey Stengel moved Majeski from second base to third in 1939, and that’s primarily where he would stay for the duration of his 13-year big-league career. Majeski said Stengel did him a favor with the switch because “I probably could have played fast minor-league ball at second base for the rest of my life, but might never have made the grade in the majors at that spot.”4

Majeski singled and drove in a run in his May 17 debut for the Bees. He played in 106 games in his rookie season and batted .272; he hit seven home runs, enough to rank him third on the team, though well behind Max West’s 19. But a broken toe after the season and a stay in Stengel’s doghouse resulted in a demotion to Newark of the International League in 1940. There, Majeski blistered opposing pitching, but he appeared in only three games for Boston. In 1941 he played in 19 games in April and May, but was batting only .145 so was placed at Newark once more. Later in May, the New York Yankees, for whom Newark was a farm team, purchased his contract from the Bees. He remained with Newark in 1942 and batted .345 with 121 RBIs. Never once in Majeski’s seven minor-league seasons did he hit below .300.

In 1943 Majeski enlisted in the Coast Guard, and in June of that year he married Margaret McLaughlin, who was employed on Staten Island. Discharged from the Coast Guard, he began the 1946 season with the Yankees, getting into eight games with just one hit, and in June he was sold to the Philadelphia Athletics, where his career blossomed. In what remained of the 1946 season, he hit .250 in 264 at-bats, bumping that up to .280 in 1947 in the course of 141 games.

Majeski enjoyed a brilliant 1948 in which he batted .310, hit 41 doubles, and drove in 120 runs, fifth in the American League. He hit a career-best 12 homers, and placed 11th in league MVP balloting. His production tailed off in 1949, as he batted .277 in 114 games and drove in 67 runs. He missed a month of action after being drilled in the head by an Early Wynn fastball on August 7.5 In December 1949 Majeski was traded to the Chicago White Sox for pitcher Ed Klieman. In 1950 he batted .309 in 122 games for the White Sox. In early June 1951, Chicago traded Majeski back to Philadelphia; in 89 games for the Athletics, he hit .285.

In 1952 Majeski played in 34 games for Philadelphia and 36 games for Cleveland; his contract had been sold to the Indians on June 10. With the Indians, he assumed a utility role. He hit .296 for the Tribe in those 36 games.

Majeski played in 50 games for Cleveland in ’53 and hit for an even .300. In 1954, as the Indians won 111 games and the AL pennant with ease, he played in 57 games, hitting .281 and driving in 17 runs. On winning the pennant, beating the Yankees, Majeski said, “I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve been waiting a long time to see those Yankees beaten. Now we’ve done it. We really broke their backs. … Look around. Look at all these guys. Not one didn’t go a great job when we needed him. … I don’t think I ever had a day like this one. This is a real team. Greatest team spirit I ever saw.”6

Majeski’s one and only trip to the World Series came in 1954. Al Rosen was Cleveland’s starting third baseman, MVP in 1953, and a .300 hitter in 1954. Majeski played in all four World Series games. After the Giants won the first two games, Indians manager Al Lopez tried Majeski against Ruben Gomez in Game Three, but he was 0-for-4 with a strikeout and grounded into a double play.

In Game Four the Giants were on the brink of a sweep, and held a 7-0 lead over the Indians through the top of the fifth inning. After the Indians made two outs in the bottom of the fifth, two consecutive errors put Sam Dente on second and Jim Hegan on first. Lopez had Majeski pinch-hit for pitcher Ray Narleski and on the second pitch he hit a three-run homer to deep left field. It might have inspired a turn in fortunes, but in the end the Giants won, 7-4.

Majeski was hitting only .188 for the Indians in his first 36 games on 1955, and was traded to the Baltimore Orioles on June 27. After about a month, and only 41 at-bats, the Orioles released him, and 38-year-old Majeski’s playing career was over.

Majeski became a minor-league manager for the Indians, piloting the Daytona Beach Islanders of the Florida State League in 1956 and the Cocoa Indians (the franchise had moved) for part of 1957. He later managed the Oneonta Yankees (1973), coached at Wagner College on Staten Island, and scouted for several major-league teams. He was a hitting instructor for the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds in 1966.

Majeski remained dedicated to baseball. Bill Klapach, a veteran Staten Island umpire and longtime friend of Majeski’s, said he always participated in the annual Staten Island old-timer’s baseball game and “loved to speak to kids about baseball.” Majeski, a member of the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame, never missed an induction ceremony. Klapach said, “Majeski was a fine gentleman who was proud to be from Staten Island.”7

Bert Levinson, former baseball coach at Curtis High School on Staten Island, recalled how Majeski would “attend our practices and help the kids out with their batting and infield play. He would also show up when he could for some of our games and sit in the stands near the bench so as not to be a distraction to the team.” Levinson added that Majeski would “always be there to distribute awards at the end-of-the-year Baseball Fair.” He said Majeski was a father figure to Bobby Thomson.8

Perhaps no one else can trace Majeski’s rise to the majors and his contribution to Staten Island baseball better than a former minor-league pitcher and close friend of his, Carmine “Lefty” DeRenzo. Living only five doors away from Majeski, DeRenzo eagerly followed his neighbor’s progress toward stardom. Once after he injured his foot during spring training, Majeski asked for DeRenzo’s help. “To help Heeney get his swing back in shape, we went to Curtis High School where I threw him batting practice four days in a row,” DeRenzo recalled.9

Although Dusty Rhodes hit the more famous pinch-hit home run in the 1954 World Series, Majeski’s blast had to feel extra special to him. His three-run shot in Game Four against Don Liddle with two outs gave the Tribe, down 7-0 at the time, some hope for a comeback.

Majeski died on August 9, 1991, at the age of 74. He was survived by his wife, Margaret; a stepdaughter, Nanette; a sister, Sophie; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. He also left behind a host of memories for those lucky enough to have seen him play and to call him a friend.

 

This biography is included in the book "Pitching to the Pennant: The 1954 Cleveland Indians" (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), edited by Joseph Wancho. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.

 

Sources

Aside from the sources indicated in the endnotes, the author also relied on statistics from Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseball-reference.com, and Thorn, John et. al., eds., Total Baseball, 8th Edition (Munster, Indiana: Sports Media Publishing, 2004). Thanks to James Forr and Bill Nowlin for additional material.

New York Times, August 14, 1991. (Hank Majeski’s obituary)

 

Notes

1 Stan Baumgartner, “Meet Majeski – Houdini of the Hot Corner,” Sport Life, 1949, 74.

2 Ed Rumill, “Majestic Majeski,” Baseball Digest, July 1948, 43.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

6 Jonathan Knight, Summer of Shadows (Cincinnati: Clerisy Press, 2011), 375.

7 Telephone interview with Bill Klapach, December 29, 2010.

8 Telephone interview with Bert Levinson, December 27, 2010.

9 Telephone interview with Carmine DeRenzo, December 27, 2010.

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