SABR

Ed Walczak

This article was written by Jack Morris.

August 1945 was a whirlwind month for US Army Air Corps Sergeant Ed Walczak. At the beginning of the month, he was a soldier with no Organized Baseball experience. By month’s end, he was signed to a major-league contract by the Philadelphia Phillies.

And September was no less remarkable for Walczak, as he earned the Phillies’ starting second-base job. After debuting on September 3, he played in 20 games, 13 as the starting second baseman. It was a true fairy tale – from unknown to 29-year-old rookie playing on the biggest stage of professional sports. Little did he know after walking off the field on the last day of the season, September 30, that midnight had tolled on his fairy-tale major-league career.

Born Edwin Joseph Walczak on September 21, 1915, in Arctic, Rhode Island, a village in the town of West Warwick, he was the oldest of seven children born to Joseph and Helen Walczak. Joseph, who worked at the local B.B. & R. Knight cotton mill as a millhand, was a native of Rhode Island while Helen had emigrated from Poland just three years before giving birth to Ed.[1]

By 1930, the family had moved to Jewett City, Connecticut, not far from Rhode Island, where Joseph and Helen both worked in the local cotton mills as weavers.[2] Ed went to high school at the Norwich Free Academy, a private school in Norwich, Connecticut. There he earned all-league honors as a pitcher.[3] He continued to pitch after high school for several semipro teams in Connecticut.

In 1937, Walczak pitched for the Robert Gair Co. team in the New London City League.[4] He did double duty on the mound for Thamesville in the Norwich Twilight League.[5] In 1938, he pitched and played left field for Robert Gair again.[6] By 1940, he had moved on to Taftville in the Connecticut Professional League.[7]

After the 1940 baseball season, at the age of 25, Walczak enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to the Panama Canal department. The United States was building up its forces in Panama to protect the canal as the world roiled. Walczak found himself part of that force. Little did he know that it eventually lead to the majors.

Playing in the competitive Panama Canal Zone league with other military teams, Walczak honed his baseball skills on the rough baseball infields found on military bases throughout Central America. He stopped pitching and became an everyday player. He gained vast experience as his team traveled extensively throughout the Americas.[8]

“We traveled everywhere in transports and bombers,” Walczak told an interviewer in 1973, “all over Central America and even a trip to South America, where we played in cities like Maracaibo, Venezuela. When I was in Nicaragua, I had a chance to meet General Somoza (the president of Nicaragua). I played in the Central American Olympics in El Salvador with a service team. We won the championship there.”[9]

Walczak said he played so well that when he returned to regular communications duty the morale officer of the Isthmus ordered him back to his team “because it was necessary for the morale of the troops.”[10] In addition, when he was off duty, he played in the Panama pro league, playing on well-manicured fields that differed sharply from the service fields he was accustomed to. Playing in baseball-crazy Panama kept his game sharp despite his military commitment.

By 1945, Walczak had been transferred to the Great Bend Army Air Base in Kansas, where he played for the base team in the Second Air Force League.[11] There he got his big break. With the war winding down, scouts were abundant at service games as they watched both veteran players and prospects.  Great Bend, which was dominating the Second Air Force League, took part in that year’s Kansas State Semi-Pro Tournament. In the double-elimination tournament, the team made it to the final eight before being eliminated.[12] Walczak played well, and was named the all-star shortstop of the tournament. He caught the eye of several scouts and was told that the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League were interested in him. A deal was all but signed.[13]

Meanwhile he was sent to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, about 50 miles from Boston, to be processed for discharge. Out of the blue, Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who had taken over the last-place team in midseason, called Walczak and asked him to come to Boston, where the team was playing the Boston Braves.[14]

“I guess Chapman had had someone at that tournament in Kansas who sent a report on me,” said Walczak. “The Red Sox had also had a scout there looking at me and he wanted to sign me up.”[15]

The tryout in Boston went so well that Walczak was signed immediately by the Phillies and traveled with the team to New York for a Labor Day doubleheader with the Giants. He joined a team in turmoil. Not only were the Phils in last place by a large margin but their best hitter, Jimmy Wasdell, had just come off a three-day suspension for punching teammate Vince DiMaggio on a train ride from Brooklyn to New London, Connecticut, for an exhibition game.[16] Chapman was desperate to bring some life to the team. With 22 of the Phils’ next 27 games on the road, Chapman was willing to take a chance on Walczak.

Walczak had joined the team in such haste that on the train ride from Boston to New York he got off at New London so he could stop home and get some clothes.[17] He caught up with the team for the doubleheader against the Giants. He got into his first game when he replaced second baseman Tony Daniels in the eighth inning of the first game. He didn’t bat in the 3-2 loss.

His first at-bat came in the second game of the doubleheader. He was the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter for the Phillies. His first time up he got his first major-league hit, a single off Sal Maglie. Maglie responded by picking him off first.

“Being unfamiliar with the signals, I got picked off first,” said Walczak. “It was kind of embarrassing for that to happen in front of 30,000 people (actual attendance was 21,567). Chapman didn’t say a word. I guess he realized I was a little nervous out there.”

When the papers noted Walczak’s signing, it was originally reported that he would play third base.[18] They wrote that he had earned a reputation as a capable third baseman and a consistent hitter.[19] But the Phillies were in desperate need of a second baseman. Eight players had played the position that season before Walczak. (Of the nine, including Walczak, only two would play beyond the 1945 season.) From September 3, it was mostly Walczak’s position until the end of the season.

Walczak was not only a rookie in the major leagues but hadn’t played much second base in his career. Phillies shortstop Bitsy Mott helped him adjust.

“He helped me out by telling me where to play for such and such a batter,” said Walczak. “He had special signals for deciding who was going to take the throw on a double play. I guess he was making his decision by reading the catcher’s signals and knowing what kind of pitch the batter was about to get.”[20]

Walczak played in 20 games, 17 as a second baseman. He played two games at shortstop during a doubleheader in Pittsburgh and got into one game as a pinch-runner. He finished the season batting .211 in 57 at-bats (12 hits) with three doubles and two RBIs.

The next season Walczak was one of 65 players invited to the Phillies’ spring-training camp in Miami Beach. Some of the Phillies players, like Danny Murtaugh, were still in the service.[21] Just before camp, the Phillies informed Walczak that he would eventually be sent to the training camp in Rock Hill, South Carolina, that was shared by the Utica Blue Sox (Eastern League) and the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Interstate League), the Phillies’ top two minor-league teams.

“My age was against me,” said Walczak. “Philadelphia was a last-place club and wanted to go with youngsters like Del Ennis. Over half the ’45 players didn’t stay in ’46.”[22]

The Phils hoped Walczak would get some seasoning in Utica. But when he got to Rock Hill, he found that he wasn’t the only second baseman there with major-league experience. He was battling Heinie Mueller, a four-year major-league veteran just back from war service after three years, and Garvin Hamner, brother of Granny Hamner.[23] By the end of camp, neither beat out Walczak. Instead, 25-year-old Bob Perini, also just out of the service, was given the starting second-base job.[24]

Less than two weeks into the Eastern League season, Walczak, who had gotten into only three games, was released by Utica, a victim of a team-wide hitting slump. After a poor start, Utica dumped a group of players to shake up the team.[25] Walczak managed to hook up with the Mooresville Moors, a nonaffiliated team in the Class D North Carolina State League. Playing shortstop, he appeared in 94 games for the Moors, batting .290. More importantly, he showed more power than he ever had with the Phillies, with a slugging percentage of .423.

Walczak found a professional baseball home in North Carolina, spending five seasons there from 1946 through 1950. He became one of the better hitters in the league and eventually moved to third base, the position he had played in service ball. In 1947, in his first full season in the North Carolina State League, his younger brother, Ray, joined the team as a second baseman. The two played together for both the 1947 and 1948 seasons.[26]

Mooresville dominated the league in 1947, easily winning the regular-season championship and the playoffs.[27] Playing in 112 games, Walczak batted .271 with a slugging percentage of .405. The Moors were a hard-hitting team led by minor-league veteran Norm Small, who banged out 31 homers and batted .359. Their pitching may have been even better, led by future Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm with a 20-7 record. Walczak was one of five Moors named to the North Carolina State League West all-star team.[28]

Walczak was hitting his stride as a professional player. His next season, 1948, was his best year as a pro. As a 33-year-old, he batted .324 and hit 19 home runs. He again made the North Carolina State League all-star game as the starting third baseman for the West All-Stars.[29] However, Mooresville finished fifth in the league and out of the playoffs.

In 1949, Mooresville decided to change its baseball philosophy, which had relied heavily on veteran power hitters. Instead the team went with faster, younger, and cheaper players. So despite coming off a career season, Walczak was released.[30] He found employment with the Newton-Conover Twins of the Class D Western Carolina League. Walczak had a solid season, batting .293 and slugging seven homers in 110 games as the Twins’ third baseman. He helped the team win the regular-season championship. They were beaten in the first round of the playoffs.[31]

Walczak returned to Newton-Conover in 1950. He was 35 years old and would be 36 shortly after the season ended. He scuffled at bat and batted only .223 in 52 games with three home runs before leaving the team. His career in Organized Baseball was over. Before heading home he may have umpired a game or two in the Western Carolina League since the name “Walczak” appears as the umpire in some late-season box scores.

Walczak returned to Connecticut and took a job in 1951 with General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division in Groton, Connecticut, a builder of submarines for the US Navy, as an electrician.[32] He still found time to play baseball albeit part-time. In 1953, he played semi-pro baseball in the New London City League, returning to the league he had played in 16 years before.[33]

In 1970 Walczak was elected to the Norwich Sports Hall of Fame. He retired from General Dynamics in 1980 after 29 years of service. He died on March 10, 1998, in William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, and was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Lisbon, Connecticut. [34] He was survived by his wife, Helen.

When Walczak reflected on his brief major-league career more than a quarter-century after it occurred, he was pleased but also a little wistful about what might have been. But he enjoyed every minute he played.

“I was thrilled to be up there, if only for little over a month,” he said. “It’s too bad I came up so late. I know that players today are after the money but I would have played in the majors for nothing.”[35]

March 9, 2011




[1] World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.

[2] 1930 U.S. Census.

[3] New London (Connecticut) Day, August 3, 1937.

[4] New London (Connecticut) Day, August 3, 1937.

[5] Hartford Courant, August 17, 1937.

[6] New London (Connecticut) Day, July 14, 1938.

[7] New London (Connecticut) Day, July 9, 1940.

[8] Crissey, Harrington E. Teenagers, Graybeards, and 4-F's: An Informal History of Major League Baseball During the Second World War, As Told by the Participants. (Philadelphia: H.E. Crissey, 1981). 105.

[9] Crissey, op. cit., 105.

[10] Crissey, op. cit., 105.

[11] Hutchinson (Kansas) News-Herald, June 21, 1945.

[12] Hutchinson (Kansas) News-Herald, July 21, 1945.

[13] Crissey,  op. cit., 105.

[14] Crissey, op. cit., 105.

[15] Crissey, op. cit., 105.

[16] Westcott, Rich. “History of Phillies Spiced by Odd Characters, Events,” Baseball Digest, July 1988, 50-58.

[17] Crissey,  op. cit., 108.

[18] Berkshire Eagle, Northampton, Massachusetts, September 5, 1945.

[19] Stars and Stripes, Pacific Edition, September 5, 1945.

[20] Crissey,  op. cit., 108.

[21] Chester (Pennsylvania) Times, January 11, 1946.

[22] Crissey, op. cit., 109.

[23] Utica (New York) Observer-Dispatch, April 3, 1946.

[24] Utica (New York) Observer-Dispatch, April 21, 1946.

[25] Utica (New York) Observer-Dispatch, May 12, 1946.

[26] Statesville (North Carolina) Daily Record, June 18, 1947.

[27] Sumner, Benjamin B. Minor League Baseball Standings. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000), 437.

[28] The Sporting News, August 13, 1947

[29] Statesville (North Carolina) Landmark, August 9, 1948.

[30] Statesville (North Carolina Daily Record, April 20, 1949.

[31] Sumner, op. cit., 582.

[32] Lee, Bill. The Baseball Necrology. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003), 411.

[33] New London (Connecticut) Day, August 31, 1953.

[34] Lee, op. cit., 411.

[35] Crissey, op. cit., 109.

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