SABR

Alex Mustaikis

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

“Everywhere I go, Greek baseball fans call me up, and I have to tell them that I am a Lithuanian instead of a Greek. But I do eat at Greek restaurants. Maybe I’ll have to change my name to something simple like Martin.” That’s what Alexander Mustaikis told sports columnist Bob Ray of the Los Angeles Times.  [August 29, 1940]

He did change his name to Al Martin at least once, sometime in 1946, “to help out in the box score.” He went back to Mustaikis and explained why: “My wife made me. She said that she had married me as Mustaikis and if it was good enough for her, it should be good enough for me.” [The Sporting News, March 5, 1947]

He was indeed of Lithuanian ancestry, born as Alexander Dominick Mustaikis on March 26, 1909, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, outside Boston. On his death certificate it indicated that his father’s name was Dominick Mustaikis and his mother’s name was Mary with an uncertain maiden name, but which may have been Panikitis. She arrived in the US in 1908 and must have met Dominick rather quickly. It appears that Dominick, a shoemaker, had arrived in the United States in 1905. After a few years in Massachusetts (Alex’s sister Mary was born in the Bay State in 1913), the family moved to Michigan. Nellie was born around 1917 and the youngest, Joseph, around 1919. There had been another child, Katie, who died at an early age. She was 9 months old at the time of the 1910 census, but turns up in no later records. By 1920, the family lived in Detroit, and both Nellie and Joseph were born there. By the time Alex was born, Dominick had found work as a molder in an iron foundry. That line of work may have been part of the reason Dominick moved to Michigan as the automobile industry grew. By the time he registered for the draft at the time of the First World War, he gave his occupation as a molder for the Packard Motor Company.

What young Alex was up to remains a little unclear. The 1930 census finds him as an inmate confined at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia. He was 20 at the time and listed as a truck driver. This wasn’t a reform school. It was a maximum-security prison for youthful offenders, and was still active in the 21st century as a prison, housing over 1,000 inmates.

Alex had gone through school, attending Moore Elementary School in Detroit and Northern High. When asked to complete his American League questionnaire and indicate school, college, amateur, or semipro experience, he entered only semipro baseball. His first professional experience came with the 1933 Tyler (Texas) Governors (Dixie League). He played center field, left field, and a bit of third base, batting .246 with eight home runs. He signed expecting to play the infield, but when he arrived, he found “the manager had relatives playing at first and third, so I was sent to the outfield.” [The Sporting News, February 7, 1970]

In 1934, Mustaikis is listed as with Tyler and Memphis, then returning to Tyler. He told the American League Service Bureau that he retired. Somewhere along the line he became a pitcher.

In March 1935, Mustaikis was reinstated from the ineligible list and placed back on the Tyler roster, but he saw action in only three games before being sent to Little Rock, where he won 13 games against 10 losses, with a 3.18 earned run average. He made a few headlines with his August 6 game, in which he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Atlanta Crackers.

After the Southern Association season, Mustaikis’s contract was purchased by the Boston Red Sox and he was moved onto their roster from Little Rock’s. A report from the Boston Post’s Paul Shannon in spring training of 1936 said that Mustaikis, Lee Rogers, and Joe Cascarella were among those “working like demons to make the grade.” [The Sporting News, March 19, 1936] He was sent to Little Rock, however, and manager Doc Prothro was pleased to have him. He was 4-1 despite a poor 6.82 ERA. In June, though, Mustaikis hurt his arm – badly enough that Little Rock was still lamenting it come September. A Sporting News report said, “(H)is arm went dead in June, though not from action in the field. Mustaikis strained some ligaments showing off before a game, trying to show over how many fences he could throw a baseball.” [The Sporting News, September 17, 1936]

In the spring of ’37, Prothro had only Alex and another couple of pitchers and unless the Red Sox offered him some pitching help, he was going to have a tough season. It would be “pennies from heaven” if Mustaikis’s arm came around, still an uncertainty in March. [The Sporting News, March 18, 1937] He insisted that he didn’t need an operation and could pitch. As it worked out, he didn’t have to worry about Prothro’s problems, though; Boston sent him to pitch for manager Specs Toporcer and the Hazleton Red Sox, another Class A club, in the New York-Penn League. And his arm not only recovered but he threw 224 innings, going 14-11 with a 3.17 ERA, second on the team only to Jim Bagby.

Hazleton had Mustaikis’s services again in 1938. The club was now in the Eastern League, still under Toporcer. Alex had another excellent year, 15-7 (3.15), tossing back-to-back shutouts in early July and helping win a couple of games with his bat. In 16 minor-league seasons, Mustaikis hit for a .253 batting average. Hazelton made the playoffs that season, but lost in the final round to Elmira, four games to one.

In 1939, Scranton became the Eastern League farm club for the Red Sox.  Nemo Leibold was the manager. Mustaikis improved his ERA, but the team didn’t help win as many games for him. He was an even 3.00 in earned runs allowed, but his won-loss record was 14-11. One of the sweeter wins for the “elongated right-hander” (he was 6-feet-3 and weighed 180 pounds) came on May 11, when he held the Hartford Senators to six hits and two runs, and drove in three runs in a 3-for-5 day at the plate including a two-run homer in the sixth. Even that was topped by the first game on July 2 when Hartford was visiting Scranton. The game was tied, 2-2, in the bottom of the ninth and, because he was a good hitter, Alex stepped to the plate. A walk-off home run over the left-field fence won the game, 3-2.  And Scranton won the league playoffs, beating Albany four games to one. While playing for the Miners, Alex met his future wife, Alba Vandelskas, who was working as a waitress at the landmark Casey Hotel in Scranton. The two married in 1940.

It was a good year. It was also in 1940 that Mustaikis made the major leagues. He didn’t start there, though. On March 25, the Travelers announced that Alex and fellow right-hander Tommy Fine had signed with them. By the time the season began, though, Mustaikis was back in Scranton and pitching well. On July 3, the Red Sox sent two pitchers, Mickey Harris and Bill Butland, down to Scranton and called up Mustaikis, 9-4 at that point. He arrived and threw batting practice on July 6, then was given a start in the second game of a July 7 doubleheader in Washington. Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Evening Globe wrote, “Cronin, one of the game’s noted gamblers, took another chance in Washington yesterday, pitching Alex Mustaikis in the closing engagement with the Senators. The Sox had taken the first three games and it looked like a good sport to start Mustaikis. The Senators were really on the run but they snapped out of it principally because of Mustaikis’ own wildness.” [Boston Globe, July 8, 1940]

The Red Sox won the first game, 7-1, behind a Lefty Grove seven-hitter. The Globe headline the next day read: “Grove Subdues Nats, 7 to 1; Mustaikus Fumbles Second. Walks, Wild Pitch, Errors Doom Rookie.” He got off to a rough start, walking the first two batters, then giving up a single to Gee Walker, scoring George Case from first and sending Buddy Lewis to third. Mustaikis uncorked a wild pitch and Lewis scampered home, while Walker ran all the way around to third base, from where he scored on a fielding error by Jim Tabor. The evening edition of the Globe corrected the misspelling of his name in the headline and accompanying story. They’d had it right in the first place, when the July 4 paper noted he was being called up (and observed that he’d been born in Chelsea). There was one error, though, when the paper dubbed him “the only Greek in the major league now.”

The Red Sox recovered from the rocky first inning, scoring two in the top of the third and another in the fourth, tying up the game. In the bottom of the fifth inning, however, Alex managed to lose the game for himself by letting a couple of runners reach base and then, with two outs, picking up Zeke Bonura’s “easy roller” in front of him, colliding with catcher Joe Glenn, and throwing so wildly to first base that two runs scored. In the seventh, with two outs and a runner on second, he intentionally walked Cecil Travis only to have the next batter, Buddy Myer, double in two more runs. It was off to the showers. The Red Sox lost, 7-4.

It was Mustaikis’s only major-league start and his only decision, a loss. Manager Joe Cronin chalked it up to the inevitable butterflies any new player has in his first appearance: “I was really encouraged by his pitching. He has good stuff. He was naturally wild, it being his first start in the big leagues. … Outside of that he was very effective. They never hit him hard and he had good control once he got over his early wildness.” [Boston Globe, July 8, 1940] Several members of Alex’s family had traveled to the game and there was some feeling that Cronin shouldn’t have put him into a game so quickly, right off the bus, so to speak. Cronin did say that he was counting on Mustaikis and newly added lefty Earl Johnson to help the team.

Over the next few weeks, Alex appeared in five more big-league games, finishing three and throwing a total of 15 innings. He walked 15 and gave up 15 earned runs, for a 9.00 ERA. He struck out six. He was 2-for-6 at the plate, and drove in three runs. He singled in two of those runs in Chicago on July 23, but gave up four straight hits in the seventh and let the White Sox come back from a 7-3 deficit. The loss was handed to Jack Wilson, when Chicago scored in the bottom of the ninth. The August 3 game was Mustaikis’s last; he mopped up at the end of a 14-2 loss to the Tigers.

On August 12, the Red Sox made another move, acquiring pitcher Bill Fleming from the Hollywood Stars and sending Mustaikis and some cash to Hollywood. His debut in front of the home crowd came on August 23, and he came in with a win, beating league-leading Seattle, 7-5. He was 2-for-4 and drove in one of the runs himself. He lost four games, though, to two wins. Mustaikis played hard. An article in the August 29 Sporting News reported that he had twice slid into bases during the game – not something pitchers always did – hurting himself slightly while sliding into home plate for a score in the eighth.

Mustaikis was still playing under a Red Sox contract, but on December 21, 1940, he was sent to Louisville for an outfielder, John Barrett. Some cash went to Louisville, too. Alex was with the Red Sox for spring training in 1941 and even pitched in an exhibition game between Boston and Louisville, but was given his outright release before the spring season was over.

Come Opening Day 1941 in the Southern Association, Mustaikis was back with the Little Rock Travelers and the starter in the first game. It was a 2-1 squeaker, won by New Orleans, with Mustaikis having left with the score tied after six innings. He won the April 16 home opener against visiting Birmingham, 5-2. He was 2-6 for Bert Niehoff’s Travelers, with a 6.13 ERA. It may not have surprised Alex to find his contract sold to the Williamsport Grays (Eastern League, Class A) on June 8. The change of scenery, and somewhat lower level of competition, was a tonic and he pitched 129 innings for the Phillies farm team, going 11-7 (2.86 ERA). The next year, 1942, was even better; he was with Williamsport again, pitched 216 innings, and went 15-8 with a 2.46 earned-run average.

The Phillies moved their Eastern League connection to Elmira in 1943, and Mustaikis became a 20-game winner for the Pioneers. He was old enough (34) to not be immediately subject to military conscription with World War II on in earnest. He pitched a fine season of Eastern League ball, 20-12 with a 1.72 ERA. On July 28, he came within one pitch of a no-hitter, a sixth-inning single by Springfield’s Steve Shemo. With 12 games to play at the end of the season, manager Ray Brubaker departed to fulfill a commitment he’d made before becoming manager, as a high-school coach in Indiana. Mustaikis assumed the responsibilities of acting manager, and Elmira won the pennant. Alex led the league in innings pitched and complete games (27), and also hit for a .358 average in 178 at-bats.

Mustaikis bore a 1-0 loss to Scranton in postseason Governor’s Cup play but held the Miners to just five hits and one run in the September 28 finale while the Pioneers scored eight and won the Cup, four games to two. Mustaikis beat his hometown team – he was a Scranton resident at the time.

On December 2, 1943, “Alex the Great” won the Eastern League MVP voting, missing unanimous selection by only one vote. By the time the voting was announced, he’d already been drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs to play Double-A International League ball in 1944. Even at the age of 34, he was still dubbed a “beanpole right-hander” in the press. Brubaker had been promised he could return to become manager of the Pioneers in 1944. In the offseason, Mustaikis worked for Scranton’s Murray Corporation at the Blakely inspection plant.

Alex’s ’44 season was a very good one, 17-12 (2.57 ERA), but he fared not as well in 1945. He was 8-7 with Toronto, and then became part of the New York Yankees system with Kansas City (2-6). His ERA was virtually identical with both clubs, 3.91 and 3.94 respectively.

The Yankees moved Mustaikis to the Triple-A Newark Bears in 1946, and he responded in more limited action (84 innings) with a 7-1 record and a 3.11 ERA. In 1947, he joined the Yankees at spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, but began the year with Newark once again. On July 29, he was sold to the Syracuse Chiefs and became part of the Cincinnati Reds organization. Between Newark and Syracuse, Alex was 11-8 (2.79 ERA). The Chiefs took the Junior World Series to the seventh and final game, but were beaten by the Milwaukee Brewers.

In July 1948, Mustaikis proposed that a levy of 10 cents per ticket be pooled to provide enough money that players in the playoffs would receive adequate compensation. The athletes received a share of the receipts from the first four games, but nothing more. In some instances, he said, players “don’t even make enough to pay their train fare home after the playoffs.” [Hartford Courant, July 24, 1948]

In 1948, Mustaikis was 3-8 for Syracuse (5.35 ERA), and, at the age of 39, seemed to be running out of steam. His last year was in Class C ball, in 1949, pitching for the Quebec Braves in the Canadian-American League. He was 7-3, with a 4.24 ERA.

After Mustaikis finished playing pro ball, he continued to live in Scranton with his wife, Alba, and their four children: Carolyn, Ann Marie, Ruthie, and Dominick. Alex worked for Anemostat, a plant that made commercial refrigeration equipment, and, Ann Marie says, was probably an assemblyman. He also worked at General Electric doing manual work of one kind or another. He wasn’t the only athlete in the family – far from it. Alex’s sister Mary Mustaikis was an accomplished tennis player who reached the national women’s semifinals of national public parks tennis in Louisville in 1932, her second time in the national tournament. Brother Joe boxed for a while in the Golden Gloves, under the name of Martin.

Alex continued playing some semipro ball in the area, and attracted a bit of attention in 1953, playing first base for the General Electric softball team in Scranton and batting .600. The team won the Industrial League championship. [The Sporting News, September 17, 1952] He then signed to play for the St. Stephen’s Boosters Club of the Scranton Baseball Association. He suffered a heart attack at the age of 43 while playing softball. There were two fields positioned back to back, and though one could have never known it at the time, his daughter Ann Marie says, “My husband right now was playing third base in the Teener League. I was in the playground. My mother was working and my father was playing softball for General Electric and he had a heart attack at home plate. I didn’t find out until years later. …” [Interview with Ann Marie Marchese, January 14, 2010] 

Alex was bedridden at home for a while and was the beneficiary of an old-timers’ game held in North Scranton at the suggestion of old teammate Eddie Zipay. [The Sporting News, October 5, 1955] His heart attack was the first of several, coming about every five years. He had to give up working at GE and took on some other work, including driving a truck once more for a friend who had a silk mill.

In 1965, Alex was elected to the Elmira Pioneers Hall of Fame. He died on January 17, 1970, at the Scranton State General Hospital of sudden cardiac arrest due to coronary occlusion. He was survived by Alba, who died in 1984.

Sources

Thanks to Maurice Bouchard for some difficult genealogical research. Thanks also to Ann Marie Marchese, one of Alex Mustaikis’s daughters, for granting an interview on January 14, 2010, and for answering later questions via e-mail. In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed the online SABR Encyclopedia, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.