SABR

Frank Mancuso

This article was written by Jim Sargent.

Frank O. Mancuso was the younger brother of a better-known big league catcher, August "Gus" Mancuso, a two-time All-Star who enjoyed a 17-year major league career and produced his best seasons with the New York Giants from 1932 through 1938. Gus spent more than 40 years in baseball, serving as a minor league manager, a major league pitching coach, and, with Harry Caray, as a broadcaster. When Gus was starring for the Giants in the 1930s, he would bring teammates to the Mancuso home in Houston. As a result, young Frank met and played catch or a game of checkers with famous players like Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell.

Big, strong, and durable at 6'0" and 195 pounds in his prime, the right-handed batting Frank Mancuso also became a catcher and spent four seasons in the majors. He made the big leagues during World War II, starting his career in 1944 with the only pennant winner in the 51-year history of the St. Louis Browns. Frank shared the catching duties Myron "Red" Hayworth. Ironically, brothers Red and Ray Hayworth also were catchers. When Frank Mancuso and Red Hayworth began as rookie catchers for the Browns in 1944, their older brothers Gus and Ray were nearing the end of their own playing careers.

Mancuso was a lifetime .241 hitter, not a bad average for a good catcher. But the remarkable point about Mancuso's baseball story is that he was able to play major league ball. In 1943 he was seriously injured in training as an Army paratrooper, and doctors said he would not play again. The doctors figured wrong. Mancuso, who was talented, determined, and hard-working, made one of baseball's surprising comebacks of the 1940s.

Born on May 23, 1918, Frank Mancuso grew up in Houston, Texas. His grandfather Stephano started the journey from Sicily with his wife and two sons, Giacomo and Franco, but the elder Mancuso died during the Atlantic crossing. Later, Franco married Heppie Lindermann, the daughter of a German immigrant father and a Cherokee mother. The couple had seven children: Steve, Marie, August, Leona, Lawrence, Leon, and Frank, the youngest. They grew up in an Old World family where the father insisted his sons speak English, complete high school, and work to earn a college education. Leon played two seasons in the minor leagues, so three of five Mancuso boys proved to be gifted athletes.

Frank loved baseball, thanks in part to Gus, his hero. Franco Mancuso died when his youngest son was ten, but Heppie was also a big believer in education. Throughout his public school years, Frank missed only two days -- the first when his mother allowed him to stay home and listen to the radio as Gus helped the Giants beat the Washington Nationals in one game of the 1933 World Series. The youngest Mancuso played two years of American Legion ball as a teenager. Shortly after graduation from high school, he signed a pro contract.

The St. Louis Cardinals extended an offer to Frank but he declined, thanks to the influence of Gus, who had been trapped for five years in the Cardinals' vast farm system. Gus persuaded Giants' manager Bill Terry to offer Frank a contract in 1937. Assigned at first to Jersey City of the Double-A International League, Frank didn't play. He was sent to Blytheville, Arkansas, one of six clubs in the Class D Northeast Arkansas League.

Blytheville, led by playing manager Herschel Bobo, fashioned a 62-45 record and finished first in the league, 2.5 games ahead of second-place Caruthersville. Bobo, who hit .269 with four homers and 68 RBIs, proved to be a good leader. The team's top hitter was Woody Wills, who batted .299 while adding three home runs and 32 RBIs. Mancuso got off to a fine professional start, batting .297 and leading Blytheville in home runs with 13 and RBIs with 88. Frank also made the league's all-star team along with three teammates: second sacker Hal Gruber, shortstop Pete Pavich, and pitcher John Kelly, who went 18-6.

Although never noted for speed, Mancuso proved his skills behind home plate, and the Giants promoted him for 1938. But that season turned out to be what Frank called a "wild year." He was sent wherever a Giant farm team needed a regular catcher.

Mancuso didn't get into a game at Fort Smith, Arkansas, of the Class C Western Association or at Jeanerette, Louisiana, of the Class D Evangeline League. Sent to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, of the Class B Three-Eye League, he spent two and a half months as the regular catcher, hitting .237 with a pair of home runs and 16 RBIs in 38 games. Then he made stops (but didn't play) at Fort Smith and at Milford, Delaware, of the Class D Eastern Shore League. When a catcher was injured at Fort Smith, Frank returned, took over the starting job, and swung a hot bat. Catching 23 games, he averaged .419 with one homer and 17 RBIs for the rest of the season.

After Gus Mancuso was traded to the Chicago Cubs in December 1938, Frank got a call from the Giants. He hoped to back up Harry Danning, the Giants' all-star catcher. After a good spring training with New York in 1939, Mancuso spent the entire season with the Giants. But the right-handed batting Danning -- a Jewish athlete who was a fan favorite in New York -- handled 132 of the club's 154 games. Ken O'Dea, a left-handed batter who came to the Giants after spending four seasons with the Chicago Cubs, caught the rest of New York's games. Mancuso served as the bullpen catcher, warming up pitchers at the Polo Grounds and on the road, but he never got into a single game.

Still, Frank enjoyed his season with the Giants. Recollecting those experiences in 2007, he said, "I began with the Giants' farm system in 1937, you know, and I felt good about being in the majors by 1939. I was still a young man, and New York had two good catchers ahead of me, Harry Danning, an all-star, and Ken O'Dea. I was glad to be there. I warmed up all of the Giants' fine pitchers, like Carl Hubbell, Harry Gumbert, Cliff Melton, Hal Schumacher, Bill Lohrman, and Walter Brown, the big reliever. Harry Danning was really a good catcher. Harry knew I would be catching somewhere down the line, and he was a big help to me."

Returning to Houston after the season, the younger Mancuso was considering his options when he caught a break. In 1940 the Cubs acquired his contract and sent him to St. Joseph, Missouri, of the Class C Western Association. Given a full season behind the plate, the rugged receiver handled the job well. Playing for the fourth-place Saints, he hit .310 and contributed 24 doubles, 16 triples, seven homers, and a career-best 103 RBIs..

In 1941 a shift in minor league affiliations sent Mancuso from the Cubs' organization to the St. Louis Browns. On June 3 the Cubs' St. Joseph team was moved to Carthage, Missouri, and became a Browns' farm club. Regardless, Mancuso enjoyed another good season. Playing in a career-high 134 games, he batted .303 and showed good power, producing 33 doubles, eight triples, and a career-best 18 homers while knocking in 97 runs.

In 1942 Mancuso, still a bachelor, remained close to home, as the Browns assigned him to San Antonio of the Texas League. World War II had exploded on America with Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By the spring of 1942, the U.S. was mobilizing at home and fighting abroad, notably in the Pacific. Following war-related events in the newspapers, Mancuso adjusted to Class 1-A ball. The big catcher played 131 games, averaged .251, and contributed 12 doubles, three triples, and 11 home runs. His hitting and receiving helped San Antonio to a fourth place finish, 9.5 games behind the league-leading Beaumont Exporters. After the season, St. Louis listed Mancuso on the parent club's roster.

By mid-1942 World War II preoccupied the lives of most Americans, and the military service claimed growing numbers of people. About 16 million men and women served in the armed forces during the war and millions more worked in war-related civilian jobs. After the 1942 baseball season, Frank, like hundreds of pro athletes, sought to do his duty for his country by joining the military.

Enlisting in the Naval Air Corps, the Texan was sent to Athens, Georgia, for flight training. On the first day, taking a mathematics test that ranged from simple fractions to celestial navigation with a bunch of college graduates, Frank realized he lacked the education to become a pilot. He wanted out of the Navy. As it happened, Madison "Matty" Bell, the head football coach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a member of the Naval Reserve, was now serving as commander of the base. The sympathetic Bell arranged Mancuso's discharge from the Air Corps. Frank went home, joined the Army, and attended Officers Candidate School at Fort Hood, Texas. Upon completion of his training, he made the rank of second lieutenant in the Tank Destroyers, an outfit training to take on German General Irwin Rommel's Afrika Corps. But the tide of war turned against the Axis Powers in North Africa in the spring of 1943.

As a result, Frank volunteered to join the Army's 542nd Paratroopers that summer. On his fifth and final practice jump at Fort Benning, Georgia, the recruit broke his left leg and injured his back. He endured several operations while spending five months in an Army hospital.

Recalling the accident for sportswriter William J. McGoogan, who was covering the Browns during spring training in 1944, Frank explained he was making his last practice jump from one of three planes flying low in a "V" formation. When the green light came on signaling him to jump, he inadvertently tumbled out the plane's door head-first instead of feet-first. As a result, his left leg got tangled in the parachute. Unable to free his leg, Mancuso landed flat on his back in some small trees. The unfortunate landing broke his leg just below the knee, and his back--which had given him problems for years--was injured.

Mancuso gradually recovered from the injuries, but problems with his spine caused the Army to discharge him in February 1944. Since he was on the Browns' roster, Frank packed and traveled to spring training at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He and Red Hayworth proved to be the club's two best catchers.

"My reputation," Frank said in a 2001 interview, "was that I was weak on pop flies. To this day, I can't look directly up, because of what happened to my neck in the paratroopers. I would have to call out the location, because if I looked up to follow the ball, I would pass out."

On Tuesday, April 18, in the season opener for both teams, the Browns won, 2-1, behind a six-hitter by Jack Kramer. In the top of the first frame the visitors scored a run off right-hander Dizzy Trout. Leadoff batter Don Gutteridge singled, Harold Epps singled, sending Gutteridge to third base, and George McQuinn grounded into a forceout at second, scoring the run. Vern Stephens homered in the top of the ninth for a 2-0 Browns lead, and Pinky Higgins slugged a round-tripper in the bottom of the inning as the Tigers tried to rally. Mancuso started, singled once in three trips, called a good game, and played well defensively.

St. Louis won eight more games in a row, taking a big step toward the 1944 American League pennant. Personable, outgoing, and friendly, the strong-armed Mancuso performed well. He and Hayworth split the club's receiving duties evenly. Frank, a major league rookie at age 26, caught 87 games and hit a disappointing .205. Red, now 29, a rookie who began his minor league odyssey in 1936, caught 88 games and hit .223. Both catchers connected for one home run. Incidentally, the '44 Browns became the first major league team to win a pennant with a pair of rookie catchers.

After starting with a nine-game winning streak, the Browns finished strong by sweeping the New York Yankees in a season-ending four-game series. Tied for first place with the Detroit Tigers on the last day of the season, the Browns, behind the hurling of Galveston native Sig Jakucki, defeated the Yanks, 5-2, thanks to a pair of two-run homers by Chet Laabs and a solo shot by Vern Stephens. Meanwhile, the Tigers lost, 4-1, to the Washington Senators. Dizzy Trout, who fashioned a career-best 27-14 mark and a league-leading 2.12 ERA in 1944, pitched the distance but gave up a pair of solo homers to Stan Spence, while Dutch Leonard, the Senators' knuckleballer, held the Tigers to four hits.

In a 2007 interview Mancuso reflected on his first season with St. Louis, remembering how manager Luke Sewell alternated between Hayworth and himself: "Most of the time I caught Nelson Potter, Sig Jakucki, and Al Hollingsworth. Red mainly caught Jack Kramer, Bob Muncrief, and Denny Galehouse. Also, it seemed like I played most of the time when we faced left-handed pitchers."

With fewer wartime personnel losses than most other clubs, St. Louis won the American League pennant by one game over the second-place Tigers. Compiling an 89-65 record, the Brownie lineup featured good hitters such as George McQuinn, the first baseman, who hit .250 with 11 home runs and 72 RBIs; shortstop Vern Stephens, who batted .293 with 20 homers and an American League-best 120 RBIs; Milt Byrnes, who batted .295 and covered a lot of ground in center field; and veteran left fielder Mike Kreevich, who led the team in hitting at .301. With first-rate starters like Jack Kramer, who fashioned a 17-13 record, Nels Potter, who went 19-7, Bob Muncrief, who was 13-8, and Sig Jakucki at 13-9, the surprising Browns looked like the team to beat.

But the favored Cardinals featured a stronger lineup. Top hitters included right fielder Stan Musial, who hit .347 with 12 home runs and 94 RBIs, third baseman Whitey Kurowski, who batted .287 with 20 homers and 87 RBIs, left fielder Danny Litwhiler, who averaged .264 with 15 four-baggers and 82 RBIs, all-star catcher Walker Cooper, who batted .317 with 13 homers and 72 RBIs, and first baseman Ray Sanders, whose .295 season featured 12 homers and a team-high 102 RBIs.

On the mound the Redbirds boasted a starting rotation anchored by Mort Cooper, probably the best pitcher in the National League with a 22-7 mark. After Cooper came southpaw Max Lanier, who finished at 17-12, Ted Wilks, who was 17-4, and Harry "The Cat" Brecheen at 16-5.

The Cardinals won the fall classic in six games, all played at hitter-friendly Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, the home field for both teams. Starting strong, the Browns won the first game, 2-1, behind fine pitching by Denny Galehouse and George McQuinn's two-run homer in the fourth inning. Hayworth caught Galehouse and went hitless in three at-bats, while Mancuso rode the bench.

The Cardinals won game two, 3-2, in eleven innings behind the hurling of veteran Max Lanier and the relief work of Blix Donnelly, who came out of the bullpen in the eighth. Leading 2-0 in the top of the seventh, Lanier retired the first two Brownie batters. Then the "visitors" bunched three hits, starting with a single by Gene Moore, the veteran right fielder playing his thirteenth major league season. Red Hayworth, who collected only two hits in the series, doubled to drive home Moore.

Sent up to pinch-hit for starter Nels Potters, Mancuso singled to right, driving in Hayworth to tie the game at 2-2. Frank left the game for Tex Shirley, a right-hander pitcher who came in to pinch run. But Lanier retired the side, and Hayworth remained behind the plate for the Browns. Four innings later, Brownie reliever Bob Muncrief gave up a base hit to Ray Sanders, who was then sacrificed to second. After Muncrief intentionally passed Marty Marion, the Redbirds won on a pinch single by reserve catcher Ken O'Dea.

The Browns came back and won game three, 6-2, behind the seven-hit pitching of Jack Kramer. In the bottom of the third inning they combined five straight singles, a walk, and a wild pitch to score four runs against Cardinal starter Ted Wilks, who lasted 2.2 innings. Hayworth caught again, while Mancuso watched from the dugout.

In game four, a 5-1 victory for the Cardinals, Hayworth started but Mancuso replaced him in the top of the seventh inning, after Red was hit on the finger by a foul tip off the bat of southpaw Harry Brecheen in the sixth. Leading off, Mancuso lifted a long fly to right field, but Stan Musial raced over and made the catch near the foul line. With one out in the ninth, Mancuso singled to left. But Brecheen, who scattered nine hits for the afternoon, closed the game on a fly out, a walk, and a bouncer in the infield.

The Browns and the Cardinals were tied at two games each. However, Luke Sewell chose not to use Mancuso either in game five or game six, both Cardinal victories, despite the fact that Hayworth batted only .118 (2-for-17) for the six games. Still, Frank made the most of his opportunities, going two-for three and giving the Browns his best effort in October.

Mancuso got his reward in 1945. He recalled signing for $5,000, but he also had a "handshake" deal with Luke Sewell and general manager Bill Dewitt: if the Houston athlete caught more than 100 games, he would earn an additional $1,000, a bonus that was not allowed in major league contracts of the era.

Now the regular, Mancuso enjoyed his best year. Appearing in 119 games, he caught 115 times, thus earning his extra thousand dollars. In a career-high 365 at-bats, Frank averaged .268, connected for one homer, and drove home 38 runs. Maybe more important, he performed well behind the plate, a fact shown by the large number of games he caught.

In 1946, with star players like Ted Williams of Boston and Joe DiMaggio of New York returning from the military service, the Browns fell to the second division, finishing seventh with a 66-88 record. Zack Taylor replaced Sewell as manager for the last 30 games. Mancuso had the same off-the-record agreement with Sewell and Dewitt for catching 100 games.

However, when Taylor took over as manager, he began starting Hank Helf, a right-handed hitting Texan who averaged only .184 in three big league seasons, or left-handed batting but weak-armed Joe Schultz, who got into 42 games (many as a pinch-hitter) and batted .366. Red Hayworth had jumped to Torreon of the ill-fated Mexican League, and, like others such as the Cardinals' Max Lanier, Red received a five-year suspension from Major League Baseball. In any event, by the time Mancuso informed Taylor about his verbal salary deal, it was too late for the club's best receiver to catch 100 games.

Mancuso had given St. Louis three solid seasons, but the Browns wanted more power out of the position. On December 18, 1946, St. Louis swapped Mancuso to Washington for veteran catcher Jake Early, who had been the Senators' regular receiver (except for 1944-45) since 1939. As it developed, Early, whose lifetime average exactly matched Mancuso's .241 mark, caught 85 games for St. Louis in 1947 but hit only .224.

Mancuso received a $1,000 raise to $7,000 with Washington. Nats' owner Clark Griffith, Frank remembered in 2007, liked to give new players a raise. The club sent Mancuso a contract for $6,000, the total the catcher unofficially earned in 1945. When informed of Mancuso's handshake deal with the Browns, Griffith authorized a contract for $7,000.

An "outsider" who had not worked his way up in Washington's farm system, Mancuso backed up Nationals' veteran Al Evans, a career .250 hitter who caught 91 games and batted .241 in 1947. Mancuso caught 35 games but hit only .229, his second lowest mark in the majors. First sacker Mickey Vernon, the American League batting champ in 1946 with a splendid .353 mark, fell to .265 while Washington slid to seventh place. Frank was released after the season.

He never played another major league game, but the baseball dream dies hard. In 1948 he signed with Toledo of the Triple-A American Association, beginning a long journey in the minors with the hope of returning to the majors. The Mud Hens endured a mediocre season, finishing seventh in the eight-term circuit. Appearing in 111 games, Mancuso averaged .273 with 13 home runs and 61 RBIs. Again he was released. Still, he had good skills, and he signed with Baltimore of the Triple-A International league in 1949. While the Orioles ranked seventh, Frank again performed well, playing 122 games and hitting .258 with 10 doubles, five triples, 17 home runs, and 48 RBIs.

Over the next six years Mancuso continued pursuing the game he loved. In 1950 he returned to his 1942 club, San Antonio of the Texas League, now classified Double-A. He played 111 games and averaged .238, contributing 16 doubles, nine home runs, and 42 RBIs. In 1951 he started the season with San Antonio, but was sold to Beaumont, also in the Texas League. Altogether, he played 108 games and hit a solid .265 with 22 doubles, one three-bagger, 11 homers, and 62 RBIs. His last full season came in 1952, when he served as playing manager for Wichita Falls of the Class B Big State League. Piloting his club to a sixth-place finish despite a winning record of 77-70, he played in 101 games, batted .290, and contributed 19 doubles, 14 homers, and 56 RBIs.

In 1953 Frank signed with Houston and returned to the Texas League. At age 34 he played 63 games, averaging .235 with eight doubles, two four-baggers, and 13 RBIs. Just after mid-season, he was asked to go to Omaha of the Class A Western League. The club needed an experienced catcher. He reported, took up his duties behind home plate, and played 40 games. He hit only .196, his lowest career batting mark, but helped develop the pitching staff. Omaha made a run for the playoffs, but ended in fifth place with a 74-80 record.

Giving baseball one last fling, Mancuso opted to manage and play for Ardmore in the eight-team Class D Sooner State League. He spent two seasons with the club, piloting the Cardinals (a St. Louis affiliate) to a fourth-place finish (72-67) in 1954 and fifth place (65-75) in 1955. Both years Frank showed youngsters he could still swing the bat, averaging .333 and .242.

Before spring training in the last year of the Second World War, on March 3, 1945, Frank had married his hometown sweetheart, Marian. Moving to a big city, traveling, and living in major hotels while playing big league baseball proved difficult by itself, but traveling and staying in cheap hotels in the minor leagues, especially in bus leagues, was usually an ordeal. For Mancuso, his shot at the majors was over, and he knew the time had arrived to come home and start another career. He left baseball after the 1955 season and worked at a variety of jobs in Houston. Also, Frank and Marion decided to raise a family. They had a daughter, Dana, born in 1956, and a son, Frank, born in 1959.

In 1963 Mancuso was elected to serve on the Houston City Council, then a part-time position. He also began working for TRW, a conglomerate that did not pose a conflict of interest for a city council member. Frank spent 18 years with TRW before he left the business after city council became a full-time position. He retired from the council in 1993.

A personable fellow with many interests, he had enjoyed seeing stage productions in New York City when he played in the majors. One of his favorites from that era was Tallulah Bankhead. During the early 1960s Frank revived his passion for the theater. He appeared in three plays, activities he enjoyed almost as much as baseball.

Reflecting on his career in 2007, he was particularly pleased with two highlights:

"There's nothing like playing in the World Series.

"Also, when I got that pinch-hit line drive single to drive in the tying run in the seventh inning of game two, that was my biggest World Series thrill.

"But my most memorable game was the opener for St. Louis against Detroit in 1944. I wondered before that day if I could play in the big leagues. I caught that game, and I knew I could do it. That was a great experience."

His older brother Gus had a great influence on Frank's career. "Gus was my hero," Frank explained. "He used to bring ballplayers home with him. I met lots of the big-name players of our time, guys who became Hall of Famers like Frankie Frisch, Mel Ott, Jim Bottomley, 'Rabbit' Maranville, Chick Hafey, Bill Terry, and Carl Hubbell.

"Gus was the greatest catcher of his time. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."

A good ballplayer in his own right, Frank Mancuso idolized his older brother and lived the baseball dream. Overcoming injuries that threatened to cripple him, he enjoyed the ups-and-downs of a four-year major league career. He also received service credit for the 1943 season, making him eligible for baseball's pension. A timely hitter and a fine catcher, Frank proved his mettle in the 1944 World Series, singling to drive home a crucial run in game two and going 1-for-2 in a vain effort to help the Browns win game four. Last but not least, the former receiver earned an important honor in 2003 when he was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame.


Sources

This article about Frank Mancuso's baseball career is a revised and expanded version of the story which appeared in the August 2002 issue of Autograph Times. Major league statistics for Mancuso are derived from The Baseball Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 9th edition, 1993). For minor league stats I used Pat Doyle's Professional Baseball Player Database, version 6. I obtained several useful items from the Mancuso file in the Baseball Hall of Fame's Library. For major league game stories, I used the ProQuest database, which I accessed through the web resources of the Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque, Iowa. I also received invaluable information from several telephone interviews with Frank Mancuso in 2001, 2002, and 2007.

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