Frank Stewart

This article was written by Terry Bohn
Many baseball fans know that Satchel Paige played on an integrated semipro team in Bismarck, North Dakota, that won the national championship in 1935. He often called that team the best he ever played on, and the story was told exceptionally well in Tom Dunkel’s 2013 book Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line. What is not as well known is that one of the reasons Paige was lured to North Dakota was due to a rivalry with the small coal-mining town of Beulah, North Dakota, 75 miles northwest of Bismarck. The star pitcher on that Beulah team that regularly beat Bismarck before Paige’s arrival was Frank Stewart.

Frank Richard Stewart was born Frank Zwiaska on September 8, 1906, in Minneapolis. His parents were Vincent and Antonis Zwiaska, immigrants from Poland. Vincent was employed in a factory with the occupations of cutter and chipper listed on census reports. Frank was the oldest of six children; he had two brothers, Joseph and Edward, and three sisters, Wanda, Helen, and Margaret. He still went by the surname Zwiaska at the time of the 1920 US Census but was Stewart by 1930. It is not known when he changed his surname and why Stewart was chosen.

After graduation from high school in 1924, Frank hooked on with a semipro team in Wisconsin. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound right-hander had a good fastball and good control, but thought his best pitch was his sinkerball. He continued to play with semipro teams in the area and by 1927 was pitching for a team in Hammond, Indiana. As Frank told it in a later interview,1 some teammates suggested he go to Comiskey Park and see if the White Sox needed a batting-practice pitcher. He showed up at the ballpark one day and the White Sox agreed to let him throw one batting-practice session. The club showed no interest in keeping him around and he was sent home.

A few days later, while pitching for his Hammond semipro team, Stewart threw a no-hitter against the traveling House of David team. The White Sox heard of this feat and invited him back for another look and another round of batting practice. The date is unknown, but Chicago signed Stewart to a contract for the rest of the season, and he moved into a spare room with one of his friends on Chicago’s South Side. During his early days with the team, Stewart remembered, he took occasional rookie hazing from some of the veteran players, but manager Ray Schalk took him under his wing.

Stewart made his only major-league appearance, on Sunday October 2, 1927, against the St. Louis Browns at Comiskey Park. It was the last game of the season for both teams and a newspaper account noted, “Manager Schalk gave several of his rookies an opportunity to show their wares.”2 In his interview, Stewart said he pitched five innings in a 3-1 loss, but the record books show he started and pitched four complete innings. No play-by-play account of this game exists in retrosheet.com event files, but what is known is that the Browns scored a run off him in the top of the first inning and he pitched a scoreless second and third.

Stewart ran into trouble in the fourth when St. Louis scored three runs to take a 4-0 lead. His stat line for the day showed four innings pitched with five hits allowed and all four runs earned. He walked four (apparently the cause of his downfall in the fourth), failed to record a strikeout, and was charged with the loss. He struck out in his only plate appearance, but to hear him tell it years later, he hit a long foul into the upper deck that just missed being a home run by inches. Another rookie, Charlie Barnabe, took over for Stewart in the fifth and pitched the rest of the way in the 8-3 St. Louis win.

In 1928 the White Sox farmed Stewart out to the Springfield Senators in the Class B 3-I (Indiana-Illinois-Iowa) League and he had a good year, winning 14 games with a 3.12 earned-run average. After the season Stewart was sold to the Cleveland Indians organization and attended the Indians spring-training camp in New Orleans in 1929. He did not make the team and was returned to Springfield in April. Frank Stewart’s record in Baseball-Reference.com shows no participation in Organized Baseball during the 1929 and 1930 seasons but he in fact continued to pitch those two seasons.

An entry in Baseball-Reference.com shows F. Stewart pitching for Springfield, Illinois, in the Three-I League in 1929. The pitcher was identified as Frank Stewart in several contemporary sources.3 He threw 214 innings in 37 games with a record of 8-11 and a 4.42 ERA for Springfield.4 A player with only the surname Stewart5 is listed in Baseball-Reference.com as pitching for Terre Haute, Indiana, also in the Three-I League, in 1930. Again, contemporary sources6 identify this individual as Frank Stewart. He went 10-13 in 31 games for Terre Haute.

Stewart was expected back with Terre Haute in 1931 but early in the season it was reported that he had not been able to come to contract terms and efforts were being made to trade him.7 No record of the transaction could be found but by early June Stewart was pitching for the Peoria Tractors of the Three-I League. He had a record of 5-2 with Peoria but pitched 117 innings in 33 games suggesting he was often relieved early in games or pitched out of the bullpen. Stewart began the 1932 season with Peoria again but posted an unsightly 7.58 ERA in four games and then hooked on with Fort Wayne, Indiana. A third player in bbr.com with only the surname Stewart8 appeared with Fort Wayne in 1932 and was identified as Frank Stewart.9 At only 26 years old, this appears to be Stewart’s last appearance in professional baseball.

During the 1930s, semipro teams in the Midwest often looked to the Twin Cities for pitching talent and Stewart, who made his offseason home in Minneapolis, was offered a contract by the small town of Beulah, North Dakota, in 1933. During that season he had several matchups with Satchel Paige, who was pitching for Bismarck. In one game Satchel threw a three-hit shutout with 20 strikeouts to beat Stewart. In a rematch, Bismarck’s other black pitcher, Roosevelt Davis, beat Beulah with Stewart again the losing pitcher. This kicked off some trash talking, much of it racial in nature, with Stewart being the main instigator and Paige his primary target.

Later in the season Stewart had a memorable confrontation with Paige, who was then a teammate. Stewart briefly joined the Bismarck team and was playing first base with Paige on the mound against Jamestown. A batter hit a slow dribbler to Paige, who threw wildly to the home-plate side of first, pulling Stewart off the bag. The baserunner crashed into Stewart, dislocating his elbow and ending his season. Given Paige’s reputation for superb control, it was doubtful his errant throw was accidental, but rather his way of retaliating against Stewart.10

Stewart returned to Beulah for the 1934 season but the following winter he injured his pitching arm in a basketball game and apparently retired from baseball. At the time of the 1940 US Census, he was living with his wife, Mildred, and son, Frank Jr., in Stillwater, Minnesota. His occupation was listed as timekeeper, but it is not known what type of industry he worked in. His World War II draft registration card from October 1940 listed him being employed with the Works Progress Administration (WPA, a New Deal public-employment program) in Stillwater.

No record of a marriage license could be located, but Frank said he met and married Mildred “after my big league days were over” while pitching for a semipro team in Wisconsin. The couple had been married 65 years when Mildred died in 1993, making the time of their marriage around 1928. Frank Jr. was born in 1929 and later pitched in professional baseball. His record shows he was with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and played with Santa Barbara in the California League in 1949 and Danville, Illinois, the next year. He pitched for the Denver Bears of the Western League in 1950 and 1951 and, after two years away in military service, wrapped up his career with Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1954. Frank Jr. had a record of 30-31 in 116 minor-league games. According to Frank Sr., after Frank Jr. completed his baseball career he moved to the West Coast and became a stockbroker.

Little is known about Frank Sr.’s later years other than that he and Mildred lived quietly in the area of the St. Croix River Valley between Minnesota and Wisconsin. He was modest about his baseball career, even admitting to being embarrassed when asked for an autograph. Late in life, Stewart recalled that many of the souvenirs and memorabilia from his baseball career (including, he claimed, a ball signed by Lou Gehrig and a Babe Ruth autographed bat) were destroyed in a fire. All that remained of his baseball career were his memories, which he loved to share with visitors. Stewart died on April 30, 2001, in Stillwater the age of 94 and was cremated.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Len Levin and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.

 

Sources

Genealogy, census, and city-directory information was taken from Ancestry.com. Unless otherwise noted, statistics have been taken from Baseball-Reference.

 

Notes

1 Much of the content of this biography is taken from Nick Wilson, Voices From Our Pastime: Oral Histories of Surviving Major Leaguers, Negro Leaguers, Cuban Leaguers, and Writers, 1920-1934 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000), 70-73.

2 Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 3, 1927.

3 Decatur (Illinois) Herald, March 18, April 19, April 21, June 17, and June 28, 1929.

4 The entry for F. Stewart (Chadwick ID: 509cdc71) shows him playing outfield for Springfield and Decatur in 1925, but this player was Bonnie Stewart (Chadwick ID: c0669e1c).

5 Chadwick ID: 84c7a5fa.

6 Decatur (Illinois) Daily Review, July 7, 1930.

7 Decatur (Illinois) Herald, May 5, 1931.

8 Chadwick ID: 08ecbbb5.

9 Lima (Ohio) News, June 3, 1932.

10 Tom Dunkel, Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), 86-89.