Mike Chartak

This article was written by David E. Skelton

Dubbed the “Volga Batman” for his Russian heritage, Mike Chartak seemingly possessed the tools for a long and illustrious career. “He can hit the ball as far as Ruth … [and] has the Jimmy Foxx stride … [the] Joe DiMaggio swing.” But despite such lofty observations by The Sporting News, Chartak managed just four years in the major leagues, almost all when most major league stars were serving overseas during World War II.

Chartak was one of the New York Yankees’ “dead end kids of baseball”1 whose path to the majors was blocked by the likes of Messrs. Ruth, Gehrig, and company. Moreover a series of injuries over a three-year span foiled this five-tool player’s attempt to prove his worth. In 1939 the Yankees began grooming Chartak as the permanent replacement for Lou Gehrig, but the youngster was unable to win favor with skipper Joe McCarthy. He escaped from under the Yankees’ suffocating blanket only to be forced into retirement a few years later after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, the lung disease that claimed his life in 1967.

Michael George Chartak was born on April 28, 1916, one of four children of Michael M. and Natalia “Nedie” Chartak, in Brooklyn, New York. Around 1910-12 his parents had emigrated from Russia to Erie, New York, where his father found employment as a steel worker. A decade later the family relocated to Carbondale, Pennsylvania, 15 miles northeast of Scranton, where Michael’s father entered the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania. At an early age Michael (and likely his two older brothers as well) followed his father into the mines in summer and after school. The child developed massive shoulder and back muscles from this hard work.

But Chartak’s after-school activities were not limited to the mines alone. In school he flourished as a three-sport star in track, basketball, and especially baseball. He played semi-pro ball in the Tri-County League, and around 1934-35 the youngster signed with the Wilkes-Barre Barons, a non-affiliated Class A team in the New York-Pennsylvania League. He didn’t stay long there, and it is unclear whether he ever played with the Barons. In June 1935, via some unknown transaction, the Yankees acquired the 19-year-old and assigned him to the Bassett (Virginia) Furnituremakers in the Bi-State League (Class D). Despite his late arrival, the left-handed hitter placed among the club leaders in nearly every offensive category.

In 1936, Chartak returned to Bassett and produced an All Star campaign. He led his club to a championship with a .330-19-115 batting line while placing among the league leaders in hits, triples, homers, and RBIs (runner-up in the circuit’s RBI crown and among the league’s top 20 base stealers with eight thefts). Observers also noted Chartak for his strong arm from the outfield. When the season ended he was promoted to the Norfolk (Virginia) Tars in the Piedmont League (Class B). Shortly afterward Chartak was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and advanced to Class A with the Cedar Rapids Raiders in the Western League.

Chartak was a contract holdout into March 1937. For the first time since the 1929 market crash the Raiders could afford to conduct spring training in a location other than Cedar Rapids. Chartak was projected as merely a backup in the four-way competition for three outfield spots. But his batting prowess soon changed that. Often used by Raiders’ player-manager Clarence Crossley as a leadoff hitter to take advantage of his speed, Chartak began the season at a .333 pace that placed him alongside Walter Menke (Denis’ father) and future major league outfielder Harry Craft in the batting race. On May 24, Chartak was a triple shy of the cycle, including two homers, in leading his club to an 11-5 romp of the Des Moines Demons. “[Chartak is] one of the stand-out newcomers in the Western League,” offered The Sporting News. “[He is] one of the most dangerous hitters in the loop with runners on base . . . all observers agree he is a major league prospect.”2

Meanwhile the Yankees kept close tabs on their former protégée. In July, the Newark Bears, the club’s Class AA affiliate, purchased Chartak’s contract from Cedar Rapids for an estimated $3,500, providing the slugger finished out the season in the Western League. And for the second straight year Chartak placed among the circuit leaders in hitting while pacing his team to a championship. By mid-season the Raiders led the rest of the pack by such a margin that the league split the season in two to provide some level of competition. Cedar Rapids finished the two-part campaign with a combined record of 78-38.3

Before departing Iowa, Chartak married Iowa native Wilma E. Rozek on December 27 in Keokuk, Iowa. Born in 1919, Wilma had a hardscrabble upbringing. The youngest of five children of Bohemian immigrants Frank and Mary Rozek, in 1930 she and her siblings lived in the Christian Home Orphanage in Cedar Rapids.4 A month after the wedding the couple welcomed their only child, a daughter named Carole Ann. Chartak eventually made Iowa his home.

In 1938, Chartak participated in another championship season, this time in the International League, though his contributions were small: a nagging ankle injury limited him to only 284 at-bats. The next season proved even worse. Following a brilliant start wherein he hovered close to .400, on May 20, 1939, Chartak broke his leg sliding into second when the spikes of his new shoes became snagged around the bag. When he returned to the league after convalescing in Iowa the Yankees’ directed their Newark affiliate to begin grooming Chartak at first base. He finished, the season at .342 in just 146 at-bats. In September the Yankees recalled him, but he did not make an appearance.

On February 24, 1940, the Bears’ primary first baseman Ed Levy was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. The vacancy provided Chartak the opportunity to work exclusively at first during spring training where his “showing was nothing short of spectacular.”5 But on April 27, the Phillies abruptly returned Levy to the Yankees, who optioned him to Newark, and Chartak was reassigned to the outfield. Again the injury-bug struck. On May 30 he dislocated his shoulder and thereafter struggled with various lesser ailments. Despite these challenges Chartak maintained a .300 average into July. He finished the season with a league leading 116 walks and placed among the circuit leaders in triples (11), homers (20), and slugging percentage (.520). For the second consecutive September the Yankees beckoned.

On September 13, 1940 Chartak made his major league debut in Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Pinch-hitting in the eighth for pitcher Steve Sundra,6 Chartak grounded out to Tigers’ shortstop Dick Bartell. He collected his first major league hit five days later against the White Sox in Chicago. In the eighth inning, with the Yankees trailing 8-7, Chartak pinch-hit for future Hall of Famer Red Ruffing and delivered a single to center to drive in the tying run. A double by Charlie Keller allowed Chartak to score the winning tally. He earned his first start the next day in right field. Chartak made 20 plate appearances (nine as a pinch-hitter) that year and finished with two hits in 15 at-bats, including his first extra-base hit, an RBI double against Washington in a 4-3 extra-inning win against the Senators.

Throughout spring training in 1941, informed observers thought Chartak held the inside track for the Yankees’ backup outfielder slot ahead of veteran Frenchy Bordagaray and 23-year-old Tommy Holmes. Chartak had a splendid grapefruit league campaign that included a 450-foot drive off Detroit’s All Star righty Schoolboy Rowe. But to the surprise of many, manager Joe McCarthy selected Bordagaray for the utility role.7 Chartak was sent down to the Kansas City Blues in the American Association (Class AA). Having established roots in nearby Newark, Chartak balked at the assignment. Rumors instantly surfaced of his pending trade, but farm director George Weiss eventually convinced him to accept the assignment. When Yankees’ rookie first baseman Johnny Sturm struggled out of the gate, reports emerged of Chartak’s return but nothing came of this. He played 84 of his 150 games for the Blues at first base constantly eyeing a promotion. Chartak constructed a .293-16-82 batting line while leading the circuit in triples (13) and walks (100). Disturbingly, he also led in strikeouts (106). The Yankees recalled him in August, but he did not get into a game.

For Chartak the Yankees’ 1942 spring camp played out almost identically to the preceding years. Once again on the inside track for the utility outfielder role, he was passed over in favor of another veteran (Tuck Stainback this time). Again rumors bubbled of Chartak’ s pending exit, but this time the Yankees no longer had the option of assigning him without losing him on waivers. “I thought I was set with the Yankees,” Chartak said. “I knew they couldn’t send me out again, and figured I would be carried as an extra outfielder . . . I was surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed . . . Joe McCarthy didn’t think I belonged in New York. Well, I’ve got to show them I belong in the majors.”8 Seemingly destined for either the Tigers or White Sox, Chartak went instead to Washington who bought his contract from the Yankees on May 10 shortly after Senators’ outfielder George Case was injured.

Inserted into right field, Chartak started slowly until he burst into an 8-for-16 run beginning May 23. A week later he connected for his first major league home run, a solo shot against the Yankees’ Spud Chandler.9 But within two weeks of Case’s return Chartak was moved again: traded with pitcher Steve Sundra to the St. Louis Browns for outfielder Roy Cullenbine and pitcher Bill Trotter. In July Chartak constructed a .278-5-21 line in 97 at-bats to lead the perennial second-division club to their most productive month in 10 years (20-12, .625). Though he slowed to a 6-for-40 finish, Chartak’s pinch-hit two-run homer on September 14 helped the Browns overcome a 4-1 deficit to win in extra innings. He finished the three-stop season with career highs in runs scored (48), triples (4), RBIs (51) and homers (10, a total he matched in 1943). Chartak’s notable power produced some “of the most murderous clouts seen in St. Louis . . . compared with those hit by Ruth in his prime.”10

In 1943, for the only time in his major league career, Chartak opened a season as a starter. After a slow start, he exploded at a .391 pace (18-for-46) beginning May 4 to “become one of the most valuable members of the St. Louis American League organization.”11 Two months later Chartak delivered a ninth inning two-out walk-off home run against the Boston Red Sox. Despite a late-season slump, he finished among the team leaders in homers (10) and slugging percentage (.401). After the season Chartak’s name surfaced in a rumored trade for Hal Trosky before the Cleveland slugger was sold to the Chicago White Sox.

Chartak spent the offseason employed alongside his father in the Newark shipyards engaged in defense industry work for the war effort, and for the younger Chartak it appears to have been compulsory. He did not join the Browns until 48 games into the 1944 season by which time a patchwork rotation of five outfielders had help lift the team into first place. Through July Chartak was used almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter where he performed poorly. He collected 60 percent of his at-bats over the final six weeks of the season when he spelled his teammates in right field and first base.

The lack of play did not diminish Chartak’s zeal for the game. In August he was one of a number of players interviewed by Harry Caray, a young sports editor for St. Louis radio station KXOK, when the Browns – to the astonishment of the baseball world—remained in pennant contention.12 On the last day of the season the Browns captured their first (and only) American League title. Facing the cross town St. Louis Cardinals in baseball’s seventh one-city World Series, the Brown’s veteran club did not boast a single player with post-season experience. Moreover, the club slipped into the World Series despite its pronounced lack of offensive punch—a near league-low .252 team batting average. With the best pitching staff in the big leagues, the Cardinals held the Browns to a .189 batting average and won the Series in six games. Chartak made only two pinch-hit appearances in the Series. He was the third of three consecutive pinch-hitters sent to the plate in the ninth inning of Game 5. Each of the three struck out, establishing a dubious Series record unmatched through 2015. The next day Chartak faced a nearly identical situation when Brown’ manager Luke Sewell sent up two straight ninth inning pinch-hitters, both of whom struck out. Chartak’s latter whiff placed him among a select group of players who struck out for the last out of a World Series (a stellar group that includes, among others, Gil Hodges and Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Goose Goslin and Jackie Robinson). When health issues forced Chartak to retire in the offseason, he joined Robinson and George Selkirk as the only players to make the last out of a World Series in their final big league game.13

In November reports surfaced of Chartak’s inclusion in a multi-player trade to Cleveland for pitcher Jim Bagby and catcher Buddy Rosar. Nothing came of this. An avid sportsman, Chartak continued his offseason routine of hunting and playing basketball to stay in shape. Since his marriage he had relocated to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the winter the 28-year-old was summoned from his home for a pre-induction military examination where doctors discovered spots on his left lung. Chartak was sent to a sanatorium in Oakdale, Iowa, where tests revealed a tubercular condition.

Chartak never strayed far from the sanatorium throughout the remainder of his life. On January 25, 1951 he attended a Cedar Rapids’ Elks Club sports banquet honoring Dizzy Trout. Thirteen years later health prevented him from attending a reunion of the Browns’ AL championship held in St. Louis. On July 25, 1967, three months after his 51st birthday, Chartak died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the sanatorium.14 He was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Cedar Rapids. Chartak’s wife Wilma followed him in death two years later.15 It appears their daughter married a man named Watson, but the union dissolved in divorce. On July 4, 1987 Ms. Watson died in Norfolk, Virginia, presumably childless.

Chartak never reached the heights once projected for the powerful left-handed slugger. In his late 20s his career might have blossomed, but both it and his life were cut tragically short by pulmonary tuberculosis.

 

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Rod Nelson, Chair of the SABR Scouts Committee, and Tom Schott for review and edit of the narrative.

Websites

Ancestry.com

Baseball-reference.com

 

Notes

1 ““Chartak, the Resolute Russian, Rolls Along on Resolve to Show Up Yanks After Long Service on Their Farms,” and “Fanning with Farrinton,”The Sporting News, January 7, 1943: 3 & April 20, 1939: 4, respectively.

2 “Cedar Rapids Sells Chartak to Newark; Elston Suspended,” Ibid., July 22, 1937: 5.

4 The reason appears to have been economic most likely stemming from the hardship of the Depression. When Wilma passed away in the 1960s one report indicates she was survived by her mother.

5 “Rain and Cold Mar Early Int. Schedule and Montreal Misses on Pot of Gold Call,” The Sporting News, April 25, 1940: 6; “Newark Pennant Prospect in International,” The Niagara Falls Gazette, April 5, 1940, Accessed February 7, 2016, http://bit.ly/1K6OX2D.

6 The lives of Sundra and Chartak were closely (and in one instance tragically) intertwined. After leaving the Yankees in separate transactions they were teamed together in Washington and St. Louis. Both men died at a young age from disease.

7 To his credit McCarthy felt youngsters like Chartak and Holmes would not develop properly riding the pines behind DiMaggio and company. The skipper’s instincts proved correct as Bordagaray appeared in just 36 games during the season.

8 “Chartak, Resolute Russian” The Sporting News, January 7, 1943: 3.

9 Chartak relished play against the Yankees. In a five game stretch beginning July 31, 1942, he went 7 for 16 with one homer and six RBIs against his former team.

10 “Chartak, Resolute Russian,” The Sporting News, January 7, 1943: 3.

11 “Lively Ball Makes Chartak Ball o’ Fire,” ibid., May 20.

12 The war years of 1942-45 proved advantageous for the perennial second-division club. They constructed a .533 winning percentage, the best four-year run in the Browns’ 52-year history.

13 James Symth, “Most Consecutive Seasons with a Different Opening Day Starter: Right Field,” accessed February 7, 2016, jamessmythbroadcast.blogspot.com/2015/04/most-consecutive-seasons-with-different-opening-day-starter-right-field.html.

14 Dave Heller, “Whatever Happened to the 1944 St. Louis Browns?” July 4, 2009, accessed February 7, 2016, seamheads.com/2009/07/04/whatever-happened-to-the-1944-st-louis-browns/.

15 Another reports states she preceded Chartak in death in November 1960 following an unsuccessful bout with cancer.