Due to wartime manpower shortages, 20-year-old Cleveland Indian utility infielder Al Cihocki was one of an estimated 120 rookies in major-league baseball in 1945. When World War II ended and players returned to their former teams, Cihocki, like many others, was out of a job in the big leagues. However, he moved on to a very good career with Baltimore in the International League and after retiring as a player, managed and coached in the game for decades.
What Cihocki may have lacked in talent he made up for in enthusiasm. Shortly after making the Indians team he developed a reputation as a “pep-talking chatterbox” in the field. One report from early May 1945, said, “He cackles, barks, chirps, and yips, much to the amazement and delight of his mates … and is hey! heying! all the time as he plays the bag.”1 This love for the game allowed Cihocki to stay in baseball most of his life.
Albert Joseph Cihocki (pronounced “CY – hockey”) was born on May 7, 1924, in Nanticoke, located in the heart of the anthracite coal mining region of northeastern Pennsylvania. The family surname was spelled any number of ways on census rolls and other historical documents, but the best information available is that his parents were Alexander and Marie (Mary) Cihocki. Both were Pennsylvania natives but Alex’s parents had immigrated from Poland, and Marie’s from Czechoslovakia. Albert had an older brother, Joe, an older sister, Amelia, and two younger sisters, Marie and Marjorie.
His father gave him his first bat and ball when he was 4 years old. Years later Cihocki recalled, “That’s what started me in the game. I went out in the yard, found another kid, and we started to play in midwinter. I’ve had baseball in my blood ever since.”2 As a teenager he starred on the local sandlots with his cousin, future major-league first baseman Steve Bilko, and another player who would also have a one-year major-league career in 1945, one-armed Pete Gray. Early on, Cihocki set his sights on a career in baseball. “Playing ball was hard work if you wanted to turn pro, but nothing compared to working in a coal mine.” said Cihocki. “When you saw your father come home every day, dead tired and for little pay, you knew you wanted something better.”3
Always possessed with a strong throwing arm, Cihocki started out as a pitcher and won a championship for his high-school team in 1939. He was an outstanding high-school athlete, earning letters in football, basketball, and baseball, gaining all-state honors in the latter two sports. He captained his high-school baseball team three years. Cihocki caught the attention of the Cleveland Indians organization and scout Buzz Wertzel tried to sign him in 1940 although he was only 16 years old. He graduated from Nanticoke High School and had ambitions of going to college, but around this time his father died and he decided to forgo professional baseball and stay around home near his mother, brother, and sisters.
Cihocki had a brief trial with the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 1941 and the next year the Indians organization came calling again. He was signed by Cleveland scout Ed Quinn to Wilkes-Barre in 1942 and was farmed to Batavia, New York, an Indian affiliate in the Class D PONY (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York) League. Cihocki hit .342 in 98 games and was named the league’s top third baseman.
With this performance, a promotion up the chain was in store the next season, but instead Cihocki enlisted in the US Coast Guard and was assigned to Curtis Bay, Maryland. For the next two years he played baseball for manager Dick Porter, a former Cleveland Indians player. During his two years with the Coast Guard, Cihocki did well against strong competition from East Coast Army and Navy teams. He received a medical discharge in September 1944 and planed to resume his baseball career the next spring with Wilkes-Barre.
Before reporting to spring training in 1945, Al married his high-school sweetheart, Marie Jeffrie. The couple had four sons, Albert Jr., David, Richard, and Jimmy. At the time of Marie’s death in 2008, they had been married 64 years.
The Indians in the spring of 1945 found themselves short of infielders. Mickey Rocco was a fixture at first base and player-manager Lou Boudreau, although classified 1-A by his draft board, would play shortstop. However, second base was unsettled, and Ken Keltner was called into the armed services, leaving a hole at third.
Cihocki’s former manager in the Coast Guard, Dick Porter, thought Cihocki had the potential to play in the major leagues and recommended him to the big-league club. Indians vice president Roger Peckinpaugh purchased him from Wilkes-Barre just before spring training began. To make room, another rookie infielder, Steve Biras, was sent from Cleveland to the Barons.
Due to wartime travel restrictions, all major-league teams trained in the North, and the Indians opened their 1945 spring-training camp at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. Cihocki had a very good camp; it was reported he “stands out in early fielding sessions”4 and “displayed some fancy fielding skill … and [is] slated for a thorough trial at second base.”5 The Indians were so short of infielders that they gave a trial at second base to 17-year-old Dick Whittington, one of their former batboys, in an intrasquad game. He reportedly “showed promise,” briefly unseating Cihocki at second.
Late in spring training Lou Boudreau said, “I’ve never seen a kid with more determination, more spirit and courage than Al has. We’ve stopped worrying about him.”6 Cihocki opened the season as the Indians’ regular second baseman, but after hitting under .200, and with Cleveland mired in last place, he was benched for Dutch Meyer in mid-May. He played a utility role until early July, when third baseman Don Ross broke a bone in his hand and Cihocki took over at the hot corner. On July 28 he went 3-for-4 in a 6-2 win over the St. Louis Browns to bring his average above .200 for the first time all season.
Over the next few weeks Cihocki played well defensively at third and his hitting began to pick up, including seven hits in eight at-bats in a doubleheader against St. Louis on August 5. A few days later, Dolph Camilli of the Boston Red Sox barreled into shortstop Boudreau in an attempt to break up a double play. Boudreau’s right ankle was broken, ending his season, and Cihocki was shifted to shortstop for the rest of the season. He continued to struggle at the plate but earned raves for his defense, particularly his range and strong throwing arm.
Cihocki always claimed the highlight of his brief major-league career was Bob Feller’s return to the Indians after missing the previous three seasons while in the Navy. Cihocki was the Indians’ leadoff batter and starting shortstop on August 24 when Feller beat the Tigers and Hal Newhouser 4-2 at Cleveland Stadium.
Cihocki batted just .212 for the year in 98 games. He managed just 12 extra-base hits (nine doubles and three triples) among his total of 60 safeties for an anemic slugging percentage of .265. He managed to draw just 11 walks and had a .241 on-base percentage. But his ability to play all three infield positions effectively helped him make the team in the spring and get consistent playing time all season long.
In February 1946 Cihocki was optioned to Baltimore, then a farm club of the Indians in the International League, and that season was the only player in the league to play in every one of his team’s games (154). At the end of the season Cleveland owner Bill Veeck sold him outright to Baltimore. Throughout his seven seasons (1946-1952) with the Orioles, Cihocki hit .254 and played outstanding defense as a middle infielder. He holds the record for most games played (850) for the Baltimore International League franchise, and was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame.
After the 1948 season, Cihocki was among a group of minor league all-stars organized by Paul Richards that went to Venezuela. The team won the Inter-American championship, but while his teammates returned to the states, Cihocki decided to stay on with Vargas of the Venezuelan Winter League. He was soon named manager and two of his pitchers were future major leaguers Don Newcombe and Dan Bankhead. The season was interrupted when military curfews were established in response to violence and political upheaval during the country’s revolution, and Cihocki returned home in December.
This was the first of several offseasons during which Cihocki played and managed in the Caribbean. During the winter of 1950-51 he managed and played third base for Aguadila in the Puerto Rican winter league and the next winter managed Mayagüez in the same league. In October 1952 he returned to Mayagüez, and after being released in January, finished the winter playing second base for Ponce.
By this time rumors had begun circulating of the St. Louis Browns moving to Baltimore, and the status of the Orioles’ International League franchise was uncertain. In January 1953 Cihocki was sold by the Orioles to San Antonio, the Browns affiliate in the Double-A Texas League. Baltimore owner Jack Dunn was quoted as saying, “I hated to part with Yogi (Cihocki picked up the nickname during his career, but the author could find no reference to the origin), but we’re in business and no other International League club would match San Antonio’s offer.”7
Cihocki was said to be “infuriated at being peddled” and felt he “should have had the opportunity to make a deal for myself. …”8 He was slated for a utility infield role in San Antonio, much as he had with Baltimore, but Cihocki reasoned that if given the opportunity to play what he felt was his best position (second base) regularly, he could return to the major leagues.
At first he refused to report, but eventually changed his mind and joined the Missions. In late June, citing the hot Texas weather and a back injury, Cihocki abruptly retired and returned to his home in Nanticoke, where he said he planned to go into the construction business with his brother. San Antonio general manager Stan McIlvaine suggested Cihocki was malingering, and placed him on the suspended list. A couple of weeks later McIlvaine sold Cihocki to Toronto of the International League.
Now that Cihocki was back in the International League, his back problems miraculously healed and he pronounced himself ready to resume his career. However, he never arrived in Toronto and was missing for a while (his wife told Toronto management he was fishing somewhere in Canada) before resurfacing later in July with the Escogido club in the Dominican Republic. Because he was still on baseball’s suspended list, he was not eligible to play in the Cuban winter league that offseason. In the spring of 1954 Cihocki applied for reinstatement and eventually briefly played for Wilkes-Barre (which had originally signed him as a teenager), now an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.
In 1955 Cihocki was named player-manager of the Bismarck (North Dakota) Barons of the semipro Manitoba-Dakota (Mandak) League. He got the job based on a recommendation by former major leaguer and former Baltimore teammate Roy Weatherly, who was managing the Williston, North Dakota, team in the league. Cihocki placed an ad in the May 4 issue of The Sporting News that read: Players Wanted – Pitchers and for all positions. Must have Class A experience. Top salaries. Write or wire Al Cihocki, Player-Manager, Bismarck Barons, Box 756, Bismarck, N.D.
It is not known what kind of response Cihocki received, but a very formidable team was eventually assembled. In addition to former major leaguers Fred Vaughn, Lloyd Gearhart, and Ken Heintzelman, he recruited other players he played with or managed in the winter leagues such as Negro League stars Art Pennington and Ray Dandridge, and a future major-league manager, Preston Gomez. Cihocki led the team to the league championship the first season, and a second-place finish in 1956.
Cihocki returned to Organized Baseball for two more seasons. In 1957 he signed with Albuquerque in the Western League,where he was reunited with Nick Collup, his former manager in Baltimore. His last season as a player, 1958, was near his home in Pennsylvania with Allentown in the Eastern League.
After retiring as a player, Cihocki worked for a time as a corrections officer at Chase Prison in Dallas, Texas, before becoming the assistant baseball coach at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. He later became the head baseball coach at Luzerne County Community College in his hometown of Nanticoke. He held that post for 24 years and led his team to a state championship in 1982.
Cihocki died at his home in Nanticoke on March 27, 2014, at the age of 89. After a service at Lohman Funeral Home in Nanticoke, he was buried at St. Fautina/Trinity Cemetery in nearby Sheatown. He was survived by his sister, his four sons, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Clippings from Cihocki’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York.
Kashatus, William C. One-Armed Wonder: Pete Gray, Wartime Baseball, and the American Dream (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishers, 1995), 31, as quoted in Crissey, Harrington E. Jr. Teenagers, Graybeards, and 4-Fs (Philadelphia: Self-published).
Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 11, 1945.
Evening Independent, Massillon, Ohio, March 15, 1945.
Evening Journal, Lewiston, Maine, May 7, 1945.
Greensboro (North Carolina) Daily News, April 6, 1945.
San Antonio Light, January 28, 1945.
1 Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal, May 7, 1945.
2 “Best Cleveland Rookie Not Listed on Roster,” Greensboro (North Carolina) Daily News, April 6, 1945.
3 Kashatus, 58.
4 Evening Independent, Massillon, Ohio, March 15, 1945.
6 Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 11, 1945.
7 “Cihocki Won’t Join Missions?” San Antonio Light, January 28, 1953.