Frank Zupo (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Frank Zupo

This article was written by Malcolm Allen

Frank Zupo (THE TOPPS COMPANY)If you’ve seen Frank Zupo’s 1958 Topps baseball card, you probably remember him. The lefty-hitting catcher appeared in only 16 major-league games for Baltimore between 1957 and 1961 — but Zupo’s pronounced unibrow and “Noodles” nickname have gained him longer-lasting fame than his on-field accomplishments. Nonetheless, at 17 years, 11 months, and 13 days, he remains the youngest player in modern Orioles history to hit safely as of 2021.

Frank Joseph Zupo was born on August 29, 1939, in San Francisco to Frank Patrick and Lorraine (Fucile) Zupo They initially lived with his Italian-born maternal grandparents. His paternal grandparents also came from Italy. After leaving Italy, the Zupos stopped in Brazil, then Colorado, before settling in the Golden State’s Solano Vacaville district to operate a fruit farm a decade into the twentieth century. The Fucile family came to the area around the same time. According to a city directory, both of Frank’s parents were clerks for the Owl Drug Company in 1941. By 1948, they had their own business, Zupo & Fucile’s Services. The family welcomed son Michael when Frank Joseph was 4 years old and sister Deborah when he was 15.

Frank’s uncles Jimmy and Tony Zupo played semipro baseball together in San Francisco. In 1931 Jimmy, an outfielder, played 45 games with two teams in the Double-A Pacific Coast League.

During Frank’s high-school career at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory — which later won him membership in the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame — it became clear that he also had a future in professional baseball. He earned second-team all-city honors as a sophomore,1 and first-team recognition as a junior and senior.23 On July 29, 1956, he played for the San Francisco team in the annual San Francisco Examiner All-Star game. According to The Sporting News, Zupo batted .468 in scholastic competition, including .500 in his final year.4 The Fightin’ Irish claimed three championships during his stay.5 In a questionnaire that Zupo filled out shortly after turning pro, he described a game in which he homered twice and hit two triples while gunning down eight of nine opposing basestealers as his most exciting.6 Sacred Heart’s 1957 yearbook proclaimed, “Frank Zupo, catcher and power hitter, is considered one of the best prospects in recent SH baseball history.”7 Sacred Heart had previously produced Hall of Famers Harry Heilmann and Joe Cronin, plus All-Star Dolph Camilli and Jim Gentile, a minor-league slugger at the time when Zupo attended the school.

Scouts also had also seen Zupo play American Legion ball for Gordon Realty, and for other local teams like the San Francisco Pirates and Ellis Brooks Chevrolet.8 More than a dozen big-league clubs wanted him, with several offering enough money to ensure that he’d go directly to the majors as a bonus baby. On June 13, 1957, the day after his high-school graduation, Zupo signed with the Orioles. After Baltimore scout Don McShane noticed Zupo first, Fred Hofmann crosschecked the youngster and agreed that he had the tools. The Orioles landed him for a reported $30,000, meaning he would go directly to the majors under the bonus baby rule, which mandated at the time that any player receiving a bonus in excess of $4,000 spend two years in the majors. The Zupo family turned down at least one higher offer because they liked the idea of Frank playing on the same club as San Francisco native Gus Triandos for Baltimore manager Paul Richards, who’d spent his playing career as a catcher.9 “I did not see Zupo personally,” Richards said.10 “The recommendations of Hoffman and McShane were extremely high on Zupo, both as a power hitter and as a catcher with an excellent throwing arm.”11

Zupo arrived in Baltimore for the opener of a homestand on June 18. Attendance at Memorial Stadium was unusually large that Tuesday evening: 41,515, plus bands and celebrities including actor/comedian Joe E. Brown for Interfaith Night. Some players teased the rookie that everyone had come to see him, and his teammates had already assigned Zupo a nickname that stuck. “Before he even reported to the club, somebody decided that since his name sounded like ‘soup,’ he should be called either ‘Noodles’ or ‘Alphabet,’” explained Baltimore Sun columnist Bob Maisel. At home, Zupo was ‘Yogi’ because of his resemblance to another lefty-hitting catcher, Mr. Berra of the Yankees, or ‘John L. Lewis,’ after the United Mine Workers of America president with similarly bushy eyebrows. From that point, however, he said, “It looks like I’m ‘Noodles.’ These guys already have it written on my bats and gloves.”12

After the Orioles edged All-Star lefty Billy Pierce and the White Sox in front of the big crowd, Zupo confessed that the contest “was the first major-league game I ever saw. … I’ve lived on the Pacific Coast all my life and I’ve just never had a chance to see big-league ball before.” He intended to witness a lot more. Under “ambition,” on a questionnaire he filled out that summer, Zupo filled in, “Majors for about 50 years.”13

After watching him work out, Baltimore pitching coach Harry Brecheen said, “[Zupo] can throw as hard as [Orioles backstop] Gus [Triandos] right now and that’s saying something because Gus has a great arm.” Coach Lum Harris compared the youngster to Senators catcher Clint Courtney and praised his receiving ability. “That’s because I’m using the right glove,” quipped Zupo, brandishing his Paul Richards model, endorsed by the Orioles’ skipper (a former big-league receiver himself). While coach Al Vincent admired the 5-foot-11, 182-pounder’s strength and aggressiveness as a hitter, he cautioned, “You just don’t find 17-year-old boys who are ready to play in the majors. A lot of refinement has to take place, but he has the tools. It all depends on how much he can improve as he goes along.”14

Baltimore’s Bill Wight joked that he wouldn’t stick around to watch Zupo develop. “It’s time for me to quit now,” the 35-year-old southpaw said. “I played ball with this guy’s father in San Francisco, and here the son’s on the same team with me. No fooling. I played for Bay Meadows, and Frank’s dad played with the Moffet Packers in a Frisco semipro league.”15

Zupo’s major-league debut came on July 1, 1957, catching George Zuverink in the 10th inning of a game against the Yankees in Baltimore. Zupo and Zuverink, who teamed up again on September 18, are believed to be the only battery featuring two last names beginning with “Z” in major-league history.16 In front of an even bigger Memorial Stadium crowd of 45,276, with the score tied at 2-2, New York’s Mickey Mantle victimized them for a game-winning homer with one out in the 10th. Zupo was in the on-deck circle when the last Orioles batter was retired in the bottom of the 10th.

Another Orioles bonus baby, 18-year-old pitcher Jerry Walker, debuted five days later at Fenway Park, in the same contest in which Zupo got his first at-bat. “Zupo and Walker, both teenagers, weren’t too impressive,” wrote Jesse A. Linthicum in The Sporting News.17 Walker lived up to his name by issuing free passes to the first two batters he faced and issuing a wild pitch to the third. After the wild pitch, Walker was removed from the game. Zupo, pinch-hitting in the seventh inning against Frank Sullivan, grounded weakly to Mickey Vernon at first. Vernon, 39, had been in the majors since before the rookie was born.

Although Zupo appeared only once over the next five weeks, catching the last two innings of a blowout victory, he did manage to earn his first big-league ejection. Prior to the second game of a July 26 doubleheader against the White Sox, he was warming up Orioles pitcher Ken Lehman in front of the dugout when the umpires walked between them. Zupo faked a throw and hollered, “Look out!” — startling veteran ump Eddie Hurley. “[Hurley] was a tough guy. He was a tough umpire,” recalled Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson. “Zupo made him duck and Hurley threw him out of the game before it started.”18 The Sporting News reported, “Zupo had been warned several times previously against faking a throw at the arbiters when they walked between him and the pitcher during warmup sessions in front of the dugout.”19

Zupo’s youth and inexperience also showed on August 11 against the Yankees. In the top of the ninth inning, he was charged with a pair of errors after two foul popups dropped at his feet.20 In the bottom of the frame, however, he notched his first major-league hit, a single to left-center off New York’s Bob Grim. On August 20 in Detroit, Zupo made the last out of a Baltimore loss pinch-hitting against Jim Bunning and called home to tell his father. “Before I went to bat Mr. Richards told me, ‘Just swing that stick, kid, that’s all,’” Zupo told his dad. “I got three real good swings and struck out, but I was swinging, Pop, just like Mr. Richards told me to do!” Some amused veterans overheard Noodles’ half of the conversation, giving them fresh fodder for teasing.21

Overall, Zupo appeared in 10 games — including his lone big-league start — and went 1-for-12, but the Orioles weren’t discouraged. “He’s got to learn from the mental side, handling pitchers,” observed assistant farm director Harry Dalton. “But he’s got a good temperament and baseball instinct, a powerful arm and he hit with real power in the high school ranks.”22 Beat writer Jim Ellis referred to Zupo as ‘Little Yogi’ that offseason.23 Linthicum agreed, “Zupo looks very much like Yogi Berra.” Richards told The Sporting News that he believed the rookie had the makings of a fine backstop.24

In California that December, Zupo married JoAnn Puccini. Together they had two children, daughter Cindy and son Frank.

Changes to the bonus-baby rule allowed the Orioles to send Zupo to the minors for much-needed seasoning in 1958. After he batted .274 with two homers in 35 games with the Knoxville Smokies of the Class A South Atlantic League, Zupo joined the Class B Wilson (North Carolina) Tobs for a dozen Carolina League contests and hit .290. Next, he played 55 games for the Louisville Colonels of the Triple-A American Association, batting .221 without a home run.25 He finished the year with the Orioles in September. His only appearance included two more at-bats against Bunning but, after flying out to center the first time, Zupo forgot Richards’ instructions and took a called third strike.

Zupo suited up for four teams again in 1959, but Baltimore wasn’t one of them. His stops included two Class B Northwest League teams, playing 23 of his 25 games with the Milwaukee Braves’ Yakima (Washington) affiliate. He returned to the South Atlantic League for seven contests with the Phillies’ Asheville (North Carolina) Tourists club. Most of Zupo’s action came with Baltimore’s Class C California League entry, the Stockton Ports. In 43 games, he batted .194 with 2 home runs.

When Zupo returned to Stockton in 1960, one of his teammates was Steve Dalkowski, whom he’d first caught at Wilson in ’58. Dalkowski struck out 262 batters in 170 innings, but also walked 262. “He was wild up and down in the strike zone. Never in and out,” Zupo recalled. “If he had been wild inside, he’d have been arrested for murder.”26 To catch the fireballing lefty, Zupo squatted on one leg with his other stuck out to the side, allowing him to shift quickly to corral errant deliveries. The stance came to be known as “The Frank Zupo” within the Orioles organization. As the southpaw’s personal spring-training catcher, Zupo was asked to teach his unique setup to other Baltimore backstops.27

Zupo also moved into the outfield for 39 games on an emergency basis in 1960, and his six home runs by July 6 prompted The Sporting News to call him “the surprise of the club.”28 He finished the year batting .319 with 7 homers and 69 RBIs. Nevertheless, despite earning all-star honors in the Arizona Instructional League that fall, the Orioles left Zupo unprotected in the expansion draft.29 Neither the Angels nor the newfangled Senators selected him.

The Orioles’ starting catching job had belonged to Triandos since Zupo turned pro, but Baltimore’s backups were less entrenched. Rule 5 draftee Hank Foiles was expected to man the role in 1962 following the offseason trade of 1961’s chief reserve, Courtney. When Foiles broke a finger late in spring training, Zupo made the team.30 He pinch-hit in the Opening Day loss to the brand-new Angels in Baltimore and was walked by reliever Eli Grba.

Zupo doubled against the Twins’ Pedro Ramos the next time he played. When he singled off Cleveland’s Jim Perry on April 24, he was batting .500, albeit in only four at-bats. The Orioles had worked out a deal to get Courtney back from the Athletics, however. When Zupo caught the final inning of a 13-5 victory in Minnesota on May 9, it was his final game in the majors.

With the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, Zupo batted .206 without a home run in 40 International League contests. After he was demoted to the Ardmore (Oklahoma) Rosebuds in the Double-A Texas League in July, Zupo’s average improved to .328 in 67 at-bats. A foul tip drilled him in the throat in August, however, sidelining him for more than a week.31

Zupo appeared in only 35 games in 1962 — 26 back in the Texas League with the Braves’ Austin Senators club and nine for Detroit’s Class A Knoxville Smokies. Knoxville turned to him in desperation in August after starter John Sullivan went down with an injury and his backup quit. Former big leaguer Jim Command came back from a Detroit semipro league for three games until Zupo’s arrival.32 Zupo helped the Smokies reach the South Atlantic League finals, but he left the playoffs early due to complications with the birth of his son.33

That, fall he batted .485 to help the Orioles win the Peninsula Winter League title with a 13-2 record. One of Zupo’s two homers reportedly traveled 450 feet, and he missed winning the batting title only because his 33 at-bats were too few to qualify.34

In 1963 Zupo joined the Senators’ York (Pennsylvania) White Roses affiliate in the Double-A Eastern League. When a fellow Sacred Heart alumnus got off to a terrible start for the Orioles that April, Zupo drove down to Baltimore and knocked on Jim Gentile’s door after midnight. Gentile beat the Athletics with a sudden-death homer the following evening. It was great to see [Zupo],” Gentile said. “He was my inspiration. That’s why I hit the home run.”35 In Zupo’s 89 games with York, he batted .271 and tied for the team lead with 12 steals. The league’s writers voted him to the all-star team.36

After another stint in the Peninsula Winter League, Zupo spent 1964 with the Dallas Rangers in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he batted .256 with 6 homers in 106 games. After one final fall of Peninsula League action, he retired from professional baseball.

Zupo listed auto-supply salesman and golf instructor as his offseason occupations on a 1964 questionnaire.37 One decade later, the Orioles yearbook said he managed the Pro Club Cocktail Lounge in Millbrae, California, and lived with his family in nearby San Bruno.38 Zupo became an executive with the Major League Baseball Players Association and stayed active with the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T), founded in 1986 to confidentially help the game’s needy veterans.

Zupo went above and beyond the call of duty to assist one of his former minor-league teammates. In his early 50s, Steve Dalkowski was an alcoholic living on the streets of Oildale, California, when Zupo and a friend drove for several hours to encourage him to seek help. “If we didn’t get him in the hospital when we had, it would have been curtains,” Zupo said.39 “I love Steve like my own brother.”40 Though Dalkowski left treatment prematurely that time, Zupo was there again a few years later to help him move back to Connecticut, where his friend lived out his last quarter-century until his death in 2020.41

Zupo was only 65 when he died from a heart attack on March 25, 2005, in Burlingame, California.42 He is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.

As of 2021, the closest anyone has come to Zupo’s record as youngest player in modern Orioles history to hit safely is Wally Bunker, who was 18 years and 8 months old when he singled in 1963.43

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Len Levin and fact-checked by Paul Proia.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted www.ancestry.com, www.baseball-reference.com, and www.retrosheet.org.

 

Notes

1 San Francisco Examiner, May 29, 1955: 12.

2 San Francisco Examiner, May 27, 1956: II, 12.

3 San Francisco Examiner, June 9, 1957: II, 18.

4 “Frank Zupo, ’Frisco Phenom, Inked by Orioles for 30 Gees,” The Sporting News, June 19, 1957: 20.

5 Frank Zupo, Publicity Questionnaire for William J. Weiss, March 31, 1964. (Zupo’s July 22, 1958, questionnaire says it was four championships.)

6 Frank Zupo, Publicity Questionnaire for William J. Weiss, July 1, 1957. (Zupo’s July 22, 1958, questionnaire says he threw out all eight opposing basestealers while collecting five hits including a homer and two doubles.)

7 Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory 1957 Yearbook: 81.

8 Frank Zupo’s Publicity Questionnaires for William J. Weiss.

9 Curley Grieve, “Sacred Heart’s Zupo Joins O’s,” San Francisco Examiner, June 14, 1957: II, 11.

10 “Frank Zupo, ’Frisco Phenom, Inked by Orioles for 30 Gees.”

11 Lou Hatter, “Orioles Sign Bonus Player,” Baltimore Sun, June 14, 1957: S21.

12 Bob Maisel, “Frank Zupo Impressive,” Baltimore Sun, June 20, 1957: S17.

13 Frank Zupo, Publicity Questionnaire for William J. Weiss, July 1, 1957.

14 Maisel, “Frank Zupo Impressive.”

15 Maisel, “Frank Zupo Impressive.”

16 Peter Corbett, “A Big Hit,” Arizona Republic (Phoenix), February 8, 2008: B1.

17 Jesse A. Linthicum, “Bird Bunts,” The Sporting News, July 17, 1957: 13.

18 Earl Gault, “Robinson: Defense Always Overlooked,” Herald (Rock Hill, South Carolina), July 15, 2005: 1C.

19 “Zupo, Kid Oriole, Ejected,” The Sporting News, August 7, 1957: 31.

20 Jesse A. Linthicum, “Young Mr. Zupo,” Baltimore Sun, August 12, 1957: S14.

21 Lou Hatter, “Birds Hopeful Catcher Zupo Proves Another Yogi Berra,” Baltimore Sun, November 24, 1957: 8D.

22 Hatter, “Birds Hopeful Catcher Zupo Proves Another Yogi Berra.”

23 Jim Ellis, “415 Gs Gambled by Orioles on Bonus Babies Since ’54,” The Sporting News, February 5, 1958: 6.

24 Jesse A. Linthicum, “Early Birds to Include Hansen,” The Sporting News, November 13, 1957: 13.

25 “Zupo with Three Teams,” The Sporting News, September 17, 1958: 30.

26 John Altavilla, “What Might Have Been, 40 Years Later,” Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, September 1, 1996: A1.

27 Dave Massarelli, letter to Dalkowski’s friend, John-William Greenbaum.

28 “Zupo Showing 40-Gee Form,” The Sporting News, July 20, 1960: 38.

29 Ben Foote, “Dick Nen, Flashy First Sacker, Unanimous Choice on All-Stars,” The Sporting News, December 14, 1960: 37.

30 Doug Brown, “Zupo and Vet Gordon Jones Depart,” The Sporting News, May 17, 1961: 19.

31 “Kid Vickery Blossoms into Ace,” The Sporting News, August 23, 1961: 33.

32 “Estevis Stopped on Streak,” The Sporting News, August 18, 1962: 41.

33 Ed Harris, “Smokies Split Pair with Macon,” Knoxville Journal, September 7, 1962: 9.

34 Bill Jones, “Oriole Zip Up Flag with Zing in Zupo’s Bat,” The Sporting News, November 24, 1962: 30.

35 Doug Brown, “Gentile’s Drooping Spirits Soar on Wings of Game-Winning HR,” The Sporting News, May 11, 1963: 10.

36 “Lipon Named Pilot of Year,” The Sporting News, September 14, 1963: 39.

37 Frank Zupo, Publicity Questionnaire for William J. Weiss, March 31, 1964.

38 Orioles 20th Anniversary Yearbook: 88.

39 Allison Boyce, “Safe at Home,” The Sporting News, August 7, 1995: 5.

40 Altavilla, “What Might Have Been, 40 Years Later.”

41 Bill Madden, “Safe at Home: ‘Fastest Pitcher Ever’ Getting Back on Track,” New York Daily News, May 17, 1998: 116.

42 John Eisenberg, “Draw of the Nationals Hasn’t Hurt Orioles Attendance Picture,” Baltimore Sun, July 2, 2005: 1C.

43 The record Zupo broke belonged to Brooks Robinson, who was 18 years, 4 months old in 1955. As of 2021, the last teen to hit safely for Baltimore was 19-year-old Mike Adamson in 1967.

Full Name

Frank Joseph Zupo

Born

August 29, 1939 at San Francisco, CA (USA)

Died

March 25, 2005 at Burlingame, CA (USA)

If you can help us improve this player’s biography, contact us.

Tags

None

© SABR. All Rights Reserved