Joe Zdeb (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Joe Zdeb

This article was written by Paul White

“The D is silent.” — Jamie Foxx as “Django” in “Django Unchained”

 

Joe Zdeb (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Joe Zdeb probably smiled when he first heard that line because he’s been saying it his entire life. Rare is the article in Zdeb’s early career that doesn’t include some reference to his name. Writers, or Zdeb himself, would typically settle on some version of “The D is silent.” Such is the burden of a unique last name.

It’s unique in the annals of baseball, but Joseph Edmund Zdeb came by his interesting moniker honestly. Born June 27, 1953, to Carl A. and Dolores “Dodie” (Pierce) Zdeb, he was named after both of his paternal grandparents, Joseph and Josephine, who were natives of Poland. Joe was born in the tiny town of Compton, Illinois, population perennially near 300, because his father was teaching school there at the time. Carl Zdeb’s career in education moved the family around a good deal throughout the 1950s and 1960s, until he ultimately became principal at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, a suburb northwest of Chicago.1

Joe, his older brother Chuck and younger brother Kip attended Maine South High School in Park Ridge, where Joe blossomed into a two-sport star in baseball and football. He played third base and batted third for the baseball team, often batting one spot behind future Tiger first baseman Dave Bergman. In football, Zdeb played quarterback, halfback, and fullback for the Hawks, making the Chicago Tribune Prep All-Star teams in both his junior and senior seasons.23 He had multiple offers to play Division I college football, and after touring the campus of the University of Missouri and meeting Coach Dan Devine in January, 1971, Zdeb signed a letter of intent to play there.4

Two things changed his mind. The first was that Zdeb’s campus visit happened to be Devine’s last day as Mizzou’s head coach. He announced the next day that he was leaving to become head coach of the Green Bay Packers. On top of this coaching shift, Zdeb was drafted in the fourth round of the 1971 June Amateur Draft by the Kansas City Royals. Doubting he had a future in pro football5, Zdeb felt he had a good chance to reach the major leagues and had the promise that college would be paid for in the event he didn’t. “The Royals offered me a great deal and I had school included on the contract.”6 He launched his professional baseball career with the Royals’ rookie team, the Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League, just three days after his high school graduation.

There he found another 18-year old who had been drafted by the Royals that month, one who would be playing next to him. Zdeb was a third baseman at the time and the Billings shortstop was future Hall of Famer George Brett, the Royals’ second-round draft pick. Most of the team had been to college, so Brett and Zdeb were two of the youngest players on the roster. It was a typical minor league existence, with lengthy bus rides and scant meal money, several players splitting the cost of one apartment and pitching in to buy a very used $500 car. “It was an adventure,” Zdeb said, “We were 18-year-old kids and didn’t know what to expect.”7 One thing Zdeb may have expected was a change in position, as the Royals felt he was better suited to the outfield. How he made that change probably wasn’t anticipated; A bad-hop groundball broke his nose, sidelining him long enough that Brett was shifted to third base and never moved back.8 Dealing with a position change to the outfield, a broken nose, and the adjustment to professional pitching, Zdeb struggled and hit just .184 for the season.

The next spring, Zdeb’s free-spirited outlook nearly cost him an opportunity to further his career. As recalled by then-Royals Scouting Director Lou Gorman, Zdeb asked to speak with him when he was refused a uniform due to having hair well past the nape of his neck when he showed up at the Royals’ spring training complex, a violation of the organization’s hair-length policy. When Gorman informed him he had to comply, Zdeb replied, “Mr. Gorman, if I cut my hair, will I become a better ballplayer?”9 Taken aback at first, Gorman finally replied that while his hair length wouldn’t affect his performance, it would impact how he represented the Kansas City Royals uniform, so he had to comply with the requirement if he wanted to wear it. A couple of days later, Zdeb relented and got his hair cut.10

When the 1972 season began, Zdeb was assigned to Kingsport of the rookie Appalachian League, and thrived right from the start. He hit .319 with 12 homers and 13 stolen bases in 69 games, then began a traditional mostly one-level-per-year ascent of the Royals’ minor league system. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a hard-nosed player who viewed himself in the mold of Pete Rose, while also being a first-rate slob who could keep neither his uniform nor his locker clean.11

By the end of the 1976 season, the Royals were a division champ looking to strengthen their lineup and get past the Yankees in the playoffs, and Zdeb was a promising player who had just hit .298/.376/.392 at AAA Omaha. Feeling he was a good candidate for the right-handed half of a platoon role with Tom Poquette in their outfield, the Royals traded veteran Jim Wohlford to the Milwaukee Brewers as part of a package that returned 1974 All-Star catcher Darrell Porter.12 Royals manager Whitey Herzog said, “We’re counting on Zdeb being with us… That was part of our thinking in trading Wohlford. We had a guy like Zdeb to bring up. He should be like Poquette, a good platoon player… Zdeb hit about .298 playing every day in Omaha…Maybe Zdeb can come up here and hit his .298 or more.”13 Royals Director of Scouting John Schuerholz agreed. “If Whitey follows a platoon system again this year, Zdeb could be one of the outfielders. I think he’s ready. He was kind of a dead-end kid when we signed him and he had some problems, but he’s settled down and he did a marvelous job at Omaha. He’s very steady defensively and he’s a line-drive type of hitter.”14

The Royals opened the 1977 season on April 7 in Detroit against left-hander Dave Roberts. As the right-handed part of the team’s platoon in left field, Zdeb found himself making his major league debut as the team’s Opening Day left fielder. He struck out in his first plate appearance, but with the teams tied, 2-2, in the fourth inning, Zdeb collected his first major league hit, a one-out single to left field. He then flashed his typical aggressive base running, advancing to third on a single by Buck Martinez, and scored his first major league run one batter later on Freddie Patek’s fielder’s choice to shortstop.

It was a solid beginning to what would prove to be Zdeb’s only full season on a major league roster. Though the team mostly faced right-handed pitching, and Herzog followed his platoon very strictly, Zdeb still saw action in 105 games as the team won the American League West for their second of three consecutive division titles. He batted .297 in 217 plate appearances, and though he showed little power or plate discipline, and was caught stealing in nearly half of his attempts, he matched Herzog’s preseason hopes that he would repeat his AAA performance in the big leagues. He earned glowing remarks from his manager, who also gave him the nickname Mad Dog. “That Zdeb is a bull, a guy always bearing down. That’s what they called Norm Larker when he was with the Dodgers. Zdeb plays just like Larker did. Zdeb keeps putting out, hustling. He’s just a damn intense young player… He doesn’t get tight in the clutch. That’s the kinda guy you like to see up there. He runs good and he can play anyplace in the outfield. Those guys in the farm system evaluated him right.”15

Sadly, for Zdeb and the Royals, their regular season success again didn’t translate to the post-season. The team took a 2-games-to-1 lead in the ALCS against the Yankees, but lost the final two games on their home field and were eliminated for the second straight year. Zdeb played in each of the first four games, but went hitless in nine plate appearances.

The emergence of two younger outfielders severely curtailed Zdeb’s outlook for playing time with the Royals in 1978. Willie Wilson and Clint Hurdle, the Royals’ first-round draft picks in 1974 and 1975, had made brief but impressive appearances with the team in 1977.With veteran Amos Otis solidly ensconced in center field and right fielder Al Cowens coming off an All-Star campaign, Zdeb faced an uphill battle for playing time. Herzog signaled this challenge openly during spring training. “Willie Wilson could be the key to our outfield setup. If he shows he can hit and we keep him, he can play in center field and lead off. That’d be a pretty good outfield, Willie Wilson, Amos Otis and Al Cowens. And I’m not counting Clint Hurdle out of left field. He could be there when the season starts.”16 The prior year’s left field platoon, Zdeb and Poquette, weren’t even mentioned by Herzog, and their standing showed when the season opened.

Through the team’s first 33 games, Zdeb appeared in just 14, starting only 4, and struggled at the plate, hitting .227 in 24 plate appearances. Since he obviously wasn’t getting significant playing time, Zdeb was optioned to Omaha briefly. He had better success there, batting .304 with a surprising 11 walks and 6 extra-base hits in 19 games, which earned him a promotion back to Kansas City. After good performances in his first two games back, in which he doubled his prior season total of 5 hits, Zdeb went into an extended slump. He had much more playing time, starting a dozen games between June 4 and July 1, but hit just .163 without a single extra-base hit. With both Wilson and Hurdle available as better, more productive prospects, Herzog cut back Zdeb’s playing time again. A second demotion to Triple A in late August upset him. “I guess my mind really hasn’t been on the game. I really don’t think it’s fair. I guess the organization isn’t as high on me as I thought it was. I’ve always given K.C. 100 percent, but it doesn’t seem like they’re willing to give 100 percent back.”17

Zdeb’s overall batting average was .252 in 141 plate appearances in 1978, and he also declined in his already limited ability to get on base and hit for power. The significant drops in both production and playing time from his rookie campaign, combined with his disgruntled outlook about the team, did little to convince the Royals that he should play a bigger role for them. Only a month after the season ended, Herzog made it clear that the team placed a priority on figuring out their corner outfield situation before the 1979 season, mentioning Wilson, Cowens, Hurdle and Poquette, with Zdeb being conspicuously absent from Herzog’s comments.18 Zdeb could tell his spot on the roster was in jeopardy. “Realistically, there’s only one job open on the club, and that’s left field where there are five or six guys going after it… Some guys are cinches on this club. The others have to battle their rear ends off. It doesn’t take a professor to know which group I’m in. If it comes down to numbers, I guess it will be like last year. I’m one of the guys who still has options left.”19

Zdeb managed to break camp on the major league roster, but he was one of seven outfielders20, virtually guaranteeing his playing time would be reduced. He didn’t see action until Kansas City’s 12th game, when he entered the game as a pinch hitter. Stuck on the bench, he started just five games in April and May, being pulled early in all but one. In his final major league plate appearance, on May 29 against the Orioles, he pinch hit for Steve Braun in the 8th inning against Tippy Martinez. True to his style of play, he hit a ground ball to third base and beat the throw to first for an infield single. That hit raised his struggling batting average to .174, but there it would remain. When Al Cowens returned from a stint on the disabled list the next day, the Royals sent Zdeb to Omaha.21 He never returned, spending the remainder of the season in the American Association, where he struggled to hit minor league pitching for the first time since he was 18 years old. He batted .224 in Omaha, with just 3 homers and 5 steals despite ample playing time.

Zdeb had expressed before the season started that he felt he could be an everyday player in the major leagues, and if the Royals didn’t see him that way, he preferred to be traded to a team that would give him a chance to prove it.22 That offseason, the Royals fulfilled his request, trading him to his hometown White Sox for pitcher Eddie Bane on January 15, 1980.23 Neither player ever made the big league roster of his new team. Bane pitched briefly for Omaha before being released, and Zdeb continued to struggle against Triple A pitching, hitting just .197 for the White Sox affiliate in Iowa before being released in June 1980.24 Picked up by the Mets and assigned to their Triple A team at Tidewater25, Zdeb didn’t show any improvement, batting just .191 for the Tides. In the two stops combined, he hit just one home run, and didn’t even attempt a stolen base, a bad sign for a player whose main strengths were his aggressiveness and speed.

Released again, Zdeb realized the time had come to move on with his life after baseball. Having studied at the University of Illinois during his offseasons26, he was ready to move into the financial services industry, first as an insurance broker27 and later as a financial advisor. As of March 2021, he continues in that work.28

A bachelor during his playing days, Zdeb married Diane Emily Fisher in October 1988 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Shawnee, Kansas.29 Together they have three children. Daughter Rachael played softball at Mississippi State University from 2011 to 2014, and is now a doctor of physical therapy.30 Son Joey is a financial planner at the same company as his father. He played college football at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, where he received BA and MA degrees before joining the Marine Corps and leading an infantry platoon in Afghanistan.31 Their youngest child, Josh, graduated from Kansas State University and is also a financial planner.32

Joe and Diane still live in the Kansas City suburbs and, though his major league career was relatively short, Zdeb remains very active with the Royals. He participated in the team’s winter FanFest33, fantasy camps and charity events34, which included organizing the Buck O’Neil Golf Classic to raise money for the Leukemia Society and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.35

He is proud of his time in the big leagues and particularly proud of how he got there. “I always hustled, that’s what got me to the big leagues. … People don’t realize how bad it is in the minors. Five dollars a day to eat, three people in a motel room, showers at the ballpark that don’t work. … Countless people who are good ballplayers don’t make it. Politics, individuals who weren’t in the right place at the right time. That’s why I feel I was one of the fortunate ones. There was always somebody faster, stronger, ahead of me. I didn’t think anybody thought I would make it.”36

Last revised: March 25, 2021

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Paul Proia and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Mark Sternman.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com for all statistics, transactions, and box score information.

 

Notes

1 Obituary of Carl A. Zdeb, The Chicago Tribune, May 13, 2015, Business Section 2: 8.

2 Ralph Leo, “Tribune Names First Prep Football All-Stars for 1969,” The Chicago Tribune, November 13,1969: 90.

3 Ralph Leo, “More Prep Football All-Stars Spotlighted by Tribune,” The Chicago Tribune, December 2, 1970: 94.

4 Chuck Woodling, “Royals Zdeb Almost Put On Tiger Grid Uniform,” The Lawrence Journal-World, July 8, 1977: 12.

5 Woodling

6 Woodling

7 Blair Kerkhoff, “From Beach Boy to Big Sky,” The Kansas City Star, August 4, 2013: BB2.

8 Vahe Gregorian, “Potential There for Scouts to See,” The Kansas City Star, August 4, 2013: BB3.

9 Lou Gorman, High And Inside: My Life In The Front Offices of Baseball, McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC, 2008: 125.

10 Gorman: 126.

11 Bill Skutt, “Joe Zdeb, Rose of a Different Name, Blooms for Jax Suns,” The Sporting News, August 30, 1975: 39.

12 Sid Bordman, “Royals Speak Well of Tongue-Twister Zdeb,” The Sporting News, January 1, 1977: 35

13 Bordman, “Royals Speak Well of Tongue-Twister Zdeb.”

14 Joe McGuff, “McClure and Olsen Earn Top Billing in Royal Plans,” The Sporting News, February 26, 1977: 43.

15 Sid Bordman, “Hustling Zdeb Puts New Zing in Royals,” The Sporting News, June 25, 1977, pp 18 & 30.

16 Sid Bordman, “Hill Surplus to Keep Herzog Awake Nights,” The Sporting News, March 3, 1978: 19.

17 “A.A. Atoms, The Sporting News, September 16, 1978: 33.

18 Sid Bordman, ““Deciding Royals’ Outfield to Be Herzog’s Spring Job,” The Sporting News, November 3, 1978: 48.

19 Sid Bordman, “Mad Dog Hunts for Spot,” The Kansas City Star, March 1, 1979: 16.

20 Del Black, “Royals Make Final Cuts to Trim Roster to 25,” The Kansas City Times, April 4, 1979:. 1-2D.

21 Del Black, “Wilson Puts Down Roots in Royal Outfield,” The Sporting News, June 16, 1979: 18 & 46.

22 Bordman, “Mad Dog Hunts for Spot,” p. 16.

23 “Pro Transactions,” The Sporting News, February 2, 1980: 46.

24 “Pro Transactions,” The Sporting News, June 7, 1980: 50.

25 “Pro Transactions,” The Sporting News, July 19, 1980: 57.

26 Joe Zdeb profile, LinkedIn.com, https://www.linkedin.com/in/joe-zdeb-8356261a/, accessed March 7, 2021.

27 Don Wade, “At Game’s End: For Ex-Major Leaguers, Having Played Is Enough,” The Kansas City Times, April 12, 1986: C1 & C18.

28 Joe Zdeb biography, QualifiedPlanAdvisors.com, https://qualifiedplanadvisors.com/associates/joe-zdeb/, accessed March 7, 2021.

29 “Fisher-Zdeb,” Wedding Announcements, The Kansas City Star, September 11, 1988.

30 Rachael Zdeb profile, LinkedIn.com, https://www.linkedin.com/in/rachaelzdeb/, accessed March 7, 2021.

31 Joey Zdeb profile, LinkedIn.com, https://www.linkedin.com/in/joey-zdeb-5b448371/, accessed March 7, 2021.

32 Joshua Zdeb profile, LinkedIn.com, https://www.linkedin.com/in/joshua-zdeb-735843132/, accessed March 7, 2021.

33 “Times Are Set for FanFest Autographs,” The Kansas City Star, January 29, 2016: 4B.

34 Dick Kaegel, “Royals Report,” The Kansas City Star, August 11, 1994: D3.

35 Joe Posnanski, “Sit Back and Listen to Buck,” The Kansas City Star, June 11, 1999: D-1.

36 Wade, “At Game’s End: For Ex-Major Leaguers, Having Played Is Enough.”

Full Name

Joseph Edmund Zdeb

Born

June 27, 1953 at Compton, IL (USA)

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