Born: February 22, 1922
Died: February 6, 1972
Frank Thomas Zak was born February 22, 1922 in Passaic. He grew up in the city’s Quincy Street neighborhood and like most of his neighbors was of Polish immigrant stock. Quick and coordinated, the boy everyone called Frankie was slight of build but made up for it with his tenacity. Even in his 20s, he barely weighed 150 pounds.
Unlike his friends, Frankie wasn’t particularly keen on baseball. However, he played the game well—he could do everything but hit with power—and was particularly adept on the basepaths. After graduating from Passaic High School, in the spring of 1941, he took a trip south to visit a neighborhood buddy—Ed Sudol, the future major-league umpire—who was playing for the Tarboro Orioles, a minor league club in the old Coastal Plain League. When he arrived he learned that the team was without a shortstop so he signed a contract and stepped into the starting lineup, even though he’d never played the position.
Frankie held his own, and with the attack on Pearl Harbor after the season, he was offered a contract for 1942 and moved up to the Class D level, as the draft was already depleting the ranks of the low minors. After two more seasons in the minors, Frankie made the Pirates as a utility infielder in 1944. Manager Frankie Frisch liked the kid’s daring base running and patience at the plate, and probably didn’t mind that they shared the same name. Ironically, the player with whom Frankie was in competition for the everyday shortstop job was also named Frankie—Frankie Gustine.
Frankie rewarded his manager’s faith by delivering timely hits whenever he played. Prior to the 1944 All-Star game—which was scheduled to be held in Pittsburgh—the National League started running short on shortstops. Eddie Miller of the Reds was picked to back up starter Marty Marion, but injured himself before the game at Forbes Field. No one was more surprised than Frankie to get the All-Star call. Although there were better choices in the NL, they were all a train ride away and the National League decided to save itself the cost of a ticket. Besides, Frankie was batting .330 at the time and was on the greatest hot streak of his career. So he was the economical choice. Marion survived nine innings, the NL won a 7–1 laugher, and Frankie never left the bench. He did, however, get into the team photo. Frankie finished the year with a .300 average in 87 games—mostly spent as a backup to the more experienced Gustine.
Frankie played just 36 games for Pittsburgh over the next two seasons. On Opening Day in 1945, he was involved in a weird play after reaching first base on a bunt single. As teammate Jimmy Russell stepped into the batter’s box, he called time to tie his shoe. The pitcher didn’t hear him and threw the ball toward home. Russell hit it into the seats for a home run—which was promptly called off by the first base umpire.
Another odd story involving Zak happened in Chicago, where he was courting a young lady whose mother didn’t want her to date a ballplayer. Frankie was determined to change her mind and invited her to a game at Wrigley Field on Ladies Day, when there were 20,000 women in the park. During the game a batter lined a ball into the stands and it hit her in the face. The romance ended there.
Frankie played parts of the 1945 and 1946 season with Pittsburgh but mostly bounced around the minors. After spending 1949 with four different clubs he called it a career. Frankie moved back to New Jersey and lived and worked in his hometown until his death at age 49 on February 6, 1972. He and his wife, Helen, were always appreciative of the taste of fame he enjoyed with the Pirates, and remained lifelong Pittsburgh fans.