In January, one of my favorite all time players died. Gus Zernial passed after a long battle with congestive heart failure and other ailments.
To casual fans, Zernial was an above average journeyman who had brief, injury-riddled but nevertheless productive stints with the Chicago White Sox, the Philadelphia and Kansas City Athletics and the Detroit Tigers. Over his 11-season career, Zernial hit .265 with 237 home runs and 776 runs batted in. In 1951, Zernial lead the league in homers and RBIs with 33 and 129; in 1953, he slugged 43 homers. From 1951 to 1957, only Mickey Mantle hit more American League round trippers than Gus.
Zernial, no slouch, hit 25 or more homers seven times and knocked in more than 100 four times.
For a kid like me who grew up in Hollywood and lived and died with the Pacific Coast League Stars’, “Ozark Ike” as manager Fred Haney called Zernial, was Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle rolled into one. (See a cartoonist’s version of “Ozark Ike” here
Zernial had two spectacular seasons with the Stars; in 1947, he hit .334 and the following year, Zernial tore the cover off the ball. Get a load of these numbers: Games,186, AB’s-737, H-237, HR-40, RBI’s 156 and BA .322.
Adding to my adolescent fascination with Zernial, Gus once had his picture taken with Marilyn Monroe. (See it here). Zernial’s image also appeared on my favorite baseball card which I own to this day.
After his career ended, Zernial returned to Clovis, CA. worked odd construction jobs, broadcast Fresno State University baseball games and did commercial spots for automobile dealers.
In 1990, Zernial was diagnosed with cancer. Down but not out, Zernial took a community affairs job to help bring the AAA Grizzlies, the San Francisco Giants’ top minor league affiliate, to Fresno. Zernial did color commentary for Grizzlies’ games until 2003. (To learn much more about Zernial, please read my Society for American Baseball Research colleague’s outstanding Baseball Biography Project here.)
Late last year, I learned that Zernial’s autobiography, “Ozark Ike: Memories of a Fence Buster,” had been released. Only 237 copies were printed, the exact number of homers Gus smashed.
Through his publisher I contacted Zernial and we exchanged a few emails. When my copy arrived, the inscription read: “To Joe, my wish to you, all the best, God Bless. Thanks for being my friend all the way back to Hollywood.”