Remembering Gus Zernial

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.”

7 Replies to “Remembering Gus Zernial”

  1. Giuseppe,
    One of the joys of reading your blog is to encounter the names of the “golden oldies,” who long ago passed the scene as active ballplayers. My recollection of Zernial, as your baseball card will attest to, was a member of the hapless Philadelphia Athletics, whose position amongst the (then) 8 teams in the American League was last, or next to last. That honor was generally divided between the “A’s” and the otherwise helpless and hapless St. Louis Browns. It was common practice for the owners of the Browns to sell their primiere player, a Ned Garver, for instance, to accumulate the cash necessary to keep the team from going broke. But Zernial’s name shook my senses, for I cannot recall the last time someone wrote about him. I am sure that Giuseppe is already planning another encomium to one of Zernial’s teammates, outfielder Elmer Valo, the only major league who was actually born in Czechoslovakia – Andy Pafko, who watched Thomsen’s drive go into the left field stands in 1951, was born in Wisconsin.

  2. @vincenzo: Valo would be a fascinating case study. an above average player for most of two decades, Valo had the unique distinction of playing for both franchises of three teams that changed cities: the K.C. And Philadelphia A’s, the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins

  3. Caro,
    Other than the fact that he played for 3 teams that changed cities, if memory serves Valo (since his named ended in a vowel, I originally thought him of Italian heritage) was a dependable hitter, with something around a .280 average for his time in the Major Leagues. Further, along with the NY Giants Don Mueller, Valo rarely struck out, and was hired to teach rookies not to hit balls outside the strike zone.

  4. Giuseppe,
    Appears that my first response to your note was not sent. In summary, Valo was a fairly decent hitter (and outfielder), with about a .280 lifetime average. But more importantly, like the NY Giants Don Mueller, Valo rarely struck out. For mainly that reason, after retiring from the game, he was hired to teach rookies how to discipline themselves and only swing at balls in the strike zone.

  5. I remember Gus from his days as a sportscaster for Ch.30 in Fresno. Always upbeat and smiling he was fun to watch. He also ate Me and Eds pizza….

    1. I became a friend of Gus Zernial when I traveled to Fresno when I was in the financial field. Gus worked for a investnent firm. I would always plan my trip when Gus had a birthday and we would have lunch together. He shared many baseball stories with me both of his minor league days as well as his major league days. He was a genuine person and a good friend.

  6. As a kid in Philadelphia I had two teams to root for but the A’s were my favorite and my favorite player was Gus Zernial.
    I can still recall being at Connie Mack stadium when he broke his collar bone trying to make a catch in left field in 1954.
    That was the A’s last season in Philly. Gus said after that he was never the same although he still had some clout in that bat playing in KC.
    Thanks, Gus, for allowing a young kid to appreciate MLB, even if the A’s were struggling every year. You were my guy and the memories have lasted more than 60 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *