NOW COACHING AT THIRD BASE, FRANK OCEAK
Some sportswriters say that he was the best manager in the history of the Mexican baseball leagues. Old time Pirate fans remember Oceak as the first man to shake the hand of Bill Mazeroski as the rounded third base to complete his walk off home run trot to defeat the powerful New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Others, may remember him as the crewcut, gray-haired skipper of the Dublin Irish minor league team way back in 1953.
Frank John Oceak was the most famous person ever born in Pocahontas, Virginia. He was certainly the most famous man to ever hit and throw a baseball from that coal mining town of western Virginia. In 1920, at the age of eight, Frank moved with his family to Cliffside Park, N.J., where he graduated from high school during the height of the great depression in 1931. With little or no decent paying jobs anywhere to be found, Frank Oceak turned to what he loved best - baseball.
The New York Yankees signed Frank to a contract, assigning him to their Cumberland, Maryland team in the Middle Atlantic League. From Cumberland, Frank would play for teams in far away places such as Wheeling, Binghamton, Akron, Norfolk, Beaver Falls, Oil City, Hornell, Lafayette, Fayette, Selma and Keokuk.
Oceak was a decent infielder, leading the Middle Atlantic in fielding for four years, playing both sides of the keystone combo. A fine batting average of .297 was not enough to warrant a promotion beyond the AA level of the minors. In 1936, Frank left the Yankees and joined the St. Louis Browns' farm system. Two years later, the owner of the Lafayette White Sox hired Frank to lead the team in the 1938 season. The Sox went 69-69, not a bad start to a managerial career. In the following season, Frank's Fayetteville Angels finished atop the Arkansas-Missouri League. His Beaver-Falls team lost in the finals of the 1940 Penn State League tournament.
The year 1942 was the turning point on Frank's career. Banned for all of 1941 by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis for assaulting an umpire, Frank joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, a move that would result in more than three decades of an association with the team, except for a brief stint in the armed forces in the last years of World War II and one year with the Reds.
After the war, Frank returned to the managerial reins in Selma, Alabama. After four mediocre seasons, Oceak got the best job of his early career as manager of the Charleston Rebels of the South Atlantic League. On the heels of a poor start to the 1953 season, Frank was demoted to an assignment as the manager of the Class D Dublin Irish of the Georgia State League.
Oceak replaced Johnny George, whose team was two games under .500, on June 18. Leading the Irish that year was Parnell Ruark, one of the franchise's best players ever. Pitching for the 1953 Irish was young Walker "Bo" Whaley, a future Courier Herald columnist. After a 20 and 49-season and a 7th place finish, Oceak's career in Dublin ended on a less than stellar note. Nevertheless, Oceak was promoted to the Brunswick, Georgia team in the Georgia-Florida League.
In his first two seasons in the Shrimp Capital of the World, Oceak's Pirates finished in first place. After disappointing 7th place finishes in Brunswick in 1956 and AAA Columbus in 1957, it appeared that Frank's career as a manager was all but over.
But hold up for a moment. In the 1956 winter season, Oceak's Poza Rico team captured the Mexican League championship. Oceak was coaching a team in the Domincan Republic when his old roommate Danny Murtaugh was named to manage the big league team in Pittsburgh. So, in 1958, Frank and Danny resumed their life long friendship when Frank, wearing jersey # 44, joined the Bucs as third base coach and infield instructor. His pupils were Dick Groat (1960 NL MVP), Bill Mazeroski (1960 Player of the Year), and Ted Kluszewski, whose upper arms were so huge that he had to cut off his sleeves to put on his jersey.
In his first two seasons, Frank's team finished in the upper half of the National League. The year 1960 was to become a different season. It was the year when the Pirates returned to the World Series. The last time the Pirates had been in the series, it was 1927,when they were swept by the Murderer's Row Yankees with Ruth, Gehrig, Lazerri and Combs, Koenig, and Meusel and arguably, at (110-44), the best team in the history of baseball.
The day - October 13, 1960. The place - Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, PA. Pirates go ahead in the bottom of the 8th inning with five runs. Yankees tie the game with 2 scores in the top of the 9th. Bottom of the 9th inning. Score: New York 9 - Pittsburgh 9. The series is tied 3-3. Ralph Terry, for the Yankees in relief, is on the mound. The count - 1-0. Oceak, the third base coach, takes off the take sign. Batting for the Pirates; Mazeroski, hoping for a miracle, got one. Mazeroski swings. He smacks the ball toward left center. It's ------ gone! Home run! The Pirates win the World Series! Fans race toward Maz as he rounds second base, hoping to get a pat on the back or grab a souvenir cap. The first Pirate to congratulate the fine defensive second baseman was his mentor and third base coach Oceak, his own cap on the ground or in the hands of a lucky scavenging fan.
When Murtaugh resigned for health reasons as manager after the end of the 1964 season, Oceak found that the only way he could remain in the major leagues was to accept the offer of the Cincinnati Reds as a coach. Pete Rose credited Oceak with helping him to become a better second baseman just as he did with Bill Mazeroski in 1958, when Maz cracked the starting lineup for the first time.
After one season with the Reds, Frank longed to return to the Pirates, who named him to manage the Clinton Pilots of the Midwest League. Oceak returned to Middle Georgia in 1967 to manage the Macon Peaches of the Southern League. His last two seasons as a minor league manager came in 1968 and 1969 came with the Gastonia Pirates.
When Danny Murtaugh returned to the Pirates in 1970, he asked Frank to come back to the big club and take his old spot in the third base coach's box. The Pirates returned to the top of the National League, capturing first place in the NL East. In 1971, the Pirates returned to the World Series.
In a bit of deja vu, the Pirates and Orioles were locked in tight game with the series tied 3-3. As he congratulated Roberto Clemente as he homered and rounded third to put the Pirates ahead, Frank thought back to the series 11 years before. The Pirates took a two-run lead into the 9th inning, just as they had done against the Yankees. This time they held the lead, winning the game 2-1 and the series, four games to three. Once more, Frank and the Pirates were world champions. Frank Oceak stayed on with the Pirates after Murtaugh retired again.
Frank Oceak, after four decades of playing, coaching and managing, hung up his cleats for the last time following the 1972 season. He died in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on March 19, 1983 at the age of seventy.