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July 6, 2012

HOVG Heroes: Frank Dezelan


Since 1871, more than 1400 men [1] have maintained the rules of order on the baseball diamond. Of those, only nine have earned induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Tom Connolly, Bill Klem, Billy Evans, Jocko Conlon, Cal Hubbard, Al Barlick, Bill McGowan, Nestor Chylak, and Doug Harvey. They were men who excelled at calling balls and strikes, signaling fair or foul, determining safe or out.

They were the ultimate arbiters of our National Pastime. They were great.

Frank Dezelan was very good, but unfortunately his career was cut short so he never had the chance to become great. For two full seasons, and parts of three others, Frank worked as a National League umpire [2]. Prior to that, he spent more than a decade climbing the ladder from minor league to minor league hoping to earn one of only 48 Major League umpiring positions [3]. With so few positions available, and all the power in the hands of individual leagues, becoming a Major League umpire was even more difficult than becoming a Major League player.

The Beginning

Frank Dezelan’s umpiring career began in the unlikeliest of places: a dentist’s chair. One day, with Dr. Richard Goldberg peering into his mouth, the conversation turned to sports. Frank had been a high school athlete, and had played baseball in the Navy. Frank was not talented enough to go pro, but was built like an athlete (6’ 2” and 220 pounds) and enjoyed sports. To Dr. Goldberg, umpiring was a natural use of Frank’s talents and interests. Frank agreed and headed to Florida, where he enrolled in the nation’s premiere umpire school, The Al Somers Academy of Professional Umpiring.

After several weeks of training, Frank found himself in Big Sky country as he joined the Northern League on July 26, 1958. Traveling around the Dakotas and Montana as well as Manitoba, Canada, Frank Dezelan got his first taste of the less-than-glamorous side of umpiring minor league ball. But he held his own.

In Frank’s second, and last, season in the Northern League he had a run-in with one of the great tantrum-throwers in MLB history – Earl Weaver [4]. Weaver was managing the Aberdeen (SD) Pheasants at home against the Minot (SD) Mallards [5]. According to Ken Kaiser and David Fisher in Planet of the Umps: a Baseball Life from Behind Home Plate, the drama began with a debate about a large tree and Aberdeen’s ground rules:

In right field a large tree hung over the scoreboard. Weaver and the…Mallards manager couldn’t agree on the tree rule. As home team manager, Weaver wanted anything hitting the tree to be a home run, the Mallards manager wanted it in play. [Dezelan]…decided “Okay, I’ll make the ground rule. The tree’s in play.”

Weaver probably leaped three feet off the ground. Okay, maybe six inches. But then he started screaming at Dezelan that he was supposed to make the ground rules, and no umpire had the right to tell him what the ground rules should be, and he wasn’t going to stand for it.

Dezelan waited until Weaver had finished screaming and asked, “Who’s your manager?”

Weaver hesitated. He was standing right there with his lineup cards. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I’m the manager.”

“No,” Dezelan told him, “no, no, no. You’re scratched. You’re gone. I mean who’s your new manager?”

Frank Dezelan was an umpire with confidence.

In August 1959, the Northern League released Dezelan who headed to the South Atlantic league for three seasons, and then to the AAA Pacific Coast League (PCL) for another season-and-a-half. Interestingly, just as players were placed under “reserve” by Major League teams until the 1970’s, umpires also were subject to their own reserve clause. The difference for umpires was the fact that their services were reserved by an entire league. [6]

From the PCL, Dezelan headed back east to join the Southern League for two full seasons before, finally, in April 1966 he was released that the National League would sign him. But the Senior Circuit was not ready for Frank quite yet, assigning him instead to the International League [7]. For five more months, Frank worked in the IL until he finally received the call.

The Majors

On September 23, 1966, Frank Dezelan suited up for the first time as a Major League umpire. The Reds hosted the Mets, and Dezelan patrolled the infield as the second base umpire. He would see action in nine more games in 1966; his last a doubleheader between the Astros and the Mets on the final day of the season. [8]

For the next two seasons, the process would repeat: begin the season in the International League, get a September call-up, work until the end of the MLB season, return to the IL in the spring. In 1967 he worked 30 games; in 1968 ten.

Finally, after 11 seasons working in five different minor leagues, Frank was offered a full time position as a National League umpire for the 1969 season. On April 8, he experienced his first Opening Day watching over the third base line in San Diego as the Padres hosted the Houston Astros.

Frank Dezelan would work 156 games that year. His highlight? September 22, 1969. Frank was working behind the plate as the Padres hosted the Giants. In the top of the seventh inning, the game was tied 2-2, and the Giants called rookie outfielder George Foster back to the dugout. In his place they sent up a pinch-hitter named Willie Mays.

As Mays stepped in the box, Frank crouched behind Padres catcher Chris Cannizzaro. Right hander Mike Corkins wound up and threw. Mays hit the first pitch he saw for a two-run home run, tying the game. Of greater interest was the fact that with that shot Mays became the second man, after Babe Ruth, to hit 600 home runs in his career. And Frank Dezelan had the best seat in the house.

There was no sophomore slump for Frank who worked 159 games during the 1970 season. He saw thousands of pitches, hundreds of hits, and made his fair share of calls. But for the boy from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the season was filled with once-in-a-lifetime moments.

On July 14, Frank was watching the line in left field at Riverfront Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Reds, during the 1970 All-Star Game. The game featured twenty future Hall of Famers. Entering the 12th inning, the AL and NL were tied 4-4.  In the bottom of the inning, the Cubs’ Jim Hickman hit a single to center and hometown favorite Pete Rose, who was already on second base, tore around third and barreled  into Oakland A’s catcher Ray Fosse. Although Fosse had the ball in his hand, the force of the collision caused him to drop it, giving the NL the victory. [9]

Just two days later, on July 16, Frank returned to Pittsburgh for a literal “home opener.” The Pirates, Dezelan’s favorite team as a child, played their first game in the ultra-modern, dual purpose Three Rivers Stadium. Standing at second base, Dezelan watched as the Pirates lost to the Reds, 2-1.

The last game of the season, on October 1, found Dezelan behind home plate as the Reds defeated the Braves, 4-1. The Braves’ only run was Hank Aaron’s 592nd home run. Ray Washburn got the win in relief; Pat Jarvis took the loss. Frank called the last out of the game as Braves catcher Bob Tillman popped up to his counterpart, Johnny Bench.

As Dezelan walked into the clubhouse to change out of his blues, he had no idea he had just made his last call.

A Career Ends

Two months later, in December 1970, Frank’s wife, Irene, woke up to find Frank thrashing in bed, “fists flying.” Immediately recognizing that something was wrong, she called for an ambulance and he was rushed to Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital. Doctors diagnosed Frank’s episode as a grand mal seizure, but that turned out to be the least of his worries.

The seizure was caused by a tumor. Diagnosed as a benign meningioma, it had grown so large that his skull bulged. After the tumor was removed, the prognosis was as positive as it could be. There was no determination of whether he would head back to the baseball field in 1971, but at least he was healthy. Or so they thought.

A few months later Frank was suffering from severe headaches and uncontrollable shaking. The man who had never taken an aspirin in his life told his wife, “I think I’m going to die.” Another trip back to Mercy revealed a diagnosis even more frightening than the tumor: bacterial meningitis. Frank slipped into a coma for several days and remained in the hospital, where he received intravenous antibiotics for a month.

When he was finally released, the idea of returning to baseball seemed further and further away. But Frank’s attitude remained positive and he returned home to recover – again. All seemed fine, except for the runny nose he just couldn’t shake.

Frank assumed it was nothing more than a lingering cold. But after a check-up with his physician, tests revealed something far worse. Frank’s runny nose was actually spinal fluid leaking through his sinuses. He quickly returned to surgery for a muscle graft to close a hole in his sinus. Doctors believed that it was this hole that led to his bacterial meningitis months earlier

By this point, Frank Dezelan knew he was never going to call another game. [10]

Between 1971 and 1994, Frank underwent six different surgical procedures on his brain. Fundraisers were held for him featuring his former colleagues as well as Pittsburgh Pirate players and broadcasters. Having given up on his career as an umpire, he was hired by the Alleghany County Department of Parks and Recreation to oversee various facilities and programs, including the county’s ski lodge.

Frank Dezelan lived longer than he thought was possible given his health history. He passed away on March 7, 2011 at the age of 81. Through all the struggles with his health, his wife and their five children admired his strength and outlook as he fought through recovery after recovery.

Frank’s family recalls his fond memories of his short time in the Majors. He befriended several umpires including Bruce Froemming and Harry Wendlestedt, as well as Augie Donatelli and Tony Venzon, who hailed from the Johnstown area[11]. Frank named Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson as two of his favorite pitchers, not just for their skill but their efficiency on the mound. And although his hometown bias showed, he enjoyed working with Roberto Clemente who, according to Frank, never complained about a call.

On July 14, 2012 – exactly 42 years after that memorable All-Star game – Frank Dezelan will be inducted into the Cambria County (PA) Sports Hall of Fame.

And, of course, he will remain forever a part of The Hall of Very Good. 

 [1] Using the umpire directory, there have been 1,437 umpires in the history of professional baseball. Based on that number, only 0.6% of all umpires have become Hall of Famers.

 [2] Until 2000, the National and American Leagues were responsible for hiring, training, and paying their own umpires. There’s more to it, including mass resignations and the de-certification of a union, but that’s for another book.

 [3] When Frank Dezelan made it to the major leagues there were only 24 NL umps, broken into six crews of four. In 1969 there were ten teams in NL which would mean a maximum of five head-to-head match-ups on any one day. This meant that five out of six crews would work while one would have an off-day. Today there are 68 umpires for all of MLB – 17 crews. With 30 teams, at least two crews have an off-day every day.

 [4] Earl Weaver led the American League in ejections from baseball games for 13 of the 17 seasons he managed.

 [5] Northern League nicknames were awesome.

 [6] In September 1969, two American League umpires, Al Salerno and Bill Valentine, sued Major League Baseball for violating anti-trust laws. Salerno and Valentine were fired the season before for attempting form a union. (The National League umpires had already unionized.) The AL claimed that two men were let go for “incompetence.” Although through an agreement Salerno and Valentine were re-hired, the National Labor Relations Board overruled the agreement finding that the AL had fired them for cause. It would be another 40 years before any form of labor peace existed between MLB and the umpire union.

 [7] This was apparently common practice. In another example, Larry Barnett was signed by the American League in December 1967 but sent, the same day, to the Texas League. He would wait there until his call up to the AL in the spring of 1969.

 [8]  Yes, teams once played doubleheaders on the last day of the season, even in series that had no playoff implications. On that same day (October 2, 1966) Frank Robinson and his AL pennant-winning Orioles would play two against the Minnesota Twins, who had been eliminated from the playoff races days earlier.

 [9] Rose virtually ended Fosse’s career with the hit. Fosse fractured and separated his shoulder. It was not immediately diagnosed and Fosse played for another month with the injury. He would never be able to lift his arm over his head again. Ah, the days when the All Star game mattered to the players.

 [10] I asked Irene Dezelan if anyone noticed any symptoms prior to his seizure. She told me that she had noticed something was odd as early as 1966. She said that Frank’s signature looked “loose” when she received his canceled checks. She mentioned it to Frank at the time, but he explained it away blaming a car accident the couple had several years earlier.

 [11] Western Pennsylvania apparently produced two sports resources: NFL quarterbacks (Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Dan Marino, and  Jim Kelly) and umpires.


Josh Eisenberg writes Obit of theDay, named one of the forty best history blogs by Tumblr. You can also find him posting occasionally on MLB Offseason, named one of the 25 best sports blogs on Tumblr by Bleacher Report.  When Eisenberg is not writing about our National Pastime or dead people, he is a stay-at-home dad of four in Oak Park, Illinois and a professional tour guide in Chicago.

If you ever want a tour, contact him at Apropos of nothing, his sons are named for Lou Gehrig and Elston Howard, and he is married to the nicest Red Sox fan of all-time.

Eisenberg would like to thank the Dezelan family for allowing him to interview them about Frank’s life. They shared sources, photos and valuable information without which he could not have written this piece.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A wonderful tribute to my dad; very well researched and written.
Thank you, Josh!
Darlene Dezelan Cipollini