King of the Minors

On Aug. 15, 1985 in the otherwise undistinguished town of Vero Beach, Fla., the Vero Beach Dodgers, a motley collection of prospects, has-beens and never-weres, defeated the West Palm Beach Expos, 11-2, in a game between archrivals in the Class A Florida State League, among the most minor of minor league baseball circuits. As sporting events go, this was small potatoes—except that this was the 2,497th time that Stan Wasiak had managed a minor league team to a win, breaking a 28-year-old record. Only the legendary Connie Mack and John McGraw ever won more professional games.

Unlike Mack and McGraw, Wasiak, 65, has never been to the majors, but he has resigned himself to that. He is a minor league manager. He looks like a minor league manager. His face is a road map of all the two-lane black tops he has traveled on buses across this country. The small towns he has managed and played in are the last pieces of an America that is fast vanishing. After his historic victory, Wasiak talked with author Pat Jordan about devoting one’s life to a game.

I’m just a Polish boy from the south side of Chicago with not much education, and if it wasn’t for this great game, I woulda worked in the steel mills like my father for mosta my life. Don’t get me wrong, I was never ashamed to make an honest livin’—I worked on the docks in Mobile for 25 years durin’ the off-season—but I was fortunate enough to be a player and a manager in the minor leagues for over 45 years. I started out makin’ $90 a month and livin’ in a $2-a-week roomin’ house, but then again I only paid 45 cents for a steak in them days. And I seen a lotta things. In ’41, in Grand Rapids, I seen a guy buried behind home plate—a Hindu fella with a turban. They put him in a pine box, alive, and buried him six feet in the ground. The batters couldn’t concentrate. They kept lookin’ over their shoulders at the spot while the pitcher was deliverin’. We all stood around when they dug him up at the enda the game. He was still alive. They gave him a hundred dollars. That’s a fact.

Most of my years was with the Dodger organization, 36 of ’em as a minor league manager. Mostly the low minors, Class D, Class C, Class B. Little towns like Valdosta, Greenwood, Hazlehurst, Americus, Lodi. Little nowhere towns with a main street and a gas station and a furnished room with a fan over the bed and a knotted rope hangin’ out the window for a fire escape. The days went real slow. You slept late a lot, hung out at the coffee shops, watched the A&P truck unload. I was in Americus, just a few miles from Plains, and I mighta give a young Jimmy Carter my autograph. I spent a summer or two in Hazlehurst and Baxley, Georgia, which was the hottest place in the world. I took my wife and kids to the movies every afternoon, ’cause it was the only air-conditioned place in town. In Great Falls, Montana, I played a game in a snow blizzard while a vendor went through the stands shoutin’, “Getcha cold beer here!” We hadda keep a bonfire goin’ in the dugout. In Midland, Texas they called a game becausa crickets. They smothered the lights and the players like in a horror movie.

We went from town to town in rickety old school buses. They busted down a lot, caught fire, just plain stopped. We pushed a bus into Cordele, Georgia once and got another. That one ran outta gas and we pushed it to a farmhouse in the middle of the night. We woke up this poor farmer and asked him for gas. I musta rode over a million miles on them buses. I rode 22 hours on a bus from Evansville, Indiana to Savannah, Georgia and got off and played a doubleheader. Now that ain’t right. We’d stop the bus by the sida the road and all the guys would line up to take a pee. In the minor leagues, we had a sayin’: “You play the game for nothin’, boys, and they pay you for the travel.”

The parks was nothin’ but a few boards for bleachers, a dirt infield, a few lights, most of ’em busted, and a clubhouse with a dirt floor. You found a nail, it was your locker. You found two nails, two lockers. In Missoula, Montana the clubhouse was an old dirt cellar behind home plate. You opened those cellar doors and went straight down into darkness.

Them olden-time fans was somethin’ else. Fanatic. You hit a home run in Valdosta and then you walked around the home plate screen and the fans shoved bills in your hand. In Birmingham, you hit a home run and a department store give you a suit you never wore. Walt Dropo got a lotta suits and I never seen him wear one.

Nowadays, the fans don’t identify much with their minor league players. They leave a tied game in the seventh inning, just when it’s gettin’ good, so’s they can get home to watch the big league team on TV. I can’t understand it. Them olden-time fans didn’t feel no association with a big league team far away. We were their big league team. They treated us like heroes.

Do you know, one year I played with Gil Hodges and Chuck Connors, the actor? It was ’46, at Newport News in the Piedmont League just after I got outta the service. Now Connors, he was crazy. He’d walk behind ladies with an umbrella and just sorta, you know, accidentally tap it against their behinds. We’d go to nightclubs and Connors would get up onstage and recite Casey at the Bat. But he was a good ballplayer, too. Good enough to put Hodges behind the plate.

Now Gil, he was my typa man. Real quiet, you know. Saw a lotta action in Okinawa, but never talked about it. He was just like, you know, a statue or somethin’. I remember this one time our guys were gettin’ on the umpire pretty good, and this ump comes over and clears the bench. “And that means you, too, Hodges,” he says. Gil just looked at him and said, “I ain’t goin’.” And you know, he didn’t either.

All three of us hit about .290 that year, but only Gil and Chuck moved up. I couldn’t understand it then, but now I realize I was just a singles-hitting second baseman, and the Dodgers already were grooming a second baseman—fella nama Robinson. Now, how could a Polish boy from Chicago take the place of the greatest player I ever saw, huh? That’s why, when the Dodgers offered me a job as manager a few years later, I took it.

I had a lotta nice boys. Some of ’em made it and a lot of ’em didn’t. They was the real reason I stayed in this game so long. I liked workin’ with the kids. They kept me young. When I first started managin’ in the ’50s, the kids was rough. They’d walk batters, drop fly balls, hell, they didn’t even know how to put on a uniform. But they was easy to reach. You just had to have patience. They’d listen ’cause they wanted so bad to be a minor leaguer. It was a big thing in them days, just to be a professional baseball player.

Nowadays, the kids wear their uniform like a big leaguer when they’re in Little League. It don’t mean nothin’ to ’em to be a minor leaguer. You give ’em their unconditional release and you’re doin’ ’em a favor. They go back home and finish college and get a good job. In the olden days you give a kid his release and he’d cry, threaten to punch you out, swear he’d make it with another organization just to show you. They was mostly poor kids then, a different kinda poor than today. It was the difference between not havin’ enough to eat and not havin’ enough to buy nice things.

The truth is the kids today are better players than in the olden days. They’re better physically and they get better instruction in high school and college. Hell, at the Dodgers’ minor league spring trainin’ camp in Vero Beach, we got a hittin’ instructor, an infieldin’ instructor, an outfield instructor, a buntin’ instructor, a pitchin’ coach, a catchin’ coach, even a base-runnin’ instructor. And we got a physical condition’ instructor. In the olden days, the kids didn’t have nothin’ but their manager. I was all them things and I swept the infield and mowed the grass in the outfield too. But the biggest thing the kids today got is television. They copy big leaguers, so’s by the time I get ’em, they’re already pretty smooth. Smooth and cocky. Hell, they won’t even hang with the veterans, ’cause they consider ’em washed up.

In the olden days the veterans wouldn’t hang with the kids. I remember one year, I was just a kid, the Dodgers sent Van Lingle Mungo down to Macon to throw a little BP to get in shape. I hit a ball through the box and he got mad. Next pitch was right at my head. And the one after that. It was only battin’ practice, and I was on his team! Oh, my, I was scared.

People always ask me, if I was such a good manager, why didn’t I make the big leagues? I tell ’em I didn’t have the name. Wasiak, what kinda name is that? Sounds like a prescription. You either rub it on or drink it. But really, the reason I never made it was ’cause I was too good with the kids. I just tried to relax ’em, let ’em play their game. That’s what the game’s for. The kids, not for some old manager to show how smart he is.

I ain’t bitter or anything. This was what my life was cut out to be. I’m makin’ a good livin’ now. And I got a feelin’ of importance which you don’t get in a lotta jobs. My name’s in the papers. My picture. My kids are proud of me; they get introduced at the ballpark. When I come onto the field in Vero Beach the organist plays Hail to the Chief. I give a little salute like Mr. Reagan. That’s what life’s all about.

I’m 65 now and I’ve set a record for winnin’ more minor league games than any manager in history. They had a day for me in Vero Beach. I’m takin’ my cap and the lineup card of that game to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. in September. That’ll be the biggest thrill of my life. After that I won’t have no more ambitions. Except one. I just wanna wake up every mornin’ with no flowers around my bed.

Related Articles