“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1949-1950,
1952-1953
AL ZARILLA

Allen Lee Zarilla was born on May 1, 1919, in Los Angeles to teenagers Carmen and Juanita Mercer Zarilla. Carmen, a first-generation Italian-American, was a truck driver and later a salesman in the family fruit business, where he worked with his father and brothers. Like many boys, young Allen learned to play baseball in the neighborhood sandlots. While still at Jefferson High School, the 17-year-old Zarilla caught the attention of Chicago Cubs scouts at a tryout camp in Los Angeles. He was one of 18 selected to play against strong semipro teams in the area. When Al broke his left ankle sliding into a base the first season, the Cubs’ interest waned. When Al asked for a $25-a-month raise, the interest evaporated.

Zarilla found another team in the winter league and was spotted by 15-year major-league veteran and Browns scout Jack Fournier, who signed him for a few hundred dollars. In the spring of 1938, Fournier sent Zarilla to San Antonio, Texas, where five Browns farm teams were training. None of the teams wanted him. He was then sent to Palestine, Texas, with the same result. Zarilla was about to be released when Fournier intervened. He called Elmer Kirchoff, player-manager of the Batesville (Arkansas) White Sox in the Class D Northeast Arkansas League. According to Donald Drees in Baseball Digest, Fournier told Kirchoff that Zarilla would hit .325 or Fournier would buy Elmer a new suit. Al did not disappoint. He hit .329 and led the league in runs, doubles, and total bases.

For the 1939 season, Zarilla was in Louisiana playing with the Lafayette (Louisiana) White Sox of the Class D Evangeline League. Al was back in Arkansas for the 1940 campaign but this time with the Helena Seaporters of the Class C Cotton States League. He paced the third-place Seaporters with a .349 batting average over 124 games. Zarilla parlayed his stellar 1940 season into a promotion the next year to the Class B Springfield (Illinois) Browns in the Three-I League. Zarilla spent only 25 games there (hitting .326) before the call-up came from the Class A1 Texas League San Antonio Missions. Zarilla stayed with the Missions for the 1942 season as well and struggled the entire year. Zarilla repaid the confidence shown in him by hitting a gaudy .373 in his first 57 games with Toledo Mud Hens in 1943.

The parent club took notice; consequently, the depleted Browns called upon Al to make his major-league debut on the last day of June. Including the two hits in his debut, Zarilla was with the Browns for the duration of the season and appeared in 70 games for the sixth-place team, including six games in center and 56 games in right field. He hit .254 (.364, 4-for-11 as a pinch-hitter) with two home runs and 17 RBIs.

When the ’43 season ended, Zarilla went home to Los Angeles, where he worked at a “war plant,” Western Pipe and Steel Company, as he had the previous offseason. Additionally, he played exhibition games in the California Winter League, an integrated professional league that dated back to 1910. The CWL was made up of Negro League teams, sometimes Negro League all-star teams, and major-league all-star teams. Zarilla played with teammate Vern Stephens, the Yankees’ Johnny Lindell, and the Senators’ Jerry Priddy among others on a team called Alan Lane’s All-Stars and also on his company team, the Western Pipe and Steel Boilermakers. Zarilla was having a good season at the plate until baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis put an end to the festivities. Landis ordered all the major-league players participating in the CWL to quit playing, invoking a rule against playing exhibition games more than 10 days after the World Series had been completed.

Zarilla’s next season, 1944, was a special season for the Browns. After spending most of their existence at or near the bottom of the American League (with the 1922 season a notable exception), the Brownies captured the pennant in ’44.

The ever hustling, high-energy Zarilla was not a starter at the beginning of the season but earned the status as the season wore on. He hit .299 (86 for 288) with 13 doubles, 6 triples, 6 home runs, and 45 RBIs. The Browns succumbed to the Cardinals in the World Series, four games to two.

There would be no California Winter League for Al Zarilla after the 1944 season. In fact, his baseball career was put on hold when Uncle Sam called Zarilla into the Army. Zeke reported to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, on October 25, 1944, and then was moved to Fort Warren, near Cheyenne, Wyoming. He served for the duration of the war and then reported to the Browns’ spring training camp in Anaheim, California, on February 20, 1946. With the war over, the star players returned to their major-league teams and the Browns were back to their usual position in the standings.

Zarilla’s statistics declined in ’46; Zarilla was now a starting outfielder for the seventh-place Browns, playing in 125 games overall and 107 in the outfield. Zarilla, after starting off reasonably well (.272 through the first 29 games), had a terrible year at the plate, hitting an anemic .224. Clearly, this downward trend could not continue or Zarilla would find himself back in the minors. Luckily for Al, help was at hand.

After the ’47 season, Zeke played in the California Winter League (now approved by new Commissioner Happy Chandler) and caught up with old friend and Pirates slugger Ralph Kiner. Kiner told Zarilla to use a shorter, heavier bat because his current bat was “too quick” for him, causing him to pull more balls than he needed to. The final piece of advice came from new Browns manager Zach Taylor, who noticed during spring training in 1948 that Zarilla, who was learning to hit the ball to the opposite field, was “holding on to the bat too long.” Zeke put all these pieces together and had a breakout season in 1948; finishing at .329, fourth-best in the American League. He received over 930,000 votes from the fans in the All-Star balloting and was selected by Yankees manager Bucky Harris to play in the 1948 game. Zarilla replaced Joe DiMaggio in right field in the top of the fifth inning and went 0-for-2 at the plate. Zarilla’s 1948 performance earned him a few votes among sportswriters for the MVP, the only time he was so honored.

After a “substantial” raise in pay and a bit part in the movie The Stratton Story during the offseason, Zeke was back with the Browns to start the 1949 season. He would not be there for long, however. On May 5, Zarilla, the last member of the 1944 pennant-winning Browns still with the team, was traded to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder/first baseman Stan Spence and at least $100,000 (some reports had the amount at $125,000 or $150,000). On the day of the trade, Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy said, “Zarilla is a hustling, lively type of ballplayer who can run, throw, and will be tickled to play in Boston.” Zarilla was thrilled to be going to a contender, later calling it “the best break I ever received in my life.” He may have been thrilled, but he was over-anxious as well, getting off to a slow start with his new club (he was hitting .250 for the Browns when traded). Then, on May 19 he hit his first homer with Boston. He scored the winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning against the Tigers on May 22. He hit a three-run homer against his old mates on May 25. On May 30, Zarilla hit the first grand slam of his career (off Athletics left-hander Bobby Shantz) and drove in six runs. In addition to winning the game, the grand slam off Shantz was personally important for Zarilla because it demonstrated to manager Joe McCarthy that Zarilla could hit lefties (he had been platooning in right field with Tommy O’Brien). After that hit, Zarilla was the regular right fielder for the 1949 Red Sox.

The 1949 season is one of the signature campaigns in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. Many column-inches and entire books have been devoted to that emotional rollercoaster of a season. Al Zarilla was in the middle of many of the key contests. The nadir for the Red Sox came on July 4. After losing the first game of a doubleheader to the Yankees, the Sox were in position to tie the second game with one out and the bases loaded in the top of the ninth. Zarilla came to the plate and a tremendous windstorm kicked up dust, obliterating the outfielders. The game was delayed for a few minutes and then Zarilla sent a Vic Raschi pitch on a line to right field for an apparent single. Johnny Pesky, on third base, should have scored easily but due to the dust didn’t get a good look at the ball. He went back to tag up. Yankees right fielder Cliff Mapes threw a strike to Yogi Berra to force Pesky. Zarilla’s poetic RBI single became a prosaic, if uncommon, right fielder-to-catcher fielder’s choice. The loss, the eighth consecutive for Boston, put the Olde Towne Team 12 back of their New York rivals. From this low point, however, the Red Sox went almost straight up. They won their next eight games and 61 of the next 81, a miraculous .753 winning percentage. On August 17, Zeke had a two-run double in the top of the tenth to beat the A’s, 5-1.

On September 2, Zarilla had a three-run inside-the-park home run to help the Sox defeat the A’s, 8-4. It was the first inside-the-park homer at Fenway Park since 1931. On September 24, Zarilla made a great play on the basepaths, scoring from second on an attempted first-to-catcher-to-first double play. He scored what proved to be the winning run in a 3-0 shutout of the Yankees, getting the Red Sox within one game of the league leaders. Zarilla made two spectacular catches against the Yankees in New York on September 26. In the second inning, he robbed Johnny Lindell of a three-run homer and then took away another potential home run in the ninth, this time frustrating Tommy Henrich. Since the Red Sox won the game, 7-6 and took over first place, it’s not an exaggeration to say Zarilla saved the day. After beating Washington on September 30, the Red Sox had a one-game lead with two to play. The last two games of the 1949 season have been well chronicled. The key hit in the last game, the deciding game, came off the bat of Yankees rookie second baseman Jerry Coleman. In the bottom of the eighth with the sacks full, Coleman lofted a looping fly (a “cheap hit” he would later call it) to shallow right. Zarilla, who was not deep, ran and dove but the ball fell a couple of inches from his glove and a couple of inches inside the foul line. With two outs, the runners were off at the crack of the bat and all three scored. Zarilla stayed in the game, but later was hospitalized to repair a blood vessel in his knee that had been ruptured on that play. Still, Zeke had a good season for the Sox. He hit .281 with 32 doubles, 9 homers, and 71 RBIs in 124 games with the Boston club. He was solid in right field as well with six assists and just four errors in 251 chances.

The Red Sox were an offensive juggernaut in 1950, scoring 1,027 runs in 154 games, and hitting.302 as a team. Six of the starting eight players hit over .300 with Bobby Doerr (.294) and Vern Stephens (.295) just missing. Zarilla was a big part of the attack. He hit .325 in his first full year with the club, with 32 doubles (seventh in the AL), 10 triples (fourth), 9 homers, and 74 knocked in over 130 games. On June 8, the Red Sox thumped the hapless Browns 29-4 before 5,105 fans at Fenway Park. Zarilla went 5-for-7 with four doubles and four runs scored, but, amazingly, no runs driven in. On Aug 28, the Red Sox were losing 12-1 in the fourth inning but came back to beat the Indians 15-14. Zeke’s eighth-inning homer proved to be the difference. Overall he was 2-for-4 with three RBIs. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, their pitching did not match their hitting and the Sox finished third, four games behind the Yankees. The need to shore up the pitching, however, meant a change of uniforms for Al Zarilla before the 1951 season. The Red Sox had been coveting Ray Scarborough, lately with the White Sox, who they thought could solidify their staff. The Yankees also coveted Scarborough and that, no doubt, played a part in the Sox’ acquisition. The Red Sox had Billy Goodman, winner of the 1950 American League batting crown, ready to play right field, which made Zarilla expendable. On December 10, 1950, the Red Sox traded Zarilla and pitchers Joe Dobson and Dick Littlefield to the Chicago White Sox for Scarborough and lefty Bill Wight.

Zarilla batted .257 in 120 games with the White Sox. He had 21 doubles, 2 triples, 10 homers, and 60 RBIs. The following season, Zarilla had a slow start (hitting only .232 in 39 games). On June 15, 1952, he was traded to the Browns and was to be back with his original team for only 48 games because on August 31, the Red Sox, who were trying to make a move on the Yankees, purchased his contract for the $10,000 waiver fee. Zarilla finished the season with the Red Sox. Overall, he had his worst year in the majors, hitting .225 with little power and just 24 RBIs in 104 games.

After the season, Zarilla, who for years worked as a “grip” in the offseason at Columbia Studios, got his second chance to appear in a feature film when he landed a bit part in the Grover Cleveland Alexander bio-pic The Winning Team, starring Ronald Reagan and Doris Day. Zarilla, now 34, was relegated to the bench for 1953, his last season in the big leagues. He got into only 57 games (only 18 in the field) for the fourth-place Red Sox. Zarilla batted just .194 (13-for-67) with 4 RBIs. He played in his last major-league game on September 27, 1953, and was given his release the following January 6.

Like many players of his era, Zarilla went to the Pacific Coast League when he could not get a position in the majors. In 1954, Zeke signed to play the outfield with the Seattle Rainiers. He played in the PCL in 1955 as well but only on a limited basis. The Chicago Cubs hired him to manage their Class C affiliate, the Magic Valley (Idaho) Cowboys in the Pioneer League for 1956. The Cowboys came in fourth in the eight-team circuit. Zarilla had 20 at-bats in 11 games, getting seven hits (.350).

After his playing days were over, Zarilla worked at scouting and coaching. On December 12, 1957, the Kansas City Athletics announced that they had signed him as their scout for Southern California (Zarilla was living in Bishop, California, at the time. Zarilla remained a scout with the Athletics until September 1961, when he and five other A’s scouts quit, citing disagreements with the operating policies of new owner Charlie Finley. Zarilla scouted for the Cincinnati Reds from 1962 through at least 1968. In October 1970, Zarilla became a full-time scout in California for the Washington Senators, managed by his former teammate Ted Williams. After the All-Star Game in 1971, Zarilla became a coach for the Senators, enabling him to accrue the 90 days of major-league service he needed to double his pension.

In 1972, Zarilla moved to Hawaii, where he was a part-time scout for the Major League Scouting Bureau and, by 1978, the first-base coach of the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League. In later years, Zeke was often seen at Aloha Stadium and later Rainbow Stadium. He enjoyed baseball at every level. He especially enjoyed being around the younger, developing players with whom he could share his many years of experience and knowledge. On Aug 28, 1996, in Honolulu, Al Zarilla succumbed to cancer at the age of 77.