Gus Zernial, the former slugging outfielder for the White Sox and Philadelphia Athletics who was a huge supporter of the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, passed away on Thursday due to congestive heart failure at the age of 87. Zernial spent 3 1/2 years in the Navy during World War II, serving as a radio operator on five battleships, and according to legend, he was the man who helped introduce Hall of Fame outfielder Joe DiMaggio to future wife Marilyn Monroe. Zernial was born in Beaumont, Texas, where, according to the Fresno Bee, he was a three-sport star in high school. After his playing career, Zernial retired to the Fresno, Calif., area and later became one of the driving forces behind the Grizzlies. He spent time as the club's broadcaster and community relations director and was actively involved in the movement to build a downtown stadium and bring Triple-A baseball in 1998 to the onetime Class A California League town.
"Gus has been a part of the Grizzlies family dating back to its very beginning," Grizzlies president Chris Cummings said in a statement. "His spirit and energy helped bring baseball back to Fresno, and we are eternally grateful for everything he has meant to this community. His positive impact cannot be understated. "We will truly miss his vitality and his humor, both of which made this world a better place. The thoughts and prayers of everyone in the Grizzlies family go out to Gus' family, friends and colleagues." Zernial signed his first contract with the Cardinals in 1941 at age 17. After World War II, he was taken by the Indians in the 1946 Rule 5 Draft, then purchased by the White Sox the following season. In 1948, he hit .322 with 40 home runs and 156 RBIs at Triple-A Hollywood and, according to baseball historian Bill James, was given the nickname "Ozark Ike" by broadcaster Fred Haney, after a comic strip character of immense strength. Zernial finally made his Major League debut for the White Sox on April 19, 1949, but suffered a broken right collarbone in May and ended up playing in just 73 games as a rookie. The injury also severely curtailed Zernial's ability to throw, and he was never a great outfielder. But Zernial was one of the best power hitters in the game during the 1950s; he .280 with 29 home runs and 93 RBIs for the White Sox in '50, homering four times in a doubleheader on the last day of the season. The following year, after being traded to the Athletics on April 30 in a mammoth three-team trade that also involved the Indians, Zernial batted .268 while leading the American League with 33 home runs and 129 RBIs. From 1950-57, Zernial hit 220 home runs, the most in the AL during that eight-year stretch. He was selected as an All-Star in '53 for the only time while hitting a career-high 42 home runs. "I would have liked to have been a better ballplayer," Zernial told sportswriter Jack Etkin in 1986. "I think I could have been better, but I wasn't trying to hit better. I was always ready to really jerk one." Zernial was with the Athletics during their waning years in Philadelphia, when the team played poorly and the fans were unforgiving. He was one of the fans' favorite targets for boos, and after his 1954 season ended with another fractured collarbone, Zernial was openly glad when the team moved to Kansas City. Zernial was a fan favorite in Kansas City for three years, even though he didn't play as much as he did in Philadelphia. He was then traded to the Tigers on Nov. 20, 1957, and played his final two seasons in Detroit before retiring to the Fresno area. Zernial was a local broadcaster for Fresno State football, basketball and baseball games before getting involved in the city's efforts to build a new stadium and bring in the Grizzlies. He was inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984 and became a member of the Philadelphia Athletics' All-Century Team in 2002. During Spring Training 1952 with the Athletics, according to DiMaggio biographer Richard Ben Cramer, Zernial took some publicity photos with Monroe at the request of 20th Century Fox movie studios. DiMaggio, having retired after the previous season, wondered how a guy like Zernial could get his photo taken with somebody like Monroe. Zernial told DiMaggio how to get in touch with her, a blind date was arranged and two of the most famous people in their profession eventually got married. Zernial was married to his wife, Marla, for nearly 50 years, and according to the Fresno Bee, he is survived by her; two sons, Gus Zernial Jr. and Jim Zernial; two daughters, Susan Zernial and Lisa Pearlstein; five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.