Gus Zernial died last week at 87.
Maybe Zernial's name doesn't ring a bell, but he was a genuine slugger in the American League in the 1950s. He led the league in home runs in 1951 with 33, and in 1953 he hit 42 big flies, one behind league leader, Al Rosen of the Indians. For his career, Zernial hit 237 homers in 1,234 games with the White Sox, A's and Tigers.
I met Gus Zernial in 1999 when I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society annual breakfast. My daughter Carrie, 9 at the time, accompanied me, and wore a genuine 1950 A's jersey of catcher Mike Guerra, who was about the size of a 10-year-old girl when he played. Carrie schmoozed with the retired players who were there, including Gus, who was exceedingly kind, and went out of his way to keep her entertained. I have a nice photo of the two of them together, and he later signed it for her.
If you've seen Zernial's 1952 Topps baseball card, you see him holding a bat that has several baseballs attached to it. A friend of mine sent it to him to be signed, and in the note he sent with it asked how the balls were attached. When the card came back Gus had signed "Scotch tape, Sincerely, Gus Zernial."
After retiring from baseball, Zernial became a sportscaster in Fresno, Calif., and later broadcast Fresno State football, basketball and baseball on TV and radio. He was instrumental in Fresno acquiring a Triple-A franchise in 1998.
Zernial was a fan favorite in Philadelphia before the A's headed for Kansas City. His career would likely have been longer and more prolific had he not broken his collarbone twice. He was a great ambassador for the game, and I'm happy I had the chance to make his acquaintance.