GUS ZERNIAL: A TALE OF TWO CITIES
At first glance, the cities of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Fresno, California would appear to have nothing in common. One is a seaport town, the other landlocked. One is East Coast, the other, West Coast. Philadelphia is known for manufacturing, Fresno has agriculture. One has cheese steaks, the other, raisins. You get the picture.
There is a common thread, however, that runs through both cities. That thread comes in the personage of Gus Edward Zernial. Both cities have meaning to Gus; baseball past and present. As much as he is a part of baseball past, he is very much a part of baseball present, even into his eighties. Ask Gus Zernial about baseball past and a broad smile will cross his face and a twinkle will come to his eye. He has a story for you. When Gus talks, people listen. Not just out of respect. Gus happens to be one of the best public speakers and story tellers in baseball today.
When Gus talks about baseball past, Philadelphia is often the location of such tales, having spent the summers of 1951 through 1954 in the City of Brotherly Love. Gus inherited the unenviable role during those years of the big Philadelphia slugger. As such, he was cheered as no other when the A’s did well but took the full wrath of a hostile crowd when the team performed poorly. Gus Zernial heard both the cheers and the jeers of the fickle Philly fans.
As Gus stated in his memorable November 7, 2000 speech at the Society Breakfast, “In Philadelphia, I’ll be remembered there. I’ll be remembered because you and the Society keep bringing these boys back” It is clear that that Gus has affection for Philadelphia. It is clear that the feeling is mutual as demonstrated by his June 2001 induction into the Philadelphia Wall of Fame and his presence at the 50 years renewal of the Athletics/Phillies rivalry in June 2003. The Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society selected him to the All-Time Philadelphia A’s All Star team outfield.
Gus certainly helped make an impression on our memory banks by getting 1,093 hits, blasting 237 home runs and knocking in 776 runs in a major league career that lasted from 1949 to 1959. During the 1950’s, he was 4th in the American League in home runs behind Hall of Fame members Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and the late Larry Doby. In 1951 he led the American League in home runs with 33 and RBI with 129. His 42 home runs in 1953 was just one shy of AL leader Al Rosen. That year he was a starting outfielder in the All Star Game.
Sharing a table with Gus Zernial is a rare treat for a baseball fan. He can tell you a story in such a way that will have you believing that no one alive has ever heard that story before. You listen spellbound as all those 1950s baseball cards you collected come to life, develop personalities and become more than cardboard with pictures and statistics. When his story is over you will have a smile on your face as big as his. Gus’s smile is that infectious.
It does help that Gus’s stories extend beyond the friendly confines of Shibe Park in Philadelphia. His time served with the Chicago White Sox, the Kansas City Athletics and the Detroit Tigers added to his repertoire. His years as a minor league slugger for the Hollywood Stars in 1947 and 1948 certainly provide some interesting insights into movie stars as baseball fans. And no, as Gus will tell you, he did not introduce Joe DiMaggio to Marilyn Monroe as the myth went. But Gus’s part in how Joe became infatuated with Marilyn is almost better than the myth. Ask Gus about that one. Also, be sure to catch Gus on film in the video When It Was A Game in his Hollywood Stars uniform. If Philadelphia represented one side of the Gus Zernial story, then the other side is represented by Fresno, Gus’ home for many years and home to the Fresno Grizzlies.
Ask Gus Zernial about baseball present and a broad smile will cross his face. Gus, you see, is just as much a part of baseball’s present as its past. Few players from the fabulous fifties can say that. And he has a story for you. The location of Gus’ tales of baseball present is in the cutting edge city of Fresno, California and its five year old ballpark where Gus’s new role as Team Ambassador after several years as Director of Community Development has him being every bit the player he was 50 years ago. Only Gus could fill such a role. In Fresno, Gus Zernial and sports are synonymous.
When Gus retired from major league baseball in 1960, the Beaumont, Texas native settled permanently in Fresno, intent on utilizing his knowledge of baseball and sports as well as his speaking abilities as a way of making a living and providing for his family. He has been successfully doing this for the past forty three years.
Gus became a sports director for a Fresno television and radio station from 1962 through 1976. He was a broadcaster for Fresno State University’s football, basketball and baseball games doing full play by play action. When the Fresno Giants of the Single A, California League moved to San Jose in 1987, the lack of a minor league team in Fresno was unfathomable to Gus. Fresno, in fact, deserved to be a Triple A city.
Within a few years, Gus Zernial and other Fresno business leaders began working on a plan to bring Pacific Coast League baseball to Fresno. By 1998 their dream became a reality when the Tucson club moved to Fresno and began playing games at the Fresno State University baseball diamond. Gus was not satisfied however. He felt Fresno deserved a state of the art minor league baseball facility that would bring recognition to Fresno and life to its downtown area. After much lobbying and more frustrations, a miracle happened. The Fresno city fathers started to see things the Fresno Grizzlies way. The city approved a $46,000,000 stadium to be built downtown and to be known as Grizzlies Stadium.
In May 2001, dirt began to be moved at the construction site and in one short year Gus’s dream was a reality. Before a crowd of 12,792 fans on May 1, 2002, Grizzlies pitcher Luis Estrella threw the first pitch at the beautiful, state of the art ballpark. Appropriately, the Grizzlies won the game 4-1. In their first season at the new ballpark, the Grizzlies drew 563,097 fans, ninth highest in minor league baseball, averaging over 8,000 fans per game.
A member of the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, Gus ranks the accomplishments of helping to bring baseball and a beautiful stadium to Fresno right up with his accomplishments between the lines in Philadelphia.
As Team Ambassador, Central California fans can hear not only stories of their present days heroes but heroes from another era. Those heroes have names like Jimmy Dykes, Luke Appling, Connie Mack, Al Simmons, Bobby Shantz, Eddie Joost and Al Kaline among others. In the meantime, the Gus Zernial tale goes on, both in Fresno and Philadelphia, brother cities if you will.