Interview: 93-year-old Frank Azzarello counts all-star game at Polo Grounds among biggest thrills
Frank Azzarello played in a lot of big games during his high school and American Legion career in New Orleans during the 1940s, but one of his most memorable occurred in August 1944 in a teenage youth all-star contest at New York’s Polo Grounds.
Now 93 years old, Azzarello still has a vivid recollection of his rare opportunity to represent Louisiana in Esquire Magazine’s All-American Boys’ baseball game, along with 28 other players from across the country.
His selection for the prestigious game was the result of a vote by Louisiana high school and Legion coaches and officials. Among the boys he beat out were other local prep stars Tookie Gilbert and Ralph “Putsy” Caballero, both of whom eventually played in the major leagues. He was no stranger to receiving all-star honors, having been a New Orleans All-Prep Team member for S. J. Peters High School and a selection to the city’s All-Legion Team representing the Holy Cross Comiskey’s entry.
Azzarello commented in a recent telephone interview, “It was an honor to represent Louisiana. Being able to participate in this event was like a dream.” He had good reason to think he had been dreaming, since he spent two weeks in New York City sightseeing, preparing for the game in fabled stadiums, and rubbing elbows with some of baseball’s all-time greats.
He was a member of the East all-star squad managed by venerable Connie Mack, then the skipper of the major-league Philadelphia A’s. Fellow New Orleanian Mel Ott, then a player-manager for the New York Giants, was the manager of the West all-star team. Azzarello said he got to spend time with Ott, whom he recalls walked around the field during a workout in his stocking feet because of a recent foot injury.
Azzarello relished a chance to have a practice stint on the mound in the Polo Grounds with legendary Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell looking over his shoulder and giving him tips. Azzarello, who weighed only 135 pounds at the time, said he was amazed at how thin Hubbell was. One of the boys’ trips in the city took them to a radio station where they met Babe Ruth who was doing a broadcast appearance. Yankee Stadium was also the site of one of the boys’ practice sessions.
The game on August 7 in the Polo Grounds was attended by over 17,000 fans. Azzarello was on the East’s starting nine as the left fielder. Detroit’s Bill Pierce, a future major-leaguer who recorded 211 career wins, got the starting assignment on the mound for the East. Azzarello said he was able to become good friends with Pierce during the event. The West team included future major-leaguers Richie Ashburn and Erv Palica. Over half of the 29 players from the two teams, including Azzarello, eventually signed professional contracts.
Facing Virgil Jester, another future major-league pitcher, Azzarello drew a walk in the first inning, when the East put up the first score. In the fifth inning, he laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance a runner but wound on first base due to a throwing error. He eventually scored one of the East’s three runs that inning. Azzarello walked and struck out in his other two at-bats. Behind the solid pitching of Pierce and two relievers, the East team was victorious, 6-0.
Azzarello signed a professional contract with the Boston Red Sox in October 1944. However, Uncle Sam had other plans for him, as he served in the Army from January 1945 to November 1946. He saw action on transport ships serving as Army troop carriers and hospitals, including overseas trips. He recalled that when his ship was docked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he took the opportunity to attend a few games at Ebbetts Field. New Orleans native Fats Dantonio was playing with the Dodgers then, and Azzarello remembered talking to him and asking him for baseballs.
He made his professional debut in 1947 with Class D Milford, Delaware, in the Eastern Shore League. Not having played baseball for over two years, Azzarello said he had lost something on his fastball, although he managed to pitch 16 complete games. His numbers in Baseball-Reference.com show that he compiled a 13-9 record with a 4.33 ERA.
After starting the 1948 season 5-0 with Class C Oneonta, New York, in the Canadian-American League, Azzarello says he was hit by a line drive from a batter that injured a leg muscle. After a two-week layoff, his next five games didn’t go well, and he was released by the team. When he returned to New Orleans, he learned that Thibodaux of the Evangeline League needed an outfielder, so he signed with them to finish out the season.
Azzarello had surgery on his left shoulder after the 1948 season to repair ligaments and tendons, and he missed the entire 1949 season. He attempted a comeback the next year as a first baseman with two unaffiliated teams in Alabama, but he was not the same ballplayer. At age 23, it was his last season in pro baseball.
Prior to his military service, he had been a local amateur star on New Orleans playgrounds. His Peters High team lost to Holy Cross in the city prep championship in 1942. In 1944 he faced off with Holy Cross’ star pitcher Dick Callahan in a classic pitching duel at Pelican Stadium that lasted 12 innings. Callahan struck out 20 while Azzarello fanned 18 in a 1-0 game won by Holy Cross, who went on to defeat Peters in the state finals. Azzarello said, “We had some tough losses to Holy Cross, but I was proud that I beat Jesuit every time I faced them that year, in both prep and Legion games.” A Times-Picayune report on Azzarello called him “one of the best southpaws ever developed in this part of the country.”
Holy Cross High School coach George Digby asked Azzarello to play with the Holy Cross-sponsored Comiskey’s American Legion team beginning in 1942. He ultimately became one of their best players, as he was named to the city’s All-Legion teams in 1943 and 1944. Comiskey’s defeated Baton Rouge in 1944 for the state title and fell one game short of getting to the American Legion Little World Series.
Amateur and professional baseball in New Orleans was in its heyday during the 1930s and 1940s. Azzarello was one of the home-grown stars who helped make it an exciting era to follow the game in the Crescent City.
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New Orleans baseball historian
Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.