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Verdi's Minor League career had staying power

IL Hall of Famer was in affiliated ball dirt or dugout for five decades
Frank Verdi is known for two pieces of bad luck -- missing out on an at-bat and catching a stray bullet -- but played in nearly 2,000 pro games. (Courtesy of Santino Thomas)
@JoshJacksonMiLB
November 12, 2020

A host of players have piled up astonishing accomplishments over long professional careers on the diamond without making a lasting impression on the game's most celebrated stage. Monsters of the Minors provides introductions to Minor League legends sometimes overlooked by fans of baseball history.

A host of players have piled up astonishing accomplishments over long professional careers on the diamond without making a lasting impression on the game's most celebrated stage. Monsters of the Minors provides introductions to Minor League legends sometimes overlooked by fans of baseball history.

If you wanted to, you could consider Frank Verdi's tale as one of heartbreak.

Verdi's one shot at a Major League at-bat died as he approached the batter's box. On May 10, 1953, Verdi took over at shortstop for the Yankees in the bottom of the sixth inning after Casey Stengel had Joe Collins hit for Phil Rizzuto in the top half of the frame. In other words, Verdi became a big leaguer in the middle of a Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

It was six weeks into his eighth professional season. Verdi had appeared in more than 800 Minor League games. He'd played in towns from Sunbury, Pennsylvania, to Beaumont, Texas, and from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Kansas City, Missouri. He'd come a long, long way from Brooklyn to put on the uniform of the Bronx. But there he was, in a rivalry game at the apex of the Yankees' mid-century glory days. With two outs in the top of the seventh, two batters after a two-run double by Billy Martin gave the Yanks a 5-3 lead, Verdi came up with the bases loaded and appeared to have a chance to put the game away. Instead, Stengel sent Bill Renna in to pinch-hit. Renna grounded out to third baseman George Kell.

That was a Sunday, and the Yankees were off Monday. On Tuesday, they blanked the Indians at home, 7-0, and Verdi did not appear. Wednesday, he was optioned to Syracuse, and he never played in another big league game.

"I don't think he thought about it for a second," Santino Thomas, Verdi's great nephew, said nearly 70 years after the Yankees' 7-4 win that fateful day in Boston. "I'm sure he had every confidence in his abilities and skills and that that wouldn't be his last game in the Majors."

If he ever began to doubt, he never played like it. Frank Verdi appeared in 1,923 Minor League games over 18 seasons, carving out a career on the diamond as lengthy as anybody -- Major Leaguer or Minor Leaguer -- would dare hope for. During an era when middle infielders weren't expected to be heavy offensive contributors, he batted .270 and tallied 20 or more extra-base hits 10 times and 30 or more four times. His skills on defense were his calling card, and he astounded opposing baserunners by pulling off the hidden ball trick again and again -- even after he'd done it enough times to give pause to any opponent who thought about stepping off the bag. During the 1952 Eastern League season alone, he fooled seven runners for Binghamton.

Impressive as his playing career was, it's only half the story for Verdi. Beginning in the 1961 season, he managed 21 Minor League campaigns, plus three in independent ball and several stints in winter ball in three Caribbean countries. He helmed Yankees affiliates for 12 seasons and managed in the International League -- which enshrined him in its Hall of Fame in 2008 -- for 15.

His life in the Minors was clearly rewarding, but for most of it, he seemed one lucky break away from Major League tenure. On Opening Day of the season in which Verdi made his only big league appearance, Stengel floated the notion of trading him to the Philadelphia Athletics. They weren't takers, no doubt in part because Stengel admitted, "I don't know if he'll hit." But in a different system -- one without an infield manned by Rizzuto, Martin and oft-overlooked doubles machine Gil McDougald -- Verdi might well have become a key contributor.

He was immediately recognized as one when he was sent to the Chiefs, for whom he made his International League debut that May and went on to hit .270 with 12 stolen bases in 90 games. The Syracuse Post Standard introduced him to local fans as a "fast, aggressive infielder" and welcomed him to town by reporting he "would be of great value" to the team and was ready to play second base, third base or shortstop. Although he didn't appear at third that year, he did man second and short.

By that point, Verdi already had proven himself not only in the EL but at six other professional stops after garnering attention while playing ball throughout a Navy stint during World War II. In 1948, batting .278 for the Class B Manchester Yankees, he set a New England League record of 66 stolen bases in 126 games. The Portland (Maine) Sunday Telegram reported "no such outright robbery" had been committed on the region's diamonds in decades. He continued to climb through the Texas League, the EL and the American Association until battling for and briefly winning a roster spot with the Yankees in the spring of '53.

From the time he arrived in the IL with Syracuse, he remained at the Triple-A level through 1962 except for 52 games in the Texas League. Playing for the Cardinals-affiliated Rochester Red Wings in 1957, he became an IL All-Star and was named "best hustler" in a poll of managers conducted by The Sporting News.

As a manager, Frank Verdi was known for his passionate disposition. Courtesy of the Rochester Red Wings

Two years later, he made history in a way he would have preferred to miss. Verdi, battling dizzy spells from a beanball, nonetheless joined his Rochester team for a July 1959 series against the Sugar Kings in Havana. Tensions between the United States and Fidel Castro's Cuba were on the rise. The second game went into extra innings, and the clubs swapped outs as midnight arrived. Unbeknownst to Verdi and his teammates, the stroke of the clock brought the sixth anniversary of the revolution. Celebratory gunfire erupted all over the ballpark. A terrified Verdi hid behind a Jeep. Play eventually resumed, but it was stopped after Verdi took a bullet while coaching third base in the 12th inning. He was saved by a batting helmet and luck of positioning -- the falling shot only glanced him. The incident marked the end of the IL in Cuba, but Verdi stayed in baseball into the 1990s.

As a manager, he brought the Yankees organization back-to-back Governors' Cups with Syracuse in 1969-70 and another with Columbus in 1981. (Oddly -- or maybe not, considering the trends of that era in Bronx Bombers history -- that crown got him relieved of his duties. Columbus GM George Sisler told _The New York Times_, ''From a Clipper standpoint, he did an excellent job. From a Yankee standpoint, he didn't do the job they wanted.") He also led the Binghamton Triplets to within two wins of a New York-Penn League title in 1966 and was the 1970 IL Manager of the Year for his work with the Chiefs. Over the years, Bobby Bonds, Don Mattingly, Otis Nixon, Mookie Wilson, Ron Washington, Ned Yost and Bobby Cox called him skipper at one point or another.

Verdi died in 2010, leaving a legacy not of one 1953 game in which he almost got an at-bat, but of an entire lifetime in pro baseball.

Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.