Don “Tiger” Hoak

Grave of Don Hoak, Fishing Creek Cemetery

The sign for Fishing Creek Cemetery came as a relief as I had been dodging potholes on the narrow roads leading into the region north of Roulette. The small cemetery was surrounded by a chain-link fence; the gate held shut by an old piece of rope. The gate creaked loudly as I opened and stepped through, shut it behind me and returned the piece of cord to keep it closed.

Scanning the small cemetery, I could see the grave I had come to visit. Moving carefully among the stones, I walked to the southern edge of the small cemetery to a grave that stood at the border of the sacred plot. At the top of the small stone was a baseball and beneath the name were two baseball bats crossed in the form of an “X”. Here, far away from the crowds he once played for rests major league baseball player, Don Hoak.

Donald Albert Hoak was born in February 5, 1928 in Roulette, the second of three children to Andrew and Orissa Hoak. Unlike a lot of baseball players of the time, little exists of his childhood and school years. It is known he attended Roulette High School where he played football and baseball. On February 27, 1945, while he was still in high school, Hoak enlisted in the US Navy in the midst World War Two. He would be discharged from service the following year and returned to Roulette.

It was during his military service that Hoak’s athletic ability in baseball was noticed. After being discharged, he sought out the managers of the Olean (New York) Oilers where he was quickly signed and became a part of the Brooklyn Dodgers system. In 1947, he started working his way up the system by starting with the Valdosta (Georgia) Dodgers. That season, he played third base and batted .295. The following season he was moved to the Nashua (New Hampshire) Dodgers. Note: The Nashua Dodgers are recognized as being the first professional baseball team to play with an integrated roster.

On August 14, 1950, Hoak wed Phyllis Warner – also from Roulette – in a most unusual ceremony. Hoak, along with four of his teammates were married at an altar set up on home plate in the La Grave Field, Fort Worth. Nearly ten thousand fans were in attendance to witness the ceremonies. Note: A number of places state this was done by four different ministers of different faiths, but every newspaper I found about the multiple ceremony states the service was performed by Presbyterian minister Reverend Roger Carlson. The other marriages performed during this ceremony were: John Williams and Martha Jo Day, Joseph Torpy and Marilee Cook, and Russell Rose and Patricia Thayer. The Hoaks, who divorced in 1961, would have two children, Kimberly and Donald.

In 1951, Hoak attended the Dodgers spring training and was sent to the Montreal Royals. In his first game with them he hit a home run but after his second game he was sent to St. Paul reasoning that the Royals had already signed a player for third base.

Hoak had talent, but the Dodgers had a lot of talented players on their roster at the time, including third baseman Billy Cox. In 1953, Hoak went up against Cox for the third base position during spring training. Cox retained the position for the Dodgers and Hoak returned to the Montreal Royals. Note More about Billy Cox can be found here: Billy Cox

At the end of the 1953 season, Hoak announced that if the Dodgers had no plans for him on the main roster, he wanted to be traded. The 1954 season would find him on the Dodgers main roster with the help of Walt Alston, Hoak’s manager in Montreal. Hoak was placed on the main roster as Cox’s backup, playing in eighty-eight games that season. When Cox was traded to Baltimore in 1955, Hoak became backup to Jackie Robinson who had been moved permanently to third base. The team finished the year by winning the World Series, the only time the Dodgers won it while in Brooklyn.

Following the winning season, Hoak was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Hoak struggled that season with a low point coming in May when he struck out six times during seventeen innings against the New York Giants. He ended the season with a .215 batting average and was traded to the Cincinnati Redlegs.

On April 21, 1957, Hoak would be involved in an event that would change the rules of professional baseball forever. During a game with the Milwaukee Braves Hoak was on second base with another runner on first and one out. Wally Post hit the ball towards shortstop Johnny Logan. As Hoak ran toward third he grabbed the ball, tossed it to Logan, and ruined what should have been an easy double play. A new rule was immediately enacted stating that if a runner purposely let himself be hit by a ball that both the player who was hit and the batter were out.

That same year Hoak was elected to the 1957 All-Star Team, which was filled with controversy. Hoak, along with six of his teammates were voted onto the team and the starting line-up after Cincinnati newspapers encouraged readers to stuff the ballot boxes. Teammates Gus Bell and Wally Post were removed by Commissioner Frick, but Hoak retained his starting position at third base. This would be his only appearance in an All-Star Game.

The 1958 season found Hoak plagued by injuries and his season came to an end in September with a rib injury. In January of the following year, Hoak was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the trade, Hoak seemed to come to life again, hitting .294 and was given the nickname “Tiger” for his aggressive playing.

And once again, Hoak would be involved in something strange. On May 26, 1959, the Pirates were facing the Milwaukee Braves. Pirates pitcher Harvey Haddix had pitched twelve perfect innings. In the bottom of the thirteenth, Hoak committed a throwing error, ending Haddix’s perfect game and allowing Felix Mantilla to reach first.  Hank Aaron would come to plate and with a single advanced Mantilla to second. When Joe Adcock came to plate, he drove home Mantilla with a double. Adcock had actually homered, but because he passed Aaron while rounding the plates, the home run was taken from him and he was awarded a double.

Hoak’s personal life would change in late 1961. Hoak had divorced his first wife and married singer and actress Jill Corey. Corey, born Norma Jean Speranzo, was introduced to Hoak at a pregame publicity event at Forbes Field. They would have one daughter, Clare.

When the 1962 season ended, Hoak was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Unlike the previous times he was traded, Hoak failed to perform due to countless injuries and by May he had been benched. In July he returned to the starting line-up and ended the season batting .231. Despite his age and health, Hoak managed to make Philadelphia’s 1964 starting roster as a pinch-hitter. He was released from the team on May 18 of that same year. Hoak’s career ended with a .265 batting average, eighty-nine home runs, and four hundred and ninety-eight runs batted in.

Although he was no longer a player, the Phillies kept him as a scout for their upcoming opponents. In 1966 he accepted a position as the third base coach for the Phillies, which lasted one season. He was immediately hired to the Pirates to coach in their minor system.

At the end of the 1969 season, the Pirates had fired their manager and Hoak was among those considered for the job. Hoak was boastful that he had the position, so it came as a shock when it was announced Danny Murtaugh would become the next manager for the Pirates.

On October 9, less than two hours after the announcement that Murtaugh would be the next manager of the Pirates, Hoak would be dead. He was in his apartment with Jill when he noticed his brother-in-law’s car was being stolen. Hoak got in his own car and chased after the car thief. A short while later Hoak was discovered slumped over the driver’s wheel of his car, dead of a heart attack. Hoak was only forty-one years old. Jill would claim that Hoak died of a broken heart after being passed over for the manager position.

I finished paying my respects before I wandered about the small cemetery studying the stones marking the resting place of those who called the region home. I finally made my way back to the gate of the cemetery – it moaned loudly as I opened it a stepped outside. After making sure the rope was going to hold the gate closed, I took one more glance towards Hoak’s grave, leaving him to rest with other members of his family in the rural cemetery that was far from the crowds who once gathered to watch him play.

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