When he is on a baseball field Don Hoak, the third baseman of the Pittsburgh Pirates, is not a pleasant man. He is cruel and vulgar and aflame with hate. Nothing is more important to him than winning, and if it means telling his own tired pitcher that he is a coward in order to goad him into one more strong inning, then he does it. Let the pitcher despise him, as long as he retires the side.
Pirate pitchers do not despise Hoak, nor do any of the other players, for that matter. Most of them have been cursed, insulted or challenged by Hoak, and perhaps they have hated him briefly, but they realize they have been better players and a better team because of it. "He carried us last year," says one Pirate. "He kept us alive. We couldn't have won the pennant without him."
Off the field, dressed in a navy-blue jacket with gold buttons, Hoak looks like a young businessman on a suburban weekend. His hair is light and crew-cut, and his eyes are a cool green. He has a wide mouth, perfect for grinning or, if necessary, sneering. The only clue to his roughneck personality is a dent on his nose about halfway down, the result of multiple breaks.
Hoak contributed much more than his fiery spirit to the Pittsburgh cause last year. He hit .282, fielded magnificently at third and was almost invariably involved in the Pirates' late-inning rallies. This season the Pirates have been struggling to regain the 1960 magic, but Hoak has been better than ever. His .340 batting average leads the league and confirms his right to blast his teammates whenever he feels they are dragging.
July 2, 1961
Hoak doesn't needle all of the Pirates. Men like Vernon Law, Elroy Face, Bob Skinner and Bill Virdon are quiet, determined competitors who are always bearing down. Dick Groat, the team captain, needs no prodding either. On the contrary, Groat is so intense that Hoak often tries to make him relax.
Pitchers, apart from Law and Face, are his prime concern. "It seems like I'm always saying, 'Hoak comes over to the mound,' " says Bob Prince, the Pirate TV and radio announcer. "Some of the wives of the other players have complained to me about the number of times I mention Hoak. It's just that he's always doing something, and I have to report it."
Smoky Burgess and Dick Stuart also receive a lot of the Hoak treatment. "Smoky is a great hitter," says Hoak, "but he doesn't always bear down. Once in a while I have to tell him not to let this rinky-dink pitcher get him out." With Stuart, the big, good-natured first baseman, Hoak is merciless. "He really says some awful things to Stuart," says a teammate. Earlier this season Stuart was discovered writing a letter in the dressing room during a game. To Hoak this approaches treason. "I don't see how a guy..." he starts to say, and his voice trails off as he shakes his head in wonder.
Hoak may be rough on his teammates, but he is quick to defend them against outside attack. Early this season Roberto Clemente was knocked down by a Chicago pitcher. On the next pitch Clemente swung viciously and missed. It was an obvious warning to the pitcher against any more close throws. The Cub catcher, a rookie named Dick Bertell, told Clemente he'd better not swing like that again. Clemente said a few words back and was quickly surrounded by Cub players and coaches. Hoak led the Pittsburgh charge. "He was out there all by himself," says Hoak. "Somebody had to go out there and help him out. It all quieted down pretty quick. The next time I came to bat Bertell apologized. I told him to forget it."
When Hoak was with Cincinnati four years ago he "helped out" a teammate in a brawl with Brooklyn and got slugged in the eye from the side by the Dodgers' Charlie Neal. Before Hoak could fight back he was pulled away. After the game Hoak made such bold threats against Neal that League President Warren Giles issued a formal warning. "Hoak hasn't forgotten," says one Pirate. "He's still out for Neal, and he'll get him too."
Hoak has a fanatical desire to play every inning of every game. Recently Manager Danny Murtaugh put Johnny Logan in to replace Hoak late in a game. "Just remember, this is my position," Hoak growled as Logan took over. "I play 154." "We were winning 9-1," says Logan, "a real laugher. And Hoak's yelling, 'More runs, more runs!' "
Since coming to the Pirates in 1959, Hoak hasn't missed a game. Last summer he suffered an injury that would have kept a normal man out of the lineup for a week. A few of the Pirates were invited to a party in a Pittsburgh suburb one Saturday evening; there was a swimming pool on the property, and everyone went in to cool off. Coming out, Hoak slipped on the ladder and opened a huge gash on his right foot. It ran along the top, between the webbing of the toes and down into the sole.
"It was a terrible-looking cut," recalls Bob Prince. "One of the guests was a doctor, and he had his bag of instruments with him. He was going to sew it up, but he didn't have any anesthesia. 'Go ahead and sew the goddamn thing,' Don told him. The doctor started to sew and Don lay there smoking a cigarette. His face was white, but he didn't say a thing. Gino Cimoli looked a little sick and had to leave. I wanted to leave, but I was holding his foot.
"When the doc finished with the bottom he told Don he'd have to take three more stitches along the top and that it would hurt a lot more than the bottom. 'Just sew,' Don told him. When it was over the doctor told Don he wouldn't be able to play for some time. 'Go to hell,' Don said. 'There's a double-header tomorrow, and I play two.' "
Hoak did play two. He taped up his foot and squeezed it into an old, loose baseball shoe. Somehow he managed to keep from limping so that Manager Murtaugh never realized he was hurt. The second game went 11 innings and Hoak singled in the winning run. After the game was over, Hoak sat in his uniform in the dressing room until most of the players had left. When he eased off his right shoe his sock was soaked in blood.
Hoak's almost frightening competitive spirit was probably kindled during his childhood, which he is reluctant to talk about. "There's no point in discussing it," he says. "It would just hurt a lot of people." It has been written and is presumably true that he was born in Roulette, Pa. in 1928, that he joined the Marines at 16 (he lied about his age) and that he took part in landings on Okinawa and Saipan. After the war he wound up in Florida as a professional boxer, had about 40 fights in small clubs, got cut up and had his nose broken a few times and finally decided that baseball was a better way of life.
The Brooklyn organization signed him, and for seven years he struggled in the minors—Valdosta, Nashua, Greenville and Montreal. At Montreal under Walt Alston, now manager of the Dodgers, Hoak made a play Alston still raves about. "Toronto had a runner on third base," says Alston. "They flashed the squeeze sign. I never did know whether Don stole the sign or not, but he came racing in as the pitcher threw the ball. It took guts, because if the batter had swung he might have killed him. But the batter bunted and Hoak was in so close he grabbed the ball, tagged the runner coming home and then threw to first for the double play. I've never seen a play like it."
Hoak finally made it to the Dodgers in 1954, but he never got to play much. The Dodgers had men like Billy Cox and Jackie Robinson to play third base, and besides, as Hoak says, he was not a very good player then. His outstanding achievement was playing the entire seventh game of the 1955 World Series, the final game of the first series the Dodgers ever won. (It is interesting that Hoak wears his Dodger ring, not the one he got for being with the Pirates in last year's Series. "I guess I just got used to the old one," he says.)
The Dodgers traded Hoak that winter to Chicago, where he distinguished himself by hitting .215 and striking out six times in one game. "That's a record," Hoak says, and he can smile faintly when he says it. After the poor season with the Cubs he moved on to Cincinnati where he came under the direction of Birdie Tebbetts.
"Tebbetts taught me everything," says Hoak. Birdie changed Hoak's batting stance, telling him to stand up straighter at the plate. He also told Hoak that he was a better player than he thought he was. Hoak hit .293 for Tebbetts and drove in 89 runs. Not long ago Hoak was discussing players who don't hustle. "I can't understand a player who won't give you 90 feet [i.e., run out a fly ball]," he said. That used to be one of Tebbetts' favorite expressions.
On to Pittsburgh
Tebbetts reluctantly traded Hoak, along with Harvey Haddix and Smoky Burgess, to Pittsburgh for Frank Thomas in 1959. It was, of course, a fine trade for the Pirates since all three players contributed to last year's success, capped by the scrappy victory over the Yankees in the World Series. Hoak, jabbing in the needle, still refers to the Yankees as a "second-rate" team.
This season the Pirates have hardly been first-rate themselves. Missing is the ninth-inning rally that converted so many of last year's apparent defeats into victories. "I think they got fat heads," says a Pittsburgh cab driver. "They all have radio shows and commercials." Attendance is off at Forbes Field, and some of the players have noticed more boos than a year ago.
The Pirates, quite naturally, deny they have gone soft. "If anything," says Hoak, "we are trying too hard to repeat. Besides, we're not in a bad position. I hate to knock another club, but I think Cincinnati will fold. We'll be up there. There's nothing wrong with us that a good Vernon Law won't cure." This seems true enough. The Pirates, after 60 games this season, had lost six more games than they had last year. Law was 11-2 after 60 games last year. This year he was 3-4. If Whitey Ford had the same record, the Yankees would be in the same trouble. Law has been having pain in his right shoulder, but no one has been able to diagnose the cause. Returning to Pittsburgh on a bus the other night, Danny Murtaugh said to him: "Deacon, if I thought it would do you any good, I'd take you out and get you drunk."
If Hoak thought it would do any good, he'd go along and pick up the tab. He is a noted check grabber. He is also an inveterate gambler. Dick Stuart, the unofficial major league Indian wrestling champion, has whipped Hoak in under three seconds, yet Hoak is willing to bet a sizable sum that he would not lose a rematch. "He wouldn't lose, either," says his friend Prince. "He might have to rabbit-punch Stuart, but he wouldn't lose. Hoak will never believe anyone can beat him at anything. If you do beat him, he just says, 'O.K., now you only have to do it twice more to prove you're better.' That's the way he is."
Even Hoak's closest friends have found him a difficult person to understand. His personality can change with the wind. He can visit a children's hospital, be warm, gentle and encouraging, then go out on the sidewalk and unleash a torrent of foul talk that would drive a sailor to cover. "The other night," says Prince, "I had to drag him away from some guy he wanted to fight. A minute later he was crying his heart out."
Recently, Hoak spent an evening in the home of Jim Woods, another Pirate announcer. Hoak was growling about something when Gwen Woods spoke up. "You may act mean and tough, Don Hoak," she said, "but I think you have a soft heart." Hoak flushed and glared at her. "Go to hell," he said. Then he hurried over to the corner of the room to mix himself another drink.