Grave Story: Frank Doljack (1907-1948)

Here lies Frank Doljack, an outfielder who had a five-year career in the majors, and then an improbable but brief comeback nine years later. Sadly, a heart attack at a young age felled him before he could get back into baseball. Doljack played for the Detroit Tigers (1930-34) and Cleveland Indians (1943).

Frank Doljack was born in Cleveland on October 5, 1907, the son of immigrants from Yugoslavia. There are a couple of other Doljacks who played in the minor leagues around the same time, and they were all brothers. Joe was born in 1910 and played from 1930-41, and John was born in 1904 and played from 1926-38. Frank had a total of six brothers and sisters: John, Rudolph, Joseph, Mary, Jennie and Anthony.

Frank Doljack’s name is on the side of the family headstone. The phrase “Naj pocivajo vmiru” is Slovenian for “Let them rest in peace.”

By 1927, 19-year-old Doljack was attracting interest on the Cleveland sandlots. He drove out to California to play winter ball, and on the way back in February of 1928, he stopped in San Antonio, where the Tigers were training. He tried out, was given a contract and farmed out to the Evansville Hubs of the Three-I League, and later Canton of the Central League. There aren’t any statistics available for that year, but he put up pretty good numbers in 1929 with the Wheeling Stogies. In 113 games, he hit .270 and homered 9 times.

Doljack put together an absolute monster season in 1930 for the Stogies. He hit .386, clubbed 15 home runs and added 41 doubles and 13 triples for a .632 slugging percentage. At one point, he confronted a couple of hecklers during a tie game and reportedly said, “I’m the hitter in this man’s league. If that score is still tied when I come up this time, watch me knock that ball out of the park.” It was, and he did, winning the game for the Stogies with a monster home run.

The Tigers snapped him up on August 14. He joined the Tigers when the Stogies’ season was finished and made his debut on September 4 against the St. Louis Browns. The Detroit Free Press reported the next day that the presence of Doljack in a Tigers uniform was one of the few interesting things in a battle between two second-division teams. “Doljack is a recruit outfielder from the Wheeling club. He proved Thursday that he can catch fly balls and return then to the infield with tremendous speed. On the defensive he did nothing to indicate that he batted for a percentage of .369 in the shrubbery, however,” the paper noted, getting his batting average from Wheeling wrong.

Source: Detroit Free Press, March 9, 1931

If Doljack didn’t impress with an 0-fer at the plate in his debut, he made up for it quickly. He got five hits – 2 singles, 2 doubles and home run – in his next two games. He knocked a 3-run home run on September 10 to lead the Tigers to a 4-0 win over Philadelphia. By then, he was being referred to as a “natural hitter” and given the nickname “Dashing Dolly.” It didn’t stick, much to his relief, I’m sure. He his .257 with 3 home runs and 17 RBIs in 20 games for the Tigers, and he was said to have the best outfield arm on the team, if not the American League. A writer for The Tennessean once stated, “He can throw the baseball farther and faster than Buffalo Bill could shoot a Winchester rifle.”

Doljack was said to be a near-lock for an outfield spot in 1928 (he could play all three positions, though not particularly well) with brothers Hub and Gee Walker. He was named Opening Day left fielder, but by the end of July, he was traded to the Reading Keystones of the International League for outfielder George Quellich. In 63 games, Doljack slashed .278/.335/.444, so he was still a fair hitter. He was used primarily as a center fielder, and his defense was positively offensive. He ended up leading the AL with 11 errors committed in center field, and he only played in 43 games there! He may have been better off in right fielder, where he committed no errors in 9 games and had 5 assists. The Tigers already had an established right fielder in Roy Johnson, so Doljack had nowhere to go but Reading.

He ended up spending most of 1932 in the minors as well, playing for four different teams. From the number that are available, he hit pretty well wherever he played, and he was brought back to Detroit in mid-September. He hit .385 with a home run in 8 games to remind the Tigers he was still out there and still a good hitter. It didn’t help his standing, though. Doljack started 1933 in the minors anyway, where he hit .349 in Toledo before the Tigers called him up in July. In one of his first games back, he made a beautiful running catch in left field against the Senators and doubled deep to left, eventually scoring the only run of the game. Doljack spent most of the season over .300 before dipping down to .286 at the end of the year.

To this point in his Tigers career, he’d played in 133 games and slashed .283/.337/.422. Going by OPS+, he was slightly below a replacement-level player, but not by much. He’d earned a full season in the major leagues, and he finally got his shot in 1934. And Doljack… had his worst season as a professional. That’s baseball for you.

Doljack won the starting center field job over Pete Fox, but by the end of April he was hitting in the .150s. He was reported to be on the trading block until he had a 4-for-4 day on May 18 against the Yankees, driving in the winning run with a 7th-inning triple. Aside from that day, Doljack struggled the whole season long, at the plate and in the field. He played a little first base as well and filled in when Hank Greenberg didn’t play in observance of Yom Kippur. He ended with a .233 batting average in 56 games. The Tigers offense, buoyed by the likes of Goose Goslin, Mickey Cochrane, Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer, was the best in the American League, and the team won 101 games and the AL pennant. They lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series in 7 games; Doljack went hitless in 2 at-bats during the Series. He was also rumored to have been involved in a clubhouse brawl with Goslin before one of the games, after he used Goslin’s favorite bat in batting practice and broke it.

In spite of his bad season, Doljack had a devoted fan base… in Yugoslavia. A correspondent for a Serbian newspaper in Pittsburgh covered the World Series for the Politika, the largest newspaper in the Balkans, to chronicle Doljack’s actions. Before the Series started, he was honored at Detroit’s Serbian Hall, along with other athletes of Slavic descent.

Source: Detroit Free Press, April 17, 1934

Doljack’s poor season (and possibly the fight with Goslin) seemed to scuttle his future with the Tigers. He was sold to the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers in the spring of 1935. Doljack initially refused to report unless he was given a share of the deal, but he eventually joined the team and hit .310 with 9 home runs. After that, he played all over the United States, from the East Coast to the West Coast. Between 1935 and 1939, Doljack played on 11 different teams. He had some good years – he hit a career-high 10 homers for the Mission Reds in 1937 while batting .310. That performance earned him a spring training tryout with the Indians, but it never amounted to anything. By 1939, after completing a fair season for the Springfield Nationals of the Eastern League, Doljack was 31 years old. He had offseason jobs in the trucking business and operated a filling station in Cleveland. He also managed (or co-managed, along with Red Sox pitcher Dick Newsome) the career of a light-heavyweight boxer named Lloyd Marshall, whom Doljack discovered while he played for Sacramento in 1936. Doljack sat out the 1940 season to manage Marshall, but he was hospitalized by some unknown ailment at one point. While he was in the hospital, Marshall jumped to another promoter. Marshall would become part of the “Black Murderers’ Row,” a group of African American boxers in the 1940s who were known for their toughness. He’s in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Doljack returned to baseball in 1941 and played for three more teams in the U.S. and Canada. He then sat out all of 1942, and you’d be forgiven if you thought he was done with the game, or that the game was done with him. Instead, the Cleveland Indians surprised baseball by signing Doljack to a major-league deal on June 28, 1943, after he worked out with the team for two weeks. He had been declared 4F by the Selective Service, so perhaps he was the most able body the Indians could find. His stay with the Indians lasted about 10 days. He played in 3 games and was hitless in 7 at-bats, with a walk. He was released to Albany of the Eastern League on July 8 to make way for pitcher Mel Harder, who had been recovering from a broken ankle. Doljack hit .245 for Albany in what would be the last games of his professional baseball career.

Doljack, with the Mission Reds, steals third base. Source: San Francisco Examiner, July 6, 1937

In 6 major-league seasons, Doljack appeared in 192 games. He slashed .269/.329/.398, with 151 hits that included 31 doubles, 7 triples and 9 home runs. He drove in 85 runs and scored 68 times. His minor league statistics are incomplete, but in 13 seasons, he was a .300 hitter.

Doljack was released by Albany in the spring of 1944, and he returned to Cleveland to take a job in the war industry. A lifelong bachelor, he became engaged to Miss Anne Erste and was to have married her in the spring of 1948. Tragically, he died suddenly at his home on January 23 after returning from a visit with his fiancée. He was 40 years old, and his cause of death was ruled to be a heart attack. He had been under treatment for a rheumatic heart condition for some time. He was buried on January 24 in Cleveland’s Calvary Cemetery. He was scheduled to meet with Detroit manager Steve O’Neill that day to hopefully land a minor-league manager position with the organization.

Doljack’s time with the Tigers left two memorable impressions with his teammates. One, he had a quick temper and a quicker mouth. He was in the dugout after Bill Rogell wandered back after striking out with men on base. The dejected player was half-mumbling to himself when he said, “I thought…” Doljack interrupted him by snapping, “Don’t start thinking, Rogell. You’ll hurt the club.”

The other thing was his chronic lateness. He was said to infuriate manager Cochrane by being late to bed, late to breakfast, late to batting practice, etc. Teammate Heinie Schuble once joked that Doljack’s real name was Notgnihsaw Egroeg, or George Washington backwards.

“George was first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countryman,” Schuble explained. “Doljack is last in everything.”

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