Grave Story: Benny Zientara (1918-1985)


Here lies Benny Zientara, who played in the majors briefly before embarking on a long scouting career. Zientara played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1941 and from 1946-48 – he spent 1942-45 in the military.

Benedict Joseph Zientara was born in Chicago on Valentine’s Day – February 14, 1918. Both his parents, Walenty (whose Americanized first name was “Valentine,” coincidentally) and Maryanne, had emigrated from Poland. According to the 1920 census, the Zientaras and their eight children were living on Mackinaw Ave. on the South Side of Chicago. Walenty, who was going by William, and oldest son Walter were working at an Illinois Steel plant. Benny was the baby of the family. Two of his older brothers would also make their way into professional baseball. Joe Zientara was an outfielder for the Bassett Furnituremakers of the Bi-State League in 1938-39. Leo Zientara was an outfielder and pitcher between 1928-30.

The men of the family all would work in the steel mill eventually; Benny returned there in the offseason regularly during his baseball career. But while they were growing up in Chicago, there were plenty of opportunities for the boys to play sandlot baseball. Benny and Joe, who were just a couple of years apart, were baseball stars on the South Side, according to a later report from The Daily Calumet. Benny also liked basketball and is likely the Zientara listed in box scores of an Alderman Daily’s team that played in a championship tournament in Calumet City in 1935. On an American Baseball Bureau questionnaire from 1946, he wrote that he played semipro ball for Bush Furniture in 1934-35 and Franklin Union Printers in 1936-37.

Source: The Dayton Herald, April 16, 1948.

Zientara graduated from Bowen High School and debuted in professional baseball with the Dothan Browns of the Alabama-Florida League in 1937. The 19-year-old played in just 15 games but hit .289 with 5 doubles. From there he moved to the pennant-winning Bassett Furnituremakers with Joe in 1938. The team’s manager, Walter Novak, was a Chicago resident who may have helped create a Chicago-to-Basset pipeline that gave several South Siders their start in pro ball. Both brothers made the Bi-State League All-Star Game, as Joe batted .311 on the season, while second baseman Benny hit .296 and added 6 home runs. They both had highlights in the All-Star Game as well, as Benny homered and Joe had a bases-loaded single. The brothers returned to Bassett in 1939 and once again garnered All-Star nominations with batting averages well above .300. The team had become part of the Cincinnati Reds organization. Baseball executive Frank Lane later told the Chicago Tribune that he bought the entire team – for $2,500 – just to get Benny Zientara. Joe left baseball after that season, possibly returning home to help take care of his aging parents. Benny, though, moved up the Class-D League to the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association for 1940.

Source: Ancestry.com

Indianapolis originally agreed to bring Zientara in for a “look,” but he ended up sticking with the team as the regular second baseman. He hit .263 and showed some good defense as well. Newspaper reports were already estimating how much money he’d be worth when the big-league clubs came calling about his contract; the Indianapolis News theorized that he might be worth the considerable price that Louisville got for Pee Wee Reese the previous year.

Zientara rejoined Indianapolis and put on a better show in 1941, raising his batting average to .272. “The Chicago Polish lad had taken on about 10 pounds, and he is a more rugged individual than in 1940, when he led the Association’s second sackers in fielding,” reported the News early in the season. “Benny is valuable as a team man, too, because of his uncanny ability to hit behind the runner when the hit-and-run is on.”

Indianapolis had been an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds up until the Reds terminated the agreement in September of 1941. Before they did, though, they promoted Zientara to the majors. He debuted as a pinch-runner on September 11 and got his first chance to bat as a pinch-hitter the next day against the New York Giants. He took over for starting second baseman Lonny Frey and singled in his second at-bat against reliever Rube Fischer. His first start was a marathon, 17-inning game against Brooklyn on September 15. For the first nine innings, he was the only Red to get a hit off Dodgers starter Johnny Allen, but neither side got a run until Brooklyn’s Pete Reiser led off the top of the 17th inning with a homer off Paul Derringer, the Reds starting pitcher who was still in the game. He was taken out after a couple more hits, and with twilight coming, the game got strange. Zientara and catcher Dick West committed errors on back-to-back plays, and the Reds changed pitchers again, taking out Joe Beggs for Jim Turner. Apparently, the day game had run so long it was in danger of being called due to darkness. The Reds may have been playing sloppy on purpose to lengthen the inning, so the umpires would call the game due to darkness and make the final score a 16-inning 0-0 tie. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher started yelling at his players to strike out and move the game along. Billy Herman finally accommodated him by whiffing to the end the inning, after four runs had scored. Cincinnati managed just one run in their half of the inning to make the score 4-1.

In 9 games with the Reds, Zientara had 6 hits and drove in 2 runs for a .286 batting average. His fielding was a little shaky, but he made a strong impression with Reds manager Bill McKechnie. The skipper was planning on having him back up second baseman Frey to start 1942 before giving him the job entirely. But Zientara was inducted into the Army after the season had ended. He was told to report to his draft board on December 1, 1941. One week later, Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, and the U.S. was drawn into World War II. All those young men who had just joined the military now found themselves preparing for active combat.

Zientara trained at Fort Benning in Atlanta. He was assigned to the Academic Regiment, though he originally was part of an armored division regiment led by Gen. George Patton himself. It was, according to columnist Forrest Kyle, Patton who transferred Zientara to the Academic Regiment. Zientara tried to argue against the reassignment – as much as anybody could argue against Patton. The General explained that there was a “morale factor” involved, as it would be beneficial for the troops in the Academic Regiment have a good baseball team. Zientara played on the regiment’s basketball team, which became one of the best amateur teams in the state, and he also was one of the best infielders among all the Benning teams. The team played and frequently won exhibition games against the Atlanta Crackers and others from the Southern Association. It was during this time that he got some help in his baseball career. On his baseball questionnaire, Zientara listed Basset manager Novak and “Nolan Richarson” as the two people to whom he owed the most in his career. He could be referring to Nolen Richardson, former Tiger, Yankee and Red and a star at the University of Georgia. Richardson lived in Atlanta may have done some work with the Fort Benning teams after his retirement at a player.

Zientara played basketball while serving at Fort Benning in Atlanta during World War II. Source: Atlanta Constitution, February 21, 1943.

Zientara eventually transferred to Europe and played some ball in Germany. He was part of a team that included Harry “The Hat” Walker, Johnny Wyrostek, Heinz Becker, Ewell Blackwell, Rex Barney, Ken Heintzelman and Johnny Beazley. The team went on to win the European Theater of Operations World Series. Meanwhile, the Reds were making plans to put him somewhere in their infield, either at second or third base – provided he was discharged from the Army. Zientara got his discharge and joined the Reds in spring training in 1946, though four years out of professional baseball may have left him a little rusty. He failed to win a job at second or third base and started the season as a Reds backup – and a weak-hitting one at that. With infrequent starts, Zientara’s batting average was well below .200 for most of the summer. He finally raised it to .204 after 3 hits in a July 31 doubleheader against Philadelphia. After that, he spent all of August and September in the starting lineup, and he became one of the Reds’ hottest hitters. He had a 16-game hitting streak in September and finished the season with a .289/.323/.339 slash line – including a .310 mark over the final two months of the season. He proved to be a slick fielder at any position on the infield as well.

Zientara’s fellow South Siders honored their neighborhood celebrity with a “Ben Zientara Day” on September 8, 1946, when the Reds were playing the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Three thousand well-wishers made the trek to the North Side, including friends, relatives, ex-ballplayers, state and local politicians and more. The ballplayer was presented with a new car, a watch and a scrapbook. The Reds lost 4-1, but Zientara played well, scoring the Reds only run, stealing a base and making some fine plays at third base.

After the 1946 season ended, Zientara got married – he met his wife Arline during World War II, as she was a WAC sergeant. They had two sons, David and Robert. Zientara came into the 1947 season as a favorite to play… somewhere. Veteran shortstop Eddie Miller temporarily retired during the spring, throwing the Reds infield into disarray. Miller eventually returned, and Zientara ended up getting the most of his playing time at second base in 1947. He managed his first career run home run against Brooklyn’s Fireman Hugh Casey on June 9, 1947. It was a three-run blast that helped beat the Dodgers 9-6. The word “blast” may be an overstatement, though. According to the New York Times, Zientara “had two strikes on him when his line drive barely cleared the rail in the lower left field stands for the crushing blow.”

Zientara appeared in a career-high 117 games in 1947 and had a slash line of .258/.297/.321. He played 100 of those games at second base and had a .976 fielding percentage, which was about league average. He was tough to strike out – he fanned 23 times in 453 plate appearances. However, he didn’t take a lot of walks (23 bases on balls), and his 108 hits included just 18 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs. His OPS was .618, and his OPS+ was 64.

In 1948, Reds manager Johnny Neun had to choose between Zientara or Bobby Adams as his starting second baseman. He felt Zientara was the steadier player. However, Adams outhit his competition in spring training and continued to rake at a nearly .300 clip during the season. Zientara still appeared in 74 games, sharing time with Adams, but he hit a career-worst .187. He also barely escaped being maimed by a sprinting Jackie Robinson on May 13.

The Reds were in the process of losing 9-3 to the Dodgers that day. Robinson stepped to the plate in the third inning with two runners on base and laid down a bunt along the third base line. Reds pitcher Ken Raffensberger reached it and threw to first base, where second baseman Zientara was covering. Raffensberger’s throw, however, was wild and sent the 5’7”, 165-pound Zientara straight into the path of the 5’11”, 195-pound, former running back Robinson. The resulting collision laid both men out on the field, and both runners scored. Robinson got up, tested a strained shoulder, and remained in the game. Zientara was knocked unconscious and was nearly carried out on a stretcher before he was able to walk off the field under his own power. That was about the time his batting average started to tail off into the lower .200s.

Zientara, left, and Jackie Robinson are left sprawled on the ground after a violent collision at first base. Zientara was knocked unconscious for five minutes. Source: The Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1948.

Zientara was sent to Syracuse of the Eastern League in the spring of 1949. Though he became somewhat of a fixture for the Chiefs over the next few years, he never returned to the majors. Over parts of 4 seasons with the Reds, he had a .254/.293/.304 slash line, with 230 hits that included 29 doubles, 5 triples and 2 home runs. He scored 106 runs and drove in 49. While he never led the NL in any category, he was fourth in sacrifice hits in 1947 with 12 and eighth in defensive WAR in 1946 with 1.4,

Zientara stayed with the Syracuse Chiefs as an active player, and later a player-coach, from 1949 through 1954, when it was an affiliate in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. He remained the type of player he had been with the Reds – solid defensively, tough to strike out and a fair hitter. The Chiefs won the International League’s Governor’s Cup in 1954, and Zientara had three hits in the deciding game, along with a perfect squeeze bunt.

Zientara’s grave at Riverside National Cemetery.

By that 1954 season, Zientara was 36 years old and had become a backup infielder. He hit .230 in 54 games in what was essentially his final season as a ballplayer – aside from a few periodic appearances as a pinch-hitter or emergency pitcher in the ensuing seasons. He was released by the Chiefs in May of 1955 but immediately joined the coaching staff of manager Skeeter Newsome. His minor-league playing career lasted for parts of 14 seasons, and he hit .267, with 1,105 hits.

Newsome and Zientara were released from their contracts at the end of the ’55 season, but Zientara was re-signed and spent three years managing in the Phillies chain, though not as a player-manager. “The Phils wouldn’t let me. They said 20 seasons playing baseball was enough,” Zientara said. He had some good success there and then was hired as a Buffalo Bisons coach in 1959. In November of 1961, the Cleveland Indians hired Zientara as a scout supervisor for Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It was the start of a long second act in his baseball career.

“I’m tickled to death by it,” said Zientara. “It’s a great opportunity for me, and if I do a good job I’ll move up the ladder. This is something I wanted to do for many years.”

Zientara was responsible for Cleveland’s signing of pitcher Ed Farmer in 1967. He later became a scout for the Chicago Cubs and signed pitcher Buddy Schultz in 1972. In 1974, he became the Chicago representative for the Major League Scouting Bureau. He helped to run tryout camps and baseball clinics all around the Chicagoland area. According to the Sporting News, Zientara retired from scouting in 1982, and he and Arline moved to California in 1983.

Benny Zientara died on April 16, 1985, in Lake Elsinore, Calif., at the age of 67. According to Baseball Reference’s Bullpen page, Zientara died of a heart attack. He is buried in Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, Calif.

(Thanks to Rod Nelson of SABR’s Scouts Research Committee for his assistance with this article.)

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