Tuesday, April 6, 2010



Some sportswriters say that he was the best manager in the history of the Mexican baseball leagues. Old time Pirate fans remember Oceak as the first man to shake the hand of Bill Mazeroski as the rounded third base to complete his walk off home run trot to defeat the powerful New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Others, may remember him as the crewcut, gray-haired skipper of the Dublin Irish minor league team way back in 1953.

Frank John Oceak was the most famous person ever born in Pocahontas, Virginia. He was certainly the most famous man to ever hit and throw a baseball from that coal mining town of western Virginia. In 1920, at the age of eight, Frank moved with his family to Cliffside Park, N.J., where he graduated from high school during the height of the great depression in 1931. With little or no decent paying jobs anywhere to be found, Frank Oceak turned to what he loved best - baseball.

The New York Yankees signed Frank to a contract, assigning him to their Cumberland, Maryland team in the Middle Atlantic League. From Cumberland, Frank would play for teams in far away places such as Wheeling, Binghamton, Akron, Norfolk, Beaver Falls, Oil City, Hornell, Lafayette, Fayette, Selma and Keokuk.

Oceak was a decent infielder, leading the Middle Atlantic in fielding for four years, playing both sides of the keystone combo. A fine batting average of .297 was not enough to warrant a promotion beyond the AA level of the minors. In 1936, Frank left the Yankees and joined the St. Louis Browns' farm system. Two years later, the owner of the Lafayette White Sox hired Frank to lead the team in the 1938 season. The Sox went 69-69, not a bad start to a managerial career. In the following season, Frank's Fayetteville Angels finished atop the Arkansas-Missouri League. His Beaver-Falls team lost in the finals of the 1940 Penn State League tournament.

The year 1942 was the turning point on Frank's career. Banned for all of 1941 by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis for assaulting an umpire, Frank joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, a move that would result in more than three decades of an association with the team, except for a brief stint in the armed forces in the last years of World War II and one year with the Reds.

After the war, Frank returned to the managerial reins in Selma, Alabama. After four mediocre seasons, Oceak got the best job of his early career as manager of the Charleston Rebels of the South Atlantic League. On the heels of a poor start to the 1953 season, Frank was demoted to an assignment as the manager of the Class D Dublin Irish of the Georgia State League.

Oceak replaced Johnny George, whose team was two games under .500, on June 18. Leading the Irish that year was Parnell Ruark, one of the franchise's best players ever. Pitching for the 1953 Irish was young Walker "Bo" Whaley, a future Courier Herald columnist. After a 20 and 49-season and a 7th place finish, Oceak's career in Dublin ended on a less than stellar note. Nevertheless, Oceak was promoted to the Brunswick, Georgia team in the Georgia-Florida League.

In his first two seasons in the Shrimp Capital of the World, Oceak's Pirates finished in first place. After disappointing 7th place finishes in Brunswick in 1956 and AAA Columbus in 1957, it appeared that Frank's career as a manager was all but over.

But hold up for a moment. In the 1956 winter season, Oceak's Poza Rico team captured the Mexican League championship. Oceak was coaching a team in the Domincan Republic when his old roommate Danny Murtaugh was named to manage the big league team in Pittsburgh. So, in 1958, Frank and Danny resumed their life long friendship when Frank, wearing jersey # 44, joined the Bucs as third base coach and infield instructor. His pupils were Dick Groat (1960 NL MVP), Bill Mazeroski (1960 Player of the Year), and Ted Kluszewski, whose upper arms were so huge that he had to cut off his sleeves to put on his jersey.

In his first two seasons, Frank's team finished in the upper half of the National League. The year 1960 was to become a different season. It was the year when the Pirates returned to the World Series. The last time the Pirates had been in the series, it was 1927,when they were swept by the Murderer's Row Yankees with Ruth, Gehrig, Lazerri and Combs, Koenig, and Meusel and arguably, at (110-44), the best team in the history of baseball.

The day - October 13, 1960. The place - Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, PA. Pirates go ahead in the bottom of the 8th inning with five runs. Yankees tie the game with 2 scores in the top of the 9th. Bottom of the 9th inning. Score: New York 9 - Pittsburgh 9. The series is tied 3-3. Ralph Terry, for the Yankees in relief, is on the mound. The count - 1-0. Oceak, the third base coach, takes off the take sign. Batting for the Pirates; Mazeroski, hoping for a miracle, got one. Mazeroski swings. He smacks the ball toward left center. It's ------ gone! Home run! The Pirates win the World Series! Fans race toward Maz as he rounds second base, hoping to get a pat on the back or grab a souvenir cap. The first Pirate to congratulate the fine defensive second baseman was his mentor and third base coach Oceak, his own cap on the ground or in the hands of a lucky scavenging fan.

When Murtaugh resigned for health reasons as manager after the end of the 1964 season, Oceak found that the only way he could remain in the major leagues was to accept the offer of the Cincinnati Reds as a coach. Pete Rose credited Oceak with helping him to become a better second baseman just as he did with Bill Mazeroski in 1958, when Maz cracked the starting lineup for the first time.

After one season with the Reds, Frank longed to return to the Pirates, who named him to manage the Clinton Pilots of the Midwest League. Oceak returned to Middle Georgia in 1967 to manage the Macon Peaches of the Southern League. His last two seasons as a minor league manager came in 1968 and 1969 came with the Gastonia Pirates.

When Danny Murtaugh returned to the Pirates in 1970, he asked Frank to come back to the big club and take his old spot in the third base coach's box. The Pirates returned to the top of the National League, capturing first place in the NL East. In 1971, the Pirates returned to the World Series.

In a bit of deja vu, the Pirates and Orioles were locked in tight game with the series tied 3-3. As he congratulated Roberto Clemente as he homered and rounded third to put the Pirates ahead, Frank thought back to the series 11 years before. The Pirates took a two-run lead into the 9th inning, just as they had done against the Yankees. This time they held the lead, winning the game 2-1 and the series, four games to three. Once more, Frank and the Pirates were world champions. Frank Oceak stayed on with the Pirates after Murtaugh retired again.

Frank Oceak, after four decades of playing, coaching and managing, hung up his cleats for the last time following the 1972 season. He died in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on March 19, 1983 at the age of seventy.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Making the Right Call
Color photos @ Referee Magazine, March 2004.

From her very first dribble, Sally loved the game of basketball. And now, some forty plus years later, she has seen millions of dribbles, most of the time making sure that none of them were of the double kind. Today, it is Sally's job to find, train and assign the right people to be in the right position to make the right call all of the time.

Sally Smalley Bell, daughter of Dr. Derrell and Nell Smalley, was born and grew up in Dublin, Georgia. "I loved basketball from day one," Sally said as she thought of the days when she began playing when she was in the fifth grade. "Back then, we played half court, three guards and three forwards, but during my senior year we went to a rover system - two players played full court," Sally remembered.

As he was to millions of other kids back in the 1960s, Pete Maravich was Sally's idol on the court. "I was just totally in awe of his skills. He was so far ahead of his time. It was just amazing to me," said Sally would often hop in her car and drive to Atlanta to catch a glimpse of her hero.

Before she graduated from Dublin High School in 1971, Sally played in the band and performed on the sidelines during half time shows as a majorette. She was captain in her senior year. Her father was a well known and respected veterinarian, a founder of Smalley's Animal Hospital. Her mother's paintings were truly works of art and can still found in places around Dublin.

After Sally graduated from the University of Georgia, she took a job with the Habersham County Recreation Department, doing whatever job she was called upon to do. "One night we had no refs, so I had to call the game," Sally remembered. The coach started screaming at her. His objections, Sally admitted, were probably right. After all, it was her first time as a real referee. And, as anyone whoever slipped on one of those zebra shirts and blew a whistle can tell you, officiating a basketball game is no easy task.

"I went over to the coach and said, 'We may not be right, but you are not going to yell at us. Either sit down and shut up, or leave," Sally ordered. There wasn't another peep from the coach that night. The next day, Sally discovered that the coach, Cecil Huff, who was chewing her out was actually the head of the local high school officials association. Sally had made a good first impression. For, on that day, her career as a basketball referee began. "He called me and asked me to join and I became the first female referee in the Georgia Mountain Officials Association," Bell fondly remembered. The two became mentor and student and very close friends.

Sally even married a referee. Her husband Jack Bell, a Gainesville attorney has been officiating at the high school and college level for several decades. In fact, they met for the first time when they called a basketball game together. "Jack didn't have two words to say to me at that game," Sally told a reporter for Referee magazine. "Jack is basically a shy guy and I was nervous as heck," Sally laughed. But Jack saw something in Sally and asked their mutual friend Cecil Huff for a return assignment. They were married a year or so later.

Determined to succeed, Sally attended every officiating camp she could. "That put me in the loop," Sally said. Assignors in attendance began to notice Sally. How couldn't they notice, she was often the only female on the court. To catch the attention of college coaches, Sally worked AAU summer tournaments. That's when the exposure led to recommendations and then to assignments.

In the early days, Sally worked as many as six to eight games a week. "I just couldn't think of anything I'd rather do," she said. "I became consumed by it. By the end of her seventh year as an official, Sally had climbed the ladder from rec. ball to Division I.

Sally's first big break came in 1984 when she was assigned to call the National Junior College tournaments. She was called back for the next two years.

All the years of hard work and dedication paid off in 1989 when Sally was chosen to officiate the NCAA Division 1 Final Four tournaments. It would be the first of fifteen assignments to the high point of women's collegiate basketball. Only twice (1991-1992) in seventeen years (1989-2005) did Bell not get the assignment for the highly heralded tournament.

Although she didn't make the final four in 1991, Sally Bell received the penultimate honor of being named the Naismith Female Official of the Year. During her first decade and a half, Sally had called games in major conferences such as the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big East.

Reporter Rick Woelfel wrote of Sally, "She is unobtrusive on the court, but somehow she always manages to be in the right place at the right time. What she lacks in pure athleticism, she makes up for with court sense and hustle. In a very real sense, she reads and feels the game, bending with it like a rooted tree in the wind."

Former officiating partner and NBA official Dee Kantner agrees, "When I talk to prospective female officials, I tell them you don't have to be that perfect athlete. Look at Sally Bell, she looks like a housewife out there." Kantner adds, "Her game management skills are subtle. She has a subtle calming presence." Fellow WNBA official Bonita Spence admired Bell's willingness to thank her partners for making calls they saw in her zone while many officials often chastize the partners for calling a play outside of their area.

Perhaps one of the most exciting tournaments came in 1996, when Sally traveled a short distance from home to officiate the games of the 1996 Summer Olympics. She had been to the 1989 Junior World Championships in Spain and the 1990 World Championships in Malaysia and the 1994 Goodwill Games in Russia, but nothing can compare to being an official in the greatest of all amateur basketball games.

Always wanting people to remember that Sally Bell was a good referee, Sally left the game while she on top of her game. Today, Sally serves as supervisor of officials for the Sunbelt, Southland, and SWAC conferences. Her goal is to see the successes of the officials whom she supervises.

In looking back over her career on the court, the biggest difference from when she started until today is the athletic abilities of the players. Sally sees the ability to communicate between partners, coaches, players and supervisors as the biggest challenge.

When she is not working, Sally can be found near a golf course or planning her next trip to golf's Ryder Cup tournament. She hasn't missed a single one since 1997.

So, during the madness of March, let's all salute Sally Smalley Bell for a career well done.