Milt Bocek could hit. Softball, baseball, it didn’t matter. If you had a team, you wanted Milt. And in the summer of 1933, Bocek found himself a bat for hire to any number of softball and baseball teams near his hometown of Cicero.
He was the kind of hitter, whose prowess at the plate was the talk of the local tavern”the local tavern where none other than Lew Fonseca, manager of the Chicago White Sox, stopped by to refresh himself after hot, mostly aggravating days at Comiskey Park.
“The bartender served Fonseca and told him so many times about my hitting ability that I got a tryout with the Sox,” said Bocek, now 93. He and his wife, Victoria live at the Woodlands at the British Home in Brookfield.
“We went to the empty ballpark,” he continued. “The Sox manager sat on the bench, and had some pitchers pitch me batting practice. I hit four or five into the upper deck, and that put me on the roster.”
In a heartbeat, Bocek went from the sandlot to the Major Leagues, hitting the road with the Sox for their season-ending trip away from Chicago in September of 1933. In Cleveland, he recalled walking out onto the field of the cavernous new Municipal Stadium and hitting his only major league home run off then-rookie pitcher Thornton Lee, a future all-star as a member of the Chicago White Sox. It was the only home run Lee surrendered in three starts that fall.
Bocek also remembered the first time he was penciled into the starting lineup, for a game at Yankee Stadium against such greats as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and that day’s pitcher, future Hall of Famer Red Ruffing.
“I was 2-for-3 with a single and a double,” Bocek said. “We won 4-3.”
Recalling his teammates, he pointed to pitcher Ted Lyons, a future Hall-of-Famer, as one of his favorites.
“Ted Lyons was always the man I idolized,” Bocek said. “He was always such a gentleman and a heck of a pitcher.”
In 1934, he recalled that his roommate was Zeke Bonura, then a rookie first baseman.
“I smoked, but he wouldn’t let me smoke in the room,” he said. “He was a good hitter.”
And he remembered another Hall of Fame teammate, Luke Appling, as “a regular guy, happy-go-lucky.”
In 11 games with the White Sox in 1933, the 21-year-old outfielder hit .364. He went to spring training with the White Sox the next spring, in 1934, and made the big league club. But after an 8-for-38 start in 19 games (.211 batting average), the club sent him to the minor leagues.
Over the next six years, he spent time with a variety of teams all over the nation, including Sacramento, Cedar Rapids, Kansas City, and Columbus. In October of 1937, the St. Louis Cardinals picked Bocek up in the minor league draft from the New York Yankees, who had acquired Bocek’s rights earlier.
During the off-season he returned home to Cicero and worked as a draftsman for the Danley Machine Company. He had received his training as a mechanical engineer at the University of Wisconsin. He quit school when the White Sox signed him as he was about to enter his senior year.
In 1940 as a player/manager of the Gastonia (North Carolina) Cardinals, Bocek hit .364 with 13 home runs. Despite some success at the minor league level, including stints in the American Association in Kansas City and Columbus, Bocek knew he wasn’t making it back to the big leagues.
“I wasn’t lucky enough to get pulled back up,” he said. “I wasn’t there to try myself out.”
In 1942, he was drafted by the Army and spent the war as an MP in the Pacific, on Guam, the Philippines and finally in Tokyo.
When he returned from the service, the Cardinals offered him another player/manager spot in their minor league system. But the money was bad, Bocek said, so he walked away from baseball, though he continued to play semipro ball in Cicero.
In fact, it was baseball that brought Bocek and his wife of 58 years together.
“My wife’s brother and I played on a semipro team, and one Sunday we were going to the game,” Bocek said. “The wheel came off on their car, and she wound up getting in my car and I took her to the game. I’ve been with her ever since.”
Later he would join his in-laws’ printing business in Berwyn, Physicians’ Record Company, which is still operated by members of the Bocek family. Bocek himself continued to work there until age 88.
Still an ardent White Sox fan, Bocek said that thinks “they’re doing OK” during their playoff run.
“As long as they hustle and keep their heads on their shoulders, I think they can go all the way,” he said.