Frank Ernaga came to professional baseball as a power hitter at a time when hitting 20 home runs in a season meant something. Signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1953, Ernaga, who played outfield, flashed his power in the minor leagues, once hitting as many as 29 home runs in one season with the Stockton Ports in 1954.
Called to the Major Leagues by the Cubs in 1957, Ernaga made the most of the 44 at bats he was given with the big club, hitting .314 with 2 home runs, including hitting his first off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn in his first Major League at bat. Not many players can claim that they debuted in such an auspicious manner!
Despite his solid debut, Ernaga spent most of the 1958 season with Fort Worth, only getting a total of 8 at bats with the Cubs and picking up just one hit, a single off the Cardinals and Vinegar Bend Mizell. Unfortunately Ernaga did not play in the Major League again.
Ernaga split the 1959 season between the Cubs affiliate of San Antonio and the Charlotte Hornets, minor league team for the Washington Senators. After the season was over he decided he was through with baseball and retired from the game. Although he had only a brief time in the Major Leagues, he did well, collecting 12 hits in 43 at bats for a .273 average to go along with 2 home runs and 7 RBI. He also posted solid numbers in the minors over the course of 895 games, with a .256 average and 122 home runs.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Ernaga and ask him some questions about his career. He still recalls his time in baseball with passion and it was easy to tell how much he enjoyed his time in the game.
How did you first get interested in baseball?: It was from going to school. I went to school with a bunch of kids and we played ball all the time. I probably started playing with the older kids when I was 8 or 9 and then I just liked baseball and we went all the way from 6th grade to high school with the same baseball team, believe it or not.
What was it like getting signed by the Cubs in 1953?: Well I will tell you how it started. I played for the Chittendenville Merchants, a town team near Chittendenville. UCLA had a barnstorming team coming through during the summer and we played them and I got a scholarship to play with them. So I went to UCLA and played for them and then I signed with the Chicago Cubs. They sent me to Stockton, California and then I went to Burlington, Iowa, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Then I went to the Portland Beavers and played with them until April and went up to the Cubs.
Is it safe to assume that hitting a home run in your first Major League at-bat the favorite moment from your career?: Yeah, definitely.
Did you have a favorite city or stadium?: No, I wasn’t there that long. Chicago was actually my favorite stadium I guess you could say. See I only had about 90 at bats in my career. I only played in 20 games that first year and most of that was pinch hitting. I had a great two days. I hit a home run off Warren Spahn the first time, a triple the second time, walked, and popped out. I didn’t play the next day. The following day Juan Pizarro pitched and I had a home run and a double my first two times and then I grounded out and walked and then I didn’t play again for quite a while.
Are you frustrated that you didn’t get more opportunity in the Major Leagues?: Well it’s a lot of politics and I found that out. I probably could have done better if I had gotten a chance to play, but I didn’t really get that real chance. They had their players and that’s who played. See I played right field and the right fielder on the Cubs was Walt Moryn at the time. He was their regular right fielder and I was going to play against left-handers, that was my understanding. I played against Joe Nuxhall the next game I played and I went 0 for 4 and then I played against Sandy Koufax the next time I played. I struck out three times and hit a double and I was sent to the minors right after that. I was told I was going to come right back, but I stayed in Fort Worth until the end of the year. Then I came back at the end of the year and got one hit off Warren Spahn again. The next year they tried to make a catcher out of me. The first thing I did was get a split finger so I was all fouled up for the rest of the season. So that was about it.
Did you have a favorite roommate?: Bob Thorpe out of Stockton… I only played a half a season to start with. The next year I played the whole season at Stockton and I hit 29 home runs and drove in 110 runs. I had a hell of a year and he was a pitcher and he went up to the Cubs…He had a changeup that you couldn’t believe. I played center field that year for Stockton and from center field I could see that ball break and those guys swung at the wind so many times it was unbelievable.
What was it like having Rogers Hornsby as a coach with the Cubs?: Yeah, he liked me. He wanted me to play third base, but it didn’t work out. He was a good guy. If he didn’t like you, he didn’t like you. He was that kind of a guy. But he liked me for some reason.
What have you done since you stopped playing professional baseball?: When I quit baseball I worked for a company as a carpenter. And then one of the partners in the company and I went into partners as general contractors… I was a contractor for probably, oh, ten years. Then I had the opportunity to be an inspector for the school districts, so I became a school teacher employed by the school district and approved by the State.
What do you think of baseball today?: It’s a lot faster game and it’s a lot better game. I think now everybody uses a 32 ounce bat and the ball flying like a golf ball. They should hit good and they don’t hit worth a crap. I don’t know what the problem is. I follow the Dodgers mostly because here in Susanville everybody is a Giants fan so if you want to bet you got to bet against the Giants, so I picked the Dodgers!