As a boy, Gus Zernial and his pals would excitedly watch baseball games through knotholes in an outfield fence in Beaumont, Texas. He daydreamed of becoming a major league player and he did. No one could have envisioned that Zernial would be instrumental in bringing minor league baseball back to Fresno after he finished an eleven-year big league career from 1987 to 2002 with the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, and Detroit Tigers.
When the handsome, non-smoking, non-drinking Zernial was a major league outfielder, baseball was huge. An all-round athlete, he played end, forward, and first base respectively for his high school football, basketball, and baseball teams. The physically impressive teenager grew to be a rock-muscled, 6'3" and 220 pounds with power at the plate, a strong throwing arm, and good speed. The right-handed Gus swung for the fences and home runs were his calling card. Zernial's deceptive .265 major league career batting average during 1,234 games included 237 home runs and 776 RBIs.
He led the American League with thirty-three home runs and 129 RBls in 1951 after the Chicago White Sox traded him to the Philadelphia Athletics. Big league fans were delighted with Zernial's power hitting-four homers once during a doubleheader. Zernial is in the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, even though he never played an inning in Fresno, but old timers still remember when he headlined for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. Zernial earned his spot in the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame due to his fundraising effort in promoting the return of baseball in Fresno.
After he retired, Zernial became a play-by-play radio and television broadcaster for Fresno State games from 1972 to 1976. It was a good life and local devoted sports fans were soon familiar with Zernial's trademark exclamation, "Folks, it's going to be a barn-burner!" But something happened in 1987 that just "stuck in Gus's craw." The Li'l Giants, Fresno's Class 'A' California League baseball team, moved to San Jose. That was not acceptable to Zernial who felt that Fresno deserved to be a Triple-A Class city. The Tucson Grizzlies moved to Fresno, but the team played to sparse crowds at Fresno State's on-campus ballpark. Gus lobbied for the construction of a new baseball facility that would increase interest in the game. Gus finally won the attention of city council, who approved the building of a downtown stadium in 1998. Construction began in 2001, and in 2002, the Grizzlies drew 563,097 fans, averaging 8,000 in attendance per game, the ninth highest head count in the nation's minor leagues.
Zernial quit broadcasting in 1993 and was in charge of the marketing and community fundraising development for the Grizzlies until 2003 when he retired again. As for his own professional baseball career, Zernial began in 1942 with Waycross of the Georgia-Florida League. He hit .286 in ninety-five games before being released. He joined the U.S. Navy, serving as a radio operator for three years aboard five battleships, and was discharged in 1945. In 1946, Zernial resumed his ball playing career with Burlington of the Class 'C' Carolina League, hitting .333 including forty-one homers and 111 RBls plus a .649 slugging percentage and ten stolen bases. In 1947, Zernial only went to bat four times for Baltimore of the International League before being traded to Hollywood of the PCL. He batted a career high .344 in 1947, then led the league in 1948 with 237 hits and 156 RBIs.
During one stretch, he hit home runs in four successive at-bats during two games against the San Diego Padres. For the season, Zernial batted .322 with forty home runs and forty-seven doubles. It was during his stint with the Twinks that announcer Fred Haney nicknamed Zernial "Ozark Ike," a mountain boy comic strip character. Gus was flattered by the comparison and didn't object. Gus moved up to the big leagues in 1949 with the Chicago White Sox, hitting.318 in seventy-three games after missing the first two months with a broken collar bone which he fractured again in 1954. That was the way he played, diving for rocketing fly balls. He led the American League with eighteen put-out assists in 1951 and was among the assist leaders in 1952 with seventeen. His best major league year was 1953 when he batted .284, hammered forty-two homers, and was selected to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati.
In 1953, Gus led the AL in homers until the final day of the season when Cleveland's AI Rosen hit his 43rd round-tripper. During his career, Zernial hoisted multiple home runs in thirty-two games, nine of them with the bases loaded, and two of his 237 career homers were inside-the-park shots with ten more as a pinch-hitter. Zernial was selected to the Philadelphia Athletics All-Century Team in 2000 and played on the same field as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Joe DiMaggio and that was good enough for the boy with big dreams from Beaumont.