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Bucky Gleason: Baseball life rooted in WNY leads Danny Ozark to Greater Buffalo Sports Hall

Dwaine Ozark still has vivid memories of being a young boy in the 1950s. Like many kids his age, he loved baseball and had a special affinity for the Brooklyn Dodgers. All these years later, he can still rattle off names of Dem Bums that became living, breathing figures in the scrapbook of his childhood.

There was Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Don Newcombe and Johnny Podres. They were members of the 1955 team that finally beat the Yankees and won the World Series. He knew them while growing up in Vero Beach, Fla., in the shadows of a naval base that the Dodgers had converted into a spring training facility.

"For me, they were just the next-door neighbors," Ozark said this week by telephone. "There was no celebrity status attached to those guys that I recognized because I knew them so well. They were our friends."

See, his father was Danny Ozark, a solid hitter and fielder whose baseball life was rooted in Buffalo. He never unseated Hodges at first base and was less accomplished than the greats of his era. He spent 33 years in the Dodgers organization, beating the bushes for 18 seasons in the minor leagues without appearing in a big league game, before managing the Phillies to three division titles over seven seasons.

Never mind baseball. To his only son, he was a Hall-of-Fame dad.

Danny Ozark died eight years ago in Florida at age 85. This fall, he will be posthumously inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Dwaine, the little boy who remained on his father's hip and still recalls the old wooden barracks and all-you-can-eat mess hall from the earliest days of Dodgertown, is now 67 years old. He will accept the honor on Danny Ozark's behalf.

"It's a tribute to him," he said. "It's a tribute to his parents for the sacrifices they made. I'm truly honored. Our family is honored. My grandson will be thrilled. People don't understand. They say they're going to play baseball and make $10 million a year, but they don't know the background. It was tough, really tough, growing up."

Dwaine Ozark fought back tears while extolling the virtues of his father, a Buffalo native who was born Daniel Leonard Orzechowski in 1923 before his Polish-immigrant parents changed their surname to Ozark. Danny Ozark's widow, the former Virginia Zdinski of Lackawanna, is 94 years old and suffering from dementia.

"It's a shame, too, because she's the one that has the stories," he said. "She has enough to write a book."

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Ozark's tale began in his home on Alexander Avenue, between Walden Avenue and Doat Street, just inside the Cheektowaga town line and a few blocks from the Texaco station his father owned for 35 years. The Ozark boys, Danny and Norm, grew up playing ball anywhere they could find a game.

Danny dropped out of East High School, signed his first contract when he was 18 and played one season for the Dodgers' affiliate in Olean before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1942. He was among hundreds of ballplayers who placed their careers on hold, served their country during World War II and never fully recaptured their ability when they returned.

You can only assume untapped potential was left behind on Omaha Beach while he stormed Normandy in 1944 and six months later during the Battle of the Bulge. An anti-aircraft fighter and infantryman who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, he was like many who spoke little of the war after they came home.

"I wasn't aware of the Bronze Star for years and years and years," Dwaine said. "Finally, one day I said, 'What's this?' He said, 'Oh, I got that from Omaha Beach.' And that was it. He wasn't a braggart of his accomplishments by any means. He was a very humble guy."

It's no wonder. Ozark grew up hungry in the Depression and was hardened by combat. Looking back, maybe the war intensified his appreciation for life and his passion for baseball. He resumed his career at age 22 and embraced minor-league baseball's nomadic existence: Abilene, Texas, in '46, Fort Worth in '47, St. Paul, Minn., and Newport News, Va., in '48.

He reunited with Ginny before the 1949 season. They had met as teenagers in a Lackawanna sporting-goods store while she shopped for roller skates, found one another years later through a mutual friend and quickly married. Together, they built a family and a life in baseball.

Dwaine was born in 1950 and spent the first 13 years of his life following his father to Elmira, St. Paul, Fort Worth, Wichita Falls, Texas, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Macon, Ga., Omaha, Neb., and Spokane, Wash. Money was always an issue, but their lives were rich.

"I remember when he was in Macon, and I would pass out the meal money on the bus," Dwaine said. "It was a buck and a half per day."

In the mid-1950s, Ozark returned to Buffalo during the offseason and worked at Bethlehem Steel to pay the bills. Ginny took a job at Kobacker's Department Store on Broadway to help make ends meet. Family vacations were determined by where they lived at the time as they stretched nickels into dollars.

Ozark nearly walked away from baseball after Dwaine lost an eye in a freak accident at age 6. He attached a glass milk bottle to a high-pressured hose before it shattered in his face. Frustrated with his place in the minor leagues and pondering life without baseball, Danny Ozark continued playing partly because his son loved the game.

"He wanted me to be able to travel with him," Dwaine said. "We played golf every morning and were at the ballpark every night. I couldn't ask for a better life. I had two daughters. If I would have had a son, I would have loved to have handed him to my father and said, 'Raise him the way you raised me.' I really couldn’t ask for more."

Ozark compiled a .281 batting average and 238 homers over 1,590 games in the minors, having been stuck behind Hodges for most of his career and unable to unseat Ron Fairly and Moose Skowron after Hodges' departure. Ozark retired as a player at age 39. In 1963, the following year, he started his coaching career in the Dodgers' organization.

Ten years later, he finally reached the big leagues.

Phillies General Manager Paul Owens, who was born and raised in Salamanca, hired Ozark as manager and watched him steer Philadelphia to three straight division titles, ending in 1978. With the Phillies two games under .500 the next season, Ozark was gone. He managed part of a forgettable year with the Giants in 1984 before fading into history.

By then, his son had become a man.

"It was really nice sitting in a bar, eating dinner and watching the game on television and hearing (the announcer) say, 'Here comes manager Danny Ozark,' " Dwaine said. "The guys at the bar would look at me, then look at the TV and say, 'What the hell?' And I would say, 'Yeah, that's my dad.' "

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