Sharpening his professional baseball skills while serving in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, Stanley A. Rojek later played a role in breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier.
Rojek, nicknamed the Happy Rabbit in his playing days, was born on April 21, 1919 in North Tonawanda to Andrew Andro and Pauline Apolonja Rojek, immigrants to the U.S. from Wywala, Galicia in 1905. The Rojeks were carpenters and dairy farmers who operated a dairy distributor, Rojek’s Dairy.
Rojek graduated from North Tonawanda High School on Meadow Drive, where he was a standout in basketball and baseball. While playing semi-professional baseball in Western New York, Rojek caught the attention of an amateur scout of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Dick Fischer. The Dodgers were impressed by what they saw, and in 1939 the team’s general manager Larry MacPhail signed Rojek to the team, where he became an all-star in the minor leagues. He was called up to the majors in 1942, but a greater cause soon interrupted that.
Many MLB players were drafted during World War II, and Rojek was one of them, joining the U.S. Air Force as a technician and mechanic at age 22. Fighting in the Pacific theatre, Rojek was a member of the famous 73rd Bomb Wing, a unit that included numerous other notable MLB players. Though the war interrupted his career, playing overseas while with the Air Force may have made Rojek a better player.
“The war years may have retarded the chances of some young players, but I am one of the fortunate,” he once told Sporting News magazine. “I had the experience of playing with and against seasoned major league stars.”
After he was honorably discharged from the Air Force in December of 1945, Rojek returned to the Brooklyn Dodgers for his rookie season in 1946. Playing as the team’s backup shortstop/second baseman to All-Stars Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Stanky, the Dodgers credited Rojek as being an integral piece of the team’s offense. Though he started rarely, Rojek embraced his role as a backup and provided great supplementary offense for the Dodgers.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson arrived on the Dodgers and broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. The Dodger clubhouse initially opposed Dodgers GM Branch Rickey’s decision to have Robinson join the team. Many of the team’s players, Dixie Walker and Kirby Higbe for example, started a petition to have Robinson removed. Rojek, whose locker was next to Robinson’s, is remembered for opposing this and being one of the very few players who embraced Robinson when he first arrived, helping him overcome the near universal prejudices he dealt with.
Rojek’s support of his teammate was immensely helpful as Robinson won the National League’s Rookie of the Year award and the Dodgers won the National League Pennant. Rojek did not appear in the 1947 World Series as the Dodgers lost to their cross-town rivals the New York Yankees in a seven-game series. The Dodgers traded Stanky and Rojek after the 1947 season in order to make room for Robinson at second base. Rojek found himself in the Steel City.
It was in Pittsburgh where Rojek earned the nickname, the Happy Rabbit. His teammates created it based on Rojek’s somewhat protruding teeth and hoppy defensive style at shortstop. Rojek immediately made an impact for Pittsburgh and 1948 would become the best season of his career. The newly christened Happy Rabbit batted .290 with 51 RBI and 24 stolen bases. However, this was not enough to spark Pittsburgh and the team finished 8.5 games back of the Boston Braves for the NL Pennant. Rojek’s standout season was commended and he finished 10th in that year’s National League MVP voting.
Unfortunately, Rojek was never able to capture the magic of that season again. The Pirates traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1951. The Cardinals only kept him for a single season and traded him to the St. Louis Browns in 1952. After another single season with a new team, the Browns traded Rojek back to the Dodgers. Rojek never played another Major League game and he retired as a member of the same team he debuted with.
After his retirement from baseball, Rojek moved back to his Western New York hometown of North Tonawanda. In 1961, Rojek opened a bowling alley with his brothers Teddy and Tony — Rojek’s Park Manor Lanes. The alley was frequented by Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial, with whom Rojek was good friends. The alley remained open for 25 years until 1986.
Rojek suffered a stroke in 1995. He passed away two years later on July 9, 1997 at the age of 78 in North Tonawanda, the same place he was born. He is buried in the Town of Tonawanda in Mount Olivet Cemetery in the Garden of the 10th Station of the Cross, next to his older sister Julia, who died tragically at the age of 15. North Tonawanda High School renamed their baseball field in his honor in 1998.
Matthew Morris is a Niagara University student.