Belter Grins Through the Tears: The Tale of Don Hoak and Jill Corey

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:57

    Even drunk and disorderly in Hell's Kitchen, there is no escaping legendary sportswriter Jimmy Cannon. From one of his patented "Nobody Asked Me, But..." columns: "I still get a wallop out of watching the lights go on as the dusk sifts into Broadway." It was also a wallop I used to enjoy while toiling so vacantly at an advertising trade journal in 1515 Broadway in the middle ofTimes Square, pre-ESPN Zone?way back before MTV's TRL and the whole "1515" studio bubble concept. But this is a baseball story, not a media-on-media pundit-bashing roundup to be filled with five-hyphen sentences about MTV's "programming."

    I guess I was in search of that Cannon wallop, or at least its reverse: I wanted to see the lights go off at dawn. I guess that's why I was staggering along W. 46th St. after a currency-squandering bachelor party epilogue at Private Eyes in Hell's Kitchen. It was a combination shuffle/stagger through the forgotten tourist transient thoroughfare known in Alliteration City planning circles as "Restaurant Row." It's lined with laminated carny-barker menu posts and their gimmicks galore. A bunch of before- and after-theater prix fixe fixations scar this corridor. For some reason, it's got those special extended curbs stained with distant memories of the time the Guardian Angels came to the "rescue" of this bland iceberg lettuce side-salad of a street.

    My eyes caught a familiar face tacked on a placard in a step-down foyer of Danny's Skylight Room. It was the standard lounge singer headshot, except this one was a crooner?a belter?from Pittsburgh. Attempting a comeback, she is, as I'd seen in Cindy Adams' Post column a while back. She's Jill Corey (or, "You're Jill Corey" as Cannon would put it). Corey's stands out because she's connected to a baseball tragedy?an askew heartbreak mishap from the late 60s?and she still wears it on her gilded sleeve.

    Corey is a coalminer's daughter from Avonmore, PA, and was a budding teen star in the 1950s. She belted out hits like "Let's Go to Town" and "Let It Be Me." Her preference is the music of Harold Arlen?she considers him to be good luck. Corey was the youngest singer to headline the Copacabana; Gordon Parks shot her for the cover of Life magazine; she sang on Dave Garroway's hit television show and starred in the 1958 musical film Senior Prom.

    It was Garroway who gave Corey her stage name. She had arrived in New York in the early 1950s as Norma Jean Speranza. The story is that Garroway promptly festooned her with a new name by picking one out of the phone book.

    It wasn't long before the perky ingenue?who was in great demand at Gotham nightclubs like the Blue Angel?met the third baseman of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was fellow Western Pennsylvanian Don Hoak. It was the very special year of 1960. They met during a promotional event at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. Hoak swept her off her feet, even convinced her to drop her Brazilian diplomat boyfriend named Antonio Taverez (of course no relation to the future Bucco and Mets shortstop Frank Taveras). Hoak and Corey married 16 months after they met.

    So the decade started out grand for the third baseman and the lounge singer. She was in demand in New York, and he was wearing a glittering World Series championship ring as the Bucs had upset the powerhouse Yankees in October of '60. But as one of Harold Arlen's most popular tunes would foreshadow, "Stormy Weather" was indeed ahead for the couple.

    Hoak played his baseball in overdrive. A 10-year big-leaguer with a career .265 average, Hoak also had a World Series ring from the '55 Brooklyn Dodger squad. In 1959, he led Pittsburgh in hits with 166. In the infamous 1960 World Series (the one that so upset big fat Stephen J. Gould to the point where he insulted Bill Mazeroski's name in Ken Burns' baseball documentary), Hoak had a key single late in Game 7 that kept the Pirates' rally against the Yanks alive. It was the same Game 7 that ended so sweetly with a home run at 3:37 p.m. over Yogi Berra's head in left at Forbes Field. It was hit by the unlikely slugger Mazeroski, known more as a gloveman.

    Other people know Hoak's name from a throwaway line in the movie City Slickers. As a young man, the feisty Hoak tried his hand at boxing and earned the nickname Tiger. Roger Kahn described Hoak's tenacity in his classic Dodgers book The Boys of Summer: "[Hoak] raged several times a day, as others might take meals, or yawn. Hoak had fought professionally in Pennsylvania and when he became angry?at a train schedule, at an umpire or at the color of the sky?he cocked his fists."

    Hoak retired in 1964, did some coaching in the Pirates system, had a daughter with Jill?all the while with his eyes on the managerial post of the big club. The same big club that was, at the end of the 1960s, about to christen a new concrete donut stadium called Three Rivers (which will thankfully be destroyed in 2001). In the fall of 1969, the Pirates had been going through managers like steelworkers going through bargain rack Murphy Mart boots, and the skipper's job was again up in the air. Hoak was in the running, hoping, waiting...but on Oct. 9, 1969, the official nod went instead to Danny Murtaugh, who was returning for his third of four different shifts as Bucco manager. Hoak couldn't believe he'd been snubbed. Neither could Jill. She'd already put her hair up in rollers, preparing for the press conferences and waves of adoration from Pirate fans and the rest of the league.

    Hoak, 41, died the same day it was announced that Murtaugh got the job. His demise culminated a day swirling with frustration. After getting the bad news from his wife (with no call from Pirates officials), he was on hand to witness his brother-in-law's Buick Riviera being stolen from the driveway in suburban Pittsburgh. Raging against the machine, an infuriated Hoak gave chase. It was while trying to catch the car thieves that Hoak keeled over with a heart attack. To this day, Jill Corey claims Hoak died of a broken heart because the Pirates had snubbed him. "She's still ticked at the Pirates,'' Cindy Adams reported in her column.

    After Hoak's death, Jill gave up her singing career. She had a daughter to raise. They moved to a quiet corner of Connecticut.

    By the mid-80s, Corey decided to make her first comeback try. But in the wake of Don's tragic end, Corey's happy songs of the 50s were apparently transformed into sad numbers. A mention in the cabaret column of The New York Times had this headline: "Belter Grins Through the Tears." The Times writer noted how Corey sang "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top"?a joyously serene standard from Oklahoma!: "[She] turned it into a neurotic tearjerker about being too happy." Corey still has emotive power, the reviewer noted, but "she tends to look for darker shadows even in songs that don't have them." Her torch song voice was earlier described by the Times as "containing a barely suppressed sob."

    In 1988, Corey had her eye on Broadway. That year she told Newsday: "It's been a long haul back since Don's death. But I've found myself again. And that feeling is great." Now, with a new century on the wall calendar, she's still trying to come back. If Jesse Orosco's still at it in St. Louis, then hang on Jill Corey. Maybe she's tied the game and there's a Bill Mazeroski stepping up to the showbiz plate one more time. Those "barely suppressed sobs" match those of Pirates fans who've suffered through a decade of frustration, including Sid Bream's slide across home plate to give the hated Braves a come-from-behind win and trip to the World Series in Game 7 of the '92 NLCS. Bucs fans are now pinning their hopes again on a new stadium and probably on a new manager as well. Who will be broken-hearted this time around?

    Refer once again to the great Cannon and a column he titled "The Fog of Time." It leads: "The fog of time conceals the filth of the vanished years. Distance donates a bogus tranquillity. Memory holds on to the exciting matters and the pleasant ones..."

    The beauty of this business is that Cannon?who definitely saw Hoak play third?probably also saw Corey perform?maybe she even sang "Love Me to Pieces"?at one of the nightclubs in old New York. Maybe it was even a club in proximity to the present-day Restaurant Row, which pretty much says it all when it comes to bogus tranquillity.