As a child, Joseph Sliwka had the enviable opportunity to meet some of his favorite baseball heroes, such as Hall of Fame outfielders Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. The meetings, however, did not occur by chance.
His father, Frank Sliwka Jr., organized and coordinated the Tops in Sports banquet that from 1964 to 2002 recognized the best baseball players in the country. The annual celebration was held the second Friday of January and drew an average of 2,000 attendees.
“He loved baseball, and he loved the interactions with the players,” Joseph Sliwka said, noting that proceeds from the banquet went to the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center after his oldest brother, Francis “Frankie” Sliwka III, died of cancer in 1961. “He always called it a thinking man’s game, and he just liked the camaraderie with the ballplayers. He identified with them, and they identified with him.”
Mr. Sliwka (pronounced SLIF-ka), a former minor league baseball player and an appointee for two Maryland governors, died June 11 at Upper Chesapeake Hospital in Bel Air due to undetermined causes. He was 87.
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who met Mr. Sliwka at one of the banquets during the 1980s and appointed him to the Board of Appeals for unemployment at the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, called Mr. Sliwka’s death “a major loss” for the Polish American community.
“He’s one of those guys — and every community has them, a woman or a man — that has always been around and is always involved,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “They’re always the first to volunteer, to help and always organizing an event for kids or a charity. Every community has these folks. They are the lifeblood, and he was part of the lifeblood of many communities.”
Born Francis Edward, Mr. Sliwka was the eldest of three children raised by Francis “Frank” Sliwka Sr., a Baltimore City police officer, and Sophie Sliwka, a homemaker, in the Upper Fells Point section of East Baltimore. A devoted Catholic who did not miss Sunday Mass until about a year ago, Mr. Sliwka attended Mount Saint Joseph High School as a freshman before transferring to City College High School where he lettered in soccer, wrestling and baseball.
After graduating from City in 1950, Mr. Sliwka, a left-handed pitcher, spurned an offer to attend the University of Maryland and signed with the Boston Braves to play in the franchise’s minor league system.
“Back in those days, money was tight,” his son said from his home in Fallston. “They were still coming out of the Great Depression, and World War II was the only thing to get people out of the Depression. … It was just a matter of either going to Maryland or going out and trying to make it in the big leagues, and I guess he was chasing his dream.”
When the Korean War started in 1950, Mr. Sliwka joined the U.S. Coast Guard three years later, patrolling the shores along the Atlantic Ocean. After marrying the former Hedwig Wojtulewicz in Baltimore in 1955 and getting discharged in 1957, he was released by the then-Milwaukee Braves and signed by the Washington Senators. But he suffered what his son described as a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder and was forced to give up his baseball career.
Mr. Sliwka attended Eastern College (before its merger with the University of Baltimore) and graduated in 1960. Three years later, he graduated from the Mount Vernon School of Law.
After working for the United States Fidelity and Guarantee Company for 13 years, Mr. Sliwka was tabbed by William Donald Schaefer, then Baltimore’s mayor and Maryland’s future governor, as the deputy administrator and jury commissioner of the supreme bench of Baltimore City. During his tenure, Mr. Sliwka allowed Norman Jewison to film his movie “…And Justice for All” starring Al Pacino and Jack Warden inside the courthouse, staying there late so the director could film scenes.
As a show of his appreciation, Mr. Jewison offered Mr. Sliwka a role as a clerk. “My father was flabbergasted,” his son said.
After his term ended in 1980, Mr. Sliwka managed Martin’s in Baltimore and Overlea Caterers, bought Renee’s Restaurant and Lounge in Lansdowne in 1983 and then sold it in 1994, and helped Joseph Sliwka run The Barn Restaurant and Crabhouse in Carney.
From 2003 to 2009, Mr. Sliwka worked on the Board of Appeals. Mr. Ehrlich said he was fully aware of Mr. Sliwka’s work for Mr. Schaefer.
“I didn’t look at party,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “I knew that he was a really good guy and that he had integrity. Being a Schaeferite in my world was a good thing.”
Mr. Sliwka said his father also looked beyond political affiliation.
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“It didn’t matter which party,” he said. “He was a big Schaefer guy and a big Ehrlich guy. If he liked you, he would go work for you. That’s the way he was. He did like to stay involved in the local issues and the community issues.”
Mr. Sliwka recalled his father being awarded a citizen’s citation in 1966 by the Baltimore Police Department for disarming a city bus passenger who was waving a handgun. That act was typical of his father, Mr. Sliwka said.
“My father was one of these people that was the most optimistic, proactive, never-say-no doers,” he said. “If you told him that it couldn’t be done, he would get it done. And that’s why he liked working for Schaefer so much. When he ran the city, that’s how he ran it. ‘Do it now, just get it taken care of.’ My father had the same mentality and attitude.”
In addition to his wife of 64 years and son, Mr. Sliwka is survived by children Anthony of Ocean View, Delaware, John of Manchester, Frances of Baldwin and Christopher of Forest Hill; sister, Sister Marlene Marie of Lodi, New Jersey; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandson.