A Tribute to Jim Fregosi

When we were growing up in the early 1970s, we had fun saying Jim Fregosi’s name. It rhymed with Bela Lugosi, one of my favorite stars of the horror genre. Fregosi and Lugosi. We rhymed those names so often that other kids, the ones who didn’t follow baseball, must have thought it was Lugosi who played the infield for the Angels and the Mets.

FregosiThat’s just the kind of silliness we became involved with as kids. While we enjoyed playing games with the names and other such nonsense, we really didn’t know much about Fregosi. At the time we started following the game, he was playing third base for the Mets. We also had little idea who the best shortstop of the 1960s happened to be. It was almost certainly Fregosi, who passed away at the age of 71 on Friday after suffering a series of strokes.

At his peak, Fregosi had no real weakness in his game. He hit with some power, drew walks, had above-average speed, and played a solid shortstop. There were other good shortstops in the 1960s, like Luis Aparicio and Eddie Brinkman and Leo Cardenas and Gene Alley and Maury Wills, but Fregosi’s all-around skills placed him at the top of the list. At one point, he seemed on pace to make the Hall of Fame, but he just couldn’t sustain that level of play into the 1970s.

There’s a tendency for the casual fan to remember Fregosi as the answer to a trivia question: who did the Mets acquire for Nolan Ryan? But that’s a shallow way to look at the situation. Before his game began to decline in New York, partly because of injuries and partly because of his weight, Fregosi was a standout for the Los Angeles and California Angels.

Few people also remember that Fregosi was originally a member of the Red Sox’ organization. The Sox signed him as an amateur free agent in 1960 and sent him to the lower reaches of their minor league system. But then they lost him, with the brand new Los Angeles Angels stepping in to take him in the wintertime expansion draft.

Soon to be 19 years of age, Fregosi wasn’t ready to play in the American League, so he spent the better part of the next year and a half playing for Dallas/Ft. Worth of the American Association. By the middle of 1962, he moved up to the Angels and more then held his own as the starting shortstop.

Fregosi’s first manager, the venerable Bill Rigney, gave him the highest of praise. “This boy is going to be the Angels’ shortstop for many years,” Rigney told The Sporting News. “Next to Willie Mays, he has more ability than any young player I’ve ever managed.”

In 1963, Fregosi played well enough to earn some consideration for league MVP. By 1964, he was a full-bloomed star. He doubled his home runs (from nine to 18) and doubled his walks (from 36 to 72) and posted an OPS of .833.

Fregosi would never match those numbers again, but that was largely because of the declining offensive environment of the mid-1960s. He also had to play his home games in places like Dodger Stadium and Anaheim Stadium, which favored pitchers over hitters. In another ballpark, at another time, Fregosi’s numbers would have looked even more impressive. But when those numbers are taken in context, they reveal that there was no better hitting shortstop from 1963 to 1970 than Fregosi himself. He was no slouch in the field, either, playing his position solidly and smoothly for the better part of a decade. In 1967, the sportswriters acknowledged his fielding ability by naming him the Gold Glove shortstop.

As a member of the Angels, Fregosi emerged as a six-time All-Star and a perennial candidate in the MVP voting. Although Bo Belinsky and Leon Wagner sometimes made more headlines because of their larger-than-life personalities, it was Fregosi who became the Angels’ most popular player while the team struggled as an expansion franchise. He was the most popular, in part, because of his constant hustle and his willingness to play hurt. One sportswriter, the estimable Ross Newhan, called him the American League’s version of Pete Rose.

Not surprisingly, Fregosi brought a set of intangibles to Anaheim Stadium. “It is one thing to say that Fregosi is a great player, but it goes beyond that,” Angels coach Norm Sherry once told Newhan. “He’s a leader, a help to his manager, a guy who will kick the other players in the rear.”

Fregosi remained consistently productive until the 1971 season, when he hit only .233 with five home runs while appearing in just 107 games. He missed a good portion of the season when doctors discovered a tumor in his foot. Fregosi’s struggles mirrored those of the 1971 Angels, whose clubhouse became fractured because of a long and bitter feud involving Alex Johnson, manager Lefty Phillips and the California front office.

Now approaching his 30th birthday, Fregosi’s future concerned the Angels. When the Mets came calling about his availability, the Angels didn’t hang up the phone. They convinced the Mets to give up young and wild right-hander Nolan Ryan, along with three other players, minor leaguers Frank Estrada, Leroy Stanton, and Don Rose. (Yes, the Mets surrendered four players for Fregosi.) It was the trade that amounted to the steal of the century.

The Mets had no need for a shortstop, not with slick-fielding Buddy Harrelson still in his prime. No, they needed a third baseman badly, having ground through 45 players at the hot corner through the first 10 years of the franchise’s history. Mets general manager Bob Scheffing, among others, believed that Fregosi could easily make the transition. Scheffing and his advisors figured that a good shortstop like Fregosi would have little trouble sliding over to third base, a position that is less demanding than shortstop, at least in theory. It all made perfect sense.

Then the situation collapsed.  Fregosi reported to spring training overweight and clearly out of shape, which angered manager Gil Hodges. Still, Hodges did his best to help ease Fregosi’s transition to a new position, hitting him ground balls during each day’s workout. Unfortunately, one of Hodges’ grounders took a bad bounce, hitting Fregosi’s thumb and resulting in a break. Fregosi missed the rest of spring training with a cast on his hand.

Attempting to come back too quickly, Fregosi struggled at the plate in 1972. He batted only .232 with five home runs and struggled in the field. After a poor start to the 1973 season, the Mets gave up hope on Fregosi and sold him to the Rangers a few days before the June 15 trading deadline.

Realizing that Fregosi was no longer an everyday player, the Rangers used him in a utility role. He played as a backup third baseman and first baseman and did well for Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin. Playing for Martin in 1974, he hit 12 home runs as a bench player, making him one of the more productive reserves in the American League.

Fregosi remained with the Rangers until June of 1977, when Texas traded him to the Pirates for another utility player, Ed Kirkpatrick. He performed admirably for the Pirates, putting up a .908 OPS as a backup in 1977 before slumping the following spring.

As he was seemingly winding down his career as a utility player with the Bucs, he received a midseason call from the Angels. Owner Gene Autry wanted him to return to the organization as the Angels’ manager. Fregosi already had experience, having worked as a winter league skipper in 1970. He faced a tough decision, but he decided to put away his bat and glove and take on the full-time challenge of managing.

As much as any player I can remember, Fregosi’s appearance changed significantly during the second half of his career. He grew a mustache, wore his hair long, and put on a lot of weight, especially around the mid-section. He also suffered a series of injuries and ailments, including the tumor in his foot. His game never really recovered after that.

Fregosi found new life as a manager. An intelligent and natural leader, Fregosi led the 1979 Angels to the AL West title, an impressive accomplishment given how the team had underachieved prior to his arrival. He also proved to have the right personality for a wild group of 1993 Phillies, guiding a flawed group to the World Series. He was not a great manager, but he was considerably better than average and managed to last for 15 years, an impressive length of time in an industry that is not always kind to its field leaders.

I never interviewed Fregosi, partly because his physical appearance and his deep, booming voice intimidated me. My loss. I’m told that he was one of the most open and accessible people in his dealings with the media, first as a manager and then as a longtime scout with the Braves. David May Jr., a scout with the Blue Jays, fondly recalls his encounters with Fregosi. “He was welcoming [and] self deprecating but at the same time extremely cocky and funny,” says May. “I considered him to be one of the true characters in the game.”

Without question, the game will miss Jim Fregosi.

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Comments

  1. Chris J. said...

    He played his last game on May 31, 1978. He managed his first game on June 2, 1978. He changed teams, too (PIT to CAL). And the Angels had a day off on June 1.

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    That is an amazing turnaround, Chris. I can’t remember another switch like that from player to manager in which the guy actually switched teams.

  3. said...

    What was particularly flawed about the 1993 Phillies? Fregosi was a great manager for that group of strong personalities, but as a team they were deep and had no real weaknesses. A strong lineup top to bottom, great bench, excellent 1-2 starters. I suppose you could say that didn’t have a stellar bullpen, but that doesn’t mean they were “flawed.” I’m guessing that you look down on them because of the facial hair and the dirt and outspokenness and wanted to characterize them as flawed in order to pay extra credit to Fregosi. Both were unnecessary, Fregosi deserved tons of credit despite them not being flawed.

  4. Dennis Bedard said...

    Funny you mention Bella Lugosi. Fregosi/Lugosi. There was a very popular diet soda in the mid 60′s names Fresca. My mom drank it. I hated it. But I always thought of Fregosi’s baseball card when I saw one of those green tinted bottles in the fridge. Regarding the Ryan trade, it is easy to look at it in the rear view mirror. But based on the information available to the Mets, a pitcher rich team already, it is easy to see why they did it. Ryan could very well have been another Ryne Duren or Steve Barber. By luck, he emerged into a HOF pitcher (and probably overrated) who specialized in the types of things that get a lot of media attention: strikeouts and no hitters. As a footnote, Don Kessinger should get honorable mention in your list of better than average 60′s shortstops. And kudos for mentioning Bo Belinksy. A poor man’s Joe Namath,

  5. AndrewJ said...

    Didn’t know that about Gil Hodges inadvertently injuring Fregosi. Turns out Fregosi never played a regular-season game under Hodges — Gil died of a heart attack at the end of 1972′s spring training.

  6. Dennis Bedard said...

    To AndrewJ: Hodges managed Fregosi during spring training in 1972. That is when the injury happened. Hodges died in the first week of April, 1972. Bruce’s research is dead on here. But then again, it always is.

  7. mike said...

    I wonder about the ‘steal of the century’ label. Sure, it turned out poorly for the Mets in hindsight. Certainly Nolan Ryan struck out a lot of hitters and pitched an unbelievable seven no-hitters and had a great work ethic. But myth-making and public image aside, he walked a lot of hitters and was only a little over .500 for his career. And isn’t the bottom line to win? As good as he usually was once he learned some control, as D. Bedard says, he was somewhat overrated and I for one fell that there are several pitchers I would rather start in a hypothetical Game 7. It’s really a shame that such a good player as Fregosi (RIP) is overshadowed by that trade.

  8. Larry Baldassaro said...

    I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Fregosi several times when he would come to Miller Park in his work for the Atlanta Braves. He was one of the true gentlemen in baseball. In a 2005 interview he told me: “I was fortunate to play at a time when it was still a game. You spent more time with newspaper men, with umpires, with other players. I had the opportunity to play in the major leagues, to manage, to work in the front office. I feel as fortunate as anyone could ever be, to be involved in something you love.”

  9. Bruce Markusen said...

    Good stuff, Larry. Most people that interviewed Fregosi have good things to say about him and his willingness to talk.

  10. Davan S. Mani said...

    Ken Hubbs and Fregosi started about the same time. LA lifestyle got to Jim. He had a great year in 70 but not good in 71. Gene Autry knew his partying would not stop and traded him. Funny thing is that Gene wanted Ken Hubbs but Wrigley wouldn’t give him up.

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