I’ll always have fond memories of Woodie Fryman. He was pitching for the Detroit Tigers the first time my father took me to Yankee Stadium. This was back in 1973, the final season at the old stadium. In fact, it was the final night game in the history of the old ballyard. My father and I talked a lot about Woodie Fryman that night, about how he was a good veteran lefthander who knew how to pitch.
Those memories came to mind when I heard that Fryman, a good old country pitcher, died on Friday at the age of 70. I don’t recall him as ever being overpowering, but he had a good slider and was always tough on left-handed hitters. He used an old-time windup, swinging both his arms behind his head, and then managing to hide the ball near his waist just before releasing the pitch. Al Oliver once told me that he simply hated having to face Fryman and that deceptive delivery.
Fryman was a throwback in other ways. He pitched much of his career with arthritis in his left elbow, yet rarely complained about it or made excuses. Even with arthritis, Fryman lasted 18 seasons with a slew of major league teams.
Fryman was also persistent. He didn’t make his big league debut until he was 26, struggled to find an early niche with the Pirates, and didn’t enjoy any sustained success until his thirties. What’s that old saying about lefthanders blossoming late? In 1970s baseball, Fryman provided an ideal example of that.
I tend to think of Fryman as a Tiger, even though he pitched only two and a half seasons for the Bengals. Like me, Tigers fans will have favorable memories of Fryman; he went 10-3 with a 2.06 ERA down the stretch in 1972, helping lift the Tigers to a half-game win over the Red Sox in a fragmented, strike-shortened pennant race. Prior to Fryman’s arrival, the Tigers had only two reliable starters in Mickey Lolich and Joe Coleman. Fryman gave Billy Martin an effective third option.
The Tigers had actually claimed Fryman off waivers in midseason from the last-place Phillies, who weren’t exactly pitching-rich themselves but felt that the 32-year-old southpaw was cooked. GM Jim Campbell’s waiver claim saved the season for the Tigers; without the wily southpaw, who won seven of his last eight decisions and posted a 1.79 ERA while earning a pennant-clinching win over the Red Sox, the Tigers would have collapsed into a second-place finish.
Fryman would struggle badly for the Tigers for the next two seasons, leading to an offseason trade to the Expos for two fringe players, catcher Terry Humphreys and pitcher Tom Walker. Fryman posted two good seasons in Montreal, but the Expos couldn’t pass up the opportunity to acquire Tony Perez from the Reds, so they included Fryman in the trade package. Though he was made Cincinnati’s Opening Day starter in 1977, Fryman never seemed comfortable with the Reds and abruptly decided to retire. When he changed his mind, the Reds sent him to the Cubs, where he spent a miserable half-season as a utility pitcher.
A week before the trading deadline in 1978, the Cubs traded him to the Expos, where he began stint No. 2 north of the border. Fryman took his place in the Montreal rotation, but with mediocre results. The following spring, the Expos made a move that would resuscitate his career. Dick Williams, often a man of foresight, made Fryman a fulltime reliever; for the next three seasons, he was virtually untouchable as Montreal’s No. 1 bullpen lefty, while sharing closing duties with such diverse pitchers as Elias Sosa, Bill Lee, and Jeff Reardon. Fryman would not retire until he made six shaky appearances in 1983, when he was 43 years old. With his bulging stomach, round face, and graying hair, Fryman looked more like 53. He was an unusual physical specimen to say the least, but one who had still pitched effectively through his second-to-last summer in the major leagues.
Though he never won more than 14 games in a season, Fryman earned 141 victories in his career, reached the 200-inning plateau four times, and made a couple of All-Star teams. Along the way, he spun three one-hitters. He also earned a place in the Montreal Expos Hall of Fame.
After his playing days, Fryman retired to his tobacco farm in Kentucky. That’s what he was, a tobacco farmer first, and a pitcher second. All in all, a pretty simple life.
And as my father told me on that fall night in 1973, Woodie Fryman was a pretty good veteran left-hander who knew how to pitch.