RIP to Bob Friend, an ace pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who threw more than 200 innings a season for an 11-year stretch with the team. He died in his sleep on February 3 at the age of 88, the Pirates announced. Friend pitched for the Pirates from 1951-65, as well as the New York Yankees (1966) and New York Mets (1966).
Bob Friend was born on November 24, 1930 in Lafayette, Ind. According to his SABR biography, he picked up his nickname of “The Warrior” in high school, where he played baseball, football, golf and basketball. He attended Perdue University and was signed by the Pirates prior to the 1950 season. The Pirates beat several interested teams to the punch by offering a $20,000 bonus to sign. His minor-league career lasted all of one season. He started 1950 with the Waco Pirates and won 12 games for the team, ending his tenure there with a 10-0 no-hitter of Wichita Falls. He struck out 8 Spudders and was promoted to the AAA Indianapolis Indians. He had a rougher time there, with a 2-4 record and 5.46 ERA, but he was still a teenager in the highest level of the minor leagues.
Friend went to Spring Training with the Pirates in 1951 and never saw the minors again. He caused baseball experts to take notice early on.
“Judas Priest and bless Branch Rickey if that young fellow doesn’t remind me of the Bobby Feller of 10 years ago,” stated Pirates GM Branch Rickey in a March 18 article in the Pittsburgh Press.
The 1951 Pirates were a 90-loss team, and Friend was thrown right into the mix. He appeared in 34 games with 22 starts. He had a 6-10 record and 4.27 ERA. One of those wins was a 2-hit shutout against the Cardinals, even though he walked 8 batters.
“That boy has a lot of moxie,” said Bucs manager Bill Meyer. “Look at him, only 20 and pitching like a veteran. Why he had the bases loaded on walks in the sixth… and got Wally Westlake to ground out.”
Friend had a sub-.500 win-loss record for the next few seasons, which is understandable. Most of those teams lost 100 games or more. His 1955 season was his break-out year, even if the Pirates were still a last-place team. He led the NL with a 2.83 ERA and topped 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career. He also had his first +.500 season with a 14-9 record and fanned 98 batters.
For the next 11 seasons, Friend was a mainstay of the Pirates’ starting rotation. He was named to All-Star teams in 1956, 1958 and 1960 (he was named to both All-Star teams in that year) and finished 3rd in the Cy Young Award voting in 1958. He won a career-high 22 games in 38 starts in ’58, both of which were tops in the National League. He then lost 19 games in 1959, giving him the rare feat of leading the NL in wins and losses in consecutive seasons.
The Pirates were slowly improving and made it to the World Series in 1960 — that was the year of Bill Mazeroski’s Series-winning Game 7 home run. Friend pitched brilliantly in the regular season, with an 18-12 record, 3.00 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 275-2/3 innings. He was less effective in the postseason, though. The Yankees beat him twice in 3 games, and he surrendered 10 runs (9 earned) in 6 innings.
Friend won double-digit games through 1964. He dropped to 8 wins in 1965. It was the last season that he threw more than 200 innings in a season. During the offseason, he was traded to the Yankees for pitcher Pete Mikkelsen and cash. (Incidentally, he was traded on the same day that Branch Rickey died, so the Pirates lost two greats in one day.)
Friend’s last season was split between two New York teams. He didn’t pitch particularly well for either one, and he was released by the Mets after the season. While he maintained that his arm was fine, he did not pitch again. For his career, he had a 197-230 record and a 3.58 ERA in 602 games, 497 of which were starts. He completed 163 of those starts and threw 36 shutouts. He had 10 seasons with an ERA+ of more than 100, which adjusts a player’s ERA to park factors and league ERA — more than 100 means a pitcher was better than average. Friend also had 1,734 strikeouts against 894 walks. He never went on the disabled list during his entire career.
In his post-baseball life, Friend was an Allegheny County controller from 1967-1975. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention three times and was an insurance broker. Friend was also an excellent golfer.