Obituary: Jim Frey (1931-2020)

RIP to Jim Frey, a manager who led two teams into the postseason and was named Manager of the Year for breaking the Cubs’ long postseason dry spell. He died at his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., on April 12. He was 88 years old. Frey managed the Kansas City Royals (1980-81) and Chicago Cubs (1984-86), and he was also a minor-league player and manager, scout, coach and general manager in a long baseball career.

Jim Frey was born in Cleveland on May 26, 1931. Growing up in Cincinnati, he played for the American Legion Bentley post, which was the American Legion runner-up in 1946 and the national champion in 1947. Frey had the winning hit in the 1947 championship game. He attended Western Hills High School in Cincinnati, where he was teammates with another future baseball lifer, Don Zimmer. The two would remain friends, and their careers would cross professionally with the Chicago Cubs some 40 years later. Not even three days after graduating from high school, he started his minor-league career as a member of the Boston Braves organization.

Frey’s playing career started auspiciously enough with the Paducah Chiefs of the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. The 19-year-old outfielder, who batted left and threw left, quickly became one of the league’s best hitters. He ended 1950 with a .325 batting average, his throws from right field to the infield were so strong and accurate that the team even tried him out as a reliever. He tossed 3 scoreless innings in his professional pitching debut.

Jim Frey, back in his playing days with Tulsa in 1957. Source: Austin American, August 4, 1957.

Frey continued to hit for a high average wherever he went in the Braves organization. His first real setback came after hitting .263 in 20 games for the Class-A Hartford Chiefs of the Eastern League. It was the first time he failed to top .300 in the minors, and the Braves sent him to Class-B Evansville. He returned to the Class-A in 1953 — this time with the Jacksonville Braves of the Sally League — and proceeded to hit .317 and .316 in 1953 and ’54, respectively. He also cracked 11 home runs in 1954, which was more than he’d hit in his entire professional career to that point. After spending the first half of ’54 hitting over .340, Frey earned another All-Star selection.

One of Frey’s teammates on the 1953 Jacksonville Braves was a teenaged Hank Aaron. Frey hit in front of Aaron, so he had a great opportunity to view his swing. “He was a left-handed Punch and Judy man until I got to him. I was the one who made him into a right-hand power hitter,” he cracked.

But seriously. Frey would ask Aaron where certain pitches had been. Aaron always answered, “Right down the middle,” even when Frey could see that they were on the outside corner. “Well, it looked down the middle to me,” Aaron would reply.

“I don’t think he was putting me on either,” Frey later said. “That’s the way it is with those great natural hitters like Aaron. They see the ball so well and their coordination is so good, they don’t have to worry as much as the rest of us. They just see something white coming up there and they hit it with a stick.”

Frey played for three AA teams in 1956 and a fourth AA team in 1957. At some point, he was moved out of the Braves organization, because his 1957 team, the Tulsa Oilers, was a Phillies affiliate. He led the Texas League in hitting (.336), runs (102), hits (198) and doubles (50) and won the Most Valuable Player Award.

In 1958, he moved to the St. Louis organization. He spent time in the Cardinals spring training camp and helped defeat the Yankees on March 9 with a game-preserving catch in the 5th inning and a game-winning double off Ryne Duren in the 9th. In spite of the heroics, Frey did not make the big-league club; his ESPN obituary stated that a left shoulder injury cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster, which went to Curt Flood instead. Frey batted .283, with 4 home runs and 45 RBIs for the Omaha Cardinals. By then, he was 26 years old and had proven he could compete at the AAA level. It was as high as he would get, however. Injuries suffered during the course of his career sapped his arm strength and his speed, though his hitting stayed pretty consistent.

He stayed in AAA until 1963, continuing his productive career. He even discovered some power and hit 16 homers in 1960 with Rochester and in 1962 with Buffalo. He won another batting title with a .317 mark in 1960 to lead the International League. He retired after an injury-plagued 1963 season, when he was 32 years old. With the stats that are available on his Baseball Reference page, Frey was a lifetime .304 hitter in the minors and topped the .300 mark eight times.

Frey was a little blunt about his playing career. “If I had to scout myself, I really couldn’t fall in love with me,” he said in a 1969 interview. “I had a bad arm. At one point, it was so bad I couldn’t throw 50 feet. After I broke my knee, I couldn’t run either.”

Frey had said that he wanted to remain active in baseball as a coach or manager after his playing days were over, and he got his chance when the Baltimore Orioles asked him to manage their Rookie-Level team in Bluefield, W.V., in 1964 and 1965. When he wasn’t running those short-season teams, he would travel to other teams in the Orioles system as a “trouble-shooting” hitting instructor. One of the teams he worked with was the Elmira Pioneers in 1964, managed at the time by Earl Weaver.

Frey spent several years as an Orioles scout and roving hitting instructor. He finally got his call to the major leagues in 1970, when Orioles manager Weaver needed a bullpen coach following the resignation of Charlie Lau. Frey, 38, would also serve as a hitting coach and occasional first base coach in a 10-year term on the Baltimore coaching staff.

Frey managed a team in the Venezuelan Winter League over the 1972 offseason. He knew the country well, having spent 10 seasons there as a player and four as a scout. He said he wanted to job because of the climate and the chance to give his children some international traveling experience, not because it would further his own job aspirations. But he loaded his team with talented major-league and minor-league recruits, including pitcher Milt Wilcox and infielders Rod Carew and Dave Concepcion.

Despite his reputation as a good baseball coach, Frey was never the subject of managerial rumors until he was hired by the Kansas City Royals in October of 1979 to replace Whitey Herzog. He was given a difficult assignment. Herzog was popular and had won three division championships in four seasons; he was possibly fired by owner Ewing Kauffman and general manager Joe Burke over comments about the team’s failure to bring in new players.

Frey’s job philosophy was simple: get the most out of 25 players. “The idea is to use everybody’s talents in contributing to the overall team success. Every player needs to respect the other players and the idea of the entire group of 25 trying to win together,” he said.

Everyone on the team was treated the same, even a superstar like George Brett. Frey didn’t spend much time talking with his players; he just expected them to do the jobs they were given. Some people loved the approach, and some didn’t, but the results were that the Royals got to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.

Under Frey’s guidance, the Royals won 97 games to win the AL West. The team then got past their old nemesis, the New York Yankees, with a 3-game sweep. The team’s season came to an unfortunate end with a 4-games-to-2 World Series loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies were led by manager Dallas Green, whose career would also intersect with Frey’s in Chicago a few years down the road.

The Royals stumbled out of the gate in 1981 and got off to a 20-30 start. The season was put on hold for nearly two months because of the player’s strike, and when play resumed in the “second half,” the Royals went 10-10 in the first 20 games. The team’s management made the decision that they wouldn’t improve unless things changed, and Frey was fired in favor of Dick Howser.

Frey also took heat for a mistake he made in the 1981 All-Star Game. With the American League down 5-4 in the 9th inning, Frey ran out of position players and had to send pitcher Dave Stieb to the plate to hit against closer Bruce Sutter of the Cardinals. Sutter fanned him on three pitches. According to a rumor, Some of the Royals players delighted in the mistake.

Frey spent 1982 and 1983 working as the hitting coach of the New York Mets. The Mets’ manager, George Bamberger, was an old friend of Frey’s and a fellow coach on the Orioles. Frey’s special assignment was to work with young sensation Darryl Strawberry, the eventual 1983 Rookie of the Year.

“The best thing about him is that he’s such a good kid,” Frey said of his slugger. “He takes instruction well, he works hard, he wants to be good. Looking at him at the age of 21, what he has done and what he can do is like a horse trainer looking at Man o’ War as a 2-year-old.”

Frey was given his second chance at a manager’s role when the Cubs and their GM, the aforementioned Dallas Green, hired him for the 1984 season. Unlike the Royals, which was already a good team, the Cubs were much closer to the NL East cellar than the playoffs. Aside from closer Lee Smith, Frey didn’t inherit much.

Green made a few shrewd deals before and during the 1984 season, like acquiring Rick Sutcliffe, Gary Matthews and Scott Sanderson. Frey did his part by working with Ryne Sandberg to hit for more power. At the time, Sandberg was a spray hitter who relied on his speed. Per the Chicago Tribune, Frey devised a drill that Sandberg used to work on his power during the second half of spring training. Sandberg responded with 19 home runs on the season and won the 1984 MVP Award. His power stroke eventually led him to the Baseball Hall of Fame as well.

Frey said that he told Sandberg that he needed to stop being the guy who set up someone else to have a big inning. He should be the guy that makes big things happen. “I told him, ‘You should pick up the paper and see headlines: Ryne Sandberg won the game,'” Frey explained. “I have never tried to change his swing, stance, bat, bat position, grip, any of those things. Those things are OK with a lot of players. I tried to change his mental approach to hitting.”

With the new acquisitions and good performances from the existing players, the Cubs marched to the top of the division with a 96-65 record. The team reached the postseason for the first time since the 1945 World Series. Frey didn’t change his no-nonsense style, but it worked on this Cubs team. If there were complaints over playing time, he handled things before they became problems.

When the Cubs beat the San Diego Padres in the first two games of the League Championship, it looked like the Cubs would break the infamous Billy Goat curse.

Don Zimmer and Jim Frey celebrate the Cubs’ clinching a playoff berth in 1989. Source: Chicago Tribune, September 29, 1989,

It wasn’t to be. The Padres won three straight games in San Diego to head to the World Series. Frey was criticized for his handling of the pitching staff in the playoffs. Many second-guessers believed he should have started Game One pitcher Sutcliffe in Game Four instead of Sanderson. But Sutcliffe struggled in his Game Five loss, so it’s questionable that he would have been more effective with one fewer day of rest.

Frey, for his efforts, won the NL Manager of the Year Award, becoming the first Cubs’ skipper to receive the honor. The rest of his tenure wouldn’t be as successful. The Cubs pitching staff was hammered by injuries in 1985, and the team fell to a 77-84 record. When they got off to a 23-33 start in 1986, Frey was fired. Zimmer, his old friend and third base coach, was let go as well.

Frey turned down the choice of manager or general manager of the Minnesota Twins in favor of working as a radio commentator with the Cubs. On November 11, 1987, he was named the Cubs’ Director of Baseball Operations (essentially, general manager), following the resignation of Green two weeks prior. The Cubs had finished last place in back-to-back seasons, and Frey said his first priority was to bring in a new manager.

A couple weeks later, he chose his old high school friend, Zimmer. Not that the relationship had anything to do with the hire. “The childhood thing is kind of a nice romantic story,” Frey said, “but it doesn’t have a heckuva lot to do with hiring somebody to manage a ballclub. You’d be hard-pressed to go out and find a more experienced, qualified person with the same amount of enthusiasm.”

Frey’s first major deal, which sent Lee Smith to Boston for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi, was a bust, but the 1988 Cubs finished in fourth place — a step up from their previous seasons. The team did even better in 1989, winning 93 games and finishing in first place for the second time in the ’80s. Zimmer made the best of home-grown talent like Sandberg, Mark Grace and Rookie of the Year Jerome Walton. When injuries hit the team’s outfield, Frey brought up AAA outfielder Dwight Smith, who had a career year and finished second in the ROY voting. Mike Bielecki, product of a trade with Pittsburgh, won 18 games. Closer Mitch Williams picked up 36 saves. He came to the Cubs from a trade with Texas. That deal looks bad now, because it sent Rafael Palmiero and Jamie Moyer to the Rangers. At the time, it would have been hard to predict that the contact hitting Palmiero would pile up Hall of Fame numbers or that Moyer would pitch until he was nearly 50.

Frey was satisfied with his role and didn’t miss being a manager at all. “I can just sit here like the 35,000 Cub fans here at Wrigley Field hoping that the result will be good. It’s been exciting. When we left spring training, I made the statement that we had a lot of young players, that no one knew exactly what we had, that it would take time for them to come together as a team. It’s been exciting to watch that happen, too.”

The Cubs lost in the 1989 NLCS to the San Francisco Giants, and they were unable to recapture that same magic in subsequent seasons. Free agent signee George Bell hit 25 homers in 1991, but new pitchers Danny Jackson and Dave Smith were awful. Zimmer was fired in May of 1991, and reports at the time indicated that Cubs president Don Grenesko went over Frey’s head and made the decision himself. At the end of the season, the entire Cubs front office was cleaned out, as Grenesko moved to a position in the Tribune Co., Larry Himes was named VP of baseball operations, and Frey was moved to senior vice president, under Himes, until his contract expired at the end of 1992. Following the 1992 season, Frey was dismissed by the Cubs.

In parts of five seasons as a manager in the majors, Frey compiled a 323-287 win-loss record for a .530 winning percentage.

The Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League remembered Jim Frey, who served as their vice chairman in their early years.

Though Frey retired from baseball after more than 40 years in the game, he became involved in the formation of the Somerset Patriots, a team in the Atlantic League, in 1996. He held the position of vice chairman in the early days of the Bridgewater, N.J.-based team.

“Jim will be greatly missed and we send our love to the entire Frey family,” said Somerset Patriots Chairman Emeritus Steve Kalafer. “Jim had countless contributions to the Somerset Patriots as one of our first supporters over two decades ago. We wouldn’t be who we are as an organization without his guidance early on. Not only was he a friend to our team, he was more importantly, a friend to me, Suzanne, and Jonathan and Josh. We will do whatever we can to honor him at the ballpark this season and beyond.”

For more information: ESPN
Chicago Tribune

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