Johnson Fry

This article was written by Chris Rainey

A player whose major-league career lasts only one game is referred to as “having a cup of coffee.” Johnson E. (Jay) Fry is one of nearly 1,000 such men – and is certainly one of the least heralded members of that group. The native of Huntington, West Virginia left his city team around August 14, 1923 to join the Cleveland Indians. On August 24 he saw action in a 20-8 loss to the Washington Senators. In that ten-day span, his hometown newspapers never printed a word about his status. There was also no mention of him in the Cleveland Plain Dealer until after his debut.

Huntington is located along the Ohio River across from Ohio and near Ashland, Kentucky. River commerce and the presence of the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad helped to create a thriving city in the early 20th century. Fry, born on November 21, 1901, was the older of two sons born to Edmund and Gertrude (Sellard) Fry. Edmund Fry was a real estate agent and well-respected businessman. He married late in life to Gertrude, who was 23 years his junior. The prosperous Fry provided for his family as well as Gertrude’s three younger siblings, who lived with them. Johnson Fry attended public school in Huntington and graduated from Huntington High School in 1922.

During his school days, Fry pitched and played first base for the high school. He also used his 6-feet-1 frame to advantage on the basketball court. In the summers he played baseball for a variety of local teams. After graduation he joined the Groves-Thornton Tumblers in the Huntington City League. He pitched and played first base for them. Fry enrolled in Marshall University, but in the spring of 1923 he saw no action with the baseball team – it is unclear if Fry was a team member.

The 1923 Thundering Herd was coached by Kemper Shelton. Shelton was a local player who had played with the New York Yankees in 1915. Marshall played a limited schedule, posting a 3-6 record in 1923. As a freshman, Fry would have been behind senior Lyle Douthat in the pitching corps. The team’s best hitter, Frank “Red” Crist, played first base. Crist would go on to a four-year career in the Middle Atlantic League. A young Fry was not in position to dislodge either player to get playing time. Fry played with the Tumblers in 1923, appearing with them on weekends even as the college season was in progress.

At that time the baseball scene in Huntington had been without minor-league ball for seven years, but there was a local semi-pro team that played against neighboring towns. The city also supported the City League and its four teams. Fry was not talented enough to make the semi-pro roster and even in the city league he batted in the bottom of the lineup.

After his professional debut, the Herald-Dispatch mentioned that Fry was recommended to Cleveland by Lawrence McClure.1 McClure, who had been quite a pitcher at Amherst College, was also a “cup of coffee” player (with the New York Highlanders in 1910). When Fry left the Groves-Thornton squad for the majors, McClure took over his spot on the pitcher’s mound.

When Fry joined the Indians, they were in second-place behind the Yankees with only dim hopes of catching up. In the season’s final week they were passed by Detroit and ended in third. The fans were more concerned about the future of the Indians’ pitching staff than catching the Bronx Bombers. “Right at this moment, it is believed that Tris Speaker figures he has only one pitcher he actually can bank on” for 1924, George Uhle.”2 That dismal prospect would explain why the team was looking at a youngster who was not even close to being the best arm in his hometown.

Two young pitchers took the hill on August 24, Paul Zahniser for Washington and Phil Bedgood for Cleveland. Bedgood surrendered two runs in the first. Cleveland lashed four hits against Zahniser to tie the score and send the youngster to the showers in favor of Allan Russell. Bedgood took the mound in the second with the score tied 2-2, but his wildness forced Speaker to replace him with Joe Shaute. The Senators smashed four hits in a third of an inning off Shaute and he was replaced with Dewey Metevier. Sherry Smith took over for Cleveland in the fifth. Fry replaced him with one out in the sixth with the score 14-5. Fry inherited a runner on second and faced Goose Goslin. Goslin walked, but then Sam Rice grounded into a force play. Joe Judge cleared the bases with a double and eventually scored on a double by Bucky Harris. Fry was charged with two runs.

In the bottom of the sixth, Speaker sent Fry to the plate against Monroe Mitchell and the rookie hit a dribbler to Harris that he legged out for a hit. In the next two innings, Speaker inserted rookies Tom Gulley and Jackie Gallagher into the lineup. It was the debut for each of them and both rapped hits in their first at-bat. Fry surrendered three more runs in the seventh on two walks and two triples. In the bottom of the seventh, Fry batted again and was hit by a pitch from Mitchell. Going into the eighth the score stood at 20-8, and Fry held the Senators to two hits in the last two frames. In 3 2/3 innings he allowed five runs for a 12.27 ERA. At the plate he finished his career batting 1.000.

The local press had some comforting words for the youngster. Writer Francis J. Powers noted that “while he did not make Walter Johnson jealous with his success he did as well as anyone.”3 An unidentified scribe credited Fry’s temperament; “one thing about his work yesterday, the big leaguers did not make him nervous in the box or when he was batting.”4 Keeping his cool must have been a challenge, because Fry not only had to face Goslin, Harris, and Sam Rice but also was forced to endure the antics of Senators’ coach Nick Altrock, who made the rookie a target of his comic barbs.

Cleveland released Fry and he returned to Huntington, the sandlots, and college. In the spring the local paper ran an article on players getting ready for spring training. They included Wayland Dean, Johnny Stuart, and Ray Massey. No mention was made of Fry; his career started and ended on a Friday in Cleveland.

After a second year at Marshall, Fry left school and joined the Cabell County sheriff’s department. In June 1924 he wed Eleanor Anne Smith. Since both families were well-to-do, the prenuptial events and the wedding were covered by the local society pages. The couple would not have any children. Fry rose through the ranks with the sheriff’s department and was chief deputy by 1930.

Huntington was hit hard by the Depression. A wave of white-collar crime accompanied the financial woes. A bank teller from a collapsed bank and the bank president of a different institution were both tried and sentenced on embezzlement. In September 1930 Sheriff Frank Tyree announced that his department would undergo an audit because of missing funds. At the same time it was announced that Deputy Fry had left on vacation and had not returned.5 Fry eventually returned to Huntington and in March 1931 he was indicted on 13 counts in connection to a $70,000 shortage in the sheriff’s office. He eventually pled guilty to one count of embezzlement of $1,300 and was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary.6

Fry was paroled on July 14, 1932 under a shroud of secrecy. He was not eligible for release until November, but “the office of the state pardon attorney” noted “he had served enough of his time.”7 Fry returned to his wife in Huntington. Over the next eight years he found sales and clerical work; he then became a foreman at a welding shop. Eleanor Fry passed away on September 13, 1937. After her death, Fry moved in with his mother.

In the late 1940s Fry moved from Huntington to Detroit, Michigan. There he met Ella Christine Gaines. The couple wed on September 14, 1951. In May 1958, troubled by a heart condition, Fry moved with his wife to southeastern Illinois, near where she had grown up. They found a home in the town of Carmi and “Jay” immediately fit in “with his rare, friendly personality.”8 On the evening of April 7, 1959 he suffered a severe heart attack and died at the Carmi Township Hospital. The widow held visiting hours in Carmi before the body was returned to Huntington for funeral services and burial in Spring Hill Cemetery.

Fry’s baseball career never received much press. In 1961 he made headlines in The Sporting News. Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen underwent a search for “Fry”. At that time, no first name or other information was available except the statistics from 1923. With the help of two newspapermen and Fry’s mother, Allen was able to gather the necessary background information.9

 

Notes

1 Duke Ridgley, “Diamond Dust,” Herald-Dispatch (Huntington), August 25, 1923: 8.

2 Henry P. Edwards, “Down the Sport Trail,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 29, 1923: 17.

3 Francis J. Powers, “Spoke Stars Afield, But Tribe is Routed,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 25, 1923: 14.

4 “Sherry Smith May Face Yanks Today,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 25, 1923: 14.

5 “Deputy Fry Missing, Cabell Sheriff asks for Audit by State,” Charleston Gazette, September 5, 1930: 14.

6 “5 Year Prison Term Given Johnson Fry,” Charleston Daily Mail, March 6, 1931: 1

7 “Johnson Fry Paroled in Embezzlement Case,” Charleston Daily Mail, December 13, 1932: 5. Notice that it took the press six months to hear of the parole.

8 “Johnson E. Fry, 57, Dies of Heart Attack Tuesday,” Carmi Times, April 8, 1959: n/a

9 “Scribes Help Historian Allen Identify Obscure Performer,” The Sporting News, July 12, 1961: 25.