Frankie Frisch

This article was written by Fred Stein

Frankie Frisch, the 35-year-old manager and second baseman of the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, was an infielder for 19 years, spent 16 years managing NL teams, and put in some time as a broadcaster, all in the National League. His playing and managing exploits won him election to the Hall of Fame.

Frank Francis Frisch was born in the Bronx, New York, on September 9, 1898,1 to Franz and Katherine (Stahl) Frisch. Franz Frisch was a prosperous lace-linen manufacturer who assumed that his son would enter the business after completing his college education. The elder Frisch apparently never imagined that his athletic son would find a completely different means of earning a living. But the independent-minded young man had other ideas.

Frisch displayed his natural athleticism at Fordham Prep School and Fordham University, where he majored in chemistry. He was a track star (gaining the lifelong nickname Fordham Flash) and captained the football, basketball, and baseball teams. In 1918 Frisch was named a halfback on an All-American football team. The following year he signed with the New York Giants baseball club, and never played in the minor leagues.

Frisch worked out with the Giants in the spring of 1919 and joined the club after his college graduation in June. Manager John McGraw wanted to send him out for minor-league schooling, but Frisch talked McGraw into keeping him, citing pressure from his father to join the family firm if he was farmed out. So McGraw worked intensively with the aggressive Frisch on all aspects of his game. Frisch was a switch-hitter, who batted cross-handed from the right side; that is, when he hit right-handed, he kept his left hand above his right hand. McGraw worked with him each morning, teaching him fielding and sliding techniques and how to hold the bat properly.

Frisch made his major-league debut on June 14, 1919, in Pittsburgh, taking three called strikes in his first time at bat.  In September Frisch impressed McGraw in his first start at third base when, in a crucial game, a hard smash took a bad hop and bounced off Frisch’s chest. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound rookie pursued the ball and threw the runner out. As McGraw said, “That was all I had to see. The average youngster, nervous anyway at starting his first game in a pennant situation like that, would have lost the ball. Frisch proved right there that he is going to be a great ballplayer.”2

Frisch hit .226 while playing second base, third base, and shortstop during his first season, and improved to .280 as a third baseman in 1920. (He had played shortstop as a collegian, but McGraw decided that he did not have the sure hands or range to excel there.) His breakthrough season came in 1921, when he had 211 hits, hit .341, and stole a league-leading 49 bases while splitting the year between second and third. He became a Giants stalwart as McGraw’s club won the first of four consecutive NL pennants. As Bob Broeg described his play: “Frisch was tremendous, a whirling dervish of the diamond, knocking down hot smashes with his chest, diving for others that seemed out of his reach, ranging far and wide for pop flies, pawing at the dirt to get a long lead and then stealing bases.”3 Frisch gave a solid performance as the Giants beat the Yankees in the 1921 World Series. He was the key player, averaging .335 and 196 hits over the next three years while playing almost exclusively at second base.

The energetic Frisch was a slashing switch-hitter, who made up for his lack of home-run power with a steady barrage of clutch hits and stolen bases. He was a more consistent hitter when batting left-handed although he had more power right-handed. Hitting from the left side, he was an adroit bunter and with his speed when he was young, he often drag-bunted for a base hit. He was especially skilled at punching outside pitches to left field.

The extremely competitive Frisch became a favorite of McGraw, who saw in him a kindred soul, and Frisch was appointed team captain early in his playing career. There were no problems between the two while the Giants won pennants in the early ’20s, despite the very rough McGraw, who traditionally was especially hard on the Giants’ captains. But as the Giants’ performance deteriorated and McGraw became more irritable and frustrated, he singled out his captain and verbally abused him in the clubhouse after difficult losses with words meant not so much for him as for other members of the team. Frisch bridled at the abuse but took it for the good of the team.

Frisch took a lot of verbal punishment when the Giants lost the pennant to the Pirates in 1925 and to the Cardinals the following year. By late in the 1926 season he could no longer stand it. After an especially tough loss in St. Louis on August 20 and an especially cruel postgame McGraw diatribe, Frisch left the team the next morning and returned home to New York. He came back in early September to finish the season, but his relations with McGraw were beyond healing. He was traded to the Cardinals on December 20, 1926. It was a blockbuster deal, as the Giants gave up Frisch and pitcher Jimmy Ring for St. Louis manager-second baseman Rogers Hornsby. Hornsby, considered by many as the greatest right-handed hitter ever, had just played and managed the Cardinals to a World Series championship over the Yankees. The Cardinals made the trade because of owner Sam Breadon’s irreconcilable differences with Hornsby.

Hornsby, having just brought a championship to St. Louis, was a fan favorite. But Frisch, who called his new team the “Cawd’nals” in his New York accent, won over the fans with a brilliant season, hitting .337 with a league-leading 48 stolen bases, and setting a still-standing (as of 2013) major-league record for second basemen of 641 assists. Frisch was the one indispensable sparkplug as St. Louis narrowly missed winning the pennant, and he was the field leader as the Cardinals won pennants in three of the next four seasons. Frisch was voted the National League Most Valuable Player in 1931 as the Cardinals won the pennant and then defeated the favored Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.

Frisch became the Cardinals’ player-manager midway through the 1933 season, his team finishing in fifth place. Shortly before taking over as manager, he played in the first All-Star Game, at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Batting right-handed in his first at-bat, Frisch grounded out. In the sixth inning, hitting left-handed, he became the first National Leaguer to hit a home run in the classic. (He also homered off Lefty Gomez on the first pitch he saw in the 1934 All-Star Game.)

Frisch’s colorful 1934 club was a smashing success. It included such unforgettable characters as pitchers Dizzy and Paul Dean, the inimitable Pepper Martin at third base, Leo Durocher at shortstop, and slugging outfielder Joe “Ducky” Medwick. The loud but talented Dizzy Dean’s unpredictable antics kept Frisch on constant edge. Martin, like Dizzy, was an uninhibited country boy whose zany activities did not detract from his spirited play. Medwick was a tough New Jersey native with an extremely potent bat and an unusually low boiling point. A writer dubbed Frisch’s club the Gas House Gang when they appeared in badly soiled uniforms before a game, not having had time to have the uniforms cleaned. For much of the season the Cardinals were barely within striking distance of the NL lead, but they came on strong in the last month to edge out the Giants for the pennant. They topped off the season with a tumultuous World Series win over the Detroit Tigers in seven games.

The 1935 club had a virtually identical won-lost record as in the previous year, but the Cubs surpassed the Cards with 21 consecutive wins late in the season. Frisch became recognized as a manager as intense as McGraw. The Cardinals finished second in 1936, losing to the Giants, and slipped to fourth place the following year. The colorful Gas House Gang years were largely over and Frisch’s managerial years in St. Louis ended after the 1938 season.

Frisch had ended his playing career after playing infrequently in 1937. Early in that season, he reached second base with the fleet-footed Terry Moore the runner at first base. Joe Medwick laced a drive off the right-field wall. By the time Frisch reached third, Moore was well past second. As Frisch touched home plate, Moore slid in under him. The embarrassed Frisch told a writer after the game, “Any time they can run down the Flash, it’s time to quit.”4

Frisch left the playing field in 1939 for the radio booth, doing play-by-play broadcasts for the Boston Bees. He returned to the field the following year and managed the Pirates for seven seasons. His Pittsburgh clubs finished in the first division five times, but were never a serious threat to capture a pennant. The Pirates finished in second place only in 1944, but even then by a distant 14½ games behind the Cardinals. Frisch’s years with the Pirates were remembered for his antics, mostly his umpire-baiting. He was thrown out of one rainy game for going out to home plate carrying an umbrella to protest the umpire’s failure to call the game. On another occasion he was photographed giving an umpire a sweeping bow in sarcastic protest after the umpire cleared the Pirates bench.

There was the time when Frisch was coaching third base for his Pirates. Cubs third baseman Eddie Stanky interfered with one of Frisch’s players by giving him the hip as he tried to score a run on the following hitter’s extra-base hit. The lead Pirates runner was knocked sprawling and was awarded the run because of Stanky’s obstruction. As the hitter ran out a triple, he slid into third base from one side, and Frisch, determined to react to Stanky personally, slid into the bag from the coach’s box. Umpire Jocko Conlan called the runner safe and immediately ejected Frisch.

Frisch left the Pirates after the 1946 season and spent the next two years living in his beloved home in New Rochelle, tending to his garden when not doing the radio play-by-play of Giants home games. Frisch was a hit on the radio despite his high-pitched voice and lack of training as a broadcaster. Fans encouraging Frisch loved to imitate his radio style, especially his longtime managerial lament, “Oh, those bases on balls.” He returned to the field in 1948, coaching for the Giants.

In 1949 Frisch coached for Leo Durocher’s Giants until June 10, when the Cubs hired him to replace manager Charlie Grimm. Frisch returned to managing against the advice of his wife and many of his friends. He admitted later that he took the job because he loved being a manager, although he realized that the Cubs were a last-place club with no immediate hope of improving. They finished last in 1949, in seventh place the next year, and were last again in 1951 when Frisch was fired on July 21. According to first baseman Phil Cavarretta, who replaced Frisch, the firing was triggered when general manager Wid Matthews saw the disinterested Frisch sitting in the dugout reading a book during a game.

As a player, Frisch had a lifetime average of .316 in 2,311 games with 2,880 hits and 1,244 RBIs. He led the National League in stolen bases in 1921, 1927, and 1931 for a career total of 419, an excellent number for the era in which he played. Frisch set several fielding records for NL second basemen and various hitting and fielding marks in his 50 World Series games. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947.

Frisch compiled a 1138-1078 (.514) career managerial record. In his New Bill James Historical Abstract, Bill James wrote, “Frisch was an effective field leader because he had tremendous energy and a forceful personality. But once he could no longer play he began to romanticize the past, to deride his own players, and to launch into long (but apparently entertaining) monologues.”5

Frisch was a popular figure over and above his prowess as a player. He had a robust sense of humor and constantly exchanged jokes and ribald stories with fellow baseball men, umpires, and sportswriters. He maintained his home in Westchester County, New York, for many years after he left the Giants in 1927, and he was often accused jokingly of attempting to get thrown out of games so he could spend more time at home. Frisch carried on a series of practical jokes with other managers. When Casey Stengel was hit by a car in 1943 while managing the woeful Boston Braves, Frisch wired Casey that he understood the reason for the attempted suicide and expressed his sympathy that it was unsuccessful.

Despite his rugged persona, Frisch had genteel interests off the field. He enjoyed frequenting fine restaurants and reading good literature. He was an enthusiastic gardener, whose roses were a source of pride. He was a devotee of classical music. As he grew older, he was often a gruff old-school observer of the playing styles of a later generation of ballplayers. For example, he referred to spring training as “a country club without dues.”6 It is not difficult to imagine Frisch’s reaction to the changing baseball strategies and the players’ on- and off-field customs and mores that he did not live to see.

Frisch was able to honor the memories of some of his teammates when he joined the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee in 1967. The outspoken, persuasive Frisch became a leader on the committee, and sponsored six old Giants and Cardinals into the Hall. They included his double-play partner Dave Bancroft, Giants first baseman George Kelly, and St. Louis pitcher Jesse Haines. Some baseball historians have judged them to be among the least deserving players ever selected.

Frisch married Ada A. Lucy in 1923. The couple had no children. After Ada died in 1971, Frisch married Augusta Kass the following year. He also moved to Quonochontaug, a beach community in the town of Westerly, Rhode Island. He died in Wilmington, Delaware, on March 12, 1973, after an automobile accident while he was returning from a Veterans Committee meeting in Florida.

*This biography was written by the late Fred Stein. Notes were added and minor modifications in the text were made by Charles F. Faber.

 

Sources

Broeg, Bob, Super Stars of Baseball (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1971).

Golenbock, Peter, Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996).

Graham, Frank, McGraw of the Giants (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1944).

James, Bill, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001).

 

Notes

1 Although Frisch used 1898 as the year of his birth, New York City birth records, Social Security death records, and US Census  records indicate that he was born in 1897.

2 John McGraw, quoted in Bob Broeg, Super Stars of Baseball (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1971), 89.

3 Broeg, 89.

4 Broeg, 92.

5 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001), 493.

6 Broeg, 88.

Full Name

Frank Francis Frisch

Born

September 9, 1897 at Bronx, NY (USA)

Died

March 12, 1973 at Wilmington, DE (USA)

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