This article was written by Brian Geller
Twelve seasons in the major leagues. That’s quite a run at that level of baseball. Let’s face it, how many people get to live their dream of being a major-league baseball player?
Looking back throughout the history of major-league baseball, Fred Kendall will be looked at as an average catcher who had a less than stellar career on a lot of bad teams. But he made it to “The Show.” Not only did he make it, he will forever be part of a unique club in the history of baseball, father-and-son combinations who have played or managed at the big-league level.
After being released by the San Diego Padres, instead of continuing his career, Kendall retired after the 1980 season to spend more time with his family. During retirement Kendall worked as an assistant coach of the Torrance (California) High football team and a volunteer assistant coach for the baseball team. His oldest son, Mike, pitched for San Diego State while his younger son, Jason, a catcher like his father, went on to have an impressive 15-year career. “Jason did a lot more than I did, but I played in era that I thought was a bit tougher than my son,” said Fred. “There’s more teams now and back then we had to contend with four-man rotations and pitchers like Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, and Bob Gibson.”1 Torrance High baseball coach Jeff Phillips said the elder Kendall was a great help to the program. “Fred would come out to the practices and pitch a little batting practice or just come out and talk with the kids,” Phillips said. “That’s just the type of guy that Fred is. He’s not out there to try and impress anybody. He just comes out and helps them because he wants to them improve.”2
Fred Lyn Kendall was born on January 31, 1949, in Torrance. Besides playing for Torrance High, he played Little League, Babe Ruth League, American Legion, and Connie Mack ball. In 1967, his senior year, the right-handed batter hit .425 with 22 RBIs, was named All-Bay League and All-California Interscholastic Federation Class AAA first team and was voted the school’s Athlete of the Year and shared the league’s Baseball Player of the Year honors. The catcher was part of an impressive crop of talented baseball players in the South Bay (the southwest corner of Los Angeles County) who went on to the major leagues. “The Bretts (Ken and George) were in the league at the time over at El Segundo, pitcher Dave LaRoche was at West (Torrance High), and George Foster at Leuzinger,” Kendall said. “With Bobby Grich at Long Beach (Wilson), we were able to put together an American Legion team that had nine future major leaguers.”3 Like Kendall, LaRoche was part of a father-and-son combination; two sons, Adam and Andy, played in the major leagues.
On June 6, 1967, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Kendall, was drafted in the second round by the Cincinnati Reds. Other catchers in that draft who made it to the major leagues were Ted Simmons, Steve Yeager, and Rick Dempsey, and others who played in the majors were Grich, Jon Matlock, Vida Blue, Dave Kingman, Jerry Reuss, Ralph Garr, and Richie Zisk. Kendall was drafted ahead of Steve Busby, Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky, Dusty Baker, Chris Chambliss, Steve Rogers, and two future National Football League quarterbacks, Dan Pastorini (New York Mets) and Archie Manning (Atlanta Braves).
Kendall quickly learned that there was a roadblock on his way to being the Cincinnati Reds starting catcher: Johnny Bench then making his way through the Reds farm system.
Kendall made his professional debut with the Sioux Falls Packers of the Class-A Northern League. The 18-year-old catcher led the team in batting at .301, and was second in hits and RBIs. Behind the plate though, his 8 errors and 22 passed balls in 61 games were less than impressive.
After the season Kendall headed to the Florida Instruction League where he had the opportunity to play alongside with future star Hal McRae (another teammate who would have a son make it to the majors) as well as Bernie Carbo, Frank Duffy, and Tommy Helms. His catching skills improved as both his errors and passed balls declined dramatically.
In 1968 Kendall was one of seven nonroster players invited to spring training with the Reds and for the season was promoted to Double-A Asheville, managed by Sparky Anderson. (Kendall called him “an intense manager.”4) The Tourists won the Southern League championship and Kendall’s .291 batting average was among the league’s top 10. He caught five future major-league players, including high-school rival Wayne Simpson, with whom he roomed in spring training. “Wayne and I played on the same semipro team before we signed with the Reds,” said Kendall.5 When the season ended Anderson tapped Kendall along with Simpson and two other Tourists as “Reds of the future.” With the impending expansion draft coming, would Kendall be one of the 15 Cincinnati Reds on the coveted frozen list?6
In the draft, on October 14, 1968, four new teams, the San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos, Seattle Pilots, and Kansas City Royals, drafted players left unprotected by the existing major-league teams. With their seventh choice, the Padres tabbed Kendall as their future catcher, giving the hot prospect a clear path to the major leagues. Many in the Reds organization figured Kendall, who was just 19 and unproven, to be safe from selection, but in a twist of fate, Sparky Anderson was hired by San Diego to be a part of manager Preston Gomez’s coaching staff and recommended Kendall to the Padres.7 (Anderson found his way back to Cincinnati 12 months later when he was hired as skipper of the future Big Red Machine.) Cincinnati general manager Bob Howsam admitted that the loss of Kendall, rated one of the Reds’ top farmhands, hurt but the price tag placed on the draftees and the knowledge that young Johnny Bench would be around for years eased the pain. “It’s a great opportunity going to San Diego,” said Kendall.8 In 2017 Kendall recalled, “I knew I didn’t have much of a future with the Reds with Bench around. I could throw with Bench and I could hit, loved the fastball but they wouldn’t play me. I was just 19 and Bench was already at Triple A. I look at it this way: If it wasn’t for Sparky I would have been backing up Bench for years.”9
At the end of the Padres’ spring training, Kendall was optioned to the Elmira Pioneers of the Double-A Eastern League, a minor-league affiliate the Padres shared with the Kansas City Royals. Switching franchises did not slow down the catcher; Kendall picked up where he left off the previous season. He again found himself among the top players in multiple offensive categories, enjoyed a 14-game hitting streak, and was named to the Eastern League All-Star game. At season’s end the Padres recalled Kendall, and he made his major-league debut on September 8, 1969, Kendall made his major-league debut, as the starting catcher in a losing game against the Houston Astros in Houston. He went 0-for-3. A week later, after going hitless in his first 11 at-bats, Kendall picked up his first major-league hit, against Scipio Spinks, helping San Diego seal a two-game sweep of Houston.
In 1970, Kendall caught in 65 games and played first base in 44 contests for the Salt Lake City Bees of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, managed by Don Zimmer. The Bees finished a dismal 44-99 and it was the start of one losing season after another for the young catcher. Kendall said Zimmer, like Anderson, “was equally as intense and if you made a mistake both skippers were going to tell you.”10 The highlight Kendall’s season came when he came within one at-bat of tying a league record of 12 consecutive hits. For the second consecutive September, the Padres called up Kendall. He played in four games at three different positions, catcher, first base, and left field.
In 1971 Kendall split time between Triple-A Hawaii and San Diego with Bob Barton doing most of the catching for the Padres. On a cool July evening at San Diego Stadium, Kendall hit his first major-league home run, on a slider thrown by future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.
The Padres dealt Barton in June of 1972 for another catcher, Pat Corrales, but by August the newly acquired Corrales was shelved with a glandular problem and the door was opened for Kendall. “I’ve always hit well in the minors, but this is the first real chance I’ve ever had to play in the majors,” he told an interviewer in 1972.11 The backstop, who had seen playing time at both first and third base, was finally gaining notoriety for skillfully calling a game. His biggest problem was a below-average throwing arm that he injured in the Arizona Instructional League in 1968. He told “I think I’ve improved my throwing,” Kendall told the interviewer, “by getting rid of the ball sooner than I used to.”12
Although the Padres handed rookie Bob Davis the starting catcher job to start the 1973 season, things were finally coming together for Kendall. By the sixth game of the season, Kendall had regained the starting job. Critics continued to say he couldn’t throw well enough or hit for a high-enough average to play regularly. But after a hot start, the critics were silenced when the Cincinnati Reds came to town. At the time, second baseman Joe Morgan had stolen eight bases in eight attempts and Kendall was the first to cut him down. Besides Morgan, other Reds tried to steal twice more in the series and both times were gunned down by Kendall. As Kendall finished April 10-for-23 in batting during a six-game stretch, general manager Peter Bavasi took some of the credit for the up-and-coming catcher. “He came into my office to negotiate his contract before spring training and I noticed him squinting when he was reading. I talked him into having an eye examination and he was surprised to learn he needed glasses,” said Bavasi.13
A number of San Diego pitchers were making it no secret that they preferred Kendall behind the plate. Pitcher Bill Grief said, “Fred calls a perfect game — pitching in and out, out and in, keeping the hitters honest.”14 In a span of six games in mid-September, Kendall went on a hitting spree with 12 hits in 24 at-bats to raise his average to .283.15 At the end of the season, Kendall was named the club’s most valuable player, finishing the campaign batting .282 with 10 home runs and 59 RBIs in 145 games.
Uncertainty greeted Kendall and the rest of Padres prior to the 1974 season; the team was in discussions to move to Washington. San Diego’s relocation was put to rest when the majority stockholder in McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, purchased the Padres. “I think we can win 20 games more than we did last year,” predicted Kendall, “and if we can do that, we can play .500 ball and get out of last place.”16 But the season proved to be disappointing; the Padres finished in last place once again, with a 60-102 record.
The most interesting thing about San Diego that summer may have been their Topps baseball trading cards. To meet distribution demands, the printing of the cards began the previous November. At the time, Topps and most others were certain that Washington would replace San Diego in the National League. So the trading card company printed Washington-National League on the face side of the Padres players’ cards. Kendall was one of 14 to have his card released that year with the Washington name, ultimately a costly and embarrassing mistake for Topps. On a positive note, during a game on August 29, Kendall saved the Padres from being no-hit by St. Louis Cardinals southpaw John Curtis when he delivered a two-out single in the eighth.
At the end of 1975 spring training, Kroc hinted that the club was looking for someone who was stronger behind the plate. Both 1975 and 1976 proved to be subpar years for both Kendall and the Padres. Kendall, hit just two home runs but caught a career-high 146 games in 1976 (more games started that season than Johnny Bench or Thurman Munson). “I’m proud of the fact that I played more games than any other catcher in the big leagues. I’m especially proud I was able to prove I’m both capable and durable,” Kendall said.17
On December 8, 1976, Kendall, outfielder Johnny Grubb, and infielder Hector Torres were dealt to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for outfielder George Hendrick. Kendall, the last of the original Padres who were born of expansion, joined old high-school rival and ace reliever Dave LaRoche. “When I was traded by the Padres, I was disappointed because I like them so much, especially the manager, John McNamara, and the San Diego area,” Kendall said.18 With the Indians, Kendall shared the catching job with Ray Fosse until mid-August, when he was named the first-string catcher. Indians manager Jeff Torborg, a catcher himself in 10 major-league seasons, held Kendall in high regard. “Behind the plate we are solid with Fred Kendall, a pitchers’ catcher who handles a staff superbly and is a hard-nosed, play-at-any-cost guy who gets some big hits,” Torborg said.19 In 103 games, Kendall hit .249.
Although he was being tabbed as Cleveland’s Opening Day starter, on the eve of the 1978 campaign Kendall found himself once again traded. This time it was to a legitimate pennant contender, the Boston Red Sox. Kendall was dealt along with pitcher and future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley for Rick Wise, Bo Diaz, Ted Cox, and Mike Paxton. Originally Kendall was not part of the deal but on the eve of the trade, Boston manager Don Zimmer insisted that his old backstop be included in the deal. It was déjà vu for Kendall. Just as in Cincinnati earlier in his career, he was being blocked by a future Hall of Fame catcher, Carlton Fisk. “Zim told me to just be ready,” Kendall said. “I just sat there and watched, it was a shock, he never played me but you know what, he never played anybody off the bench, we had guys with 8 or 12 years experience waiting to get a chance to play and it was that club’s ultimate downfall. Zim played the horses until they ran out of gas.”20 That season, Kendall joined Bob Montgomery as a backup to Fisk and periodically filled in as a defensive replacement for George Scott at first base, his first time playing first base since 1972. In one start at first, against the Toronto Blue Jays, Kendall went 3-for-4 with two runs scored and one RBI. Earlier in that season, in a twist of fate, Kendall became first player in 18 years to pinch-hit (in a clutch situation) for future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz was hit on the right forearm by a pitch from Milwaukee southpaw Bob McClure and could not proceed with his at-bat.21 Boston did not tender a contract to Kendall for the 1979 season. Kendall later reminisced about the ’78 season, “It was great, we won every day, 99 wins and we came in second. I watched Jim Rice have an MVP season, the lineup was ungodly, Fisk, Scott, Fred Lynn, Yaz, Dwight Evans, where was I going to play?”22
Kendall finished his career back where it started: with San Diego. The Padres, who had catcher Gene Tenace locked in as their starter, took a flyer on Kendall for 1979. In hindsight, Kendall said going back to the Padres was likely a mistake,23 but that he was glad to be back home. He played in only 65 games his final two seasons before being given his unconditional release on August 11, 1980. Three days before his release, his final hit came against the Houston Astros, who had given up his first. Kendall, pinch-hitting for Tim Flannery, singled to left field against Joe Sambito, helping San Diego score three runs in top of the ninth in a 5-3 comeback victory. He finished his major-league career with a batting average of .234, 31 home runs, and 244 RBIs.
In 1992, the Chicago White Sox’ director of minor-league instruction, Buddy Bell, Kendall’s roommate with the Indians in 1977, offered the former catcher the opportunity to manage Utica. “I always planned on going back into baseball,” Kendall said. “I wanted to spend more time with my family, but I felt the time was right to get back into the game.”24
“I was one happy guy,” Jason Kendall said of his father’s hiring. “That’s where he belongs. He quit baseball to spend time with his family, and I’m happy that he’s getting back into it.”25 Kendall managed the next four seasons in the White Sox organization at the Class-A level, managing future major-league players including Mike Cameron, Greg Norton, Magglio Ordonez, Scott Radinsky, and Mike LaValliere.
Kendall then worked for Buddy Bell as the bullpen coach for the Detroit Tigers from 1996 to 1998, and for the Colorado Rockies from 2000 to 2002. The next three seasons, 2003-2005, he was a Rockies minor-league catching instructor. In 2006 Kendall joined Bell for the third time, as bullpen coach with the Kansas City Royals. “He’s an exceptional catching instructor who understands calling a game,” Bell said. “He’s just a good baseball guy.”26
Among Kendall’s achievements, he hit a home run against Bob Gibson, and was the primary catcher for Randy Jones during his Cy Young Award-winning 1976 season. He caught Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley, Gaylord Perry, and Rollie Fingers. Sparky Anderson thought Kendall, not Johnny Bench, was the future in Cincinnati. He was a part of the original expansion San Diego Padres and was the last player to leave from the original roster. He even had a front-row seat for the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry in 1978. Later in his life he instructed, coached, and managed a new crop of players. As of 2018, Kendall was enjoying retirement, and lived a quiet, private life raising horses with his wife.
Last revised: December 1, 2018
This biography appeared in “Time for Expansion Baseball” (SABR, 2018), edited by Maxwell Kates and Bill Nowlin.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Kendall’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Referece.com.
1 Fred Kendall, telephone interview with author, July 5, 2017.
2 Cap Carey, “He’s Stepping Up to Management Level: Baseball: Twelve Years After His Major League Career Ended, Fred Kendall Gets Back Into the Game as a Minor League Manager,” Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1992: SBC10.
4 Fred Kendall interview.
5 Earl Lawson, “Second Gary Nolan, Reds May Have One in Greenie Simpson,” The Sporting News, March 9, 1968: 14.
7 Earl Lawson, “Draft Blows Fog Over Cardenas’ Future,” The Sporting News, November 2, 1968: 34.
8 Paul Cour, “Padres Present a Big Chance for Catcher Kendall,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1968: 42.
9 Fred Kendall interview.
10 Fred Kendall interview.
11 Phil Collier, “Kendall of Padres Delivers Sermon: ‘We Have Catcher,’” The Sporting News, September 9, 1972: 23.
13 Phil Collier, “Padres Approve Cheaters — If They’re on Kendall,” The Sporting News, May 12, 1973: 28.
15 Phil Collier, “Further Padre Harvest Likely in Norman Deal,” The Sporting News, October 6, 1973: 10.
16 Phil Collier, “Padres Get Break They Deserve, From Big Mac,” The Sporting News, February 9, 1974: 29.
17 Russell Schneider, “Hard-Working Kendall Bids for Indians’ Caching Job,” The Sporting News, March 26, 1977: 10.
19 Russell Schneider, “Indians ‘Set” Everywhere but Shortstop: Torborg,” The Sporting News, March 4, 1978: 12.
20 Fred Kendall interview.
21 Larry Whiteside, “Hobson Bats Ninth — And Bombs Pitchers,” The Sporting News, May 13, 1978: 5.
22 Fred Kendall interview.
23 Fred Kendall interview.
26 Bob Dutton, “Royals Hire Pitching and Bullpen Coaches,” Kansas City Star, October 12, 2005.