Fred Koster (BASEBALL-REFERENCE.COM)

Fred Koster

This article was written by Chris Betsch

Fred Koster (BASEBALL-REFERENCE.COM)Fred Koster’s major-league career consisted of only 76 games for the 1931 Philadelphia Phillies as a back-up outfielder. But for years any conversation around the greatest athletes from Louisville, Kentucky, often started with his name. Decades after Koster graduated from the University of Louisville he was still heralded as the best all-around athlete to come out of the school. He was their first baseball player to appear in the major leagues, but he especially starred as a football player. To illustrate how popular a player he had been, an article detailing a 1998 book on the history of Louisville football even remembered the 1920s as “The Fred Koster era.”1

Frederick Charles Koster Jr. was born December 21, 1905, in Louisville. He was the second of four children for Fred Koster Sr. and Rose (nee Graefenhan) Koster (their first child died at the age of three), and their only boy. Fred Sr. and Rose were both children of German immigrants, though Fred listed his father’s birthplace as the US on census reports later. Fred Jr. acquired his athletic ability honestly; his grandfather was said to have been a noted athlete in Germany, and Fred Sr. was a popular athlete in the Louisville area during the turn of the century. Fred Sr. excelled in boxing, gymnastics, track & field, and about any other sport played at the time. He was especially proficient in the high kick, a competition that involved jumping and kicking to see who could reach to the highest level. Along with two brothers, Fred Sr. was a member of the Turngemeinde club, more commonly referred to as the Turner’s club, a German American athletic club with locations throughout the United States. He competed in national events for the organization, later teaming up with, and sometimes even facing off against, Fred Jr. He would work for years as a physical fitness instructor in schools throughout the city and would continue to take part in athletic competitions well into his senior years.

A March 1931 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer introducing Fred Koster to local baseball fans related an especially interesting story about the athletic Koster father and son duo. After the conclusion of World War I, the First Division Army Circus was on a tour of the US, with its first stop set to be in Louisville in 1920. The circus had first developed as a diversion for members of the United States Army First Division during occasional downtime while stationed in Europe during the war. Following the armistice the group went on tour, first in Europe and then back in the states, to raise funds for the division’s memorial fund. According to the story, the two Kosters were recruited to join the act as gymnasts for part of their tour. Fred Sr. would assist in forming a human pyramid, and fourteen-year-old Fred Jr. was placed at the top of it. When the tour visited Chicago young Fred got to ride a horse in the circus parade. In the middle of the parade, however, the horse decided to go off on a side trip, and Fred was left sitting helpless in the saddle. “The line of cars looked about a mile long to me, and it seemed a life-time before the traffic policeman led me across the street.”2

Fred started playing baseball and football in the parks around the St. Matthews area of Louisville. He attended Male High School, where his father coached him in basketball and track. He captained the basketball team and helped the track team win a state title, but when he tried out for the football team, he weighed less than 100 lbs. soaking wet and had to settle for being the team’s water boy. His performance in basketball and track earned him an athletic scholarship to attend the University of Louisville, where he enrolled in the School of Arts and Sciences. Despite not playing football in high school, he went tried to make the college team as a kicker and punter. He had specialized in kicking while playing at the parks in his school years, but coaches for the varsity team took one look at his small feet and told Fred he would never make it as a kicker.3 Driven to work that much harder, Koster made the team the following year, and by the time he left the school he earned four letters in the sport and was later considered to be the first star player for the program. While in college he grew to 5’10” and “bulked up” to a playing weight of 160 lbs. He finally earned the kicking and punting roles he had worked for, but also played about every other position on the gridiron at one time or another. His speed earned him a role as the starting tailback for his junior year, and what a year it was. After failing to score any points during his sophomore season he became not only the top scorer for Louisville in 1926 with 124 points, but also the leading scorer for the entire nation. In Louisville’s game against Ogden College on October 2, Koster ran for five touchdowns, a feat that went unmatched at the school for over 70 years. The following weekend he scored another four touchdowns against Rose Polytechnic Institute, and it would be 90 years before another Louisville player scored four touchdowns in two consecutive games (eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson matched him in 2016).

During his senior year, Koster switched to the university’s School of Law. By the time he graduated with a law degree, he had earned 16 letters combined in football, basketball, baseball, and track.4 He also was on the student government board for all four of his underclass years, serving as president for both his freshmen and senior years. While at Louisville, Koster also met his future wife, the former Florence Schuler. They were wed in 1932 and stayed married until his death, and he affectionally called her “Poozie” for all their years together.

“Fritz” Koster, as he was often referred to in papers, was captain of the basketball team and perennially among its top scorers, and he also helped lead the men’s track team to a state title in 1927. The left-handed Koster starred on the diamond for the Cardinals as well. He was a four-year starter, usually batting lead-off and playing the outfield corner spots, with the southpaw also occasionally taking the mound as a starting pitcher. Over the course of Koster’s college career, John McCloskey had kept tabs on him. McCloskey was a former major league manager who was presently managing the Akron Tyrites in the new Class B Central League. He was also a native of Louisville and stayed up to date with baseball news in the area.

In August 1928, McCloskey convinced Koster to sign on with Akron, and Koster headed off right away before he even had time to buy his own personal supply of baseball bats. With just his team-issued uniform and his glove in his back pocket, Koster joined the team in time for their August 7 game against Canton. Before Akron’s away games, the team would get ready in their own clubhouse then travel by bus in their uniforms to the ballpark. During the ride to his first game the team detected a burning smell coming from somewhere around the bus. After searching all over the vehicle it was discovered that Koster’s glove had fallen from out of his pocket to behind the seat and onto the metal wheel well where it started cooking. So now with both a borrowed bat and glove, Koster made his professional debut for the Tyrites.5

Over his 36 games with Akron, Koster batted .323, which was enough of a showing for the Dallas Steers of the Class A Texas league to purchase his contract at the conclusion of the season. His time as a Steer was short-lived, however, as Koster was sent back to Akron on option to play under McCloskey for another season. Heading into his second year, Koster had a choice to make regarding his baseball career. He had earned his law degree from Louisville the previous June and had the option to go into practice. But when the stock market crash in late October 1929 sparked the Great Depression, the choice was apparent. In Koster’s mind, “a law degree meant only a license to starve,”6 and he stuck with baseball, never practicing law. It seemed he made the right choice when he finished in the top ten in the league in several offensive categories, though Akron finished next to last in the Central League. Dallas still owned the rights to Koster, but instead of promoting him for the following season he was dealt to the Little Rock Travelers of the Class A Southern Association.

In what would become a recurring theme for Koster, he played the season for a second-division team, in this case the Travelers finished fifth in the eight-team league. Koster had an impressive year though, batting .335 with 10 home runs. He also stole 32 bases, good for fourth in the league,7 and he was rated one of the fastest players in the minors. On the recommendation of top scout Patsy O’Rourke, the Philadelphia Phillies selected Koster in the second round of the September minor league player draft. The last-place Phillies had been a terrific hitting team but were devoid of pitching. They would soon ship outfielder Lefty O’Doul to the Dodgers in exchange for pitching to help shore up their staff, so they were counting on Koster to compete to take O’Doul’s place. Koster would go up against Hal Lee, who came over in the O’Doul trade, Buzz Arlett, the legendary minor league hitter, and incumbent Fred Brickell, in a competition to join Chuck Klein in the Phillies outfield.

When spring training concluded, Koster had earned a spot on the roster as a 25-year-old rookie. He ultimately lost the competition, however, for a starting position to Arlett and Brickell, and had to settle for being the Phils’ fourth outfielder. He would have to wait nearly two weeks before making it into a game, but finally made his first appearance on April 27 against the Boston Braves. He entered the game as a defensive replacement in the sixth inning but failed to get on base in his only at bat. The debut made him the first player from the University of Louisville to appear in the major leagues, and it would be 75 years before another came along.8 The following day he entered the game in the seventh inning as a pinch hitter and rapped a single off Fred Frankhouse for his first major league hit. Koster stayed in the game and tripled to open the ninth inning in a winning Phillies effort.

Years later in an interview, Koster would admit that he felt he was woefully unprepared to play in the major leagues. Phillies manager Burt Shotton had to cover some of the finer points of playing the game that were not explained to him in the minor leagues, like which foot to hit the bag with when rounding first base on the way to extra bases. In Koster’s third major league game he attempted his first career stolen base.9 Upon returning to the dugout, Shotton asked him “Who told you to go down there?”10 Koster shook his head, unsure what the proper response was. “You’re supposed to wait for the sign!”11 Koster later would admit, “Well, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a sign”.12 Koster reflected on his one season in Philadelphia “I think I went up a year too fast…I went up too fast based on the training or the instructions I got”.13

Still, he made the most of his first few games and had five hits in his first 12 at-bats in the majors. When Pinky Whitney sat out for nearly a week in May to nurse an ailing leg, Koster was handed a chance to start. He could not capitalize on the opportunity, and after managing only three hits in 21 at bats he returned to the bench. A month later, he was given another opportunity, and started 12 of his team’s 14 games between June 18 and June 30, going 16-for-42 and raising his average to .295. However, from July on, his average steadily sank, and Koster finished the year batting .224. After legging out the triple in his second game, he had only three more extra- base hits (two doubles and a triple) the rest of the season. And, as fast as Koster was advertised to be, he had only four stolen bases all season (against three caught stealing attempts).

The Phillies could do no better than to finish sixth in the National League. They immediately began looking for ways to improve the team for the next season, so Koster and Hal Elliot were sent to the St. Paul Saints in the Class AA American Association in exchange for outfielder George “Kiddo” Davis. At the time of the deal, The Sporting News viewed Koster’s year in Philadelphia as disappointing. Koster had come to town with hopes that even if his bat did not make the grade at least his speed and defense would contribute to the team. His fielding was not much of a factor, as he had a fielding percentage of .923, lowest amongst the Phillies outfielders. As for his speed, the following week’s edition of the paper borrowed a quote they attributed to Ham Hyatt and noted that “Freddy could not steal first base…”.14

On December 13, 1932, college sweethearts Fred and Florence married in Louisville. It was a superb way to end the year, and Fred looked forward to kicking off another season in St. Paul. But when Koster was hitting .274 at the end of May the Saints dealt him to Jersey City of the Class AA International League. For the remainder of the year, and over the next three years, the outfielder found himself sporting several different uniforms. He made stops in Dallas, Waco, St. Paul again, and then on to Toledo. In between each season he would always come back to Louisville, where he maintained several offseason interests. Koster returned to the University of Louisville sidelines to help as an assistant football coach, he took up refereeing local high school basketball and football games, and he participated in fall baseball leagues in the area. He also started to become more involved with his father-in-law’s Hudson automobile dealership, and by 1935 he was part owner of Schuler-Koster Motor Company.

The last stop for Koster in 1936 was with Syracuse in the International League. The Chiefs had finished next to last in the league that season, then the following March made Koster one of their early roster cuts. He was not going to make the team as an outfielder, but Syracuse had arranged to farm minor league players for the Cincinnati Reds, and Koster was made an offer to become a player-manager in the lower rungs of the minors. Chiefs president Jack Corbett felt that Koster “is one of the smartest players in minor league baseball, has splendid business judgement and should be a great playing manager…”15 Koster was not interested in the offer and instead returned to Louisville to concentrate on his growing car sales business. Once he was declared a free agent in July, however, the opportunity opened that he had been waiting for, and he signed with his hometown Louisville Colonels in the American Association. If Koster was destined to not play in the majors again, finishing his career in his beloved hometown was going to be the next best outcome. Following the signing, local columnist Bruce Dudley stated, “The Colonels signed a ball player yesterday afternoon they should have signed in 1929.”16 Dudley’s column described Koster as “one of the glossiest prospects” of his time, but his heart never really seemed to be fully in the game, and he never reached his full potential. “Freddie Koster has a lot of baseball in his system, and now that he is with the club he has always wanted to be with, he should have one of his best years.”17 Koster played 32 games for the Colonels over the last months of the season, then continued with a productive 1938 season. The Colonels finished in last place, but Koster did his part, batting .263 with 60 RBIs. He also contributed to developing a fellow Louisville, 19-year-old Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, who was just starting his Hall-of-Fame career.

On the surface, the onset of the 1939 season seemed to provide a restored sense of optimism for Koster. “It looks as if they’ll have a good team and playing on a good team will be something new and an incentive for me,” Koster said. “I’ve been with so many teams that have been way down in the standings that at times I’ve become disgusted with baseball and felt…it was time to get out.”18 Away from reporters though, Koster knew his chances of making the Colonels roster were slim. He was 33, and the team had younger prospects to find roster spaces for. Sure enough, when spring training camp ended, he was released.

A family friend had told Koster that when he was ready to “quit playing games and get a real job,” he would have a position lined up for him.19 Koster took the friend up on his offer and in January 1940 he accepted the dual positions of Personnel Manager and Director of Physical Welfare at Reynolds Metals in Louisville. Initially this would have been considered a cushy office job that Koster could enjoy while he kept building on his car sales business, but as the United States was brought into World War II, he suddenly found himself in charge of hiring at a metal plant that exploded in business virtually overnight. Koster left Reynolds Metals in 1945 and helped start Koster-Swope Motors. The Swope Auto Group, renamed after Koster’s death, was still in business in Louisville as of 2022.

The business kept him busy, but Koster still found time to pursue another career as a sports official. He had refereed local football and basketball games all through his baseball career and into the 1940s. He was in the middle of officiating a football game in September 1942, when he was informed of the death of this father at the age of 68 (Fred Sr. was still working as a physical fitness instructor up to his last days). In 1945 he accepted an offer to referee college football games for the Southeastern Conference. Koster would officiate in 12 major bowl games, and in 1955 was elected president of the Southeastern Conference Football Officials Association. As far as his officiating skills, his wife Florence once offered that “I have watched Fred with my field glasses, and I can honestly say I have never disagreed with one of his decisions.”20 though she could have been considered a biased observer.

Koster retired from officiating in 1957, but that just gave him additional time to become involved with additional local business ventures. With the spare time he could find he also was on the University of Louisville Athletic Board, the Board of Trustees for Louisville’s Seneca Gardens, and he supported several performing arts foundations in the city. Although Fred and Florence never had children of their own, the kids in their neighborhood kept them plenty busy with visits to their home’s rumpus room and the regular television parties they hosted.21

When the University of Louisville announced the inaugural class for its Athletic Hall of Fame in 1978, “Fritz” Koster stood out in a group that included such luminaries as Lenny Lyles, Wes Unseld, and Johnny Unitas. Unfortunately, Koster did not get to enjoy the honor for very long. On April 24, 1979, seventy-three-year-old Fred Koster was working in the offices of his auto dealership when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Florence died in 1988, and the two are buried together in Louisville’s historic Cave Hill Cemetery.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and David Bilmes and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources shown in the notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com, Newspapers.com, NewspaperArchive.com, and Ancestry.com.

The University of Louisville library provided access to the Dwayne D. Cox interview with Koster from November 22, 1978, the collection of Koster’s personal scrapbook clippings, and digital copies of past editions of the school newspaper, The Louisville Cardinal.

Johnson, Lloyd, and Miles Wolff, eds. Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1993).

 

Notes

1 “Louisville Cardinals Report”, Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), October 3, 1999, 12.

2 Stan Baumgartner, “Koster, New Phils Outfielder, Gained Agility as Topman in Circus Pyramid”, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 22, 1931, 42.

3 Recording of Dwayne D. Cox interview with Koster from November 22, 1978, for the University of Louisville.

4 After Koster switched to law school during his senior year he was eligible to play on the football team for another season. He did not make the football team his freshman year but played his fourth season as a law student.

5 Cox Interview.

6 Cox Interview.

7 Stats based on Birmingham (Alabama) News year-end summary. The 1931 Reach Guide shows that Koster tied with Guy Sturdy for 3rd place.

8 Zach Jackson and Sean Green debuted in 2006. Since then, the University of Louisville has sent players to the major leagues on a near-annual basis.

9 Koster attempted two stolen bases in his third game, being successful once. In the Dwayne D. Cox interview, he could not remember for which attempt this dialog occurred.

10 Cox interview.

11 Cox interview.

12 Cox interview.

13 Cox interview.

14 “Trade With St. Paul Costs Phils Plenty”, The Sporting News, November 26, 1931, 6.

15 “13 Pitchers, 3 Maskmen, At Charlotte Next Sunday”, Syracuse Herald, March 7, 1937, 11.

16 Bruce Dudley, “Bruce Dudley’s Whatnot”, Courier-Journal, July 2, 1937, 36.

17 Dudley

18 Tommy Fitzgerald, “Freddie Koster Says He Relishes Baseball, With Better Team-and Paycheck,” Courier-Journal, February 10, 1939, 36.

19 Cox Interview.

20 Mary Phyllis Riedley, “Mrs. Koster Defends Right of Fans to Boo Officials”, Courier-Journal, January 7, 1951, 23.

21 Riedley

Full Name

Frederick Charles Koster

Born

December 21, 1905 at Louisville, KY (USA)

Died

April 24, 1979 at St. Matthews, KY (USA)

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