This article was written by Adam Ulrey
Many people can go through an entire life without a lifelong friend and even if they have one, at some point they will be separated for many years. The friendship of Jim Frey and Don Zimmer not only has endured for many decades since childhood, but the two spent the bulk of their friendship in the game of baseball. They were teammates throughout their childhood, playing high-school and American Legion baseball together. Zimmer went on to play for five major-league teams, coach for six more and manage four. Frey had to take the long way into the majors: Despite a career batting average of .302 for 14 seasons in the minors, he never made a major-league roster. Eventually he became a minor-league manager and then moved to the big leagues, where he was a scout, coach, manager, and finally a general manager. It all came full circle in 1987 when, as the general manager of the Chicago Cubs, Frey hired his friend Zimmer as manager.
Frey was born on May 26, 1931, in Cleveland, Ohio, of German descent. His father John, who went to law school at night and later became an accountant, stressed the importance of discipline and hard work. “He always felt you had to make things happen in life,” Frey said. “He was very strict with my older brother, Don, and me. But we became self-disciplined.”1
At Western Hills High School Frey earned three letters each in baseball and basketball and graduated in 1949. He (and Zimmer) also played for the Robert E. Bentley American Legion Post team that won the national Legion championship in 1947. Frey drove in the winning run in the eighth inning of the final game. In 1949 his team won the National Amateur Baseball Federation championship. Frey signed with the Boston Braves after graduating from high school. (He attended Ohio State University in the offseasons from 1949 through 1951.)
After a brief stay with the Evansville Braves of the Class B Three-I League, Frey was sent to Paducah (Kentucky) in the Class D Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. He hit .325 there, leading the club, then returned to Evansville in 1951 and hit .324. After another good year in Evansville (.336), he reached Single-A Hartford in late 1952.
In 1953 and ’54 Frey played for Jacksonville (Single-A South Atlantic), hitting .317 and .316. He did not have much power, but his 11 home runs in 1954 got him to Triple-A Toledo in 1955. He was 24 years old, and his .282 average and 87 walks would appear to have him close to the major leagues. Frey split the 1956 season with Austin and Fort Worth in the Texas League, the switch coming on July 4 when the Milwaukee Braves traded him to the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1957 he moved on to Tulsa in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system, and he broke out by hitting .336 with 50 doubles and 11 triples and 74 runs batted in for the Oilers en route to being named the Texas League Most Valuable Player after leading the league in categories.
The next year, 1958, Frey was invited to join the St. Louis Cardinals in spring training. “I hit everything they tossed up that spring,” he said, “but I couldn’t throw a ball from center to second base. My arm was dead after I banged my shoulder against the fence the year before. Fred Hutchinson (Cardinals manager) gave me a real shot, but he wound up keeping Irv Noren and George Crowe.”2
That setback all but convinced Frey that he might have more of a future selling real estate than hitting a baseball. He never again had a real shot to join a major-league team. He played through the 1963 season, winning a second batting title in 1960, with the Rochester Red Wings in the International League. Some records are incomplete, but Frey ended his minor-league career with 1,789 hits.
Just as Frey was about to settle into his new career in real estate, got a call from Baltimore farm director Harry Dalton asking if he wanted to manage the Orioles’ Appalachian League (rookie) team in Bluefield, West Virginia. Frey didn’t have to be asked twice. After spending two seasons managing Bluefield to losing records, he served as the Orioles’ Midwest scout from 1966 through 1969 before joining manager Earl Weaver’s staff on the Orioles’ coaching staff in 1970. Starting as the bullpen and hitting coach that season, he was a member of the team’s coaching staff for 10 seasons, including six seasons as the first-base coach. During his tenure the Orioles won three pennants and the 1970 World Series.
In October 1979 the unheralded Frey was hired to manage the Kansas City Royals, replacing the popular Whitey Herzog. The Royals had won three consecutive division titles from 1976 through 1978, losing to the New York Yankees in the playoffs each time, before a second-place finish just three games behind the California Angels cost Herzog his job. One of the strongest endorsements for Frey came from Earl Weaver. “The Royals couldn’t have picked a better man than Jim,” said the Birds’ peppery little leader. “I know the Orioles will miss his knowledge, his judgment, and his organization ability.”3
The first person to call the new manager was his old Little League, high-school and Legion teammate Don Zimmer, then the manager of the Boston Red Sox. “Our school was a gold mine for baseball talent,” Zimmer told the Kansas City Star after Frey was hired. “Besides me and Jim, it sent Clyde Vollmer, Herm Wehmeier, Art Mahaffey, Russ Nixon, Eddie Brinkman, and Pete Rose to the majors.”4
In an amusing aside, Zimmer told the Star how Frey acquired his most prominent facial feature, his nose: “It was all my fault. We were playing our archrivals, Walnut Hills, in basketball. They were always one of the state powers, and this year, they had a real hotshot guard, a left-hander named Don Griewe. He was averaging 20 points a game when most teams didn’t score much more than that in a game.
“I couldn’t shoot worth a darn, but I could play real tough defense. So naturally, I got to cover Griewe. I held him to a basket and free throw in the first half, and he was really mad. That’s when the elbowing started. He gave me a shot to the ribs, and I gave it right back. Soon everyone was running on the court. Jim took one step off the bench to help me, and some big guy from the other team hit him flush on the nose. It hasn’t been the same since. But every time Jim looks in the mirror, that big nose reminds him of the one time we beat Walnut Hills in basketball.”5
It didn’t take long for Frey to show he could manage, as he led the Royals to a 97-65 record and the 1980 American League West title. The club’s success was aided by future Hall of Famer George Brett, who flirted with a .400 batting average in late summer before finishing at.390. The Royals swept the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and went to their first World Series, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in six games. Frey was criticized for his handling of the Royals’ pitching staff, in particular bypassing 14-game winner Paul Splittorff, a left-hander who pitched just once in relief. Frey said he believed that right-handers were more effective against the Phillies, and he started Rich Gale in the third and sixth games.
Still, it was a very good year and hopes were high for 1981. The season was interrupted by a 50-day midsummer players strike, at which point the Royals were struggling at 20-30. When they split their first 20 games after play resumed, Frey was abruptly fired by the Royals. He was replaced by Dick Howser, whose Yankees Frey had defeated in the 1980 ALCS.
Frey wasn’t out of work long. In November he signed on as hitting coach of the New York Mets, working under manager George Bamberger, with whom he had coached in Baltimore for many years. He coached for the Mets for two seasons. “My philosophy on hitting is not to try and tell people how to hit,” said Frey, “but to find out the ability of each man and try and get the top performance out of him with the ability he has.”
After the 1983 season Frey was hired to manage the Chicago Cubs, a team that had not had a winning season since 1972. Once again he had immediate success, leading the Cubs to a 96-65 record and a National League East Division title, earning their first postseason appearance since 1945. The Cubs were led by second baseman Ryne Sandberg, whose .314 average with 19 home runs, 19 triples and 32 stolen bases were enough to get him named the Most Valuable Player, and pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who was acquired from the Cleveland Indians in June and then rattled off a 16-1 record and 2.69 ERA for the Cubs.
The Cubs faced the San Diego Padres in the playoffs, and quickly won the first two games at Wrigley Field, 13-0 (behind Sutcliffe) and 4-2. Chicago needed just one more victory as the series headed to San Diego for the final three games. Shockingly, the Padres won all three games, beating Sutcliffe in the final, and headed to the World Series, where they lost to the Detroit Tigers. Frey was named National League Manager of the Year.
The Cubs started well in 1985, holding first place in mid-June (they were 35-19 on June 11), but then lost 13 straight games and finished 77-84 and in fourth place. After a bad start in 1986 Frey was fired in June. He spent the 1987 season working for Chicago radio station WGN as the color commentator for Cubs games. In December 1987, the Tribune Company, the Chicago-based newspaper chain that owned the Cubs, hired Frey to replace his old boss Dallas Green as general manager of the Cubs. Frey quickly turned to old friend Don Zimmer to be the new manager.
Frey soon put his imprint on the team by dealing his star relief pitcher, Lee Smith, to the Boston Red Sox for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. He then traded popular outfielder Keith Moreland to the Padres for reliever Goose Gossage, who replaced Smith as the closer. None of these moves paid off, as the Cubs finished 77-85 in 1988. Frey made another bold move after the season, trading two youngsters, outfielder Rafael Palmiero and pitcher Jamie Moyer, to the Texas Rangers for hard-throwing reliever Mitch Williams. The trade worked out in the short term, as Williams saved 36 games for the Cubs in 1989, but he had a forgettable season in 1990 and was traded to the Phillies. Meanwhile Palmeiro and Moyer went on to highly productive careers.
Chicago finished 93-69 in 1989, winning the National League East Division title for the first time since Frey led them in 1984. Once again the club fell in the playoffs, losing four of five games to the San Francisco Giants. After a disappointing 1990 season (77-85), Frey was active in the free-agent market, acquiring outfielder George Bell and pitchers Danny Jackson and Dave Smith. Jackson and Smith flopped in their roles in 1991 and Zimmer was fired in May, apparently on orders from Frey’s bosses at the Tribune Company. After the 1991 season Frey was relieved of his general-manager duties.
Frey retired after that and split his retirement between Naples, Florida, and Baltimore with his wife, Joan. The Freys raised four children. After almost 18 years away from the game he was named vice chairman of the Somerset Patriots in the independent Atlantic League, a post he still held in 2010.
Akron Beacon Journal
Kansas City Star
Kansas City Union
New York Post
New York Times
The Sporting News
1 Chicago Tribune, March 11, 1984.
2 Kansas City Star, unknown date, 1979. (Clipping from Frey’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY)
3 Kansas City Star, November 10, 1979.
4 Kansas City Star, unknown date, 1979.
5 Kansas City Star, unknown date, 1979.