This article was written by Joseph Wancho
On the night of May 1, 1979, the St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Houston Astros at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Roger Freed, the Cardinals’ much-traveled first baseman-outfielder, had been restless, relegated to pinch-hitting duty in the first month of the season. Like many pinch hitters, he was unable to find his stroke, but was expected to come through when the team needed a key hit. He had failed in five previous at bats, garnering only a walk. Freed had also been reading that he might be demoted if the Cardinals decided they needed another pitcher. “I talked to Roger before the game and told him we weren’t going to move him,” said manager Ken Boyer. “I told him to relax and keep swinging. Roger realizes his role as a pinch hitter. It’s not an easy job coming off the bench and getting just one chance, but I believe he has the ideal mental attitude to do the job for us.”1 (Unfortunately for Freed, Boyer changed his mind later in the season.)
As the night wore on, the Astros and Cards found themselves in a 3-3 tie as the game reached the 11th inning. The Astros went ahead it in the top of the frame, scoring three runs – one of them courtesy of a double off the bat of Houston relief pitcher Joe Sambito. Sambito, one of the best relievers in the game, collected 22 saves to go with an earned-run average of 1.77 in 63 relief appearances that season, but on this night, he let the Cardinals load the bases in the bottom of the 11th as he surrendered two walks and a single by center fielder Tony Scott. True to his word, Boyer called on Freed to pinch-hit for left fielder Jerry Mumphrey. After working the count full, Freed blasted a grand slam, the ball clearing the wall in left-center field, delivering a 7-6 win for St. Louis. The few fans remaining from the sparse attendance of 6,349 cheered wildly. “This is the biggest, most pleasing experience anyone could have in a lifetime,” said Freed. “Something like this really makes me feel like a part of the ballclub — like I’m an asset to the team. You get to feeling like dead weight when you’re not contributing in some way.”2
Freed’s feat was a high for him in a season and career mostly of lows at the major-league level. And not long after hitting his dramatic blast, he was out of the major leagues.
Roger Vernon Freed was born on June 2, 1946, in Los Angeles, California, to William and Margie Freed. Roger was the oldest of four children, having three younger sisters. William Freed worked as a pitchman, demonstrating and selling products at carnivals, circuses, and county fairs. Because of William’s work, the Freed family was on the move for much of Roger’s childhood; he changed schools often as they moved from town to town.
Freed attended Baldwin Park High School, near Los Angeles, and was a four sport letterman (baseball, basketball, football, and track). After graduation, he enrolled at Mount San Antonio Junior College in Walnut, California. He helped lead to the team to the California Junior College baseball championship in 1965, and was named to the All-Eastern Conference team.
Baltimore scout Ed Burke signed Freed, and he was assigned to Aberdeen, South Dakota, of the short-season Northern League for 1966. Freed hit .266 but led the league in home runs (13) and runs batted in (58). He returned to Aberdeen in 1967 and finished among the league leaders in many offensive categories: tied for first in home runs (13), third in batting average (.303), and first in walks (61).
Freed’s success at Aberdeen earned him a promotion in 1967 to Class A Stockton in the California League, where his offensive figures suffered (.180 in 122 at bats). He was back at Stockton in ’68 and showed good power, smacking 31 home runs and 14 doubles, woth 131 RBIs. Freed was named to both the league and Class A West All Star teams. He continued to blaze his trail through the Orioles organization in 1969, hitting 22 home runs and driving in 90 runs for the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs. He emerged in the field as well, leading all outfielders in the Texas League in fielding (.984) and in assists (17). “Freed will play in the big leagues,” said his Stockton Ports manager, Joe Altobelli. “He has two strong things going for him — his bat and his arm. He can hit a ball as far as anyone. In fact, I predict he’ll hit more homers in the majors than in the minors.”3
Bolstered by a lineup that included Bobby Grich and Don Baylor, the 1970 Rochester Red Wings flexed their offensive muscle, hitting 113 home runs and scoring 757 runs. The centerpiece of the 1970 team was Roger Freed. From his first at bat at the Triple-A level, when he smashed a 430-foot home run in Columbus, Ohio, he did not stop hitting all season long. Freed was named the International League Player of the Year by Topps and Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News after hitting .334 with 24 home runs, 30 doubles, 168 hits, and 130 RBIs. He was the third player in the Orioles organization in five years to be so honored (following Mike Epstein in 1966 and Merv Rettenmund in1968).
Freed was further rewarded for his fine season when Baltimore promoted him to the big-league roster as a late season call-up. He made his major-league debut on September 18, 1970, at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Starting in right field and batting fourth, Freed went hitless in four trips to the plate. The next day he stroked his first hit in the big leagues with a single to center field off the Cleveland Indians Phil Hennigan.
As the Oriole captured the World Series title over the Reds, the future looked bright for Freed. He had succeeded at every level of minor-league baseball, leaving nothing more to prove to the Orioles, or he hoped. He was ready to compete at the big-league level. However, the baseball adage that “you can never have enough pitching” prevented Freed from taking that final step in an Orioles uniform. After the season Baltimore dealt its prized prospect to the Philadelphia Phillies for left-handed pitcher Grant Jackson (who had finished 5-15 for the Phillies with a 5.29 ERA) and two reserve outfielders, Sam Parilla and Jim Hutto. It seemed a curious trade for the Orioles in that they received little in return and Freed had two options left. Parilla never played again in the majors and Hutto did not make it to Baltimore’s big-league roster until 1975, playing in only four games. But the Orioles had a loaded outfield with starters Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, and Don Buford. With up-and-coming reserve Merv Rettenmund hitting .322 in 1970, Freed had nowhere to play. (Jackson wound up having several fine years in the Orioles bullpen.)
Freed was immediately tabbed the starter in right field for the Phillies by manager Frank Lucchesi. “You always hate to say a job is filled, but let’s be honest about this,” said Lucchesi. “Roger Freed is going to be the right fielder. We didn’t make a trade involving the players we gave up to get a utilityman. If he falls on his face in July, we’ll have to do something else, but for now, he’s the right fielder.”4
The Phillies moved into a new ballpark in 1971. Veterans Stadium was one of the “cookie cutter” stadiums that sprang up around the country in this era, with a turf field considered the future for all parks. In the second home game of the year, Freed connected for a grand slam off Montreal’s Howie Reed to break open a 3-1 Phillies lead in the fifth inning. One member of the Phillies staff later told the writer Allan Lewis, “That grand-slam might have been the worst thing that could have happened to him.”5 From April 19 to June 18, Freed hit .208 with one home run and eight RBIs in 49 games. He finished the year hitting .221 with six home runs and 37 RBIs for last-place Philadelphia. He started 93 games in right field, the most he would ever start in a major-league season.
Freed showed little improvement in 1972. Though he played in 73 games, he started in only 27 games in right field, sharing the job with Oscar Gamble, Tom Hutton, and Mike Anderson. His home-run total was again six, but he drove in only 18 runs while hitting .225. When the Phillies again finished in the basement (59-97) of the National League East, Paul Owens replaced Lucchesi as manager.
In December the Phillies sent Freed and Gamble to Cleveland for outfielder Del Unser and third baseman Terry Wedgewood. Freed was assigned to Oklahoma City, Cleveland’s affiliate in the American Association. Indians General Manager Gabe Paul assured Freed that he would be given a shot to make the Indians in spring training, but it was Gamble who gained a roster spot and Freed spent the 1973 season in the minors, leading the 89ers with 30 home runs. The Indians finished in last place in the American League East and their right fielder, Rusty Torres hit .205, but Freed was never recalled to the majors.
In December 1973 the Indians traded Freed to Cincinnati for pitcher Steve Blateric. Again, there was no room on the major-league roster, and the Reds sent him to Indianapolis (American Association). Freed still had no problem hitting in the minors, finishing 1974 with 19 home runs and 71 RBIs. One positive element from the season was the relationship that grew between Freed and Indianapolis manager Vern Rapp. Later in his career Freed described Rapp as “the best manager I ever played for. We’re very close friends.”6 Rapp was a minor leaguer from 1946 through 1960 (playing a few games in later years) who never made it to the major leagues. Perhaps he and Freed commiserated with each other about life in the bush leagues. Freed earned a call-up to the Reds in September, and hit a three-run pinch-hit home run against San Diego on September 18.
After Freed spent all of spring training with the Reds in 1975, Cincinnati sold his contract to Monterrey of the Mexican League. He hit .285 with 19 home runs and 130 RBIs while playing in 103 games. The Montreal Expos purchased his contract and sent him to Denver, their top farm team in the American Association, for 1976. Rapp had been recently hired as the Bears’ manager and urged the team to pick up Freed. “When I came over here (to Denver), I felt I needed somebody who had played for me previously,” said Rapp.7 Rapp’s judgment looked sound. Freed once again captured The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year award, the only person ever to earn the honor twice. He swatted a career-high 42 home runs, drove in 102 runs, and batted .309. He finished 3-for-15 for the Expos in a brief September call-up.
By this point Freed had been typecast as a good minor-league hitter, and he was left unprotected by the Expos in the Rule 5 draft. Montreal General Manager Charlie Fox said he felt that Freed had “too many holes to be a big-league hitter.”8 St. Louis claimed Freed, and once again he was reunited with Rapp, who had been hired to replace Red Schoendienst as manager. This time Freed stayed in the major leagues.
Freed was used primarily as a pinch hitter off the bench and at times spelled Keith Hernandez at first base. As a pinch hitter he was 9-for-23 with two walks, good for a .391 batting average. He had a fan club that frequently folded stadium seats to spell out a giant “Freed” in the upper deck of Busch Stadium. One of his highlights for the 1977 season came on August 22 in St. Louis. The Cardinals scored seven runs in the ninth inning to overcome a 6-1 deficit to the Dodgers. Freed provided the decisive blow when he pinch-hit for pitcher Al Hrabosky, and hit a three-run home run off Charlie Hough to secure the come-from-behind victory. “That’s the biggest hit, yes sir,” said Freed. “I kept fouling some good pitches. His knuckleball was hopping all over. I knew I hit it hard, but I didn’t know where it was going to go. I didn’t know whether it was going to be a line drive to the shortstop or what. When I looked up and saw it was going out, I couldn’t believe it.”9 For the season, Freed batted .398 (33-for-83) with five home runs. He made the final out of the season on a force play against New York, thus ending his bid for a .400 season.
Freed enjoyed more success in 1978 as he hit .379 (11-for-29) in a pinch-hitting role (.239 overall in 92 at bats). As in the previous year he also saw some time at first base to give Hernandez a breather. Although he did not provide any theatrics with game-winning homers, he did collect 12 RBIs in his substitute role. On April 16 Cardinals starter Bob Forsch was throwing a no-hitter against the Phillies and clinging to a 1-0 lead through six innings. In the bottom of the sixth Freed pinch-hit for Tony Scott with the bases loaded, and delivered a bases-clearing double. The lead gave Forsch some breathing room and he went on to pitch a 5-0 no-hitter. Rapp was replaced at the helm when Cardinals great Ken Boyer took over early in the season. The change of managers did not help the final outcome as St. Louis finished in fifth place, 21 games off the pace.
Freed started the 1979 season in St. Louis. He had a moment of glory with his walk-off grand slam against Houston on May 1, but was demoted to Springfield of the American Association. In midseason. “He hadn’t many at bats with us and he didn’t have many in spring training,” said Boyer. “And the way (Hernandez) is playing, there is no need to rest him. And if I did rest him, I’d play (Dane) Iorg at first base. This way, Roger can get 35 to 40 at bats (at Springfield) and get his stroke back.”10 If Freed refused to go, he would surrender his 1979 salary. “It’s a numbers game,” the unhappy Freed said. “But they won’t find a job for me someplace else. I’ve been up and down before. I don’t feel this is the end of my career, but I could see it coming. What I don’t understand is why can’t somebody else use me? Why not give me a chance in the American League. I haven’t given anybody any trouble. I come out and do my work.”11 He did return to the Cardinals, and finished the season at .258 with two home runs in 31 at bats. Besides the walk-off grand slam against Houston, his other home run also came in a pinch-hitting role, on June 12 off Burt Hooton of the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 9-3 loss.
The Cardinals released Freed at the end of spring training in 1980. He signed with Philadelphia, and was assigned to Oklahoma City of the American Association. After playing in 57 games, he was released and finished the season at Syracuse, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate in the International League. After that he ended his playing career. Freed seemed to be classified as a “4A Player” –too good for Triple A but not quite good enough to stick in the major leagues. He ended his career with 143 home runs in Triple-A baseball.
After retiring as a player, Freed worked as a minor-league batting instructor in the Dodgers organization, and in 1981 as manager of the Erie (New York) Cardinals, the Cardinals’ short-season affiliate. In 1985 he managed Saltillo in the Mexican League (1985).
Freed died on January 9, 1996, at the age of 49. He had been hospitalized with a ruptured appendix the month before, but the cause of his death was related to a heart condition. He was survived by his wife, Linda, and three daughters, Melinda, Merrie, and Michalle. He was buried in Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora, California.
1 St. Louis Dispatch, May 2, 1979, 2.
2 The Sporting News, May 5, 1968, 43.
3 The Sporting News, February 20, 1971, 36.
4 The Sporting News, February 20, 1971.
5 The Sporting News, July 17, 1971, 38.
6 Syracuse Herald, July 20, 1977.
7 The Sporting News, August 28, 1976, 34.
8 The Sporting News, August 28, 1976.
9 The Associated Press, August 23, 1977.
10 Unidentified clipping in Roger Freed’s National Baseball Hall of Fame Player File.
11 Unidentified clipping in Roger Freed’s National Baseball Hall of Fame Player File.