This article was written by David E. Skelton
“Let’s face it, I’m more a thrower than a pitcher,”1 said the frank left-handed Kentuckian whose sudden emergence on the major-league stage in 1966 was described as “one of the strangest make-good-in-a-hurry stories”2 to ever come along. Despite an early diagnosis of an arthritic left elbow, this 43-year-old “thrower” was still hurling a baseball better than 90 mph that contributed to a 19-year professional career. Accompanying a blazing fastball was a pleasing personality that attracted friends everywhere he went. Upon his passing February 4, 2011, the memory of Woodrow “Woodie” Thompson Fryman was honored by the senate of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, a strong indication of the respect he garnered throughout his life.
Woodrow Thompson Fryman was born April 12, 1940, in Ewing, Kentucky, a small city in rural Fleming County, 80 miles southeast of Cincinnati. One of four children born into the farming family of Woodrow and Almedia Fryman, Woodie and his brother Cecil followed their father in pursuit of baseball on those occasions when 520 acres’ worth of farm chores did not take precedence. Their father once had a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds and served as manager, pitcher and clean-up hitter for the sandlot Flemingsburg Aces in the Blue Grass League. Woodie developed his own reputation from the mound as the “Fleming Flame” and by 19 he was considered “a backwoods strikeout sensation”3 – 32 strikeouts in a 13-inning perfect game. In 1960, fellow-Kentuckian and Pittsburgh scout Jim Maxwell invited Woodie to a Pirates tryout where all went swimmingly until the point of signing. Rejected outright in his bid for a $20,000 signing bonus, the fiercely self-reliant young man with no more than an eighth-grade education returned to the farm. “What bugged me is that there were guys I knew and played against who were getting all kinds of bonuses. I figured those scouts were trying to take advantage of a scared country boy.”4 He was subsequently approached by the Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago White Sox and (after leading the Aces to the state championship) the Los Angeles Dodgers, but each try for a bonus ended the same.
In 1965 Maxwell discovered a more receptive audience from the husky blond. Though farming would remain a lifelong pursuit for the Frymans, the family’s household income was adversely affected when federal subsidies were curtailed for tobacco (ironically, a product Woodie never touched: “None of my family smokes or chews the stuff, either. I don’t think it’s good for you”5). Combined with the internal nagging of wondering where his talents might take him, plus additional prodding from his father, Woodie agreed to report to the Pirates’ Class A affiliate in Batavia, New York for $400 a month. Prior to his July signature, Maxwell convinced Woodie to list his birthday as 1943 in order to enhance his chances with the Pirates – a listing corrected only after his trade to Philadelphia.
Fryman’s stay in western New York was short-lived. A 1.50 ERA (league average: 4.19) in six appearances – 45 strikeouts and 13 hits surrendered in 30 innings – prompted a promotion to the AAA-level Columbus Jets, but not before the parent club had an opportunity to showcase him in an August 2 exhibition against Cleveland. Fryman did not disappoint, striking out five Indians in three innings of two-hit ball. The 1965 Jets achieved a first-place finish in the International League due largely to their pace-setting 117 home runs, but these same bats went silent when Fryman took the mound. In three starting assignments he surrendered three runs over 30-plus innings yet had but two losses to show for it. Despite finishing his short season with a record of 0-3, his fine performance earned two appearances in the league championship series – including the starting assignment in the decisive fifth game. He also garnered consideration in a postseason poll of managers as the league’s best pitcher. The success of his three-month debut brought a welcome to the Pirates’ 1966 spring camp as a nonroster invitee.
Fryman wasted no time in making a positive impression for a team in need of a left-handed reliever. He threw eight no-hit innings over three appearances and was dubbed the “darling of the camp … ha[ving] caught the fancy of players, coaches and brass.”6 Inked to a major-league contract, Woodie made his debut in front of visiting family on April 15 against the Cardinals in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Two days later he earned his first win. Until the Philadelphia Phillies reached him for two runs on May 6, Fryman remained unscored-upon, yielding a mere three-hits in nine and one-third innings. With veteran hurlers Vernon Law and Don Cardwell nursing a variety of ailments, manager Harry Walker turned to Fryman in a May 13 match against the defending world champion Dodgers. Relinquishing one earned run, Fryman notched a complete-game victory that (excluding one relief appearance in June) solidified his stake in the rotation throughout the remainder of the season. He won two more games before sustaining his first loss, then proceeded to pitch three consecutive shutouts. A first-inning leadoff single by New York Mets infielder Ron Hunt on July 1 was the margin between Fryman and a perfect game (he faced the minimum 27 batters when Hunt was caught stealing), while a three-hit shutout four days later against the Chicago Cubs also served to end Hall of Famer Ron Santo’s club-record 27-game hitting streak. By mid-July, Fryman possessed half of the Pirates’ eight compete games while stringing together a scoreless streak of 31 2/3 innings.
Thrust into a down-to-the-wire pennant race, each of Fryman’s three victories in August served to secure a first-place berth for the contending Pirates. But they also represented all but one of Woodie’s wins over the season’s second half as he finished 4-6, 5.44. The entire rotation appeared to come apart at the end. Ace Bob Veale secured only four wins after August 3, and Tommie Sisk two wins after August 20, as the Bucs were overtaken by the Dodgers in September. In a postseason analysis, Walker expressed confidence in Woodie going forward, adding “Fryman gained the most ground. … I don’t think he pitched much baseball before last season and that has to be the reason why he tired late in the year.”7 In October, Fryman was anointed the Topps 1966 All Star Rookie Team’s left-handed pitcher, while Hall of Famer Willie McCovey declared him among the toughest lefties in the National League.8
A day after McCovey’s eighth-inning grand slam off Juan Pizarro sent the Pirates to defeat on September 23, 1967, Fryman came into a ninth-inning jam and struck out the left-handed hitting slugger, preserving a 2-1 win. This save represented one of the few 1967 highlights for the native Kentuckian. He got off to a slow start, then fell victim to an injury on May 16. The Pirates’ attempt to work him slowly back into the rotation failed as Woodie courted a near-7.00 ERA into July. He didn’t capture his first win until July 22 while halting yet another opposing player’s team-record hitting streak – 20 games by Houston’s Rusty Staub. Significantly, Woodie caught the attention of opposing manager Gene Mauch when he established a career-high 15 strikeouts in a September 1 shutout over the Phillies. But this victory represented the last of a dismal 3-8, 4.05 campaign.
The Pirates had plummeted to a sixth-place finish largely due to a staff ERA of 3.74, nearly the league’s worst. Management approached the winter meetings in hopes of bolstering the staff. Meanwhile, the Phillies approached these same meetings poised to jettison an aging corps of high-salaried players in pursuit of a large-scale youth movement. These interests merged into the December 15, 1967, trade of Hall of Famer Jim Bunning for four players. The plum for Philadelphia was Carolina League MVP Don Money but Mauch, with the memory of the September 1 defeat still fresh in his mind, insisted that Fryman had to be part of the deal. “I know Woodie can throw,” Mauch explained. “Nobody in the business can throw any better.”9
A remarkable start in his new environs (10-5, 1.61) led to Fryman’s first of two All-Star selections (he played in neither) and prompted speculation as an early candidate for the Comeback Player of the Year award. But the years Fryman played in Philadelphia were lean as the nucleus of the 1980 championship team – Boone, Schmidt and Bowa – was both young and inept (.421 winning percentage between 1968-72). An anemic offense left little margin for error from the mound and a well-pitched performance could still result in a loss. Perhaps no one knew this more than Fryman, who carved a deceptive 46-52 record with a 3.76 ERA in four-plus seasons with the Phillies. In nearly 30 percent of his appearances (46 of 157 both as a starter and, more so in relief toward the end of his stay when shoulder and elbow problems surfaced) he carved a 1.95 ERA with no wins, 11 losses and three saves to show. These losses were often of the heartbreak variety when, for example, he struck out 10 Mets on June 24, 1969, but was still bested by Tom Seaver in a complete game 2-1 loss. A firm indication of his perceived value was the frequency in which other teams petitioned the Phillies for trade, and teammate Larry Bowa once remarked, “Hitting Woodie Fryman is like trying to eat soup with a fork.”10 But it was during these same Philadelphia years that Woodie was diagnosed with an arthritic elbow, a condition that would hamper him for the remainder of his career.
A bright 1972 season beckoned when Fryman opened the campaign with two shutouts in his first six starts. But this brisk start soon yielded to a 7.20 ERA in seven consecutive losses. The Phillies began to aggressively shop the lefty. The once-highly sought hurler drew little interest and Woodie was instead waived. Ironically, he appeared to be turning his season around – excluding a dreadful performance in San Francisco July 16, he captured two wins with a 1.77 ERA in his final three Phillies assignments. The contending Detroit Tigers became the beneficiaries of this budding turnaround when they claimed Fryman from the waiver wire on August 2.
Needing a strong presence from the mound, the heavy-hitting Tigers had fallen considerably short of their pennant pursuit in 1971. The Tigers saw in Fryman an opportunity to bolster a staff anchored by Mickey Lolich and Joe Coleman, a projection that turned out to be all too true. Making his American League debut on August 3, Fryman did not yield a run in his first 18 2/3 innings, a stretch that included a complete-game shutout in Yankee Stadium. Crediting the grass surfaces in the American League parks that prevented ground balls from scooting into the outfield, the pinpoint-control artist fashioned a 2.06 ERA with 10 victories – including the East Division crown-clinching win October 3 – that ensured his first postseason appearance. Fryman and Lolich were both saddled with losses in the pitching-dominated League Championship Series against the Oakland A’s. Fryman’s loss in the decisive Game 5 was absorbed while yielding a mere four hits and one earned run. His efforts did not go unnoticed when, despite only two-plus months in a Detroit uniform, Woodie received postseason consideration from the local scribes for Tiger of the Year award.
Within two years the AL East champions would collapse to a last-place finish. Age had finally caught up to the grand careers of the likes of Al Kaline and Norm Cash, while Fryman was struggling with his own challenges. Beset by shoulder stiffness in the spring of 1973, Fryman sustained an arm injury in his second start. Though he did not initially miss a turn in the rotation, the injury affected him thereafter. Glimpses of his 1972 performance were spotted when he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning of an August 1, 1974, shutout victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, his dominance exhibited by the fact that only seven balls were hit into the outfield. But for the remainder of his final two years in Detroit, Fryman’s 12-22, 5.03 numbers spawned rumors of his departure. “I really don’t know what’s happened to me,” he expressed in dismay. “I know it’s either fight or quit. And I love baseball too much to quit.”11
Trade rumors turned into reality when, on December 4, 1974, Fryman was traded to the Montreal Expos. Seeking left-handed pitching – a nearly nonexistent commodity in Montreal; the Expos also secured southpaw Dave McNally on the same day – the trade reunited Woodie with manager Gene Mauch. Quickly dispelling concerns regarding his arm, Fryman converted a strong spring training into a club-record scoreless streak of 33 innings that included another no-hit bid on May 3 against the Mets (foiled only by a fifth-inning double). This outing reduced his ERA to a league-leading 0.53, earning Fryman a share of the National League Player of the Week honors. A player whose expressed desire in the winter of 1973 was to remain in baseball for another two or three years, this initial success in Montreal, interrupted by brief stints in Cincinnati and Chicago, would sustain itself over an eight-year run.
Success manifested itself in Fryman’s second All-Star selection and Expos Player of the Year honors in 1976. Upset over his lack of work in Cincinnati, he retired to his farm in July 1977 until a series of trades returned him to the Expos on June 9, 1978. Two months later he was again flirting with a no-hit bid. Moved permanently to the bullpen the following year, he concluded the 1979 campaign with a win and four saves while conceding a mere three earned runs in 17 appearances (1.31 ERA). Described as “ancient … with a left arm resembl[ing] a piece of gnarled wood out of the Petrified Forest,”12 from 1979 to 1982, Fryman collected 46 saves in 200 appearances while twirling a 2.73 ERA, including an eye-popping 1.88 mark in the strike-shortened 1981 season. Always a fan favorite, patrons began a practice of cheering when Fryman began loosening up in the bullpen. Sportswriters described his efforts as “nothing less than amazing,”13 adding that he played the game “with the vigor of a rookie.”14
Beginning in 1979, the Expos found themselves in the unfamiliar position of contender. Tasting postseason play for their only time in the 1981 strike-induced multiteam playoff structure, it afforded Fryman his second – though far less successful – postseason: five runs surrendered in less than three innings. A free agent at the end of the 1982 season, the Expos balked at a requested 50 percent raise before the sides settled on a $500,000 salary. Ironically, the historically poor right-handed hitter was injured in batting practice during spring training, severe enough to land him on the disabled list. Making only his sixth appearance of the 1983 season on July 28, Fryman felt something pop in his elbow. It ended his playing career.
Fryman had once declared, “Some guys change to finesse to hang around four or five more years but that’s because they don’t know what they want to do after baseball. I know where I’m going.”15 A nondrinker known for eschewing the party nightlife of a major-league player, Fryman’s lifestyle of early-to-bed, early-to-rise fit perfectly with his fulltime return to farming. Passionately devoted to his family – two sons from a marriage begun before his first professional appearance – his brief stints in Detroit and Cincinnati were among his favorites as they placed him in close proximity to his Kentucky home. Notwithstanding his extended success in Montreal, he mourned the distance: “I’m just living in a hotel here and I’m more of a family man. I miss my wife and kids. … They won’t be coming here this year. The boys both are involved in Little League.”16
Despite the loneliness brought on by travel in the major leagues, Fryman was befriended on many fronts. In 1976 and 1979, after his pitching efforts served to defeat the Pirates and the Reds respectively – the former in two critical late-season contests with pennant implications – Fryman was asked if he felt pleasure in defeating teams that had previously discarded him. He denied any particular relish, stating identically in both instances, “I still have a lot of friends [there].”17, 18 His departure from the game deprived fans and teammates alike of his fine, often dry, humor. For example, when he accepted a dinner invitation from former teammate and close friend Joe Lis after the right-handed hitter hoisted a 10th-inning home run that sent Fryman to defeat: “I got even with him, though. I ate him out of house and home.”19
On another occasion, “Woodie Fryman walked off the mound, his exhibition exercise over for the day. The Tigers’ no-hitter was over, too, thanks to the home run Fryman … had served. As he entered the dugout, Fryman turned toward Manager Ralph Houk. ‘Well, you blew another one,’ the veteran pitcher announced sarcastically. ‘You left me in there too long.’ Houk cackled…[while teammates] were looking at Houk – and Fryman – and laughing.” 20 Incidentally, it was noted that this jovial sarcasm would have been most unlikely the preceding year under the managerial reign of Billy Martin.
On May 14, 1980, “Fryman came on to protect a 1-0 lead…and set down 12 straight Astros. Only Terry Puhl got the ball out of the infield. ‘Aw, that’s ’cause the game was on television,’ Fryman kidded. … ‘I wanted all the folks in Canada, especially those in Montreal, to see me at my best.’”21 In fact, Woodie had particular success against Houston throughout his career. A lifetime record of 11-7, 2.84, he once went nine seasons (46 innings, 53 games) without yielding an Astros score.
Fryman retired from baseball with 625 appearances, a significant number that through 2013 places him among the top 250 in shutouts, saves and career games by a pitcher. Despite a lifetime winning percentage of .476 – a reflection of the many poor teams for which he played – his longevity is often attributed to his late start (age 25) in the professional ranks. Fryman’s delivery was of the painful sort when he dragged his left foot on the mound, a pitching style that produced raw-looking blisters. He also developed a sidearm breaking ball in the mid-1970s. Toward the end of his career, his name appeared on a large list of pitchers suspected of “doctoring” the baseball. It wasn’t clear whether these suspicions arose then or – if founded – were part of his arsenal throughout his entire career. Cited as the first player at the park, this cool, collected professional – “I don’t show it, but I’m excited”22 – produced a successful 18-year major-league career that earned him a 2005 induction into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Expos Hall of Fame.
In the last years of his life, Woodie battled Alzheimer’s disease and was cared for by his wife, the former Phyliss Delaney (like her husband, a Fleming County native). He passed away due to a heart ailment on February 4, 2011, two months shy of his 71st birthday, survived by Phyliss, sons Jeffrey (and wife Tammy) and Patrick, sister Nona, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
The term “Kentucky gentleman” has become part of the general lexicon, adorning a variety of products from whisky and cigars to clothing and song lyrics. Rare are those occasions when, other than public servants, honor is bestowed in state assemblies at the time of one’s passing. The life of Woodie Fryman was a true representation of “gentleman,” both within the Commonwealth of Kentucky and on the baseball diamond.
The author wishes to thank Phyllis, Jeff, Pat and Tammy Fryman for their invaluable review, ensuring the accuracy herein. Further thanks are extended to Mark Pattison for editorial assistance.
1 “On Good Stuff Or Bad, Fryman Can Still Win.” The Sporting News, June 3, 1972. 28.
2 “Ex-Farmer Fryman Making Hay as Ace Of Buccos’ Bull Pen.” The Sporting News, April 30, 1966. 12.
3 “Phils May Reap Harvest With Woodie the Hayseed.” The Sporting News, March 25, 1972. 41.
5 “Major Flashes.” The Sporting News, May 20, 1978. 21.
6 “Veale Blazer Cures a Case Of Buc Blues.” The Sporting News, April 2, 1966. 24.
7 “For Lack of a Pitcher, Buccos Saw Swag Go Down the Drain.” The Sporting News, November 19, 1966. 33.
8 “Stretch Proved His Point – Whacked Lefties.” The Sporting News, November 19, 1966. 31.
9 “Splinters in Woodie’s Log, But Phils See Solid Oak.” The Sporting News, March 9, 1968. 19.
10 “Phils May Reap Harvest With Woodie the Hayseed.” The Sporting News, March 25, 1972, 41.
11 “Major Flashes.” The Sporting News, August 11, 1973. 24.
12 “Phils’ Chances Look Brighter Every Day.” The Sporting News, April 11, 1981. 34.
13 “Panic Time? Here’s Quick Look at Every N.L. Team.” The Sporting News, June 28, 1980. 22.
14 “1980: It Had the Good, The Bad and the Ugly.” The Sporting News, November 15, 1980. 62.
15 “Fryman Won’t Be Hanger-On.” The Sporting News, September 23, 1972. 16.
16 “Woodie Wonder: Expo Lefty Ace.” The Sporting News, May 17, 1975. 20.
17 “Kison Kisses One-Month Hurler Rap Good-bye.” The Sporting News, October 2, 1976. 9.
18 “’Ol Woodie Comes to the Expos’ Rescue.” The Sporting News, July 7, 1979. 39.
19 “Tigers Using Power Play to Maul A.L. Rivals.” The Sporting News, June 23, 1973. 11.
20 “Tigers Purr Happily Under Houk’s Easy Leash.” The Sporting News, April 6, 1974. 7.
21 “Expos’ Woodie Finds Groove.” The Sporting News, June 7, 1980. 12.
22 “Winning at ‘Big O’ A Must for Expos.” The Sporting News, August 16, 1982. 27.