Thursday, March 12, 2015

194. Johnny Frederick: A Diamond in the Muck

I'm usually not one to blame a manager on the overall performance of his team. There's usually a combination of circumstances that lead to a stink-o season and the manager is simply a cog in the whole broken machine. There are exceptions however. Take Dusty Baker. He had no less than three great ball clubs under his care: the '02 Giants, '04 Cubs and the '12 Reds. Let's give Baker the benefit of the doubt and take the '02 Giants out of the equation because I think the it can be argued the Angels and Giants were equally matched that year. In the case of the Cubs and Reds, Baker was completely out-managered by the skippers of teams fielding less talented ballplayers. Then there is Bobby Valentine of the turn-of-the-century Mets. Bobby V had a virtual National League All-Star team right there in his club house, yet he couldn't crack down and whip those idiots into the dynasty they should have been. While those two examples are relatively recent, we can go back to the 1920's where we find the hapless Wilbert Robinson of the Brooklyn Robins.

Brooklyn had gone to the World Series in 1916 and again in 1920, and although both trips ended in defeat, fans still had vivid memories and the faint taste of past glory. However, by the late 1920's that memory and taste of glory became bitter, a feeling of insurmountable failure setting in. A combination of infighting between the owners, failure to develop young talent and a dwindling bank account led to the ball club's quick slide into the second division. 

On top of all this, the team's manager Wilbert Robinson seemed utterly defeated and out of his element by the mid 1920's. Robinson had once been a superstar catcher with the fabled Baltimore Orioles of the 1890's. He followed his pal John McGraw to the Giants and worked as his coach until a terrific rift between the two sent Robinson over the East River to manage Brooklyn in 1914. At first Robinson was successful, leading the team to the 1916 and 1920 pennant and the franchise was even renamed "The Robins" after the popular manager. But after a few losing seasons Robinson just gave up. The once formidable baseball sage was now known as "Uncle Robbie", a lovable, comical and overweight loser. The only reason he kept his job was that the majority owner felt a loyalty to the washed up manager, much to the chagrin of the other owners and fans. Though the team was stocked with has-beens, never-were's, and out-right novelty acts like Pea Ridge Day, Brooklyn actually had some solid ballplayers. Babe Herman was a real bonafide slugger whose fielding ineptitude had been much exaggerated by the press to sell papers. First baseman Del Bissonette always finished in the league's top home run leaders and third baseman Harvey Hendrick was a feared batsmen. Dazzy Vance was as solid a starting pitcher as you could get and despite a career spent with Robinson's losers he still managed to make it to Cooperstown. Because of no run support Watty Clark had a losing record but consistently finished the season with one of the lowest ERA's in the National League. So the Robins had the makings of a good team but unfortunately Uncle Robbie did nothing to turn around the culture of complacency and depression in the club house.

Into this cesspool of failure fell a few very talented ballplayers whose careers were completely wasted because they wound up wearing a Brooklyn uniform. Perhaps the most talented was a slight outfielder from out West named John Henry Frederick.

By the time he made it to Brooklyn, Johnny Frederick was 27 and had toiled away in the minor leagues for seven years. He was tall and wiry and possessed such speed that when he played center field he made the left and right fielders obsolete. Twice he came excruciatingly close to making the big leagues. The first was in 1923 when the Washington Senators tried to buy Frederick from the Salt Lake City Bees. The Bees' owner, Bill Lane, held out for $50,000 and the Senators folded, picking out a more modestly priced outfielder instead. The next season the Cardinals showed interest. Everyone from Frederick's manager on the Bees to opposing PCL players told St. Louis GM Branch Rickey that Frederick was a big league material. However, one person planted a bug in the GM's ear that Frederick had an inaccurate arm so Rickey hopped a train to Utah to see for himself. Always the savvy flesh trader, Rickey used the rumor of a bad arm to try to muscle Lane into reducing Frederick's sale price. To complicate the matter, Frederick's manager made the mistake of informing the kid that the Cardinals GM was in the stands, specifically to see how he handled throws from center field. Knowing this was his chance to make The Show, he chomped at the bit to show off his rifle-accurate arm. Neither Rickey or Frederick had long to wait. Branch Rickey sat in the press box and watched as Salt Lake's pitcher gave up a triple in the first inning. Then came Frederick's chance. With a man on third, the next batter sent a line drive rocketing towards left field. Frederick charged over from center and cut off the left fielder, making a beautiful one-handed shoe string catch. He then quickly wheeled around and threw to home plate to catch the runner from scoring. Frederick was off balance and the ball sailed completely off course - right at the press box. Sports writers said that if there hadn't been a screen Rickey would have caught the ball right between his eyes. Rickey caught the next train back to St. Louis and Frederick stayed in Utah.

Though a solid .340 hitter in the Pacific Coast League, no other big league club wanted to take a chance on him. See, Frederick was a throwback to the dead ball era, a contact hitter who turned his singles into doubles and triples with his speed. But this was the mid 1920's and every team wanted their own Babe Ruth, a guy who could wallop the horsehide, score a run with a single stroke. So even though he was hitting the ball at a .340 clip, all the big league clubs passed - all except Brooklyn.

Even before spring training started in March of 1929, the Brooklyn newspapers were heralding Frederick's arrival as a change in the team's fortunes. After a slow start he began to tear the cover off the ball and easily made the big club as their starting center fielder. Playing between Rube Bressler who hit .318 and Babe Herman who hit .389, the Robins had one of the hardest hitting outfields in the league.

For Frederick, 1929 was a rookie year for the ages. In 628 at bats he struck out just 34 times. Because of his tremendous speed, 52 of his 206 hits went for doubles, a big league record at the time and still the most in the history of the Dodgers franchise. His .328 batting average and 75 RBI made him the National League's best lead-off hitter. If there had been a Rookie of the Year Award back in '29, there's no question Frederick would have taken that home with him in the fall. The next year he was even better, batting .334 and again striking out a mere 34 times. With Frederick's bat added to the the club, Brooklyn managed to stay in the pennant race all summer, just falling short the last week of the season. But as Brooklyn's pennant hopes began to fade in September, so to did Frederick's career. First he suffered an severe bone bruise in the joint between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The joint never healed properly and gave him trouble the rest of his career. Then, with two weeks left in the season, Frederick dove for a sinking liner and landed hard on his right ankle. Though he limped off the field under his own steam, x-rays showed he'd broken it, ending his 1930 season early. 

For 1931 the Robins added Lefty O'Doul, making the Brooklyn outfield on paper look like the second coming of Murder's Row. But paper's paper and baseball's baseball. Though his team looked good on the line up card, old Uncle Robbie could do nothing right. Every time he was handed a new way to successfully manage his club, he went right back down his well traveled freeway to failure. For instance, his coaches realized every team in the National League knew and were stealing the Robins' signals. There were a few reasons for this: 1. Robbie hadn't changed them in decades. 2) Every time a player was traded from Brooklyn he informed the his new team of Robinson's signal system and 3) he made no effort to hide his signals, lazily flashing them in full view of the opposing team's dugout. After a losing streak, a coach delicately suggested they try playing a few games without using hand signals. Robinson, at wits end, agreed. Without telegraphing the opposition what was coming, Brooklyn promptly won the next two games, yet just a quickly Uncle Robbie went back to the old hand signals. The losing continued.

Frederick muscled through 1931, hitting a respectable .270 average with 17 homers, but by the time 1932 dawned, Frederick was fading fast. His legs never regained their pre-1931 speed and the multiple injuries he'd suffered necessitated a long pre-game ritual of adhesive taping and bandaging. It was a shame because the team's owners had finally dumped Uncle Robbie and replaced him with Max Carey. The team, now re-named the Dodgers, responded by finishing in third place.

Although Frederick's speed was gone, he still had his batting eye and became the best pinch hitter in Dodgers history. In the 62 times he was sent in to pinch hit, Frederick connected for 19 hits, a remarkable .309 average. 1932 was his best year hitting in the pinch, going 9 for 29. What's most remarkable is that of those nine hits, all but one was for extra bases and of those 8 extra base hits, SIX were home runs! This was a major league record that stood until Dave Hanson and Craig Wilson hit seven apiece in 2000 and 2001 respectively (all be it in a 162 game season against the 154 game season of Frederick's time). 

Relegated to part-time, Frederick posted .308 and .296 for 1933 and 1934 with a marked reduction in his power at the plate. The Dodgers replaced Max Carey with Casey Stengel for 1934 and the team quickly took on the same air of failure that existed earlier under Robinson. Stengel covered up his managerial ineptitude by cracking jokes at his players expense and pandering to beat writers so he looked like a genius surrounded by fools. As would happen later when he managed the Boston Braves and New York Mets, his players became discouraged and the ball club sank into the depths of the standings. Amid all this wreckage, Frederick failed to run out a single and was subjected to Stengel's wrath. At the end of the season he told Frederick that he "didn't fit into his plans for 1935". Apparently Stengel's plans for the season included a fifth place finish, 29 1/2 game back.

When no other team picked up his contract, he expressed a desire to be signed by a west coast minor league team so he could be close to home. Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League gladly snatched up the former Dodger where he became a star attraction. Back where he started, Frederick hit .363 and in 1936 he moved over to the Portland Beavers where his .352 average led the team to the Coast League championship. He played through 1940, retiring at age 38 and never hitting below .300. Frederick put his glove on the shelf and began a second career running a combination ranch/tourist camp outside Portland. The best pinch hitter in Dodgers history passed away in 1977 at the age of 75.

Besides his Dodgers franchise record for doubles and the MLB record for pinch hitting home runs, the rangy outfielder can also claim another spot in the record books for his part in developing a piece of equipment used today by every baseball player. Remember that thumb injury at the end of the 1930 season? Since the bone never healed properly, any contact with the ball became excruciatingly uncomfortable. Frederick remedied the situation by taping up his thumb with football padding to put a layer of cushion between the bat and bone, something he did for the remained of his career. While it might not seem that extraordinary, no one had done that before on a permanent basis. At the same time teammate Lefty O'Doul remedied a temporary hand injury by wearing an ordinary leather glove to add some cushion while he batted. The combination of the two Brooklyn outfielder's home-made remedies gave birth to what we now know as the batting glove...

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