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A history of Royals managers: Jim Frey

He won a pennant, but he was a one-hit wonder.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees

Have you ever known anyone who seems to be in the right place at the right time? Maybe they always luck into a great job. Maybe it’s the friend who always seems to walk away with the pretty girl. Someone who’s born under a lucky star, or as Steven Root says to Woody Harrelson’s character in No Country for Old Men, “you’ve led something of a charmed life, haven’t you?”

Former Royals manager Jim Frey was a bit like that. Frey was born in Cleveland, but later moved to Cincinnati, where one of his best friends (and high school baseball teammate) was Dandy Don Zimmer. He and Zimmer played for the Robert Bentley American Legion Post team which won the national American Legion championship in 1947, a game in which Frey drove in the winning run in the eighth inning of the championship game.

Frey and Zimmer both signed baseball contracts after graduating from Western Hills High School. Frey signed with the Boston Braves while Zimmer signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Zimmer made his Major League debut with Brooklyn as a 23-year-old in 1954. Frey on the other hand, despite a minor league career batting average of .302, spent 14 long seasons in the minors and never made the show.

Frey came closest to making it in 1958, when as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, he had a strong spring training but a lingering shoulder injury, sustained when he ran into an outfield fence the summer before, kept him in AAA. Frey said, “I couldn’t throw a ball from center to second base”. Over his minor league career, Frey rapped out close to 1,800 hits and won two minor league batting titles, but never got another shot at the majors.

He finally retired as a player midway through the 1963 season and was ready to move to a career selling real estate when he got a call from Baltimore Oriole farm director Harry Dalton asking if he’d be interested in managing their rookie league team in Bluefield, West Virginia. Frey accepted and by 1970 he had joined Earl Weaver’s staff as a bullpen and hitting coach. Talk about good timing! The Orioles were just hitting their peak as an American League powerhouse. The Orioles won 108 games in 1970, which included a five-game beatdown of the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Baltimore won 101 games in 1971 but lost the World Series in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Frey stayed with Weaver and Baltimore through the end of the 1979 season, a run which saw Baltimore win the American League East five times and appear in three World Series, winning one.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman was growing frustrated. He had a talented club unable to make it past the New York Yankees in the playoffs and a manager in Whitey Herzog criticizing Kauffman to the press for his unwillingness to shell out the bucks for a closer. The Royals’ second-place finish in 1979 spelled the end of the Herzog era in Kansas City and after a short search, the Royals hired Frey to be their next manager.

Frey couldn’t have walked into a better situation. The Royals were loaded with hitters - Darrell Porter, Frank White, Hal McRae, Amos Otis, Willie Mays Aikens, Willie Wilson, Clint Hurdle, and George Brett. This was a team that not only made contact but was also fast enough to keep constant pressure on the opposing defense. The 1979 team had rapped out 1,596 hits, stolen 207 bases, and scored 851 runs. By comparison, the 2019 Royals collected 1,356 hits, 117 stolen bases, and scored 691 runs. All Frey had to do with the 1980 Royals was fill out the lineup card and get out of the way.

The summer of 1980 was also one of the hottest summers on record. It was the hottest summer since 1954 and more than 1,700 Americans died from heat-related issues that summer, including more than 200 in the metro Kansas City area. In those prehistoric days, you could call a phone number that would give you the time and temperature. I can remember many days calling at midnight and it would still be over 100 degrees.

The weather wasn’t the only hot thing that summer. George Brett was white smoking hot. Even though injuries limited him to only 117 games, Brett scorched American League pitchers to the tune of .390/.454/.664 with 175 hits and 118 RBI in those 117 games. Those of us who witnessed it will never forget it. George got off to a typical slow start and didn’t even cross the .300 mark until May 31. On June 3, he went 3-for-5 in a win against the Yankees, and from that point on, he was off to the races.

Over the final 79 games, Brett slashed .430/.487/.725, collecting 133 hits, while mashing 20 home runs and driving in 89. He only struck out 14 times in 357 plate appearances in that spree. He went 4 for 4 against Toronto on August 17 to pull his average up to .401. The attention of the entire nation was focused on Brett and Kansas City, as people checked the newspapers every day to see how Brett fared in his quest to hit .400.

On August 26, in a game at Milwaukee County Stadium, Brett lacerated the Brewers for five hits to pull his average to .407. Unfortunately, that was the peak. Brett “only” hit .326 over the final 26 games to drop his average to the final .390. It still remains one of the greatest offensive seasons in Major League Baseball history.

Like I said, Frey had lived somewhat of a charmed life, and walking into the 1980 Royals was just another piece of his fairy tale. Frey’s real problem with the 1980 squad was his handling of the pitching staff. Frey had a staff of workhorses: Larry Gura, Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff and Rich Gale. He also had two serviceable swingmen in Renie Martin and Marty Pattin and a reliable closer named Dan Quisenberry. Those seven threw 90 percent of all the Royals innings pitched that summer. By comparison, it took 16 pitchers on the 2019 Royals to cover 90 percent of all innings pitched.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees

The Royals rode Brett to a 97-65 first-place finish in the West before they exorcised their demons in a sweet 3-0 sweep over the Yankees, which was punctuated by Brett’s cathartic Game Three, seventh inning three-run bomb into Yankee Stadium’s upper deck off Goose Gossage. I can remember my father and I dancing around the living room like a couple of square dancers, punctuated by the occasional outburst along the lines of “F*** you Gossage!” Dan Quisenberry got the final 11 outs to send the Royals to their first World Series.

Remember that heat wave? By the time the playoffs rolled around the arms of those seven Royal pitchers had to be about ready to fall off. They made it through the Championship Series but started taking on water in the World Series. Leonard only lasted 3 23 innings in Game One. Frey got 6 innings from Gura in Game Two, but only 4 13 out of Gale in Game Three.

Leonard came back with 7 strong innings in Game Four to knot the series at two games apiece. In the decisive Game Six, Gale only made it through two innings before Frey yanked him. The Royals had enough offense to win the series. They hit .290 and scored 23 runs, but their pitching finally ran out of gas. Frey only used the same seven pitchers, his workhorses, in the entire series and even that is misleading as Splittorff and Marty Pattin only threw a combined 2 23 innings.

The post series narrative suggested the Royals lost the series because their young star Willie Wilson only hit .154. The years tell a different story though. I would suggest that Kansas City lost that series because Frey mismanaged the pitching staff, basically throwing only five arms the entire series. No disrespect to the Phillies. They were also loaded with hitters - Bob Boone, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox, Bake McBride, and Lonnie Smith were all solid with the bat. Plus, they had Steve Carlton, one of the all-time greats, and Tug McGraw, a solid closer who was at the peak of his powers in 1980. But the reality is, you need more than five tired arms to beat a team like that.

Hopes were high heading into the 1981 season. The season was interrupted by a 50-day players’ strike. When the strike hit, the Royals were at a disappointing 20-30. When they split the first 20 games after the strike, Kauffman pulled the trigger, firing Frey and hiring Dick Howser, who had been let go by the Yankee’s after the Royals dispatched them in the 1980 playoffs. Frey ended his Royal tenure with a 127-105 mark.

The Royals closed on a 20-13 run to win the second half Western Division championship. They faced their old rival, the Oakland A’s in the new format playoffs. Oakland, in the second year of “Billy Ball” under manager Billy Martin and led by a 22-year-old phenom named Ricky Henderson, swept the Royals in three games to advance to the American League Championship Series.

Frey was hired as the hitting coach of the New York Mets by his old friend George Bamberger. He spent the 1982 and 1983 seasons in New York before being hired as the manager of the downtrodden Chicago Cubs. The timing could not have been better. The Cubbies had not been to the postseason since 1945 but were a young team on the rise.

1984 was the summer of the Cubs. WGN carried nearly all of their games, called by legendary Harry Carey, and the nation tuned in to watch young stars like Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis, Leon “Bull” Durham, and Bobby Dernier team with talented vets like Larry Bowa, Ron Cey, Gary “Sarge” Matthews to lead the Cubs to a 96-65 record and the Eastern Division Championship. The pitching staff was led by Independence native Rick Sutcliffe, who went 16-1 along with Dennis Eckersley and intimidating closer Lee Smith.

I was between jobs that summer and working at Asling Clothing in Abilene, Kansas. Every afternoon, the owner Cliff and I would tune his little TV into WGN and root for the Cubs. Those Cubs were the modern-day Boys of Summer for many of us and only “the curse of the Billy goat” and a disappointing collapse against the San Diego Padres marred the memory of the summer of ’84. But for Jim Frey, he once again was in the right place at the right time.

Frey managed the Cubs until June of 1986, when he was fired. He moved onto WGN as a color commentator, a gig that lasted until December of 1987. The Tribune Company, which owned the Cubs, then hired Frey to be the new General Manager. Frey immediately installed his old friend Don Zimmer as the manager. Frey made a series of audacious trades, unloading among others Lee Smith and a young Rafael Palmiero and Jamie Moyer. Short term, the moves worked as the Cubs won the Eastern Division in 1989, but the game appeared to finally pass Frey by. He made a series of ill-advised and expensive free agent signings and by 1991, both he and Zimmer were out of a job.

Frey moved easily into retirement and split his time between Baltimore and Naples, Florida with his wife Joan. In retirement Frey remained popular with many of his former players. Ryne Sandberg said Frey was “the one guy who was extremely instrumental in my career. He saw extra base hits and home runs for me that I didn’t see.”

Former pitcher Steve Stone said Frey’s sense of humor was “just outstanding. He was a very, very funny guy and a lot of people didn’t see that side of him.”

Rick Sutcliffe said that “Frey and Zimmer rivaled any comedy team ever, Martin and Lewis, anybody. Get them together and, oh man!” Sutcliffe ran into Frey after he had been “reassigned” by the Cubs. Sutcliffe asked his old boss what he was up to. Frey was living in Baltimore. “well, you know I’m still getting paid by the Cubs, don’t you? They told me they wanted me to be their vice president of Baltimore. They said, go home, sit tight and we’ll call you if we need you.”

Frey passed away on April 12, 2020 in Ponte Vedra, Florida at the age of 88. His career record as a major league manager was 323-287. Sutcliffe paid tribute to his former boss with this: “88 years and all the great things he was able to do in the game of baseball? I’ll sign on the dotted line for that right now.” A charmed life indeed. Frey was survived by Joan, his wife of 68 years, a son James, three daughters, Mary, Jennifer, and Cindy, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles