By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 84: Frankie Frisch

In many ways, Frankie Frisch defined the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hall is not really defined by Ruth and Musial and Mays and Mantle and Seaver and the like. They are in EVERYBODY’S Hall of Fame. No, the Hall is defined by its more marginal inductees. Frankie Frisch is largely responsible for many of those.

Frisch, as Bill James and others have pointed out, lived a charmed life as a young man. He grew up in a wealthy family in the Bronx, and he spend the bulk of his childhood playing sports. He was a marvelously gifted athlete. He was called “The Fordham Flash,” not because of his baseball speed while in college but because of how well he ran track. In 1918, he was named to Walter Camp’s All-American football team as a second-team halfback — the actor and civil rights Pioneer Paul Robeson was an end on the first team. Frisch captained the basketball team as well.

He loved baseball most of all. His was, basically, the All-American life. He married Ada Lucy when they were in their 20s — they grew up down the street from each other. It was assumed that he would go into his father’s lace-linen business, but in 1919 he met the Giants manager John McGraw, worked out for him, and signed to play. That very year, he got almost 200 plate appearances with the Giants. The next year, he was more or less New York’s every day second baseman. The year after that he hit .341, stole a league-leading 49 bases and scored and drove in 100 runs.

Frisch was a hyperactive player — the nickname “Fordham Flash” stuck because he played the game with such velocity. He was a switch-hitter who led the league in stolen bases three times, hit as many as 17 triples in a season, was a lifetime .316 hitter and played magnificent defense at second base. In 1927, while playing for the Cardinals, he had 641 assists, which remains a record. His 4.4 defensive WAR that year is the highest ever for a second baseman.

How frantic was his game? Put it this way: Pete Rose learned the game from his father. Pete’s father idolized Enos Slaughter. Enos Slaughter learned the game from Frankie Frisch.

Frisch’s Giants were the National League’s dominant team of the early 1920s. They appeared in four consecutive World Series from 1921-24. Then in 1927, he was traded to St. Louis for Rogers Hornsby — he and McGraw were at each other’s throats by then — and then the Cardinals were the dominant team in the league from 1928 to 1934, appearing in four World Series in seven years. Frisch was unquestionably a major reason for both team’s success. He was a great player and a natural leader — he was player/manager of the great 1934 Cardinals that won 95 games and the World Series.

He was, as he got older, also President, CEO and Reigning King of the “In my day” club where ballplayers talk about how much better things used to be (a role Bob Feller filled nicely after Frisch passed away). As a manager, he would walk into the clubhouse and supposedly bark, “You call yourself ballplayers?” Frisch, after his retirement, would complain incessantly about how much harder players worked, how much better they fielded, how much smarter they played, how much more they cared and so on. Frisch was, by all accounts, a charming man and fine story teller but sooner or later he would start going on about how spring training had turned into a country club and ballplayers didn’t know how to bunt anymore and how they weren’t even embarrassed when they struck out anymore. Frisch himself would rarely strike out more than 15 times in a season, and only twice in his long career did he strike out 20 times.

This sort of romanticizing the past is generally harmless, we probably all do it to some degree, but in 1967 Frisch was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame veteran’s committee, where he was poised to change the entire makeup of the Hall. A quick look at that committee shows that Charlie Gehringer was the only great player at the time Frisch arrived, and Gehringer was a famously quiet and passive man who attended mass with his mother every morning while he played. So Frisch naturally became the alpha dog on the committee — the sportswriters and executives on the committee found themselves ceding to his will. What could they say, after all? He was Frankie Frisch. They were not.

And so, from 1970 to 1973, Frisch’s veteran’s committee inducted: Jesse Haines, Dave Bancroft, Chick Hafey, Rube Marquard (BR correction: Marquard was not a teammate of Frisch, though a very shaky selection), Ross Youngs and George Kelly — all former teammates of Frisch. Frisch died in 1973 after an automobile accident, and in the next couple of years the committee elected Jim Bottomley, Freddie Lindstrom and Travis Jackson who were ALSO former teammates of Frisch (the last two were also teammates of Bill Terry, who may have become the dominant committee member in Frisch’s absence).

That’s eight players, all former Frisch teammates, and while they were all good players, let’s be honest, not one of them belongs in the Hall of Fame. But they are there, and with them there you can basically argue for just about any good player as a Hall of Famer. Let’s say you believe Mark Grace should be in the Hall of Fame. Well, Mark Grace was almost certainly better than George Kelly or Jim Bottomley, both first basemen on the Frisch List. So you have a real case.

This, of course, has nothing to do with Frisch being a fantastic player.

36 Responses to No. 84: Frankie Frisch

  1. Murrel says:

    Grace better than Bottomley?? You had me until then.

    • cohnjusack says:

      It’s close.

      Grace’s OPS+ was a mere 6 points lower, but he was a better fielder and amassed 900 more PAs in his career.

    • Their numbers are actually not that different. Bottomley hit for a bit more power and had more RBIs (although the 20s and 30s were a pretty high RBI time in general); Grace got on base more effectively. They played the same number of seasons. Grace actually has a career WAR that’s higher by more than ten wins – the problem is that this is due mostly to Bottomley being rated pretty miserably on defense, and I have some difficulty with making those kinds of assumptions on players who played 80-90 years ago, considering that even today the defensive metrics are still works in progress. Still, I think we can say that they had broadly similar careers, and even though I grew up a huge Mark Grace fan (since I’m a Cubs fan and he was the prominent left-handed hitter on the teams of my youth), he’s certainly no Hall of Famer.

      • Ian R. says:

        Defensive metrics for old-time players are pretty suspect, but let’s also note that Bottomley was considered a below par fielder in his day. When the numbers and the eye test concur, we can be reasonably confident that he did play pretty bad defense.

  2. Jason says:

    Of those eight players mentioned as dubious Frisch inclusions, I feel Bancroft, Jackson, and Youngs are justifiable.

    Bancroft was an amazing defensive shortstop and was the guy who was actually as good as Maranville’s reputation. He also managed to be a league-average hitter. Jackson inherited that mantle later on, and was a better hitter.

    Youngs died after a short career. His career was Puckett-like in that for the whole of it, he had very solid stats. It was an emotional selection of a borderline player, sort of like Puckett, but after a long time because he was gone before the Hall existed. So I totally understand his election.

    Marquard is easily the worst pitcher in the Hall. He had an ERA over 3 in the deadball era. That’s like inducting a player over 4 now. Haines is one of the worst five pitchers in the Hall, and is roughly equal to Jack Morris. Hafey, Marquard, and Kelly are peak candidates from a high offense era, but with peaks lower than Hack Wilson. So I agree that the other five are definitely dubious inclusions.

  3. I mean OK, he helped usher in some borderline candidates. So what? It happened…. and yes, there may be arguments made using those guys. Hopefully people are smarter than to make a “my guy is better than Rube Marquard argument”. That’s kind of like saying, “I may be a racist and a bad guy, but I’m not as bad as Cap Anson”. (probably the “steroid users should be in the HOF, because bad guys like Ty Cobb and Cap Anson are in there” is a similarly horrific illogical argument). Those are all pitiful arguments, which I would think, HOF voters would see for what they are, if someone is so pathetic as to make them.

    As for Frisch himself, you really can’t argue for Frisch being included in the HOF…. which will likely be true for much of the rest of the list. Frisch may have voted in the “Everyman” but he wasn’t an Everyman himself.

  4. Josh says:

    The older I get, the more I think players get better every year. I’m 38, and the fielding is WAY better than when I was young (though I may be biased by watching some terrible fielding Red Sox teams). Relievers are way better, and even the best starters are always worse on the 3rd and 4th time through the lineup.

    I’m willing to guess that there are plenty of players active today who would have forced Frisch to the bench. Just a hunch.

    • “Forced to the bench”? I’ve seen misguided arguments about dead ball era players and whether they would be HOFers, or not…. Focusing on the high level of play today, but ignoring the training, equipment (bats,gloves, batting gloves), money that allow year around play/training, nutritional, hitting coaches, video analysis, dilution through expansion, and other advantages today…. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard an off handed ill thought through argument that has a HOFer driven to the bench by modern players….. Meaning what exactly? That the likes of Dan Uggla, Neil Walker, Jose Altuve, Marco Scutaro, et al would start in front of Frankie Frisch. Come on now, Put down the pipe. Seriously.

      • Btw: you could make the argument that Robinson Cano is better. Cano is working on a pretty nice HOF case himself. But if Frisch played for today’s Yankees in his prime, he would have just been moved to shortstop or third (positions he played during his career). Players at Frisch’s level aren’t benched, just as Jeter wasn’t benched when ARod was acquired. Worst case, if there wasn’t a spot, he’d be traded to obtain valuable pieces that were missing. Benched? No.

      • 18thstreet says:

        Roger Angell: I mean, I remember sitting with [former Detroit Tigers manager] Sparky Anderson in his office in Lakeland [Florida]. There’s a huge picture of Ty Cobb up on the wall wearing one of those button-up sweaters, heavy button-up sweaters with the D on the side, and I said, “What about this guy?” And Sparky lowers his voice and he said, “I’m not sure he’d make this squad.”

        • Cuban X Senators says:

          Sparky may or may not have had a keen sense of baseball talent, but one thing he certainly had was a deep psychic need to laud those around him to the point that you just could not trust a damn thing he said.

          Really, nothing.

          Was he bluffing all the time? Was it his own manner of pokerface to prevent anyone from knowing his thoughts? Was it that he believed his own players would rise to his praise while his opponents would become complaisant? Or did he believe every bit of malarkey that he spewed every sentient moment?

          I just don’t know, but the font was nonstop.

          • He kept lauding his players, even with lesser teams…..including teams that eventually led to his firing. He was asked why he continued to support players who weren’t that good. Sparkey’s response: “Why? Because they’re all I’ve got”.

          • Cuban X Senators says:

            Well, he did it for players not his own too. I can remember him walking between the clubhouse and the bus in Baltimore praising a less than mediocre Orioles team (“boy, I tell you this Baltimore team is great — that Ken Gerhart is some kinda ballplayer” or some such rap). And you couldn’t pick up a Sporting News/Baseball Weekly without seeing the like in print.

            So, if by “they’re all I’ve got” he meant “these 725 major leaguers I keep talking up indiscriminately are all I’ve got to talk about”, then yes.

          • 18thstreet says:

            Thanks, everyone. (I was “Josh,” above. And even I type this, too.) Interesting stuff.

  5. Ian R. says:

    Haines, Bancroft, Hafey, Marquard, Youngs, Kelly, Bottomley, Lindstrom, Jackson. I count nine players there.

    Of course, they’re comparable to some of the worst BBWAA selections – Catfish Hunter, for instance, and Rabbit Maranville. I think that even more so than the Hall of Fame entire, Frisch defined the Veterans Committee, which has been genuinely afraid to induct players ever since.

  6. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Another great article. I had Frisch at No. 95.

    At No. 84, I would put Johnny Mize.

  7. tombando says:

    Well okay I suppose the old Mantra about those infamous Frisch picks of the early 70’s needs to be rehashed HERE if it’s going to be broached at all…….Personally I would have preferred more about Frankie the player, fielder and hitter, we already know about Hafey, Marquard etc. being crappy picks. Bottomley being dragged into that list is a bit silly, he was pretty good if not Eddie Murray or whatever. You can at least make a case for his inclusion, while w/ the rest of the lot it’s harder.

  8. wordyduke says:

    Pete Rose with a college education.

  9. Carl says:

    Hi Joe,

    Not sure that Marquard and Frisch were ever teammates. Marquard was w the Giants from 1908 – 1915, Brooklyn from 1915 – 1920, the Reds in 1921 and then Boston from 1922 – 1925. Frisch was w the Giants from 1919 – 1926 (after Marquard had left) and then St. Louis from 27-37, where Marquard never played.

    • Oooh… Nice catch! It’s tough to get factual errors past this crowd, but I never thought to question this one….. And obviously none of us saw these guys play, so it’s not something many would know off hand. Well done.

  10. buddaley says:

    Frisch was traded with Jimmy Ring to the Cardinals for Rogers Hornsby. The story I heard is that McGraw was so mad at Frisch that he insisted Ring be included in the deal because he did not want Frisch to be able to claim he was dealt straight up for the great Hornsby.

    • Maybe, but would you trade Hornsby straight up for Frisch? It doesn’t make sense to do that for any reason. Hornsby’s going to show up near single digits on this listing….. Although #84 all time is nothing to sneeze about, it’s still not in the ballpark with the elite players, of which Hornsby is one.

      • I thought age might matter, but Hornsby led the league in OPS+ four of the five years after he was traded, so only an idiot would trade Hornsby for Frisch straight up (although both seemed to rub management the wrong way). So I suspect that the Cardinals insisted on more than Frisch. OTOH, Frisch was a much better player before the trade than after….

      • buddaley says:

        I don’t know. In fact, I don’t know that the story is true. But Hornsby had just had a poor year by his standards (although not in absolute terms) and he was now 31. Frisch had been a bit off in 1926 also, but was younger and a better fielder than Hornsby.

        Hornsby had been the Cards manager in 1926 and was a difficult personality. Jimmy Ring was near the end of a decent career (he would be useless in 1927) and I think he also had some character issues so his addition was not likely to have been significant for the Cardinals.

        I think the story is credible. Hornsby lasted just one year with NY and then was traded for Shanty Hogan and Jimmy Welsh despite coming in third the MVP voting and returning to more typical stats. Hogan and Welsh were very young, so perhaps McGraw thought he made a good deal, but on the surface it does not seem he got more than St. Louis would have gotten had it been Frisch alone.

      • The Cardinals were willing to trade Hornsby because although he was at that point the best hitter in the National League, he was also known to be a huge diva and a head case.

  11. alpa dog is missing an “h”

    fora is missing a space

    I’m thinking if you expanded it some you might have enough for a book.

    I’m also thinking that there were basically three paragraphs about his early life, including life outside of baseball, three paragraphs about what he did on the field (with not many specifics) and four paragraphs about the Veterans Committee.

    You don’t mention his MVP. You don’t mention that of the six seasons where bRef has caught stealing numbers, he was under 2:1 successful three of them. He didn’t walk much (only a smidge over 7% of his PA). His OPS was only .801 for his career, and his OPS+ only 110. He was one of the first to get into the HOF largely because of his superior defense (21.6 dWAR for his career). Or perhaps it was because he was a generalist, above average offensively (but not great, certainly by the standards of the best offensive second basemen; Bobby Grich, to name one non-HOF choice, had an OPS+ of 125, was not quite as good defensively, but didn’t play in New York, didn’t have an MVP even though his best season was much better than Frisch’s MVP season, and of course disappeared from the HOF ballot), excellent defensively, stole a bunch of bases, and he was on eight non-Yankee WS teams.* His teams were 4-4 in the World Series. He was fantastic with the Giants (batting nearly .370) and awful with the Cardinals (ranging from .194 to .259), four WS each, so maybe Frisch needed McGraw to push him**. He only got 6.2% of the vote his first time on the HOF ballot, but admittedly those early years had a lot of clutter with no-brainers.

    * Off hand, aside from Yankees, I can’t think of any player who played in eight different World Series. I’m sure that distinction had a lot to do with considering him valuable.

    ** He had one very good year with the Cardinals, the first year he arrived, with an OPS+ of 124. Aside from that year, his time with the Cards had an OPS+ of only 102; his MVP came with an OPS+ of only 101; Grich, for example, led the league in OPS+ with 165 in 1981, but only finished 14th in MVP voting***; a lot of Valuable comes from having good teammates.. I *strongly* suspect that Frisch needed McGraw to manage him in order to really excel.

    *** 1981 was the year Rickey or Dewey (6.6/6.7 WAR) deserved the MVP, but there was this strike, you see. Voters could see that offensive numbers looked too low to deserve MVP votes, but didn’t see the same dropoff in Fingers since relievers and saves were relatively new. If Dewey had gotten the MVP WAR says he deserved that year, might he have gotten into the HOF as well? Thus, if we want to fix the HOF, we first have to educate MVP voters. Perhaps Trout might win one next year; with Bourjos gone, he’ll be a full time center fielder and leadoff hitter again, and if Pujols, Hamilton, and Freese can drive him in enough… but I digress. Generalists (players with no holes) just don’t compare to guys with gaudy stats but glaring weaknesses, because the positives almost always outweigh the negatives.

    BTW, I am loving the series.

  12. Michael Green says:

    The Hornsby-Frisch (and Ring) trade also resulted from Cardinals owner Sam Breadon not liking that Hornsby had no interest in his opinions about how the team should be managed. Breadon ordered Branch Rickey to trade Hornsby, Rickey later told Red Barber that Frisch saved his life by having a great year, because the people of St. Louis wanted to kill him for making the deal.

    Another part of that deal is that Hornsby also was a stockholder in the Cardinals. Obviously, he had to sell the stock. Breadon wanted to pay him the original price for it and Hornsby refused, saying it had gone up in value (as it had, thanks in no small part to him). The league apparently had to make up the difference.

  13. Herb Smith says:

    F is for Fordham,
    And Frankie, and Frisch
    I wish he were back
    With the Giants, I wish

  14. Herb Smith says:

    That’s Ogden Nash, a Giants fan.

  15. For a long time when I was younger, I didn’t know Frankie Frisch was a player at all, because I only ever heard of him from his Veterans Committee stuff and his constant golden age thinking. It’s rather sad that his activities after his career ended have rather overshadowed his playing days now.

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