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.