By Sports Editor Brian Hoffman
John Frye never played in a big league baseball game, but his story will live forever thanks to the diligence of his two sons, Jim and Rich.
Jim is an advertising salesman for Virginia Media, parent company of this newspaper. One day last year he informed me about some interesting memorabilia he had from his father, who was a professional baseball player. His father died in 1980 and one of the things he left his sons was a rare “Gold Card,” which entitled John to free admission to any big league ballgame for the rest of his life. Jim was looking for a spot in some kind of Hall of Fame to display the card and tell his father’s story.
John J. Frye, Jr. was born in 1916 and by the early ‘30s had become an accomplished baseball player. In 1938, at age 21, he signed with the Washington Senators organization and played in the Class D Florida State League, batting .260 as a first baseman for the Orlando Senators.
In 1939 John hit .277 with 18 triples for Orlando, which earned him a promotion to the Class B Charlotte Hornets of the Piedmont League for 1940, and he continued to play well with 13 homers in 126 games while batting .280. He hit .275 for the Greenville Spinners of the South Atlanta League in ’41, then returned to Charlotte in ’42 where he hit .289.
Now 26, Frye joined the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association in 1943. The franchise moved from Chattanooga to Montgomery, Alabama in mid-season and Frye hit an impressive .294 that year. After that season the St. Louis Browns, who would become the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, traded for Frye in a five-player deal with the Senators.
Frye was issued a Major League uniform and figured to be with the Browns’ big league club in ’44, but he was drafted into the military in February of that year with World War II still over a year away from ending. He was participating in military maneuvers in July of ’44 at Camp Wheeler, Georgia when he was accidentally shot in the head with a .30 caliber bullet that penetrated his steel helmet and creased his skull. He was taken to Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta for emergency brain surgery. He survived, but the accident caused him to be paralyzed on his left side and ended his baseball career.
Ironically, the Browns won their only pennant in the history of the franchise’s days in St. Louis in 1944. They lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in six games in the World Series, which was the only World Series in the history of Major League Baseball that saw every game played in the same stadium, Sportsman’s Park. Frye’s name was featured in the 1944 World Series program along with other members of the Browns who were in the service.
In appreciation of his sacrifice, John Frye was issued an extremely rare WWII Golden Lifetime Pass to Major League games in 1948. George M. Trautman, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, had announced that passes would available to all players whose careers were ended because of injuries or illness received in the line of duty.
Frye remained involved in baseball as a scout for the Senators from 1953 until 1956. He died in July of 1980 at age 63.
In addition to the gold card, other memorabilia passed down to sons Jim and Rich Frye included letters from commissioner of baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis and American League president William Harridge, along with John’s release papers from the Browns and a program from the ’44 World Series with the names of the players serving in the war. These items stayed in the family until this year, when they were donated to the St. Louis Browns Historical Society & Fan Club.
“My brother and I had these items and didn’t know what to do with them,” said Jim, who goes by the nickname “Tucker,” as in Friar Tuck from Robin Hood lore. “There are seven grandchildren and we didn’t know how to split them up, so we decided to donate them to someone.”
Jim’s first outreach was to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The representative for the Hall said he would love to have the items but they would likely be archived and never displayed, and that wasn’t suitable to the Frye boys.
Frye then contacted the Carolina League Hall of Fame, as well as the North Carolina and District of Columbia sports Hall of Fames. John was born in Washington, DC.
“The North Carolina Hall was more interested in people who were born there,” he said. “And the others showed little interest.”
Jim’s brother decided to Google “St. Louis Browns” to see what came up and they found a website for the St. Louis Browns Historical Society & Fan Club.
“We filled out information about our items and wrote them a letter,” said Jim. “They immediately wrote us back.”
Fan club president Ed Wheatley was delighted to hear from them and promised to both display the items and keep them together. The two talked on the phone and Jim and Rich arranged a trip to St. Louis in February of this year.
Upon their arrival in St. Louis Jim and Rich were each presented a book on the history of the St. Louis Browns, autographed by Wheatley who helped author the book. They toured the St. Louis Baseball Hall of Fame, of which a special section is dedicated to the Browns.
“We got to hold a bat used by Stan Musial,” said Jim. “My brother got to try on a World Series ring, but it was a little too small for me. And they gave us a photo of dad that none of us had ever seen.”
The brothers learned some interesting things on the trip. One of the most memorable events in the history of the Browns was when Bill Veeck owned the team in the later years of the franchise before it moved to Baltimore. To attract attention to what was historically a bad team, Veeck signed Eddie Gaedel to a one day big league contract. Gaedel was what then people called a “midget,” standing just 3’7” tall. He batted just one time in a crouched position and walked on four pitches. He was then removed for a pinch-runner and the story is still one of the oddest in the history of Major League Baseball.
“They told me the only jersey that was small enough for him to wear was the bat boys’,” said Frye. “That bat boy is now the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals.”
Indeed, William DeWitt, Jr, the current owner of the Cardinals, was the bat boy that day and the son of William DeWitt, who owned the Browns when Gaedel played in his only game.
The St. Louis Baseball Hall of Fame is just across the street from Busch Stadium, and although the stadium was not open the Fryes got to look inside through the gate. They also checked out the famous St. Louis “Gateway Arch” and had a great time touring the city.
A story about Jim and Rich Frye’s father and their journey to St. Louis was featured in the spring edition of “Pop Flies,” the official magazine of the St. Louis Browns Fan Club. Pete Gray, a Browns player who competed with just one arm, is featured on the cover and both Jim and Rich received several copies of the magazine, which featured interesting columns and stories about old time Browns players. There was a special feature on Don Larsen, who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history with the Yankees in 1956. He debuted with the Browns in ’53 and moved to Baltimore with the team in ’54 before being traded to the Yankees.
Jim also noted that his dad’s stepfather, Paul Beach, was the bookie for Shirley Povich, the famous Washington Post baseball writer and columnist. Povich was inducted into the National Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1984 and, in 1975, he was recipient of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America‘s J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the Baseball Hall of Fame honor for sportswriters.
“We had a great time and I’m glad we could find a place where people could read about our dad,” said Jim. “We couldn’t have been treated any better on our trip to St. Louis.”