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The Strange Story of Johnny Frederick

By Graham Womack, August 2, 2016
Brooklyn outfielder John Henry Frederick.

Shortly after the Dodgers traded Johnny Frederick to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League in December 1934, he spoke to Harold Parrott of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Parrott had covered the 32-year-old Frederick during his six seasons in the Majors, where he hit .308 with 954 hits for Brooklyn. By this point in fact, Frederick had over 2,000 hits professionally and would go on to finish with 3,421.

In his Glendale, Queens homehis wife expecting a baby any day and the family due to move west within the month—Frederick told Parrott about what spurred his departure from Brooklyn.

“I was eased out of the league,” Frederick said. “I know that because people on the Brooklyn club told me two teams had held me up on waivers when they tried to arrange a deal for me in mid-season. Until the last week in September I hit over .300, and I finished the season with .296. Why would clubs like the Phillies and Braves, which need outfielders, change their minds so suddenly? It is just one of those things that they say never happen.”

Parrott wrote for his January 15, 1935, story that Frederick would surely return to the Majors. But his big league career was already over, just the latest bad break for a player who might have been a Hall of Famer with better luck or in a different era.

***

Careers like Johnny Frederick’s don’t happen anymore. While the occasional Mike Hessman, Grant Green, or Brandon Moss toils for years in the minors, players no longer follow the trajectory Frederick and many others from his era did.

Frederick debuted in the PCL in 1923, hitting .332 for the Salt Lake Bees over his first three seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com. He quickly drew interest from the Majors, with Chicago Cubs scout Jack Doyle calling Frederick and Jimmy Welsh of the Seattle Indians “two of the best looking youngsters he had scouted in his long career,” according to The Bridgeport (Connecticut) Telegram of November 9, 1923.

Twenty-one year old Johnny Frederick as a member of the PCL Salt Lake City Bees in 1923.

The Washington Senators offered Salt Lake $35,000 for Frederick in 1924, as he’d tell Parrott in 1935. But Salt Lake owner Bill Lane wanted $50,000. He held onto Frederick another four seasons before trading him in January 1928 to Memphis of the Southern Association for minor league pitcher Dick Bennelly and $4,000. “Of course, Lane squirmed all the more when I hit .359 for the Chicks and brought a fancy price from the Dodgers,” Frederick told Parrott.

Minor league owners sometimes held tightly to prized prospects in those days in hopes of selling them for more. It’s why Baltimore of the International League kept future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove for five seasons before finally selling him to the Philadelphia Athletics in October 1924 for $100,600. A number of prospects in that general era did extended tours in the high minors, including Gavvy Cravath, Buzz Arlett, and Smead Jolley.

Other factors hampered Frederick’s rise. A few months after Memphis sold Frederick to the Dodgers on September 10, 1928, another longtime Brooklyn Daily Eagle writer, Tommy Holmes, noted concerns that Branch Rickey expressed to Lane and Bees Player-Manager Duffy Lewis about Frederick’s fielding during a scouting trip for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1924.

“Yes, yes, Frederick is all that,” Holmes quoted Rickey telling Lane and Lewis. “But they tell me he’s the wildest thrower in the league, that he never knows where the ball is going when he lets it go. What about that?”

Lane and Lewis assured Rickey all would be fine. But in the first inning, an over-anxious Frederick ran in from center field to scoop a ball behind shortstop and throw it home. It sailed well over the plate, hitting the screen of the press box where Rickey was sitting. “Had not the screen been there,” Frederick told Holmes in December 1928, “It would have hit Rickey right between the eyes.”

Frederick’s ticket to the Majors would have to be his bat. Only problem was, many of Frederick’s teammates hit well in Salt Lake City’s light air. Paul Strand hit .394 for the Bees in 1923, earning a sale to the A’s, where he flopped and became a cautionary tale. Lefty O’Doul hit .392 in 1924. Future Murderers Row Yankee Tony Lazzeri hit .355 with 60 homers and 221 RBIs in 1925, one of the greatest minor league seasons ever.

Frederick and his teammates lost points off their batting averages, though, when Lane moved the team to Hollywood where they became the Stars in 1926. From hitting .324 as a team between 1923 and 1925, the reconstituted Stars hit .266 in 1926. Frederick hit .277 in 1926 and .305 in 1927, whereupon Lane sold him to Memphis.

“I almost dropped out of baseball instead of reporting to Memphis,” Frederick told Parrott in 1935. “I would have, too, except that I had just put a lot of money in my lodge and camp up home, and I needed the money. That’s why I went to the Chicks, and eventually to the majors.”

***

Boston’s Bob Smith faces Brooklyn’s Johnny Frederick during Opening Day at Braves Field in 1929.

In 1929, everything came together for Johnny Frederick. He hit .328 with 24 home runs for Brooklyn, leading the National League with 52 doubles. He finished 20th in NL MVP voting. If there was a Rookie of the Year Award back then, Frederick would have won it.

“A poll of the National League probably would show that Johnny Frederick of the Robins is almost universally considered to be the outstanding National League freshman of the season which now stands on its last legs,” Holmes wrote on October 1, 1929. “And certainly Frederick is the best really young ball player that the Brooklyn club has uncovered in a number of seasons.”

Frederick followed by hitting .334 in 1930, helping Brooklyn finish 86–68 and in fourth place, their first upper-division showing since 1924. As late as mid-September, Brooklyn was in first. But on September 13, Frederick split a thigh muscle and missed the rest of the year. He was hobbled off and on the rest of his big league career, missing an average of 25 games a season from 1931 to 1934.

Frederick’s numbers also dropped after, as Jay Jaffe noted in the 2012 Baseball Prospectus collection Extra Innings, Rawlings introduced a cork-cushioned ball for the Majors in 1931. Modern teams and analytic departments know to compensate for various factors to contextualize a hitter’s stats. That Frederick’s 99 OPS+ means he was just below average for offensive production in 1931 didn’t register to anyone. That his batting average was 64 points lower that season was probably well known.

Trade rumors circulated, including one that had Frederick as part of a package for St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Taylor Douthit. Holmes wrote on December 1, 1931, that Frederick wasn’t a bad center fielder. Douthit was quicker though, a plus since O’Doul and Babe Herman manned the Brooklyn outfield corners. “The more ground a Brooklyn center fielder can cover, the more reduced will be the patrol of Mr. Herman and Mr. O’Doul,” Holmes wrote.

Outfielders of the Brooklyn Club—Johnny Frederick, Lefty O’Doul and Hack Wilson, circa 1932.

As his numbers fluctuated, Frederick tried different approaches at the plate, including dinking opposite-field hits over the shortstop’s head. This ruined the left-handed pull hitter’s timing, Holmes wrote on February 15, 1934. “When he tried to ‘pull’ hit, he couldn’t,” Holmes wrote. “When he tried to ‘punch’ over the shortstop, he couldn’t.”

Finally, the Dodgers cut their losses, trading Frederick, pitcher Art Herring, and cash to Sacramento for Frenchy Bordagaray on December 26, 1934.

“I played bad ball this year, largely because my leg bothered me for a time,” Frederick told Parrott. “I told [Manager Casey] Stengel I felt I had played badly. He said, ‘You don’t figure in our 1935 plans.’ So I warned them to send me to the Coast if they were going to get me out of the majors or I wouldn’t play ball at all. I won’t, either, if Sacramento won’t give me a two-year contract and some good money. I’ll go back to my place in Portland, Oregon, where I can live comfortably.”

Eventually, that’s what Frederick did. After holding out in the spring of 1935, he hit .363 for Sacramento. He then hit .322 over five more years with the Portland Beavers, who made him player manager for his 19th and final professional season in 1940.

“Becoming manager of my home town club fulfills a boyhood dream and I’m not kidding either,” Frederick told Holmes for a column that ran on December 14, 1939. “But after all these years I’m going to give up outfielding and play first base. I wouldn’t think of trying to manager from way out on the grass.”

For a player whose fielding helped curtail his big league career, it was probably a smart move.

Credit: Ripley Auctions

 

 

 

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