Fryman’s heroic pitching efforts down the stretch in ’72 make him a Tiger for life

Woodie Fryman's 1973 Topps baseball card.

Woodie Fryman’s 1973 Topps baseball card.

Woodie Fryman’s 1973 Topps card is somewhat typical of the era. Like many cards of American League players, it was photographed at the old Yankee Stadium, largely because of its close location to the Topps headquarters. It is a rather typical sideline shot, with Fryman putting on one of those fake poses for the Topps cameraman, pretending to work from the stretch position as he eyes the imaginary catcher from 60 feet and six inches away. In most every way, the card is typical and routine. In other words, it was nothing like the way that he became a big leaguer in the first place and nothing close to the way that he joined the Detroit Tigers in the middle of the 1972 pennant race.

While most young pitching prospects in their early twenties are plying their trades in college or the low minor leagues, Fryman was pitching semi-pro ball and working as a tobacco farmer in Kentucky. Completely bypassed in the first-ever major league draft of 1965, he signed a free agent contract with the Pirates, but only after lying about his real age. Claiming that he was born in 1943, which would have made him 22, he would later reveal that he was actually born in 1940. That made him 25 by the time the Pirates came calling, hardly the prime age for a pitching prospect who had yet to make his professional debut.

After making 12 appearances as a minor leaguer in 1965, Fryman made the jump to Pittsburgh in 1966. Joining the rotation in mid-May, he proceeded to fire three consecutive shutouts, opening some eyes on the way to an impressive record of 12-9 in his National League debut.

In his second season, Fryman split his time between the rotation and the bullpen, struggling to a record of 3-8 and an ERA of 4.05, which was far too high in an era dominated by pitching. After the 1967 season, the Pirates saw a chance to acquire a brand name pitcher in Jim Bunning, so they packaged Fryman with infielder Don Money and two minor leaguers, sending them all to Philadelphia. Fryman blossomed with the Phillies. Remaining in the rotation all season and benefiting from his surroundings in the Year of the Pitcher, he posted a 2.78 ERA, completed 10 games, and fired five shutouts. He also represented the Phillies in the All-Star Game.

Fryman would never match those numbers again while with the Phillies. After two disappointing summers, he pitched very effectively in 1971, serving as a long man, sometime starter, and occasional closer. One of the more versatile pitchers in the National League, Fryman gave the Phillies nearly 150 innings of quality work.

At his best, Fryman was not overpowering, but he did have a good fastball, a nice slider, and was tough on left-handed batters. He liked to challenge hitters, pumping fastball after fastball while changing the locations of each pitch. He used an old-time windup that looked like something out of the 1930s, swinging both his arms behind his head, and then managing to hide the ball near his waist just before releasing the pitch. Al Oliver, a terrific hitter who faced Fryman often during the 1970s, once told me that he hated having to deal with Fryman and that deceptive delivery.

The 1972 season brought one of the key turning points of Fryman’s career. That spring and summer, the Phillies saddled their fans with one of the worst teams in franchise history. Fryman didn’t pitch particularly well, but his numbers looked worse because of poor offensive support and shaky defense behind him. With the Phillies looking toward a youth movement, they waived the 32-year-old Fryman in early August. Fryman was so lightly regarded that every National league team and almost every American League club took a pass on his services. The Tigers became the first team to put in a claim, allowing them to acquire the veteran left-hander for the tidy price of $25,000. It proved to be a shrewd move by Detroit general manager Jim Campbell.

Given Fryman’s record of 4-10 and his bloated ERA of 4.36, Tigers fans might not have been too enticed by the waiver claim. Tigers manager Billy Martin knew otherwise. Recognizing that he had only two reliable starters in Mickey Lolich and Joe Coleman, Martin gave Fryman the ball and made him the third starter in the rotation. Fryman responded brilliantly, with arguably the finest stretch of pitching in his career. Making 14 starts in August and September, he pitched well almost every time out. Pitching six complete games and throwing to an ERA of 2.06, Fryman won 10 of 13 decisions overall. He was even better in the final stretch, winning seven of his last eight decisions, to the tune of a 1.79 ERA. On the second to last day of the regular season, he shut down the Red Sox over seven and two-thirds innings to clinch the title.

Over the final two months of the season, Fryman actually outpitched both Lolich and Coleman. It is entirely safe to say that the Tigers would not have won the American League East without Fryman. With a final margin of only one-half game over the Red Sox because of a scheduling quirk, Fryman proved himself a difference maker. Without Fryman, Martin would have given the ball more frequently to Bill Slayback and possibly the comebacking John Hiller, both of whom were far better suited to relief pitching.

Fryman also pitched through pain, specifically arthritis in his left elbow, a frequent malady during his career. Gritting his teeth, he pitched respectably in two playoff starts against Oakland, but ended up losing both decisions in a hard-fought American League Championship Series.

After his remarkable stretch drive in 1972, the Tigers probably thought they had another reliable starter for all of 1973. Unfortunately, his arthritis worsened, causing Fryman to deliver the worst season of his career, low lighted by a 5.36 ERA. But Fryman did succeed in giving me one of my earliest baseball memories. By chance, my father and I had tickets to the final night game in the history of the original Yankee Stadium. On the cool Friday night of September 28, Fryman made the start for the Tigers, opposed by Yankee ace Mel Stottlemyre.

My father and I talked a lot of baseball that night, 40 years ago. He repeated several times that Fryman was a “good veteran left-hander,” a man who knew how to pitch. Fryman impressed me that night, at least over the first five innings, as he completely shut down the Yankees and confirmed my father‘s scouting report. But then in the sixth, Fryman tired, giving up four runs in what would be the final margin of a 4-1 loss to New York.

Fryman would help provide another memorable moment in 1974, also against the Yankees but this time as a relatively innocuous bystander. On September 7, the Yankees’ Graig Nettles homered against Fryman. In his next at-bat, Nettles blooped a single against Fryman. As the ball struck the end of Nettles’ bat, the tip of the bat flew off, followed by several small pieces of rubber balls. Tigers catcher Bill Freehan pointed out the unusual contents of the broken bat to home plate umpire Lou DiMuro, who called Nettles out for using an illegal bat.

While that call went in Fryman’s favor, little else did in 1973 and ‘74. He struggled so badly that the Tigers cut bait with him during the winter of ‘74, sending him to the Montreal Expos for two fringe players, backup catcher Terry Humphrey and right-hander Tom Walker. From there, Fryman would pitch ineffectively for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs before returning to Montreal and finding a second life as an effective reliever in Dick Williams‘ patchwork bullpen. With his large stomach and graying hear, Fryman didn’t look the part of a major league reliever, but he did the job more often than not.

In 1983, Fryman heard his arm pop one day, and later tried to make a comeback, but realized he had nothing left. Fryman promptly retired at the age of 43. With 18 years in the books and a career total of 171 victories, he had poured every ounce of effort into his arthritic left arm. To no one’s surprise, he left the game completely, not because he didn’t love baseball but because he savored life on his 367-acre farm. He turned down an offer to work as Ralph Houk’s pitching coach with the Tigers and instead went back to his home in Kentucky to resume his work as a simple tobacco farmer. It was something that he did joyfully until the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in the early 2000s. Fryman finally succumbed to the disease in 2011, passing away at the age of 70.

In recalling Fryman’s career, some will remember him for his youthful days as a Phillie, others for his more mature years pitching out of the Expos’ bullpen. In every way, he was the epitome of the “good old country hardballer,” a simple guy who reared back and fired. Even though he pitched only three seasons in Detroit, and threw effectively for only one, I will always remember him for what he did as a Tiger. Rescued from the Phillies’ scrap heap and helping the team to an unlikely divisional win over the Red Sox, Fryman made all the difference.

That season alone should make Woodie Fryman a Tiger for life.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.