The book: “Frick*: Baseball’s Third Commissioner”
The author: John P. Carvalho
The vital statistics: McFarland, 324 pages, $29.95, released Nov. 9, 2016
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes and Noble, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website
The pitch: The three things we generally knew going about the third commissioner of baseball, Ford Christopher Frick, going into this:
= His career has often been defined by the way he fumbled around trying to determine how the 1961 single-season home-run record set by Roger Maris would be recognized in deference to the record that Babe Ruth set in a 154-game season.
= Frick was a first a sports writer, then a sports radio broadcaster, before he got roped into the baseball hierarchy.
= They named the annual award after him given to a baseball broadcaster after his passing in 1978.
Our exit velocity with what Frick actually did, and tried to do, despite his wishes, is at a much great speed and respect after getting through this book by Carvalho, an associate professor of journalism at Auburn who has also become an historian on the sports media from the 1920s and ‘30s.
Frick’s tenure as commissioner from 1951 to ’65 came after a 17-run as the president of the National League, a job that demanded just as much attention in those days as the game’s hired administrator by the NL and AL owners.
A high school English teacher in Denver who got into the newspaper game and was moved to New York by William Randolph Hearst to write for the New York American and Evening Journal, Frick’s coverage of the Yankees led to him becoming a ghost writer for Ruth in newspaper columns. As a sportscaster at New York’s WOR in the early 1930s, he somehow was lured into the job of NL president in 1934, just before his 40th birthday, and began by getting behind the process of having a National Baseball Museum built, eventually in Cooperstown, N.Y., in celebration of the sport’s 100th anniversary. In that time as the NL chief, he was also a key figure in Jackie Robinson’s entrance with the Dodgers in 1947, threatening to punish teams and players who did not play nice in the process.
Carvalho’s push to get this book written, and starting it appropriately with a chapter called “The Maris Decision,” was more of a desire to have a closer-to-the-truth be told about a man who carried around a giant asterisk by his name – when he wasn’t even the one who used the term in the first place as it related to the Maris-Ruth debate.
That Frick was voted into the Hall on his own merits in 1970, the required five years after his retirement, says enough about his body of work at a time when the game was expanding to the West, television became a more prevalent medium, the free-agent draft was adopted and more players from overseas were beginning to filter onto rosters.
Frick, with the help of newspaper colleague Dick Young, had already done his own autobiography in 1973, “Games, Asterisks and People: Memoirs of A Lucky Fan,” which continued to establish the fact that, as a fan of the game, it wasn’t always easy to do what he felt was best of the game as the owners were directing him to go sometimes a different route.
Frick himself said at the time of his commissioner hiring, as recalled on page 149: “I didn’t seek this job; didn’t particularly want it, but now that I have it, I am going to give it the best I have and I’m going to be the commissioner 24 hours a day. I am not saying that to let people know immediately that I feel I am the big boss, ready to crack down on everything and anybody, but I am aware of the requirements of the job.”
Words that kind of sound like something that could have been said by Bud Selig, who, after serving his 22 years as the ninth commissioner and admitting to being a life-long fan, was recently voted into the Hall of Fame.
Without a spoiler alert, we pull an excerpt from page 271 by Carvalho:
“So how should Frick be remembered? The powerless, complaint owners’ servant is a tempting analogy. Perhaps it would be better to consider whether Frick simply stayed close to his journalism roots. He was not there to make things happen. He was there to gather information, analyze it and present it in a way that informed his audience – the owners, in this case. The word ‘media’ fits well within Frick’s role as commissioner. In its common usage, the term signifies journalism’s role in the middle – between sources (events, information) and audiences. As commissioner, Frick functioned in the middle — between players, owners, fans and the media. And he stood alone in their crossfire.”
Frick died on April 8, 1978 – 39 years ago today.