By Rob Goldman - AngelsWin.com Historical Writer
The skinny kid at shortstop gives a defiant look toward the fungo circle. The intense glare is partially hidden by the sweat stained cap that covers his neat crew cut. Coach Joe Gordon slaps a sharp grounder to the kid’s right. With the grace of a seasoned veteran the kid glides over it with ease. Scooping the up the ball in one fluid motion, he locks in on his target, sets himself and fires. The ball sails five feet over the outstretched first baseman’s reach. “Heads up!” someone shouts as the ball careens off the top of the dugout rail an ricochets back on the field, scattering young players and barely missing the trainer.
Gordon turns to the young shortstop, shouting, “Over the top!” Then shaking his head, Gordon announces to manager Bill Rigney, standing behind the batting cage: The kid’s gonna kill all our season ticket holders!”
This is what spring training is all about: a chance for rookies to prove their mettle, to show off their talent, to fight for a roster spot. On the expansion Angels in 1962, spring training took on a whole new meaning, though; without the benefit of an established roster or a lineage of veterans, the possibilities were limitless for a young kid with talent.
Wearing a pair of baggy flannel pants that appear two sizes too big for his frame, the kid swipes the sweat off his row and opens his mouth, as if about to say something. But instead he keeps his mouth shut and readies himself in a crouch, awaiting the next ball off Gordon’s fungo.
Joe Gordon chuckles. He has seen a lot in his 40 year-plus years in the game, having come up to the major in the with the Yankees in 1938-just in time too watch Lou Gehrig’s career end and Joe DiMaggio’s career begin. A former MVP, future Hall of Famer and veteran of 11 World Series, Gordon knows a real ballplayer when he sees one, and he knows Fregosi is a keeper. He also knows the best athletes usually end up in center field.
“He’s a natural, Rig!” shouts Gordon. “Got centerfield written all over him, I don’t know why the hell we have him at short. He runs like a gazelle! He should be in the outfield.”
Leaning on the batting cage Rigney glances impassively over at short before speaking. “My minds made up, Joe. Besides, I got Pearson in center. I don’t need another outfielder. I need infielders. Let’s see if the kid can handle short. At least give him a shot.”
Gordon shakes his head, and glances over at Fregosi. “The kid can’t weigh more then one-fifty.” Preparing to hit another grounder, Gordon smiles once more.” C’mon kid! You’re okay! Over the top now, over the top.”
For the first nine years of they’re existence, the Angels never had to question who was playing shortstop. Jim Fregosi dominated not only the position but the franchise as well. A six time All-Star, he became the Angels’ first proven leader, and as the team went through its growing pains Fregosi was synonymous with the Angels and visa-versa. Journalist Ross Newhan said it best: “He, along with [Dean] Chance, gave the Angels an identity and national presence in the days when the team sorely lacked one.”
“I can still remember him coming up from Dallas-Fort Worth,” recalls pitcher Eli Grba. “He was trying to put on an air that says ‘I can play here,’ but inside he was just as scared as the rest of us. I saw ability, but I saw something else that really set him apart. I saw a fire in his belly.”
Fregosi hit .291 in 58 games in 1962, and .287 the following year. But his greatest contribution didn’t show up in the statistics. Prior to 1963, the Angels had no single player the team could really rally around. Albie Pearson and Leon Wagner were leaders, sure, but they lacked the kind of charisma and take-charge attitude that the young shortstop possessed in spades. Like moths drawn to light, players—particularly the younger ones—gravitated towards this charismatic, productive infielder.
Fregosi—whom Lee Thomas says, “played like a kamikaze”—says he was merely filling a leadership void. “When you have a little success as a player like I did, your confidence level changes and you begin to see what a team needs,” says Fregosi. “The difference was I took such great pride in the organization that I wanted to do something to make it successful. I knew I had to take some leadership role because of the fact that there weren’t any other players there who could do the job. I was an original Angel and I was one of the first young players to really play well enough to have some leadership ability on the club. You lead by example, and I always played hard. The team saw I cared more about winning then about the individuality of the game, and players will generally gravitate towards that kind of player.”
Albie Pearson agrees: “He and Dean Chance were the ones that we built upon. When the chips were down and we needed a clutch play in the field, Jimmy would come up with it. Jimmy had ability and his teammates loved him.”
Fregosi became the face of the young Angels, and because of his attributes a bond emerged between him and the team manager and owner. Gene Autry and Bill Rigney looked to him like a son, and Fregosi responded accordingly. He and Buck Rodgers dissected Rigney’s every move and absorbed him like a sponge. It is no coincidence that both would later became successful managers in their own right.
Fregosi recalls his Angels experience fondly. “Bill Rigney taught us how the game operates, but he also taught us taught us a love of the game that never left. We grew up in that organization and a lot of us stayed in the game for a long, long time, and that was because we appreciated the lifestyle and what the game gave to us. It was such a great atmosphere. Everybody that ever played in the Angels organization had a special feeling for it. Everybody was treated great there. When they moved to Anaheim, Buck Rodgers, Bobby Knoop, and myself used to sell season tickets during the off-season, and we went to numerous events to represent the ball club. The end result was something that was put together as a family.”
Brought from the Milwaukee organization by farm director Roland Hemond in 1963, Knoop possessed defensive skills that were second-to-none. After struggling to start the 1964 season, Knoop came around eventually, earning his keep with his glove work. He and Fregosi began turning double plays with remarkable consistency. From 1964-‘68, they led the league in double plays. A three-time Gold Glover, Knoop encouraged Fregosi to rise to a higher level.
From 1964-’70, Fregosi was the premier shortstop in the American League. At 6’2”, 190 lbs., he had surprising speed and agility. While he wasn’t a base stealer, he was one of the fastest in baseball going from first to third. He consistently hit in or around .270, and even picked up a Gold Glove in 1967.
By 1971 Fregosi’s tenure as an Angel was coming to a close. But by that time, he had already made his mark on the Angels franchise. With his spirit and desire, plus a lot of stubborn pride, Fregosi helped establish Angels baseball in Southern California. Without his presence on the team, it’s hard to say how the Angels would have fared as the shine of a new franchise wore off. Gene Autry never forgot his contributions and loyalty, and promised himself when the time was right, he would bring Fregosi back to Anaheim.
True to his word, Autry hired Fregosi in 1978 to replace Dave Garcia as manager. It wasn’t sentiment that guided the decision. The fit was as natural as a Fregosi-Knoop double play. Fregosi piloted the Angels to a second-place finish in ’78, and to their first divisional championship a year later.
When he approached Autry in the clubhouse following that 1979 championship game, the old cowboy’s demeanor struck Fregosi.
“I’ll never forget Gene’s eyes when I saw him after the game,” Fregosi says. “It was as if a black cloud had been lifted from his head forever.”
© Rob Goldman- Once They Were Angels 2006