Frick, Ford Christopher

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FRICK, Ford Christopher

(b. 19 December 1894 near Wawaka, Indiana; d. 8 April 1978 in Bronxville, New York), sportswriter, radio broadcaster, and baseball executive who first served as president of the National League and from 1951 to 1965 as national commissioner of baseball.

Frick, born on a farm near the town of Wawaka, was one of five children (and the only son) of Jacob and Emma (Prickett) Frick. After graduating from high school in 1910 he worked for a year on the Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Gazette before enrolling at DePauw University. He worked his way through college writing sports for papers in Indiana and in Chicago. As a boy, Frick had wanted to be a ballplayer and at DePauw was on both the baseball and track teams. The summer after receiving his B.A. in 1915, he played first base with the Walsenburg, Colorado, semiprofessional team; in the fall of that year he turned to teaching business English at the Walsenburg high school, then at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Frick married Eleanor Cowing on 15 September 1916; they had one son. A year's stint as a reporter on the Colorado Springs Gazette followed in 1917, but during World War I he worked for the Veterans Bureau in Denver. With the war's end, Frick went back to reporting, joining the staff of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and later in 1919 returned to the Colorado Springs paper as a columnist. His work came to the attention of Arthur Brisbane, editor of the New York Evening Journal, a Hearst newspaper, and in 1922 Frick was offered a job on the other New York newspaper, the American; in 1923 he transferred to the New York Evening Journal.

For the next eleven years Frick wrote a daily sports column combining news and commentary in the enthusiastic, hero-worshipping style made popular by his near contemporary, the sportswriter Grantland Rice. In addition, between 1924 and 1933 Frick, who generally covered the New York Yankees, was a ghostwriter for articles by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the Yankees manager Miller Huggins. Concurrently, between 1930 and 1934 Frick did a daily sports broadcast in New York, including the first radio coverage of Brooklyn Dodgers home games in 1931 and programs devoted to the New York Giants—Dodgers games. These programs won him the friendship of Giants manager John McGraw, which proved instrumental in changing the course of Frick's career.

With McGraw's backing, Frick was appointed the publicity director for the National League in 1934, and later that year was elected president. In the seventeen years he served in that position, Frick took the league through the challenges of the Great Depression, World War II player shortages, and the bitter struggle over racial integration of the game. At first his fellow baseball writers were skeptical of Frick's executive skills (especially criticizing his indecision in arbitrating confrontations between feisty players like Dizzy Dean and Leo Durocher and the umpires) and accused him of being a front man for the baseball club owners. By 1951, however, Frick had racked up a number of executive accomplishments: putting several teams on better financial footing; overcoming resistance to night games, thereby greatly increasing attendance; adding to the number of players on each team; increasing players' salaries; and defending the entry of the first black player in the major leagues (Jackie Robinson, who played for the Dodgers) in 1947. When the St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike rather than play against Robinson, Frick announced that strikers would be suspended, stating, "This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as another. The National League will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequence." Frick himself was proudest of being one of the originators of the idea for a baseball museum and library in Cooperstown, New York. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was established in 1939; Frick was later chairman of the board.

When baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis died in 1944, Frick was the choice of many club owners to succeed him, but he lost out to Albert ("Happy") Chandler, a former U.S. senator from Kentucky. Chandler was not reelected as commissioner in 1951, and this time Frick was chosen for the post, becoming the third national commissioner and first baseball insider to hold the position. In the fourteen years he served, he increased revenues by pushing for the construction of all-weather, all-purpose stadiums and television coverage of games, and he presided over the expansion of the American and National Leagues with teams from coast to coast. Refusing to intervene when the Giants and the Dodgers decided to leave New York for California, his only comment was, "It's a league matter, not for the commissioner's office." Another of his controversial positions was upholding baseball's exemption from federal antitrust laws. Frick defended the reserve clause in players' contracts, which prohibited players from acting as free agents and prevented them from accepting offers from other teams before their contracts expired. Frick was called to Washington, D.C., seventeen times to testify before congressional committees on this issue. Once again, sportswriters accused him of passivity and acting in the owners' interests. Nor was his popularity among fans enhanced by an alleged remark in 1961 (which he later denied making) to the effect that if Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's season home run record, the statistic should be entered in the record books with an asterisk. (Ruth had hit 60 homers in a season of 154 games; Maris ended 1961 having homered 61 times but in the course of an expanded season of 162 games. No asterisk is in the record books.)

In 1970, five years after he retired from office, Frick's contributions to baseball were recognized by his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He died in Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville, having been in ill health for several years as a result of a series of strokes. He was interred at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Bronxville.

The baseball commissioner with the dignified, low-key manner contrasted with the passionate fan Frick had always been and the man who considered himself "still a newspaperman at heart" and missed the excitement of the press box. Being commissioner was "a lonely job," Frick admitted. But his remark on being elected to the Hall of Fame summarizes him best: "I've always been a lucky guy. I've always been at the right place at the right time."

Frick's papers are housed in the National Baseball Library, part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He was the ghostwriter of Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball (1978). His Games, Asterisks [an allusion to his alleged remark on the Maris-Ruth home run record controversy], and People: Memoirs of a Lucky Fan (1973), include both a defense of his positions as commissioner and chapters on his early days as a reporter, the color-line issue, and baseball's nationwide expansion. Further information on Frick's early career is found in Current Biography (1954), and in Jerome Holtzman, No Cheering in the Press Box (1974), which gives a full account of the founding of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and provides an update of Frick's career in his own words. Background information on the issues Frick faced can be found in The Imperfect Diamond: The Story of Base-ball's Reserve System and the Men Who Fought to Change It (1980), by Lee Lowenfish and Tony Lupien; and American Baseball 3: From Postwar Expansion to the Electronic Age (1983), by David Voigt. Obituaries are in the New York Times (10 Apr. 1978), and the Sporting News (22 Apr. 1978).

Eleanor F. Wedge