Frick*: Baseball's Third Commissioner by John P. Carvahlo
John Carvalho's thorough, lucid biography of Ford Frick slaps an asterisk on its subject's name, recalling Frick's part in the controversy over Roger Maris's home-run record. Carvalho's subtitle is "Baseball's Third Commissioner." Yet neither the asterisk nor Frick's term as commissioner turns out to be the most interesting part of this biography.
Ford Frick was a serious, capable man. Son of an Indiana postmaster, he put in a day's work in in Manhattan and went home to Bronxville every night like clockwork. He was president of the National League for seventeen years and Commissioner of Baseball for fourteen. Frick wrote a bland memoir and left behind no personal archives, facts that complicated Carvalho's research. Frick was no mere "empty suit." But he left a light imprint on baseball history.
Everything interesting that happened to Ford Frick seems to have been gotten out of the way before he was forty. After college at DePauw, he found work as a journalist in Colorado, where his coverage (from an airplane!) of a major flood won him national attention. Arthur Brisbane of the Hearst papers recruited Frick to come to New York as a sportswriter. Soon Frick was ghostwriting Babe Ruth's column and hanging out with every Golden Age word-smith from Ring Lardner to Damon Runyon.
Frick had played some semi-pro baseball very briefly, but his real sporting love was curling. Achieving insight into people from their pastimes is perhaps futile, but the precision and concentration of the curling rink may have suited Frick better than the exuberance of the diamond. But Carvalho wouldn't have written this book if Frick had become Commissioner of Curling.
Frick's big opportunity came in radio. Pinch-hitting for a regular broadcaster one day in 1930, Frick took so naturally to the microphone that he was doing World Series broadcasts soon after. His announcing career expanded to hosting variety shows; he became a "personality." To this day, the Baseball Hall of Fame's honors achievement in broadcasting with the Ford C. Frick Award. I would imagine that most fans who know the award's name don't know why.
Carvalho suggests, however, that live announcing clashed with Frick's workaday temperament. He eagerly took a 9-to-5 job as PR director for the National League, and replaced the ailing John Heydler as NL president after the 1934 season.
Frick's early tenure as league president saw an expansion of broadcasting, plus the first major-league night games. Passed over for the commissioner's job in 1945 in favor of ebullient Senator Happy Chandler, Frick outlasted Chandler [End Page 240] and other rivals to become commissioner in 1951. At the time, the offices of the Commissioner of Baseball were in Cincinnati; Frick's first act was to move them to New York so that he could keep catching his evening train to Bronxville. He would hold the job till he was seventy, in 1965.
As commissioner, Frick was more reactive than proactive. Big changes—franchise movement, TV, the contraction of the minors, the expansion and westward drive of the majors, the 162-game season, the free-agent draft—didn't exactly happen in spite of Frick, but he rarely led the way. Baseball entered new eras and took Frick along for the ride.
The German-American Frick had a funny-sounding name to Anglo ears. His name became a laugh line in the musical Damn Yankees—one imagines the allusion has been dropped in more recent productions as too obscure. Grantland Rice wrote an ode on Frick's installment as commissioner that sounds faintly kinky today:
Here is Commissioner Christopher FrickLord of the leather and king of the ashOut from the multitude, Frick is the pick,Named as the tyrant to handle the lash.(151)
The photo on the cover of Carvalho's book shows Frick in his New York office, desk tidy, fresh flowers on a table behind him, autographed baseball on display. Frick sits stiff and half-smiling, immaculately groomed. As he poses, he taps a cigarette into a humongous ashtray. Business magnates of the 1950s had their priorities.
And the asterisk? Carvalho begins his book with the controversy, arguing that the 1961 home-run race was Frick's signature moment. But it's hard to make the Maris asterisk a compelling controversy anymore. Not just because the record has been broken (though only by National Leaguers), nor because steroid debates have led people to care less.
The "asterisk" (a word Frick never used) has lost its exigence because it had so little to start with. Common sense leads in both directions. Maris hit more home runs in a season than Ruth did. He also had more games to hit them in. Statheads adjust for playing time when it comes to considering all kinds of counting-stat records. Other key records—hits, pitcher strikeouts, stolen bases—have also been broken since the 162-game schedule came into effect, without controversy. Nobody had a problem with Ichiro Suzuki collecting five more base hits in a season than George Sisler did, nor with pointing out that Ichiro's team played eight more games.
Yet the historical curiosity of the controversy remains, showing the powerful [End Page 241] hold that Babe Ruth has exerted over American culture. The asterisk was another issue that pulled Ford Frick in and took him for a ride. John Carvalho provides a vital document on that reactive era of baseball-management history.