Except for the late Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball officials have not been celebrated for their forcefulness. When Will Harridge was president of the American League, a midwestern sports columnist wrote, "An empty taxicab pulled up in front of the hotel here today and out of it stepped Will Harridge." The same, some critics allege, might be said of Ford C. Frick, the baseball commissioner. Others merely say he is the perfect man for the job.
In office now for 11 years, Frick has become known as an owners' man, one dedicated to inaction. Says a veteran baseball man: "Ford's motto is 'Speak softly and carry no stick at all.' " When the commissioner appeared as the mystery guest on the television show, What's My Line, panelist Bennett Cerf, in an uncommon burst of insight, was not long in guessing his identity. "Are you a top baseball executive?" Cerf asked. "Yes," said Frick. "Are you," asked Cerf, "the top man—when the owners let you be?"
Even baseball writers, who are notoriously loth to criticize anyone who has ever been a member of their lodge, have lampooned the commissioner. In a skit staged by the New York baseball writers at their annual dinner a few years ago, one reporter played Frick, another Mike Todd, the late showman. "Todd" said that he wanted to bring a baseball team to New York, but "Frick" said the commissioner's office lacked jurisdiction in the matter.
Todd: I thought you were supposed to act in the best interests of baseball.
Frick: No. The last commissioner had that sort of jurisdiction, but I don't.
Todd: What happened?
Frick: Well, they fired him. That'll never happen to me.
Todd: But a commissioner must have some jurisdiction.
Frick: Not if he wants to stay commissioner.
Unlike Judge Landis and Happy Chandler, his predecessors, Frick has neither an imperious mien nor hambone charm. His big vice is dunking doughnuts, and he spends his evenings quietly at home in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., reading or pasting stamps in his album. "Ford," said E. A. Batchelor Sr., Detroit's oldest baseball writer, "is one of those guys you can know for years, then sit down at a typewriter and try to write something about him and come up empty. He's just plain vanilla."
Essentially, Frick is a small-town boy who has followed most of the copybook maxims for success. When he speaks of baseball, drums roll and flags unfurl. A number of Saturday Evening Post covers about baseball, with the usual quota of snub-nosed, freckle-faced kids, line the walls of his Manhattan office. Flick's reverence for the national game is such that when he speaks as commissioner he usually refers to himself in the third person.
Now 67, Ford Christopher Frick was born in Wawaka, a farming community of 250 in northeastern Indiana. There weren't enough boys around to play football, and basketball didn't strike the state until later; baseball was the game. After graduating from high school Frick put in a year at a business college in Fort Wayne, worked briefly for a company making engines for windmills in the nearby town of Kendalville, and then enrolled at DePauw University.
Frick spent four hard years at DePauw, reporting part-time for newspapers, waiting on table and firing furnaces. "The only money I had was a $5 bill my uncle gave me at Christmastime in my sophomore year," he says. "I worked my way through, as many kids did. I take no bows for that."
Upon graduation in 1915 he went to Colorado to teach high school. In his spare time he played first base for a mining company team. He eventually landed in Colorado Springs, where he taught English at Colorado College and worked for the local newspaper, the Telegraph. He did everything on a newspaper, even editorial writing—"I could write the longest editorial not saying anything better than anyone who ever lived," he says—and he so distinguished himself on a couple of stories that a local printer sent them on to Arthur Brisbane, William Randolph Hearst's chief lieutenant. Impressed, Brisbane wired Frick to come to New York. Frick went, but only after characteristically checking the local telegraph office to make sure the wire wasn't a hoax.
Brisbane put Frick on the American, assigned to cover the Giants. "I never knew why that was," Frick says of the baseball assignment. "But you didn't ask questions of Mr. Brisbane." When, at Hearst's behest, Brisbane took over the Journals, year later, in 1923, he asked Frick to go with him, covering the Yankees. Frick consented with such alacrity that he abandoned the American office with a half-written story on the Giants still in his typewriter. "Mr. Brisbane had an abrupt peremptory manner," Frick says. "He didn't give you a chance to ask questions."
With the Yankees, Frick showed such devotion to duty (in addition to a high degree of professional reporting skill) that Dan Parker of the Mirror hung the kidding but affectionate nickname Cuthbert on him. By the time most of the writers on the road were climbing out of bed, Frick had already finished breakfast and was busy at the typewriter. When the club was in Chicago he unbent to the extent of playing golf with Judge Landis. For several years he served as Babe Ruth's ghostwriter, and he is proud of the fact that he wrote the first Ruth book, Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball. Occasionally, moved by his muse, Frick would break into verse in the Journal. Sample:
You view the Game as the thing, My Lad.
For that is the youthful way.
And you count it a sin when you fail to win
In the game that you choose to play.
But there's got to be someone to lose, My Lad,
It's sad—but it's always true,
And day by day, in the game you play
It's sure some time to be you.
"You'll notice he's never been mentioned for poet laureate," says Dan Parker, "not even of Bulgaria."
In 1930 Brisbane picked Frick to do a radio news broadcast for the Journal, and he was such a success that he wound up doing two daily news and sports programs. Later he became announcer for the André Kostelanetz show sponsored by Chesterfield. A friend recalls that before the first show Frick tried to adopt a suave manner, but when he opened his mouth at rehearsal an alarmed Chesterfield man sprang up and shouted, "Hey, give us that homespun Hoosier stuff with plenty of twang! That's what we're paying you for."
By 1934 the combined writing and broadcasting chores had become too much for even Frick to handle, and he gave up his position at the Journal in the spring of that year to become publicity man for the National League. He was allowed to continue sports broadcasting, and he was assured that he would be considered for the league presidency when John Heydler resigned. That fall, sooner than Frick expected, Heydler quit, and at the age of 39 Frick became president.
He did a good job. Half the clubs were on the point of bankruptcy, and he found owners to shore them up. He started a modest umpires' pension plan, and he conceived the idea of the Hall of Fame. When Judge Landis died in 1944, Frick was an early favorite to succeed him. But when the voting fell into a deadlock between Frick and Jim Farley, the owners passed over Frick, selecting an outsider, Happy Chandler, as a compromise. Frick's finest moment undoubtedly came in 1947 when the St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike in protest against Jackie Robinson of Brooklyn, the first Negro in the major leagues. "If you strike, you're through," he told the players, "and I don't care if it wrecks the league for 10 years."
In 1950 Frick got another crack at the commissionership when the owners refused to renew Chandler's contract. Not only had Chandler cracked an occasional whip across their backs, but he had bungled the sale of the World Series television rights, letting Gillette have them for six years for a flat $6 million.
This time the owners, tired of being cuffed about, were more cautious. The National League owners appointed a steering committee, headed by Phil Wrigley of the Cubs, to make specific recommendations about the commissioner's office. In a confidential memorandum Wrigley and the committee reported back:
"Even though it was the action of a small group of players that caused the establishment of the Commissioner's office, some people—and especially some of the newspaper writers—think the main role of the Commissioner is that of wielding a club to force a state of righteousness on a group of potentially wicked and irresponsible owners. From articles on some of the sports pages, it has been made to appear that the Commissioner is the sole bulwark preventing the owners from victimizing the public at the gate and reducing the players to slavery....
"In order to get our own public relations straightened out as to the actual functions of the Commissioner's office, it is necessary first to get straightened out in our own understanding inside the game as to what his job is and to revise the Major League agreements [defining the commissioner's powers] to the extent necessary to give an accurate statement of the duties and limitations.
"The next step is to find and elect a man who will fill the job that actually exists today, recognizing that the type of man who could perfectly fulfill the demands of the office at the time of its inception might well be totally unfitted for the job today. When we have done these two things, the public relations part of it should pretty well take care of itself and the public will realize that the commissioner is a leader of a group of men who have the interests of the game at heart rather than a whip-cracking enforcer."
Frick, bypassed once, now was a natural. He had already told friends, "What baseball doesn't need is another cop walking a beat with a club in his hand. It needed a man like that when it chose Landis, but times have changed."
Even so, there was some opposition to Frick among the owners. Clark (The Old Fox) Griffith of the Senators, said, "I was against Frick in 1945, and I am opposed to him now for the same reasons. Ford and I are old friends, and I recognize his abilities as a baseball executive. But it would be a tremendous disservice to baseball to pick Frick or anybody else now associated with the game....
"So many of our club owners forget that the commissioner is not just one of their employees. He represents the fans, the players, as well as the major leagues. And we are in a sport....
"Baseball should not elect a pussy-footer. We must have a big stick, and it would be fatal to handicap the new commissioner with a board of directors. I have received from the screening committee a questionnaire to outline the type of commissioner I want. Now there is plain poppycock. The kid in the street knows the answer to that."
The majority of owners disagreed. They nominated two baseball men: Frick and Warren Giles of the Reds. The election was close, but Frick won. Soon after, Giles succeeded Frick as president of the National League.
Frick has lived up to the expectations of the owners. He cracks no whip. Publicly, he warned that the major leagues were "eating their own young" by televising their games into minor league territory. Privately, the commissioner did little. Meeting with major league owners a few years ago, Frick said (so reported Bill Furlong of the Chicago Daily News, who eavesdropped through an air vent), "The minor leagues have asked me to tell you if you are going into a minor league city, please don't go in on the day they're playing a home game.... They can stand it on a Saturday, but feel that Sunday will kill them. There now. I've delivered the message."
Ever since Frick took office as commissioner he has had much to say about expanding the major leagues. Unfortunately, he has done nothing, and when expansion did come the owners acted so greedily they made the Oklahoma land rush look like a YMCA footrace. When plans for the Continental League were afoot in the spring of 1959, Frick announced, "Since there is no existing plan to expand the present major leagues, the two major leagues declare that they will favorably consider an application for major league status within the present baseball structure by an acceptable group of eight clubs which would qualify." When the new league was formed on paper in July of that same year, Frick gave it his blessing, even telling a Senate subcommittee, "I feel deep in my heart that the Continental League will become a reality." That fall, however, American League club owners, drooling at the thought of new cities, not in any Continental League but in their own, announced expansion plans. "At no time," said Frick, "was there any commitment to sit still and wait for a new league to be formed."
In a recent interview the commissioner talked about American League expansion:
Q: Don't you think it was too quick?
A: I said so at the time.
Q: Why didn't you stop it?
A: How can you?
Q: But you're the commissioner.
A: That's the thing I'm telling you. Damn it, you can't tell people you can't sell property or you have to sell properly.
Q: But you can say, "You can't go in there."
A: I said, "You cannot go into Los Angeles until you have changed the rules." I said that.
Q: But if you thought expansion was too quick why couldn't you have stopped it? There's no rule to back you up on that?
A: No, you can't stop that. That was never the conception of the office. There's no way in God's world. And there's no law in God's world. And there's no law in the land, nor could you pass a law that I could stop it. That was never the conception of the office.
Q: Can you stop franchise shifts?
A: No. I can argue. I could go to the league and say, "For God's sake, you're making a mistake." No, you cannot stop a man under any law in the country from selling his property if he wants to, from moving his store where he wishes. You cannot make him sell if he doesn't want to. And nobody ever has.
Q: Would you like the power to be able to?
A: No! I don't think you should. I think that would be completely unconstitutional. I think it's the wrong slant people have about that.... Yes, I was hopeful that they would wait till this year [to expand], and I said so at the time. Of course, they got into little personal battles between each other, and one faction jumped the gun on the other.
Asked if Judge Landis hadn't forced owners out of baseball. Frick replied, "Look, I loved Judge Landis, and I don't want anything in this that reflects on that but, as a matter of fact. Judge Landis never put any owner out of baseball. Mr. Navin, Ruppert, he was gonna make them sell racehorses. Hell, they kept their horses all the way through, down to the time of their death."
The interview turned to franchise shifts. After rooting for dreary teams, Washington fans had seen Owner Cal Griffith move the first promising team in ages to Minnesota. No longer was the club the Washington Senators; it was now the Minnesota Twins. In exchange, the Washington fans got a new Senator team loaded with has-beens. A few years earlier Brooklyn fans saw Walter O'Malley move the Dodgers to Los Angeles, even though the Dodgers had averaged a profit of $500,000 a year in Brooklyn. Neither Brooklyn nor Washington fans begrudged Los Angeles or Minnesota major league representation, but they wondered why it had to be at their expense when a long-range expansion program could have set up decent teams in new cities and made everyone happy all around.
Q: Don't you think fans are angered when baseball, which is always the first to wave the flag and demand flag loyalty, allows a club, a moneymaking club, that they have supported to move?
A: I haven't seen any instance of it. Sure, Mr. O'Malley made a little money in Brooklyn. Not too much.
Q: Brooklyn was a byword in baseball.
A: Sure, it was.
Q: It was a great part of the tradition of baseball.
A: That's right.
Q: And this tradition was just torn to shreds.
A: Oh, no, it wasn't! Not a damn bit.
Q: You don't feel that fan loyalty has been uprooted or destroyed?
A: I think that with this club, the Mets, coming in, your loyalties in New York will be right back where they were. I know that up in my community, Bronxville, people who were Brooklyn fans were baseball fans, and now they will become Met fans.
Later the commissioner hearkened back to Brooklyn fans. "People say they get sore," he said. "For a while. One generation, then pretty soon it's over."
Whatever the sentiments of the fans, Frick is convinced that baseball remains the national game. He became indignant when told that horse racing outdraws baseball by almost 30 million customers a year. "For actual paid attendance," he said, thumping his desk, "the dollars that go over the counter, for people who go to the racetrack as compared to people who go to baseball, there are more who go to baseball. Why, hell, there are more games, there are more teams, a longer season." Asked his source, the commissioner vaguely recalled once seeing figures from "the Bureau of Recreation." What the Bureau of Recreation is, or where it is. he didn't say. "We don't compile figures," he said. "All this talk about who holds the whip hand doesn't concern us. We go about our own business."
The commissioner was bullish about the future of baseball. Within the next several years, he believes it likely that the majors will either expand to 12 teams each or form three leagues of eight teams each. When this happens the schedule will revert to 154 games. Until then, both leagues will play 162-game seasons, and all pertinent records will be set aside in special categories. "There are a lot of things baseball could do, and we're working on plans," Frick said. "But I'm sure baseball has made more strides in the last three years or 10 years than in 20 years previous. We've established a good relationship between the players and owners, salaries are better, there's better security through the pension plan, teams are in more cities and there are better ball parks. People say baseball is dying? You've got new ball parks in operation in Milwaukee. Kansas City, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, plans for a new park in Pittsburgh, plans under consideration in St. Louis, a contract let for a new park in New York. That's why I don't worry about the commissioner's authority on these things."
Frick doesn't worry, either, about criticisms of his office. "I can retire any day I wish." he said, "and collect the same retirement pay. The idea that I'm afraid to take action! I'm the most independent guy in the world right now. I'm acting for two people—my own conscience and a game called baseball. And in 10 years I've never made a decision that went against my conscience, and my conscience has never hurt me for failing to make a decision."