Woodie Fryman, the Montreal pitcher, has an arthritic elbow. It is his left elbow, the hinge of his pitching arm, and people say it will make him baseball's leading transplant candidate whenever the arm finds its Christiaan Barnard. "It's wild-looking," says Dr. Bob Brodrick, the Expo physician. "From a lateral view on the X ray, the arthritis looks like somebody's necktie. There's a lot of degenerative arthritis in there, and loose bodies—a tremendous number of them—all over the joint. You wonder how he can flex it. It's incredible that he can pitch with it."
Not to say astounding that he has won six games so far this year. The arthritis—the same malady that pained Sandy Koufax into retirement—has been there, and escalating since 1971. "If he stopped to worry about it," says Dr. Brodrick, "he'd probably stop pitching." So Fryman doesn't worry. "There's nothing can be done for it," he says with a shrug. "I've always figured if you're going to pitch with a bad arm, you throw as hard as you can as long as you can and let the manager take care of the rest. If you're gone in the first, second, third or whatever, at least you didn't cheat yourself."
The Expos knew before they acquired Fryman from Detroit last winter that the arm was not perfect, but they didn't realize precisely how imperfect until they saw the X rays—26 games and four Fryman victories into the season.
"When I read an article about his next pitch possibly being his last," says General Manager Jim Fanning, "I guess I was concerned. I called Ralph Houk in Detroit after reading the story and he said, 'Very frankly, Jim, I'll take him back in a minute.' But right from the start, it never bothered Gene [Mauch, the Expos' manager] one iota."
June 29, 1975
Averting one's eyes during Fryman's warmups tends to reduce the discomfort. "If a manager watched me warm up in the last three years he'd never put me in a ball game; I'd never start an inning," Fryman says. "I just grit my teeth and, well, it's miserable, really. In games I can more or less block it out. I've pitched with a knot on my arm as big as a tennis ball, with pus in it where it's swollen. I've had it so bad I couldn't even comb the back of my head or tie my tie."
Nevertheless, Fryman started the season 4-0, pitching three straight shutouts and breaking the club's record for consecutive scoreless innings with 32‚Öî. He has recently split home-and-home assignments against the Los Angeles Dodgers and is now 6-3 with a 2.60 earned run average, second best on the staff.
Once he survives the warmup, Fryman struggles to get past the first couple of innings. Of the 24 earned runs against him this year, 11 have come in the first inning. "I challenge them as far as I can," he says. "I don't save anything for late. If I get out of the first or second inning, I'll usually go at least five or six."
Fryman pays dearly the next day. The arm hangs limply, locked in the shape of a banana and just as tender. "It's like somebody beat it to death, it's so sore," he says. "But five or six days later it'll be all right. I either quit or pitch with it." And quitting doesn't offer a complete escape. "I'll go home in the winter and strip tobacco all day and it'll feel just like I pitched nine innings."
The root cause of Fryman's aches and pains is to be found in his adolescence in Kentucky. He pitched semipro ball every Sunday from age 13 until he was 25. "I just walked out there and picked the ball up every seventh day, warmed up for 10 minutes, threw as hard as I could for as long as the game went on and never picked it up again until I pitched the next Sunday," he says. "The arm wasn't developed the right way. Then all at once I stepped into the major leagues and—bang-bang—I was out there every fourth day and throwing between starts every second day."
Fryman feels he is most effective now when used every fifth or sixth day, and Mauch employs him accordingly. But then, the two have always got on well. Fryman had a 10-2 record with the Phillies in 1968 when Mauch was fired as manager; he was 2-12 for the rest of that season. All told, Fryman is 16-5 in his two half-seasons with Mauch and 58-75 in between, but Mauch graciously declines to take any credit.
"Pitchers like Woodie Fryman don't need a manager," he says. "When pitchers have that kind of stuff, and that kind of control, it's easy for a manager to make a contribution. Woodie is a good control pitcher even when used irregularly, which fits our needs perfectly. And whatever he's got, he's going to give."
Fryman signed with Pittsburgh for $500 a month in 1966. Two years later he was part of the four-man package the Pirates sent to Philadelphia for righthander Jim Bunning. The Phillies kept him four years after Mauch was fired, then worked a waiver deal that sent Fryman to Detroit in August 1972. When Montreal got him, the price was two players, Pitcher Tom Walker and Catcher Terry Humphrey, and it was evident that the rapport with Mauch remained.
The 35-year-old Fryman is an obvious exception in the youth movement the Expos call Phase Two of their development program. On a team averaging 26.04 years of age, he is the senior citizen. "Pitchers are exempt," says Fanning, "because many of them win a lot of games after they're 30 and after they've experienced some arm trouble."
"You put older guys on your pitching staff before you will anywhere else," Fryman says, "because an older guy doesn't get upset when you make mistakes behind him. What have I got to get upset about? My career's about over." When Fryman has sufficient financial security, it will be. "If I could make the same money at home I'm makin' here, I wouldn't be here," he says candidly. "If I had myself set up—completely out of debt, my herd of cattle built up to where I want it and a little nest egg in the bank—I'd probably quit today, or quit this year."
Fryman has a baseball salary of just over $50,000, a tobacco salary of "five or six thousand" and nearly 100 head of cattle on his 214 Kentucky acres. With Woodie working on .the nest egg, wife Phyllis stays at home to mind the chores and sons Jeffrey, 11, and Patrick, 10, who also play ball. Jeff, a righthander, pitched a one-hitter in his Little League debut this year, and a day later Woodie matched it against the New York Mets. It was Fryman's third one-hitter in 10 years. "I'm not that good," he said with characteristic modesty.
Wrong. With that elbow, just going out there is good.