He is a short, paunchy man who gives, at first sight, an overall impression of grayness. And on this particular grim December afternoon, there is also a look of fatigue, of resignation. He answers the phone in his Manhattan hotel suite with a heavy sigh, "Al's Mortuary," he says. He walks with an old man's shuffle and a poor man's slump. He is neither. This is Albert S. Frohman, the agent. Make that The Agent, for Albert S. Frohman has just negotiated the richest, toughest, meanest contract in the history of U.S. sport for his No. 1 and only client, Dave Winfield.
He doesn't sound rich, tough or mean—mainly just beat. He sighs, he blinks. His eyes are faintly watery. "People think I'm in this with Dave just for the money. Sir, if I were in this only for the money, I'm telling you, I'd have sold out way down the line. If I were doing this only for money, we'd have ended up with a lot less."
He sags onto the couch. He is 54 years old, but with his buttoned-up white sweater, his gray hair, his pallid skin, he appears a decade older. "People think I'm a genius for making this deal for David. A genius? You want to be a genius? I'll tell you how. Get your ideas, get good ideas, get whatever ideas. Then tell the truth." He pauses for a moment of silent tribute to these powerful words, then goes on, obviously gaining nourishment from his own monologue. "Tell the truth, never a lie. I'm a good businessman. Therefore, all my life I've been a great liar. Smooth. I was so smooth at lying that now no one believes me when I tell the truth. The truth antagonizes people, it irritates them. But it protects you. You never have to remember what you said because if it's the truth, you'll know what you said."
He pauses again. The wind seems to be rising nicely in him, though he still sits slack on the couch, a vision of weakness and old age. "I only adopted this idea of telling the truth when I met David Win-field. We're each other's guru. We're like father and son. He's got a mind like a mop, picks up everything around him. David Winfield is more interesting off the field than he is on it. People laugh at how we look together. Mutt and Jeff, they say, what a weird couple. I don't blame them for laughing. But I'm no Svengali with David; David is a brilliant young man. I'm the thought factory. I get the ideas, but he's always an integral part. I would put David against any agent in the country on a negotiation—alone. Mentally, David Winfield isn't 29 years old, he's 50, maybe 55; he's that wise and that well developed. He knows about telling the truth, for years he knows about it."
January 5, 1981
The partnership between these two unlikely colleagues began something over seven years ago. Al Frohman had moved to the West Coast from Long Island in 1969 after a successful career as a kosher caterer. He was following in the footsteps of his own father, who had led an amazingly diverse life. "My father was a rabbi in Brooklyn and during the 1930s he'd been chaplain to the Dodgers. Also he was a professional musician. He conducted pit bands on the Keith vaudeville circuit. I went to the Juilliard School when I was a kid, but when I got out of the Army in 1946 my father said, 'Music's not for you. No money. You go into business with me.' He was among the first to organize kosher catering in New York and business was very, very good."
Frohman also had dabbled on the periphery of baseball agentry, advising the Mets' Cleon Jones while living on Long Island, then working "more as a friend than a paid agent" for the Dodgers' Joe Ferguson and the Padres' Jerry Turner after he moved to the West Coast. He finally decided to retire from the catering business in 1975. He was well off, the owner of a 12-room house in Encino, in which he still lives with his wife, Barbara, one of his four children and a grandchild. The business of representing ballplayers was, he says, "more friendship than anything formal." His relationships with both Ferguson and Turner apparently soured, and lately he has represented only Winfield, whom he met in 1973. For some reason, mutual admiration blossomed at first sight between the strapping, dashing outfielder and the dumpy little caterer. A remarkable sort of father-son relationship sprang up—so remarkable that Winfield and Frohman now view it with a kind of awe. "I've never known anyone like Al," says Winfield. "We spend thousands of hours together. We've had maybe one disagreement. It's a chemistry beyond understanding."
Of course, Frohman waxes much longer and far more effusively over the relationship. "We've never had a contract, nothing in writing," he says. "It's all in a handshake. David gives me whatever he thinks I've earned, no firm percentage. For this Yankee deal, he'll give me a little something for Christmas. We aren't like other business partners. I spend my energy for David as if he's a son. It's the energy of love. We have such a gentle relationship. We kiss when we say goodby or hello. I've had three major heart attacks. I appreciate the little things, the gentle things. I appreciate David's gentleness. I know that money isn't everything. I know that we've borrowed our bodies to live on this earth for a little while and then, when we leave, we take nothing away except the love we've got ten from others."
Now all of this might make Al Frohman sound more like a born-again flower child than a shrewd and iron-minded negotiator, but no one should be fooled. Frohman is tough, cool, imaginative. A similar cool, tough customer named George Steinbrenner is openly admiring of Frohman's bargaining technique. "Maybe the way Al comes on at first makes you wonder a little about him," the Yankee owner says. "But once he makes his arguments, he's extremely impressive. He made one of the best-organized presentations I've ever seen. Not the best, but one of the best. It was tough and it was excellent."
Buzzie Bavasi, former president of the Padres, who negotiated Winfield's 1977 contract, also has had nice words for Frohman. "I had no trouble with him," he says. "He handled himself like an agent should. He let Dave make up his awn mind. I believe Dave feels Al is a genuine friend, and anything Al does, Dave believes it's in his best interest. He takes to heart what Al says. Their relationship is unique among players and agents."
Not everyone agrees that Frohman's tactics reflect textbook excellence in baseball agentry. The Padres' current president, Ballard Smith, conducted months of increasingly acrimonious negotiations with Frohman over Winfield's services, and about the mildest thing he ever said about Frohman was that he consistently saddled Winfield with "bad advice." One of the more publicized and controversial Frohman-Winfield deals in the San Diego area involved plans for the construction of something called "Superstar Village." This was to be "an optimal health family resort"—a real estate development that was supposed to attract a variety of superstars as residents who would also serve as sort of celebrity-camp counselors to health-hungry families visiting the village. Among other things, Frohman and Winfield tried to persuade a couple of municipal governments to involve themselves with the project. John Fowler, assistant city manager of San Diego, viewed the scheme skeptically. "Superstar Village was an intriguing concept, but it was all bare bones," he says. "There was no body to it. All we ever saw were drawings and outlines as to the number of units. We never saw any financial reports. It sounded great, but when we investigated it, there wasn't Enough there for us to act on."
Doug Best, the former mayor of suburban Escondido, who was also approached by Frohman and Winfield, says, "They came in all peaches and cream and we cautioned them about the hurdles.... My opinion was that Dave Winfield was a very sincere young man who had gotten some very bad advice real estate-wise. What we saw was very premature and very shoddily prepared. If anyone could kill a deal, Frohman could."
In the aftermath of the ultimately fruitless negotiations, Winfield-Frohman were sued for "account stated" by the San Diego law firm Krinsky & Idler, which represented the pair in connection with Superstar Village. The suit resulted in an out-of-court settlement giving Krinsky & Idler $10,600.25. Within the past month, Wheeler-Winer, Inc., a division of one of San Diego's biggest architectural firms, filed a suit for $18,678.55 in unpaid fees relating to renderings done for three different possible locations of the Village. As he did in the first suit, Frohman argues that he owed nothing unless the Village materialized.
George Trull, a veteran hotel man who for 18 years was Conrad Hilton's administrative assistant, and who more recently served as president of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association, was also for 17 months general manager of the would-be Superstar Village. He has retained an attorney to try to help him collect fees he believes he is owed by Winfield-Frohman.
During the Superstar Village negotiations in 1978-79, the names of a number of superstars were tossed up in the San Diego papers—among them, Steve Garvey, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pete Rose. It was said that they were backing the recreational complex. As it turned out, all of them denied being involved in the project and said that their names had been floated without permission. Asked about this apparent discrepancy, Frohman says, "We never said 'Steve Garvey.' What we actually said was that this is the kind of project that would attract the Steve Garveys. There were a lot of athletes interested in this, but we never signed any papers or contracts."
Winfield-Frohman also tried to involve the Padres in the Superstar Village concept. Ballard Smith recalls, "Frohman came to me and asked that Bob Fontaine [then the Padres' general manager] and I accompany him and Dave to a public meeting over the Escondido project. Frohman put pressure on us to go along, implying that if we did it might help our negotiations with Dave's contract. Once we were there, Frohman put pressure on Bob and me to get up and talk in favor of the project—a project which I really knew nothing about. I became very concerned shortly after that when the Padre name was used in connection with support for the project. We weren't ever a part of it. After that, I put a lot of distance between myself and the Superstar Village discussions. I hope people don't think the Padres were a party to it. We weren't."
Still, despite the sour notes echoing from the Superstar Village concept, no one has uncovered anything scandalous. Jack Walsh, a former San Diego city councilman and former county supervisor, did an investigative report on the project in conjunction with a local TV station in 1978. His conclusions: "We didn't find any illegalities. There were a lot of questionable practices, promises that didn't seem possible to be kept. Frohman is a bull-spitting promoter, a wheeler-dealer who played on Winfield's name and popularity. I think Frohman says things are that aren't, floats balloons, and wheels and deals off Winfield's name. That can be dangerous if it's not seen for what it is, but I didn't find anything illegal."
Frohman says he and Winfield still hope to build a Superstar Village somewhere, sometime—"call it a La Costa without a barroom, a La Costa where everyone is jogging, drinking vegetable juice, getting into optimal health"—but for the moment it's on a back burner.
Something that is definitely not relegated to the background is the David M. Winfield Foundation. This is a charitable corporation, developed in 1977 as a conduit and formal outlet for Winfield's charitable instincts. Says Frohman, "This man is unique. This foundation is unique. There's nothing like either one. All his life David has had an instinct for helping people that is, well, it's saintly. Do you know that when he signed his first contract, for $18,000, he insisted on using $2,000 to set up a scholarship fund for needy kids in St. Paul? He can't help from being a saint. He loves people, that's all, loves them. I'll tell you an example. We were driving through Watts, down a street in one of those poor sections, and David saw this house that didn't have any curtains on the windows. They were hare. Do you know what David did? He stopped the car, got out, went up and knocked on the door and gave the woman who answered it a check for $200 to buy drapes for her windows. Didn't tell her who he was, didn't wait for any thanks, just gave her the money for new curtains."
The Winfield Foundation is ostensibly in business on a far more exalted level than providing window drapes for indigent housewives. The foundation was incorporated in Delaware in 1977 and was granted tax exemption by the Internal Revenue Service in 1978. It was duly registered with the California State Registry of Charitable Trusts in the spring of 1979. The Winfield Foundation has stated that its major reason for existence was to "provide a program for low income groups and disadvantaged and handicapped children in San Diego County to attend professional baseball games at no cost." The operation has expanded to include seven other major league cities in its free-ticket distribution, and Winfield has hosted an annual All-Star Game party for kids with attendant superstars for the past three years—attracting 15,000 before the San Diego game in 1978, 5,000 in Seattle in '79 and some 4,000 in Los Angeles last summer. The foundation has also initiated a program with a mouthful of a name—Health Optimization Planning & Education—which reduces mercifully to the acronym HOPE. It offers a health checkup to the disadvantaged kids who come to a ball park for their free baseball tickets.
At first blush, it might seem to a skeptical mind that all this is entirely too good to be true, that the foundation just might be a highly effective public relations tool to gloss Winfield's image and inflate his dollar value at precisely the time he was engaged in negotiating baseball's largest payoff.
Frohman agrees completely. "Certainly it looks like a gimmick," he says. "Certainly it looks suspicious. I don't blame people for calling Dave's foundation a gimmick to get him a better contract. They're right to be skeptical, to be critical. All I say is that time will tell the truth. Now that we've signed the contract, watch us. If we fold up the foundation and walk away, if we stop giving tickets and eats and physical examinations to poor kids now, if we go back on our word to help people—then you'll know it was a gimmick. Then you'll know it was a tax deal. Go ahead. Be suspicious. Be skeptical. We'll show you that you're wrong."
Yankee support for the Winfield Foundation was a moderately prominent item in the Winfield-Yankee negotiations, and Steinbrenner had his doubts. "I admit that I was skeptical about it," he says. "I listened to all the things they claimed they had done. Then I heard other people in other cities talk about what the Winfield Foundation had produced—and it was very hard to believe. The money they claimed they had to work with just didn't measure up to what they said they had accomplished. The numbers didn't jell. It was then I realized that they had been literally begging to keep their programs going. I realized that they were like a couple of urchins standing on a street corner with a tin cup."
It is indeed a raggedy operation. As Frohman says a bit wistfully, "We've been nickeling and diming it. We try and get things free. My experience in the catering business helps me get deals. I hustle very well. We have 400 volunteers. We have one full-time receptionist-typist-secretary and we don't pay her a penny. When we travel, I don't take a room; I sleep on the floor in Dave's room."
A prospectus for 1980 operations projected an income of more than $940,000. Funds were to be raised by a professional organization in New York—but it came up empty. Indeed, expectations for contributions were so optimistic that, as it turned out, Winfield himself contributed something like 85% of the cash flowing through the foundation. And it wasn't that much. "Maybe $75,000, if you ask me," says Frohman. "This was a baby operation. This was a bad year, with all the bad feelings in San Diego, all the bad stuff in the papers. It was strictly hand-to-mouth for the foundation."
So far, the foundation has filed only one financial report with the California State Registry of Charitable Trusts. That covered its business activities in California from Sept. 1, 1978 to Aug. 31, 1979. In all, its gross revenue was a relative pittance—$37,639, with $12,706 directly spent for its charitable operations, $11,243 for operating expenses (including legal fees), which left a year-end cash reserve of $17,612. Duane Reule, deputy registrar, says, "We have a computerized audit program to keep an eye on any discrepancies or potential misuse of charitable trusts. The only problem with the Winfield Foundation is that maybe they should have put their cash reserve into some kind of interest-producing investment. If it's a problem, it's a minor one."
One of the many bristling points of conflict between Frohman-Winfield and the Padres had to do with the foundation's use—or non-use—of $100,000 worth of tickets for underprivileged kids. Ballard Smith claims that the foundation owes the ball club something like $63,000 for tickets it was supposed to have purchased but didn't. These tickets were part of the deal that Frohman negotiated with the Padres in 1977. As Frohman recalls it, "We were dealing with Buzzie Bavasi. I said we wanted $1.4 million for four years. Buzzie said $1.3 million, not a dime more. Finally, I said, 'O.K., Buzz, we'll take the $1.3 million, but you add on the 100,000 Padres tickets that we're going to buy anyway for the foundation program.' He agreed."
Thus, the 100,000 tickets, at $1 each, were added onto Winfield's four-year contract. However, because of a number of problems—not the least of which was Winfield's darkening public image around San Diego when it seemed likely he would leave the club—fewer than half the tickets have been used.
Frohman claims that often the foundation was unable to find kids who wanted tickets to the lowly Padres' games. Not everyone buys this story. Johnny Moore, assistant director of the Encanto Boys Club in a lower-middle-class section of San Diego, says, "We always had kids who wanted to go to games, but I don't know why there weren't more chances. We would have supplied our own transportation if the tickets had been offered." On the other hand, Fred Brody, who runs the Main Boys Club in a poorer area of town, had a slightly different version. "We had a problem in that transportation was not offered with the tickets and that tickets were offered only on certain nights," he says. "So transportation was a big problem. I think there might be validity to Frohman's claim that he couldn't find interested people. We could always find plenty of takers on Winfield's HOPE days, with the free medical exams and free hamburgers and hot dogs. It was harder on other days. Yes, I'd say the interest on the kids' part waned."
The question of payment for the unused tickets has lately risen as yet another point of contention between the Padres and Winfield-Frohman. At a time when there was still hope that Winfield would stay in San Diego, Ballard Smith allowed him an extension of time, during which the foundation might purchase the remaining tickets. Then when Win-field flew the Padre coop, Smith demanded immediate payment. The whole thing could end up in court—but that seems only fitting considering the bitterness that surrounded Winfield's departure from the Padres.
Naturally, Frohman insists that it was all the fault of the Padres generally and Ballard Smith specifically. "Dave would have stayed in San Diego," says Frohman. "He wanted to stay in San Diego if the Padres had just shown him the slightest attention, the tiniest bit of affection—if they had given him just a tie clip or even a congratulatory letter when he won the RBI title. If Ballard Smith had just come to his birthday party, Dave Win-field could still be in San Diego. You want the truth? I was originally willing to settle for $1 million a year for a minimum of seven years. You believe that? It's the truth. We'd have had a cost-of-living increase, but it would've been small. Maybe 2%, nothing close to the national rate, nothing close! You want to know who negotiated the Yankee contract, the $20 million deal? It was Ballard Smith. He was the one who started talking last March about how David wanted $20 million. He was the first to mention that figure. I had never thought of $20 million. David had never thought of $20 million. No, sir. But Ballard Smith got people used to hearing that Dave Winfield was worth $20 million. Pretty soon they believed it. And pretty soon so did David and I. That's how it all came about."
Smith refutes this. "I never in my life said $20 million," he says. "And that part about Frohman settling for $7 million over seven years is absolutely not true. But the thing that annoys me the most is the birthday party. I was there. I even gave Dave a present."
Whatever the truth of it all, Dave Winfield is a trillion-dollar Yankee and Al Frohman is reviving nicely from his weariness and resignation. He sits up straighter on the hotel couch. Outside, the Manhattan afternoon has turned dark and there is cold rain in the air. He shivers. His eyes blink, but they no longer seem watery. Indeed, there's a look of flint in them, and his voice is sharp. "David Winfield is a unique young man," he says. "He is bright. He was a political science major in college. He is articulate. He may have a career in politics. He won't talk about it, but I'd like to see him run for the U.S. Senate, for Vice President. I'd like to help him do that. People laugh at us, the odd couple, the silly-looking pair of pals. Yeah, they laugh. I don't blame them. But we don't care. We're unique. If a man offered me $100 million a year, I don't leave David Winfield. No, sir. And that, I'm telling you, is the truth."