An Oral History
by Harvey and Frederic J. Frommer
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I was probably around five when my dad sawed off a Little League bat and started throwing tennis balls to me in front of the garage. He sawed off the barrel of the bat to make it lighter and give me more control. My dad had been a minor league infielder for a decade, so there was all that baseball equipment in the house. It was Baseball 101.
A nunnery nearby owned some property with all this grazing land. It was just sitting there. So the parents went up there and talked the nuns into letting them build two ballfields on that property. It became an all-out community effort. With all of the homes being built in the area, people had equipment. One man had a grader that he brought home from work, and in the space of a weekend he graded the land. The parents literally sodded and watered the field. They raised money. The whole community chipped in a great deal because all these parents wanted their kids to play ball. The final result was an area that was almost like a minor league complex.
I played pickup baseball there every day. There were always enough kids. Sometimes we’d play half-field. The right-handed hitter would hit just from centerfield over.
My dad was a fireman who worked a twenty-four-hour shift and then was off for forty-eight hours. In the summer, he would call the parents and have them bring their kids down to the field. My dad would pick sides for two teams, and then he would pitch. Since my dad had been a first baseman, he taught us. We learned the scoop, how to work from the ground up. Catching a ground ball, he told us, you can always move your hand faster upward than you can downward. He used to throw tennis balls at us so we wouldn’t be afraid to get hit. We were able to look intently at the ball, and if the ball took a bad hop and hit us in the face, it was no big deal. It was just a tennis ball, and it didn’t hurt. That was a great way to learn how to scoop when we were six, seven years old. Those games were a great learning experience for everybody.
The kids I grew up with, people I haven’t seen in years, all have fond memories of that time and that experience. It was pretty much, you know, leave your kid, give him a little bit of money. My dad would chuck them on the truck and give them lunch, and the parents would come back down whenever they could to pick up their kids and bring them home.
My dad wanted me to become a major league player. He’d often tell me, “You know, at one time Willie Mays was an eight-year-old kid like you. Mickey Mantle was eight years old, and Stan Musial was eight years old. Look where they’re at now. So why don’t you make that you?” Thinking those baseball greats were once kids just like me kind of put it in perspective. I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I knew I wanted to be a major league ballplayer.
My first year in organized ball, I was in the minor league of Little League. The minor leaguers were eight or nine, and the major leaguers were ten, eleven, twelve. When I was nine, I was already in the majors. There were very few nine-year-olds who were good enough to play in the majors, but I did. My dad was the manager. My brother, Gary, who was two years older than me, played first base. I played centerfield. When Gary moved on to the Pony League, I went back to first base and pitched.
The games that stand out for me are the games that I pitched. I struck out a lot of people, but I lost the championship game 1–0 in a game that went extra innings. It was the only game I lost all year. Basically, in sixty innings I had struck out about 125 guys. I had a good fastball and a big curveball. I had a great arm. My dad was a left-handed pitcher, which is why I always hit left-handers good. I was weaned on left-handers.
Even though I enjoyed the pitching a lot more than the hitting part, I had big hitting games all the time. I was hitting .475, .490. Every game was a big day. I’m not taking any 0-fers there, you know.
When I was young, I liked the outfield. But when I got older, I saw there was a lot of action at first base. You can get bored in the outfield.
During World War II over in Pearl Harbor, my dad had played ball in the service on the navy team. He was on the same team as Stan Musial. So when Stan would come to San Francisco, he would leave tickets for us whenever the Cardinals played the Giants. I’d get to go in the clubhouse after the game. This was in the early sixties.
My favorite teams then were the Cardinals and the Yankees, because Mickey Mantle was my idol. When I got my first bubblegum baseball card of Mickey Mantle, I was very young. When I saw we were born on the same day, October 20, along with Juan Marichal, I was hooked. So that sold it. From then on I always had a 7 (Mantle’s number) on the back of my jersey someway. I wouldn’t wear the number 7, but my number always had to have a 7 in it. I wore 17, 27, and 37. I was 37 with the Cards and 17 was available with the Mets.
I loved baseball. In my Little League days, I couldn’t get enough. But when I was thirteen or fourteen, it got to be too much. I actually didn’t play one summer in between my junior and senior year of high school. I got into football instead. My dad handled it well. He said, “Okay, not a problem. I guarantee you you’ll be ready to go again next year.” He was right. I just needed a break.
Once I moved into situations that were out of his control and worked with another coach like I did with my high school team, my dad became very worried. He thought other coaches would ruin me. It became an obsession with him.
That’s when it all became very difficult for me. Those high school years were tough. He’d sit up there in his blue Mustang and watch us practice football and baseball. It put pressure on me. I’m sure he talked to the coaches.
My favorite sport was basketball. He wasn’t allowed to come to the gym to watch us, so that was the most fun. I was point guard. We had a fast-break offense, and I ran it. I was very quick. I was All-County point guard, first team, West Bay and San Jose, all the way up to San Francisco. That’s a lot of schools. Three public school leagues and San Francisco proper. I got tons of assists. Our team was so good that the starters were always taken out of the game late in the third quarter, because we were beating the crap out of teams. I averaged a little less than twenty points, but if we’d had more competition, I probably would have averaged twenty-five a game.
I had a pretty good high school basketball career. My high school put me in their Hall of Fame for whatever reason. Still I never could have taken it to the college level except maybe at a small college. I knew I wasn’t tall enough to play professionally.
After high school, I was picked by the Cardinals in the 1971 draft. It was amazing. I mean, you’re up for grabs there, and you don’t know who’s going to draft you. I was very fortunate, very pleased. I was drafted low, the fortieth round because I had quit playing baseball my senior year due to a conflict with my coach. My junior year I hit either .500 or high .400s.
Every team in the world was scouting me. I quit and went and played semipro ball on weekends against guys that were much older than me. It was actually a pretty good learning experience. It was a difficult time, because they were throwing breaking balls, and I was playing against guys that were five, six, seven years older, grown men. That was during school.
Then I played in the summer in the Joe DiMaggio League. There I just burned it up. I hit .490. There wasn’t any getting me out. The Cardinals said they just took a chance on me. If I had played baseball for my high school team in my senior year, I would have been someone’s number one draft pick. But I think not playing and having that rift with my high school coach scared them off. They thought I was trouble.
In 1974, my first minor league season, I made it all the way to triple-A and won the American Association batting title.
I was back home, and I had to leave tons of passes, so that was very nerve-wracking. Here I was competing against Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman — these are guys you were watching when you were in high school. And playing on the same team with Lou Brock and Bob Gibson.
I was thrown into a major, major, major pennant race. The Cardinals wound up losing the division to the Pirates on the final day of the season. I was oblivious to what was happening. I was numb. You get called up, and you’re playing in a stretch drive, let alone starting.
In mid-1975 I became the regular first baseman for the Cardinals and a fixture on the major league scene for many seasons.
From Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer.
Copyright © 2001 by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer. Excerpted with permission.