George and Gene Freese, One of Eight Pirates’ Brothers and Teammates Combinations
In the Pittsburgh Pirates’ long, rich, 125-year history, eight brother combinations have taken the field as teammates. The complete list is Carson and Lyle Bigbee (1921), Harry and Howie Camnitz (1909), Larry and John Gilbert (Pittsburg Alleghenies, 1890), Andy and Adam LaRoche (2008), Johnnie and Phil Morrison (1921), Eddie and Johnnie O’Brien, twins, (1953, 1955-1958), LLoyd and Paul Waner.
During their major league careers, the players had vastly different degrees of success. George Freese, a good but not great ball player, may have been the best athlete of them all.
Born in Wheeling, West Virginia Freese held the distinction of being a starting quarterback for both West Virginia University and its bitter rival, the University of Pittsburgh. At Central Wheeling High School, Freese lettered in football, baseball and track. Then, in 1944, Freese enrolled at Pitt and immediately assumed the starting quarterback position. After a stint in the Air Force, Freese received a scholarship to West Virginia and earned All American honors.
Despite his gridiron success, Freese preferred baseball. From 1948-1953, Freese bounced around from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the St. Louis Browns to the Detroit Tigers who eventually traded him to the Chicago Cubs. In 1953, the Pirates landed Freese as part of the monster 10-player trade with the Cubs that sent Ralph Kiner to Chicago.
Pirates’ hopes for Freese were high. He had just won the Puerto Rican Winter League batting title (.330) for the Mayaguez Leones. Freese’s feat was no small achievement. The Puerto Rican League was stocked with top major league pitchers intent on spend their winters improving. Among them were Ruben Gomez, Satchel Paige and Harvey Haddix. The Pirates’ yearbook described Freese’s bat as “lusty.”
Even though Freese tore up the Puerto Rican League and had impressive statistics in AAA Hollywood for the Pacific Coast League Stars (.302 in 1955; .274 in 1956) and in Los Angeles for the Angels (.291 in 1957), his Pittsburgh numbers never met expectations. Playing part time in 1955, his only season with the Bucs, Freese hit .257.
But…Freese had one outstanding Pirates’ moment. On May 1, Freese hit an inside the park grand slam home run against the St. Louis Cardinals. In the bottom of the 8th, Freese blasted a 440-foot screaming line drive off Herb Moford to the deepest part of expansive Forbes Field. Freese’s titanic shot knocked in Dick Groat, Felipe Montemayor and Dale Long and, behind Ronnie Kline’s masterful pitching (game time—1:56) propelled the Pirates to a 7-0 win in the nightcap of a double header. The Bucs lost the opener, 4-3.
Freese enjoyed a standout Pacific Coast League career. A three-time PCL All-Star (once in 1956 with the Angles and again in 1958 and 1959 with the Portland Beavers), Freese was the Beavers’ regular third baseman from 1957-1960, Freese put up eye-popping stats in 1958 and 1959: .305, 31 HRs and 80 RBIs and .319, 21HRs and 81 RBIs, respectively. Many analysts consider the old PCL equal to the majors in terms of its standards.
After his playing days ended, Freese coached for the Cubs and managed for a dozen years in the minor leagues including a stint with the Bakersfield Dodgers. Freese settled in Portland and in 2008 the Portland Hall of Fame inducted him into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.
A few months ago, Freese and I spoke by telephone. I told him that I grew up in pre-Dodgers’ Los Angeles and had rooted for him as a Stars. I added that as a 1960s University of Pittsburgh undergraduate, I had seen dozens of games at Forbes Field. We spoke fondly about Golden Era baseball which Freese was delighted to have been part of.
Readers who would like to send George, now 85, a message can email me at the address below and I’ll forward it to him.
Joe Guzzardi works for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org