October 30, 2020

Thanks For the Memories, Woodie

February 24, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

I was saddened recently by the announcement of the passing of Woodie Fryman at the age of 70. The lefthander played for Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago and Montreal (twice). He was a man of principles who was enormously popular in Montreal, as the fans acknowledged that there was no bull about him, that he was as real and genuine as one can get.

During his first stay in Montreal, in 1975 and 1976, I had innumerable discussions with a cousin of mine over who the Expos’ best pitcher was: Woodie Fryman or Steve Rogers. I was on Fryman’s side and quite honestly, I have to admit that at that point Rogers was a more sought after property. A case could be made, though, as to which one was the best during these two years. Fryman made himself a lot of friends right from the start, hurling three shutouts in his first four starts in 1975. The following season, his 13 victories led the team, while the Expos had the worst season of their history in Montreal. Some would argue about 1969 but shouldn’t we take into account that it was the Expos’ inaugural season? That was far from the case in 1976.

He was traded to Cincinnati in December 1976 along with reliever Dale Murray for Tony Perez and Will McEnaney. It gave instant credibility to the Expos, who were lacking some veteran presence in their line-up. As for Fryman, most figured he would give the Reds a solid performer in their rotation. Furthermore, Fryman would be a lot closer to home in Kentucky (Cincinnati is one river away from Lexington). Things didn’t quite work the way both sides thought it would. Fryman didn’t perform up to expectations and didn’t like either the way things were being done in Cincinnati. I had the privilege to talk to him in 2005. Here’s what he told me:

“I asked to be traded, I wasn’t satisfied then, I asked them to trade me to somebody else. They said, they wouldn’t do it. I said, if you don’t trade me, I will just retire. They didn’t think I would do that. Sparky Anderson told me to my face, you can’t turn down the money. I said, Sparky, I never did have a whole lot of money so it’s not money as far as I’m concerned. He said, we won’t trade you. I said, well, I’m leaving today. So I went home and stayed and they traded me that winter. It’s just one of those things. I wasn’t happy there, though. It was not the players. They were nice to me and I hope I was nice to them but I didn’t really like the organization. And I think that’s the best thing that ever happened to me when they traded me that winter. They traded me to the Cubs and then traded me back to the Expos and that’s the best thing that ever happened to me. It added three or four years in the big leagues.”

To turn down that money takes a lot of guts and a real sense of self-respectability. He came back with the Expos in June 1978 as the team was desperately in need of pitchers. He was a starter for most of the season, even throwing a one-hit shutout against the San Francisco Giants and Vida Blue, a game he won 1-0 on national TV. Dick Williams made him a reliever in 1979. Some would consider this decision a demotion but Fryman took it in stride. It took him a full year, though, to really master his new craft. He was the number one reliever on a team that came one game short of winning the NL East in 1980. In one stretch, he was so dominant he retired 43 of 45 batters.

His contribution to the Expos went beyond the stats and his on-field performances. David Palmer told me how Woodie Fryman helped him behave like a professional:

“Woodie Fryman took me under his wing my first day in the big leagues when I was 20 years old. He taught me the dos and the don’ts, if you’re 15 minutes early, you’re late, that sort of thing. And then the next year when I made the team, I lockered next to him. He just wouldn’t let me complain about any of the little things, like I would walk in and say, how they can put those kinds of socks in my locker, he said ‘just be happy to have a locker. Don’t worry about the little things.’ Woodie would go after the hitters with me, say ‘pitch to your strengths, not as much as to their weaknesses.’ Woodie taught me a lot about being a major league player, how to act on the field, off the field. Showing up early and watching the other team take extra batting practice. And when Ray (Burris) came over, he just kind of fit right in with me and Woodie and did the same things.”

Woodie Fryman, Ray Burris and David Palmer would almost always hang out together on the road while all three were teammates with the Expos. Woodie Fryman’s career ended when his arthritic arm gave out in the middle of the 1983 season. In fact, few imagined he would still be pitching by then because of the condition of his left elbow. Fryman would even name his arm “Arthur,”,  direct reference to the arthritis that was affecting his arm.

The fans in Montreal loved him. He never sought the spotlight and always seemed to wear a smile on his face. On the traditional annual “Farm Day” at Olympic Stadium, one could count on Woodie Fryman to capture the overall crown, milking cows, etc. Of course, he had the advantage of being among the very few who could do it on his spare time during the winter. Thanks, Woodie, for the memories.

Alain Usereau has been a member of SABR since 1991. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics (University of Sherbrooke, 1986) and a Certificate’s degree in Journalism (Laval University, Quebec City, 1987). He’s been a broadcaster since 1989, mainly in sports. He is the author of a book about the heydays of the Montreal Expos, “L’époque glorieuse des Expos” (The golden years of the Expos), which depicts how they became not only a force in the late 1970s and early 1980s but became also the toast of a whole country.

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