Former Angels player and manager Jim Fregosi passed away Friday morning due to complications from a stroke. The sudden loss must be difficult for his family and friends, and as an Angels fan, I find myself shocked and saddened. Jim Fregosi’s contribution to the Angels is impossible to overstate. His play on the field and his leadership from the dugout have made him one of the central figures of the Angels baseball franchise.
When general manager Fred Haney and manager Bill Rigney were putting together the very first Angels team, they wanted a mix of veteran players who could help the team win now, and some promising young players who could help them win in the future. They got a good one for the future when they chose for their 17th pick in the 1960 expansion draft the 18-year-old Fregosi from the Boston Red Sox.
The young shortstop got an eleven-game call up in September of the Angels’ first year of competition, in 1961. He started off the 1962 season in Triple A, however, as the shortstop role on the Major League team was filled by the competent Joe Koppe. When Fregosi was called up to the Angels on July 1st, the team was in New York to play a double-header with the Yankees, with whom the Angels were tied for first place in the American League. In the fifth inning of the first game, Joe Koppe was hurt in a collision at home plate, and Fregosi was tapped to take his place. From that moment on, for the next nine and a half years, Jim Fregosi was the Angels’ starting shortstop.
He finished his rookie season in 1962 with a .291 batting average. Fregosi’s rookie year was also the year Dodger Stadium opened and was home to both the Dodgers and the Angels. On September 19, playing at home against the Baltimore Orioles, Fregosi hit the first ever inside-the-park home run at Dodger Stadium.
Two years later, on July 28, 1964, Fregosi would be the first Angel to ever hit for the cycle during a 3-1 victory over the Yankees.
He turned out to be the best shortstop of the sixties. He could do everything. He could hit for average and for power. He was usually the fastest player on the team. He sucked up just about every ground ball hit his way and gunned it to first base. He won a Gold Glove in 1967. He was a six-time All-Star. He received MVP votes every year from 1963 to 1970.
After 53 years of Angels baseball, Jim Fregosi’s name continues to be in the top five in many categories in the Angels’ career record book. Fregosi is still the all-time Angels leader in triples with 70. He is second in WAR with 45.9 as an Angel. He is fourth all-time in walks with 558. He is fifth all-time in hits, runs, and doubles.
Following the 1971 season, Fregosi was traded to the New York Mets, most notably for Nolan Ryan and Leroy Stanton. The ’71 season was a sub-par one for Fregosi due to a tumor in his foot that he eventually had surgery on, but the Mets were still getting a perennial All-Star at the age of 30. They hoped he would be able to bounce back while also making a position change, from shortstop to third base. In Ryan, the Angels were getting a pitcher who lit up the radar gun, but struggled with his control. While it looked somewhat even on paper, the deal ended up being the greatest trade in Angels history, as Fregosi struggled for the remainder of his career and Ryan controlled his fastball just enough to jumpstart his march to the Hall of Fame. Leroy Stanton was productive too, starting in the Angels’ outfield for the next four years.
Fregosi was able to stretch his career out until June 1st, 1978, when he was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He wasn’t out of a job long, though. The next day he rejoined the California Angels as the team’s manager. The Halos had just gone through a five-game losing streak and had fallen from first to third, and Fregosi had always been a favorite of Gene Autry’s, so Dave Garcia was let go in favor of Fregosi. Fregosi had also been a favorite of original Angels manager Bill Rigney, and the two of them would often go have a cup of coffee somewhere before or after a game so Fregosi could pick the veteran manager’s mind of its golden baseball wisdom.
He must have learned a thing or two because on September 10, Fregosi had the Angels in second place, only half a game behind the Kansas City Royals. Even though the Angels eventually finished in third place that season, it was the first time since 1962 that the Angels were in a pennant race deep into September.
And 1979 would get even better.
The team got off to a 15-8 start, good for first place at the end of April. The Angels hovered around the top spot all season, finally clinching their first division title September 25 on the back of Frank Tanana’s complete game victory over the Royals.
Jim Fregosi brought the magic from his playing days with him into that 1979 dugout, and transformed all of us long-suffering Angels fans into believers. And for that, and for everything that came before, Mr. Fregosi, you will always be first in the heart of this countryman.