If Jim Fregosi played for the Los Angeles Dodgers instead of the Los Angeles Angels, the city would cast his footprint or his gloveprint or something in cement outside of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. He would be paid better than walking-around money to go to Las Vegas and play straight man for Milton Berle, and he would be endorsing everything under the smog. For Jim Fregosi, just 22 years old, is generally acknowledged as the best young player in the American League.
Fregosi, a shortstop, can run, field, throw, think, hit for average and hit for power. He is also what Californians dearly love their athletes to be—a fellow Californian, personable and good-looking. Fregosi is not only good-looking enough for most fans, and particularly for Janet Bennett Fregosi, a beautiful brunette who was "sort of" his high school sweetheart, but Jim is even good-looking enough for MGM, which is interested in him despite the fact that he is an Angel, not a Dodger.
Generally, though, Fregosi operates in relative anonymity with the Angels, the poor haloed trash of Los Angeles who share the stadium at Chavez Ravine—but only a few of the fans and none of the parking fees. Not having a piece of the parked cars in L.A. is like getting in on Idaho without the potatoes. Predictably, then, the Angels have cast about for new quarters, and bonds for a new stadium in Anaheim, Greater Disneyland, are likely to be placed on sale soon.
If the Angels had a few more Fregosis perhaps they would not have to move. Last year, his first full one, he hit .287, eighth best in the league and best among the shortstops. He is the only shortstop in the league hitting third in the lineup, and though he has been hampered by a hamstring muscle pull this year he is still hitting .340, fifth best in the league. He is also fast. He was second in the league in triples last year, has four already this season and five stolen bases to boot. Fregosi is one of those rare shortstops who can hit for distance—four HRs this season—and though not exactly exuding finesse afield, he gets to the balls and he has an outstanding arm.
In brief, in a league become saturated with good shortstops, Fregosi may already be the best of the lot—Kubek, Versalles, Aparicio and so on. But then, he has been surprising people all along. A four-sport, 11-letter man at Serra High School in San Mateo, he enrolled at Menlo College in 1959 with the idea of prepping for some big-time college football competition. Over the summer, though, Red Sox Scout Charlie Wallgren and about $25,000 convinced Fregosi to go into baseball.
The Red Sox sent him to Class D Alpine, Texas his first season, 1960, where by midseason he was distinguishing himself with a .175 batting average and a tendency to throw balls all over Texas. He finished at .267, but that was not enough to convince the Sox that they should protect him from the expansion draft. Fregosi then embarrassed them by going back to San Mateo and the winter Peninsula League where he suddenly blossomed.
About this time the Angels were formed, and Bill Rigney, their manager, saw Fregosi play at San Mateo. So did George Genovese, a Giant farm manager. Rigney had long been connected with the Giants, and the club was not unwilling to help Rigney's needy Angels of the other league. Genovese's report—still in the Giant files—waxed casually ecstatic, concluding: "This boy has a chance to go all the way." For $75,000, the Angels took a chance.
Not even Genovese, though, had Fregosi completely tabbed. "Hits with occasional power," he wrote, "but is not a power hitter." But then, not even Fregosi himself had any idea that at 6 feet and 170 pounds he had not stopped growing. Today he is 6 feet 2, 195, and as far as Fregosi knows, he is not through yet. "That's what's killing me. Whoever heard of a 6-foot-4, 220-pound shortstop?" The prospect of playing another position does not unnerve him, but he knows well that shortstops who can hit home runs are in low supply and high tax brackets.
Literally as well as figuratively, Fregosi swings one of the biggest bats in baseball: 36 inches and 36 ounces. He chokes it up about two inches for better bat control. Fregosi used to swing a nice average little 34-31. He decided to go to the monster bat in midseason last year. Since then he has hit .319, but the supreme compliment to Fregosi the hitter is that each team in the league pitches him differently. Pitchers—regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, or team—pass the word around on hitters faster than Walter Winchell. When they cannot come to a consensus, they are up against a real hitter.
One thing that nobody ever had any doubts about was Fregosi's arm. The question was how to harness it. He made 53 errors—mostly throwing—at Dallas-Fort Worth in 1961, and last year he estimates that 22 or 23 of his 27 errors came on throws. It was a pleasant joke at the Dallas-Fort Worth park that no one dared sit behind first base when Fregosi was taking infield practice. Even Fregosi could laugh about it, until one night in Denver when he uncorked another high toss. "It must have just tipped the first baseman's mitt," Fregosi says, "because it had a little downward spin on it." The ball crashed through a supposedly ball-proof screen in front of the Denver dugout and onto the head of Infielder Frank Kostro. Kostro suffered a brain concussion, and though he eventually fully recovered—in fact, he was Fregosi's teammate on the Angels last year—Fregosi still speaks of the accident and of the possibilities of such future misfortunes with sincere fear.
Part of Fregosi's wildness was his motion. "Herky-jerky," he calls it himself, and that is as good a description as any. Fregosi tended to throw the ball away when he let up a little. Rigney told him to "let it rip—go on, get the guy out by 40 feet if you have to," and, taking the advice, Fregosi's control has improved markedly. The herky-jerkiness is apparently there to stay. But the form matters little. He has good range and, particularly for a young player, he plays the hitters well. Part of his success here has been on account of Joe Koppe, his roommate and the man he replaced.
That was back in June of '62, when the Angels recalled Fregosi. (This was the year they battled for the pennant and finished third despite all circumstantial evidence to the contrary.) "When they drafted me," Fregosi says, "I figured I had a good chance because the Angels had to be a second division team for a while. But the day I show up, here we are at Yankee Stadium just about tied for first with the Yankees." There were 35,000 in attendance and the game was on national television. Koppe was hurt sliding home; in came Fregosi. His action debut was on a ball hit to his right. Fregosi moved after it, tripped and fell flat on the seat of his pants. But in the second half of the doubleheader he got the hit that drove in the winning run.
The first thing most people mention about Fregosi is the fact that he truly loves to play. An intense competitor. A real 100% athlete, and other clichés that are, in this instance, absolutely true. After Fregosi signed with the Red Sox he went to college, but he quit after a semester because his professional status prevented his playing any amateur sports. He simply went stir crazy and could not concentrate on the books. He has an interest with three other Angels in a 33-unit apartment building in Inglewood. He also lives there, manages it, and plans to do the general contracting for another apartment this winter. But in speaking of the off season he prefers talking about the kicks he got playing in a basketball league for some bar called the House of Surface. He was good enough, too, to start in the backcourt with Hot Rod Hundley, the ex-pro. The Angels were not crazy about the idea, but they like a happy shortstop.
Besides, for all his athletics, Fregosi is not injury-prone, which is why his current torn hamstring is frustrating him. Otherwise, about the only thing that has ever bothered him is chronic bronchitis, which occasionally gives him coughing fits that have lasted up to three hours or so. These spells caused him to miss three straight days last year.
But Fregosi does not worry. Why should he? He has, after all, about everything going for him, including his looks—firm features, swept-back black hair, a dark complexion and high cheekbones. With the complexion and those cheekbones, one would guess he could make a lifetime career playing half-breeds and Cochise opposite Marshal Dillon and that bunch. An MGM scout spotted Fregosi on TV last year and got him to show up at the studio every morning for acting lessons. Fregosi did not really take to it—"that just wasn't my route"—but the experiment was abruptly abandoned on other grounds when he happened to bring his scripts home after a game. Mrs. Fregosi was pressed into service to help him rehearse the love scenes. Mrs. Fregosi did not like rehearsing Mr. Fregosi for love scenes. Exit one budding acting career.
The baseball career will get much further. The praise for Jim Fregosi from his peers is too real for any other conclusion. And get the Angels into Anaheim, where they will have a life unto their own from out of the shadow of the Dodgers, and Fregosi might even become as famous and as rich as the Dodgers or even the resident favorites of Anaheim. After getting past Mickey Mouse hats and Donald Duck Orange Juice, the field in Anaheim is pretty much wide open for a good-looking young man of 22 with an apartment building, a beautiful wife, a son and all the skills that baseball requires.