Elliott: R. I. P. Gerry Fraley
By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
Outside of Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune, few writers have much to do with creating records.
Holtzman was writing for the Chicago Tribune in 1959 and didn’t like the fact Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Elroy Face’s 18-1 record helped him finish ahead of Frank Robinson in the National League MVP award vote. Holtzman checked his day-by-day book to discover Face allowed the tying or go-ahead run himself in 10 of his 18 wins. Which meant 10 of his wins had been “vultured.” So, Holtzman came up with the save, which has had many versions since 1959.
And then there is the record of most chickens ever shown on the Olympic Stadium scoreboard.
It was called a scoreboard back then, but that is an over-the-top compliment. It was a pixel board -- most of which worked. Back then it would be comparable to black and white TV to today’s 4K UHD (Ultra-High Density).
When a visiting pitcher would throw to first base to knock the runner back, the sound system would cluck at him like a chicken. And a chicken would appear on the board. And no matter how many times a chicken appeared, the fans laughed.
Now, with Hall of Famers Tim Raines and Andre Dawson, plus Ron LeFlore, Rodney Scott and Miguel Dilone around in the early 1980s there was always a lot of cluckin’ going on ... as herds, flocks, gaggles or whatever of chickens displayed on the board ... and always laughter from the fan.
The chicken was scoreboard operator Paul Shubin’s creation. Adding them up, chicken by chicken, was the suggestion of Richard Griffin, the Expos P.R. and idea man.
One day during the Atlanta Braves early hitting session someone asked “What’s the record for most chickens on the board in a single at-bat?”
My good pal Gerry Fraley, who covered the Bravos like a brand new tarp quickly answered, “It’s 13.” It was meant as dugout humour.
Except that next night when Raines got on, Braves RHP Rick Mahler threw over again, again and again ... until he broke the record.
If memory serves, we also recall Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Famer Don Sutton and Larry Christenson of the Philadelphia Phillies taking a run at the record Fraley created.
That was Fraley ... doing his job dawn to dusk with a sense of humor.
Fraley, 64, who wrote for the Dallas Morning News. passed away Saturday morning in Grapevine, Tex., due to cancer.
As Buck O’Neill said: “I hate cancer.”
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Fraley began working in his hometown of Clearwater after playing high school football for Steve Goldman, who went on to coach the Ottawa Rough Riders.
The legendary Philadelphia columnist Mark Whicker read Fraley in the Clearwater Sun one spring and suggested to his bosses Fraley would be an excellent hire. Fraley moved on to Philly and worked for two bugles before moving to Atlanta and then Dallas, a short sojourn in St. Louis and back to Dallas.
The most competitive market I ever worked in was Ottawa -- not Toronto. The news editor of the Ottawa Journal would instruct all city room employees to purchase wooden matches. They had to carry them with them on the night shift which included fires and police stories.
Why matches? So the reporter could stick a match down the tire valve of a parked yellow Ottawa Citizen cars. That way the competition would jump in the car, ready to speed back to the office and find out they had a flat.
I may have met Gerry when he was working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in what was a one-newspaper town, but he would compete against some national writers who arrived in town.
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Covering the Montreal Expos during spring training I got to see Gerry often as they would play the Atlanta Braves what seemed like every other day ... similar to the Philadelphia Phillies and the Blue Jays making the six-mile trip. The teams saw each other so often in fact that the teams would compete for the Mayor’s Cup. The Mayor would show and present the trophy to the winning team.
One year the Expos and Braves were deadlocked going into their seventh and final meeting of the spring. Fraley told C Bruce Benedict loudly in front of some minor leaguers how neat it was that the Mayor would be showing after the game to present colour TVs to the winning team. Which was a bit of black and white TV lie.
After the fifth inning the Braves and Expos starters both departed, the bullpen took over the and Braves minor leaguers hammered Montreal pitching. After all, the Braves triple-A players were trying to win a TV. The TVs never came. Braves minor leaguers wanted the Mayor impeached.
* * *
On April 8 1986, the Expos opened the season losing 6-0 to Mahler and the Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as Dale Murphy homered off Bryn Smith.
The next day, an off day, I interviewed Jeff Parrett on the top floor of the rotating restaurant atop the Marriott Marquis. Parrett was a Rule V player selected from the Milwaukee Brewers and the year before was on the first floor of a bus out of class-A Beloit.
That night Gerry and I went to the Fox Theatre to watch Wrestlemania II on closed circuit. Hulk Hogan was wrasslin’ King Kong Bondy in the main event. Early on in the card, there was a three-man tag match with Mr. T, The Haiti Kid and Joe Frazier going against Roddy Piper, Bob Orton and Lou Duva in a boxing match.
To me the announcers were always the highlight of wrasslin’ as it was when Boxin’ Bob Orton squared off against Mr. T.
It kind of went like this:
Orton gouged Mr. T in the eye with his thumb even going so far as twisting his thumb.
Announcer Vince McMahon screamed “C’om on ref he THUMBED HIM, HE THUMBED HIM! That’s a disqualification.”
Commentator Jesse (The Body) Ventura said: “What are you talking about McMahon? That was one of the finest over-hand rights I have ever seen. It reminded me of Rocky Marciano.
I howled with laughter. I always thought announcers with opposing opinions would work with baseball and it would help the ratings ... as if Blue Jays’ broadcaster Ben Wagner was an open homer and Mike Wilner rooted for the other team.
The next day I walked into the press box, Gerry looked up and said “It’s Boxin’ Bob,” and the nickname stuck like glue. It was later shortened to Boxer even though I only ever had one fight _ vs. Bobby Hunter in grade 5 recess. It did not work out well. I saw someone yelling, ‘C’om Bobby, Hit him.’ I slowed down to ponder which Bobby he was cheering for and ... was popped in the nose. End of story. End of fighting days.
Of course, Serge Touchette of Le Journal de Montreal told writers in National League cities I was on the pro wrasslin’ circuit.
Eventually I matured from Bob Orton as a favourite wrassler switching to Brett Hart and Ric Flair, Gerry’s fave.
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As T.R. Sullivan pointed out in his excellent MLB.com story on Gerry and his success stories: Georgia running back Herschel Walker was signing with the USFL instead of the NFL, Nolan Ryan was planning to pitch for the Rangers longer than his original two-year contract and Kevin Kennedy would manage the Rangers in 1993. He was the first to write that Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million contract was an excessive burden to the Rangers.
When Rangers closer Neftali Feliz struck out Alex Rodriguez looking in a 6-1 win to win the American League Championship Series and gain a spot in the World Series, Gerry turned to his seat mate Mike Lupica and said “The Rangers always hoped Alex would put them in the World Series. He finally did.”
Whenever Gerry had missed a Rangers game or two because the paper had him on auto racing or hockey, he would invariably show up at the ballpark and find Hall of Fame broadcaster Eric Nadel with a list of questions about the games he missed. He wanted to know all kinds of things that he couldn’t pick up from the printed play-by-play available..
“If someone bunted into a force out, was the batter trying to bunt for a hit or sacrifice?” recalled Nadel “If there was a throwing error from the outfield, did the throw bounce, or hit the runner, and should the third baseman have been able to handle it?”
Other questions like if it was a key wild pitch, should the catcher have been able to block it? And if the best reliever was not used, was he unavailable?
“Things like that never slipped passed Gerry,” Nadel said. “And he was relentless about catching up on every detail, even when he was not the beat guy.”
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The thing about newspaper people is that we have a ton of acquitances, but not a lot of friends. Gerry was one. It didn’t matter that he lived in Texas, Georgia or Missouri and I was in another country. He was always there with a phone call “Hey I know you are busy but I heard at the game tonight about your team ....”
You could not find a more loyal friend. He was the type that if you asked to borrow $20 and he only had $10, he’d sell something. On one trip to Arlington for a four-game series I could not get a hotel near the park, and had to stay near the airport.
“No problem, I’m driving right by there,” said Gerry, who lived in Grapevine, Tex. So every day he drove me in and every night he drove me home after I finished scribing. It was only late in the trip that I discovered he had four days off and was spending time chauffeuring me around.
Gerry came from the era of when ball writers knew umpires by their first name ... running into them at restaurants or bars postgame.
One Gerry story I like to tell is when the Blue Jays signed 3B Chris Weinke in 1990. Weinke had signed a letter of intent to play quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles. Gerry was a strong, but not illegal Florida State booster. He came up the stairs from the clubhouse, entered the dugout at the Rogers Centre and began to tease GM Pat Gillick and assistant Gord Ash for “Stealing his school’s QB and how Weinke was a better QB than a third baseman.”
Gillick turned and said, “Gerry ... I’d like you to meet Mr. Weinke, Chris’s father.”
Another came in 2015 when the Blue Jays limped into Arlington down 2-0 in the best-of-five American League Division Series. Gibbons asked Gerry about his boys, what schools they were thinking about. With about six or seven writers around Gerry started naming schools. If memory serves they were Macalester College in Minnesota, plus Texas schools St. Edward’s University and the University of the Incarnate Word.
Outside near the batting cage Gibbons called Gerry over and asked if he had a pen. Gerry said yes. Gibbons said “Well, write these phone numbers down.” Gerry wrote down the two numbers and asked what they were?
“The first is my home, the second is my cell, if either of your boys decide on Incarnate Word in San Antonio, have them call me if they need anything,” Gibbons said.
The thing about Gibbons being nice to Gerry was that Gibbons did not have a horse in the race. He did not have to worry about Gerry being critical. Gibbons was just being a good guy to someone he respected.
Gerry did not suffer fools lightly. He wrote columns, but loved the beat whether it be the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Stars, Dallas Mavericks, the Rangers or car racing. One night over Mexican food after marvelling at that day’s Rangers notebook, I asked him how he was able to gather so much information. He said he made it a point to talk to all 24 players -- excluding the starting pitcher, each coach and the manager every day.
Now access was different in the late 1980s. I tried. I was never able to reach higher than 17 players plus the manager. He set the standard for so many of us beat writers in the 1980s. His day-by-day books were legendary. As Claire Smith, Hall of Fame scribe said this week, “He didn’t just cover his team, he covered all 30.”
When he covered the Atlanta Falcons he told about being at a Minnesota Vikings game. Former Nebraska teammates Jarvis Redwine and Junior Miller, saw each other at half time in the press box in Minneapolis.
The pair hugged and did their college handshakes.
At the end one player said to the other “Hey give me a call some time.”
The other said “Sure, what’s your number?”
“Same as always ... 80.”
* * *
The night of the San Francisco earthquake minutes before Game 3 of the World Series, the TV cameras in the football press box were moving like speed bags at Gleason’s gym the week before a championship fight. Our Ken Fidlin and Jim O’Leary were there but I couldn’t find them.
I did run into Tracy Ringolsby and Gerry in the parking lot. The office said hit the streets around Candlestick. Gerry said, “Not around Hunter’s Point.” We filed stories from a police station.
The power was out downtown and I went down this side street to use a pay phone. I heard someone behind me and then Gerry “Hey, get away from him.” He was a friend and a body guard.
Gerry was a seamhead and proud of it “Hey did you know that Team X is averaging 3 2/3 inning from it starters this month ... AND they have a winning record?” He did it all by hand. In the winter we’d talk and he’s say “Hey, did you know two Blue Jays minor leaguers combined for two hits and three RBIs for Escoido in the first seven innings tonight?”
I knew Gerry’s mom and they took our family to the original Outback in Clearwater. Once a spring she would come to a Jays game in Dunedin. She’d call, ask if I could buy her tickets, I say yes, “Centre field right.” And she’d eventually say “Wait a sec ... there aren’t any seats in centre.”
Actually I knew three generations of Fraleys, having the pleasure of going for lunch a couple of times with his twin sons Sam and Tyson. He never lost his passion for baseball, but the winter ball updates could quickly turn to Sequoia High and how the boys were doing. He loved his children. We all love our children, but he LOVED his boys.
Gerry was popular, respected and beloved by his friends. The last time we spoke he told me one of his sons had a call for a recruiter at the University of Alberta. I couldn’t help on any background, but eventually found a former Carleton coach who had recruited the Alberta coach.
Like Jim Fregosi, Gerry could liven up a press room whether he walked in saying “Hey now, bounce around,” or any of his other happy greetings.
It has been a terrible year for ball scribes. All lost: Marty Noble, formerly of Newsday and then MLB.com and Niko Cafardo of the Boston Globe. And now Gerry.
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Gerry is survived by his sister Tracey Bruch, in charge of traffic lights in Clearwater and his brother Brad of Austin, Tex. Deepest sympathies to both and their families, as well as his wife, Stephanie Brownlee; along with twin sons Tyson and Sam.
He was one of a kind.