They Were There: Freddy Schmidt
“You know how many minor leagues I played in? About 35…I always had four, 14, 15 wins and you move up a little bit and then you drop down again, oh my God. It was tough.”
Freddy Schmidt played only three years in the majors, but he took part in more than his fair share of history. He was a member of two World Series champions (the St. Louis Cardinals of 1944 and 1946) and was present in Philadelphia in 1947 when his manager, Ben Chapman, became the ultimate racial epithet-spewing devil’s advocate to Jackie Robinson. In this interview given at the beginning of 2011, Schmidt—at 95, the oldest-living ex-Cardinal—talked about his long road to the majors, Branch Rickey, the gruff, vile Chapman and Ted Williams taking shots at the birds in the Fenway Park rafters.
As told to Ed Attanasio, This Great Game
On Playing in the Minors: “I was pitching for a church
team, a shop team, I was getting nice write-ups and the Cardinals sent me a letter in 1936. They asked if I would like to try out to be a ballplayer…just bring shoes and a glove at this field. And then the guy hung up when he says, ‘I’ll see ya.’
I was working in a foundry, I was just a kid. I had to go to work because the depression was on and my folks were getting ready to lose their home and I had to get a job. I never went to high school. I graduated eighth grade and I had to hunt for a job to get my folks to get a couple of bucks coming in to hold on to the home.
So I’m over there and there’s about 400 guys on this field. And they all want to be ballplayers because nobody was working. And naturally, with me getting these write-ups in the local papers, they said, ‘Schmitty, warm up and let’s see your fastball.’ And I could hum them in there pretty good, I’ll tell ya, or they wouldn’t even look at you. And they said, after throwing two, ‘Where do you live?’ I says, ‘So and so and my folks are there.’ ‘Well, they gotta sign up for you.’ And, I’ll tell you what, it was pitiful. They gave me $24 for staying out of work two days. Here’s what I got. Started in Class D in North Carolina for $75 a month. This is the way it used to be. Not only me going through this, a lot of other guys went through it.
My first game pitching on the mound, I struck out 19 batters. And they said, ‘Oh my God, he’s another Dizzy Dean’ and all that stuff, but I gradually crawled through the minor leagues of the Cardinals. From D to C to B to A and then finally got up to Rochester.
You know how many minor leagues I played in? About 35…I always had four, 14, 15 wins and you move up a little bit and then you drop down again, oh my God. It was tough.
I spent seven years in the minors with the Cardinals. Just going up here and there, here and there and going to spring training once in a while, coming back out. It was pitiful. There were only eight teams then in the National League.”
On Branch Rickey: “Well, see I got married in 1940. And
I was gradually making a better salary, you know, seeing since I was getting to be a better pitcher. But, yes, I got tired of it. I was thinking, gee, when am I going to get the, you know, get up there a little bit. And I wrote into Branch Rickey one time and I says, ‘Mr. Rickey, my mother says that if I can’t make more money than this I ought to go back to the factory job.’ You know what he says to me? He said if that’s the way you feel, he says, well then go back to your factory job, knowing that I was dying to play baseball. See, that’s the answer I got from Rickey.
Oh, he cheated more ballplayers out of a buck. He cheated men that were married in the minor leagues playing for starvation wages and had to pay their own hotel room when they were home, you know, at the home. You had to pay for all that, throw your wife in that and you were just about getting enough and then when the season’s over, you’d hurry up home and get a job someplace to get you through the winter. You didn’t make anything.”
On Playing During World War II With the 1944 Cardinals: “So finally, after Rochester, I figured they wouldn’t have any baseball on account of the war but Roosevelt said we’re going to play baseball. I says to the superintendent at this job, I says, ‘I’m sorry but I’m going to leave to go play baseball.’ He says, ‘You’re taking a chance, they’re going to draft you.’ I said, ‘That’s all right, then they’ll get me at my baseball.’ We got through, I got through the summer, I got through the summer, made the World Series in ’44 and then just before Christmas I finally was drafted. There was a lot of them drafted, you know, but there was a lot of them that missed, too.
I was the first reliever, but you didn’t need relief and then we had starting pitchers that went nine innings. Mort Cooper, Harry The Cat Brecheen, Ted Wilks, Red Munger and Max Lanier, those were the starting pitchers. They went nine innings. They didn’t go five.
I was the number one reliever. And now here’s something. (Manager Billy) Southworth says to me one day, ‘Schmitty, I know you was always the starting pitcher in your minor leagues. Max Lanier’s elbow is sore, could you start tomorrow?’ I says, well, I’ve only been going two or three innings. I says, sure, I’d be glad to. I went nine innings, I pitched a shutout. Against the Giants. So here comes all the writers into the clubhouse. ‘Where the hell you been all the time?’ I says, “Out in the bullpen sitting there and waiting.’ So Southworth says, I’m the starting pitcher from now on. Five days later, Pittsburgh comes in, Preacher Roe’s pitching against me. I’m starting again. And Frankie Frisch is the manager. And I pitch another shutout. And I got two hits off of Preacher. Max Lanier’s elbow got well in a hurry, because you know what they do, they ship you to the minor leagues. They could do that then. They could send you to the minor leagues anytime they wanted to.
I’ll tell you what. When you’ve played in St. Louis in the middle of the summer, a doubleheader on a Sunday, that was murder. 120 on the field. The ballplayers used to come in from the heat and they said they could give it back to the Indians as we hate to play here. We were always glad when we’d go to Chicago and get some air again so we can live and breathe again.
Honest to God, because the Browns played there too, the ballpark was rough as hell. Marty Marion used to be picking up little pebbles here and there.”
On the 1944 World Series: “Ted Wilks started the third game, he’s going good and then about the third inning, I guess, they got about five straight hits so Southworth waves to me in the bullpen, ‘Get ready, get ready!’ I threw about four or five pitches, he calls me in. See, I’m walking in…they didn’t run in those days. While I’m walking in, half the people in St. Louis are for the Browns and half are for the Cardinals. So I’m hearing all that stuff but I was used to it, that didn’t bother me no more. And you just warm up and then I did pitch that, and Southworth says load the bases and I threw a curve ball to Cooper. And I think he could have blocked it but it bounced against him and got away and a run scored from third base. But they had already had three off of Wilks. So anyway, then I pitched the rest…three and a third innings, no hitting. I did a good job. I batted once and then they brought in (Al) Jurisich to relieve me…but we did lose the game.”
On Eddie Dyer, Who Replaced Southworth as St. Louis Manager in 1946: “We had about four guys sitting in
the bullpen. See, with Eddie Dyer, he was the manager. He played favoritism, played favoritism too much. He had all these guys in the minor leagues that were down in Houston where Eddie managed. And he would favor them more than the other guys like me. So, you sit, I didn’t do much pitching in ’46. So I told (St. Louis owner Sam) Breadon during the wintertime at a hot stove meeting they had, ‘I’d like to be traded.’ He said, ‘What do you want to be traded for? We’re a championship ballclub.’ I says, ‘I’m not pitching, I’m not getting a decent record to get a raise or anything.’ ‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ he says. ‘We’ll get in there and we’ll be in the World Series, you’ll make some money.’ I thought to myself, yeah, it’s not very much. So anyway, he says, ‘Get down to spring training with good feelings.’ So I get down there in St. Petersburg, and there’s Eddie Dyer. He says, ‘Schmitty, what do you mean by telling them that I play favoritism too much?’ I says, ‘Well, you do! You got all these guys that played for you at Houston in the minor leagues, I’m sitting out there…’ He said, ‘You feel that way?’ I said, ‘Yes! I want to leave, I want to get with somebody else.’ He says, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll get you a lot of pitching.’ Yeah, he gave me a lot of pitching. Three other guys and I sat out in the bullpen, Red Barrett and Howard Krist, we never did any pitching. He used to use his own, I ain’t going to mention the names. But the favoritism was there, see? Finally, Harry Walker and I were finally traded to the Phillies. And Harry Walker went over there and he led the National League in hitting.”
On Ben Chapman and Jackie Robinson: “Oh, we were fighting the Civil War every day in the clubhouse. Oh, my God, you know what (the southerners on the Cardinal roster) did? They threw a chunk of watermelon on the field and they threw a black cat on the field and that first night Harry Walker and I and Chapman had the meeting and he says, ‘Whatever you do, when you go to your car tonight, make sure you’re with a buddy in the parking lot.’ He says, ‘We’re going to have trouble because of the night before, what when on and the colored people were in a ruffle.’
What they did to Jackie…it was pitiful what that poor guy took. I don’t want to get in wrong with these Southern ballplayers because a lot of them are good boys but it was still there and they gave him a going over. Oh my God, what they called him was pitiful.
I never talked to (Robinson) but he came over to our dugout after what went on the night before…Chapman was standing on the top step and he was holding a bat and they wanted to get Jackie over to smooth things over. And he says, ‘You know, Jackie? Good ballplayer but you’re still a nigger to me.’ And I heard all this stuff….What could he do? Jackie was told not to say anything because they’re gonna call you everything in the book, they’re gonna slide into you, try to hurt ya’, try to hurt ya’. And they said, you can’t fight back, Jackie, if you do the fans are gonna get on ya’, goodbye negro baseball. You gotta keep your mouth shut. And he took it for two years.
The only trouble I ever had with a man in baseball was Ben Chapman. I never hit it off with him….He was the worst. I played ball down south with a lot of nice people, and my first wife was a southerner. But this guy here was a real rebel, Chapman. He had trouble wherever he played. He was a troublemaker. Now, we were in the Polo Grounds and we’re playing the Giants and these big Jewish guys, they had nice box seats right behind our dugout. And they were riding us a littlebit, which they do, they call ya, ‘ay a bunch of bums,’ which you don’t care, as long as you don’t swear at ya’. And…this big Jew reaches over (to Chapman), he says, ‘Hey! We spent $100,000 to get you out of
the American League and we’d get you out of this league, too.” And Chapman crawled back in the dugout and I’m movin’ in the corner and pull my head down, I says, ‘Good, good’ to myself. Good, you son of a bitch….You want to knock him on his ass but you can’t because as soon as you said anything they shipped you to the minors. There was no protection. See, they gotta a union now, they got a little a bit of a protection.”
On the Mexican League’s Intrusion in 1946: “Mexico was trying to start baseball down there. And some of them were jumping down there because these Mexicans were handing out big money to them. See, hear, come on down and play in Mexico and we’ll give you a lot more money. Three of the Cardinals jumped down there. Two of them from the Giants jumped….There was a guy in a hotel in St. Louis, I don’t want to mention his name, but in comes these three Mexicans with a black suitcase and they say, ‘So and so, let’s go up to your room and…we got something to show you.’ Alright. Okay. I know what it’s all about. We went up to the room, they opened up the bag and dumped all this money on the bed and they said. ‘This will be all yours, we have more if you come down to Mexico.’ The guy says to me, ‘What do you think, Schmitty?’ I says, ‘If you’re going, I’m going because I’m sure in hell ain’t making much.’ But, anyway, he told them wait ‘til I talk to the manager. I wanna let it lie for a couple of days. Finally, he was told…‘Don’t go, you’re going to be a star one day.’”
On the 1946 World Series: “See, what happened, when we played the first two games in St. Louis in the World Series. Rudy York hit a home run in the first game. Harry Breechen came and won the second game. So we get on the train, we didn’t fly then, we took trains, you know. Train all the way to Boston and we pull into the hotel there,
I forgot what the hell that name was, but anyway, right outside of Fenway Park. And these guys, couple of these guys that were groundskeepers, they were staying in this hotel and they were sitting there mingling with the ballplayers and talking about Ted Williams. You know what that Ted does? He goes out early in the morning just when it’s getting light and he shoots the damn pigeons out of the rafters. They’re up there, they’re (pooping) in the seats. See, so when he come up to the plate, he would be facing, we were in the third base dugout, but I was out in the bullpen but I could see what they were doing. When he’d come up, they would grab bats and they said, ‘Hey, Ted. They’re up there.’ And he said, ‘Ah, go to hell, you…’ But you know what? He
was a big flop in the series. He let them down, oh my God.”
On Enos Slaughter’s Mad Dash: “I think he might have had a hit-and-run on with Harry. See, Dominic (DiMaggio) was playing the outfield but he hurt his ankle and the new centerfielder was kind of slow getting to the ball. Walker hit the ball over the, you know, it’s kind of past in the shortstop section. And it was going out there and this guy was slow getting to it and here goes Slaughter ‘round second, third base, runs on Mike Gonzalez who is holding him up—he went right by him like a freight train. And (Boston shortstop Johnny) Pesky turns around, the guy threw the ball…finally threw the ball to Pesky, nobody helped Pesky, they should have yelled, ‘Home! Home!’ or something, see? I guess Pesky figured he’s gotta be at third base, you know…well, here he’s going home and he’s sliding and Pesky tried to throw with a short arm, he didn’t have the full arm throw, and it…lousy throw up there and Slaughter slid in there to win the World Series for us.”
On Meeting Another Guy Named Schmidt for the Phillies, Mike Schmidt: “When we were (at a Phillies’ old-timer function), my wife says get that Schmitty over here. So I call, I says ‘Mike, come over here. My wife wants to have a picture taken with you.’ So I stood by him and one of the old ballplayers says, ‘Hey, Mike. That guy could be your father.’ Mike says, ‘Maybe he is my father!’”
On his World Series Rings: “I had my ’44, my stepson, see I was married before then, I adopted the boy. And he used to wear this ’44 ring and I told my wife, I said, don’t let him wear that, somebody’s going to steal that. She says, ‘No, he can take care…’ Well, he went deep-sea diving for coins down in Florida and he was told not to because his heart wasn’t that strong. Well, he went down and he passed away….Oh, young boy, maybe 18…And somebody took the ring off his finger and goodbye.”
1944: Meet Us in St. Louis The powerhouse St. Louis Cardinals get a surprise World Series opponent in the neighboring Browns.
The 1940s Page: Of Rations and Spoils The return to a healthy economy and the breaking of the color barrier helps baseball reach an explosive new level of popularity—but not before enduring with America the hardship and sacrifice of World War II.
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