Jim Frey, who was the manager of the 1984 Cubs team that made the postseason for the first time in 39 years, has passed away:
RIP Jim Frey, who led the #Royals to the 1980 World Series and the #Cubs to the 1984 NL East title as manager. He later was the #Cubs GM and architect of their 1989 NL East division championship team.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) April 14, 2020
The Cubs had made significant changes after Tribune Company bought the ballclub in 1981, but general manager Dallas Green had gotten fed up with his handpicked choice to manage the team in 1982 and 1983, Lee Elia. Elia was dismissed in August 1983 and Charlie Fox, a longtime Giants coach, was named interim manager.
Green was determined to find a “winner” to manage the Cubs and he chose Frey. After a playing career entirely in the minor leagues, Frey had been a hitting coach for nearly a decade under Earl Weaver in Baltimore and then was hired to manage the Royals for the 1980 season. Kansas City was a powerhouse in those days, having won three straight A.L. West titles from 1976-78 before faltering in 1979.
Frey led the Royals to their first American League pennant in 1980; they lost the World Series four games to two to the Phillies. When they got off to a bad start in 1981, Frey was unceremoniously dumped. It was said players didn’t respond well to his disciplinarian style. He worked for the Mets as a hitting coach in 1982 and 1983, and Green saw him as the perfect match for his 1984 Cubs. The team responded well to Frey’s leadership and won the N.L. East championship, before... well, you know.
The 1985 and 1986 Cubs floundered, largely because of age and injury, and Frey became the fall guy. He was dismissed as manager 56 games into the 1986 season, replaced by Gene Michael. For some reason, WGN radio decided he’d be good in the radio booth, and he spent the 1987 season there. He wasn’t very good on the air and it was said that he had to be taught how to keep a scorecard — he had never done so.
When Green was dumped by Tribune Company after the 1987 season, Frey was hired to replace him. He had never been an executive before; his career had been strictly as a player, coach and manager up to that time. It showed. He sent Keith Moreland to the Padres for Goose Gossage, but Gossage was awful as a Cub and departed as a free agent after one year. He traded away Lee Smith and got little in return. The deal in which he sent Rafael Palmeiro to the Rangers for Mitch Williams (and others) produced immediate dividends in the 1989 N.L. East title, but in the long run that was a bust, too. Frey also made some poor choices for free-agent contracts as GM, signing Danny Jackson and Dave Smith, both of whom were busts as Cubs. Frey also had to fire his childhood friend Don Zimmer as manager halfway through the 1991 season, apparently on orders from higher-ups at Tribune. He was let go as GM after 1991 and replaced by Larry Himes.
But we will always remember Frey as the leader of that 1984 bunch that came oh-so-close to getting to the World Series. It’s hard to believe that’s now more than 35 years ago. He was the perfect fit for that ballclub. Also, Frey is widely credited for his hitting work with Ryne Sandberg, telling Ryno that he could be a better hitter if he would try to drive the ball. Before 1984 Sandberg was mostly a singles hitter. Under Frey he learned to hit for more power without sacrificing batting average. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Sandberg might not have been a Hall of Fame player without Frey’s tutelage.
Sincere condolences to Frey’s family, friends, former teammates and those he coached and managed. Jim Frey was 88 years old.
UPDATE — The Cubs have issued a statement about Frey’s passing:
“The Chicago Cubs are saddened to learn of the passing of Jim Frey, a central figure in our club’s most memorable moments of the 1980s. Upon being named manager for the 1984 season, Jim took over a club that had not had a winning record since 1972 and immediately helped return the Cubs to post-season play, leading the team to the N.L. East title and first playoff appearance in 39 years, earning N.L. Manager of the Year honors along the way. As our general manager, he constructed a playoff club in 1989 to again land the Cubs in the postseason five years later.
“We join the baseball community in mourning Jim’s passing and send our condolences to his family and friends.”