Former Cubs skipper Jim Frey, who managed the team from 1984 to 1986 and led them to their first division title and first postseason appearance since the 1945 World Series, died Sunday at 88.
Frey spent the 1987 season in the WGN Radio booth as an analyst on Cubs broadcasts and was the Cubs’ general manager from November 1987 through the 1991 season. The Cubs returned to the National League Championship Series in 1989 with Don Zimmer, Frey’s lifelong friend and his Cubs bench coach, as manager.
The Cubs lost to the Padres in the 1984 NLCS and to the Giants in 1989. In 1984, one of the most storied seasons in team history, the Cubs won the first two games of the best-of-five NLCS at Wrigley Field but lost the next three to the Padres in San Diego. Despite the crushing defeat, that season catapulted the franchise from a decadeslong drought into a new era of popularity.
“He was one guy who was extremely instrumental in my career and in the Chicago Cubs,” Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg said.
It was Frey who convinced Sandberg that he could become a star. Midway through spring training in 1984, Frey sat Sandberg down and told him to start trying to drive the ball, to swing for power and be more aggressive when ahead in the count.
“He saw extra-base hits and home runs for me that I didn’t see,” said Sandberg, who would become a first-time All-Star and the NL MVP that season. “I worked on it the remaining three or four weeks of spring training, kept working on it once the season started and [soon] had all things clicking. He saw potential in me, and he asked more of me.”
Sandberg kept in touch with Frey for as long as he could.
“We talked a handful of times a year, and he kept me up to date on things,” Sandberg said. “I knew he was in and out of bad health the last four or five years, but he always managed to come through.”
In a statement, the Cubs called 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 postseason play, leading the team to the NL East title and first playoff appearance in 39 years, earning NL Manager of the Year honors along the way,” the statement said. “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.”
Frey managed the Royals in 1980 and 1981, leading them to the 1980 World Series, which they lost to the Phillies.
White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone played for Baltimore when Frey was an Orioles hitting coach in the late 1970s and was a Cubs broadcaster when Frey was with the Cubs. He remembered Frey as “the leader of that team in the glory days of 1984.”
“You look at his baseball life and the things he accomplished, and he falls into that category of baseball lifer,” Stone said. “His sense of humor was just outstanding. He was a very, very funny guy, and a lot of people didn’t see that side of him.”
Frey was born in Cleveland and grew up in Cincinnati, where he played American Legion and high school ball with Zimmer. Former Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, the 1984 NL Cy Young Award winner, recalled Frey and Zimmer “rivaling any comedy team ever. Martin and Lewis, anybody. Get them together and, oh, man.”
Sutcliffe ran into Frey a couple of years after the latter, his run as Cubs GM over, had been “reassigned” by the club and asked him what he was up to. Frey was living in Baltimore.
“Well, you know I’m still getting paid [by the Cubs], don’t you?” Frey said. “They told me they wanted me to be their vice president of Baltimore.”
Sutcliffe asked what that meant.
“It meant, ‘Go home, sit tight and we’ll call you if we need you,’ ’’ Frey explained.
As Sutcliffe shared this story Tuesday, he couldn’t help but laugh.
“I mean, 88 years and all the great things he was able to do in the game of baseball?” Sutcliffe said. “I’ll sign on the dotted line for that right now.”