Card Corner Plus: The Death of Danny Frisella

Danny-Frisella

Danny Frisella was in his prime when his life was ended abruptly.

In an unfortunately appropriately way, almost everything about Danny Frisella’s 1975 Topps card is dark. Other than the bright yellow of the airbrushed San Diego Padres uniform, which is unusually fluorescent, this card has a continual grimness. Frisella has a dark, swarthy complexion, which is only enhanced by the five o’clock shadow evident on his chin and neck. (It’s not surprising that Frisella has the beginnings of a beard here. A superstitious sort, he never shaved prior to a game.) His eyebrows and sideburns are thick and black. The underside of his sweat-stained cap is a dark green that is nearly black in appearance.

The stands in the background are so dark that we cannot discern if any fans are sitting in them, or if they are completely empty. Even the blue sky background is darker than we would expect, almost as if the photograph were taken in the twilight of the late summer or early fall. Given the lack of light above the upper deck of the stadium, perhaps we can assume that night is coming quickly.

Frisella1975How is the darkness appropriate? Less than two years after the issue of this card, tragedy would take Danny Frisella from us. It was the first baseball death that I was old enough to fully grasp. I was only seven years when Roberto Clemente died, and while I have fleeting memories of that, they are scattered and incomplete. I remember more of the aftermath of Clemente’s death, in particular the efforts of Manny Sanguillen to retrieve his remains in shark-infested waters, than I do of the actual plane crash itself.

At the time of Frisella’s death, the result of a dune buggy accident, I was 12 years old. My memories of that tragedy are more complete, more vivid. To this day, whenever I hear the words “dune buggy” (not that they come up often), I automatically think of the accident that claimed the life of a young relief pitcher who was once an integral part of the hometown New York Mets. For many Mets fans who remember this era, the words dune buggy are nothing more than four-letter words.

When Frisella died, his was not a universally household name. He only occasionally had served as a closer and had made only a handful of starts in his career. He was a middle reliever, and a good one at that, but middle relievers tend not to be particularly famous. If you weren’t a baseball fan, you had likely never heard of Danny Frisella. But if you were a diehard fan of the game, as I certainly was, then you knew who he was.

At one time, Frisella had been a highly touted pitcher, one who had overcome weight problems in his early childhood. By high school, Frisella had turned the fat into muscle. The Mets took him in the third round of the 1966 amateur draft and immediately assigned him to Auburn of the NY-Penn League. The stocky right-hander, barely six feet tall and weighing 185 pounds, pitched as a starter and did well, striking out 89 batters in 70 innings while spinning an ERA of 1.88.

Frisella didn’t throw especially hard, but he had a terrific curve ball, a good slider and the guts of a burglar, as the saying goes. No one had any questions about Frisella’s toughness on the mound or his willingness to take the ball, no matter how he felt.

With a good rookie season under his belt, Frisella earned a promotion to full-season Class-A ball in 1967. Starting out that spring with Durham of the Carolina League, Frisella pitched even better than he had at Auburn. He lowered his ERA to 1.49 and struck out 121 batters in 109 innings. The Carolina League couldn’t contain him. In the middle of the summer, the Mets promoted him to Triple-A Jacksonville, where he pitched mostly out of the bullpen. Frisella’s numbers at Triple-A were not as eye-popping, but they were still good for a 21-year-old in only his second professional season.

In fact, the Mets saw enough from Frisella that they decided to give him a look-see in New York. Called up in July, Frisella moved into the Mets’ rotation. He lost six of seven decisions, but his peripheral numbers were more than respectable.

In 1968, Frisella earned a spot on the Mets’ Opening Day roster. Now pitching out of the bullpen, Frisella made an appearance in the season opener, but lost the game when he gave up the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

The Opening Day loss was a sign of things to come. Frisella would struggle over the first half of the season, in part because of his unwillingness to use his curve ball in key situations. In one game, Frisella allowed himself to be beaten on his fastball and slider. In another, it was the fastball. Such failures drew the ire of manager Gil Hodges. “One time is bad enough,” Hodges told Mets beat writer Jack Lang of the New York Daily News. “Twice is inexcusable. There will be no three times.”

There was a third time. In mid-July, the Mets demoted Frisella to Triple-A. Frisella finished the season at Jacksonville, where he was effective in seven starts.

Frisella simply needed more minor league seasoning. Other than three ineffective appearances for the world champion Mets in 1969, he would spent most of the next two seasons at Triple-A, first at Jacksonville and then at Tidewater, the Mets’ new affiliate in the International League. He also put in time with the National Guard, with requirements of intermittent weekend duty during the Vietnam War. In spite of the interruptions, Frisella continued to put up gaudy minor league numbers, even though his strikeout rate fell appreciably in 1969 (only 55 Ks in 111 innings).

It was after the 1969 season that Frisella underwent an experience that changed his perspective—and his career. That November, he reported to Caracas, Venezuela, for a season of winter ball. The city was mired in political violence; upon returning from a road trip, Frisella and his teammates noticed a tank parked on second base.

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From a baseball standpoint, Frisella learned to throw a new pitch. One of his teammates was Diego Segui, a right-hander for the expansion Seattle Pilots who specialized in the forkball (and some say a spitball, too). “Diego Segui taught me how to throw [the forkball] when we were in in the Venezuelan League in 1969.” Frisella told The Sporting News. “I had hurt my arm throwing a slider, so the forkball really saved me.” Once Segui showed him the grip, Frisella tried it, threw the forkball, and found immediate success.

Equipped with a new out-pitch, Frisella clawed his way back to the majors for good in July of 1970. With a deep and talented rotation, the Mets had no room for another young starter, but they saw a role for Frisella in the bullpen, setting up twin relief aces Ron Taylor and Tug McGraw.

Making 29 appearances in relief, Frisella found a home. He struck out 54 batters in 65 innings, putting up an ERA of 3.02. He was a bit wild, with 34 walks, but that total was artificially inflated by 11 intentional bases on balls.

In 1971, Frisella would reach his peak. Pitching exclusively out of the bullpen, he made 52 appearances and lowered his ERA to 1.99. He pitched so well that Hodges called on him to close out some games, giving him a chance to collect 12 saves. With 93 Ks in 90 innings, Frisella gave the Mets a strikeout arm in the bullpen and an excellent complement to the screwballing McGraw. Some scouts regarded the tandem of Frisella and McGraw as the best righty/lefty bullpen combination in the National League.

Frisella couldn’t match that level of success in 1972, largely because of a pinched nerve in his shoulder that developed during spring training. Frisella had first encountered shoulder soreness in the middle of 1971, but had rebounded nicely with a strong September. With the pinched nerve preventing him from throwing at all during the spring, Frisella’s effectiveness declined. He didn’t make his first appearance of the season until April 29. He would post an ERA that was still good (at 3.34), but he couldn’t generate strikeouts with his forkball as in seasons past. During a particularly rough stretch in early August, he allowed game-deciding home runs to Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and a light-hitting outfielder named Luis Melendez.

Convinced that Frisella had seen his best days, the Mets decided to make him trade bait that winter. Executing one of their best deals of the decade, the Mets sent him to the Atlanta Braves for second baseman Felix Millan and left-hander George Stone.

At a February press conference, the Braves introduced their wintertime acquisitions, including Frisella. He made quite an impression with his sense of humor and ability to turn one-liners, even if some of the writers didn’t always understand that he was usually kidding.

When asked about the recent struggles about the Braves’ pitchers, Frisella also made a forthright observation about the Braves’ catchers. “I don’t entirely blame the pitchers,” Frisella told the assemblage of writers. “I saw Earl Williams [the starting catcher] on the mound more than the pitchers… Either there, or chasing the ball to the backstop. I don’t like to say anything bad about anybody, but that can be distracting.” During the winter, the Braves had traded Williams, long criticized for his catching, as part of a blockbuster deal with Baltimore.

Unfortunately, Frisella wouldn’t do much to improve the Braves’ pitching situation. Even though he was still only 27, he wasn’t the same pitcher in Atlanta. With his arm weakened because of a cyst in his right shoulder, he struggled to strike out batters. He also lacked the same level of control; in fact, in two years with the Braves, he walked more batters than he struck out. The change in venue didn’t help, either. No longer able to call Shea Stadium home, Frisella had to pitch half of his games in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, noted for its home runs.

Not liking what they saw, the Braves dealt Frisella that winter, dispatching him to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Clarence Gaston. The trade turned into a remedy for Frisella. Now pitching out of San Diego Stadium, which was far friendlier to pitchers than Atlanta’s infamous “Launching Pad,” Frisella’s arm bounced back.

Frisella made a career-high 65 appearances, logging 97 innings as the Padres’ bullpen workhorse. As usual, he pitched with pain, this time though a nagging hamstring injury. He also picked up nine saves, tied with Bill Greif for the most on the San Diego staff. Frisella’s performance became even more impressive given the state of the Padres’ defense in 1975. With his forkball resulting in many groundballs, Frisella typically relied on his infielders, a group that included an aging Willie McCovey at first base and iron-fisted Mike Ivie at third base. As a team, the Padres had the worst fielding percentage in the National League.

Having pitched so well for the Padres, Frisella had every reason to believe he would be one of the team’s key late-inning relievers in 1976. But at the very tail end of spring training, the Padres surprised everyone by dealing their 29-year-old veteran to the Cardinals for left-hander Ken Reynolds and a pitching prospect.

Frisella’s time in St. Louis did not last long. He walked more batters than he struck out, which helped push his ERA near 4.00. Unable to trust him in the late innings, the Cardinals traded him to the Brewers for a player to be named later only one week before the June 15 trading deadline.

With the Brewers, Frisella enjoyed another renaissance. He worked his way into the closer’s role, striking out 43 batters in 49 innings and picking up nine saves. With his forkball in good working order, the Brewers and Frisella had every reason to believe that he would be closing games in Milwaukee for the foreseeable future.

Frisella never made it spring training in 1977. On New Year’s Day in Arizona, Frisella was riding as a passenger in a dune buggy driven by a friend, James Wesley. On some sand near Phoenix, only about 50 yards from the Frisella home, Wesley lost control of the vehicle. The dune buggy began to sway before overturning completely. Wesley escaped with only minor injuries, but Frisella was not nearly as fortunate.

As the dune buggy began to overturn, Frisella tried to jump free, but his leg became caught in the vehicle. The dune buggy fell on top of him, the steel rollbar striking him in the head and crushing his skull. Frisella, all of 30 years old, was gone, leaving behind a three-year old son and his pregnant wife, Pam.

In a tragic coincidence, Frisella became the third active major leaguer to die since the end of the 1976 season. The others were veteran reliever Bob Moose, who had been killed in an auto accident in October, and young shortstop Danny Thompson, who died from leukemia in December.

The news of Frisella’s death shook the Brewers’ organization. “That is a real shocker,” Milwaukee president Bud Selig told the Associated Press. “I’m dumbfounded.” Brewers players were just as shaken, including first baseman Mike Hegan, who noted Frisella’s role as a clubhouse comic. “He was a little way out, a little off the wall,” Hegan told The Sporting News. “In a short time, he became a very important part of the ballclub. He kept guys loose.”

Frisella and fellow reliever Ray Sadecki regularly entertained their teammates with their comedic touch, whether in the bullpen or in the clubhouse. The two had been friends since their days with the Mets in the early’70s.

Frisella’s death also affected some of the Mets, though he had not played for the team since 1972. “It’s an awful sad day around here,” Mets GM Joe McDonald told the New York Daily News. “Danny and I were always good friends, even after we traded him to Atlanta.”

Whether it was front office people or teammates, everyone found Frisella likeable. They enjoyed his down-to-earth nature and his bulldog style of pitching. Known as a battler, Frisella found ways to attack opposing hitters, even on days when he lacked velocity or movement, or both.

Decades after his death, Frisella remains well-remembered, particularly by Mets fans. I believe there are two reasons why the name still resonates. First, there was his popularity, both with teammates and fans. Frisella’s grounded personality and robust sense of humor allowed him to connect with fans in a way that is difficult for most middle relievers lacking in fame.

Second, there is Frisella’s widow, Pam, a onetime athlete who later became the mayor of Foster City, Calif. She has never remarried. An active presence as a public speaker and through social media, Pam often talks about Danny. After they married in 1970, the New York media often noted their strong bond. All these years later, that bond remains unchanged.

Back in 1971, Pam watched the Mets play a game at Shea Stadium. She became so anxious that night that she suffered chest pains and had to be taken to the hospital. An examination turned up nothing wrong with her heart; it was simply a case of nerves brought about by watching Danny pitch.

I guess that tells us something about the relationship between Pam and the late Danny Frisella.

References & Resources

  • New York Daily News
  • The Sporting News
  • National Baseball Hall of Fame Library research files


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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87 Cards

Good work Bruce…..I add another active MLB fatality in the 1976-77 off-season: 23-year old Angels infielder Mike Miley died in a one-car accident in Baton Rouge, LA on January 6, 1977.

David
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David
“I was 12 years old. My memories of that tragedy are more complete, more vivid. To this day, whenever I hear the words “dune buggy” (not that they come up often), I automatically think of the accident that claimed the life of a young relief pitcher who was once an integral part of the hometown New York Mets.” I was 13. I wasn’t particularly a Danny Frisella fan but I can remember. Maybe because of the reason of the accident. To this day, if someone was to say, “dune buggy”, I would think, “Danny Frisella” and visa versa. Bruce, I’ve… Read more »
Michael Bacon
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Michael Bacon
Enjoyed the article because I know less about the 1970’2 than any other decade. What struck me, though, is that it is written in the “old-school” tradition. For example, when informing readers that, “…Frisella typically relied on his infielders…” and then mentioning two who were not Keith Hernandez and/or Clete Boyer, he adds, “As a team, the Padres had the worst fielding percentage in the National League.” I came of age reading magazines such as Street and Smith’s Baseball magazine, and Sports Illustrated. This article would fit nicely into that age. From THT I would expect much more detail. After… Read more »
jcxy
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jcxy

very nice–very interesting read

AlbaNate
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AlbaNate

You are exactly right with what you wrote about “Dune Buggy,” as I too always think of Frisella when I hear those words.