So here’s a story I’ve never told to anyone beyond family members and close friends. It doesn’t reflect particularly well on my journalistic standards (which, for the record, have improved markedly over the years), but it always makes me laugh.
Back in 1999, Steve Cannella, Mark Bechtel and I were asked to compile what must go down as the worst project in human history: Sports Illustrated’s state-by-state rankings of the Top 50 athletes of the 20th Century. Truly, this was hell, times 10,000,000. For weeks, the three of us slaved over clips and files and the SI library, desperate to find the, oh, 37th best North Dakotan. I really can’t overstate how badly the whole process sucked; what a joke the rankings were; etc.
Anyhow, while compiling the list for North Carolina, I came across a profile of a scrappy little shortstop named Walter Frye. Here it is:
News & Record (Greensboro, NC)
May 9, 1999, Sunday, ROCKINGHAM EDITION
ROCKINGHAM COUNTY SEEKS HONOR FOR NATIVE SON;
THE FAMILY OF LOCAL BASEBALL LEGEND WALTER ”TEEPOT” FRYE HAS ASKED THE N.C.;
SPORTS HALL OF FAME THAT HE BE NOMINATED.
BYLINE: BY JAMIE KRITZER; Staff Writer
SECTION: ROCKINGHAM, Pg. R1
LENGTH: 1205 words
Fifty years later, some still recall Walter ”Teepot” Frye’s artful plays at shortstop. He moved with ease from side to side, fielding hard-hit grounders. In one graceful motion, he threw runners out with the skill of DiMaggio.
Frye’s athletic prowess would take him from the sandlots of Stoneville to the Philadelphia Phillies’ farm system, before World War II intervened. He would become one of the area’s best-known athletes, and 46 years after retiring, he still holds the record for playing the most games in the Carolina League.
People also remember how he taught young players in the Triad for more years than he played professionally, recalling his exuberance for the game and his trademark wide grin.
This week, Rockingham County remembered Frye again. The Rockingham County Commissioners endorsed the Stoneville native as a posthumous candidate for nomination to the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame. His family has sent letters to the Hall’s board of directors asking for his inclusion. It’s one more accolade for the ballplayer whose feats on the diamond made him a local legend.
”He made double plays look like child’s work,” said his wife, Doris. ”I guess you might call him a flashy player because he did make those impossible plays look easy.”
Now, eight years after he died from cancer, the wiry ballplayer known affectionately as ”Teepot” could become a candidate for the state’s version of Cooperstown. But if history is any crystal ball, Frye probably wouldn’t get in if he made the ballot of nominees for 2000. Only one person holds the distinction of being selected in the same year he was nominated: Michael Jordan.
That means greats like Major League pitchers Gaylord Perry and Jim ”Catfish” Hunter or golf pro Raymond Floyd had to wait.
Induction to the hall of fame doesn’t come easily because officials want the honor to retain its selectivity, said the Hall of Fame’s executive director, Reese Edwards. Most are just ecstatic to be selected by the 24-member board as a nominee.
Anyone can request that someone become a member of the sports hall of fame. Many people send letters to board members seeking selection. But, Edwards says, ”It’s not a popularity contest. They (the board of directors) are not going to go: ‘Wow, we’ve got 97 letters about this guy. He must be pretty good.’ These guys are pretty sharp. They look at the guy’s qualifications, not the mailbox.”
To qualify, someone must be either a North Carolina native or have lived here a significant amount of time. The sports achievement must have been accomplished in North Carolina or the candidate must have made a significant contribution to the state.
In August, the board puts together a ballot of nominees and mails the ballot to all 115 living members of the hall, 10 veteran sportswriters and any past board members who can be located. They select their top 10 candidates – a list that is used as a guideline for the board of directors.
In December, the board makes its selection. The number of inductees has ranged from 4 to 17 in a given year. Typically, between 50 and 60 people are nominated, and most nominees’ names are carried over from year to year. Induction is held in May.
A star basketball and baseball player at Stoneville High School, he was a scholarship player in JV basketball and varsity baseball at UNC-Chapel Hill. Bad grades forced him to leave after two years. He transferred to then-Oak Ridge Junior College before being drafted in 1941 by the Martinsville baseball team, a farm club for the Philadelphia Phillies.
”As far as his fielding at shortstop, he had no equal in our day,” said friend Carl Webb. ”He could go to his right and go to the left and he could throw them out from deep short.”
But in the prime of his career, Frye was drafted. He would spend 3 years as an Army staff sergeant training recruits at Fort Bragg and the Overseas Reception Depot in Greensboro – but he didn’t leave baseball behind. He played for the main service teams at both ORD and Fort Bragg.
”He was just an innate talent,” Webb said. ”That’s all there was to it.”
He was fast and agile. He could push his 160-pound frame faster backward than many people running forward, his wife says. It made him a talent for running down the baseball or charging down a basketball court.
After his discharge from the military in January 1946, Frye continued his contract with the Phillies’ Class A team in Utica, N.Y. But he wanted to be closer to home because his father was ill and he thought his prospects for making the majors were dwindling.
Some say his performance at the plate probably played a part in his not making the Major Leagues. His career batting average was just below .250, meaning he got a hit fewer than 3 out of every 10 at-bats.
He played with the Leaksville farm team, making the All-Star team. The following year, the St. Louis Cardinals bought his contract and he went to Winston-Salem. He played there for two years and spent the last four seasons of his career in Reidsville with the Lucky Strike league. He retired from baseball in 1953.
But even before his professional career ended, Frye was helping others with the dream to play. In 1948, Frye succeeded E.P. Holt as the Oak Ridge basketball and baseball coach. He would stay at the school for 31 years.
Always agile on the field and on the basketball court as a forward, his coaching debut was auspicious. His teams won both the junior college basketball and baseball championships in the conference, and he won coach-of-the-year honors.
In 1974, his baseball team won the state prep school championship. He gave up coaching duties in 1980. He died at 74 in 1991.
”I don’t have any regrets,” Frye said in a 1983 interview with the News & Record. ”I got in some games with the big leaguers, and I would have liked to have had the opportunity to see if I could have made it. I think I could have.”
He added: ”When you enjoy something you do, you can’t wait to be on the ball field. I’m glad I had a chance to feel that.”
Friends who drank coffee with Frye years later at the Stoneville Restaurant recall him always looking out for the disadvantaged. When someone suggested charging a fee for youngsters to play little league, he scorned the idea; it might discourage someone from wanting to play.
So, with sleep deprivation leading my way, I decided to conduct an experiment. I would rank Frye the 50th greatest athlete in North Carolina, and see if it would have an impact. Here’s the list, if you’re curious.
And here, my friends, is the aftermath:
News & Record (Greensboro, NC)
January 3, 2000, Monday, ROCKINGHAM EDITION
MAGAZINE LAUDS STONEVILLE BASEBALL LEGEND;
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED NAMES STONEVILLE NATIVE WALTER ”TEEPOT” FRYE TO A LIST OF;
NORTH CAROLINA’S TOP 50 ATHLETES OF THE 20TH CENTURY.
BYLINE: BY JAMIE KRITZER; Staff Writer
SECTION: TRIAD/STATE, Pg. B1
LENGTH: 805 words
If North Carolina baseball legend Walter ”Teepot” Frye were alive, he’d probably be grinning.
In its Dec. 22 publication, Sports Illustrated named Frye the state’s 50th greatest athlete of the 20th century, putting him in a class with Michael Jordan and Dale Earnhardt. The Stoneville native died in 1991 at age 74.
Frye is last on North Carolina’s list, but considering the company he’s in, that’s awesome, said his wife, who admitted her surprise. Below his name it states, ”Stoneville High shortstop is considered the best fielding infielder in state history; coached Oak Ridge High to a state title in 1974.”
”I’ve always known he was the greatest, but I’m a little prejudiced,” his wife said with a laugh. ”It’s great company to be in.”
Frye is hopeful her husband’s accolade in SI will earn him points toward making another list of all-time greats: the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame. Frye, who was nominated for the first time earlier this year, did not make the list of selections. The seven people who were selected will probably be announced next week, said Reese Edwards, executive director of the Hall of Fame.
Edwards said not making the state’s Hall of Fame shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Michael Jordan is the only North Carolinian to make that list in his first year being nominated. Frye’s accolades in SI could help his chances next year, Edwards said.
”The fact that the North Carolina Hall of Fame started in 1963, 50 years into the sports history of North Carolina – it’s a catch-up game from day one,” he said.
Frye was a star in basketball and baseball at Stoneville High School and became a scholarship player in jayvee basketball and varsity baseball at UNC-Chapel Hill. Poor grades forced him to leave after two years.
He transferred to Oak Ridge Junior College before being drafted in 1941 by the Martinsville baseball team, a farm club of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Scouts were impressed by his play and he was called up to play Class A ball in Trenton, N.J., during the spring of 1942.
He spent three years during the prime of his baseball career as an Army staff sergeant training recruits at Fort Bragg and at the Overseas Recreation Depot in Greensboro.
He knew the possibility of making the majors was dwindling.
”He was an outstanding shortstop, but he couldn’t hit,” Simmons said. ”That’s the reason he didn’t make the big leagues.”
He played with a Leaksville farm club and then with the Winston-Salem farm team before finishing his professional baseball career in 1953 in Reidsville with the Lucky Strike League.
When he returned to North Carolina he began a coaching career in basketball and baseball at Oak Ridge. He would stay at the school for 31 years and in 1974 led his baseball team to the state prep school championship.
He retired from coaching in 1980.
Frank Knight used to follow Frye’s career and went to see him play baseball on many occasions, including during spring training in Florida. It was no surprise to Knight that Frye would be in this elite group.
”There wasn’t a whole lot of men in his class when it comes to scooping a baseball,” Knight said.