ATLANTA — Jim Fregosi’s big league career got off to a real quiet start. His first three at-bats, as a teenager for the expansion Los Angeles Angels, he hit grounders back to perennial Gold Glove pitcher Jim Kaat.
Over the next half-century, Fregosi made a lot more noise in majors.
Fregosi, a six-time All-Star shortstop who went to manage the Angels to their first playoff appearance and guide the rowdy 1993 Philadelphia Phillies into the World Series, died Friday after an apparent stroke. He was 71.
Popular on and off the field, full of opinions and an outsized personality, Fregosi could argue with the best of ‘em. He could also laugh at himself, and would poke fun at his part in one of baseball’s most-lopsided trades — the deal that sent him to the New York Mets for a young, wild pitcher named Nolan Ryan.
The Atlanta Braves said they were notified by a family member that Fregosi died early Friday in Miami, where he was hospitalized after the apparent stroke while on a cruise with baseball alumni.
Fregosi ended more than 50 years in baseball as a special assistant to Braves general manager Frank Wren.
“Jim played a vital role in our club over the last 13 years,” Wren said Friday. “As a senior adviser he was someone you could always pick up the phone and get a feel for the players in the game. He covered all 30 teams for us and was such a positive, knowledgeable resource. He lit up a room and had just great relationships throughout the game.
“When I first became GM, one of the things that made the transition so easy was having Jim as close as a phone call for advice and help or encouragement.”
Braves president John Schuerholz said the team would find a way to honor Fregosi this season.
“He gave a lot to the game no matter what uniform he was in, no matter whether he was a player, a coach or a scout,” Schuerholz said. “Some people say he could have managed again right now. He was so smart and knew the game so well. I agree with that.”
Schuerholz said Fregosi “didn’t grow into this personality. I think he was born with it. I think he had that personality when he was born.”
Along with the Phillies and Angels — where he was reunited with Ryan and made the playoffs in 1979 — Fregosi managed the Chicago White Sox and Toronto. He took over the White Sox in the middle of the 1986 season after Tony La Russa was fired, and was hired by the Blue Jays after manager Tim Johnson was dismissed during spring training in 1999 for lying about his military service record.
Phillies president David Montgomery said the team and others in baseball “lost a dear friend.”
“He’ll be remembered for his vibrant personality, wisdom and love of the game,” Montgomery said in a statement. “Our deepest sympathy is extended to his widow, Joni, daughters Nikki, Lexy and Jennifer and sons Robert and Jim.”
Giants general manager Brian Sabean said Fregosi’s death “leaves a hole in the unique fabric of our great game. He was a great friend and mentor to so many, no matter what hat he wore.”
“He was a one-of-a-kind baseball lifer,” he said.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig spoke of Fregosi’s widespread relationships in the game.
“The outpouring of support in recent days illustrates the vast respect that Jim earned in a great baseball life,” Selig said in a statement.
Fregosi was an infielder in the majors from 1961 to 1978, hitting .265 with 151 homers and 706 RBIs. His best seasons came with the Angels.
From 1964-69, he teamed with second baseman Bobby Knoop to form a strong double-play combination. They played together in the 1966 All-Star game.
Knoop, now an Angels coach, said Fregosi was the kind of guy who “would not have a tattoo, but would cover your back. He was a tremendous person who had tremendous passion for the game and loved the Angels.”
The Angels retired Fregosi’s No. 11 in 1988 and said he was a personal favorite of former owner Gene Autry.
“His personality was infectious, his love of the game legendary, and his knowledge endless,” the team said in a statement.
Fregosi was traded from the Angels to the Mets after the 1971 season for a package of players that included Ryan. Fregosi played just 146 games over two seasons for the Mets and hit .233 with five home runs; Ryan turned into a Hall of Fame pitcher.
Fregosi later played for the Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates. He began his managing career at 36 with the Angels in April 1978 — two days after his final game as a player with the Pirates.
In 15 seasons as a manager, he posted a 1,028-1,094 record.
With the Phillies, Fregosi handled a team that included a lot of rough-and-tumble players and helped them reach the 1993 World Series. Philadelphia was beaten by Toronto on Joe Carter’s winning home run in Game 6.
Former Phillies catcher Darren Daulton called Fregosi “the best manager I’ve ever played for.”
“Our relationship was so special … and he was the one that taught me how to be a leader,” Daulton said. “Fregos and I could relate to each other whether we were in the clubhouse or on the field. In 1993 The City of Brotherly Love changed the world … Fregos was the driving force!”
Lenny Dykstra, a Phillies star in those days, said Fregosi “was a player’s manager.”
“Jim Fregosi was the reason that 1993 was one of the most exciting years in Philadelphia sports history,” he said.
James Louis Fregosi was born in 1942 in San Francisco and excelled in baseball, football basketball and track and field at Serra High School. He signed with the Boston Red Sox out of high school and went to the Angels in the 1960 expansion draft.