It’s the summer of 1972 and Tigers general manager Jim Campbell is trying to squeeze one more championship out of the core of the bunch that won the World Series four years earlier.
Ever since that glorious year of 1968—the Year of the Tiger—Campbell has been wringing the roster, like a wash cloth, trying to get as much out of it as he can. There hasn’t been much help in the minor league system—certainly no one who can be brought to the big club and make any significant impact.
The pennant race of ’72 is an epic one, in a season truncated due to labor strife out of spring training. Some games are lost due to a players strike. The full 162-game schedule simply won’t be played, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announces in April.
The season starts about a week late, and Kuhn decides that all games that weren’t played due to the strike will not be made up. Period. Like it or lump it.
The Tigers find themselves engaged in combat with three other teams as the month of July winds down: the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, though the Tigers hold on to first place by a 2 ½ game margin over the second place Orioles.
Campbell starts each day by scanning the waiver wires, then jumps on the phone to talk trade potential.
In 1972, the interleague trade deadline is much earlier than today’s July 31; in 1972, the deadline for trades that can be made between leagues that don’t require waivers is June 15. That was a month and a half ago as July 31 dawns.
In late-July, 1972, Campbell plays the annual “You give me this and I’ll think about giving you that” game with his fellow general managers—a grown up version of the same game that is played out on bicycles by young boys as the kids talk through chaws of bubble gum, shuffling through their newly-bought baseball cards.
But there are no “doubles” with which to swap, like the kids can with their Topps trading cards.
Campbell’s aging roster, being managed with brilliance by the volatile Billy Martin, is heading into the dog days of summer and the GM frets that Billy can’t bring the Tigers across the finish line first unless he gets some help from outside the organization.
Woodie Fryman is a 32-year-old tobacco farmer from Kentucky who is pitching poorly for a bad team, the Philadelphia Phillies. Fryman is a lefty whose success in the big leagues has been achieved in small chunks with larger chunks of mediocrity in between.
A couple weeks prior to July 31, Fryman starts for the Phillies and lasts just 2.1 innings, surrendering six runs.
But in typical Fryman fashion, read: inconsistency, Woodie starts on July 29 and pitches 8.1 solid innings, getting the win for the woeful Phillies that afternoon.
Yet a few days later, the Phillies put Fryman on waivers.
Campbell sees the waiver move come across his desk and picks up the telephone.
On August 2, left-hander Woodie Fryman, the tobacco farmer from Ewing, Kentucky, 32 years old and with a crumpled resume dotted with success and failure, becomes a Tiger after Campbell puts in his claim.
Two days later, Campbell sees another waiver move appear on the wire.
Duke Sims is a 31-year-old catcher/outfielder who is swinging a limp noodle left-handed bat with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’s hitting .192 when the Dodgers jettison him via waivers.
Two years prior, in 1970, Sims hit a career-high 23 homers. But he’s another whose big league career has a lot of so-so about it.
Campbell puts in his claim for Sims anyway. Campbell notes that Sims’ best years came when he played in the American League, for Cleveland. Maybe he’s more of an American League guy, Campbell figures.
The Tigers, armed with their two new waived veterans—Fryman and Sims—slog through the month of August, trying like mad to fight off their competition and remain the kings of the AL East hill.
Campbell looks like a genius during August as Fryman pitches magnificently. Woodie starts six games in August, wins three of them, and posts an ERA of 2.36.
Sims shows some flashes, but isn’t exactly setting the league on fire.
Such is the way it goes with waiver pick-ups.
As August closes, and the four division pennant contenders separated by just two games, Campbell decides he needs to get Billy Martin another bat for his manager’s patty cake offense.
Down in Arlington, where the Washington Senators are playing their first season as the brand-new Texas Rangers, is a hulking man whose feats of power are legendary.
Frank Howard, aka Hondo, once hit 10 home runs—in one week. It happened in 1968, and Tiger Stadium was part of his seven-day onslaught.
Howard is one of a select few of right-handed hitters to hit a baseball over Tiger Stadium’s left field roof, a much rarer feat than to do the same in right field, for left-handed batters.
The Rangers are another awful club and Howard, age 36, is having a down year in 1972. He has just nine home runs in 287 at-bats and is batting .244.
Campbell buys Howard on August 31, just like you’d purchase something at a flea market that was once very valuable.
Campbell grabs the marked down Howard and tells his manager, “But I got him on sale, Billy!”
It’s September and Fryman continues to pitch great and Sims’ bat heats up and Howard, freed from bondage in Texas, plays some and cheers even more on the bench, thrilled to be in a pennant chase.
Fryman finishes the Tigers portion of his season with a 10-3 record and a 2.06 ERA. Sims catches fire in September and ends up with a .316 average and four homers in 98 at-bats, spelling Bill Freehan behind the plate and playing some left field.
Howard smacks a home run in 33 Tiger at-bats.
The Tigers survive the four-team battle for the division crown, as they play 156 games to the Red Sox’ 155, thanks to Kuhn’s dismissal of the games lost to the strike. It’s a big deal, as the Tigers finish 86-70 to Boston’s 85-70.
The Tigers lose a heartbreaking ALCS to Oakland, 3-2, but they got the chance to play it thanks in part to Jim Campbell’s lucky dice and his thrifty shopping.
Tigers fans of 2011 can only hope that GM Dave Dombrowski has the same kind of lucky success as he ponders moves before Sunday’s interleague trading deadline.
Woodie Fryman and Duke Sims, indeed! Campbell took trash and turned it into treasure in 1972.
Any GM will take luck over skill at this time of year.