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Lou Frey: Capitol Hill’s Very Own Willie Mays

Setting aside for a moment the one-man petition that former Rep. Lou Frey (R-Fla.) sent to Roll Call formally requesting that he be inducted into our Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame, the evidence for his addition to this most hallowed club really is overwhelming.

Between 1968 and 1978, Frey was named the Grand Old Party’s most valuable player three times and was known to both sides of the aisle as a defensive force to be reckoned with at shortstop.

He helped lead the Republican team to eight victories in 10 games and was such an enthusiast for the annual political hardball contest that his picture was included on a Sears, Roebuck and Co. baseball card with Major League legend Willie Mays that celebrated the Congressional game. That card is now included in a collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

As far as Frey can recall (official records from the the 1970s are incomplete) his lifetime batting average was over .400. And “unlike Roger Clemens, I did not take any substances that helped my game, except maybe a beer or two,” said the 74-year-old member of the executive committee of the United States Association of Former Members of Congress.

News clippings about games in the 1970s show that Frey — who left the House in 1978 to make an unsuccessful bid for the Florida governor’s mansion — was known for his speed on the bases. But he was also a great teammate.

In 1976, after being named a co- Republican MVP with then-Rep. Alan Steelman (Texas), Frey “contributed” his half of the trophy to Steelman’s campaign for a Senate seat. (Although Steelman went on to lose that campaign, the Hall of Fame induction committee determined that his defeat shouldn’t reflect poorly on Frey.)

The Florida Congressman “was one of these daredevil players,” recalled Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who played alongside Frey during the 1970s. At the time, Cochran was representing the Magnolia State in the House. “He was somebody that played with reckless abandon. … Just the epitome of the superstar short stop.”

But over a 10-year Congressional baseball career, Frey’s defining moment came on the day he made “The Catch” (something else he shares with Mays).

It was July 28, 1975, and Frey was at his usual spot at shortstop during a fast-moving grudge match in which the Democrats were trying to break the Republicans’ 12-game winning streak.

That year, the abbreviated, three-inning contest was being played at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium as a pre-game show leading into an Orioles game against the Oakland Athletics. With all the hype surrounding Congressional power plays during the post-Watergate and Vietnam eras, the partisan baseball bout had drawn a camera crew from NBC so highlights could be shown on the popular Monday Night Baseball pre-game show, “The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola.”

With the Republicans holding a narrow, 2-1 lead in the bottom of the final inning, then-Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) came to the plate with then-Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) on second base and representing the tying run.

When Hamilton, who now serves as president and director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., popped up a pitch from then-Rep. “Wild” Bill Cohen (R-Maine), the ball looked like it would fall harmlessly into the stands along the third-base line.

But Frey, knowing that the game hung in the balance, had other ideas.

“I was pretty quick,” recalled Frey, who played semipro baseball in New Jersey and also played soccer at Colgate University during his younger days. “As soon as it started … I started running, because I knew [then-Sen.] Lowell Weicker [R-Conn.] wouldn’t move” from his spot in left field.

The 6-foot-6-inch 220-pound Weicker could only look on as the spry 6-foot-1-inch 170-pound Frey raced past third base toward the low railing separating the spectators from the infield.

“I hit [the fence] running full tilt and I went over the rail and into the seats … but I held on to the ball. Hurt myself a bit, but I didn’t drop the ball,” Frey recalled.

He ended up having to get medical attention after the game (which the Democrats went on to win 3-2) as a result of his run-in with the railing, but before Frey left the park Garagiola came down to the field to congratulate him on his amazing catch and earning his team’s MVP award that day.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Lou, that is one of the three best catches I’ve ever seen a shortstop make.’”

But there was just one problem. At the time that Frey made his amazing play, the NBC camera that was focused on the game (two other cameras were scanning the crowd for dignitaries) stopped working.

As such, Garagiola couldn’t show the catch on his national television show later that night.

Frey, whose body was physically damaged, said it was heartbreaking news. His crowning moment in a lifelong love affair with baseball was lost because of a technical glitch.

As he was being driven to the infirmary, he decided to put his thoughts to paper and came up with “The Death of Walter Mitty: aka Lou Frey.”

Named for the unassuming fictional character who daydreams about being a hero, the poem was included in the Congressional Record after Frey took to the floor of the House the next day to share his pain with his Congressional colleagues.

But Frey’s “Catch” story does have a happy ending.

Months after the game, Frey was at a hearing in California when he got an emergency call from his office. At the other end of the line was his secretary, who excitedly informed Frey that Garagiola would be showing the Congressman’s over-the-rail catch during his pre-game show for the 1975 World Series.

It turns out that one of the members of the Athletics, who had also seen Frey’s catch that day, caught up with Garagiola on a road trip later in the season and happened to mention that his wife had been in the stands filming the game on her 8-mm camera. Garagiola was only too happy to use the footage for his show, and he even included snippets of Frey’s poem.

Frey vividly remembers how Garagiola ended his show.

Addressing the Congressman he said, “As a ball player, you are great. But as a poet — yuck.”

Asked recently if he’s worried at all about being the first-ever Roll Call Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame inductee to nominate himself for the honor, Frey said those who played with him would probably agree he earned it.

“When I go back up to Washington there’s people who’ve been around for a long time and they don’t want to talk about my Congressional record, they want to talk about the catch,” Frey said.

“I may have been a better ball player than a Congressman,” he added. “I hope not, but I certainly enjoyed it. During those dark days of Watergate and all those things that were going on it was really about the only fun thing in town.”

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