‘Something Very, Very Special’

Bob Thorpe at San Diego High in 1952. (Courtesy Bob Borovicka

Bob Thorpe at San Diego High in 1952. (Courtesy Bob Borovicka

Tony Freitas was throwing a baseball for a living seven years before Bob Thorpe was born.  When they hooked up in Stockton, California, in 1953, the 45-year-old Freitas had more than 5,000 innings under his belt. The 18-year-old Thorpe was fresh out of San Diego High School and being touted as a future superstar.

In 1952, Thorpe paced San Diego High to the Southern California baseball title and San Diego’s Fighting Bob American Legion Junior team to the national championship finals where they lost to a Cincinnati, Ohio, team with another kid phenom – Dick Drott. The pair wound up pitching for the Los Angeles Angels in 1956.

On seeing Thorpe play in the Legion tournament, Sid Keener, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, wrote a letter raving: “The boy reminded me of Joe DiMaggio – build, arm, batting power.” He concluded: “If Thorpe is not another Bob Feller, then I will miss my forecast.”

Thorpe won 28 games in 1954 at Stockton. His manager, Gene Handley, was involved in the Chicago Cubs’ signing of Greg Maddux in 1984.

“He was the same type of pitcher as Maddux – not an overpowering fastball but effective because he set up the hitters with off-speed pitches,” Handley said. “He had an outstanding changeup. And that’s something for a young man coming out of high school.”

Despite a 7-7 record and 4.86 ERA, Thorpe impressed the Angels’ Dwight “Red” Adams, a veteran pitcher.  “Bob didn’t throw as hard as Drott, [Gene] Fodge or [Bob] Anderson.  But he threw good enough. He was a serious-minded guy on the mound and about his work.”

Thorpe was different from the Angels’ other kid pitchers.

He relied on finesse, not speed. “He was the ultimate pitcher even as young as he was,” Anderson said.

He didn’t say much, prompting teammates to call him “The Quiet Man.” “Bob particularly didn’t talk a whole lot about Bob,” said Bob Borovicka, a high school teammate and his closest friend.

And he tended to hang out with veterans like Adams. “He always got along with older ball players,” Borovicka said, “because there was never that me-me-me or I-I-I stuff with him.”

“Bob Thorpe had maturity built into him when he was born,” Anderson said.

Gene Leek faced Thorpe in high school before playing in the majors for the Indians and Los Angeles Angels. “I knew he was going to play pro ball. Everybody was talking about how he was going to make it big.  Even in high school, he was working the corners on you. He wasn’t trying to throw it down the middle. He was pitching.”

The pitch that had everybody talking was Thorpe’s curveball.

“He had a downer – off the table type like Sandy Koufax,” said Leek.  “He came over the top with it. When you see a curveball like that, you go ‘Whoa!’  And he could get it over. He pinpointed that thing.”

Tony Freitas won  348 games in 22 minor-league seasons.

Tony Freitas won 348 games in 22 minor-league seasons.

A 6-foot-1, 170-pounder, Thorpe was signed by Cubs scout Jack Fournier and sent to Stockton in the Class C California League. “The kid won’t impress you right away,” Fournier said. “He isn’t unusually fast and they’ll get hits off him. But he’ll be rough with men on base. He’s got the poise of a big leaguer now.”

When Thorpe joined Stockton in ‘53, the player-manager was Freitas, called “the Bobby Shantz of the bush leagues” because at 5-foot-8, 165-pounds he resembled the pint-sized Shantz who won 119 games in his career, including 24 for the Philadelphia Athletics in ‘52. Freitas was considered by many the best minor-league pitcher of all time with 348 victories, tops among lefties. He pitched in the majors for the Athletics and Cincinnati Redlegs, once striking out Babe Ruth. He won 20 or more games six straight seasons for the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League.

The pairing of Freitas and Thorpe as teacher-pupil was perfect as Freitas was a so-called dinker, throwing lazy curves and changeups with impeccable control. Freitas helped Thorpe develop a changeup and how to move a hitter around in the batter’s box to set up pitches. “Put it in there close enough so that it looks good,” Tony advised Bob. “But, of course, make sure it isn’t.”

“Tony had a great influence on Bob,” Borovicka said.”Besides the nuances of pitching, he helped him develop a changeup that was his bread-and-butter because it allowed him to keep the hitters off-balance. Tony was the difference between Bob being ordinary and something very, very special.”

Like any great teacher, Freitas set an example, posting a 22-7 record and 2.38 ERA. Thorpe had a 16-8 mark and 3.52 ERA.

Handley replaced Freitas as Stockton’s manager in ‘54 – the spectacular season that propelled Thorpe into the national limelight.

Thorpe had Freitas-like numbers: a 28-4 won-loss record; 2.28 ERA; 197 strikeouts and only 94 walks in 300 innings. Even more amazing, he finished 33 of the 34 games he started.

horpe was the first player in Cubs history to jump from Class C to the majors. (George Brace photo

Thorpe was the first player in Cubs history to jump from Class C to the majors. (George Brace photo)

“He had no real weakness whatsoever,” Handley said. “He could do it all. He was a crafty pitcher. I didn’t have a pinch-hitter who was any better than him so I’d let him stay in the game. He was a good fielder, ran the bases well, just an all-round good athlete.”

In the letter he wrote comparing Thorpe with DiMaggio and Feller, the Hall of Fame’s Keener noted: “If I had my say about the boy, I’d put him in the outfield. He swishes line drives over the infield and long drives past the outfield.”

In 1955, the Cubs were counting on Thorpe to become the first player in franchise history to jump from Class C to the majors. “Watching him on the mound, you would think he was a 30-year-old veteran major league pitcher instead of just a 20-year-old kid with only two years’ experience in a Class C League,” Cubs manager Stan Hack said, adding: “But it’s a long haul from Class C to the majors.”

Hack decided Thorpe was up to the task. “He has looked very good and right now I’d say he could win in our league. At least I’ll start him in selected spots and we’ll find out.”

“It is not yet a foregone conclusion that Bobby will be a winner, nor even that he will remain with the Cubs, but it may be taken as fact that he will one day be a topflight pitcher” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

A crowd of 19,504 watched as Bob took the mound for the Cubs at Wrigley Field to face the Chicago White Sox in the final game of the exhibition season. “I may be making a mistake sending him against the Sox at this stage,” Hack said. “But I think he’s the kind of a kid who can take the assignment in stride.”

The Cubs had high hopes for Thorpe after he won 28 games for Stockton in Class C.

The Cubs had high hopes for Thorpe after he won 28 games for Stockton in Class C.

Thorpe struck out the side in the first inning, but not before the Sox loaded the bases with a hit and two walks. In the second, the Sox scored four runs on two walks and three hits, including a bases-loaded triple. In two innings, Bob struck out four, walked five and gave up four runs on four hits. “The ordeal of making his first pitching effort in a big league park before the biggest baseball crowd he had ever seen was too much for the twenty-year-old Thorpe,” sportswriter John Hoffman wrote in the Sun-Times.

The Sox ordeal made Hack reluctant to use Thorpe during the regular season. Bob pitched a total of three innings in two games, both in relief and the Cubs far behind. He allowed four hits and one earned run.

Thorpe never pitched in the majors again. The Cubs shipped him to Des Moines in the Class A Western League where he finished the year with a 10-10 record and 3.65 ERA.

He started the ’56 season with the Cubs but didn’t get into a game. With the Angels, he appeared in 29 games, completing six of the20 games he started. In 156 innings, he struck out 72 and walked 60.  He led all pitchers with a respectable .274 batting average.

In three of Thorpe’s losses, the Angels scored a total of three runs. “Thorpe had a lot of bad luck,” said Dave Hillman, the ace of the L.A. pitching staff with 21 wins.

:  L-R, Thorpe, Cub manager Stan Hack and star pitcher Bob Rush chat at spring training in 1955. (Author’s collection)

L-R, Thorpe, Cub manager Stan Hack and star pitcher Bob Rush chat at spring training in 1955. (Author’s collection)

That bad luck continued for the rest of Thorpe’s career.

In 1957, he was 7-15 with a 4.05 ERA for the last-place Portland Beavers. This was good enough for the Pittsburgh Pirates to draft him for 1958 but he missed the entire season because of an operation to remove bone chips in his throwing arm.  In 1959, he attempted a comeback with Columbus, Georgia, in the South Atlantic League.

“The Pirates had high hopes for him,” Borovicka said.

Thorpe visited Borovicka before leaving for spring training. “He told me his arm felt good. It was strong again. He thought everything was going to be OK.”

Bob pitched in three games before retiring and heading home to San Diego to work as an apprentice electrician for his father-in-law, Bill Frank. “If you don’t make it in baseball, you can take over my company when I retire,” Bob was told.

By 1960, Bob had worked off-and-on as an electrician for six years. He was close to qualifying for journeyman status.

Les Cassie, Bob’s San Diego High baseball coach, got a call from a newspaper reporter the morning of March 17, 1960. “I’ll never forget that day,” Cassie said.

“Les, you’d better sit down,” the reporter said

And, then, the reporter described what happened.

Bob was electrocuted while splicing a high-powered electric cable. He instinctively jumped back as the power hit his palm and his elbow grounded against a metal transformer box. The force of the current burned his fingerprints into the metal base of the awl he was using to apply insulating fluid.

“In those days, they did it hot,” Borovicka said. “Now, they don’t.  They turn off the power.”

“One of the nicest young men I ever had a chance to coach,” Cassie said. “He gave me 110 percent every day.”

Thorpe and Borovicka, often called “The Two Bobbies,” were a combined 29-2 the year San Diego High won the championship.

“The Two Bobbies were great pitchers,” said Bill Adams, a teammate.

“They were together all the time,” said Cassie.

Thorpe was 25 when he died, leaving his widow, Barise, with two sons, Robert, seven, and Billy, three. A third son, Barry, was born two weeks after Bob died.

Borovicka eventually married Barise and raised his friend’s three boys. They refer to Thorpe as “Father” and Borovicka as “Dad.”

“I tried my best to raise them the way he would’ve raised them,” Borovicka said. “I think he would be pleased with the job I did, although it’s probably not as good as he would’ve done if he had lived.”

Borovicka will always wonder what might’ve been “had Bob not hurt his arm.”

Bob would’ve been on the mound at Chicago’s Wrigley Field pitching for the Cubs instead of working as an electrician. “Things might’ve been different,” Borovicka said. “There’s just no way of knowing what he would’ve done.”

But one thing Borovicka knows for sure is that his best buddy was “something very, very special.”

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

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