George Freese, all-star third baseman for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, died July 27, 2014, in Portland, Oregon. He was 87. George played in only 61 games in the majors, batting .257 with three homers, but his minor-league career spanned 17 seasons, six in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) where he played for the Angels, Hollywood Stars, Portland Beavers and San Diego Padres. Overall, he hit .301 in the minors, slugging 195 home runs, 124 of them in the PCL. Freese batted fifth in the Angels’ power-packed lineup behind Steve Bilko. When teams pitched around Bilko, he made them pay with 113 runs batted in. “With ducks on the pond he’s their most dangerous hitter,” said Royce Lint, a pitcher for the Portland Beavers. In 18 games against Portland in ’56, George hammered Beaver pitching for a .381 average, 10 home runs and 32 RBIs. “He was one of two players that I ran into in 13 years of minor league baseball that could hit the curveball better than the fastball,” said Marland “Duke” Doolittle, a catcher in 1954 for Memphis in the Southern Association.
Bobby Bragan managed George in Hollywood in 1955 and his younger brother, Gene, with the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Gene had a little more flash to him but George was more stable. He was soft-spoken and did the job every day.” The last players to leave Wrigley Field, the Angels’ home ballpark, after a day game were Freese and Bilko. When the game was over, they immediately headed for the two hot tubs in the clubhouse where they talked and guzzled bottles of beer until Angels trainer Joe Liscio got leg cramps delivering them. It was a task better suited for a beer truck. “Steve loved his beer,” George said. “I couldn’t keep up with him. We’d drink the beer and sweat it out. Get some more and sweat it out.” This continued until rush hour traffic cleared and they went home.
George played for Hollywood in 1955, hitting a home run in the decisive fifth game to beat the Angels in their season-ending playoff series. Over the winter the Stars demoted Freese to a team in the lower minors because “he can’t play any position well enough for us to keep him.” The Angels thought otherwise and selected him in the minor league draft. “If we couldn’t beat him, we’d join him,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing said. “I was surprised as hell when I found out they were going to send me to double-A ball because I had a good half-year in Hollywood,” George said. He hit .302 for the Stars after batting .257 in 51 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the winter of 1955-56, he was a big gun in the Puerto Rican League before he ended up with a broken finger.
Never mind that George was damaged goods, doubtful if he could play. Angels president John Holland called George’s release by the Stars “typical Hollywood gratitude” and predicted he would outperform his replacement with the Stars and hit as many balls out of Wrigley Field as Bilko. As it turned out, Gene was the Stars’ third baseman the last half of the ’56 season. George finished with a .291 average, 17 points better than Gene, and doubled his home run output — 22 to 11. Freese and Bilko, roommates on the road, set a goal of combining to hit more than 60 home runs, the Holy Grail because it was the single-season record in both the PCL and majors. They teamed to blast 77. At 18, George was the starting quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh. He also played at the University of West Virginia, receiving All-America honorable mention in 1946. He turned down an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers to play pro baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. By the time he reached L.A., George had the reputation of a good-hit, no-field third baseman. “My fielding was questionable,” Freese said. “That’s what kept me out of the big leagues. I knew I could hit.”
George’s best years were in Portland where he slammed a combined 56 homers in 1958-59. In 2008, he was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame for his outstanding career with the Beavers. “Freese had great power – pull power,” said Eddie Basinski, a Portland infielder. During the ’56 season, Bilko was asked to attend a press reception with actor, Phil Silvers, to promote the TV show featuring Silvers as Sgt. Bilko. Steve balked: “I won’t go unless George goes.” George borrowed a sports coat from Steve and they went to the party. “The coat fit me like a blanket,” George joked, adding. “I have a picture of Steve, Phil Silvers and myself. Boy, do I treasure it.” On the final day of the ‘56 season, the entire Angels infield was honored at Wrigley Field for being named to Look magazine’s PCL all-star team. Prior to the award ceremony, the emcee, Chuck Connors, a ball player-turned actor, took George aside to coach him on what to say on receiving the award. George stepped to the microphone on the pitcher’s mound and delivered the line Connors gave him: “I want to thank the Hollywood Stars for making this possible.”
Now, it’s only fitting that we pay our respect to George by saying, “Thank you, Mr. Freese, for the making the Angels’ amazing season in 1956 possible.”
Watch this 2008 interview with George Freese fillowing his induction into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ApmetR_fVxk
Link to George Freese obituary published in The Oregonian: