Portugee Portsider Leads Solons
(to 1942 Pacific Coast League Championship)
As Sacramento Union reporter Tom McDonald followed the Solons’ players into the clubhouse he was stopped by a security guard who could have wrestled at the Memorial Auditorium on Saturday night. “Sorry. Players only.”
Mac informed the guard “Mr. Bartelme gave me permission.”
“Yeah, well you ain’t got Pepper’s permission.” The guard may not have recognized the name of the ball club’s president. He started to slam the clubhouse door, but Big Mac shoved his foot inside the door jamb. “Please. Just ask Pepper.”
The guard shook his head in disbelief. “These guys are resting before the biggest game of their lives and you want—”
“Please,” Mac pleaded.
While the rest of Sacramento’s sportswriters were covering this historic comeback in Pacific Coast League (PCL) history, McDonald was doing a profile on the fantastic career of Tony Freitas. When Los Angeles came to town on Tuesday they were ahead of Sacramento by two games in the standings. Two quick wins by the visitors and the Solons were then four games back. Meantime, the Angels had champagne on ice. But Sacramento staged a miracle comeback, so that on this day—Sunday, September 20th—after the Solons had won the first game of the double-header, they needed one more victory to claim their first-ever PCL crown.
As Mac sat through the first game of the double-header, the Union writer charted Freitas’ career highlights, where Tony:
- Pitched in the first night game in professional baseball under the lights right here in Sacramento in 1930;
- Pitched a no-hitter on May 5, 1932 against Oakland;
- One month later, debuted in the major leagues and fanned the great Babe Ruth.
Allowed inside the Solons clubhouse, the security guard relayed one caveat. “Pepper said sit in the corner and keep your mouth zipped.” McDonald did as directed. Seated on a stool in a corner, he glanced around and saw men exhausted in their dirty, grass-stained uniforms. The motley group more closely resembled a marine platoon on the final push of a two-week mission behind enemy lines than a baseball squad. On their faces he saw grit and determination with a heavy dose of fatigue, reflecting the six-month journey that brought them to this final game. Even the Cardinal on the sleeve seemed to have lost some pep.
Mac’s introspection dissolved when Pepper Martin looked around the clubhouse and mused aloud, “Who in Christ’s name am I gonna start the second game? All my pitchers are pooped.”
After a long moment of silence, Tony Freitas raised his voice. “I’ll give it a go. My arm’s still warm.”
“Alright!” Martin exhorted his tired team. “Tony’s starting.” The team picked up the mantra as the first hint of momentum began to buzz inside the locker room.
The manager passed by the sportswriter, leaned back and said out of the corner of his mouth “Ya hear—the Portugee Portsider’s goin’.”
“I heard,” Mac said with a repressed smile as he rose from the stool.
McDonald left the clubhouse and after a pee, climbed back in the Press Box. One of the other writers asked, “It true—Bartelme let you in the clubhouse just now?”
“Yep. And be glad he did,” Mac said. “’Cause I got a scoop for all ya’s. Freitas is starting.”
“You gotta be goddamn kidding,” said Bee reporter Rudy Hickey, unaware mustard was oozing from his hot dog onto his trousers.
A few minutes later, the Sacramento Solons took the field. And with their leader on the mound, Freitas shut down the Angels in the top half of the first. Then the Solons went out and scored two runs. Normally that would relieve the tension of a starting pitcher. But Freitas wasn’t normal. On this day, he just continued to work—lead or no lead. Tiny Tony blanked the Angelenos for the next two frames and in the bottom of the third, Sacramento scored three more runs to give them a commanding 5-0 lead.
Freitas gave up one run in the fifth. And the Angels made the seventh inning exciting, as the first two batters singled. Freitas got the next two out. When third baseman Steve Mesner snagged a hot smash for the third out, the Solons had won, claiming their first ever PCL pennant.
Sacramento fans—all 11,666 of them that day—stormed the field to celebrate with their beloved Solons. It had taken nearly forty years for the hometown team (first as the “Senators” and now the Solons) to claim the Pacific Coast League crown. Mac joined the celebration on the field, following the diminutive Freitas around like a lost puppy.
One fan, buffered by six concentric rings away from the pitcher, yelled “Tony, Tony—I saw you pitch in 1926 for Tamalpais High. You beat San Rah-fie-el 9-8.” Freitas heard the reference and waved at the man. But he never edged closer to his hero, as the 5’6” pitcher was nearly lost in the mob.
When the excitement died down and all the commemorative photos had been taken of the players on the field, doffing their caps to the fans, Mac approached Freitas in the dressing room.
“Tony, you know I’m doing this feature on you for the Union. You guys going out for a drink later? Maybe I can catch up with you there.”
Freitas looked up into the writer’s eyes. “You know I don’t drink, Mac.”
“Yeah, well you can have a soda while we talk, right? Whaddya say?”
“I say I’m pooped, mister newspaper man.” Tony waved his right arm to illustrate the point, Haven’t I done enough—out there.
Out there on the mound… where earlier in the week he pitched the opening game against the ‘Seraphs’ and lost 5-0. Then again, two days ago on Friday, Pepper Martin sent Tony out to start against the Angelenos—and this time Freitas pitched a complete game which the team won 10-2. That cut the Angels’ lead down to two games with three to play.
Then there was yesterday’s 11-inning thriller. The Angels took an early lead and Martin called on Big Bill Schmidt to pitch in the second. He held the Angels to three runs over ten innings of relief. In the bottom of the 11th with one runner on base and the Solons down 5-4, Martin summoned pinch hitter Gene Lillard. Two pitches later, Lillard poked a two-run homer over the left field wall to give the home team the win. Sacramento players shook hands and slapped fannies on the Edmonds Field infield. They still had two games to go.
Then earlier today, in the first game of the double header, Los Angeles plated five runs by the fourth inning. But Sacramento scored twice that inning, once more in the sixth and came back in the bottom of the eighth to score four times to win the game 7-5. Then the manager called on Freitas to pitch the ninth and the Gutta Percha Man knocked them down 1-2-3 to clinch the contest.
Finally, there was the comparative yawner in the nightcap, where Freitas looked like the master of old, shutting down the Angels on four hits. The Baseball Gods had more than made up for last year’s debacle when the Solons blew a 14-game lead in the closing weeks of the Pacific Coast League.
This profile, however, focused on Freitas, the player. And the Man.
McDonald’s compadre at the Union Bill Conlin dubbed Tony Freitas the “Gutta Percha Man.” The gummy gutta percha substance from Malaysia comprised the core of golf balls in mid-century. That’s the 19th century. Mac was there the day Conlin tried the moniker on Freitas himself. Freitas appeared confused. “What does that even mean, Bill? Something you picked up at Stanford?” Tony winked at the sportswriter, chiding Bill for his elite Alma Mater.
“It means your durable, long-lasting. And, no, I didn’t pick that up down on The Farm.”
Freitas shook his head. “You newspaper guys.”
After the game, Mac stood on Riverside Blvd. by the player’s gate as fans were still streaming out of the ballpark. Ebullient is not too elaborate a word to describe their mood. A man walked past in his bare feet, carrying his shoes. The sports writer gestured to the footwear and quipped “You’re gonna have to put them on sometime.”
“Tried already,” the man said, holding up the shoes as evidence. “My feet swelled up so much I can’t get ‘em back on!”
A short time later Freitas emerged through the player’s gate looking chipper though a might exhausted. One look at McDonald and Tony rolled his eyes and blurted out in Portuguese “Jesus, Maria e José —I’m not going to get rid of you, am I?”
Mac walked up to him deliberately and in a calm voice said, “Tony. This is my last column. Please. Work with me.”
“Whaddya mean. You’re not quittin’ the game?”
“No. The game’s quittin’ me, I’m afraid.” Freitas stared quizzically at Mac’s mouth. “I got cancer, Tony.”
The diminutive pitcher slumped and exhaled loudly. Then Freitas put his arm around Mac’s shoulders. That is, he attempted to. Being six inches shorter, when he reached up he couldn’t complete the gesture, so Freitas capitulated and slapped his left hand on McDonald’s right shoulder. “Poor Mac. C’mon. Let’s go get a cup of coffee. Maybe I can get a sandwich, too, eh?”
“You bet, Tony. On me.”
After Freitas sat down to a steak, salad and a cup of coffee, Mac opened with a seemingly humorous anecdote. He asked about that time in August 1931 when Tony was caught speeding 55 miles-per-hour on the Black Point Cut-Off near Novato. The Senators were in San Francisco for a series against the Missions (aka Reds) and Tony had been cruising near his old stomping grounds.
“True, the judge sentenced you to five days in Marin County jail?”
“Yep,” he said, cutting into his steak.
“True, manager Buddy Ryan drove out to Marin and reasoned with the judge to give you a one-day furlough so you could pitch that night?”
“Yep,” he said, slurping coffee.
Mac jotted in his notebook. “Also true that you threw the plate of beans at the jailer, just before Ryan got you released?”
“Now hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute,” Freitas said. “Those beans were bad! I outta know; I ate enough beans in my parents’ house.” Tony cooled down quickly, then flashed that friendly grin. “Yeah. I tossed ‘em at the poor son-of-a-gun. But, hey—I had no idea they were gonna release me in time to pitch!”
That foggy night at Recreation Park, Tony mowed down the Missions in a 5-3 Senators victory. Afterward it was back to his Marin jail cell to complete the sentence.
“How much you makin’ this year?” Mac wondered.
“Five-hundred a month. Hell, it’s still a thrill just to put on the uniform and get paid for it.” Freitas instinctually slumped into his shoulders and added “But don’t print that. I wouldn’t want Bartelme to know.” He laughed.
“Fair amount of money,” Mac conceded. As a news man, he could only dream.
McDonald then went back to the pitcher’s beginnings, growing up in Mill Valley. Tony explained his parents Antonio Freitas, Senior and Maria Fonseca married in 1903 and settled in Mill Valley. Tony was born in 1908. “My father was superintendent of street sweepers. Good enough job to support a family.”
They moved chronologically from the early days.
Tony pitched for the local school, Tamalpais High, in 1925 and ‘26. By 1927, he was chucking the horsehide for Mill Valley in the winter league when he was spotted by a semi-pro named Tommy Bickerstaff who moonlighted as a taxi driver. “That fall Bickerstaff went duck hunting with (Senators manager) Buddy Ryan and he asked if the team would give me a tryout.” Freitas was invited to show his stuff at the Senators 1928 spring training in Richardson Springs.
During the spring camp in Butte County, Tony worked out with the Senators. They signed him then sent him out to pitch for Phoenix in the Arizona League. When that campaign was over, he returned to California and capped the season by pitching in the Sacramento Valley League championship series. After Colusa evened the series with Freitas on the hill in Game Two, Oroville took the next two games and the championship. Freitas’ strong showing made its way to the Senators.
In 1929, he stayed on with them until late May. But then Sacramento purchased another left hander with more experience and once again sent Freitas to the Arizona League, this time to pitch for Globe.
Finally, in 1930 he made the Senators club as a full-time starter. On June 10th the first organized baseball game ever played under the lights was held in Sacramento at the Senators’ home ballpark, Moreing Field. “How was it pitching in that game, Tony. Did the lights bother you on the mound?”
He put his fork and knife down on the plate. “Mac, you got your facts screwed up. I never pitched in that game. Didn’t play in it, neither. I pitched the next night.” McDonald scratched out that factoid and reassessed the southpaw’s baseball history.
“So, you pitched the next night, June 11. How’d you do?”
“Terrible. Came into the game undefeated for the season at 9-0. In the eighth inning, I go out there with a 9-5 lead. Oakland scores four runs, ties the game. Then in the ninth, I give up one more. Oaks win 10-9. And don’t blame the damn lights!”
On May 5, 1932—his third season as a front line PCL starter—Freitas got revenge against the Oaks. He celebrated his 24th birthday by pitching a no-hitter against Oakland. That performance no doubt drew the attention of Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack. Two weeks later Philadelphia traded for Freitas. The Portugee Portsider from Mill Valley had earned his way to baseball’s Promised Land.
“That was the two-time World Series champion Athletics,” Mac stated.
“That’s right. I played with guys like Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx and Jimmy Dykes,” Freitas said, ticking off the stars. He could have kept going, but his coffee was getting cold. He signaled the waiter for a refill.
“How much you sign for?” McDonald asked.
“Forty dollars shy of four thousand,” Freitas replied with a broad smile.
His first major league appearance came on June 4, 1932 at home against the New York Yankees. He walked the first two batters. Nerves may have played a role. Because the next hitter was the Living Legend. “I’m staring at the great Babe Ruth,” Freitas remembered. “I just stood there, dumbfounded.” Tony got two quick strikes on the Bambino, then got him to chase a wide-sweeping curve ball. “Here I am, just a rookie, and the fans started applauding,” he said, the moment still crystal clear in his memory. “(Ruth) tipped his hat and joined right in the with the applause!”
Freitas came down to earth rather quickly after pitching to Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and the other Yankees sluggers. New York scored five runs in that first inning and eventually won 7-5. And Ruth? “Yeah, he hit one off of me that next at-bat,” Freitas admitted. A badge of honor.
“Yeah,” Mac said, “but you got him the first time.”
While Freitas was mowing down the Angels in this final regular season game of 1942, Mac aggregated his PCL record since returning to Sacramento in 1937. Over the past six years, he’d posted a 133 and 88 record, winning more than 20 games each season. Combined with the two full seasons he pitched for the Senators in 1930-31, plus the two partial seasons 1929 and 1932, Freitas’ total PCL record to date stood at 179-116. Mac revealed these figures to Freitas. “Aren’t many with better records in the ‘the third major league,’” Mac said, alluding to the PCL.
Tony affirmed with a shrug and an eye-roll while chewing his steak. Rodeo riders had an easier time bringing down a steer. “Tough steak, Tony?” Another eye roll. When he swallowed the meat, he immediately grabbed for the coffee cup to wash it down.
“Records are nice an’ all. But right now you know what I’d like?” Mac’s head shake prompted the retort. “I’d like to sit down to a big bowl of them sopas,” he said pronouncing the Portuguese food as soupas.
“Yep. I missed the festa this year, damnit. You know the one down in the Pocket, the Riverside festa? That’s my favorite. Oh, they make ‘em good down there.” He slid his plate away, imagining a platter of sopas (beef marinated overnight, served with the broth poured over French bread). It seemed to warm his imagination.
“Ya got what ya need?” Tony asked. “’Cause I’m pooped and can’t wait to crawl in bed.” He worked his toothpick, trying to pry a sliver of meat. Then he chuckled.
“Speaking of Portuguese…” he tossed the toothpick on the plate. “… I’m reminded of the time Kettle Wirts, ya know the catcher, back in ’30 or ’31, he urged me to get the ball over the plate. Ninth inning, Senators leading 2-1, and I got a man on first base. So, he calls out to the mound, in Portuguese he yells, Jogue a bola sobre o prato, caramba.”
“What does that mean?”
“‘Throw the damn ball over the plate!’ It busted me up so bad I had to step off the rubber, ‘cause I didn’t know Kettle spoke Portuguese. So, once I gathered myself, I threw the ball over, we got out of the jam and won the game.” He chuckled again. “Ol’ Kettle. Real name ‘Elwood Vernon Wirts’.” He pronounced the full name slowly, like a high school principal calling the next graduate to come up on stage.
“Why ‘Kettle’?” McDonald asked.
“Have no idea. Wirts came along well before my time.”
Freitas rose from the table, glanced at the bill and without a second thought, snatched it in his left hand.
“Tony, hey! It was my invite. My treat. C’mon.”
As he reached for his billfold in his back pocket, he cooed, “Save your money, Mac. You’re gonna need it, my friend.”
They walked toward the cash register and suddenly Tony turned toward the sports writer, eyes sparkling. “Here’s a nice red bow for your story, Mac.” He nodded and Freitas continued. “Wirts played for the Chicago Cubs in the early 1920s. You know who else played on those teams?” Freitas didn’t wait for the answer. “Jigger Statz.”
McDonald harrumphed with the That a fact expression. “The Angels’ manager, who’s probably three sheets to the wind ‘bout now.”
Freitas acknowledged with a quick tilt of his head. “Jigger had one helluva career, boy. Ya know, I hear he’s cashing in. Retiring.”
“Heard the same up in the ‘box today.”
When they reached the register, Tony handed over the bill to the cashier and laid a $10 bill on top. “Yep,” Freitas exhaleded, “they’ll be talking about Jigger Statz for years to come.”
The cashier passed over the change as Mac held the door open. Cool air from outside signaled the autumnal equinox was just days away. When the Portugee Portsider walked through Mac said, “And they’ll be talking about Tony Freitas for all-time.”
Tony chuckled to himself and shook his head, admitting discomfort over the compliment. He patted the big sportswriter on the shoulder as they turned up the street. “Good ol’ Mac.”
Following the 1942 pennant race, the Solons gained admission and lost to Seattle in the Presidents Cup playoffs, thereby ending their season. A few weeks later Freitas began a three-year stint in the U.S. military serving in World War II. In 1946 he returned to the PCL and pitched four more seasons for the Solons and four more in the lower minor leagues. He retired after 1953 with a record of 348-243, the most wins by a left-handed pitcher in minor league baseball history.
© Rick Cabral, 2019