John Edmund Frill was a former artillery construction worker for the US Army around the time of the Spanish-American War who later worked his way up from the low minors all the way to the New York Highlanders.
The third child born to Charles and Rosa Geisler Frill, John Frill was born on 3 April 1879. John – like his father – would serve a stint in the U.S. Army. His dad was a private in the late stages of the Civil War; John registered with the Army in 1901 during the time of the Spanish-American War and reenlisted in 1905. Originally a tin smith, his time in the army was spent working in artillery construction.
This explains his late start in professional baseball – though one wonders if he hadn’t played some growing up in Reading, PA or with fellow soldiers in camp. Out of the Army, he first signs to pitch for Springfield and Bridgeport in the Connecticut State League. Showing a modicum of ability, Frill next pitches for East Liverpool where he gains notice as a live-armed southpaw for the Potters. He is courted by at least two major league teams but is eventually sold to Newark in the Eastern League.
He had success there, winning 13 games in 1908 and then 16 games in 1909 as the number two man in the rotation behind Joe McGinnity. His fine work gets him noticed by Kid Elberfeld, who was now managing the New York Highlanders. He didn’t make the team in 1909, but he was brought up to the majors with George Stallings after a solid spring training in 1910. However he was unsteady – and he was 31 years old as a rookie. Sent down to Jersey City in the Eastern League, he had decent seasons there in 1911 and 1912, leading to his being signed twice – once by the St. Louis Browns, and a second time by the Cincinnati Reds.
Frill didn’t thrill there – he would return to Buffalo in the International League. After bouncing around for a couple more seasons, he and his wife Hannah Francis would give up baseball and live, instead, near the in-laws in Westerly, Rhode Island. By 1918, Frill was working as a wine clerk at a saloon when, as a former army private, he filled out his draft card for World War I. That was September 12th. Sixteen days later he was dead – a victim of influenza – at just 39 years old.
Among the odds and ends I saw in looking up information about him – he got the nickname Big John, though he was just 5′ 9-1/2″ tall and didn’t weigh much more than 170 pounds. And, he was also called “Honest John” – he once received an envelope with money in it that was intended for another person in East Liverpool. Rather than keeping it, he took out an advertisement in a local paper and found the proper owner. Another article claimed that he may have received $50,000 as part of the will from a dead uncle.
“A Few Minutes Among the Base Ball Players”, East Liverpool Evening Review, 14 September 1907, Page 12.
“Pitcher John Frill Goes Higher Up”, East Liverpool Evening Review, 21 August 1908, Page 13.
“Honest, Unlucky John Frill Sees Turning of Lane”, East Liverpool Evening Review, 19 September 1908, Page 5.
“Big John Frill Leaves Majors For Eastern”, East Liverpool Evening Review, 19 July 1910.
Family record on Ancestry.com – Father was Civil War Vet, and Private, Charles Edmond Frill (1846-1933) – obit says he was a lifelong employee of the Reading Company and his wife died many years earlier.
1918 Draft Card says that in 1918 he was a wine clerk at Walton’s Saloon in Westerly, RI, married to a Hannah Francis Frill and living at 74 Main, Westerly. Tall, black hair, blue eyes. Registered on 9/12/18 and 16 days later he was dead.
US Army Registrations – 1901, 1905