Athletes today are bigger, leaner, faster and stronger than ever before. In Major League Baseball, that may not have been the case if it weren’t for three icons of Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions.
Fredrick “Fritz” Hagerman, his spouse Marge Hagerman and Larry Starr are each renowned in different ways for their careers and contributions to health sciences. What is not as well-known is the incredible impact they had on the game of baseball as they introduced groundbreaking concepts into the game that every team continues to employ today.
Starr is a member of athletic training halls of fame in both Florida and Ohio as well as the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Hall of Fame. He is also a recipient of Ohio University’s Alumni Medal of Merit Award. Fritz Hagerman founded the exercise physiology program at OHIO and was a consultant for the U.S. National Rowing team for more than 40 years, through eight World Olympic Games and dozens of world rowing championships. Prior to his death in 2013, he was granted U.S. Rowing’s Jack Kelly award which recognizes those who serve as an inspiration to American rowers through superior achievements in rowing, service to amateur athletics and success in a chosen profession. Marge Hagerman is an innovator in the fields of nutrition and dietetics. She is a former didactic program director for the dietetic program at OHIO and provided the vision and leadership that helped create the success enjoyed by the program today.
In addition to their individual achievements, Starr and the Hagermans worked together to create a legacy of athletic achievement at peak levels through health sciences.
A shooting “Starr”
Starr took classes under Fritz Hagerman in graduate school and worked with him as an athletic trainer when Hagerman began physiological testing on Bobcat football players in 1968. Hagerman, according to Starr, was ahead of his time with the level of testing he was conducting.
Prior to the start of the 1972 MLB season, Starr was hired by the Cincinnati Reds as the head athletic trainer. The Reds went to the World Series that season and finished second in the division in both 1973 and 1974. From the beginning, Starr wanted to implement strength training and Hagerman’s physiological testing but the idea was not well-received from the team’s administration. At the time, scouts, managers and owners were only concerned with how well a player could run, throw and hit. Players were not organized in their workouts, they just “did their own thing,” Starr said.
Starr approached management about purchasing $15,000 worth of strength training equipment. Nearly everyone in the room shot down the idea, believing weights to be the worst thing for a baseball player.
“I told them I wasn’t trying to create bodybuilders. I was trying to improve weaknesses and create balance in muscle strength and improve flexibility and endurance,” said Starr.
General Manager Bob Howsam sided with Starr but noted the opposition in the room and warned Starr “not to screw it up.”
With the strength training program in place, the Reds went on to win the World Series in 1975 and again in 1976. The team boasted five Hall of Fame players on the club. That next offseason, Starr got a call from Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, a Heisman Trophy winner and the strength trainer of the New York Yankees — the team the Reds had just finished off in a sweep. Cassady was directed by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to find out what the Reds were doing in the weight room. Starr invited Cassady to visit the facilities and learn about the program; Cassady then took that knowledge with him back to New York. The next two seasons, 1977 and 1978, brought the Yankees World Series rings.
“For four years in a row, the only people in baseball lifting weights were winning World Series rings,” said Starr. “People started to see the need and (the program) took off from there.”
Starr explained that the strength training program wasn’t just about getting everyone on the team lifting as much weight as possible. He said baseball players needed aerobic and explosive power. Being able to generate bat speed, sprinting from base to base and jumping and diving to make a catch are more important than sheer strength.
Strength in numbers
As the strength training program progressed, Starr often talked to Fritz Hagerman — a huge baseball fan himself — for advice. Hagerman noted the success of the program but questioned whether it was individualized enough to gain maximum efficiency. The next step was to implement the physiological testing Hagerman was known for.
In 1981, a group of six Reds players were brought to Ohio University for a pilot study. Players were tested for their maximum rate of oxygen consumption (VO2), body fat percentage and overall strength and flexibility of the shoulder, trunk and legs. Isokinetic testing for muscular endurance and a modified Wingate (used by rowers for anaerobic work of the upper torso) were also included in the tests.
Starr said players would pedal on a stationary bike for one minute against a resistance based on their weight which allowed tracking of explosive power and endurance. The results from all the testing allowed for individualized training recommendations. In 1982, Hagerman introduced the testing at the Reds’ spring training.
There were still players who weren’t keen on the testing and training, however.
“I didn’t tell a player that if they did all this, they’d be a better player. I can’t guarantee that,” said Starr. “Fritz and I used to tell them that if they liked to play baseball and make money and wanted to do this longer, conditioning at the level we think they need will let them maintain the level of performance they want throughout the season and from season to season.”
Pretty soon, calls from other organizations came in wanting to know more about this physiological testing.
Adding to the team
After a couple of spring training seasons, Hagerman approached Starr about adding a new element to the programs.
“Fritz said, ‘You know, I come as a team.’ I was thinking he wanted to bring in more exercise physiologists. He said, ‘My team is me and Marge,’” Starr remembered. “Marge was a wonderful woman and I was all for it. Tobacco was still being used a lot in the game back then and we didn’t talk about nutrition in baseball. It was a logical transition to bring Marge in and she was tremendous.”
Marge Hagerman did not criticize players’ food choices nor did she force anyone to meet with her. Starr said her demeanor was endearing and welcoming for the players.
“I thought I’d have to coax players to meet with her,” he said. “Instead, we had to make reservations because she was so booked.”
“Some of them weren’t 100 percent on board but they were willing to meet and I didn’t have a problem with that,” said Marge Hagerman. “They’d never done this before. I just listened mostly, talked when it was important and laid out a path for why they were there. When they understood what was involved, they were pretty much all on board.”
Without revealing the name of the player, Starr said a pitcher for the Reds credits Marge Hagerman with saving his life. Star said the player would consistently lose between 16-20 pounds during the season. Working with Hagerman, they found that almost 60 percent of his diet was alcohol.
“Marge sat down with him and showed him what he needed to do to change his body. He did, and when I talk to him this day, he still says he can’t thank Marge enough,” said Starr.
Another pitcher Marge Hagerman worked with was able to increase his health and endurance by lowering his body fat percentage from 19 percent to 12. That following season, he pitched a perfect game.
Fritz and Marge Hagerman were not paid by the Reds, they acted as consultants and were enthralled by the work.
“We were just doing it because we liked it and it needed to be done,” said Marge Hagerman. “Some of the food the team was serving players … they just didn’t know what was right for an athlete’s body. Some of the players didn’t know proper nutrition either. They just had a talent so here they were. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just different then.”
During that time, Marge Hagerman wrote a booklet titled “Behind Home Plate” that contained information for players on how to shop for groceries, prepare meals and eat healthy. She was asked to speak at several professional baseball teams’ spring trainings and became the go-to source for nutrition in baseball.
In 1990, the Reds won another World Series.
From the Reds’ machine to magic with the Marlins
Prior to the 1993 season, the Florida Marlins were created as an expansion team in the MLB. Starr became the team’s charter head athletic trainer and the Hagermans followed.
Dave Dombrowski, now the president of operations for the Boston Red Sox, was the general manager for the Marlins at the time.
“Larry was already regarded as one of the top athletic trainers in the game of baseball at that point. His record spoke for itself,” said Dombrowski. “He brought us cutting edge philosophies and thought processes and was right on top of everything. We take for granted now what he, Marge and Fritz were doing then.”
Dombrowski said the success of Starr and the Hagermans in Florida came from their ability to communicate and understand players.
“They wanted to make it work but they knew if they pushed too much, there’d be resistance. They handled it in a very fine fashion,” he said.
Just four years into their existence as a team, the Marlins won the World Series in 1997. Starr pushed for the Hagermans to receive rings in honor of the achievement. When the season opened in 1998, the team was presented with the rings. Starr surprised the Hagermans at a restaurant in Athens by showing up unannounced and delivering one for each for them. It was the first one for Marge Hagerman.
“We all thought Fritz would get one. He had from Cincinnati but I didn’t think about whether I would,” said Marge Hagerman. “I was overwhelmed. It was very special.”
“It’s hard to measure those contributions but there was no question that they helped us win that season,” said Dombrowski. “They were a very important part of what we were able to accomplish.”
“I don’t think there’s any question that Fritz and Marge were ahead of their time,” said Starr. “They were pioneers in professional baseball. Just look at sports science and nutrition now. There isn’t a professional baseball team or Division I football program in the country that doesn’t have at least one sports nutritionist on their staff.”
“(The Hagermans) talked about how lucky they were to be involved in baseball. Baseball was lucky to have them,” Starr added.
Starr, Marge and Fritz Hagerman created a standard for health science in sports that has impacted all of Major League Baseball and beyond.
“There’s no question about it,” said Dombrowski. “I don’t think many people know that it started with them but I think right now you’d be safe to say that all organizations have some type of program that is based on what they started.”