Some stories are too good to be true (yes, I’m talking about you, Frenchy Bordagaray)

I recently found at the Sacramento Public Library a delightful book called “Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes: One Fan’s Search for the Game’s Most Interesting Overlooked Players.”  It’s a combination of oral history from interviews and research by Tony Salin, who earned a living as a San Francisco cab driver and had a passion for baseball.  He died in 2001, just two years after the book was published, at age 49.

A hidden treasure in Salin’s book is an appendix called “Can You Say Yde? Baseball Player Pronunciation Guide,” which lists the proper pronunciations for more than 200 players through history.  (By the way, 1920s pitcher Emil Yde pronounced his last name “EE-dee.”)

Frenchy mustacheMy favorite chapter in the book (in part because it’s clear how much fun Salin had writing it) was an interview with Frenchy Bordagaray, whose fame exceeded his playing accomplishments in the 1930s and 1940s.  He’s remembered as an outstanding pinch-hitter (going 20-for-43 in that role for the Cardinals in 1938), as the first baseball player in the 20th century to wear a mustache, and as a zany character.

The story of how Salin interviewed him is almost as much fun as the interview itself.  He was driving back to San Francisco from Los Angeles in January 1996 and stopped to eat in Ventura, when he remembered Bordagaray lived there (he’d already done some research about Frenchy but hadn’t contacted him yet).  He looked in the phone book, found Frenchy listed, called him and was invited to his home.  Frenchy and his wife Vicki then spent quite some time chatting with Salin, and the edited transcript serves as the content for most of the chapter.

Frenchy was 86 years old at the time (he lived to be 90) but was still quite the storyteller, as was Vicki.  Here’s one of the stories they told:

VICKI:  There was a time under Casey Stengel, this was in the early ’30s, what was it, you were at second base and you were supposed to slide into third base, but you didn’t.  Casey said, “I’m gonna fine you 50 bucks for that.”  And the next day he hit a home run and, to show Casey up, he slid into first base, second base, third base, and home plate, and Casey said, “It’s gonna cost you another 100 bucks for showing me up.”

FRENCHY:  It happened when I was in Brooklyn.  Playing against the Giants.  Imagine.  Playing the Giants.  They were our worst enemies.  It was in all the papers.

Well, when I see that it’s like a bull seeing somebody wave a red flag.  Did this REALLY happen?  In the spirit of the “Tracers” from the Bill James Baseball Books, his post-Abstract publications of the early 1990s, I decided to find out.

First of all, this is an oft-told Bordagaray tale.  Here’s the version that appears in Bob McGee’s book “The Greatest Ballpark Ever: Ebbets Field and the Story of the Brooklyn Dodgers”:

One time Bordagaray went into home plate standing up and was tagged out; when Stengel asked him why he didn’t slide, he said he had some cigars in his back pocket.  Stengel fined him $100 for that.  The next day Bordagaray hit a ball over the fence, and circled the diamond by sliding into every base, including home plate.  Stengel, who once told him, “There’ll only be one clown on this club, and that’ll be me,” fined him another hundred.

The story is told in even more specific detail in a book called “Too Young To Fight” by Ray Slyman.  In the book this story is being told by an old ballplayer, but because of the limited nature of the preview available in Google Books (where I found this excerpt), I don’t know for sure by whom (if you have access to the book, please let me know!).

Tony Cuccinello lined a single to left which Jo Jo Moore fielded, and before Frenchy had even reached third, Moore, who had a cannon for an arm, had already fired the ball home.  But, Stengel, coaching third, waved Bordagary in anyway.

So Frenchy starts for home, but when he’s halfway down the line, Harry Danning, the Giant catcher, was standing at the plate waiting for him, and then simply walks up the 3rd base line to make the tag.  But Casey was running down the line, right behind Bordagaray, and after he’s tagged, yells, “THAT’LL COST YOU $50 FOR NOT SLIDING!”

So Frenchy retorts to Stengel, “WHY DON’T YOU FINE YOURSELF $50 FOR LOUSY COACHING?”  Then Stengel hollers, “AND THAT’LL COST YOU $100 MORE!”

So with the game still tied in the 12th, Bordagaray homers into the left field stands.  He then trots to first, and slides in, and then down to second with a beautiful hook slide.  Now Stengel has left the coaching box, to chase him around the bases.  By the time Bordagaray is headed for third, where he goes in with another hook slide, Stengel is now right behind him.  Then finally, Bordagaray slides head first into home plate.  But before he could get up, Stengel was right over him, shouting, “AND THAT’LL COST YOU ANOTHER HUNDRED, FOR SHOWING ME UP!”

There’s a level of detail here that lends credence to the story…but on the other hand, the account of Stengel leaving the coaching box to run the bases with Frenchy seems to brand it as a tall tale.  And we’ve seen significant differences in the incident that took place before the home run in all three accounts.

Frenchy autograph(Stengel may include his own account of the sliding home run in his 1962 autobiography, “Casey At The Bat,” but I don’t have a copy of it to check.  If you do, please let me know.)

Lucky for me, there’s a tool that makes it easy for me to check the veracity of this tale…the Society for American Baseball Research list of every major league home run ever hit, with date, opposing team, opposing pitcher, inning, and men on base.  Baseball-Reference.com licenses the information to include on its web site, so as a result we have a very handy list of all 14 home runs Bordagaray hit in his major league career.  That’s right, only 14, so this should be easy to check.

To make it even easier, Bordagaray played only two seasons for Stengel, in 1935 and ’36, and in those two seasons he hit a total of five home runs.

Date @Bat Pitcher Inn
1935-09-17 (2) BRO @ STL Ed Heusser t 5
Date @Bat Pitcher Inn
1936-05-28 BRO @ PHI Syl Johnson t 3
1936-06-06 BRO @ CHC Tex Carleton t 1
1936-08-26 BRO @ PIT Bill Swift t 4
1936-09-10 BRO PIT Bill Swift b 5
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/2/2009.

You’ll notice none of Frenchy’s home runs for Stengel came against the Giants (although he hit four against the Giants when he returned to Brooklyn and played for Leo Durocher during World War II).  Furthermore, none of his 14 major league home runs came in extra innings.

So, let’s do this…let’s go to the New York Times archives to see what they say about Frenchy’s home runs in the Stengel era.  Maybe he just got the opponent wrong (after all, he was 86 years old), but the sliding home run had to happen, it was in all the papers.

Here’s Roscoe McGowen’s account of Bordagaray’s first home run, September 17, 1935, in the second game of a doubleheader at St. Louis:

Bordagaray hit a home run inside the park off Heusser in the fifth with two on, a drive that sailed over [Cardinal center fielder Ernie] Orsatti’s head.

Later in the game account, McGowen noted, “All the Dodgers wore mourning bands on their left sleeves in tribute to their lost team-mate, Len Koenecke.”  Koenecke had been sent home for the season the day before, amid speculation he would not be asked to return to the team, and died in a bizarre incident in a plane he had chartered to take him to Buffalo. (ADDED 7/29/16: Jason Turbow has more about Koenecke’s death here.)

On to Frenchy’s next home run, May 28, 1936, at Philadelphia, again told by McGowen:

Bordagaray had a grand time at bat and afield [in the Dodgers’ 13-10 victory].  His first three blows were a double, a homer and another double, and he drove in a run in the sixth with a long fly to center.

The next homer for Frenchy would be June 6 at Chicago.  Here’s McGowen’s lede on the game story:

Frenchy Bordagaray did two extraordinary things today.  In the first inning he hit a home run over the right-field gate and laughed his way around the bases.  In the sixth inning he fell flat on his back as he was about to catch Frank Demaree’s fly to short center and the 6,000 fans burst into raucous laughter.

The mirth continued as the Cubs went on to score six runs and eventually to hand Professor Stengel’s traveling circus its second straight defeat, 10-4 . . .

Frenchy’s home run came as the game’s first batter, but McGowen doesn’t offer any details about his laughter, and for all we know may have just included it for rhetorical effect to balance the fans’ laughter and his ensuing misplay.

Home run number four came August 26 at Pittsburgh:

Bill Swift hooked up in an early duel with Ed Brandt and retired the first eleven men in order.  Then Frenchy Bordagaray, substitute third sacker, drove a 400-foot homer over the left field wall.

Bordagaray would finish that game in right field after rookie Eddie Wilson was hit “high on the right side of the head” by a pitch thrown by relief pitcher Mace Brown in the fifth inning.  Wilson suffered a fractured skull and was unconscious for ten minutes.  “For a moment it was thought from the sharp cracking sound that the ball had hit Eddie’s bat,” McGowen wrote.  Teammate Max Butcher carried Wilson off the field and took him to the clubhouse, where he regained consciousness and was taken to a hospital.  Wilson was batting .347 at the time.  The rest of his major league career would consist of 54 at-bats with the Dodgers in 1937, in which he hit .222, although he would continue to play in the minor leagues through 1941.

On now to Frenchy’s final home run as a Stengelite, September 10 at Ebbets Field against the Pirates.  McGowen’s account was brief and to the point:

Frenchy Bordagaray struck a very emphatic home run into the left field stands [in the fifth inning] for his hundredth hit of the year.

The Dodger-Pirate game came after a sort of “turn back the clock” game between the “Brooklyn Atlantics” and the “Pittsburgh Alleghenies,” with players dressed in 1876-style uniforms as part of the celebration of the National League’s 60th birthday.

Picture 1

(The Times reported the injured player shown in this photo wasn’t actually hurt but was part of the show.)

A number of former players were at Ebbets Field to join in the celebration…McGowen reported that former Dodger outfielder Zack Wheat “received the warmest ovation,” with other former stars on hand including Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Burleigh Grimes.

Well, that’s it…we’ve examined all of Frenchy’s home runs while he played for Stengel, and if the sliding home run was in all the papers, apparently the Times missed it.  Which leads to the more interesting question:  who started this story, when, and why?  I guess the “why” is reasonably obvious…it’s a funny story, and it sounds like the kind of thing two funny guys like Bordagaray and Stengel would be part of.

At any rate, your takeaway lesson from this is:  never take a story from an old ballplayer to be the literal truth.  Although sometimes they are.

In his interview with Tony Salin, Bordagaray went on to explain the derivation of his nickname:

FRENCHY:  I had five brothers and we were all called Frenchy.  But I’m not a Frenchman.  I’m a Basque.  Nobody ever got that right.

VICKI:  You can quote me.  When I’m mad at him I call him “a son of a Basque.”

FRENCHY:  My father came to this country when he was 15 years old.

VICKI:  His father was a sheepherder.

FRENCHY:  He said he cried every night his first year over here.  My mother was born in Merced [California].  She was French.  The Basque people speak three languages:  Spanish, French, and English.

VICKI:  And Basque.

FRENCHY:  And Basque, yeah.  It’s a tough language to learn.  There’s 1,500 Japanese words in the Basque languge.  But we’re not Asian.  The Basque live between France and Spain in the Pyrenees Mountains.  But they don’t know where they came from.

VICKI:  They think they came from Atlantis.

If you ever get a chance to grab a copy of “Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes,” do it.  There’s also interesting material from interviews with minor league stars Joe Hauser, Joe Bauman and Tony Freitas, and a chapter I found very interesting about Dave Roberts, the first man by that name who played in the majors, getting brief shots with Houston and Pittsburgh in the ’60s before going on to be a slugging star in Japan.  Salin would later self-publish Roberts’ autobiography, which he co-wrote, called “A Baseball Odyssey.”  I’d love to find it someday.  (I see used copies on Amazon for $95!)

One final note before we leave the subject of Frenchy Bordagaray:  he is mentioned in the greatest baseball song of all time, “Van Lingle Mungo” by David Frishberg (better known, perhaps, for writing “Peel Me a Grape” and Schoolhouse Rock’s “Just A Bill”), in which the lyrics consist entirely of the names of ballplayers from the ’30s and ’40s (with the occasional “and” to fit the meter).

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5 thoughts on “Some stories are too good to be true (yes, I’m talking about you, Frenchy Bordagaray)

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