SABR

Charlie French

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Charlie French led off for the White Sox in the very first game played at the original Comiskey Park, on July 1, 1910. He played in 105 games for two Sox teams, Boston and Chicago, in 1909 and 1910, and then returned back to the minor leagues.

French’s family background was England, not France. His father, Calvin French, was a day laborer in Indianapolis at the time of the 1900 census. Calvin and his wife Kitty Ann (Hutchinson) French raised two children, George and Charles Calvin French. Charlie was born on October 12, 1883 in Indianapolis. In 1900, though still a teenager, he was working as a blacksmith. All four of Charlie’s grandparents were also native Hoosiers.1

Charlie attended school for seven years, and did not attend high school. He played for semipro teams in Indianapolis as early as 1904 for a team called the Indianapolis Reserves, and then for Martinsville in 1905.2 He first began playing professionally that same year, 1905, for the Henderson Hens, a team from Kentucky in the Kitty League (the league was not named after French’s mother, but was an abbreviation of the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League.) Both the Henderson and Hopkinsville Browns teams disbanded on July 18, Henderson actually expelled beforehand due to being over $500 in debt, leaving players threatening to sue.3

The league as a whole – now reduced to four teams - suspended play on August 17, due to a yellow fever epidemic.4

When play resumed the next year, with two new teams, French played for the 1906 Vincennes (Indiana) Alices (he’d joined the team after Henderson’s expulsion, but does not appear in available league statistics.) Largely thanks to the pitching of 25-game winner Hub Perdue and 14-6 Bill Chenault, the Class D Vincennes team won the 1906 pennant. French had played in 44 games, batting .208.

He was an infielder, a left-handed hitter, and a small man – he stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 140 pounds. At least one article, while he was with the Red Sox, dubbed him a “nervy midget.”5 He wasn’t around to enjoy the Vincennes pennant, however. During the season, he’d been traded to Evansville, in the Class B Central League. There was some disagreement between him and league president Clifton Gosnell, either prompted by or resulting in French jumping his contract and returning home to Indianapolis. Vincennes rectified by the rift by sending French to Evansville for first baseman Quigley.6 French played second base for the Evansville River Rats, appearing in 79 games and batting .175. On September 30, he married Florence Ethel Thomas. The couple had three children; Florence, Richard, and Donald.

French played for two teams in 1907, Evansville and then – on option from Evansville – the Clinton Infants in the Three-I League. Both were Class B leagues but there was some arrangement between the two which resulted in Evansville recalling French from Clinton at the end of the season, as reported in the September 7 issue of Sporting Life. For Clinton, he played in 69 games and is credited with a .272 batting average; for Evansville, it had been .222 in 31 games.

He enjoyed a true breakout season in 1908, batting .339 for Evansville in a full 140 games. The River Rats won the pennant under player-manager Charles “Punch” Knoll, and French led the league in average and in base hits, with 170. Knoll’s 12 homers led the league. Pitcher Charles Wacker’s 27-8 season led in wins and winning percentage. It’s not surprising that French was considered the star second baseman in the league or rated a “sure comer” (August 15 Sporting Life), or that he was drafted on September 1 by the Boston Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft and asked to report for major-league ball in 1909.

Manager Fred Lake looked forward to having French on the 1909 team, noting that he had a .961 fielding percentage for Evansville on poorer-quality minor-league fields.7 Even before players reported to Hot Springs for preparation, the Indianapolis ballclub was making a strong pitch to entice the Red Sox to give him up. The Sox weren’t biting.8 He made the team, a middle infield backup to Amby McConnell at second base and Heinie Wagner at short. As it happens, all three men hit about the same – French was .251, while McConnell was .238 and Wagner .256 – but the others proved to be better defensively than French. French had his chances, however, particularly after McConnell suffered a serious injury, thought to be a fractured rib. May 23 was his debut game. He led off but was 0-for-4. French appeared in 51 games. He drove in 13 runs and scored 15, but was left at home when the Sox set out on an 18-game road trip in mid-August. When the team returned, he was back on board and did play shortstop in the final three games of the season. On the final day, he was 4-for-9 in a doubleheader against the New York Highlanders. He also played in a best-of-season postseason series against the New York Giants. It was not the World Series; the Red Sox had finished in third place but teams in this era sometimes played a few extra games to try to rake in a little more money.

French returned to Hot Springs in February 1910. He only played in nine games for new manager Patsy Donovan before being sold on May 19 to the Chicago White Sox. Chicago manager Hugh Duffy intended to play him some in the outfield, where his team had a need. He played in 45 games for the White Sox, 16 of them in the outfield, and hit for a .165 average. He drove in four, but scored 17 runs, in part reflecting his leadoff position. His big day came on June 8, when he had the opportunity to pin one on his former teammates. It was a 5-4 win in 12 innings, and French led off and played right field. Though he wasn’t involved in the tie-breaking run, he reached first base four times in succession (twice on hits and twice on Boston errors.) His “daring baserunning was all that kept the White Sox in the game, wrote the Chicago Tribune. “Three times he circled the bags and scored with little aid except his own nerve, and the other time he got as far as third base on it.”9

The Red Sox traded Amby McConnell to the White Sox on August 9, and White Sox manager Hugh Duffy played McConnell in preference to French. It was the second year in a row, for two different Sox teams, that McConnell had edged French aside.

French’s last game for the White Sox was on September 13. Both he and Chick Gandil were sold to Montreal by Comiskey for $3,000, but both refused to report. A case they brought seeking their full major-league pay for the season – the deal having been within ten days of the end of the minor-league season – may have won them some extra cash, but the National Commission ruled that his failure to report rendered their claim null and void.10

French did report in 1911 to Montreal and played in 112 Eastern League games, batting .245. He was the lead man on a triple steal in the May 24 game against Providence.

Montreal had French for 15 games early in 1912, and he hit .186, but he was sent to Denver and something clicked once more even though the Western League was similarly Class A: French his .289 in 97 games. In 1913, he stuck with Denver for the full season (which he kicked off with a 5-for-5 opening day) and hit .303, though only played in 58 games due to an injury reported as a broken leg at one point and, if nothing else, a badly-injured ankle.

In 1914, he began the year with Denver but after 23 games played the rest of the season (he got into 57 games) with Salt Lake City. (He’d actually had his contract sold to Des Moines, but Des Moines moved him on to Salt Lake.) He’d hit .274 for Denver, but .312 for Salt Lake – which was in the Class D Union Association. The league itself disbanded on August 5, but Salt Lake and Ogden chose to play 16 games against each other in order to complete the year. Then they had a best of seven playoff series, which Ogden won, four games to two.

Though signed for 1915 by Salt Lake, he chose instead to play for the Albuquerque Dukes.11 An amusing incident occurred at the June 27 game when the game against El Paso was suspended during the fourth inning and the gate receipts attached by the sheriff. The El Paso players said they weren’t going to play if they weren’t going to get paid, their manager further saying that since only four innings had been played, it wasn’t an official game yet and there’d be nothing to attach since the paying customers had a right to reclaim their money. There had been a tag day in town, and that money was used to pay off the El Paso players. The game resumed. Come the bottom of the ninth, the Dukes were down 8-4. French came up with two men on and drove them both in. He was on second base when a little infield hit was bobbled; the runner was called safe by umpire Quigley, whose back was turned to call the play and thus never saw quite how French made it home so quickly. Whether he actually traveled by way of third base was not something the Albuquerque fans were likely to have gotten worked up about. The run counted, but the Dukes came up one run short.12

In 1916, he’s said to have signed with Terre Haute.13 He hit .277 in 31 games.

He was out of baseball in 1917, though not in military service. In 1918, he finally played in Indianapolis – but only got into seven games. He hit .143 in 28 at-bats. He is listed as hitting .185 for the Beaumont, Texas team in 1919 and as the manager of the 1920 Lafayette Hubs of the Louisiana State League.

Most of what he seems to have done is roast coffee. For 35 years, he was employed as a coffee roaster for the Kothe-Wells Bauer Company in Indianapolis – though he had held some other jobs. In 1910, he’d worked as a bookkeeper in a brewery during the offseason. In 1920, he worked as a substation examiner for an oil company, and in 1940 he worked as a clerk for Standard Oil (while Florence was a stenographer for a lawyer.) But he roasted coffee at the time of his registration for the draft in 1918, and at the time of the census in 1930. KoWeBa (Kothe-Wells Bauer) was the company listed on his death certificate.

French died in his native Indianapolis on March 30, 1962, of coronary occlusion.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed French’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 The 1900 census says Charlie French was born in October 1882, not 1883, but when he registered for the draft at the time of the first world war, French said he’d been born in 1884. French’s mother was Catherine Ann, Kitty being her nickname.

2 Evansville Journal-News, June 23, 1906.

3 Sporting Life, July 29, 1905.

4 Pete Cava, Encyclopedia of Indiana-born Major Leaguers (forthcoming) and Sporting Life, September 2, 1905. The Cotton States League also suspended its season, and a number of games in the Southern League were canceled.

5 Unattributed clipping from French’s scrapbook, a copy of which scrapbook is in French’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

6 Sporting Life, July 14, 1906.

7 Boston Globe, January 12, 1909.

8 Boston Globe, February 1, 1909.

9 Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1910.

10 New York Times, April 22, 1911.

11 Albuquerque Journal, April 21 and June 28, 1915.

12 Albuquerque Journal, June 28, 1915.

13 Salt Lake Telegram, March 5, 1916.

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