Jim French

This article was written by Paul Hofmann

Jim French was a backup catcher for the Washington Senators whose path to the major leagues took him from the fields of rural northeast Ohio to the nation’s Capital on the banks of the Potomac River. His journey to the major leagues and career with the Senators provided more than the opportunity to play baseball at the highest level, it also opened numerous doors of opportunity, not only to continue his education, but also develop a valuable network of contacts that prepared him for a long and diverse professional career after baseball.

Richard James “Jim” French was born on August 13, 1941 in Warren, Ohio. He was the first of three children and the only son born to James Edward and Marian (Ukkonen) French. The couple owned a 98-acre dairy farm outside of Warren in Ashtabula County in northeastern Ohio and raised Holstein cows. Marian and an uncle ran the farm while the elder James worked as a sheet metal worker in Greenville, Pennsylvania, a small town just across the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Over the years the family bought additional property and the farm expanded to 250 acres.

Jim learned both the game of baseball and the value of hard work on the farm. French recalled helping his grandfather Stub Stiles, a well-known political figure in Ashtabula County, pull weeds in the fields as a youngster. Stub, an excellent semi-pro catcher himself, shared with his grandson that he had two dreams for him. He hoped he would become both a Major League catcher and a lawyer. Soon after this conversation, French’s grandfather and father took him to a store and bought him a complete set of catcher’s equipment.

Growing up in northeast Ohio, Jim was a big fan of the Cleveland Indians. Reminiscing about his childhood allegiance to the Tribe he recalled listening to Jim Dudley. “[He] was the announcer for the Indians growing up and I used to listen to the Indians all the time.” Indians’ catcher Jim Hegan was his favorite player.

Warren did not have a Little League program of its own. When Jim got old enough to start playing baseball, he had to cross the Pennsylvania border and play Little League baseball in Greenville. Jim’s father, a left-handed hitting semi-pro shortstop, coached the team. French later attended Williamsfield High School in Williamsfield, Ohio, a small town about 30 miles northeast of the family farm, where he played both basketball and baseball for the Williamsfield Cubs. He graduated from high school in 1959, was offered athletic and academic scholarships, as well as a part-time job, which allowed him to attend Ohio University.

French excelled both in the classroom and on the baseball field at Ohio University. He was a dean’s list mathematics major who always carried a heavy and demanding course load. During his junior year French married his girlfriend Mary, with whom he would have three children. A three-year member of the Bobcat’s varsity baseball team (freshmen were not allowed to participate in varsity athletics at that time), French began to garner some attention from Major League scouts during his senior season. The Senators and Reds both showed some interest in him. French gravitated towards the Senators.  This proved to be a wise decision given the fact that two years later the Reds drafted a promising catcher by the name of Johnny Bench.

Fresh off the campus of Ohio University with his newly minted degree in math, French signed a contract with the Washington Senators in June, 1963. The contract included an $8,000 signing bonus and a monthly salary of $500 to play the final two and-a-half months of the season with the Class A Wisconsin Rapids Senators of the Midwest League. French did well: in 73 games with the Senators, he hit a solid .286 and belted 8 home runs. 1

In 1964 French progressed to the Carolina League where he established himself as a durable every day catcher, appearing in 135 games for the Rocky Mount Senators. Besides being a mainstay behind the plate, French demonstrated he could hit high Class A pitching, compiling a .270 average with10 home runs and 64 RBI. French’s average was second highest on the team and 40 points higher than the team’s average.

This was Jim’s first experience south of the Mason-Dixon Line. French recalled being shocked to discover Jim Crow alive and well in the Carolinas in 1964. Although he had read about the discrimination African Americans endured in the South, witnessing his black teammates being forbidden to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the team opened his eyes to the realities of segregation.

French’s first cup of coffee with the big league club was served during the 1965 season. He started the season with the Senator’s York White Roses of Class AA Eastern League. In 102 games with the White Roses, 98 of which were behind the plate, French hit .256 with 6 home runs, 49 RBI. This performance earned him a promotion to the Hawaii Islanders, the Senators’ AAA Pacific Coast League affiliate. In 25 games with them, French hit .224 with 2 home runs and 14 RBI. When major league rosters expanded in September, the big club called French up.

On September 12, 1965, French made his major league debut in a Sunday matinee against the California Angels at RFK Stadium, and the game turned out to be one of the most memorable of his major league career. Facing Angels ace Dean Chance, French made his first plate appearance in the bottom of the second. With Frank Howard on third and Dick Nen on second, Chance elected to intentionally walk French to face pitcher Frank Kreutzer who struck out to end the inning. In the bottom of the fourth, with the Senators leading 1-0, French singled to center driving in Ken Hamlin to increase the lead over the Angels to 2-0. French vividly recalls the hit, not only as his first in the major leagues but because, “Jose Cardenal ‘deeked' me into trying for two and threw me out by 20 feet.” French led off the bottom of the sixth with a walk off Rudy May and stole second off the May-Buck Rodgers battery before coming around to score on Brant Aylea’s 3-run homer that stretched the Senators lead to 6-0. Following his theft of second, French remembered Angels’ shortstop Jim Fregosi coming over to the bag asking him to step off the bag so he could kick the dirt off of it. “I almost fell for it,” French said, light heartedly laughing about the play. Meanwhile, Rodgers was so infuriated with the rookie for stealing second that he “got in my face my next at bat and told me I would never steal another base against him.”2 He never did. In fact, French stole only two more bases the rest of his career. He wrapped up his afternoon with a run scoring single in the bottom of the 7th inning, finishing the day 2-for-2 with 2 walks and a pair of RBI. In a self-deprecating moment, French jokingly reminisced, “It was all downhill from there. It was probably the best game I ever had, offensively anyway.”3

On September 21, 1965, French recorded another major league first for himself. In the top of the 7th inning French hit his first major league home run off A’s right hander Jim Dickson. The solo homer extended the Senators lead to 3-1. French would later garner the game-winning RBI in the top of the 8th when he drew a bases loaded walk off Don Mossi. French appeared in 13 games for the Senators in 1965 and finished the season with a .297 batting average, one homer, and seven RBIs. Amazingly, he would never do this well in the big leagues again. In fact, he would never hit higher than .211 in subsequent seasons.

“I’ve always looked back on it and wondered why I didn’t hit better,” French said as he reflected on his career. He thought it may be due to the fact that in the minor leagues he knew he was going to play every night and seldom had an off day. “In the big leagues I was a second stringer. I believe that playing every day you would hit much better and I’m sure I would have.”4

The Senator pitchers liked the way French called games behind the plate and for his strong arm and defensive skills. Entering the spring of 1966, the organization hoped he would eventually succeed Mike Brumley. Jim spent the season shuttling back and forth between AAA and the Senators, suffering with torn cartilage in his knee. He had started the year in Hawaii and hit .268 with 3 home runs and 5 RBI before being recalled to the Senators. After going 3-for-17 with the big club, he was farmed out to Syracuse, the AAA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, on a loaned basis.5 Between the three clubs, he appeared in only 35 games during the 1966 season.

With the exception of a couple of cameo appearances with the Senators at the beginning of the year and a few at the end of the season, French spent the majority of the 1967 season with the Hawaii Islanders. In 103 games there Jim hit only .234 with 8 home runs and 27 RBI. And by this time, Paul Casanova had won the job as Senators’ top backstop.

French always had an eye on his future, life after baseball. During the off seasons he supplemented his baseball salary by working as an accountant and doing various jobs at a local bank.6 He also continued his education. In June of 1966 he was awarded an MBA from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. And the following year, he completed post graduate courses in economics at the University of Maryland.

French started the 1968 season with the Senators’ new AAA affiliate, Buffalo of the International League. In 60 games with the Bisons he compiled a .263 average, hit 11 home runs, and drove in 32 runs. This fairly solid performance earned him another call up to the parent club, which by this time was being managed by Ted Williams. Having the greatest hitter of his generation, and arguably of any generation, managing the team stirred great optimism in the Senators clubhouse. French enjoyed playing for Williams and cited conversations he had with the Hall-of-Famer as great learning experiences for him. “He and I use to argue and talk a lot on planes about pitching and of course he always had the last word, even though I thought he was wrong all the time.”7

On August 9, 1968, French hit his first major league home run in nearly three years when he touched Hall-of-Famer James “Catfish” Hunter for a solo shot in the bottom of the 7th inning. Asked if he recalled the home run, French chuckled, “When you only hit five home runs in the major leagues you remember them all.” Continuing to reflect on the moment, French recalled, “Catfish was incensed. The fans had been giving me (and the club) a hard time booing all day. As I rounded third I wanted to give the fans the finger, but instead just pumped my arm in the air to the fans. Catfish thought I was showing him up (as I learned some years later) and he drilled me the next time I faced him.”8 French appeared in 59 games for the Senators in 1968 and finished with a .194 batting average with one homer and ten RBI.

French played his first full year in the major leagues in 1969. He headed north as the Senators’ backup to Paul Casanova. He started the season slowly and didn’t climb above the Mendoza line until August 10th. From August 2-10, French hit safely in six straight games going 9-for-21 with three RBI before he cooled off once again and finished the season at .184 with 2 home runs and 13 RBI. But he had one bright spot for the year. He led the league in percentage of runners he gunned down stealing: 50 percent. The Senators finished with an 86-76 record. It was the only winning season the franchise enjoyed in Washington.

The following season, French’s last full season in the big leagues, he shared the Senators’ backup catching duties with veteran John Roseboro. He appeared in a career-high 69 games, hitting .211 with 20 runs scored and 13 RBI. Once again he led the league in percentage of runners caught stealing with 57 percent.

In the spring of 1971, French broke camp with the Senators before being sent back down to the minors in May. At the end of the season the Senators released him. With two young daughters, a third on the way, and no calls from other clubs, French decided it was time to move on from baseball and pursue another career. In reflecting on what the game of baseball gave to him, French cited, “A sense of competition, good friends and the opportunity to travel. You wouldn’t know it today, but I was a relatively shy person.” He credited baseball with helping develop himself socially.9

As for his most memorable moments in the game, meeting President Richard Nixon was certainly one of them. Following a Senators home game that Nixon attended, the president came down to visit the locker room. Jim, who was busy shaving in the bathroom, was so excited to hear the president was in the clubhouse that he ran out to meet him wearing nothing but shaving cream and a shirt. A photographer captured a laughing Nixon shaking the young catcher’s hand with Ted Williams looking on. French uses the photo on the back of his business card to this day.

In 1972, French began his career after baseball in the securities industry. From 1972-76, he was employed as a broker with Merrill Lynch in Youngstown, Ohio. In 1976 he moved to San Francisco and was a charter member of the newly opened Pacific Options Exchange. He returned to Chicago in 1978 and served as a member of the Chicago Board Options Exchange. In the late 1990s, French decided to return to school, and in 2001 he earned his law degree from the John Marshall Law School, thereby bringing his grandfather’s two wishes for him to fruition.10

As of this writing, in 2016, French is a licensed attorney in Illinois and Colorado. He currently resides in Mesa, Colorado and spends most of his time working on his 75-acre cattle ranch.

Last revised: December 15, 2016

 

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

R. J. French interview with author, October 1, 5, 2011; January 28, 2012; April 8, 2013. Recorded conversations in author’s possession.

 

Notes

1 Information in preceding paragraphs from French interview, October 1, 2011.

2Previous information from ibid., October 5, 2011.

3 Ibid., January 28, 2012.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., April 8, 2013.

6 Ibid., October 5, 2011.

7 Ibid., January 28, 2012.

8 Ibid., October 5, 2011.

9 Ibid., January 28, 2012.

10 Ibid.