“That young man was in baseball in the wrong era. In the ’90s he would have been a second Willie Keeler, but he entered the majors when baseball was home run mad. If an outfielder could not hit the wall or drive the ball out of the park in the Ruthian manner he never had a chance.”
— Connie Mack, reflecting on the baseball career of Walter French, from “Old Sports Musings,” Philadelphia Evening Ledger, 1937
Walter E. French was born in Moorestown, New Jersey, on July 10, 1899. A direct descendant of one of the town’s earliest settlers, Thomas French Jr. He was the fourth child of Walter S. and Belzora Baker French. Walter’s father had a successful construction company and the firm’s logo, a piece of iron in the shape of a masonry trowel, can still be found embedded in the concrete slabs of some of the town’s oldest sidewalks.
As a boy Walter showed promise in all sports but was most interested in football. He entered Moorestown High School in 1914 and starred in football, baseball, basketball, and track. Never any taller than 5-feet-9 or heavier than 160 pounds, Walter had to rely on quickness and speed, which he had in abundance. Years later, when he was playing for the Philadelphia Athletics, A’s coach Danny Murphy was quoted in a 1923 Philadelphia Public Ledger article saying of French, “I’ll pick him to beat anybody in either league getting down to first base. He’s the fastest man on that stretch that I ever saw, and I’ve been looking ’em over for a quarter of a century.” Even in his final days as a professional athlete, when he was nearing 37 years old, French was still described as the “fastest man in the Carolina League.” In 1915 he and teammate Al LeConey, a future Olympic Gold Medal winner, led Moorestown to its only victory ever (as of 2015) in the Penn Relays.
Walter transferred from Moorestown High School after his junior year to Pennington Seminary (now Pennington School) in Pennington, New Jersey. Pennington began playing football in 1879, making its program one of the longest-running in the nation. French later described his experience at Pennington as his “first real football education.”
At Rutgers University French was a multiple-sport athlete, and a leading star on the football team, but after the 1919 school year he was recruited to the US Military Academy at West Point.
West Point was one of the top college football teams in the early part of the twentieth century. Its dominance was based in large measure on the ability to recruit players from other colleges. In many cases these athletes had already earned multiple varsity letters and frequently had played for four years. Although there was no rule against this, many schools felt it gave the Cadets an unfair advantage. (Elmer Oliphant, who graduated from West Point the year before French began, earned 11 varsity letters there after he had earned a four-year degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue.)
In 1920 West Point easily vanquished its first four opponents, and French established himself as one of the best running backs in the country. The October 11, 1920, New York Herald said that the “work of French, Army’s speedy back, is pleasing the mentors. The former Rutgers star is one of the shiftiest backs in the game and is bound to be heard of frequently during the season.”
The stage was set for a much-anticipated showdown against undefeated Notre Dame on October 29, 1920. Coached by Knute Rockne and led on the field by George Gipp, the Golden Domers came into the game a significant favorite over the Black Knights of the Hudson. Although Army had given up only one touchdown in its first four games, Notre Dame’s wins were against superior competition.
Army’s Cullum Field was filled to its 10,000-spectator capacity. The first half played out as advertised with French and George Gipp leading the way for their teams. The men were largely responsible for all the scoring. French had a 40-yard run from scrimmage that led to Army’s first touchdown, and followed that up with a 60-yard punt return for the second. He also kicked the extra points and a field goal near the end of the first half to give Army a surprising 17-14 halftime lead. Gipp had a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown to go along with a 38-yard touchdown pass. But the second half was all Gipp as he ran off one dazzling play after another, and Notre Dame won, 27-17.
At the conclusion of the season French earned numerous All-American honors.
French had no plans to play baseball at Army, but was recruited by the baseball coach, former major leaguer Hans Lobert, in the spring of 1921 for his speed. Lobert appreciated speed. It had been his own ticket to the major leagues; during his 14-year major-league career he was considered the fastest man in the game. Seeing in French the makings of a star player, Lobert took him under his wing. He served as a personal tutor, drilling French in fielding and hitting, and Walter quickly developed into one of the team’s best players. The starting center fielder, in his first five games he got 15 hits in 20 at-bats, including two doubles, two triples, and a home run. In addition, he had five stolen bases and played the field to perfection.
As the 1921 football season began, things were not going well for French. The rigor of playing multiple sports at West Point was taking a toll on his grades. At the conclusion of the 1920 school year, he ranked 433rd out of a class of 498. He ranked 433rd in mathematics and 465th in English. His best two classes were French and military conduct, in which he ranked 322nd and 61st respectively. And after the 1921 football season, French was asked to leave West Point. In an interview with Jim Bailey that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, on August 12, 1979, he recalled “I didn’t graduate. … I really wasn’t much of a student; not like I should have been. When General (Douglas) MacArthur became superintendent of the Academy, he was interested in building up our athletic program. When General MacArthur left, the professors got me.”
After leaving West Point, French enlisted as a private in the Army and in the fall of 1922 was preparing to take the lieutenant’s exam. About this time he was approached by Mike Drennan, a scout for the Philadelphia Athletics. Drennan had seen French play at West Point and believed that his speed would make him a perfect fit for the A’s and their home field, Shibe Park.
Years later French recalled that he never questioned the salary being offered by the Athletics; he was just excited about the possibility of playing professional baseball. “I was so happy about it that I never asked for a big bonus for signing,” he told Frank Graham in a March 9, 1939, New York Sun article. “I discovered later that I could have got as much for signing as I got for the whole year, but I was dumb then.” French applied for and was granted an honorable discharge from the Army in the spring of 1923 and joined the A’s in spring training. His stay was interrupted when he was called home to Moorestown by the sudden death of his father.
During that same spring training French met his future wife, Sarah Elizabeth Bazemore. She was four years his junior and a native of Selma, Alabama. She was visiting her sister in Montgomery, Alabama, the spring training home of the A’s for two seasons. Sarah Elizabeth’s sister was dating a member of the A’s staff and he brought French along on a visit to keep his girlfriend’s sister company. Less than a year later, on February 28, 1924, the two were married in Birmingham, Alabama.
Sent to the Williamsport Billies of the Class B New York-Penn League for the 1923 season, French established himself as one of the Athletics’ most promising prospects. He batted .360, with a league-best 13 triples and 43 stolen bases. He finished second in the league with 128 runs scored. He was rewarded with a late season call-up and batted .231 in 16 games with Philadelphia. He moved up to Shreveport in the Class A Texas League in 1924 and batted .350 with 34 doubles and 11 triples. He was paid $3,000 for the 1925 season and was on the A’s bench when the season began.
By the end of June 1925, the American League pennant chase was down to two teams, the Athletics and the Washington Senators. After losing three of four games to the Senators, the A’s for the first time found themselves in second place. In the series finale, on June 25, French pinch-hit against Walter Johnson in the ninth inning. Although his playing time had been limited, French had established himself as one of the A’s most dependable pinch-hitters. The Senators were winning, 6-0, and to that point Johnson had given up only one hit. French smacked a sharp grounder to left field for a clean single. Over the next few weeks he had six hits and two sacrifices in nine pinch-hit appearances.
On August 15 the A’s were clinging to a 1½-game lead over the Senators, but they then lost 17 of their next 19 games, including a 12-game losing streak. Suddenly, after holding on to first place for all but a few days of the summer, the A’s found themselves eight games out of first place.
Off the field, in August Sarah Elizabeth gave birth to the Frenches’ first daughter, Mary.
The A’s fall from contention provided French with an opportunity to prove to his manager what he could do if used on a regular basis. On September 16 he got his third major-league start, in right field against the Chicago White Sox, and went 3-for-4. Connie Mack then started him in right field for the final 13 games of the season. Over that stretch French hit safely in 11 games, getting 21 hits, including four doubles. In four of the games he had three hits. As the season came to a close, French had raised his average to .370 and was the leading pinch-hitter in the American League. Shortly after the season ended, Connie Mack announced that French would be his choice as the team’s regular right fielder in 1926.
After the season French decided to join teammate Charlie Berry, a backup catcher, on the Pottsville Maroons for their inaugural season in the National Football League. He asked Connie Mack for permission. In the March 9, 1939, New York Sun article, he recalled that Mack “did not like the idea very much at first. … But I showed Connie where I could make some dough I really needed now that I had a wife to support, and he gave in after a while.’’
Coming into the final game of the season, the Maroons had a record of 9-2 and were playing the Chicago Cardinals, who had a record of 9-1-1. There were no playoff games then; the team with the best record was declared the champion. The game was played on a frozen field at Comiskey Park in Chicago on December 6. With Maroons star player Tony Latone limited with an elbow injury, French suddenly found himself the featured running back for the Maroons, and pulled off one brilliant run after another, including a 30-yard touchdown run. The Maroons came away with a convincing 21-7 win. “French Runs Wild!” read the December 7, 1925, Chicago Tribune headline.
One week after their victory in Chicago the Maroons were scheduled to play the Notre Dame All-Stars, a team made up of former Notre Dame players, including the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules. The game was scheduled to be played in Philadelphia, which was considered part of the protected territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, who protested the playing of the game. The league warned the Maroons that if they played the game that they would be suspended from the NFL. They played anyway, and on a last-second field goal by Charlie Berry, the Maroons defeated the heavily favored Notre Dame team, 9-7. It was a watershed moment in the history of the fledgling NFL, proving for the first time that a professional team could compete against what most observers at the time believed to be the best college team ever. Yet despite the boost their win gave the league, the Maroons were suspended from the NFL and stripped of their championship.
True to his word, Connie Mack started French in right field on Opening Day of 1926. The Senators were the Athletics’ opponent at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, and their pitcher was Walter Johnson. The Big Train pitched all 15 innings as the Senators won 1-0. French had the only extra-base hit off Johnson, a double.
Aside from a slump in May, which he broke by going 3-for-5 off Johnson on May 23, French maintained his offensive production throughout the season. On May 28 he knocked in the winning run with a triple to help Lefty Grove end a 16-game Yankees winning streak, and on June 30 he saved an A’s 5-4 victory over the Yankees by snaring a smash off the bat of Tony Lazzeri with the two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning. The A’s finished the season in third place. French batted .305, second on the team only to Al Simmons’s .341.
After the 1926 season concluded, a controversy was brewing involving Ty Cobb, who at the time was the player-manager of the Detroit Tigers and was accused of gambling on baseball. Although he was eventually cleared by Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis, the Tigers released him. Connie Mack jumped at the opportunity to sign Cobb, hoping he would be an example to the A’s younger players.
While French may have felt a little threatened by the signing of Cobb, there is no evidence that he expressed it to anyone. After all, he was the A’s second leading hitter in 1926, and his star was on the rise, while Cobb’s best days were behind him. All of that may have changed when French did not see his name on the lineup card when the A’s opened the season in front of 72,000 fans in Yankee Stadium on April 13, 1927. Cobb started all four games and French made only two appearances as a pinch-runner.
The first series of the season was a foreshadowing of things to come for French. He found himself on the bench for most of the first half of the season, used primarily as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner, and late-inning defensive replacement for Cobb, who was not helping matters by hitting nearly .400. Mack would insert French into the starting lineup when the A’s faced Walter Johnson, but beyond that he was on the pines.
Meanwhile the Yankees were rewriting the record books and the A’s by August were only four games above .500 and were in fourth place. Mack, looking to shake up his lineup, began to start French in every game. He started in 52 of the A’s last 56 games. Connie Mack may have wondered what might have been if French had seen more playing time when the team’s pennant hopes were still alive. In the 52 games he batted .325 with 21 RBIs. He had 21 multiple-hit games, and played excellent defense. The A’s went 40-16 during the stretch, and finished the season in second place.
In 1928 any hope French had that the season would be better than 1927 quickly died. Mack began making moves to better match his team to the Yankees. He reacquired power-hitting outfielder Bing Miller from the St. Louis Browns and followed that up by signing 40-year-old Tris Speaker. Ty Cobb announced that he would return for one more season, and finally Mack acquired young slugging outfielder Mule Haas from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Although the redesigned A’s team was not able to catch the Yankees in 1928, the Mack strategy did succeed in closing the gap between the two teams. The A’s again finished in second place, but this time only 2½ games behind New York. They dramatically improved their offense, this year coming within 66 runs of the Yankees’ total, and they raised their home-run total from 56 to 89. Mack had recognized the changing face of baseball, and at the end of the 1928 season, he knew he was within striking distance of his bitter rival.
For Walter French, however, the 1928 season could not have gone worse. He played in only 48 games with a mere 76 plate appearances. In a letter to an unidentified friend, he wrote that “1928 was a very disappointing year for me, as I had to compete against Cobb and Speaker. Both were over the hill. Sitting on the bench just wasn’t my cup of tea.”
With a second baby on the way and his prospects dimming, French decided that the time had come to hang up his spikes. Connie Mack got him a job working for Sears Roebuck in Chicago. But after only two weeks on the job he changed his mind and asked for reinstatement. He was back with the A’s when they went to spring training in 1929.
Today it is hard to find a list of the greatest baseball teams of all time that does not include the 1929 Philadelphia A’s. They won the pennant with 104 victories and then rolled over the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. The A’s starting lineup was led future Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, and Al Simmons. Five players ended the season with 80 RBIs or more. Al Simmons led the team with 34 home runs and 157 RBIs. Foxx totaled 33 home runs and 118 RBIs. Cochrane finished with 95 RBIs; Bing Miller had 93 and Mule Haas 82. The odd man out was Walter French. He was used even more sparingly than in 1928, playing in only 45 games with 51 plate appearances.
French got one at-bat in the World Series, a pinch-hit appearance in Game Five. He struck out leading off the ninth inning with the Athletics losing 2-0. As he went back to the bench, however he gave a quick scouting report to the A’s batters who would follow him. Sportswriter Stoney McLinn of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger wrote in a September 1931 article: “I have heard Connie Mack tell several times that it was a remark made by French as he carried his bat rather shame-facedly back to the dugout which had a lot to do with the subsequent rally in which Bishop hit a single, Haas a homer and Simmons and Miller doubles to win the game and the series. ‘Malone hasn’t a thing,’ French told the boys on the bench. ‘I ought to be shot at sunrise for fanning.’ The other Mack boys who heard this remark believed him. What happened to Malone is baseball history.”
If his limited play in the last two seasons did not spell the end of the major-league career of Walter French, the events of October 29, 1929, would for sure. Fifteen days after the A’s celebrated their World Series win, the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression. Like every enterprise, baseball suffered a major impact. In anticipation of reduced attendance and less revenue, teams looked for ways to reduce their rosters, payroll, and expenses. French, now 30 years old, was optioned by the A’s to their Pacific Coast League affiliate, the Portland Beavers. There he had a good 1930 season. He played in 160 games, batted .309, and led the team with 199 hits. Still, after the season he was released. “I think maybe they let me go just because they did not want to pay my travel expenses to the West Coast the next spring,” he told Jim Bailey in the August 12, 1979, Arkansas Gazette interview. “The Depression was on and I was living in Alabama at the time.” He caught on with the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern League. Playing center field, he led the league in at-bats with 674 and hits with 235, for a batting average of .345, ninth best in the league.
French had an equally impressive 1932 season with the Travelers. His .336 batting average and 211 hits were again among the league leaders. Then, after winning the opening game of the 1933 season with a rare home run, French went into a terrible slump. Within a few weeks Travelers owner Ray Winder traded him to Knoxville. The trade of the popular outfielder was not well received by Little Rock fans, and their disapproval increased as French turned his season around. He wound up leading the league in hits for the third straight year with 215 and a .351 batting average, and was named the league MVP by The Sporting News. But those were Depression times, and Bob Allen, the owner of the Knoxville team, cut his pay for the 1934 season.
After obtaining his release from Knoxville, French caught on with Williamsport of the New York-Penn League for the 1935 season. “There wasn’t any money there either,” Jim Bailey quoted him as saying in the 1979 Arkansas Gazette article . At the age of 35, he batted .307.
After the season French announced that he would retire in another year and return to West Point as the head baseball coach and assistant football coach. But first, in 1936 he left Organized Baseball to play for Concord in the independent Carolina League, a new semipro circuit. He was Concord’s leading hitter with a .370 batting average and helped lead his team to a first-place finish. He did not stay for the league playoffs, heading north to take up his duties at West Point.
Inheriting a team that was 4-7 in 1936, French turned it around in his first season. The 1937 team posted a 9-2 record. The Cadets followed that up with winning seasons in 1938 and 1939. Hit hard by graduations, the 1940 team went 5-7, but it bounced back in 1941 with a record of 8-6 before going 10-4-1 in 1942.
French resigned as baseball coach after the 1942 season to contribute to the war effort in a more significant way. He was commissioned a captain in the Army Air Corps, in the role of intelligence officer.
Flying over the jungles of Brazil in March of 1944, French and his crew ran into a terrible storm. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “(T)he pilot battled the storm and fought the controls. For more than an hour they sailed on and then the fuel ran out.” The pilot ordered the crew to bail out. “We agreed,” French wrote in a letter to his brother Cooper, “that on landing each of us would yell so as to inform the others where we were. In this way we hoped to band together.” French, at this point nearly 45 years old, “fell with a thump into some jungle grass.” He recalled that his “yell nearly came out a shriek.”
Shortly after landing, French noticed something moving in the bushes. Hoping that it was just his imagination, he attempted to make his way in the direction of his mates, whose yells he could hear in the distance. However, his worst fears were realized when he found himself surrounded by three machete-wielding natives. “And then,” French said, “I heard one of them mutter something to another – in French.” At last the French he studied at West Point, one of his better subjects, was about to come in handy.
“I called out to them,” he recalled, “and explained to them that I was an American. And with that the Indians relaxed. They started to grin.”
Eventually French rejoined the rest of the crew, and his new Indian friends “walked us several miles to their village,” where they spent the night. The next morning they contacted an air base, and a Navy blimp was dispatched to pick them up. One of the crew members of the rescue team was Jack Glickstein of Philadelphia, who remembered having watched French play for the Athletics.
(The story of French’s adventure in the Brazilian jungle and his letter to his brother about the experience was recounted in a Philadelphia Inquirer article found in French’s scrapbook and headlined Escape From Death in the Jungle: Capt. Walter French ‘Safe’ in Italy. The article was written by Art Morrow but it date of the article is unknown.)
After his adventure in the jungles of Brazil, French was sent to Italy, where he served for the balance of the war. After the war he was invited to return as West Point baseball coach, but he opted to remain in the Army, and over the next 14 years he was stationed in the US, Italy, Austria, and Korea. He retired in 1959 at the age of 60.
In 1954 French was made an honorary member of the West Point Class of 1924 on the occasion of its 30th-anniversary reunion. “West Point classes don’t often make honorary members of their foundlings,” the event program said. “It is a rare mark of esteem and affection that has to be deserved. When he lost his two-year battle with the English Department, it left a gap in our herd that we remedied the only way we could. … (Walter French) and the years 1920-22 in West Point sports history are indivisible. … On the football field and baseball diamond he did much to lift the Academy out of the bushes and into the big leagues.”
Settling in La Selva Beach, California, French spent his time working part-time and playing golf. He stayed in touch with some of his old teammates. He and his wife occasionally visited Ty Cobb at Cobb’s lodge in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and he corresponded regularly with many of his fellow former Pottsville Maroons.
In retirement French became an accomplished golfer and even managed to shoot his age at the age of 79 and again the following year as an 80-year-old. In a letter to a friend in June of 1980 he wrote that he tried to walk about two miles a day and played golf three days a week. “My weight is staying steady at 152 and I feel fine,” he wrote.
Over the next few years, however, French’s health began to deteriorate due to a heart condition and eventually he and his wife relocated to Mountain Home, Arkansas, to be closer to his daughter, Ann, and her husband.
French died on March 13, 1984. He was survived by his wife, Sarah Elizabeth; two daughters, Ann and Mary; 8 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.
Walter French family scrapbook: In January of 2013 I was given access to the scrapbook kept by Walter French and members of his family. Beginning with his playing days in Moorestown up through his retirement, the book chronicles his life in sports. Countless newspaper articles about him or his exploits were clipped and pasted into the book. In some cases the name and date of the publication, and the name of the author were omitted. Where the identity of the author and publication was included with the article it has been duly noted.
Cavanaugh, Jack. The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne and The Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame Football (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010).
Fleming, David. Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship (New York: ESPN Books, 2007).
Macht, Norman. Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years 1915-1931 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).
Mack, Connie. My Sixty-Six Years in the Big Leagues (Philadelphia: John C.Winston Company, 1950).
Sperber, Murray. Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.
Utley, R.G. (Hank), and Scott Verner. The Independent Carolina Baseball League, 1936-1938 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1999).