After moving to Tennessee in 1997, I regularly subjected my husband David to visits with the ancestors. One time, as I drug him through the pages of my family’s ancient history, he stopped me, pointed to a photo of a man in a baseball uniform that always puzzled me and said, “That’s Frenchy.”
It took me by surprise that he would recognize anyone in this book since he was born and raised in East Tennessee and my family and I hailed from the plains of Nebraska and Kansas. And just who was this Frenchman in my family album? I came from German-Irish stock. There were no French connections in my family three, at least none of which I was aware. Maybe he was some sort of kissing cousin who married into the clan.
In the course of our conversation, David informed me that Frenchy was at one time a major league baseball player and this was more than likely an old baseball card of sorts.
The “card” is an unassuming piece of heavy yellowing paper that has “BORGADARAY Kansas City Blues” typed on the front under a grainy black and white picture of a man in uniform. When I pulled it out of its protective album sleeve, I noticed Grandma had written something on the back.
“Aug. 1940. Mae Mack, my oldest sister, had a complete card and picture collection of all the KC Blues baseball team.”
Apparently, this was all that was left of my great Aunt Mae’s collection. I set out on a journey to find out who this man was if for no other reason than to honor my aunt’s baseball passion.
I have no way of knowing whether Aunt Mae ever met Frenchy face-to-face. There is no autograph on the card, but it was from a more intimate time in baseball history when fans could get much closer to their favorite players. There were no bodyguards or security. The players fraternized more freely with the fans especially since the ball teams were strapped for cash. They needed to cultivate their audience’s wallets as much as possible and how better than a hand pumping meet and greet?
The eldest child of a poor Irish immigrant laborer, Mae was tagged to be the family spinster and any dreams she may have had for a husband and family were dashed by obligation. It was her duty to live at home with her parents until their deaths acting as caretaker and nursemaid when the time arrived. The upside to that arrangement was that Mae was free to pursue a career and interests out of reach of a wife and mother of the times.
After graduation, Mae did a multitude of interesting things. She worked as a seamstress in an overall factory, telephone operator and teacher at the Kansas City School for the Blind. She had a love of outlandish hats, ballroom dancing and, of course, baseball. There was always baseball.
Mae attended as many games as she could, although travel to and from the ballpark in those days would have been quite time consuming and costly for a woman of modest means. And a proper woman never traveled alone, so she was seldom without the company of a group of women who traveled together in a pack. There was safety in numbers.
My great aunt probably began collecting baseball cards as soon as the local teams offered them. The Kansas City Blues team was created as a New York Yankees farm club in 1936 and in August 1940, Aunt Mae added a card to her collection - that of Stanley G. “Frenchy” Bordagaray.
Stanley “Frenchy” Bordagaray
According to his obituary, Frenchy was born Jan. 3, 1910, in Coalinga, Calif. the middle of seven children of Dominique and Louise Bordagaray, who were among the original settlers in the San Joaquin Valley. Dominique came to the United States from France in 1896. He raised livestock until he was drafted in WWI, after which he bought a pool hall in Fresno.
Frenchy attended Fresno State University where he was a four-sport letterman and played on the school's first undefeated football team in 1929.
His baseball career began in the Pacific Coast League in 1930. He went on to play for the Chicago White Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees. A lifetime .284 hitter, he was known for his speed, spark, and pinch-hitting skills (.312 lifetime). He played in two World Series, one with the '39 Reds and the other with the victorious '41 Yankees. In 1962, he was inducted into the Fresno County Sports Hall of Fame. He was admitted into the Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Fame in 1995.
It wasn’t Frenchy’s baseball stats that made him memorable, though. His outrageous antics and zany personality left a mark on the lighter side of baseball’s history. Frenchy played for five Hall of Fame-bound managers in his 11-year major league career, but it was probably the infamous Dodger’s manager, Casey Stengel, he tormented the most.
In 1936, Frenchy took to wearing a luxuriously large mustache, goatee and even a monocle fancying himself a budding actor after two uncredited movie roles. You can see him lurking on the sidelines in the Prisoner of Shark Island, but he didn’t make it past the cutting room floor for Sutter’s Gold.
Stengel wasn’t at all impressed with Frenchy’s Hollywood persona and thought the facial hair, which was taboo in sports at the time, was the root of a slump the flamboyant Frenchman was experiencing. The frustrated manager issued an ultimatum, “There's room for only one clown on this ball club, and that's gonna be me.”
Aware of his precarious position, Frenchy complied and shaved off the offending facial hair. "I used to drive Stengel crazy," Bordagaray told the press years later.
The Mustache Man and the manager had a love/hate relationship going. Stengel would fine Frenchy for not sliding into home on a close play at the plate one day, then threaten to fine him again the next day for sliding home on a home run. One time, when the Dodgers were playing against the Cubs, the Frenchman found himself picked off second base (by a pitcher named Larry French no less) as he absent-mindedly tapped his foot on-and-off the bag. "He caught me between taps," Bordagaray informed Stengel as the skipper came out to argue the call.
In 1937, Frenchy was traded to St. Louis where he became Cardinals' skipper Frankie Frisch’s problem.
Frisch apparently didn’t see a problem with Frenchy’s grandstanding and remarked, "Brooklyn's loss is our gain.”
It didn’t take long for Bordagaray to become part of the Cardinal’s Gashouse Gang both on and off the field. He was with St. Louis for two seasons and even joined Pepper Martin's Mississippi Mudcats, on both fiddle and washboard. Surprisingly, the combo, who included Dizzy Dean on harmonica, toured the vaudeville circuit during the off-season. Not surprisingly, that winter, Frenchy made more money as a musician than he did as a Cardinal the previous summer.
Columnist Dan Daniel added, "Frenchy fits right into the strange [St. Louis] puzzle."
After his stint in St. Louis, Frenchy spent a year in Cincinnati before being traded to the New York Yankees. The Yankees dropped him to their farm team in Kansas City for the season, which is where Aunt Mae caught up with him.
By the summer of 1940, Frenchy had been in the Major Leagues for seven years. Taking a step back to the minors had to be a bit of a comeuppance, but it was short-lived and by 1941, he was back on track with the Yankees. In 1942, the Frenchman was back in Brooklyn who released him in 1946.
After his baseball days, Frenchy became a restaurateur and club owner in St. Louis and Kansas City and a developer of 15 cemeteries throughout the Midwest.
In 1961, he moved his family from Kansas City to Ventura where he became Ventura's sports and recreation department supervisor and established a youth sports program for the community. After a brief retirement he went back to work for Ventura's parks department and helped build El Camino Real field. In 1986, he was admitted to the Ventura County Sports Hall of Fame. He died on April 13, 2000 and will be forever remembered as the mustache man of baseball.
Aunt Mae died on November 10, 1956 from leukemia and what is left of her preciously few possessions have been distributed over the years to nieces and nephews.
I have often wondered why the only card that survived from my aunt’s collection was that of Frenchy Bordagaray. Was it merely by coincidence or did Aunt Mae have a special affinity for the Frenchman from California? Maybe they met during his stint with the Blues. Maybe she kept track of his career before and after. Maybe she just dreamed of a Frenchman who played her favorite sport. I will never know the answer to that question, but I would like to think they had some special connection.