Franco-Americans and baseball

This article written by me and published in the Goose River Press anthology, 2005 edition.

Subsequently, the George Bush library in Texas accepted the report, in their presidential trivia archives, because the source documentation was available and published in York County newspapers. I’ve shortened the original version for this blog.

George Bush Library

Another Baseball Story was accepted as presidential trivia because of source documentation available in York County newspapers. (L’Heureux photograph)

As baseball season is entering the time of year when teams predict who will be in the World Series, it seemed like a nice reminder about how Franco-Americans have participated in the sport.

Title: Another Baseball Story

Norman Faucher was only 14 years old on September 7, 1947, when he came face to face with the young President George Bush, Sr., who played first base for the summer Collegians team in Maine’s York County Twilight League.  “He told me I was pretty young to play baseball,” Faucher recalls.  “I never dreamed he’d become president of the United States,” he says.  Newspaper accounts of the game between Faucher’s team, the Biddeford St. Andre’s Apostles versus the Kennebunkport Collegians, report the victory was a 21- 3 rout, with victory going to Faucher’s Apostles. Nonetheless, future President Bush had a good night, with game stats of three hits for three times at bat.

President George Bush played baseball for Yale University

President George Bush played baseball for Yale University and with the Kennebunkport, Maine summer leagues. (Yale University)

Baseball was a great social equalizer, especially during the game’s developmental years, before player salaries overshadowed the headlines.

Faucher’s baseball story is embroidered into his family’s Franco-American oral history.  Moreover, local newspaper accounts listing the lineup of the September 7, 1947, Twilight League game helped put Faucher’s name into Maine’s Baseball Hall of Fame.  His induction in 2003 puts Faucher into Maine sports history in partnership with his youthful opponent, President George W. Bush, Sr., who was also inducted in Maine’s Baseball Hall of fame in 1994. President Bush Sr., received recognition primarily because of his record playing in the summer leagues during his college years at Yale University, while spending summers with his family at Walker’s Point, their summer home in Kennebunkport.

Native American Louis Sockalexis (who also had French-Canadian ancestry) is another Maine baseball story with a big league twist.  He was born in 1871, from Indian Island in Orono, Maine. He is credited as the first Native American to play professional baseball.  Excellent baseball strength allowed Sockalexis to enter Holy Cross College in Worchester, Massachusetts where he played on the baseball team. Later, he played baseball for Notre Dame University in Indiana.  Eventually, a professional baseball scout noticed how well Sockalexis played and recruited him to play for the Cleveland Spiders, in 1897.  Although the Cleveland Spiders lost more games than almost any other team in the history of baseball, Sockalexis was a huge draw despite the team’s bad record because fans were curious to see the Native American whose batting average hovered around an impressive 400.  Unfortunately, Sockalexis was not in step to being a celebrity, thereby cutting his promising baseball career short, primarily due to alcoholism. In 1913, he died at the age of 41, of tuberculosis and heart disease.

Freddie Parent headstone in St. Ignatius Cemetery Sanford Maine

Freddie Parent is buried in the St. Ignatius Cemetery in Sanford. He played for the Boston Red Sox. (L’Heureux photograph)

Boston Red Sox’s shortstop Freddie Parent was around when baseball was making early history and thereby earned his place in Maine’s Baseball Hall of Fame. Parent was also a Franco-American, born in York County’s Southern Maine town of Sanford, near Faucher’s home in Biddeford.  Parent grew up in an ordinary Franco-American family where French was spoken at home. Soon, the 5 foot 5 inch tall Parent was the star shortstop of the 1903 Boston Pilgrim’s (later named the Red Sox), the year the team won the very first World Series game played against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  During his retirement years, Parent coached some Twilight League teams in Maine’s York County, including one of the teams Faucher played for.

Parent was the last surviving player of the 1903 Boston Red Sox team when he died in 1972, at the age of 96, in Sanford.

Franco-American immigrants from Canada living in New England in the 19th century quickly adopted a love for baseball. As early as the 1880s, baseball was the dominant sport in New England’s growing Franco-American towns, where textile and shoe mill workers clustered.

Local French language newspapers, reporting the news for a newly arrived French-Canadian population, quickly realized baseball stories had to be covered if circulation was to compete with English language newspapers.

Moreover, baseball provided social avenues for Franco-American youths to mix freely with New England’s other ethnic groups, including Native Americans and Irish, while playing sports.  Ethnic social mixing encouraged French-Canadian immigrant children to learn English, even though French was the primary language spoken in their homes, their churches, and by the teaching nuns and brothers in their parochial schools.

A cultural passion for baseball produced the Franco-American turn of the century superstar named Napoleon Lajoie, also known as the “Woonsocket Wonder”, from Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Many sports historians believe Lajoie was the greatest player of all time. Lajoie is considered a baseball mega-hero, a man folk-tale enthusiasts tout as the sport’s first celebrity.  “He combined grace in the field with power at the bat,” says his official biography in the National baseball Hall  of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York.

Also known by another nickname, “The Big Frenchman”,  Lajoie lived the Horatio Alger dream of a poor boy who left school to work as a wagon driver for $1.50 a day. He began playing baseball for a local Woonsocket, Rhode Island team in the early 1890’s; but his professional career started in 1897, when he signed with a Fall River, Massachusetts minor league team. His baseball skill pushed him to the major leagues and he immediately became a star, with a .339 lifetime batting average (although he batted 10 yeas with an average over 350). (Ref. Nap Lajoie”, National Baseball Hall of Fame: www.nationalbaseballhallofame.org)

“Nap”, as his friends called him, was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the second year of its existence, in 1937, where he was preceded only by Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honum Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

Lajoie’s baseball prowess made him an idol to Franco-American youths.  Woonsocket’s daily French language newspaper, “La Tribune”, carried almost daily news stories about Lajoie’s baseball feats.  Hometown fans from Woonsocket made a point of traveling into Boston to see him at Fenway Park, whenever he played there with either the Cleveland or Philadelphia big league teams.

From humble French-Canadian origins, Nap eventually earned $6,000-$7,000 annually, in 1910, when he played for Cleveland.  This salary was enormous when the average American worker earned $525 and other established professional baseball players earned $3,000 annually.

Sports trivia buffs recall the date May 23, 1901, when Nap Lajoie became the first big league player in the history of the game to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded, a defensive strategy used against formidable hitters to preclude a grand slam homerun.

Walter L’Heureux, a Franco-American from Sanford, Maine, was inducted in 1982, in the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame, for pitching five scoreless innings against the renowned New York Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio and his brother Dom DiMaggio. All three men served in the Pacific Arena, while in the armed forces during World War II., when the US Army hosted morale boosting baseball games in Australia. Unfortunately,  L’Heureux’s team lost against the DiMaggio brothers’ lineup when the manager replaced him in the sixth inning. (Personal interview with Walter L’Heureux, “Maine Baseball Hall of Fame”, July, 1990. (Walter’s brother Henry was also inducted, a few years later.)

Perhaps the most improbable baseball love story involves the Franco-American writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), who was smitten with a zeal for nearly all sports.  Author of “On the Road” and 15 other books, Kerouac is considered the father of America’s way-out “beat generation”.

In fact, Kerouac was another French speaking kid from the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Professional sports opened doors for Kerouac.  Like Faucher, Parent, L’Heureux and Lajoie, Kerouac’s family was middle class from French speaking Canada. Eventually, Kerouac was noticed for his good football playing skills, although he was good at baseball, too.  He became a sports writer before going to college. But, his skill with the pigskin won him a scholarship to play football for Columbia University, in New York.  Unfortunately, in his freshmen year, Kerouac was injured with a broken leg.  Although he didn’t finish college, Kerouac spent the remainder of his short life writing about his wanderlust; and he was an enduring baseball fan.

After all, praise is due to those who leveled the social playing field by framing their success in a collectible baseball card or carving their statistics in a hall of fame.

Our storybook fantasy team has the following starting lineup:  Jackie Robinson, first base; Nap Lajoie, second base; Dom DiMaggio, third base, Freddie Parent, short stop; Walter L’Heureux, pitcher; Jack Kerouac, catcher; Joe DiMaggio, center field; Ted Williams, left field; Louis Sockalexis, right field; President George Bush, Sr., designated hitter; and Norman Faucher; batboy.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.