By Scott A. Rowan
It only seems appropriate that a baseball player named Larry French should be remembered and honored for his service in France.
D-Day, the largest amphibious assault in military history, occurred on June 6, 1944. An eye-popping panorama of 5,000 boats and 13,000 airplanes carrying 160,000 soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, to give the Allies a foothold against German forces. The cost of victory was very high: 9,000 Allied soldiers died in just a few hours.
“After fighting the Nazis, facing Major League hitters didn’t seem so tough,” said future Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who was one of 500 major leaguers who served their country during World War II (although he was not part of the D-Day assault). Most baseball fans are aware that several future Hall of Famers—including Ted Williams, Bob Feller, and Spahn—had their playing careers interrupted while they served in the military. However, Cubs fans can be proud of the fact that only one former major leaguer was part of the 160,000-person force that stormed the beaches of Normandy—and he was a Cubs pitcher.
According to historian Gary Bedingfield’s site BaseballInWartime.com, at least 24 Chicago Cubs served in the military during World War II. But French was the only one to take part in the greatest show of military force in recorded history.
French, who served in the navy, was also the only player in history—not just the only Cub, but the only known baseball player at all—to end his playing career when he joined the military. Realizing his playing days were done, French stayed in the navy for 27 years (22 in active duty) before retiring in 1969 as a captain.
Leaving baseball was not an easy decision for French. He had 197 career wins (and 171 losses) over 14 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Cubs, and he desperately wanted to reach the benchmark milestone of 200 wins. He asked the navy to let him return to professional baseball long enough to get three more victories. He even offered to donate his military salary ($8,000) if he could just get the time to earn those three more wins. The military gave most former baseball players stateside assignments, with very few seeing action. But not wanting to set a precedent for future situations, the navy denied French’s request.
French started Game 6 of the 1935 World Series, which the Cubs lost in the ninth inning, giving the Detroit Tigers the championship. He also pitched in relief in the 1938 World Series. French went 17–10 for the Cubs in 1935 and followed that with an 18–9 mark in 1936, his two best seasons for Chicago. His lone record-setting achievement was an ignoble one, his 10–19 performance for the 1938 Cubs. It was the most losses ever for a starting pitcher for a pennant winning team, accounting for nearly a third of the Cubs’ losses that season, which they finished with an 89–63 record.
French was a jovial guy who loved playing practical jokes on unsuspecting teammates and anyone unfortunate enough to be staying in the same hotel when the Cubs were on the road. Fans may remember that he actually bought a bear cub as a pet and kept him in his Chicago apartment. The idea was as horrible as it sounds: the young bear ripped his home apart. French unloaded the cub on teammate Ripper Collins; the bear quickly destroyed his home as well. Thankfully, Collins had the good sense to give the bear to a conservation organization.
Despite antics such as launching water balloons at unsuspecting fellow hotel guests from the rooftop, ignominious accomplishments like losing 19 games in a season, and laughable blunders like buying a bear cub, French goes down in history as the most patriotic Chicago Cubs player ever for serving in both the European and Pacific theatres during WWII. Next Memorial Day, Cubs fans would do well to raise a glass to the only baseball player to give up his playing days for military service; French lived to tell the story for the next four decades until his death in 1987.
According to Bedingfield, the other 23 former Cubs who served in World War II were: Dale Alderson, Hi Bithorn, Cy Block, Dom Dallessandro, Pete Elko, Marv Felderman, Bill Fleming, Charlie Gilbert, Paul Gillespie, Al Glossop, Emil Kush, Mickey Livingston, Peanuts Lowrey, Clyde McCullough, Russ Meers, Vern Olsen, Whitey Platt, Marv Rickert, Bob Scheffi ng, Johnny Schmitz, Lou Stringer, Bobby Sturgeon, and Eddie Waitkus.
There was also a future major leaguer among the 160,000 soldiers on the beach that bloody day at Normandy: a diminutive 18-year-old known as Larry to his fellow navy sailors. He tried to convince his comrades that he was a minor league player back in Virginia, but none of the sailors believed this short guy—with even shorter legs. After the war, the 5’7″ Larry Berra went on to have a Hall of Fame baseball career, starting as a catcher for the New York Yankees, where he became known as Yogi Berra.
While Berra’s baseball career started after WWII, French’s ended because of it, making him the only former baseball player at Normandy. Leon Day, a Negro League player who was elected to the Hall of Fame, served as a member of the army amphibious assault team that provided support for the D-Day attack; however, Day’s unit didn’t arrive until six days after D-Day on June 12, 1944.