Only the fortunate can drive down the road of life and not run into speedbumps or roadblocks. As for the rest of us, the highway is paved with obstacles that we must try to avoid. Larry French was cruising down the road toward 200 career victories when a sizable roadblock was placed in his path. That roadblock was the Second World War. Stuck at 197 wins when he joined the Navy, French vowed to return to the Majors to get his 200th win when the war ended. However, when the fighting stopped, Larry was 37 years old and he wrote a letter to Brooklyn brass telling them that he was too old to make a return to the diamond and made the Navy a career instead. A salute to Larry french is long overdue.
French saw his first big league action with the 1929 Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates were a contending team with the Waner Brothers and a solid left side of the infield in Pie Traynor and Rowdy Dick Bartell, but their mound staff wasn’t as good. Larry hoped to help the Bucs pitching staff and he did just that. In 1930, French won 17 games and showed remarkable durability by finishing second in complete games and shutouts in the NL. His 1930 season was the first of nine consecutive seasons in which he tossed at least 200 innings.
Like a good pack mule, the Pirates loaded innings on French’s back and he carried them with strength and stamina. He was the runner-up in the senior circuit with 276 innings pitched and his ERA was forty points lower than the cumulative staff ERA posted by the Buccos. The following year, Larry led the NL in games pitched, making 33 starts and putting out fires created by his rotation mates 14 times. An 18 win season in ’32, French also finished second in the league in shutouts and fourth in innings pitched.
His highwater mark for innings pitched came in 1933 when he tossed 291 innings (only Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean and Carl Hubbell were allowed to throw more) while leading the league in games started. He won 18 games while finishing third in shutouts. After an off year in 1934, French was dealt to the Cubs with veteran Freddie Lindstrom for The Mississippi Mudcat Guy Bush and slugger Babe Herman. His first year in Wrigley was a good one. French posted a 17-10 record on a 2.96 ERA. Larry tied for the league lead in shutouts while displaying pinpoint accuracy, issuing an average of 0.179 walks per inning. Hall of Famers Dean (0.253), Red Ruffing (0.342), Lefty Gomez (0.350) and Lefty Grove (0.238) weren’t as accurate as Mr. French. In that season’s World Series – a loss for the Cubs as usual – French had a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio.
French went 18-9 for the Cubbies in 1936 while again tying for the league lead in shutouts. A fixture at the top of the leader board in keeping the opposition from scoring, French tied for second in the shutout department in 1937. After a fine ’37 season, Larry made his way to another World Series in 1938 and he surrendered just one base hit in three relief outings, but his Cubs still lost the series to New York.
Larry had a nifty .652 winning percentage in 1939 and then had his tenth season of 200 or more innings worked in 1940. Late in a sluggish 1941 season, the Cubs placed French on waivers and he was plucked by Brooklyn, helping them make the World Series that year. In two appearances in the ’41 World Series, French didn’t surrender a single hit, however, despite no longer being a Cub, he still wasn’t a member of the winning aggregation.
The aging southpaw had a magnificent 1942 season – his highwater mark in ERA – when he fashioned a 15-4 record on a 1.83 ERA. His .789 winning percentage was tops in the senior circuit and his microscopic ERA was good for second. However, with the war raging overseas, the patriotic Larry French joined the Navy in his mid-thirties, thus signalling an end to his baseball career. He was in the Top Five in shutouts a whopping nine times.
During the war, French was not idle. He took part in heavy fighting, and once wrote a letter to baseball executive Ford Frick detailing a push his unit made into enemy territory. World War II wasn’t the last action French saw in the employ of our military. He was active in the military during the Korean War and the Vietnam War as well.
W 197/L 171/PCT .535/G 570/CG 198/IP 3,152/H 3,375/BB 819/SO 1,187/SHO 40/ERA 3.44