September 28 – Happy Birthday Jack Fournier
I remember very well the first time I realized the purpose and power of a good first baseman’s mitt. I was 11 years old and playing for St. Agnello Club, a team in my hometown’s youth baseball league. During our first practice before the season began, the coach of my team had asked me what position I played. Although Mickey Mantle was my favorite player back then I knew center fielders had to do a lot of running and the only running I did at that time was to get to the dinner table before my two older brothers ate all the good stuff. So I told my coach I played first base.
He looked at the “Rocky Colavito” model Rawlings’ outfielders’ glove I was wearing on my left hand and said, “You can’t play first base with that tiny thing, you need the Trapper.” He then picked up and reached into the large burlap equipment bag that was lying alongside the batting cage and pulled out the biggest wad of rawhide leather I’d ever seen in my young life. It was a genuine first baseman’s mitt.
I put that monster on my hand and went over to first base for my first-ever official infielder’s practice. Coach hit the first ground ball to our third baseman, who happened to also be one of the two sons he had playing on that year’s team. He bobbled the grounder a couple of times before finally getting the ball into his throwing hand and making a pretty hard throw toward my direction. I could tell the ball was not going to reach me and it was going to be wide of first toward right field, so I did my best Joe Pepitone impersonation and put my right toe on the side of the first base bag while reaching across my body to attempt a sweeping backhand scoop catch of the misdirected thrown ball. I may have also closed my eyes. Somehow, the ball ended up in the huge webbing of the “Trapper” and a couple of the parents who were watching the practice started clapping. I heard my coach yell “Looks like we found our new first baseman.”
For the rest of that practice and the first six or seven games of that first season, me and the Trapper caught every ball hit or thrown within four feet of first base. That glove was magical. If a baseball touched it anywhere on its palm side surface it seemed to stick to it like an EZ Pass sticks to the inside of a car’s windshield.
Then before one game, I went to the burlap bag to grab the Trapper for infield practice and it wasn’t there. One of my coach’s sons had taken it out of the bag to play with it that week and left it in their garage. I was forced to play first with my tiny Colavito glove. Sure enough, the first ball in play that game was a grounder to our second baseman. His throw to me was hard but true and I still remember the horror of watching that ball bounce off the pocket of my glove and onto the ground in front of me. After picking up the dropped ball and throwing it back to our pitcher, I remember turning toward our bench to see what the coach’s reaction was to my first-ever miscue and seeing him get into his pick-up truck and drive away. He was on his way home to get the Trapper. From that moment on, the glove never left my side. I remember almost crying when I finally was forced to return it to coach when the baseball season ended.
So why am I telling you all this? Because today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant would probably be in Cooperstown today if he had the chance to play first base with the Trapper. In fact, if Jack Fournier had a modern day first baseman’s mitt, Lou Gehrig might have never been signed by New York or might have instead been traded by the Yankees before Wally Pipp got that famous headache. Why?
In 1918, Pipp left the Yankees for WWI military service. New York signed Fournier to take his place. The French-American native from Au Sable, Michigan got into 27 games for Manager Miller Huggins ball club and instantly became one of the best hitters on that team, scorching the ball at a .350 clip during his 27 games of action. After such an impressive offensive performance, you’d figure the Yankees would quickly offer the guy a contract for the following season or at the very least invite him to next year’s spring training. Instead, the Yankees dropped him like a hot potato. How come?
Jack Fournier might just have been the worst-fielding first baseman in baseball history. During just those 27 games he played as a Yankee, the guy made 7 errors. During his 14 seasons in the big leagues, he made over 200. In Nelson Chip Green’s excellent SABR Baseball Biography profile of Fournier’s career, he quotes from a 1916 LA Times article describing the Chicago White Sox chances for success in the upcoming baseball season. Fournier played his first six big league seasons for the Pale Hose. Here’s that quote: “[t]he only weak defensive point in the infield is at first base,” where “Fournier will again try his hand at playing that position. For every run that he lets in,” suggested Williams, “he will drive in another, making it a so-so proposition.”
It seems that Fournier had hands of stone and played first base like his feet were stuck in cement. Balls thrown or hit directly at him were frequently dropped. Those that passed just a foot to either side of him were considered automatic base runners. Managers tried to hide him in the outfield but he was even worse defensively out there.
The one thing Fournier could do on a baseball field was hit. His lifetime average was .313 and once a livelier baseball was introduced to the game in 1920, Fournier became a power hitter, who was often referred to as the National Leagues “Babe Ruth.” He led the NL with 27 home runs while playing for Brooklyn in 1924. Truth was that Fournier was a great DH before there was a DH in Major League Baseball.