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THE NEWS OF THE DAY : Frenchy Bordagaray, an 82-Year-Old Great-Grandfather Living in Ventura, Shocked the Baseball Establishment in the 1930's With Such Gimmicks as Racing a Horse on Foot and Growning a Mustache, but His Flair Made Him a Media Darling

December 25, 1992|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frenchy Bordagaray caused a sensation when he reported to the Brooklyn Dodgers' Clearwater, Fla., training facility in the spring of 1936. He was wearing a mustache. Not just any mustache, but the first grown by a baseball player since the 1912 season.

The press reacted as if he had just discovered nuclear fusion. Space was appropriated in newspapers across America with photographs of Bordagaray and his new mustache. Editorial cartoonists drew an assortment of mustaches on prominent baseball stars of the day. Pundits went wild. Dan Parker, resident wit of the New York Sun, celebrated Bordagaray's achievement with a poem:

\o7 Skating's revival and cycling's survival bring fads of a far-distant day.

Now if drooping mustaches break out like rashes, please blame Frenchy Bordagaray.

This jolly young codger, this fly-chasing Dodger, just climbed aboard C. Stengel's ship, and when he reported, 'twas noticed he sported, an eyebrow where once was a lip.\f7

A .283 lifetime hitter with five major league clubs, Stanley George (Frenchy) Bordagaray had a knack for generating a tremendous amount of press during his 11-year major league career, but he was decades ahead of his time. Today, athletes can cash in on the free media publicity with lucrative endorsement deals. Bordagaray's only pay-back for an inordinate amount of coverage was personal satisfaction. He liked seeing his name in the news.

"That's what I played for," said Bordagaray, now an 82-year-old great-grandfather living in Ventura.

Bordagaray is currently putting his scrapbook back in order, a tall task considering its condition. Two feet wide and 15 pounds of glued-on newspaper clippings, game programs, photos and cartoons, it contains dozens of faded tan pages crumbling at the edges, leaving paper crumbs everywhere. With binding that no longer binds, the pages have become rearranged, causing chronological disorder.

"I'm going to get them straightened out one of these days," Bordagaray promised.

The scrapbook reveals Bordagaray's unabashed ability to make news. He was his own best publicist, never reluctant to be outrageous--he once raced a horse in the 100-yard dash and lost by a few feet--if it could get him the kind of monster headline usually reserved for the outbreak of war:

"Bordagaray Quits After Salary Dispute," trumpeted the Sacramento Bee on March 15, 1933.

"Bordagaray Is Daffy With One Eye on Paying Customers," bannered the New York Post on May 18, 1936. The accompanying article compared him to the eccentric Babe Herman and got him to explain why he always dived back to first when an easy stride would have beaten the pitcher's throw.

"The fans like that kind of stuff," he told the Post. "They like to see a guy dig his face into the ground and then get up and shake the dirt out of his pants. They think it's funny."

Bordagaray didn't really need a mustache to get himself into the news. His exploits on the field often spoke for themselves. A line-drive hitter with speed, Bordagaray batted better than .300 three times, including a personal-best .315 in 1936. He could play outfield and infield and was even ahead of his time in fielding: He caught fly balls against his stomach, two decades before Willie Mays made the basket catch famous.

"Bordy was a handy guy to have around because he could do so many things," said Bob Broeg, sports editor emeritus of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a member of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee.

With his Basque ancestry, beautiful wives and flamboyant antics, Bordagaray brought color and irreverence to the game. It was only fitting that he played with both the Gashouse Gang in St. Louis and the Daffy Dodgers in Brooklyn, teams that knew how to have a good time.

"Baseball was a lot of fun for me, especially with the Cards," said Bordagaray, who also played for the powerhouse 1941 New York Yankees "but couldn't have fun with them. They were too serious. Snooty guys. Except Joe (DiMaggio). He's the only one I got along with."

Bordagaray kept writers busy thinking up new nicknames. Since first breaking into the headlines as a star halfback at Fresno State in 1929, he has been referred to in print as: The Fresno Flash . . . Fresno's Flying Frenchman . . . The Inimitable Bouncing Basque . . . General Bordagaray . . . Monsieur Bordagaray . . . Frenchy the Showman . . . The Dizzy Dean of the Dodgers.

Bordagaray used the press for publicity and was not ashamed to admit it. He once told a New York writer: "(The press) is doing just what I would be willing to pay you for."

To the 11 writers covering the Dodgers, Bordagaray was an easy touch for a good quote. "I always gave them a story," he said. "I told the sportswriters, 'As long as you spell my name right, you can say anything you want about me.' "

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