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June 4, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

DPOTD: The Worst Exchange of First Basemen Ever

by Steven Goldman

Dead Player of the Day (Jack Fournier Edition)

#26 Jack “Jacques” Fournier 1B 1912-1918, 1920-1927 (1889-1973)

Bill James called it the worst mistake in the history of the Chicago White Sox. Hawk Harrelson-as-GM hadn’t happened when he wrote that, but it was still true even afterward. A career .313/.392/.483 slugger (.301 TAv) despite his career being half-over prior to the introduction of the lively ball, Charlie Comiskey impetuously threw him away after he followed one of the best offensive seasons put together by a first baseman in the 20th century with a slump, replacing him with Chick Gandil, the player who masterminded the 1919 World Series fix. It wasn’t the first time the White Sox had put Fournier behind a gambler.

Born in a Michigan logging camp, of French-Canadian descent, Fournier turned pro at 18. He had, at least initially, one of the least impressive minor league records for a player who would eventually go on to be a major-league slugger, failing to hit over .242 in his first three seasons. He finally broke through as a 21-year-old, hitting .376 and slugging .579 in the low minors, mostly for Moose Jaw of the Western Canada League. This brought him to the attention of the Red Sox, who bought him that August. Unfortunately, the never gave him a try, selling him to the White Sox before the 1912 season even started.

Fournier made the team out of spring training that year, but struggled and was sent down to the Montreal Royals of the International League. He hit well there, batting .309/~.365/.479. This earned him another chance for 1913, but he struggled again, and in June the team jumped on dissension on the Yankees and acquired the slick-fielding but corrupt first baseman Hal Chase for two fringe players, the hobbled Rollie Zeider and Babe Borton (it was famously written that the Yankees had given up their biggest star for “a bunion and an onion.” Fournier hit the bench, batting .233/.323/.355 for the season—not so bad in a league that hit .256/.325/.336.

Fournier opened the 1914 season backing up Chase and playing the odd game in the outfield, but Chase jumped to the Federal League at midseason. Given a clear shot at playing time, Fournier finally capitalized, batting .311/.368/.443 (.300 TAv). His six home runs were third in the league, while his home run rate (every 63.2 at-bats) lead the league. He also did something that no player ever did before and only one other would do after—he took Walter Johnson deep twice in the same game. “I don’t believe I ever pitched to a player who took more liberties with my stuff than Jacques Fournier,” Johnson said years later. “Fournier was the original tough baby for me.”

IBy 1915, the White Sox had mostly collected the pieces that would allow for pennant-winning seasons in 1917 and 1919. Ray Schalk, Buck Weaver, and Eddie Cicotte, already on hand, were joined by Eddie Collins (acquired in December), Happy Felsch (rookie), Nemo Liebold (midseason waiver claim) and Shoeless Joe Jackson (August trade).  The Sox finished in third behind the Red Sox and Tigers (both of whom won 100 games) with a 93-61 record. It must have seemed to Fournier that he too would be a key part of a rising contender, hitting .322/.429/.491 (.333 TAv). With 20 doubles, 18 triples, and five home runs, he led the league in slugging percentage.

There was a problem, though, that was obsessing the press in Chicago and apparently Sox ownership as well: Fournier was apparently a miserable defensive player. He had gone through the minors as a catcher, only moving to first base in 1911, the year before his first call-up, and apparently never mastered the position. He was said to have little range and was mistake prone. His reputation is borne out by the stats, at least insofar as errors go. During the years of his career he made the third-most errors of any first baseman despite playing many fewer games than the leaders.

In 1914, Fournier had made 25 errors, which wasn’t a ton for the era—Chase, who was supposed to be the class of his position, made 28, though perhaps some of them were purposeful—but Comiskey and manager Pants Rowland weren’t satisfied. When Fournier went cold in 1915, hitting just .240/.328/.367, he found himself frequently benched for journeyman Jack Ness, who was inferior to Fournier both as a hitter and (again, insofar as the stats suggest) fielder. In February, 1916,  just before spring training, the Sox bought Gandil from the Indians.

They had traded down in every respect, and not just because Gandil would ultimately inflict a wound on the franchise that would last decades. He had been Sox property back in 1910 but didn’t hit, and they sold him off to Montreal, where he was eventually picked up by the Washington Senators. Gandil actually hit well in DC, batting .293/.344/.397 (about a .272 TAv)—his translated stats for those years resemble what James Loney put together in 2008—a decent average, a few home runs, a few walks, but not enough of any of them to make you happy. One key fact: Clark Griffith had sold—not traded—this solid hitter because he found him too annoying to deal with. Second key fact: Gandil’s bat went cold upon reaching Cleveland, and he was never again a league-average hitter, batting .273/.318/.341 over the short time remaining in his career.

Fournier was given one at-bat in 1917, then was sold off to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Fournier was a somewhat sensitive guy, and perhaps feeling less harassed about his defense, his bat recovered. He was hitting .325 and slugging .485 midway through the 1918 season when the Yankees called. Wally Pipp was headed off to fight in World War I and the Yankees needed a first baseman. Fournier, now 28, got into 27 games and gave New York some of his best, hitting .350/.393/.430 over 110 plate appearances. This would be the first time that Wally Pipp could have been Wally-Pipped by a better player, but the Yankees passed, sending Jacques back to the PCL.

It would take no less than Branch Rickey, that original hunter of market inefficiencies, to recognize Fournier’s value. Back with the Angels, Fournier continued to hit. At this point, Comiskey popped up and claimed that he was going to recall Fournier to the White Sox, an odd decision given that his rights had last belonged to the Yankees. That matter cleared up in the Angels’ favor, Fournier remained with Los Angeles in 1919, hitting .328 with a .495 slugging percentage in 169 games. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were completing their sixth season without a solid first baseman, having done without since Ed Konetchy jumped to the Federal league. Given Rickey’s lack of alternatives, he was happy to send four players to the Angels for Fournier, bad glove and all.

When we do translations from the Deadball era, there is a certain amount of assumption that goes into the mix, because you can’t be sure how much modern home run power all those doubles and triples are supposed to be hiding. Fournier, 30 years old in 1920, provides a decent before and after picture, the fact that the National League was a bit behind in the AL in feeling the full effects of the lively ball. His first year back in the bigs, Fournier didn’t convert those triples to homers, hitting 14 of the former but only three of the latter in a .306/.370/.438 season (.291 TAv). In 1921, Fournier heated up along with the NL as a whole, the circuit jumping from 3.97 runs per game to 4.59. Fournier batted  .343/.409/.505 with 16 home runs. On the bases he was something of a nightmare, attempting 42 steals and only making it 20 times, but the overall production was something the Cardinals could live with—for awhile, at least.

In 1922, Fournier dropped off at the plate, hitting .295/.368/.470. At the same time, Rickey had brought Jim Bottomley up from the minors. Bottomley was just 22, could hit, and was a better all around player. Making a move was a no-brainer, and the following February, Rickey, who was a great evaluator but somehow not a great trader, sent him to the Dodgers for two utility players. This kicked off the last great act of Fournier’s career, slugging first baseman for the “Daffiness Boys” Dodgers. It almost didn’t happen; Fournier was so put out at having been traded that he didn’t report to the Dodgers until May.

Paul Richards, who first went to camp with the Dodgers in 1929, said “I can still see that Dodgers team… Max Carey, Dave Bancroft, Jacques Fournier and the rest of them… They would lay around the dugout, and Uncle Robbie would tell them the right way to cook steaks.” Fournier would seem to have been long gone by the time Richards came along, so it’s not quite clear how he got into the picture, but it’s accurate nonetheless. Despite contending for a pennant every few years, the Dodgers weren’t exactly focused at that time, in part because after 1925 their fractured ownership situation didn’t reward effort. In this it was a bit like the Dodgers’ current battling ownership except it lasted forever.

Fournier entered this situation and proceeded to put together the best three situations of his career. It wasn’t the park; Fournier produced both at home and on the road, at times performing a bit better away from Ebbets Field. You pick the best season; they’re all about equally as good: .351/.411/.588 with 22 homers and 102 RBIs (1923); .334/.428/.536 with a league-leading 27 home runs and 83 walks (1924); .350/.446/.569 with 22 home runs, 130 RBIs, and a league-leading 86 walks (1925).

Despite being named team captain in 1925, Fournier didn’t feel loved in Brooklyn. It wasn’t manager Wilbert Robinson (the aforementioned Uncle Robbie) or ownership, but the fans. They got on him for his fielding in ways that were uncomfortably colorful. In September of 1925, Fournier announced he would not be back the following year:

The Brooklyn fans have hurled ugly epithets at me all season for the usual run of errors and for failing to do what they expected me to do. I have been called vile names. Mrs. Fournier gave up attending games in Brooklyn some time ago because she could not stand the language that was hurled from the grandstands.

Given time, Fournier reconsidered. Said the 1926 Reach Guide:

When the story had gone abroad, and he had had time to think things over Fournier began to appreciate the advice of friends, who pointed out to him tha the was placing himself in a position that would seriously handicap him in business, social and possibly political life for the rest of his days, if he delivery broke a contract of his own making.

He might have changed his mind even sooner than that. Fournier’s retirement threat was issued on the road. According to Richard Goldstein, “Fournier’s anguish struck a sympathetic note among the fans. The next time he took the field in Brooklyn… his every move was cheered.”

Ironically, when first arriving in Brooklyn, Fournier earned plaudits for his glove work. At the end of the 1923 season, the Sporting News went out of its way to praise him:

Instead of proving a poor fielder as was expected, Fournier has upset the dope by playing a wonderful game around the first turn of the infield… and in many contests was nothing short of sensational. He has had no easy task in covering first base. He has been called upon to take all kinds of erratic pegs, especially from the short field… In tagging out runners after making a difficult catch, Fournier has saved his teammates many an error. When Ray French was playing short with a lame arm, he made many weird throws to first base… As a result, Fournier had to catch the ball of f the bag and make a hurried stab at the runner… Many times Fournier has made a one-handed catch while three or four feet from the bag and tagged men out.

In 1926, the man who had nearly Wally Pipped Wally Pipp was Pipped himself. When Fournier went down with a severe ankle injury, the Dodgers moved rookie Babe Herman to first base. A few years in the future, Herman would make a permanent move to the outfield, but in the short term the Dodgers felt secure in letting Fournier go. Released, he signed with the Boston Braves over the winter. This would prove to be a fatal move. Braves Field had huge dimensions and was constantly subject to a cold wind that blew in off the Charles River; it was precisely the wrong park for a power hitter like Fournier. In 1927, the National League hit .282/.339/.386. Away from Boston, he hit a solid .294/.374/.478 with 10 home runs. At home, he hit .267/.359/.336 with no home runs.

Not enough attention was paid to home/road splits at that time to prevent his release. Fournier was through as a major leaguer. He spent the 1928 season with Newark of the International League, hitting .288/~.388 /.502 with 22 home runs, but he was 38 and no one called. Hanging up his spikes, Fournier worked as a minor league manager, coached baseball at UCLA, and eventually became a very successful scout working for the Browns, Cubs, Tigers, and Reds.

Fournier never got even a single vote for the Hall of Fame, and that’s probably as it should be, but somewhere, if not in Cooperstown then in the oft-retold tale of the Black Sox, there should be a small corner reserved for the guy who should have been the first sacker on the great White Sox teams, the Sox teams that won two World Series and threw none, because they were smart enough to keep Fournier and avoid the sordid likes of Chick Gandil.

If you have made it all the way to the end, I congratulate you. Not a lot has been written about Fournier. For what is probably the lengthiest treatment of his life and career, I recommend you consult his SABR biography by Nelson “Chip” Greene.”  Other sources included the Putnam history volumes for the Cardinals, Dodgers, and White Sox, Superstars and Screwballs by Richard Goldstein, and The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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