Frenchy Bordagaray, a former Fresno State football star from Coalinga who ended up playing eleven years in the major leagues, was one of the most colorful performers in an era of free-spirited players. It was the 1935 and 1936 seasons with the Dodgers where most of his zany antics occurred.
In an interview with Bordagaray in the 1980s, he recounted the pranks that he pulled on Stengel. Once, he was on second base and the batter lined a single to left. The outfielder made a perfect throw home and when Bordagaray saw Giants catcher Gus Mancuso had the ball well short of the plate, he turned and walked back to his dugout. Stengel was furious and fined him. When the Frenchman suggested Stengel should be fined for waving him home, he was socked with another fine. On another occasion, Stengel fined him for not sliding into second on a steal attempt. Later in the game, Bordagarary hammered a home run. He slid into first and second with Stengel chasing him. He made a slide into third and then a swan dive into home plate. The home run cost him for showing up Stengel.
In 1936 when Bordagaray reported for spring training, he had a small mustache. Someone suggested he let it grow into a handlebar. Bordagaray did so and added a goatee. After two months, Stengel told him to get rid of it. Stengel added: "Frenchy, if there's gonna be any clown in this club, it's going to be me." The stories belied the fact, as Stengel said in later years, that Bordagaray was a fine player and an exceptionally good hitter. Stengel loved his hustle and competitiveness. In the two seasons under Stengel, Bordagaray batted .282 and .315. He played two years of third base for the St. Louis Cardinals as an outfielder and third baseman. Where he really sparkled that season was as a pinch hitter where he was the best in the league, with twenty hits in forty-three at bats. He played for Cincinnati in 1939 and with the Yankees in 1941. In the latter two seasons, he appeared in two World Series going 0-3, but still took home the winner's share of the proceeds. His lifetime average for eleven seasons was .283. In 1944, he played 130 games for the Dodgers, hit .281, and was the regular third baseman.
Frenchy's major league debut might have been later if he had listened to his father who wanted him to return to Fresno State. He had an electrifying football performance, leading the Bulldogs to their first unbeaten season and a Far Western Conference title. The 5'7", 175-pounder also played on Stan Borleske's basketball team. His ability in the Fresno Twilight League and Valley League games caught the eyes of baseball scouts. He made the decision to sign with the Sacramento Solons despite his father's wishes that he stay in school. His father gave in to his strong-willed son. "He wants to play ball for Sacramento, so what can I do," said the elder Bordagaray. "There is no gold playing in college; he wanted to go for the bucks." The decision broke the hearts of Bulldog fans, but Bordagaray predicted in an interview with Sacramento Bee sports editor Rudy Hickey that he would lead the league in hitting. He signed February 28, 1932 and was hitting .350 when he came up with a lame knee. He continued with the Solons until he was called up to the Chicago White Sox for the final twenty-nine games of the 1934 season. His average was.322. The following season, he signed with Brooklyn.
Bordagaray had to deal with the fact that he played on some very poor ball clubs. Stengel's Dodgers finished fifth in 1935 and seventh in 1936 when there were only eight teams in each league. In regaling about the antics of his day, Bordagaray lamented the change in focus in many of the high-salaried players of the 1970s and 1980s. "They are too serious, more concerned with salaries and the stock market than just having fun playing the greatest game ever invented. After all, it is just a game."
If you've never heard of the "Racing Farmers" of Caruthers, well, pull up a hay bale, sit a spell, and learn somethin'. Ray Elder sat behind the steering wheel, wore a crash helmet, and put the pedal to the metal. His brother, Richard was inconspicuously in the background, carrying around a crescent wrench, a pair of pliers, and a screwdriver. But they were a team, early members of California's racing royalty when it came to the kingdom of spark plugs, carburetors, and gear boxes. They were known as the "Racing Farmers" because that's what they were before becoming involved with the risk, stress, and expense of stock car racing. It started when the Elders bought a used 1966 Dodge from professional driver Jack McCoy of Modesto. The following week, Ray entered and won a NASCAR Pacific Coast Late Model circuit race at Ascot Speedway in Southern California, his first in a career of forty-even wins. These victories placed Ray second on the All-Time Grand National West Series list by the time he retired in 1975.
Thirteen years after his first triumph at Ascot, Ray had driven to six NASCAR Grand National West Series Championships and had won the Most Popular Driver Award eight times. Richard had won the Mechanic of the Year crown six times. In eleven years of West Series events, Richard and his team of mechanics ranked in the top three in the National Championship Series standings. The crew was made up of friends and relatives from Caruthers. The coveted West Series titles were won by Elder from 1969 to 1972, 1974, and 1975. His four consecutive Auto Zone West Series wins were interrupted by old friend McCoy in 1973. Elder is #1 in most championships (six), most starts (121), and most Top 10 finishes (twenty-seven).
Another outstanding characteristic of Ray's racing career was the exemplary efficiency of his crew during pit stops. They were so fast that it made little difference what surface they were running on; they were going to get their contender back into the race in the shortest time possible. Elder made “modern era” history when he became the first Winston Cup West driver to win a Grand National Race which included the Motor Trend Riverside 500 in 1971 and the Golden State 400 in 1972. Elder is #3 on the West Coast Stock Car Series All-Time Top 10 list which includes Hershel McGriff, Parnelli Jones, Jack McCoy, and Bill Schmitt. Ray Elder, the "Racing Farmer," was inducted into the West Coast Stock Hall of Fame in 2002.
When Orval Overall was traded to the Chicago Cubs from the Cincinnati Reds midway through the 1906 National League season, it was history in the making. The powerful-throwing right-hander, who was born in Farmersville and raised in Visalia, joined one of the greatestpitching staffs in major league history: Mordecai "Three Fingers" Brown, Ed Reulbach, Jack Pfiester, and Carl Lundgren. By the 1907 opener, he was the ace of the staff. After the trade for Bob Wicker, Overall was 12-3 for the Cubs in a record 116-36 season. In 1907, he was the Cubs' opening day pitcher, a distinction that he held through the 1910 season when his mercurial career was cut short by a sore arm. In 1907, he was 23-8, tied the great Christy Mathewson with eight shutouts and posted a 1.70 ERA. Overall helped the Cubs win four World Series in five years.
Without the help of television, the World Series in the early 1900s was still big news and one of the best "money pitchers" was Overall. He won three of four World Series games (one in 1907 and two in 1908), all against the great Ty Cobb and his Detroit Tigers. In fifty-one innings of world series play, Overall had a 1.58 ERA. In three complete games, Overall limited Cobb to two hits in sixteen at bats. Overall won the first game of the 1908 Series and became the first Cubs pitcher to knock in the winning run. He clinched the Series in game five with a three-hit shutout and set a World Series record that still stands by striking out four batters in the first inning. One reached first on a passed ball.
During Overall's entire career, the Cubs were managed by Hall of Fame first baseman Frank Chance of Fresno, nicknamed the "Peerless Leader," and included Hall of Fame second baseman Johnny Evers and shortstop Joseph Tinker. Prior to turning professional, Overall was a legend at the University of California where in his senior year in 1904, he captained both the Bears' football and baseball teams. Overall played guard, punted, and was considered the "Dread of Stanford." He was an All-American in his senior year, excelled in agricultural science, and was voted the freshmen class president.
Orval was the first Berkeley grad to make it to the major leagues. After signing with the Reds, he was a starter in Cincinnati by 1905. His rookie year was the tip of his coming stardom. Overall compiled an 18-23 record in forty-two games and pitched thirty-nine complete games. He got off to a slow start in 1906 and was 4-5 when new manager Ned Hanlon traded him to Chicago. The rest is recorded history. Overall retired after his sore-armed 1910 season, but attempted a comeback in 1913 then retired for good. He became a prominent Fresno banker and was vice president and manager of the Fresno Security First National bank at the time of his death on July 14, 1947.
It would take a historian to recall the accomplishments of Elroy Robinson. The shy, 5'10", 165-pound middle distance runner couldn't make his Fresno High School team, yet set three world records. Robinson was a hard-working honors biology student at Fresno State College. He began a teaching career at Merced Elementary School in 1937 and coached the Wheaton College track and field team for a time. He came back to Fresno as a science teacher at Ernie Pyle Junior High School and then finished his vocational career as a biology teacher at Fresno City College. Robinson would never have been recruited today because the only race that he won at Fresno High was the intra-mural two-mile.
Bulldog coach J. Flint Hanner allowed him to come out for the Fresno State team, but Robinson did little his freshman year to show that he was a prospect. The turning point came during the 1934 West Coast Relays when Robinson took the baton for the anchor lap against San Jose State in the two-mile relay nearly half a lap behind the leaders, but clocked 1:54.7 to win the race and convince Hanner he could be something special. In 1935, he won both the NCAA and AAU half miles. Robinson stated during a 1959 interview that he always thought the mile would have been his best distance because he didn't have a finishing sprint. "My fastest quarter mile was only 48.8. I had to build up a big early lead, so I could fight off the runners who did have a sprint finish." Robinson said. "I ran only one competitive mile and was clocked in 4:16, but with a tough half mile coming up. I didn't go all out. My coaches were convinced I was a half miler and that was it." Robinson appeared to be a lock to make the U.S. Olympic team where he would have been a favorite to medal. That was before a 1,000-yard match race against Glenn Cunningham. The race was close until the final 125 yards when Robinson's ankle broke under the stress of the strain on his muscles and tendons. The ankle knitted together so well that Robinson began working out by himself on a third of a mile Merced track. He joined the Olympic Club and had his greatest season.
On May 13, 1937, he defeated teammate Norman Bright in a special 1,000-yard race in the Fresno West Coast Relays and recorded a world record time of 2:09.7. Two months later, In the National AAU meet at Randall's Island, New York, he ran perhaps the finest race of his career to establish world records of 1:49.6 for the 800-meters and 880-yards. "Actually my 800-meters time was a little better than that," Robinson told me, "But they didn't have separate timers, so they just took my 880 time which also bettered the 800-meters mark at that time."
Robinson retired from competition in 1938 and accepted a coaching job at Wheaton College in Illinois. Bob Winter, who taught biology with Robinson at Fresno City College for twenty-five years said the most fun that he ever had was with Elroy in field biology classes or just time with the two of them. "He was an outstanding teacher and such a good-hearted person. He really cared about his students. The kids loved him and I don't think he had a mean bone in his body," Winter said. "Even after he retired and had Parkinson's Disease, his mind was still sharp. "He loved to climb mountains in Europe and here. We taught Boy Scouts together for several summers at Camp Chawanakee at Shaver Lake to help scouts get their merit badges. He was a true biologist and lived his Christian faith every day. I sure miss him."
Albert C. White is probably one of the least-recognized great athletes with Fresno connections. The bull-shouldered White was the first person (man or woman) to win an Olympic Games double in diving. During the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, White took gold medals in the three-meter high springboard and ten-meter tower platform events. He graduated from Stanford University that year where he was the captain of the swimming and diving team. In all four years at Palo Alto, White was the best collegiate All-American diver in the nation. White was voted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965. Despite his remarkable double in the Olympics, White was best known in this country for his expertise off the one-meter low board where he never lost in collegiate or Amateur Athlete Union competition during his entire career. He won ten AAU National championships in a five-year span.
White was a twenty-nine year old World War I veteran when he competed in France. In 1919, before enrolling at Stanford, he toured inter-allied Europe with the U.S. basketball team along with pentathlon world record holder Fred Thompson and Dr. James Naismith, who is credited with inventing the game of hoops. Further evidence of his versatile athletic talents was that he also captained the Stanford gymnastic team as a sophomore and won the Pacific Coast Conference All-Around Gymnastic Championship in 1921. During the years that White lived in Fresno while working at the city engineer's office, he found time to coach youngsters and is credited with creating the surge of interest in water sports in local area high schools. White stayed in excellent shape and was still giving diving exhibitions in 1940. One year later, he returned to the Army in World War II as a lieutenant colonel. He later became the city engineer for the community of Richmond and was AAU diving commissioner for the Pacific Association. His coaching triumphs included teaching youngsters at the famed Athens Athletic Club and leading several AAU teams on tours in foreign countries.
Henry Wright was a precision mechanic by trade and developed into a master of precision with a target rifle as a hobby. Wright is one of a handful of Fresnans to achieve national recognition in any category of shooting. He won three National Gallery Rifle Championships and represented California in a number of team matches. Wright first stunned the rifle fraternity in 1927 when he defeated the world champion T.K Lee by a razor-thin margin of a single bull's-eye. Lee had been considered by most experts as invincible. In 1928, Wright had added the California State Championship to his collection and went on to repeat as national champion in 1928 and 1929. Since age is not a factor for expert riflemen, Wright continued to win local and state trophies into the late 1960s.