The French dis-Connection
French Baseball History Part 7
When World War II ended, baseball in France showed signs of life again, but it was a noisy awakening. Thousands of American troops, anxious to return to their loved ones, marched down the Champs-Elysées to the U.S. embassy in Paris, shouting “Send us home!”
If that sounded like an echo from the the First World War, there’s a reason. Consider this poem, written by one frustrated Doughboy: We drove the boche across the Rhine…The Kaiser from his throne…Oh, Lafayette, we’ve paid our debt…For Christ’s sake send us home.
After each war, Washington insisted that a total demobilization was impossible and that it was necessary to maintain a troop presence overseas, a policy considered even more important following the Second World War. With the fighting over, however, this carried little weight with the tens of thousands of soldiers who suddenly had nothing to do. “I have just been laying on my ass for three months doing nothing,” one soldier complained. As weeks and months dragged on, anger and frustration rose.
There were calls for Secretary of War Robert Patterson to resign. Congress was swamped with thousands of letters from disgruntled soldiers. “My buddies and I hold you responsible for our predicament,” one said. “You put us in the Army and you can get us out. Either demobilize us or, when given the next shot at the ballot box, we will demobilize you!”
Washington was traumatized. As protests continued, officials grew more and more desperate to find a way of keeping their restless troops occupied.
The solution, as in World War I, turned out to be baseball. Battlefields were turned into ball fields. The Army also sent over 85,964 gloves, 72,850 balls and 131,130 bats. By mid-summer 1945, thousands of U.S. servicemen based in France were playing in competitive leagues throughout the country.
It was just what French baseball needed. Eager to take advantage of the American presence, officials began assembling teams and leagues of their own and, whenever possible, scheduling games against the vastly more talented Americans, some of whom were professionals.
One game, in particular, stands out. French infielders wore blue shorts, aviation goggles and coal miner’s caps. The pitcher wore hockey pads; the left fielder, a steel helmet straight from the front lines. The right fielder was a sight to behold, garbed in a tight one-piece bathing suit and straw hat. As for the umpire, he sported a World War I vintage gas mask and wore his wire mask not over his face but his groin.
But the most astonishing thing is that the French won, 5–3, perhaps because their American opponents couldn’t stop laughing.
All silliness aside, baseball in France appeared to be up and running again. There were games not only in Paris but in places as far away as Bordeaux, Marseilles and Toulouse. The sport was even being introduced in various French schools.
A few years later, however, the game would take a hit from which it is still trying to recover.
On February 21, 1966 President Charles DeGaulle pulled France out of the military structure of NATO and sent American troops packing.
“The NATO exit hurt us badly,” said François Collet, head of communications for baseball’s governing body, the Fédération Française de Baseball, Softball et Cricket (FFBSC). “It really set us back because we lost all the Americans who were stationed here and playing baseball.” Playing fields were dug up for highways and housing developments. Others were left to the devices of Mother Nature.
Today, French baseball is once again in a rebuilding stage and very much a minor sport. Participants number about 13,000 compared to two-million for soccer, 500,000 for basketball and 100,000 for cycling. Even the French Baton Twirling Society has higher numbers. There’s also a lack of fields, a shortage of money and little or no coverage in the French media.
The latter is especially frustrating. Most teams are ignored by the media and unable to get their game results into the local papers. We tried. We called a friend at one newspaper who said, “No, absolutely not. Baseball is not a sport here.” We argued but he wouldn’t budge. “There can be news on the social pages, like a new coach,” he said, “maybe a group photo of a team, but no action shots. Those are only for the sports pages, and baseball — I repeat — is not a sport in France.”
Which makes it all the more astonishing that young people here manage to find their way to baseball. There’s little glory, no big local heroes to look up to like Tony Parker a Frenchman who plays in the National Basketball Association.
So what draws them to baseball? One player said it was Peanuts. “My father was traveling in the U.S. and brought back a Peanuts cartoon book for me. I was so taken with Charlie Brown and his friends playing baseball that I decided I wanted to play, too.” Another player cited American movies. “All those images, the wide open spaces, it was just so beautiful that I wanted to be a part of it.”
At one game, where only a handful of spectators were present, we were surprised to see two artists with their canvases and paints trying to capture images of the contest. “Baseball appeals to all the senses,” one said.
“It’s not so aggressive,” explained the father of one player, “not like rugby or soccer. There’s real strategy that makes young people think. It stimulates their minds, a little like chess.”
Many see baseball as an opening to another culture. As Jacques Barzun, a French-born historian, observed, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”
From that standpoint, the French deserve high marks for trying but there are still moments when there is a real dis-connect. When the coach of one team was trying to decide who would pitch the next game, one new player piped up, “I’ll pitch if someone will show me the motions.”
At another tournament, an official speaking over the P.A. system struggled to explain the intricacies of the game to a crowd of several hundred. “Monsieur l’Abitre has just announced that the last pitch was a ball. With the fourth ball accorded, the batter now gets to go to premiere base,” he said. When the batter successfully stole second, the announcer dutifully informed spectators, “The defense seems perturbed.”
And finally, while covering the Olympic Games in Beijing, French television decided to fill the time between fencing and handball with a few minutes of a baseball game. “I really can’t explain to you all the rules,” the commentator confessed, “but I can tell you that it is two teams of nine players each that pass in alternance from defense to offense. For the Americans, this is a game they play very well.”