His first big league game was as a teammate of Ty Cobb at a position he never played before. The last hit of his major league career came off George “Babe” Ruth, who was still very much a pitcher, and thin. But that proved to be the prelude for Henri Rondeau, who went on to play twelve seasons in Minneapolis and worked the sidelines for the Millers longer than that as a coach.
The first thing you notice about Henri Rondeau is the name. It’s not a usual baseball name. Sounds more like a French cyclist or a professional lacrosse player. But Henri Joseph Rondeau, a French Canadian from Connecticut, was in love with baseball, a game he came to excel at while working as a mill hand. A mill worker in the early twentieth century worked six twelve hour days with one day off. For the most athletically gifted, that one day was reserved for baseball on the mill team. In Danielson, Connecticut, Rondeau wore a tattered, un-laundered (and probably stinky) uniform, but he was a prince on the field for his mill team. Once, in a Sunday doubleheader, Rondeau had ten hits and 18 runs batted in. Someone said something about him, and someone else repeated it, and before you knew it, Henri was a legend in Danielson. Tales of his exploits reached the ears of Jesse “Crab” Burkett, the former star outfielder from the 19th century. Burkett took a train from Massachusetts to see Rondeau for himself, and quickly signed him for his own team in Worcester. Four years later, after bounding all over the map playing pro ball, his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers.
There are three intriguing things about Henri Rondeau, the ballplayer who didn’t have a ballplayer’s name. First, he never settled on a defensive position. Burkett liked him in right field, but ensuing managers shuffled Henri to first base, short, and second base. He even popped into a game in a pinch as a reliever. At just under six-foot tall and 175 pounds, Rondeau was a typical athlete for his time, but he was agile and uncanny in his versatility. The second interesting item about Rondeau was that he played his first game behind the plate, his first pro game wearing a chest protector, in the major leagues. In 1912 the Tigers found themselves without a backup catcher, and one of their scouts remembered Rondeau’s athleticism and solid bat from a trip months earlier. The Tigers paid the Senators $4,000 for Henri and the next spring he was tossed in the mix and given a chance to win a job as a catcher. he surprised many when he went north with the Tigers. A week into the season, Rondeau collected his first hit. In those days, most teams employed a platoon at catcher, and in Detroit it was Oscar Stanage and Red McKee, who batted left-handed. Rondeau was expected to catch in the bullpen and handle the second game of doubleheaders, as needed. But he didn’t hit much, and in August something happened that ended his season.
The third and final intriguing thing about Rondeau was his love/hate relationship with the sun. To a ballplayer, the office is the diamond, carpeted with grass and dusty infields, and bathed in sunshine. In those days before night games, baseball was played under the flaming ball of gas in the sky, it was an occupational hazard. And hazardous it was to Rondeau, who twice nearly died on the field from the heat. In his rookie season with the Tigers in an August game, Rondeau collapsed in the bullpen at Navin Field under temperatures that reached into the upper 90s. He was transported out of the ballpark to a Detroit hospital, where he spent nearly a week being treated for sun stroke. His fever soared so high that at one point he did not recognize a teammate.
Fast forward a dozen years to Hartford, where Rondeau was playing out his professional career after years with Minneapolis. In the eighth inning of a game played under sweltering humidity, Rondeau collapsed at his position in left field. His teammates tried to resuscitate him, but he didn’t respond. It looked as if baseball may suffer a tragedy, but a doctor in the crowd roused Rondeau and the ballplayer was actually able to walk from the field. He was later determined to have suffered a heart attack. He never played baseball again.
But before his heart attack, before the end of his playing days, Rondeau was an icon in Minneapolis, a growing industrial city that was decades away from getting a major league team. The Millers were the greatest show in town, an excellent team with an uncommon dedication to fielding a good team. While some minor league owners liked to stock their roster with prospects hoping to get a payday when a major league team came calling, the Millers loved to develop players. The Millers liked to stick with guys. The Millers liked familiar faces.
For ten seasons starting in 1915, Rondeau was a staple in Minneapolis. When fans filed into Nicollet Park, they felt pretty good about seeing Good Ol’ Henri, the wiry, hard-hitting veteran, in the outfield. Rondeau batted over .300 seven times. He set team records for hits and runs scored, and he was “Old Reliable” in the middle of the Millers’ lineup.
How long was Henri Rondeau in a Minneapolis uniform? The team and the city held not one, not two, not three, not even four, but five special days in his honor. One year he was given an automobile, a 450-pound hog, and an instant camera. He played his final game for the Millers in 1924, when he batted .302 and hit a triple in his final game. Reportedly, when 37-year old Henri glided in with his three-bagger, he bowed at the waist and doffed his cap to the Minneapolis fans, who responded with a standing ovation.
Rondeau coached for the Millers until 1937, when he retired to his home in Rhode Island, where he died six years later at the age of 56.