Grave Story: Claude Jonnard (1897-1959)

Here lies Claude Jonnard, one-half of the Jonnard twins that played in the 1920s and ‘30s. He was the older of the two, having been born an hour ahead of his brother, Clarence. Claude pitched for the New York Giants (1921-24), St. Louis Browns (1926) and Chicago Cubs (1929).

The Jonnard boys were born in Nashville on November 23, 1897. They grew up playing baseball in elementary and high school and were both signed by the Nashville Vols in 1917 — Claude “Big Bubber” as a pitcher and Clarence “Little Bubber” as a catcher. They were teammates and a pitcher-catcher battery in the minors on occasion, but they were never big-league teammates. They did face each other once, and Clarence went 0-for-1 against Claude.

Claude was blind in one eye. The story goes that he was herding some pigs on the family farm when he was 15 years old, using a fishing pole for a prod. One of the pigs turned suddenly and hit the pole, forcing the other end into his left eye. His injury didn’t prevent him from having a 24-year playing career.

He moved from Nashville to Little Rock and won 13 games in both 1919 and 1920. After an excellent season in Little Rock in 1921, where he won 22 games, the Giants brought him to the majors at the end of the season. He picked up a save in his only MLB appearance that year, throwing 4 scoreless innings against the Phillies and striking out 7 on October 1.

Jonnard bounced back and forth from the Giants to various minor-league teams from 1921-4, but he did appear in 113 games. All but 4 appearances came in relief. The papers reported that he was brought into so many games that the starting pitcher had lost early that he was called “The Undertaker.” Still, he managed to pick up 14 wins in his relief outings. In 1923, Jonnard led National League pitchers in games (45, tied with teammate Rosy Ryan), games finished (25) and saves (7, and this was retroactive, as saves didn’t come along until much, much later).

For all his good work, Giants manager John McGraw released Jonnard to the Toledo Mud Hens in February 1925. The previous season, he had turned in a fine 2.41 ERA in 34 games for the Giants, winning 4 games, losing 5 and saving 4. His SABR bio reports that he complained of a sore arm, and that was enough for the Giants to cut him loose.

Jonnard resurfaced in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1926. He was rocked pretty badly, appearing in 12 games (3 starts) and going 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA. In 36 innings, he gave up 46 hits, walked 24 and struck out just 13. He was shipped to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association and would spend the next two and a half seasons there. He made the most of his time there at least, winning 22 and 20 games in 1927 and 1928, respectively.

Jonnard was declared a free agent by Commissioner Kenesaw Landis in 1929. Landis declared that some teams had used illegal tactics in keeping players “hidden” in the minors and freed them to sign with any team. Jonnard promptly signed a contract with the Cubs that came with a $14,000 bonus. For that sizable sum of money (it was 1929 after all), the Cubs got 27-2/3 innings of work from Jonnard, with an 0-1 record, 7.48 ERA and 1.880 WHIP. Yes, the Cubs have been seeing their high-priced free agents blow up in their faces for a long, LONG time.

Jonnard lasted with Chicago until July. A 3-inning relief appearance that saw him allow 4 runs on 7 hits in a wild 13-10 comeback win was the last major-league game of his career. His career totals included a 14-12 record, 3.79 ERA, 17 saves, 160 strikeouts and 122 walks. Despite those bad appearances with the Browns and Cubs, he really was an excellent pitcher with the Giants as an early relief specialist.

Jonnard pitched in the minor leagues until 1940, when he was 42. He won a total of 194 games in 22 minor-league seasons, winning 20+ games four times. He became a player-manager in 1938 with the Shreveport Sports and managed from 1938-42 and again from 1947-51. His last managerial stint was with the Lenoir Red Sox, an affiliate of the New York Giants.

Both Jonnard brothers went on to work for the Giants after their playing careers were done. Claude was the supervisor of the New York Giants’ minor league training camp in Melbourne, Fla., and Clarence was the assistant farm director for the team. Claude broke both of his legs in a hang glider accident while in Florida, when the glider that he and his instructor were flying crashed. He later suffered a heart attack in 1956, which ultimately forced his retirement.

Claude Jonnard died on August 27, 1959, following surgery to remove a blood clot from the main artery from the heart. The official cause of death was heart failure. He was 61 years old and is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville. His twin brother Clarence would outlive him by almost 20 years, dying in 1977.

Photo Caption: “Death last night ended one of Nashville Baseball’s greatest chapters. It separated the Jonnard brothers, Clarence, left, and Claude, right. Claude died at Baptist hospital. This is the last picture of the two made at a ball park. It was snapped last year when Claude saw his final game with Clarence at Sulphur Dell, where they started their professional careers.” Source: The Tennessean, August 27, 1959.

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