Franal and Frenchie

By Pete Ehrmann on June 18, 2016
Franal and Frenchie
God only knows how he figured calling himself “Franal Ruffles” was an improvement.

Cataldo Piarulli was probably right to adopt a nom de guerre when he set his sights on the heavyweight championship of the world in 1923…

If they weren’t the most colorful heavyweight boxers in California in the Roaring Twenties, they were at least the most colorfully named ones.

Cataldo Piarulli was probably right to adopt a nom de guerre when he set his sights on the heavyweight championship of the world in 1923, but God only knows how he figured calling himself “Franal Ruffles” was an improvement. At that, his new name was no less impractical than the notion that a Sunday school teacher and church choir director had any business in the ring in the first place.

Fred Cunningham was a perfectly normal, all-purpose handle, but when the coal deliveryman christened thusly launched his boxing career that same year it was as “Frenchie the Coalman.”

“Mr. Frenchie is the champion coalman of West Oakland and is scarcely discernible from his wares,” reported the Oakland Tribune. “In fact, they tell a story about Frenchie going to sleep in a coal bin one day and being shoveled into a sack and delivered to a customer.”

Lily-white Ruffles was the idol of his hometown of Hanford, about 30 miles southeast of Fresno, where he won his first two bouts by four-round decision. In California then the law didn’t permit fights longer than that. You’d think someone with such a peacocky pseudonym would have a balletic style of ringmanship to match, but Ruffles disdained artsy-fartsy stuff and relied on a powerful right hand punch he slung from the floor.

Ruffles and Frenchie met at the Oakland Auditorium on October 17, 1923. Frenchie was 0-2, but said his defeats were by design because he “had to learn to ‘take ‘em’ before he could ever become a champion.” Now, said the Coalman, it was the other guy’s turn to take ‘em, and Lord help Franal Ruffles.

“If I knock him dead,” Frenchie went so far as to say, “they’s lots of flowers in Hanford.”

The fight went one round. Here, racist dialect and all, is what Bob Shand of the Oakland Tribune wrote about it the day after:

“Long after the customers had faded from the fight house a dark figure emerged from a dressing room and a strong voice informed the janitor that the owner had a date to fight someone and wanted to know when the battle would start.

“’Ah came heah to fight some gen’man, but when Ah was settin’ on the load of coal the coal come down on me an’ Ah think it must have hurt me consid’ly.’

“The owner of the voice was none other than Frenchie Coalman, the negro heavyweight who had been attending Mr. Franal Ruffles’ Sunday school a pair of hours previously. As the Coalman was trying to throw a hootchy-kootchy swing into Mr. Ruffles’ midriff, Franal belted him on the point of the chin and all the lights went out as far as the Coalman was concerned. And take it from one who sat close up, Frenchie was OUT.”

After the Coalman was apprised of what really happened, he pronounced Ruffles “mighty lucky,” to which promoter Tommy Simpson replied, “Lucky he was not arrested for murder.”

Franal’s luck didn’t hold. After suffering back-to- back knockout losses a couple weeks later the Fighting Schoolteacher went home to Hanford to devote himself full-time to God’s work. Then in January ’24, Ruffles came across the scene of an automobile accident and single-handedly lifted the overturned car up so its trapped occupants could escape. Heavenly signs didn’t come much clearer than that.

Two comeback wins later, Franal was back in the Oakland Auditorium ring on March 19, with Frenchie the Coalman in the other corner.

Though it was said he couldn’t “fight a lick on earth,” Frenchie had a three-bout winning streak going himself, his victims apparently awed by the menacing glares, goofy gyrations and wild roundhouse swings for which Bob Shand anointed The Coalman “the grand entertainer of them all.”

No such luck in the rematch with Ruffles, though, and Frenchie went out in the second round. Then he quit boxing and the coal business and went to work washing cars.

A few years later Frenchie achieved wider notoriety when a story was told about an unnamed retired U.S. Navyman who arrived in Oakland in the fall of ‘24 and told promoter Simpson he wanted to fight for him — but only against negroes. “I’m from the South,” the sailor explained.  He promptly mowed down several black heavyweights, going to great lengths to punish them. Whereupon Frenchie the Coalman announced he was returning to the ring to redeem the honor of his race against the Ku Klux Klouter.

He almost did, knocking the sailor down several times in their September 24 match; but the gob wouldn’t stay down, and in the third round Frenchie went down for no apparent reason and refused to get up even when the referee threatened him with disqualification and the loss of his purse.

“Yes sir, Mistah Referee, I’se gwan to get up,” the story quoted Frenchie as saying, “But not tonight.”

Of course it was too good to be true. The purveyor of the yarn, which appeared in The Milwaukee Journal on March 21, 1929, said that lightweights Sammy Mandell and Billy Wallace fought the main event on that Oakland card. But according to the Oakland Tribune it was not Frenchie but someone called Billy Smith who was knocked out by Art “Sailor” Maley that day.

Maley (a good prospect from Chicago, not Dixie) and the Coalman did fight one week later, and according to Bob Shand, Frenchie “got knocked silly in the first round. (He) never had a chance.”

Shand implored Frenchie to quit boxing for good on the ground that “it’s much better to be a live car washer than a dead fighter.” But the Coalman kept at it, with results indicated by a brief item in the Oakland paper on May 20, 1930 about Frenchie’s impending bout with Racehorse Roberts (such names!) which noted, “Roberts says he can’t be blamed for taking a match like that as he has been fighting tough ones since he came back.”

After that, who knows?

As for Franal Ruffles, after he took out Frenchie in their second fight he was lauded as “the most promising heavyweight in the four-round ranks” and “one of the best hitters in the heavyweight division” until a four-bout losing streak put an end to that.F

In 1925 the Sunday school teacher retired from boxing to study for the ministry. Five years later he was living with his wife and daughter in Berkeley when Ruffles heard about the 6’7” heavyweight from Italy, Primo Carnera, who was bowling over everyone he fought in a barnstorming tour of the USA.

“It would be wonderful to say I licked a man as big as that,” Franal told Mrs. Ruffles.

Fighting Carnera became such an obsession that even after Bombo Chevalier signed to fight Primo at the Oakland ballpark on April 14, 1930, Ruffles held out hope that something would happen to Chevalier and he’d get the call to step in.

So he went to the Imperial Gym, donned the gloves for the first time in five years and went a couple torrid rounds with a sparring partner to demonstrate his suitability for the task.

Upon exiting the ring, 26-year old Ruffles suffered a massive heart attack. He died two days later, on April 13, 1930.

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  1. Janice Piarulli 04:41pm, 07/17/2018

    Cataldo Franal Piarulli was my father’s brother. I never met him, but I do have that picture of him! I never knew how he died!  It is indeed an interesting article about his career!!!

  2. Bob 03:42am, 06/22/2016

    Pete: Another gem from the great fistic archaeologist that you are. These stories are a joy to read. You bring life to these all but forgotten practitioners of the once so sweet science.

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