Thursday, October 06, 2011
The Other Tito FranconaPosted by Bruce Markusen
By now, every fan of the game knows about Terry Francona’s departure from the Red Sox. But do fans outside of Red Sox Nation know much about his father, who was a pretty fair ballplayer in his day?
The younger Francona, whose given name is Terry Jon Francona, is often referred to as “Tito.” That’s because his father played under the same name, and that sometimes can be a source of confusion. The original Tito Francona, whose given name was John Patsy Francona, played with a passel of teams during the 1950s and '60s.
When I was growing up with the game, the original Tito Francona was part of a different source of confusion for me; I used to mix him up with Tito Fuentes, the second baseman for the Giants who later played for the Padres, Tigers, and A’s.
The two players looked nothing alike—Francona was a white Italian American while Fuentes was a dark-skinned Latino—and they played nothing alike. Francona was a left-handed hitting outfielder/first baseman with power, while Fuentes was a singles-hitting middle infielder with speed. But when you’re all of six or seven years old, it’s hard to keep all of the Titos straight.
After missing out on two potential seasons because of military service, the elder Francona broke in with the Orioles in 1956, when he hit a modest .258 with only nine home runs but still managed to finish in a second-place tie for the American League Rookie of the Year award. He then bounced around with the White Sox and Tigers before coming into his own with the Indians in 1959.
Now 25 years of age, Tito found his power stroke and his hitting stroke. Platooning with Jimmy Piersallin the outfield and Vic Power at first base, he belted a career high 20 home runs, hit a scathing .363, and finished fifth in the league MVP race. (He would have won the batting title, but he didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify.)
Predictions of stardom came from the Cleveland media and fan base, but like many such forecasts, they did not come to pass. The following season, Francona did lead the AL with 36 doubles and nearly matched his home run and RBI totals from ‘59, but his OPS fell off significantly, from .980 to .832. His power gradually dropped over the next three seasons, prompting the Indians to sell him to the Cardinals.
From there, he played out his career as a journeyman, bouncing from the Phillies to the Braves to the A’s to the Brewers. He mostly served as a pinch-hitter and supersub, though he did produce one more season of glory in 1969, which he split between Atlanta and Oakland. After being sold to the A’s in late August, Francona batted .341 with a .541 slugging percentage while wearing the green and gold of Oakland.
For his career, Francona put up respectable totals: 125 home runs, a .272 batting average, and a .343 on-base percentage. As a player, he has drawn comparisons to outfielders from later generations, like Jay Johnstone and Kevin Bass, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Unfortunately, that body of work has become mostly forgotten, in large part because Francona did not enjoy the kind of postseason success that his son would have as a manager with the Red Sox. Playing mostly on second-division clubs throughout his 15-year career, the elder Francona never made the postseason.
Francona’s son figures to make more headlines this winter as he receives consideration for job openings in Chicago and possibly St. Louis. In the meantime, the first Tito Francona will remain in the shadows. From what I hear of the elder Francona, he is a very modest man, so I don’t think that the continued obscurity will bother him in the slightest.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.