Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
In many ways 1959 marked the end of an era in Cleveland Indians baseball. By that season, many of the stars of the 40s and 50s had retired, but the club was still competitive thanks to the farm system and some shrewd trades. And in that near-magical season, Tito Francona was the driving force behind what turned out to be the Indians' last pennant contender for 35 years.
John Patsy (Tito) Francona
Left Fielder, First baseman, 1959-1964
Height: 5'11" Weight: 190 lbs
Throws: Left Bats: Left
How Acquired: Trade, March 21, 1959: Traded by Tigers for Larry Doby
Left Via: Sold, December 15, 1964: By Cardinals
Tito was born in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, which on the Ohio River west of Pittsburgh. He was raised and attended high school in New Brighton, a town roughly 25 minutes north of Aliquippa. After starring on his high school club, he signed with the St. Louis Browns and spent the 1952 and 1953 seasons working his way up the minor-league ladder.
Drafted by the military in 1954, he missed both that season and the next due to service with the army, and after his discharge went to Columbia in the winter of 1955-1956 to play winter ball. The time off didn't seem to hurt Tito, as he ended the winter with 17 home runs, one short of the then all-time record. That showing helped the now 22-year-old Francona going into spring training with the big-league club. Francona competed that spring to be the Orioles' center fielder, as last year's starter, Chuck Diering, was more of a defensive specialist, and most importantly, had demanded a big pay raise that winter.
Francona was not a natural outfielder, preferring first base, but the outfield was where the opportunity was, so that's where he moved. A great showing in spring training won Francona a job in Baltimore in the ouftield, and he took full advantage of it, hitting a decent .258/.334/.373 (95 OPS+). He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, but it was a very distant second, as Chicago's Luis Aparicio garnered 22 of the 24 votes (Rocky Colavito of Cleveland received the other vote).
In 1957 Francona resumed his role as a super-sub, but spent a couple weeks in Vancouver after fracturing a bone in his hand in June. He would lose playing time in September, as a he slumped in the second half, and would be dealt to Chicago that winter in a massive seven-player trade, which included future Hall of Famer Larry Doby. Half-way through the 1958 season he was dealt to Detroit (with Ray Boone and Bob Shaw going the other way). Between Chicago and Detroit Francona had another sub-par offensive season, hitting .254/.350/.330. That spring he was dealt yet again, this time to Cleveland and again with Larry Doby going the other way.
So going into the 1959 season, Francona had been in the majors for three seasons but hadn't earned an everyday position yet. And he'd be playing for his fourth team, and had to impress a new coaching staff just a couple weeks before the season began. Francona didn't win a job as Detroit's utility man, and was deemed expendable when Doby became available:
The Tigers viewed the Francona-for-Doby as a favorable one for them in spite of Doby's age. It was obvious that Francona, obtained last June from the White Sox, did not fit into [manager Bill] Norman's plan anyway.
-Sporting News, 4-1-1959
The reason the Indians dealt Doby will be gotten into fully in his Top 100 profile, but the main one was the acquisition of Jim Piersall last winter. Piersall was a center fielder, and Doby, even in his mid-30s, was still a center fielder. They tried moving Doby to first base, which would move defensive wizard Vic Power to third base permanently, but manager Joe Gordon didn't want to weaken two defensive positions. So instead of relegating Doby to the bench, they dealt him to Detroit for a younger utility man. Francona would back up Piersall in center as well as Power at first, and give Rocky Colavito and Minnie Minoso occasional days off. In addition, Francona could be used as a pinch runner off the bench.
For Francona, the trade was very welcome, given the lack of playing time he was getting with the Tigers:
"Do you know how many times I batted this spring?" [Francona] asked. "Three times, that's all," he disclosed, answering his own question. "Bill Norman didn't seem to want to know I was around. That's why I asked to be traded. If I'd stayed there it was a cinch I would have been farmed out."
-Sporting News, 4-1-1959
Indians manager Joe Gordon also thought that there was potential with Francona's tools, and thought that he could work with him to make him a better major-league hitter. Tito had the potential to be a outstanding center fielder, or even a productive first baseman, but at age 25, he was running out of chances.
Francona started the season on the bench, playing regularly but mostly as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement. Then his big break came when Jim Piersall didn't feel comfortable playing center field in the second game of a double-header in early June; the late afternoon shadows apparently affected Piersall, and Francona started that game. Tito took advantage of the opportunity, going 3-for-5 with a double, completing a 5-for-9 day (he had started Game 1 at first base for a slumping Power).
After that Francona was in the lineup regularly, and he didn't stop hitting. Piersall was relegated to the bench, and Francona became the team's everyday center fielder, making the Tribe's outfield of Colavito, Minoso, and Francona the best in the American League. The Indians would just miss winning the AL pennant, finishing 5 games behind the White Sox, but it wouldn't be because of Francona; Tito hit .363/.414/.566, and if not for a bad hamstring down the stretch, would have won the batting title (over Harvey Kuenn, who would be his teammate the following season). He finished fifth in MVP voting despite not playing the entire season.
That winter Frank Lane cleaned up the logjam in the outfield by making several big trades, each one of them a disaster; he first traded Minoso to Chicago, for among other players, he received John Romano and Norm Cash. Had he held onto Cash the trade would have been an outstanding deal, but instead he traded him to Detroit just before the season for Steve Demeter. And a week later Rocky Colavito was dealt to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn.
When all the dust had settled, Francona moved over to left, with Piersall back in center and Kuenn in right. At least initially the outfield was still productive, with the three outfielders posting an OPS+ of 127, 103, and 118, respectively, but by 1962 the outfield had turned completely over, and Francona was moved to first with the departure of Vic Power. Two down seasons in 1962 and 1963 were followed with a comeback in '64 while playing in right field. But after that season, Francona was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals, and that started a vagabond portion of his career; Francona would play with 5 teams over his last 6 seasons, spent mostly as a part-time player.
Francona would retire after the 1970 season, having played in 15 major-league seasons, returning to his native Pennsylvania. By far his most successful stint in the majors was with the Indians, and because of that, always considered himself an Indian:
"I played for nine different teams in the big leagues and Cleveland was the best place I ever played," said Tito. "Cleveland was my home team. There was always a great atmosphere there and it was only 90 miles from home."
When Terry Francona (who was born during Tito's magical 1959 season) was named managed of the Indians, it was special for both father and son:
There was another reason standing in the back of the interview room. Tito Francona, fit and trim at 78, played first base and outfield for the Indians from 1959-64. Terry Francona said having a dad that was a "good Indian" wasn't a reason to take a job, but when he told his father that he was Cleveland's new manager, Terry cried.
Whatever Happened to "Super Joe"?, Russell Schneider
The Sporting News, 1955-1961
Indians Career Stats
|CLE (6 yrs)||835||3298||2926||413||832||153||19||85||378||21||8||296||358||.284||.353||.437||.789||117||1278||54||25||27||23||32|
AL All-Star: 1961 (Game 2)
AL MVP: 1959-5th
AL WAR: 9th, 1959-4.6
AL oWAR: 5th, 1959-5.0
AL Average: 8th, 1960-.292; 7th, 1961-.301
AL On Base Percentage: 10th, 1960-.372
AL OPS: 9th, 1960-.832
AL Runs Scored: 8th, 1960-84
AL Hits: 10th, 1960-159; 4th, 1961-178
AL TB: 8th, 1960-250; 8th, 1961-272
AL 2B: 1st, 1960-36; 7th, 1961-30; 7th, 1963-29
AL 3B: 8th, 1961-8
AL Singles: 10th, 1961-124
AL OPS+: 8th, 1960-127
AL RC: 5th, 1960-96; 10th, 1961-100
AL WPA: 1st, 1959-6.1
AL Assists (1B): 2nd, 1962-127
AL Range Factor/Game 1B: 1st, 1962-9.68
Cleveland Indians Career Leader
- 50th oWAR (12.6)
- t-48th Average (.284)
- t-46th Slugging (.437)
- 46th OPS (.789)
- 47th Games Played (835)
- 48th At Bats (2926)
- 48th Plate Appeances (3298)
- t-45th Runs Scored (413)
- 48th Hits (832)
- 45th Total Bases (1278)
- 49th Doubles (153)
- 34th Home Runs (85)
- 47th Runs Batted In (378)
- 45th Bases On Balls (296)
- 43rd Strikeouts (358)
- t-46th Singles (575)
- t-36th OPS+ (117)
- 40th Runs Created (466)
- 44th Extra Base Hits (257)
- 47th Hit By Pitch (25)
- t-26th Sacrifice Flies (23)
- t-10th Intentional Bases On Balls (32)
- 44th Double Plays Grounded Into (54)
- 43rd AB/HR (34.4)
- 9th WPA (14.4)
Cleveland Indians Season Leader
- 17th Average (.363, 1959)
- t-46th On Base Percentage (.414, 1959)
- 36th Slugging (.566, 1959)
- 37th OPS (.980, 1959)
- t-32nd At Bats (621, 1962)
- t-45th Plate Appearances (690, 1962)
- 20th OPS+ (171, 1959)
- t-9th Intentional Bases On Balls (9, 1964)
- 3rd WPA (6.1, 1959)