You Know My Son Terry Do You Know Me?

Tito Francona

This article was written by Joseph Wancho

After capturing the American League pennant in 1954, the Cleveland Indians finished in second place to the New York Yankees the next two seasons. They sank to the middle of the pack in 1957 and 1958 but, led by a newcomer from Detroit, were back in the pennant chase in 1959.

The newcomer was Tito Francona, a left-handed-hitting first baseman-outfielder obtained during spring training from Detroit for Larry Doby. Although he was 35 years old, Doby still batted .283 in 1958, but more importantly was a fan favorite since breaking into the big leagues in 1947. It was the second time in a little over a year that Francona was involved in a trade with Doby. The first was an Orioles-White Sox trade in December 1957. It would soon be revealed that Cleveland’s general manager, Frank Lane, would not concern himself with a player’s popularity. “Trader Lane” often made trades just to make a deal. But in this instance, his instincts were correct. “I made the deal for several reasons,” Lane said. “I liked (Francona’s) youth and his attitude. He’s only 25 and it was plain to see he wanted to play. Joe (manager Joe Gordon) and I figured he could help as a pinch-hitter and utility man. Now maybe we’ve come up with something even better than that.”

Francona was not a starter with the 1959 Indians, but still led the team in batting with a .363 average in 399 at-bats. When the Tribe needed him, he was pure money. On June 25, 1959, the Indians edged the Baltimore Orioles, 3-2. Francona went 4-for-4 in the game with two home runs and two RBIs. His second round-tripper led off the eighth inning, snapping a 2-2 tie. What was the recipe for his sudden success? “Joe advised me to cut down on my swing and just meet the ball,” said Tito. “That’s what I’ve been doing, even on the home runs.”2 Indians infielder Billy Moran agreed. “Tito gave Gordon credit for telling him to swing down on the ball. Gordon also told other players to do that, but only Francona burned it up.”

John Patsy Francona was born on November 4, 1933, in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio border. He was the second son (older brother David) born to Mr. and Mrs. Carmen Francona. He was given the nickname Tito (“little one” in Italian) by his father. Carmen Francona worked most of his life as a tool grinder in the steel mills. He supplemented his income by tuning pianos on the side. When Tito was 10, the Francona clan relocated to nearby New Brighton. “My mom wanted to get away from all that smoke,” recalled Francona.

But Francona found that athletic choices were not plentiful in his new surroundings; New Brighton did not even have a little league. But Tito was not deterred. During summer vacation he would wake up every morning at 5:30 to catch a ride with his father to Aliquippa. Carmen would drop his youngest son off at a relative’s house, and Tito would wait around until it was game time. His father would then pick him up in the afternoon for the journey home.

Francona was a football star at New Brighton High School. He played quarterback, and was considered a triple-threat player. He scored over 100 points his senior year and led his team to the West Pennsylvania Class A Championship. He was selected All State in 1951. But in spite of the college scholarship offers that came his way, Francona knew that playing big-league baseball was his sole goal. “The school team only played a nine-game schedule and to me that wasn’t much of a season,” said Francona, who passed up playing high-school baseball in his junior year. “I had a chance to play American Legion ball and with a team in the County League. Between the two, I got to play every day.” The exposure playing on these teams earned Francona an invitation to play in the prestigious Hearst All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds in New York.

Tito’s uncle, John Francona who resided in nearby Beaver Valley, reached out to the St. Louis Browns about his nephew. The Browns took a long look at the youngster before offering him a $5,000 bonus and a $250-a-month salary. The day after he graduated from high school in 1952, Tito reported to York, Pennsylvania, the Browns club in the Class B Interstate League. The York lineup had seven left-handed batters, including Francona. He faced a steady diet of left-handed pitching from the opposition. He didn’t fare well, batting .227.

Although he hit well during spring training in 1953, Francona was demoted to Aberdeen (South Dakota) of the Class C Northern League. Initially disappointed about his assignment, Francona felt fortunate to play under manager Barney Lutz. “I was lucky to have a fine understanding manager in Barney,” said Francona. “He was great at handling young players.” Lutz emphasized to Francona that it did not matter much which league he played in as long as he had a good measure of success. Francona played first base and batted .325 for Aberdeen.

Francona’s stop in Aberdeen had an unexpected benefit when teammate Bill Strange introduced him to Roberta Jackson. They started a courtship, which was interrupted when Francona was drafted into the US Army for a two-year stretch. While he was away, the Browns were sold and moved to Baltimore. Paul Richards was the new skipper and organized a rookie school in the spring of 1956, when Francona was out of the Army. Francona performed very well, and Richards rewarded him with a $6,000 contract and a starting job as the Orioles’ center fielder. After a slow start, he hit .341 in July with 5 home runs and 21 RBIs. He finished the year with 445 at-bats, and a.258 batting average.

On October 2, 1956, Tito and Roberta tied the knot. They were married for 35 years and had two children, Terry and Amy. In June 1957, Orioles catcher Gus Triandos suffered a back injury. The Orioles had to call up a catcher and needed a roster spot. Francona was optioned to Vancouver of the Pacific Coast League. His stay at Vancouver was brief, but when he returned, Francona caught a bad break, literally. While trying to make a shoestring grab in a game against Chicago on June 9, Francona broke a bone in his left hand. He was sidelined for about a month. When he returned, he went back to the bench, starting a handful of games in the outfield.

Baltimore felt that Francona was expendable, and dealt him to the White Sox as part of a seven-player deal on December 3, 1957. Again Francona suffered a setback. He was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico when he was diagnosed with hepatitis. He returned home and was placed on a strict diet. Eventually the situation cleared, but it was also discovered that Francona had an irregular heartbeat. When he reported to White Sox spring training, he was given a good report by a heart specialist who gave him the go-ahead to play ball.

But Francona’s time in the Windy City was short. He did not fit into manager Al Lopez’ plans and he was on the move again. After just 41 games on the South Side, Francona was shipped to Detroit with pitcher Bill Fischer for infielder Ray Boone and pitcher Bob Shaw. Francona finished the 1958 season playing in 86 games for the two teams and batting .254 with 1 homer and 20 RBIs. Francona did excel as a pinch-hitter,batting .379 (11-for-29) in that role.

During spring training in 1959, Detroit general manager John McHale was thinking of sending Francona to the minors, but wound up including him in the trade with the Indians on March 21. Francona proceeded to have a breakout year, surprising everyone but himself. He never lost confidence in his ability.

On May 1 Cleveland and New York battled to a 1-1 tie through nine innings. The Yankees scored in the top of the 10th for a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the inning, with runners on first and third and two outs, New York manager Casey Stengel called in reliever Zach Monroe. In the Indians dugout, manager Gordon asked how to bat against Monroe. “The last time I batted against him, I got a hit,” Francona said. “You’re my man,” Gordon told Tito. “Get up there and get another.” Francona pinch-hit for George Strickland. On a 1-and-0 count, Francona hit a homer into the right-field stands, delivering a 4-2 win. “I admit I was feeling mighty low before Tito blasted that one,” said Cal McLish, the starting and winning pitcher for the Indians. “Something like that gives a guy a big lift.”

Gordon realized that he could not keep Francona on the bench. His bat was needed in the lineup. Francona started 35 games at first base to spell Vic Power, and 61 games in center field, splitting time with Jimmy Piersall. Both Power and Piersall were right-handed batters, which gave Gordon plenty of options to use the left-handed-hitting Francona.

With Francona put into the mix alongside Rocky Colavito, Minnie Minoso, Woodie Held, Power, and Piersall, Cleveland had an excellent hitting team. They battled the White Sox all season. But the “Go-Go Sox” surged ahead to claim the pennant in the last month of the season. For Francona, a leg injury cost him some playing time at the end of the season. As a result, despite his .363 batting average, he fell one at-bat shy (399) of qualifying for the batting title, which was won by Detroit’s Harvey Kuenn, who batted .353. “All I know,” said Stengel, “is that he’s one of the five hitters in the league who kept us from winning the pennant. If this fellow’s a fluke, we can’t figure out how to make him one.”

Tito proved that he was not just a one-year wonder, batting .292 in 1960 and leading the American League in doubles with 36. The next year he batted .301, and posted career highs in RBIs (85) and hits (178). Cleveland had a revolving door at manager, going from Gordon to Jimmie Dykes to Mel McGaha. In 1963 Birdie Tebbetts took the reins. Francona hit to the opposite field often, believing that it was best for him to hit the ball where it was pitched. But Tebbetts preferred pull hitters. In 1964 Francona was back to languishing on the pine.

Cleveland sold Francona to the St. Louis Cardinals on December 15, 1964. The Cardinals had just won their 10th National League pennant and their seventh World Series title. “If I have to ride the bench, at least it will be with a championship club,” said Francona. “I couldn’t see sitting ’em out for a sixth-place outfit the way I was doing.”

Francona spent the next few years in the National League, making stops in St. Louis (1965-1966), Philadelphia (1967), and Atlanta (1967-1969). For the most part he came off the bench to play all three outfield positions as well as first base. His average dropped a bit (.258 over five years in the National League). “I believe Tito is a better hitter now than I’ve ever seen him,” said Atlanta manager Lum Harris. “I know one thing. When they throw that steamer (fastball) up there, he can hit anybody who walks out to the mound.”

On August 22, 1969, the Braves sold Francona to the Oakland Athletics. Again he was thrust into the reserve role. Three weeks after joining the A’s, on September 12, Francona equaled his career-best mark of five hits in a game. He went 5-for-5 against Chicago, driving in two runs and scoring twice in a 12-5 Oakland win. Dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers on June 22, 1970, he ended his career at the end of the season. Francona retired with a batting average of .272 for his 15-year major-league career. He hit 125 home runs and had 656 RBIs.

In retirement, Francona worked as the parks and recreation director in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. He was inducted into the Beaver County Sports Hall of Fame in 1978. The city of New Brighton renamed its Little League field Francona Field to honor Tito and his son Terry. Roberta Francona died in 1992 after a battle with breast cancer. He and his second wife, Jean, lived in the New Brighton area during the summer months.

On October 6, 2012, Terry Francona was named the 42nd manager in Cleveland Indians history. Terry played 10 years in the major leagues (1981-1990). Like his father, he was an outfielder-first baseman. He managed in Philadelphia and Boston, leading the Red Sox to two world championships, in 2004 and 2007.

John “Tito” Francona died at the age of 84 on February 13, 2018.

You Know My Grandson Aaron Do You Know Me?

Ray Boone

This article was written by Joseph Wancho

On July 15, 2003, Ray Boone was taking in the scene at the All-Star Game at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field. “Anybody that’s not proud in this situation,” he said, “there’s something wrong with them.” As the patriarch of the first three-generation family in the major leagues, Boone had reason to beam with pride. His son Bob spent 19 years as a catcher, primarily with Philadelphia and California. His two grandsons, Aaron, an infielder with Cincinnati, and Bret, a second baseman with Seattle, were both participating in the 2003 Midsummer Classic. The Boone family was not only the first family to have three generations play in the majors but also the first and only family to have all members in each generation participate in the All-Star Game. Ray was a two-time All-Star for Detroit, in 1954 and 1956; Bob was a four-time All-Star, in 1976, ’78, ’79, and ’83. Another son, Rod, played in the Kansas City Royals and Houston Colts minor-league systems, and Ray’s daughter, Terry, was a champion swimmer.

Boone played in 89 games, batting a solid .306 with Wausau, but put his baseball career on hold by enlisting in the Navy in 1942. He missed the 1943, ’44, and ’45 seasons. After his discharge, in 1946, the Indians assigned Boone to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, of the Class-A Eastern League. He split catching duties with Ralph Weigel and hit .258. On October 12, 1946, Boone married his high school sweetheart, Patsy Brown. In 1947 Boone was assigned to Oklahoma City of the Class-AA Texas League, where he began the season splitting catching duties with Ray Murray. When injuries struck the club, manager Pat Ankenman asked Boone to finish the season at shortstop. He brought his average up slightly, to .264.

As spring training opened in 1948, Cleveland player-manager Lou Boudreau kept Boone as the third-string catcher and also had him take infield practice as a possible backup to Boudreau at shortstop. With defensive stalwart Jim Hegan behind the plate, the Indians had no room for Boone, who wanted to play every day. Boone asked Boudreau if he could be sent to Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League. Boudreau granted Boone’s request, but three weeks later, hitting .250 for Hollywood, Boone was returned to Oklahoma City. There, his bat caught fire, and he was leading the league with a .355 batting average when the Indians recalled him on August 27. Because Boone played in only 87 games at Oklahoma City, he fell short of the 100-game minimum needed to qualify for the batting title. He did, however, make the Texas League All-Star team.   

Boone made his debut for the Indians on September 3, 1948, in St. Louis. He relieved Boudreau at shortstop midway through the first game of a doubleheader and doubled in a run in the eighth inning. For the month, Boone appeared in six games and had five plate appearances. Because he had been called up in August, he was eligible to play in the World Series, in which the Indians faced the Boston Braves. In Game Five, Boone faced Braves great Warren Spahn as he pinch-hit for right fielder Walt Judnich in the eighth inning. Spahn, who was working in relief of Boston starting pitcher Nels Potter, struck Boone out on the way to an 11-5 victory. It was Boone’s only appearance in the World Series. The Tribe came back to win Game Six behind starter Bob Lemon, and Cleveland won its first World Series since 1920.

On June 6, 1949, Boudreau named Boone his starting shortstop when the player-manager took over at third base to replace the slumping Ken Keltner. Boone responded by hitting the first two home runs of his career on June 15 at Fenway Park, belting the first off Walt Masterson and the second off Ellis Kinder. Boone played in 76 games at shortstop for the Tribe, and committed 21 errors. His batting average was a modest .252. Boone struggled in learning a new position and replacing the popular Boudreau who, while nearing the end of his playing career, had starred for nearly a decade. Boone had a pep talk with himself. “Raymond, what now?”, Boone said. “You have been a catcher all your baseball life. Now you are told you could be a good shortstop. You belong to Cleveland and the Indians have the greatest shortstop the American League has ever seen. Connie Mack says so.”

The Tribe faced major changes with the approach of the 1950 season. Al Rosen took over at third base for Ken Keltner, who was released on the first day of the season and signed the same day with the Red Sox. Boone replaced Boudreau at shortstop on a full-time basis, and Bobby Avila was splitting second base duties with Joe GordonLuke Easter became the first baseman when the Tribe shipped Mickey Vernon to Washington on June 14.

Out of options, neither Avila nor Rosen nor Boone could be sent to the minors again without the Indians risking losing them. Given every chance to make good, Boone batted .301 in 106 games, third best on the team behind Larry Doby and Dale Mitchell. Cleveland finished a close fourth, six games behind the eventual world champion Yankees.

Released on November 21, Boudreau signed with the Red Sox (as a player) six days later. Al Lopez replaced Boudreau as Cleveland’s manager. Boone now had the shortstop position all to himself. Nevertheless, he could never quite seem secure in the shortstop spot, having so-so seasons in 1951 and 1952, during which he hit .233 and .263 respectively and made 26 and a league-leading 33 errors.

In 1952, the Indians finished only two games behind the Yankees, and Boone received much of the criticism for his team’s falling short. Late in the season, Lopez benched Boone in favor of George Strickland, who had come to the Tribe in a trade with Pittsburgh in August. Boone alone did not experience defensive lapses, as Rosen, Boone, Avila, and Easter combined for 94 errors, the most of any infield in 1952.

General manager Hank Greenberg continued to back Boone. “I will tell you something about Boone,” said Greenberg. “Many people in Cleveland think we ought to get rid of him. If we do, I know of at least four American League clubs that would be happy to have him. It’s easy for someone to see that a player has had a bad season. It isn’t so easy to find a fellow who is certain to do better. If Boone is not a big-league shortstop, why are those four other clubs anxious to get him?” 

Boone beat out Strickland for the starting shortstop position in 1953, but by June, the Indians had kept Strickland while unloading Boone. After the Yankees swept the Indians in a four-game series just before the June 15 trading deadline, Greenberg traded Boone (hitting .241 in 34 games) and pitchers Al AberSteve Gromek, and Dick Weik to Detroit for pitchers Art Houtteman and Bill Wight, infielder Owen Friend, and catcher Joe Ginsberg. Initially, Cleveland was thought to have gotten the better of the deal since Houtteman was considered to have great potential, although he had struggled since winning 19 games in 1950 for Detroit.

Detroit manager Fred Hutchinson immediately inserted Boone at third base, and Ray responded by going 3-for-3 with a home run to lead the Tigers to a 5-3 victory over the Red Sox at Fenway Park on June 16. Hutchinson liked the left side of his infield now that Boone manned third base alongside rookie shortstop Harvey Kuenn. “With Boone and Kuenn,” Hutchinson said, “I believe we can figure that the left side of the infield is in good hands for at least five years.” 

Boone’s offense and defense improved dramatically as a result of his relocation to third base after joining the Tigers. In 31 games at shortstop with Cleveland that season, he had made eight errors for a .952 fielding percentage. After the trade, Boone played in 97 games at third base for Detroit, making 14 errors with a fielding percentage of .958. He hit .312 with 22 home runs and 93 runs batted in only 101 games for the Tigers. Boone tied a major-league record since broken by hitting four grand slams in a season. Tigers general manager Charlie Gehringer was impressed. “He found himself at third at Detroit and gained confidence in the field. That helped his batting,” Gehringer said. “I always considered him a sound hitter. He isn’t fooled often. Have you noticed how he guards the plate and tries to hit to right field when the count is two strikes? Other hitters would profit if they did this instead of taking that last wild swing.”   

While Boone became a fan favorite in Detroit, the Tigers were a second-division team for most of his time there, always appearing to lack both pitching and power hitting. During Boone’s five years with the Tigers, only he, Al Kaline, and Charlie Maxwell hit more than 20 home runs in a season, and no one hit more than 30.

Fans voted Boone the starting third baseman for the 1954 All-Star Game. The game took place in Cleveland, and Avila started at second base and Rosen at first. Rosen hit a three-run home run off Robin Roberts of the Phillies in the bottom of the third inning, and Boone followed his old roommate with a solo shot off Roberts. Boone ended the 1954 season hitting .295 with 20 home runs and 85 runs batted in. New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel said, “In my book, that Ray Boone of the Tigers is the best clutch hitter we face in the course of the season. There’s a guy who makes you give him good pitches. Then, when you give them to him, he’s apt to belt ’em a mile.” 

In 1955, Bucky Harris replaced Hutchinson as the Tigers’ manager in a year that saw Boone develop injury issues, a problem that plagued him for the rest of his career. Boone suffered from aching knees, which worsened the more he played. Doctors discovered that he had calcium deposits in his knees, a condition he had suffered from since boyhood. But he overcame both a slow start and the injuries to tie Boston outfielder Jackie Jensen for the American League RBI crown at 116, and batted .284. In 1956 he hit .308 with 25 home runs, and again made the All-Star Team, appearing as a pinch-hitter at the game in Griffith Stadium in Washington.

In 1957, new Detroit manager Jack Tighe moved Boone to first base to minimize the wear and tear on his knees, which required regular cortisone injections. The Tigers had acquired Jim Finigan from Kansas City to play third base, and Boone approved of his new position. “I believe I can play more games there,” he said. “If my knee acts up later in the season like it did last year, I feel I can stay in the lineup at first base. I couldn’t do that at third base.” But his batting average dropped off to .273 and his RBIs fell to 65.  

In 1958, the Tigers added some veterans by bringing in Billy Martin to play shortstop (Kuenn moved to center field) and Boone’s former teammate Jim Hegan from Cleveland to help the young pitching staff. Boone started the season manning first base for the Tigers, but finished the year playing the same position for the White Sox. On June 15, 1958, five years to the day after Detroit had traded for Boone, he was sent along with pitcher Bob Shaw to Chicago for outfielder Tito Francona and pitcher Bill Fischer.

Boone performed steadily for the White Sox. His former manager at Cleveland, Al Lopez, inserted him at cleanup as part of a revamped batting order. Shortstop Luis Aparicio was dropped from leadoff to eighth. The leadoff spot and the third position were rotated between third baseman Billy Goodman and center fielder Jim Landis. Second baseman Nellie Fox batting second and catcher Sherm Lollar batting cleanup were for the most part the only constants in the batting order. The White Sox finished in second place, 10 games over .500, but 10 games behind New York. Between Cleveland and Chicago, Boone finished with a .242 average with 61 RBIs.

Relegated to the bench when the 1959 season started, Boone played sparingly in the early weeks. His best day came on April 24 in Cleveland, when he went 2-for-3 with a home run, had two RBIs, and scored a run. He had appeared in only nine games, going 5 for 21 (.238) with one home run and five RBIs, when the White Sox, looking for added power from the left side of the plate, dealt Boone to Kansas City for Harry Simpson on May 2. In spite of rumors that Boone, stilled plagued by his knee problems as well as bursitis, might retire rather than play with the Athletics, after a conversation with White Sox president Bill Veeck, Ray reported to Kansas City. After playing in 61 games for Kansas City and hitting .273, Boone was claimed on waivers in late August by the Milwaukee Braves, who were involved in a tight pennant race with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Appearing mostly as a pinch-hitter, Boone got into only 13 games for Milwaukee in 1959 and in seven more in 1960 before being dealt again, this time to the Boston Red Sox. Released by the Red Sox on September 14 after batting just .205 in 34 games, Boone didn’t think he could be of much value to any team given his knee pain, so he decided to retire. He had a lifetime batting average of .275 with 151 home runs and 737 RBIs.

Boone began a second career with the Red Sox, signing on as a scout to work in the San Diego area, a role he fulfilled for more than 30 years. He also served as an extra coach at spring training. He signed many players for the Red Sox, including Curt SchillingGary AllensonSam HornMarty BarrettPhil Plantier, and Kevin Romine. Even after retiring as a full-time scout, Boone maintained an association with the Red Sox.

Ray Boone died on October 17, 2004, at the age of 81. He suffered a heart attack after being hospitalized after experiencing complications from intestinal surgery. Boone had also suffered from diabetes for many years. He was survived by his wife, Patsy, sons Bob and Rod, and daughter Terry. He also left nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Boone’s memorial service was held on October 24, 2004. At the same time that his family and many friends were paying their last respects, Curt Schilling of the Red Sox was throwing the first pitch to start Game Two of the World Series at Fenway Park. The symbolism was not lost on those who were celebrating Ray Boone’s life, for Boone had signed Schilling to his first major-league contract, in 1986 with Boston.

Bret Boone told the gathering at the memorial service, “All the stories I saw referred to (Ray) as the patriarch of the Boone family,” Bret told the funeral assembly. “I looked up the word ‘patriarch’ to see exactly what that meant. It said a patriarch was the father and ruler of the family. That's what Gramps was.”