Terry Francona loves to talk about his dad. Their relationship went way beyond baseball.
One a Cleveland Indians player, the other the team's adored manager. Father and son.
Tito and the kid who became Tito.
Former Oriole John “Tito” Francona, who proudly watched his son Terry follow his footsteps to the major leagues, died unexpectedly at his home Tuesday night in New Brighton, Pa. He was 84.
Francona signed in 1952 with the St. Louis Browns, who became the Orioles after the 1953 season. After a minor league season in York, Pa., and another in Aberdeen, S.D., he spent 1954 and 1955 in the Army, then made the major league roster at the beginning of the 1956 season as a starting outfielder. He began the year slowly but batted .341 in July with five home runs and 21 RBIs to secure his status in the lineup.
Francona finished the season with nine homers with 57 RBIs and a.258 batting average in 445 at-bats, and he tied Indians outfielder Rocky Colavito for second in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting behind Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio, a future Oriole.
His production tailed off at the beginning of the 1957 season, and he was demoted to Vancouver of the Pacific Coast League in early June. Francona returned to the majors shortly thereafter but broke a bone in his left (throwing) hand trying to make a shoestring catch June 9 and was out for about a month. When he returned, he was used mostly as a reserve and finished the year hitting .233 with seven homers and 38 RBIs in 279 at-bats.
The Orioles sent him to the Chicago White Sox in December as a part of a seven-player trade that brought outfielder Larry Doby and pitcher-first baseman Jack Harshman to Baltimore.
Francona's death cast a pall over Cleveland's training camp in Goodyear, Ariz., as pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday. Terry Francona, who has been affectionately called “Tito” for years in a respectful bow to his dad, will leave the team for several days to be with family.
There will be private services to celebrate the elder Francona's life.
“We're all incredibly saddened by Tito's passing,” Indians president Chris Antonetti said. “Not only was he a really good player in our franchise history but he was a friend to so many of us. There have been so many great things for the organization and for me personally. Having Terry here for the last five years, one of the most meaningful things for me was to get to know his dad and build a friendship with him.
“He was such a warm, thoughtful, exuberant person that brightened every room he walked into. To have the opportunity to visit with him when he'd come into town, to hear his stories, to see how he and Terry connected was really meaningful. He will be missed by so many of us.”
After he was fired in Boston following the 2011 season, Terry Francona spent a year in broadcasting before he was hired by the Indians. In Cleveland, he was closer to his dad, who would occasionally drive in for games.
“It was such a deep bond and having a chance to talk to Tito [Terry] today, he was able to reflect back and talk about so many great memories he shared with his dad showed how deep that bond was,” Antonetti said. “He said, `I had the best mom and dad in the world and to have the chance over the past handful of seasons share a lot of those moments with my dad, for him to come to Cleveland and watch every game on TV, with a chance to talk about them with him afterwards, were memories that he will continue to cherish.”
Terry Francona was born the first year his dad played in Cleveland. All Francona did that season was bat .359 and finish fifth in AL Most Valuable Player voting. He led the league in doubles the following year, and in 1961 he was an AL All-Star and led the league in singles.
Francona also played for the White Sox, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Oakland A’s and Milwaukee Brewers before retiring in 1970. He batted .272 with 125 homers and 656 RBIs over 15 seasons.
The Indians ask that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Tito Francona's memory to Cleveland Indians Charities (http://mlb.mlb.com/cle/community/donation—form.jsp). Funds will be directed to youth baseball-oriented programs in both Cleveland and New Brighton.