THE ORIGINAL TITO by thad mumau

Collecting baseball cards, discovering the wealth of baseball information in The Sporting News and buying a Street & Smith’s Baseball Yearbook every spring helped me get to know big league players. Not just the stars, but the other guys. And writing about some of those other guys from the 1950s and ’60s is one of the things I like to do.

John Patsy Francona comes to mind. The original Tito, the Cleveland Indians’ manager’s dad. Particularly his 1959 season, when he had the highest batting average in the majors but did not win a batting championship.

 Tito Francona won the center field job with the Baltimore Orioles during spring training in 1954 and played well enough (.258, 9 home runs, 57 RBIs, 11 stolen bases) that he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. A misleading honor, however, as White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio received 22 of 24 first-place votes.

Francona’s next two years didn’t go so well, and he was traded twice, first to the Chicago White Sox for less than a half-season and then to Detroit. The Tigers sent him to Cleveland in March of 1959. That was the second time he was part of a deal that had Larry Doby swapping teams with Francona.

Tito didn’t see much action during the first seven weeks of his first season with the Indians, despite a red-hot start. When he hit a two-out, three-run home run in the bottom of the tenth to beat the Yankees, Francona was 3-for-4 coming off the bench with seven RBIs. At the end of May, he had just 17 plate appearances in 42 games as Cleveland manager Joe Gordon used him exclusively as a pinch-hitter.

Then, on June 2, Gordon inserted Francona into the lineup, putting him in center field in place of a slumping Jimmy Piersall. Tito had two hits that day and hit safely in 16 of the 20 games he started during the month, highlighted by a 4-for-4, two-homer performance in Cleveland’s one-run win over his former team, the Orioles.

For most of the remainder of that 1959 season, Francona stayed hot. He was the Indians’ center fielder all of July, moving to first base in August. During a 12-game hitting streak that month, he lifted his batting average to .417 when he had seven hits in two days vs. Baltimore.

He finished at .363, 10 points higher than Detroit’s Harvey Kuenn, who was awarded the American League batting title because Francona fell 34 plate appearances short of the required minimum. Tito hit a career-high 20 home runs and drove in 79, earning him a fifth-place finish in AL MVP voting.

In 1960, he hit .292 with a league-leading 36 doubles and again had 79 RBIs, while being named to the All-Star team. The next year, his batting average was .301 and he posted careers highs with 178 hits and 85 runs batted in.

Francona retired at the age of 36 following the 1950 season, having played 15 years for nine teams and ending with .272, 125 homers and 656 RBIs. In six seasons with the Indians (1959-64), he batted .284 with 85 home runs and 378 RBIs.

Francona died in February at the age of 84. He was proud of his son, and no one was more excited when Terry’s Red Sox won the World Series.

He was the original Tito and the man with the highest big league batting average without a trophy to show for it.

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