Tito Francona, father of Indians skipper, dies

1961 All-Star played 6 of 15 big league seasons with Cleveland

February 14th, 2018

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There is a black-and-white photo from 1963 that is framed and hanging inside manager Terry Francona's office at Progressive Field. His father, Tito, is in his Indians uniform, standing behind a row of kids and grinning wide. One of the smiling boys, with plump cheeks and a matching uniform, is a young Terry.

Terry grew up in the dugout -- like the one in old Cleveland Stadium captured in that photograph -- under his dad's watchful eyes, and often causing mischief when he was out of sight. Their bond was formed by the big leagues and Tito got to watch his boy grow into a ballplayer and manager. On Tuesday night, John Patsy "Tito" Francona died at his home in New Brighton, Pa. He was 84.

The news of the elder Francona's passing circulated on Wednesday morning, casting a pall over what was officially the first day of Spring Training for the Indians. It was the day pitchers and catchers reported to camp, marking the beginning of another season. This year, it also came with the loss of a player beloved by Tribe fans in the 1950s and '60s, and a man who kept a close eye on the team his son manages.

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"Our hearts ache as truly one of the special men in Cleveland Indians history passed away last night," Indians senior vice president of public affairs Bob DiBiasio said in a statement. "On behalf of the entire Indians organization, our thoughts and prayers are with Terry and the entire Francona family. For a generation of Cleveland fans, Tito was one of the all-time favorites to wear an Indians uniform. It was certainly a joy the past five years watching Tito and Terry be together around the ballpark. He will be missed."

Terry Francona's dad was known as "Tito" since his youth and that nickname was eventually passed down to his son. When Terry was around his father's teams as a kid, players took to calling him "Little Tito." Over time, Terry Francona also became known as "Tito" among his own teammates and friends. Inside the clubhouse now, that is the moniker used to refer to the manager by his players. Terry Francona has always enjoyed that little nod to his dad.

The Tribe manager did not speak with reporters on Wednesday under the circumstances and will be away from camp from Thursday afternoon through Sunday morning.

"We're all incredibly saddened about Tito's passing," Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. "There have been so many great things for the organization and for me, personally, for having Terry here for the last five years. But, one of the most meaningful for me was a chance to get to know his dad and to build a friendship with him. He was such a warm, thoughtful, exuberant person that brightened every room he walked into."

Francona came to Cleveland as a player in 1959 in a one-for-one trade that sent Hall of Famer Larry Doby to the White Sox. Those were big shoes to fill, but Francona quickly earned a regular place in the lineup. That season, Francona hit at a .363 clip while moving between the outfield and first base, helping the '59 Indians finish second in the American League.

That showing would have been enough to net Francona a batting title, but he fell 34 at-bats shy of qualifying for that distinction. The crown went to Detroit's Harvey Kuenn, who hit .353. Francona finished fifth in balloting for the AL Most Valuable Player Award that season, in which he compiled 20 home runs, 17 doubles, 79 RBIs, 68 runs scored, 145 hits, a .414 on-base percentage and a .566 slugging in 122 games.

His career spanned 15 seasons and included stops with eight other teams, including the Braves, Cardinals, A's, Orioles, Phillies, Tigers, Brewers and White Sox. Overall, Francona hit .272 with 125 homers, 656 RBIs and a .746 OPS in 1,719 games. Francona spent six seasons ('59-64) with the Indians and was named to his only AL All-Star team (1961) during his time in Cleveland.

Francona -- born on Nov. 4, 1933, in Aliquippa, Pa. -- originally signed with the St. Louis Browns in 1952, but he then served two years in the United States Army. When he returned, the Baltimore Orioles (formerly the Browns) brought Francona to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee in '56 and he won a spot on the roster. That year, Francona tied with Cleveland's Rocky Colavito for second in voting for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, which went to Luis Aparicio.

While with the Tigers in 1958, Tito's wife, Roberta, was pregnant with Terry. As the story goes, Tito went to Tigers general manager John McHale and asked if he could have a raise to help out with the coming expenses. McHale declined and later traded Francona to the White Sox. A little over two decades later, the Expos took Terry Francona in the first round of the 1980 MLB Draft. McHale was Montreal's GM at the time.

McHale gave Terry Francona a $100,000 signing bonus and spoke with Tito after the deal was struck.

"Remember when my wife was pregnant and I wanted a raise?" Tito said to McHale. "Well, that baby was Terry and he just cost you $100,000!"

Tito got to watch his son his son put on an Indians uniform as a player (1988) and eventually as the club's manager. Over the past five seasons, Terry Francona has guided the Tribe to three postseason appearances, two division titles, one AL pennant and skippered the team through an AL-record 22-game winning streak last season. Tito Francona watched as many games as he could at home, and sometimes would make the drive from New Brighton to take in a game in person.

When the Indians clinched a spot in the World Series two years ago, Tito Francona was the first to call to congratulate his son. The father-and-son bond they formed in the big league dugout so many years ago never broke.

"It was such a deep bond," Antonetti said. "And having the chance to talk with [Terry] today, he was able to reflect back on that and think about how many great memories he shared with his dad and how deep that bond was. He said it great. He said, 'I had the best mom and dad in the world.'"