Glory Days of the 50s and 60s: Tito’s Big Year
Terry Francona, the man who managed the Red Sox to two World Series championships, is often called Tito. That’s because it was his dad’s nickname.
And his dad was quite a hitter. So good that in 1959, he had the highest batting average in the major leagues. But he did not win the American League batting title.
John Patsy Francona compiled a lifetime batting average of .272 and hit 125 home runs in 15 big league seasons, playing with nine teams. The left-handed hitter signed with the St. Louis Browns in 1952, and when he returned from two years of military service, they had become the Baltimore Orioles.
He had 500 plate appearances, batting .258 for the Birds in 1956, saw less playing time the next year and then was traded to the White Sox who dealt him to the Tigers. Detroit sent Francona to Cleveland just before the 1959 season began.
It began inauspiciously for Francona. Entering June, he had only 13 at-bats, all as a pinch-hitter. He got his first start June 2 against the Washington Senators, going 2 for 4 in Game No. 44 for the Indians. After he went hitless the next day, he was back on the bench.
But two games later, Francona belted a pinch homer off New York’s Bob Turley, and the following day he played first base and batted third. He hit a three-run homer to help the Indians beat the Yankees, 7-5.
From that point, Tito remained in the lineup most of the remainder of the season. He mostly played center field, moving to first base when Vic Power played somewhere else in the infield or was hurt. Cleveland manager Joe Gordon alternated Francona between the third and fourth spots in the batting order.
Francona batted .375 in June with six home runs. Two of the round-trippers came in a 4-for-4 game against the Orioles. He put together an 11-game hitting streak that carried from the end of the month into July.
After going hitless, Francona then hit safely in 17 straight games, giving him hits in 28 of 29 games. In July, he batted .433 and knocked in 21 runs. He had four hits three times during the month, going 45 for 104. In August, he smacked seven homers and again had 21 RBI.
In one five-game stretch, he had 13 hits in 20 at-bats (.650) and drove in 12 runs. Included was a 7-for-8 doubleheader, capped by a three-run ninth-inning homer that won the second game.
Francona was batting .402 as late as Aug. 10, clouted a pair of home runs in a game five days later and a week after that, hit another ninth-inning game-winning homer. On Sept. 7, he was at .391 before going 11 for 56 to close the season while hampered by a sore hamstring.
Francona got at least one hit in 75 of the 96 games he started and had 43 multi-hit games. He hit 20 home runs and had 79 RBI, a .414 on-base percentage and a .566 slugging percentage. He struck out just 42 times in 443 plate appearances.
A player required 477 plate appearances to qualify for a batting title. That left Francona 34 short, which is why his final 1959 batting average of .363 did not crown him the AL champ. Detroit’s Harvey Kuenn won the title with a .353 mark.
And, remember, Francona did not start a single game the first two months of the season.
He followed up with two more fine years in Cleveland’s lineup, batting .292 with 17 homers, a league-leading 36 doubles and 79 RBI in 1960 and .301 with 16 homers and 85 RBI in ’61. Both of those seasons, he had over 600 plate appearances.
Tito Francona had 1,395 hits and 656 RBI in 1,719 games. He never played in a post-season game.