As a utility player with the Cardinals, Tito Francona was thinking about his future. The idea of becoming a manager appealed to him.
In its July 2, 1966, edition, The Sporting News wrote that Francona “explained that he had learned a lot on the sidelines that should help him in his hoped for career as a manager.”
Francona, who played 15 seasons in the big leagues, including two (1965 and 1966) with the Cardinals, never did get to fulfill his dream of becoming a manager. After 1970, his final season as a player, Francona returned to his native Pennsylvania and became a parks and recreation director in Beaver County, according to his biography by the Society for American Baseball Research.
It was Francona’s son, Terry, who would become a manager, winning World Series championships with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007 and an American League pennant with the Indians in 2016.
Like his father, Terry also was a big-league player, primarily a first baseman and outfielder, who played 10 years (1981-90) in the major leagues, mostly with the Expos.
Terry was 5 years old when his father was acquired by the Cardinals from the Indians in a cash transaction on Dec. 15, 1964, two months after St. Louis had won the World Series championship.
Introducing Tito Francona to Cardinals fans in The Sporting News, writer Neal Russo reported that being a referee of high school and college basketball games during the winter kept Francona in good physical condition. “So do his two youngsters, son Terry, nearly 6 years old, and daughter Amy, as frisky a 3-year-old as any you’ll see at the Kentucky Derby,” Russo wrote.
Bound for Browns
John Francona was born in Aliquippa, Pa., about 25 miles north of Pittsburgh, in 1933 and was nicknamed Tito _ which, in Italian, means Giant _ by his father.
In 1952, at 18, Francona signed an amateur free-agent contract with the St. Louis Browns. “They were at the bottom (of the American League) and I figured I’d have a better chance of moving up fast with them,” Francona told The Sporting News in 1964.
Francona never made it to St. Louis with the Browns. The franchise relocated to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles. Francona made his big-league debut with the 1956 Orioles.
In 1959, Francona had his best big-league season, batting .363 with 145 hits in 122 games for the Indians. In 1961, his lone season as an all-star, Francona batted .301 and had career highs of 178 hits and 85 RBI for the Indians.
A left-handed batter, Francona sprayed the ball to all fields. The Indians, though, were seeking more power from a corner outfielder. After the 1964 season, in which he hit .248 in 111 games, Francona was put on the trading block.
The Indians offered to trade Francona, catcher John Romano and pitcher Gary Bell to the Twins for catcher Earl Battey, pitcher Dick Stigman and outfielder Jimmie Hall, The Sporting News reported, but the proposal was rejected. The Indians also talked with the Cubs about a deal involving Francona and others for outfielder Billy Williams, but that also fell through.
Unable to package Francona in a major trade, the Indians sold his contract to the Cardinals for cash. After nine seasons in the American League, Francona would be playing in the National League for the first time.
The Cardinals envisioned Francona, 31, as a pinch-hitter and backup to Mike Shannon in right field and to Bill White at first base. His acquisition generally was seen as a shrewd move by general manager Bob Howsam.
“Tito’s not too old and the St. Louis ballpark was made for good left-handed hitters,” said Phillies pitcher Jim Bunning.
Said Phillies first baseman Roy Sievers: “Tito can do a lot of things well. He’s agile. He can do a good job in the outfield and he’s an excellent backup man for Bill White at first base … The short porch in right field at Busch Stadium will help him a lot.”
Francona hit .259 in 81 games for the 1965 Cardinals. He batted .265 as a pinch-hitter.
Used in the same role by the Cardinals in 1966, Francona hit .212 in 83 games. He hit .171 as a pinch-hitter.
Goodbye to good guy
In spring training 1967, Bobby Tolan, 21, beat out Francona, 33, for the role of left-handed pinch-hitter and backup outfielder and first baseman.
On April 10, a day before the Cardinals opened the 1967 regular season, Stan Musial, in one of his first transactions as general manager, sold Francona’s contract to the Phillies.
Noting that the Cardinals received an amount greater than the $20,000 waiver price in the deal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, “The indication is that the Cardinals felt Francona had to play regularly to be of help with his bat and the Redbirds have several younger ballplayers to move in at first or the outfield.”
In 1969 and 1970, Francona played for an Athletics team that included infielder Tony La Russa and catcher Dave Duncan. In 2004, La Russa was manager and Duncan was pitching coach of a Cardinals team that played in the World Series against manager Terry Francona’s Red Sox.
La Russa told the Post-Dispatch then that he and Tito Francona had roomed together on road trips with the Athletics.
“Some guys treated me like I shouldn’t be there … but not Tito,” said La Russa, who was a light-hitting reserve infielder. “He was just a terrific roommate and a very, very helpful guy.”