On-Base Expert

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Tito Francona

Tito Francona could flat-out hit. He wasn’t known for big power numbers. But he knew how to get on base, move base runners, and make runs happen.

Tito Francona had the American league's highest batting average in 1959 at .363, but fell 34 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title.

Tito Francona had the American League’s highest batting average in 1959 at .363, but fell 34 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title.

Francona was signed by the St. Louis Browns in 1952. He spent only 3 years in the minors (plus time out for military service), hitting a combined .292, and made his major league debut in 1956 with the Baltimore Orioles, hitting .258. He was runner-up in the Rookie-of-the-Year balloting to Chicago’s Luis Aparicio.

After the 1957 season, Francona was traded to the Chicago White Sox as part of a seven-player deal, and in June of 1958 he was dealt again, this time to the Detroit Tigers. He played sparingly for the Tigers, hitting only .246, and was traded for a third time in a little more than a year, this time to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Larry Doby.

Getting the chance to play every day, Francona blossomed for the Indians. He had a monster year in 1959, hitting .363 with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs, but fell short of the number of official at-bats needed to qualify for the batting title. (Harvey Kuenn officially led the American League in hitting in 1959 with a .353 average.) But Francona’s contributions to Cleveland’s third-place finish that season did not go unnoticed, as he finished fifth in the balloting for Most Valuable Player.

In 1960, Francona followed up with a .292 batting average, leading the American League with 36 doubles. In 1961, he hit .301 with career highs in hits (178), triples (8) and RBIs (85). He was also a member of the All-Star team that season. He hit .272 in 1962 with 14 home runs and 70 RBIs.

Then, inexplicably, his hitting tailed off dramatically. He hit only .228 in 1963 and .248 in 1964. The St. Louis Cardinals purchased Francona following the 1964 season, and he hit a combined .236 in his 2 seasons with St. Louis.

Over the next three seasons, Francona played for four different teams. As a part-time player, he hit .286 for Atlanta in 1968 and hit for a combined .318 for Atlanta and Oakland in 1969. He finished his 15-year major league career with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970.

Francona had 1,395 hits and a .272 career batting average.

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