Ageless Wonder Franco Makes Return
Vince Guerrieri | On 20, May 2014
In 1982, without much to celebrate in the upcoming season, the Indians instead commemorated 50 years at Municipal Stadium (although it wasn’t the team’s full-time home for some of them) with a television special of the same name.
At the end, it talked about the prospects the Indians had – including a rookie shortstop acquired in a trade with Philadelphia for Von Hayes. “Julio Franco’s star burns the brightest, as he’s considered one of baseball’s best prospects,” Tribe announcer Nev Chandler intoned. “Julio will be an Indians shortstop of the future.”
Franco spent a total of seven and a half seasons – in two tours – with the Indians, more than with any single team in what turned out to be a 23-year career as Franco became an ageless wonder. And he’s at it again.
The Fort Worth Cats of United League Baseball announced last week that they have signed Franco as a player/coach for the team’s first homestand of the season, beginning tonight. If Franco gets into a game, he’ll be one of three players to play professional baseball in five decades, joining Minnie Minoso (another former Indian) and Nick Altrock.
The Fort Worth Cats are the same team that made Bobby Bragan the oldest manager in professional baseball. Bragan, a longtime Fort Worth resident who managed the Indians in 1958, managed the Cats for one day in 2005 at the age of 87. Three innings later, he became the oldest manager ever ejected from a game as well.
Franco was signed as a free agent by the Phillies in 1978, and made his major league debut in 1982, making 32 plate appearances in 16 games. The Phillies were flush with talent but looking for another piece. The Indians were wandering through the desert, and the Phillies offered five players for Von Hayes: Jay Baller, Manny Trillo (regarded as the centerpiece of the deal for the Indians), George Vukovich, Jerry Willard and Franco.
The Indians jumped at the deal. Baller never played a game for the Indians. Trillo played in 83 before they traded him to Montreal for Don Carter, whose career with the Indians was brief but unspectacular. Vukovich and Willard both bounced around the majors, but Franco turned into a solid player for the Indians, even if his arrival in Cleveland was less than auspicious: He arrived with no jacket and $5,000 in his sock, and asked where the casinos were.
In 1983, Hayes hit .265 in 124 games as the Phillies won the pennant, but Franco had a breakout year, hitting .273 with eight home runs and 32 stolen bases. He finished second behind Ron Kittle in American League Rookie of the Year balloting.
Franco never batted below .273 for the Indians, and in 1986, had his first of six straight .300 seasons. Unfortunately, he only had three of them with the Indians. Tribe manager Doc Edwards clashed with Franco, and demanded he be dealt. After the 1988 season, he was traded to the Texas Rangers for Oddibe McDowell, Pete O’Brien and Jerry Browne.
Franco’s peak years were in Arlington, as he was named All-Star Game MVP in 1990, and won the American League batting title in 1991, hitting .341. The following season, his average dropped more than 100 points, and Franco was released at the end of the 1993 season. By then, both Hayes and Kittle had retired.
Franco signed with the White Sox for 1994, and became a free agent in October. With no postseason occurring and no end to the players’ strike in site, he signed with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan.
After a season in Japan, Franco signed with the Indians again in 1996. Times were different in Cleveland. Decrepit Cleveland Stadium had given way to shiny new Jacobs Field and for the first time in Franco’s lifetime, the Indians were defending American League champions. Franco provided veteran leadership while still swinging a hot bat, hitting .322 in 112 games. His performance slipped in 1997, and he was released by the Indians in August – but signed that same day by the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers released him at the end of the season, and he returned to Chiba Lotte. In 1999, he appeared in one game with one at-bat in the majors, for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and played that year in Mexico. He played in South Korea in 2000 and Mexico in 2001 before returning to the majors. All told, Franco played a total of five years in Mexico, Korea and Japan, which could potentially have deprived him of the 3,000-hit milestone.
Franco was signed by the Braves for the 2002 season, and he spent three years in Atlanta, becoming the oldest active player in the majors and then the oldest position player in history. But Franco’s days as an everyday player were done by the time he signed with the Mets in 2005. But he still had some pop in his bat, hitting three home runs for the Mets, each one making him the oldest player to hit a home run.
Franco wanted to play until he was 50, but ended up retiring three months shy of the mark, after playing 2008 in Mexico. He became Hall of Fame eligible in 2013, but only received 1.1 percent of the vote and dropped off the ballot.