Although this is Terry Francona’s first year as the Cleveland Indians’ manager, he is far from a stranger to the city or the Tribe.
Mounted on a tricycle outside of the old Commodore Hotel on Euclid Ave., Terry rode back and forth with his mom while his dad, Tito Francona, suited up in Cleveland Stadium.
“I remember I learned to ride a tricycle in Cleveland,” Terry said in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “We lived in the Commodore Hotel. I had a big red tricycle. I’d get in the elevator with my mom, she’d take me down and I’d ride my trike around Case Western. That’s my first memory of Cleveland,”
Terry was born in 1959, the same year his father, Tito, debuted with the Indians. Tito was dealt to Cleveland in March from the Detroit Tigers for an aging Larry Doby. It didn’t take long for Tito to feel right at home in a Cleveland uniform.
In his first season with the Tribe, Tito hit .363 with 20 homeruns and 79 RBIs. His batting average jumped over .100 points from the previous season in which he played for both Detroit and the Chicago White Sox.
At the end of his first season in Cleveland, Tito found himself in MVP talks. After the vote, Francona’s name was ahead of New York’s Yogi Berra (12) and Mickey Mantle (17) and Washington’s Harmon Killebrew (15).
Despite holding the best batting average among MVP candidates in the 1959 season, Tito landed fifth in the MVP voting, finishing with 30 percent of the total vote; he was edged out buy Nellie Fox—who won the MVP—Luis Aparicio, Early Wynn and Rocky Colavito.
It wasn’t just a stellar debut that cemented Francona’s love for the Indians and the city of Cleveland, though.
“I played for nine different teams in the big leagues and Cleveland was the best place I ever played,” Tito said in another interview with Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer. “Cleveland was my home team. There was always a great atmosphere there and it was only 90 miles from home.”
Home for Tito is New Brighton, Pa., only about one hour and forty-five minutes away from Cleveland Stadium.
Francona played five more seasons on the shores of Lake Erie; none of them topped his first season there, though. In six seasons, he batted .284, with 85 homeruns, 375 RBIs and played in 835 games. He was selected as an American League All-Star in 1961.
Prior to the 1964 season, the Tribe acquired Leon Wagner to play left field. Francona was dealt after the season to the St. Louis Cardinals for a player to be named later and cash.
After leaving Cleveland, he toured the league, making stops in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Oakland and Milwaukee, before retiring in in 1970.
In his 15 seasons as a major league ball player, Francona hit .272 over 1719 games and amassed 1395 hits.
Now 78-years-old, Tito lives in New Brighton where he grew up, but it is clear that his love for the Indians hasn’t changed.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it made it extra special,” Terry told the Plain Dealer. “The day he was there for my press conference in October, I was really proud. He’s pretty fired up. You can’t take a job because of that, but I’m excited about it.”
Photo: Cleveland Plain Dealer