Terry Francona loves to talk about his dad. Their relationship went way beyond baseball.
One a Cleveland Indians player, the other the team’s adored manager. Father and son.
Tito and the kid who became Tito.
John “Tito” Francona, who proudly watched his son Terry follow his footsteps to the major leagues, died unexpectedly at his home on Tuesday night in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. He was 84.
Francona’s passing cast a pall over Cleveland’s training camp in Goodyear, Arizona, as pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday. Terry Francona, who has been affectionately called “Tito” for years in a respectful bow to his dad, will leave the team for several days to be with family.
There will be private services to celebrate the elder Francona’s life.
“We’re all incredibly saddened by Tito’s passing,” Indians president Chris Antonetti said. “Not only was he a really good player in our franchise history but he was a friend to so many of us. There have been so many great things for the organization and for me personally. Having Terry here for the last five years, one of the most meaningful things for me was to get to know his dad and build a friendship with him.
“He was such a warm, thoughtful, exuberant person that brightened every room he walked into. To have the opportunity to visit with him when he’d come into town, to hear his stories, to see how he and Terry connected was really meaningful. He will be missed by so many of us.”
Francona played 15 seasons in the major leagues, mostly with the Indians, and compiled 1,395 hits, 125 homers, 656 RBIs and a .272/.343/.403 slash line.
He spent part of the 1958 season with the Tigers, serving as Al Kaline’s backup in right field. Given Kaline’s stature, Francona only played in 45 games, batting .246 with 10 RBIs. He requested a trade the following offseason, and Detroit obliged, sending him to Cleveland for Larry Doby.
The next five seasons in Cleveland, Francona averaged 15 home runs and 71 RBIs. He finished fifth in MVP voting in 1959, and he was an All-Star in 1961.
After he was fired in Boston following the 2011 season, Terry Francona spent a year in broadcasting before he was hired by the Indians. In Cleveland, he was closer to his dad, who would occasionally drive in for games.
“It was such a deep bond and having a chance to talk to Tito (Terry) today, he was able to reflect back and talk about so many great memories he shared with his dad showed how deep that bond was,” Antonetti said. “He said, ‘I had the best mom and dad in the world and to have the chance over the past handful of seasons share a lot of those moments with my dad, for him to come to Cleveland and watch every game on TV, with a chance to talk about them with him afterwards, were memories that he will continue to cherish.”
Terry Francona was born the first year his dad played in Cleveland. All Francona did that season was bat .359 and finish fifth in AL MVP voting. He led the AL in doubles the following year, and in 1961 he was an AL All-Star and led the league in singles.
Francona made his debut in 1956 with the Baltimore Orioles. He retired as a player following the 1970 season with Milwaukee.
The Indians ask that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Tito Francona’s memory to Cleveland Indians Charities.