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Indians Indians Archive Cleveland Sports Vault: 5/1/59. Tito Francona is the Hero vs. the Yankees
Written by Greg Popelka

Greg Popelka

tito francona smile(A hearty "welcome back" to Cleveland to Tito’s son, manager Terry Francona.)

By 1959, the Cleveland Indians were in the dumper. Only five seasons earlier, the franchise had won a record 111 regular season games, out of 154 total. One more than had been won by the famed New York Yankees of 1927. They had spent a decade of contention battling New York, and over the previous twelve seasons, the Indians were the only team besides the Yankees to finish first (they accomplished it twice).

But the pitching staff that manager Al Lopez had called the “best ever” was now only a memory. Bob Feller and Art Houtteman had retired after long big league careers. Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia had succumbed to injury. Herb Score had been the phenom-in-waiting for the Tribe’s post-1954 reload. He famously was struck in the eye by a ball off the bat of contrite Yankee Gil McDougald (although Score attributed his shortened career to an elbow injury suffered later). Early Wynn had been dealt. The formidable relief tandem of Ray Narleski and Don Mossi was pressed into the starting rotation out of necessity, before they were dealt.

The man doing the wheeling and dealing was the infamous Frank Lane. The nonstop-talking, self-promoting 60yr old from Cincinnati arrived after the 1957 season.  He had been the St. Louis Cardinals’ GM, winning the Executive of the Year award by The Sporting News. It was a dark time in the history of the Tribe; attendance had dropped all the wayfrank lane joe gordon down around 700,000. One of the board of directors, (former general manager) Hank Greenberg, was actively negotiating to move the team to Minnesota.

tito francona back of cardIt was obvious that changes needed to be made on the Indians’ roster, so “Trader” Lane was given a lot of freedom to deal. And that first one, the Wynn trade to the Chicago White Sox, was a stunner. He also gave up center fielder Al Smith, without getting much in return. The Wynn/Smith trade remains one of the worst deals in Indians history, but “Frantic Frank” wasn’t done. Among a flurry of comings and goings, also unloaded in 1958 were such standouts and prospects as veteran catcher Jim Hegan, future 61*-home run man Roger Maris, and the aforementioned Mossi and Narleski.

There were some bright spots in 1958, such as the emergence of slugging right fielder Rocky Colavito and young pitchers Cal McLish, Gary Bell and Mudcat Grant. The Indians finished one tito francona cardgame over .500. Trader Lane, whose compensation was partly based on attendance (which Cleveland fans hated), continued to deal.  1959 saw twelve more trades take place. Lane was dotting the roster with vocal, colorful personalities- players like Jimmy Piersall, Minnie Minoso and Billy Martin, who perhaps reminded him of himself.

One of Lane’s trades was with the Detroit Tigers in late March. Veteran Larry Doby, in his second stint with the Tribe and at the end of a historical career, was dealt for 1B-OF Tito Francona. In its 1959 preseason issue, Sports Illustrated allowed that Francona “says he can hit if played regularly.”

In a surprising start to the 1959 season, the Yankees emerged slowly out of the gate. And the Cleveland Indians were sitting atop the American League into the month of May. They won six straight – and 10 of their first 11 – until getting swept in three games by the Chicago White Sox (a foreshadowing, to a cliffhanger…). Infielder Woody Held appeared to shrug off being, well, Woody Held at the plate (I know, not fair). He stroked five home runs in the first seven games of the season. Veteran George Strickland was playing shortstop and swinging the bat like he never had before. With third baseman Vic Power’s move to first, and Martin manning second base, the infield defense was sound. The Tribe’s starting pitching was looking particularly tough- especially Score, McLish, and Bell.

The 10-4 Indians played host to the Yankees for a two-game series, beginning May 1. Tribe manager Joe Gordon (above right, with Lane) Lineups 5 1 59 Yanks at Tribesent Cal McLish to the mound; the Yankees’ Casey Stengel countered with Art Ditmar. Over 36,000 fans braved the chill for the opener on that Friday night. It was the second largest crowd in the American League that season to date. Small sample size noted, the Indians were on pace to double their season attendance over the prior year.

Thanks to, see to the left for the starting lineups.

TOP OF THE 1st: McLish was victimized by a two-out error by Strickland. He walked Skowron before inducing Berra into a grounder to Power, McLish covering. The Indians were retired in order. AFTER 1, NO SCORE.

Nothing of consequence happened on offense for the next several innings- only one batter over the minimum was faced by both pitchers, all the way until the bottom of the 5th inning.

BOTTOM OF THE 5th: Leading off, Colavito crushed a home run off of Ditmar to deep left field- the legend continued to grow. Russ Nixon then lined out before rocky colavito sport magazineStrickland and Martin meekly popped out. AFTER 5, 1-0 TRIBE.

McLish continued to confound the Yankees, and Colavito’s blast proved only to be a blip on the screen for Ditmar. They each cruised into the 8th inning.

BOTTOM OF THE 8th: Nixon singled to left off of new Yankees pitcher Johnny Kucks, who promptly uncorked a wild pitch to Martin. Nixon advanced to second. Future manager Martin certainly caused Gordon to grumble in frustration, as he popped up a bunt attempt. Skowron stabbed it before throwing over to Lumpe, doubling up Nixon at second. The third baseman Leek struck out looking. MIDDLE OF THE 8th, 1-0 TRIBE.

TOP OF THE 9th: McLish got Throneberry to fly out to left. McDougald grounded out to third. Only one out left, to exorcise some demons and really begin to get the home fans on their side… Skowron came up. He tattooed a line drive to center for a double. Berra followed that with another liner, to right. Skowron scored the two-out run: tie game. Berra was trying to advance to second on the throw. The entire stadium had anticipated right fielder Colavito’s throw to the plate, and they stood as one. Unfortunately, Colavito’s bazooka blast arrived too late. The catcher Nixon came up throwing and gunned down Berra at second. AFTER 9, 1-1 TIE.

BOTTOM OF THE 9th: Cal McLish remained in the game to bat for himself. (It was a different time.) He flied out to left. After Piersall walked, Power hit into a 4-6-tito francona pose red sleeve3 double play. MIDDLE OF THE 9th, 1-1 TIE.

TOP OF THE 10th: McLish got Elston Howard to ground out to second. Lumpe grounded to McLish near the line, who tagged the batter for the second out. Bobby Richardson grounded a single up the middle, and Hank Bauer came on to pinch hit for the pitcher. He walked. Tony Kubek singled to right, scoring the go-ahead run. McLish struck out Throneberry, but it appeared the damage had been done. (Future Tribe broadcaster Tom Hamilton would have lamented the lack of cashing in on prime opportunities, and just how crushing this game would be.) The meat of the Indians’ lineup was coming up, however… MIDDLE OF THE 10th, 2-1 YANKEES.

BOTTOM OF THE 10th: Bobby Shantz came on to pitch for New York. Minoso singled to left, and Colavito walked. The stadium was buzzing. There was an attempt to bunt the runners along, but Shantz made the play and forced Minoso at third. (Uh oh.) Billy Martin hit a ground ball to short that forced the runner at second. Two out, Colavito at third.

Gordon called over to Tito Francona and asked if he could hit Zach Monroe, who had replaced Shantz. Francona assured him he could- he did the last time he’d faced him. He stepped to the plate.

Monroe missed outside with the first pitch. He came back with a slider, and the lefty Francona pulled one out of the park and into the right field seats!! GAME OVER, INDIANS WIN 4-2.

Herb score

(Future Tribe broadcaster Tom Hamilton would have gushed over the possibility over a ‘magical season’ at Jacobs Fie- , uh, the Stadium.)

The Indians would sweep that two-game set with the Yankees in early May of 1959. The second game was won handily, behind home runs off the bats of Colavito, Power and Martin. Herb Score was on track on Saturday, as well. He went the distance, scattering six hits and punching out thirteen. (Francona had yet to crack the starting lineup.)

It would be an exciting season on the lakefront. McLish won 19 games, and Francona nearly won the American League batting title (he lacked the required number of at-bats). He had one of those seasons hitters occasionally have, flirting with the .400 mark deep into late summer.

1959 was not to be a pennant-winning year for the New York Yankees. With the season hanging in the balance, however, Chicago’s “Go-Go” White Sox (with former Indians owner Bill Veeck, and 22-game winner Early Wynn) would return to Cleveland for a decisive, late-season, four-game series…

Thank you for reading. Sources included the online SI Vault,,, Russell Schneider’s Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia, and Wikipedia.

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