SABR

Frank Lucchesi

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

New York Yankees scout Joe Devine approached a young, struggling outfielder toiling in the lower minors with the following advice: “Frank, the closest you’ll ever come to center field in Yankee Stadium is in a postcard. But I think you could make the major leagues as a manager.”1 The right-handed-hitting youngster, who’d unsuccessfully tried switch-hitting to prolong his career, eventually acknowledged the scout’s advice when years later he quipped, with only modest exaggeration, “I started as a player in Triple-A and went backward.”2 In 1951, 24-year-old Frank Lucchesi grabbed the reins of the Medford (Oregon) Rogues in the Far West League (Class D) and initiated a managerial career that would extend for four decades.

Frank Joseph Lucchesi was raised alongside two older brothers by his widowed mother, Florence (née Cirimele, the daughter of Italian immigrants), in San Francisco. He was born on April 24, 1927. His father, Luigi, immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1905 but died months after his youngest child’s birth.3 Raised in North Beach, the Italian section of the city, “Luke” (as he was known among his childhood friends) contributed to the family’s meager earnings by reporting to the produce markets at 5:00 each morning before school. His budding baseball prowess was perfected at Galileo High School in the footsteps of such renowned names as Lazzeri and the DiMaggios. While a high-school teammate, Yankee infielder Bobby Brown, would make a major-league appearance in his first year as a professional, Frank found far less success. “At 5-8 [and] on the chunky side, [Frank] had only modest skills … propelling himself mostly on speed and compulsion.”4

Manager Lucchesi inserted himself into the lineup in 551 games through 1957. This was at least one year after doctors advised otherwise. On May 19, 1954, Lucchesi had brain surgery to remove a blood clot caused when he was hit on the head by a line drive on May 9 while managing Pine Bluff (Cotton States League). Bothered by aftereffects, he accded to doctors’ orders by announcing his retirement from the field on June 4, 1956, while managing Salt Lake City (Pioneer League), only to return two months later when an outfielder was lost for the season due to an emergency appendectomy. In 1957 he made a single plate appearance– a pinch-hit single – before narrowing his pursuits solely to managing, for by which he’d established a growing reputation.

In 1951, Lucchesi’s first year as manager, The Sporting News took note of the novel manner in which he sought to improve the Medford (Oregon) Rogues (Far West League):

“Believing his players had been letting too many good pitches go by, Lucchesi gave each player a slip of paper. They were required to read the paper whenever the count goes to two strikes against them. The note says: ‘You will never hit .300 if you take a third strike. You should swing if it is close.’ Lucchesi’s methods evidently are paying off. The Rogues recently moved from last to fourth in the six-team circuit.”5

Despite Lucchesi’s efforts, the Rogues reverted to old habits and finished the season in last place. Three years later, after a two-year stint with Pine Bluff, a Class C affiliate of the St. Louis Browns/Baltimore Orioles, Lucchesi’s managerial winning percentage stood at a meager .453. After a season managing Pocatello, an unaffiliated team in the Pioneer League, in 1955, he moved to Salt Lake City in the same league in 1956 and began a 17-year alliance with the Philadelphia Phillies. (One of his pitchers was 21-year-old righty Dallas Green, who would have an impact on Lucchesi’s career three decades later.) Under his guidance, the Bees moved up four places in the standings, prompting Frank’s promotion to the Class B Carolina League in 1957.

Lucchesi guided the High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms to first place, the first of six flags he earned over 13 seasons along with eight consecutive first-division finishes. He moved rapidly through Philadelphia’s minor leagues, earning Manager of the Year awards five times in votes of sportswriters, broadcasters, and others, including 1961, when he led the Chattanooga Lookouts (Double-A Southern Association) to a last-to-first finish, and 1964, when he “exercised his managerial magic for three flags in the last three years.”6 He was recognized by the San Francisco baseball writers’ chapter with a Local Boy Makes Good award. By 1966 Lucchesi was the longest-serving manager in the Phillies farm system, with Gene Mauch, the longtime Phillies manager, seemingly the only impediment in Lucchesi’s path to the major leagues. During this 13-year span, Lucchesi helped guide the careers of many youngsters on the way up (among them Chris Short, Dick Allen, Fergie Jenkins, and Larry Bowa) and, in at least two instances (1950 Whiz Kids Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons), players attempting to resurrect their careers.

Described as “dynamic … colorful and personable,”7 the fiercely loyal skipper also earned a reputation as “tempestuous”8 and “fiery,”9 with an extensive résumé of fines and suspensions to support these claims. On August 31, 1959, while guiding the Williamsport Grays (Class A), he was honored in a pregame “Frank Lucchesi Night” ceremony only to be ejected from the game by the third inning after he felt his team had been wronged by the men in blue. Years later an ejection was followed by Lucchesi refusing to budge from home plate as he made “sand castles” before being escorted from the field.10 He drew a $50 fine and three-game suspension for yanking the cap off an umpire’s head and throwing it to the ground (he humorously tried to make amends the next evening by borrowing the umpire’s whiskbroom and dusting off the same cap). Perhaps the most amusing story concerned an ejection while he piloted the Triple-A Arkansas Travelers in 1963. Lucchesi exited the stadium and scaled a light tower to watch. Spied by the umpire, he was ordered down. “When I looked down, all of a sudden I realized I was afraid of heights and I’m scared to move,” he recalled.11 This event made national news, prompting Lucchesi’s mother to call from California advising, “Don’t climb any more light towers.”12

Lucchesi also possessed a knack for turning a (sometimes inappropriate) phrase. Borrowing heavily from President John F. Kennedy, Frank once declared, “It’s not what the ballclub can do for you, but what you can do for the ballclub.”13 Poised to address his charges on Opening Day in 1966, he realized he’d left his speech notes at the coffee shop where he’d had breakfast. The notes were discovered among the refuse soiled by coffee grounds and egg yolk, causing Lucchesi to quip philosophically, “Better to get egg on your notes than on your face.”14 Referring to the worn-down area around Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, he remarked, “Our old park was in such a tough neighborhood that we had to give away two policemen with every admission.”15 Years later, wired for sound during a nationally televised broadcast, the Texas Rangers manager “blurted out, ‘Where the bleep is my catcher!’”16 Later still, when asked to comment on the drug controversy engulfing the Phillies in 1981, Lucchesi said, “What were they supposed to be taking? Was it those illegal amphibians?”17 Despite these snafus, Lucchesi was widely recognized for his communication skills with players, fans, and the press.

As a minor-league manager, Lucchesi guided a stable of prospects to the major leagues, and in the wake of the upward migration, he was left with a largely untested corps of youngsters: 19-year-old Rick Wise who in 1965 with Arkansas struggled with an 8-16, 4.45 mark; highly touted Steve Arlin who in 1967 at Reading registered a 2-7, 4.46 record. Lucchesi’s 1965-1967 teams compiled a .484 winning percentage – three consecutive next-to-last finishes. The timing could not be worse.

Gene Mauch had guided the 1964 Phillies to the franchise’s most wins since 1899. Though the club collapsed in September, he had whetted the appetite for more – an expectation that was never realized. A near-.500 campaign in 1967 after a flurry of acquisitions only exacerbated the disappointment. A sluggish start to the 1968 season, along with reported difficulties between the manager and star slugger Dick Allen, resulted in Mauch’s being fired after 54 games. There is no evidence that the Phillies gave consideration to Lucchesi when they selected former slugger and 1967 Minor League Manager of the Year Bob Skinner to replace Mauch. Nor did Frank help his case when he chose to not actively position himself for the helm. But the poor results of Lucchesi’s preceding three years likely torpedoed any consideration for their long-serving minor-league skipper.

Skinner’s stay with the Phillies was short-lived – he abruptly quit on August 7, 1969 – and, with a .428 winning percentage, his departure was little mourned. Lucchesi’s name now appeared among a large roster of potential candidates that included Frank Robinson, former Whiz Kid Dick Sisler, and Bill Rigney. Having returned to winning ways, Lucchesi had piloted the Eugene Emeralds to the Pacific Coast League’s 1969 Southern Division crown, and on September 26, six days before the end of the season (and 87 days before his mother died), the Phillies announced his appointment as the 1970 manager. Reports soon followed that “[a]ny doubt about Allen’s being traded vanished when Lucchesi was named manager, for Frank had his problems with the controversial slugger in the minors.”18 [Years later Frank vociferously denied difficulties with the star slugger, a claim bolstered by his son’s recollection of the warm regards exchanged between the two at reunion events and telephone calls.] By mid-November, 1964 stalwarts Allen, Johnny Callison, and Cookie Rojas had been traded. The 40-man roster inherited by Lucchesi included 18 players he’d previously managed and evidenced the team’s aggressive pursuit of its youth movement.

Lucchesi arrived among a wave of organization men with then-nondescript names taking over as major-league managers. “You’ve got your Earl Weavers and your Sparky Andersons,” said Frank, “but at least you can pronounce their names.”19 Whether or not fans could enunciate his name properly, he was welcomed warmly in the City of Brotherly Love, particularly by its large Italian-American community. Before ever managing a game, he was named Sportsman of the Year by the Philadelphia chapter of the Sons of Italy. In November he participated in Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day parade. When Lucchesi made his managerial debut on April 7, 1970, “[t]he applause was heavy. ... Lucchesi doffed his cap and waved it and the cheering increased. He blew a kiss and the roars grew. For several minutes, the 15,918 fans were on their feet cheering the rookie pilot,” reducing him to tears.20 Lefty Woodie Fryman, sensing the environment instituted by the new manager, stated, “There’s been a change in attitude toward baseball in this town. All sorts of people have been coming up to me and telling me how enthused they are about this kind of club.”21

With an emphasis on pitching and speed, Lucchesi sought to pattern the Phillies in a manner similar to the 1960s Dodgers (and management appeared to endorse this approach – in extending his contract by a year in 1971, owner Bob Carpenter invoked “the Dodger system of one-year contracts that have kept Walter Alston on the job for 18 years”).22 But a hopeful start – 10-10 entering a May 2 game in San Francisco – gave way to four wins in the next 17 contests as the team suffered a continuous series of injuries (including broken bones sustained by the starting and backup catchers in the same inning). On July 3, with losses continuing to pile up, Philadelphia fans – not the most tolerant of patrons – directed boos toward the new skipper for the first time.

Leading the major leagues in fewest errors committed was one of the team’s few highlights in 1970. The Phillies scored the fewest runs, while Lucchesi’s emphasis on speed boomeranged into the league’s most runners caught stealing. In spite of these setbacks, Lucchesi’s patience with his young crew improved the team by 10½ games over the preceding year, earning him consideration for Manager of the Year.

The existence of the expansion Montreal Expos spared the Phillies a last-place finish in 1969 and 1970. They would not be as fortunate in 1971. The offense continued to sputter – a league low .233 batting average – and losses mounted. Having once pulled a lineup out of a hat to end a losing streak in the minors, Lucchesi tried a variety of moves – placing himself in the third-base coaching box; placing the bats backward in the rack – to break the jinx. To no avail. The Phillies’ last-place finish was the first of three in a row. (Lucchesi would not be around to witness the second and third.)

A remarkably revealing window showed a gentle side to Lucchesi, though it occurred at a heartbreaking moment in his career. Recovered from a bout with pneumonia, he entered the 1972 season promoting a “win now” approach, and a stake in first place 20 games into the campaign appeared to signal success. But when losses came, they came in bunches. Beginning on May 16 the Phillies lost 19 of 20, contributing to the replacement of longtime general manager John Quinn. A month later the new GM, Paul Owens, made modern history by taking over the managerial reins as well. Devastated though he was, and dealing with his wife’s health issues, Lucchesi reached out to the mother of a 6-year-old who’d just endured open-heart surgery. He had invited the boy to attend a game as his guest and wanted to assure the family that though he was no longer manager, the invite still stood. “At a time of real sorrow, at a time when his wife was under a doctor’s care, Lucchesi was thinking of others. It’s the way he’s always been.”23

As evidence of the popularity Lucchesi retained despite the losses, fans erupted angrily at his firing, and the city’s mayor offered him a job. Lucchesi chose to remain with the Phillies as an instructor but the relationship soon soured, and Frank and the Phillies parted after the season on less than amicable terms. Rumored to be joining the coaching staff of the San Diego Padres or to replace Ted Williams as manager of the Texas Rangers, he instead accepted a job managing the 1973 Oklahoma City 89ers in the Triple-A American Association. At year’s end he was hired by the Rangers as third-base coach for ever-volatile manager Billy Martin.

Lucchesi might be forgiven for thinking that over the next year and one-half it was he who was the team’s manager. The frequency of Martin’s ejections and suspensions often left the reins in Lucchesi’s hands – assuming he did not follow Billy to the showers, his minor-league outbursts having followed him into the majors. In October 1974 Lucchesi was bypassed for manager of the Cleveland Indians in favor of Frank Robinson, the same man who’d competed with him for the Phillies spot five years earlier.

Martin’s antics were tolerated when the team was winning, but grew tiresome when they weren’t. With the Rangers 44-51, Martin was fired on July 20 and replaced by Lucchesi on an interim basis. Feelings of loyalty toward his departed skipper (an unreciprocated feeling, as events would show), caused Lucchesi to hesitate before accepting the job. Shortly thereafter, his contract was extended through the following year. As the season wore down and Lucchesi began to focus on 1976, he said of infielder Lenny Randle, in a sadly ironic twist, “He’ll make my lineup somewhere.”24

Despite the fact that his lineup kicked off the 1976 season with the best start in the club’s history (20-12), Lucchesi kept looking over his shoulder. Owner Brad Corbett, a successful Fort Worth businessman, was notorious for overruling his baseball men. That summer he elevated pitcher Tommy Boggs from the minors over Lucchesi’s objections. A year later he personally acquired slugger Willie Horton, to the surprise of all concerned. He developed a reputation for having a short leash with managers. When the Rangers fell from contention (a 14-38 mark beginning on July 7), rumors abounded of Lucchesi’s imminent departure, and they continued despite a contract extension in September.

Lucchesi sought to improve the team’s defense in 1977, particularly the infield. Each 1976 starter placed among the league leaders in errors at his position. Some potent offense partly made up for these deficiencies. But a season-long slump suffered by Lenny Randle (.224, a drop of more than 50 points from the year before) opened second base to competition from prospect Bump Wills. Randle was upset that the position was being handed to Wills, a perception that Lucchesi inadvertently facilitated with quotes over the winter (for which he later apologized). Wills performed poorly in spring training, and management was reconsidering its stance when Randle acted.

On March 28, before a spring-training game against the Minnesota Twins, Randle approached Lucchesi behind the batting cage in Orlando. After a brief exchange, Randle began striking Lucchesi in the face. Knocked unconscious, Lucchesi was taken to a hospital where he was treated for a concussion and a fractured cheekbone. Fined and suspended, Randle was soon traded to the New York Mets, but his problems were far from over. That summer, the Florida state’s attorney filed felony charges against Randle (later reduced to misdemeanors). Lucchesi sued Randle. The parties eventually settled but not before Billy Martin, who reportedly loaned Randle $10,000 to help cover his legal expenses, appeared in court to testify on the player’s behalf. Martin’s motive: He held Lucchesi partly responsible for his dismissal from the Rangers. Randle made numerous attempts to apologize – even decades later – to no avail. Lucchesi felt – and continued to feel – that the events surrounding the attack contributed to his own dismissal a few months later. Though there may be some truth to this claim, other decisions by Brad Corbett contributed to the team’s ability to comb through four managers in 1977, tying a modern record.25

Since taking ownership of the Rangers in 1974, Corbett had invested in or traded for a number of high-priced free agents in aggressive pursuit of a contending team. He anticipated a large increase in attendance to offset these costs. But summer heat in Texas caused the Rangers to wilt in 1976, with a corresponding drop in attendance. The turnout rose only slightly the following year. Desperate to shake up his team – playing at a .500 pace, though only four games out of first – and emboldened by a reported clash between Lucchesi and general manager Eddie Robinson in early June, Corbett fired Lucchesi on June 22.

Rumored as a replacement in Salt Lake City that winter, Lucchesi instead accepted a scouting position with the Rangers. He joined the team’s coaching staff in 1979-80, but was fired along with manager Pat Corrales on the last day of the 1980 campaign.

Lucchesi continued drawing a paycheck in baseball, serving as a minor-league manager in the Cleveland Indians chain in 1981. He scouted for for the Dodgers (1985) and Chicago Cubs (1986-87). In 1987 a 31-year acquaintance, Cubs general manager Dallas Green, selected him on September 8 to pilot the team through the end of the season after Gene Michael was fired. (Lucchesi turned down an offer in 1986 from George Steinbrenner to join the Yankees as an advance scout. The offer was spurred by Billy Martin, who had reconciled with Lucchesi; their relationship remained strong until Martin’s death.) Lucchesi managed the Nashville Sounds (Cincinnati, Triple-A) in 1988-89 before retiring from the game and returning to his adopted home in Texas.

Lucchesi had established an Arlington apartment after accepting the coaching position with the Rangers in 1974. The following year he moved his family to Texas. His family was the product of a chance meeting in 1953, while he managed the Pine Bluff Judges in the Cotton States League (Class C). He met and fell in love with Cathy Menotti who, like him, was Italian-American. She soon became his wife. Cathy patiently followed her husband to each minor-league small town, with Frank making ends meet by securing offseason employment as a bartender or a United Parcel deliveryman. The long union of husband and wife produced three children: Fran, Bryan, and Karen, and a granddaughter, Alex.

After a laborious but fruitful minor-league career, Lucchesi struggled for wins in the major leagues: .442 winning percentage. Many of the losses came in Philadelphia, where he patiently presided over the Phillies’ rebuilding process. He gained a modicum of success in Texas managing future Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Bert Blyleven, and Gaylord Perry. In 1988 Lucchesi was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 2007 the Rangers honored him with their Alumni Award. He was feted by teams in Williamsport, Reading, Little Rock, and Oklahoma City. A columnist for The Sporting News summed it up in 1978: “This ought to tell you something about Frank Lucchesi, the former Texas manager who is now scouting for the Rangers. He was watching a game in Tucson the other day when a young vendor stumbled and dropped his tray of soft drinks. The vendor was only able to salvage one drink. Immediately, Lucchesi summoned him and bought the last drink. But instead of paying the regular price of 30 cents, Lucchesi gave the vendor $5 and insisted he keep the change.”26

Published on August 7, 2014

 

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank SABR members Charles W. Carey for research related to Lucchesi’s ancestry and Michael Lynch for details surrounding four managers in one season. Further thanks are extended to Bryan and Cathy Lucchesi for review and input, and Len Levin for editorial and fact-checking assistance.

 

Sources

Orodenker, Richard, “The Phillies Reader (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005).

Kashatus, William C., Almost a Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the 1980 Phillies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Burson, Rusty, 100 Things Rangers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2012).

The Sporting News

Baseball-reference.com

ancestry.com/

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070125&content_id=1786779&fext=.jsp&c_id=tex

http://milb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110126&content_id=16512214&vkey=news_t449&fext=.jsp&sid=t449

Email correspondence with Bryan Lucchesi, May 1-5, 2014.

 

Notes

1 T.R. Sullivan, “Rangers set to honor Lucchesi,” MLB.com, January 26, 2007. (http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070125&content_id=1786779&fext=.jsp&c_id=tex ).

2 “Time-for-All Plan Paying Off for Lucchesi,” The Sporting News, August 28, 1971, 18.

3 The circumstances surrounding Luigi’s early demise are unknown to his family. Lucchesi rarely spoke of his father.

4 “Melvin Durslag [Column],” The Sporting News, March 21, 1970, 2.

5 “Batters Required to Read 3rd Strike Warning Notes,” The Sporting News, May 23, 1951, 36.

6 “’Milkers Will Fill Pail by Grabbing Flag’ – Lucchesi,” The Sporting News, January 12, 1963, 32.

7 “Spotlight on Lucchesi,” The Sporting News, August 29, 1964, 16.

8 “Yanking Cap From Umpire’s Head Costly to Trav Pilot,” The Sporting News, May 30, 1964, 31.

9 “Sinking Travelers Get Lift From Vets,” The Sporting News, July 10, 1965, 31.

10 “Coast Clippings,” The Sporting News, June 13, 1964, 44.

11 “Lucchesi Bouquets Swell Philly Pride,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1969, 35.

12 T.R. Sullivan, “Rangers set to honor Lucchesi,” MLB.com, January 26, 2007. (http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070125&content_id=1786779&fext=.jsp&c_id=tex ).

13 “’Bus Waits for Nobody’ in Minors,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1967, 5.

14 “Egg Yolk Checks Lucchesi,” The Sporting News, April 30, 1966, 34.

15 “Willie D. Concedes All-Star Berth to Mays,” The Sporting News, June 19, 1971, 32.

16 “Young Ideas by Dick Young,” The Sporting News, September 25, 1976, 14.

17 “Insiders Say,” The Sporting News, April 25, 1981, 6.

18 “Callison Trade Hinges on Flood’s 1970 Plans,” The Sporting News, October 25, 1969, 24.

19 Melvin Durslag column, The Sporting News, March 21, 1970, 2.

20 “Hard-Hearted Phil Fans Going Soft, Cheer Team,” The Sporting News, April 25, 1970.

21 “Woodie Now Steel-Tough on Phils’ Hill,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1970, 24.

22 “New Pact for Lucchesi; Carpenter Salutes Pilot,” The Sporting News, August 21, 1971, 22.

23 “Phil Command Shift Stirs Fans’ Wrath,” The Sporting News, July 27, 1972, 37.

24 “SS Harrah Puts Muscle in Rangers’ Attack,” The Sporting News, September 13, 1975, 14.

25 Other teams: 1907 Boston Red Sox, 1961 Chicago Cubs and 1980 St. Louis Cardinals.

26 Jerome Holtzman column, The Sporting News, April 8, 1978, 43.

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