This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
With the muscular physique of a football player, 6-foot-2, 215-pound rookie pitcher Earl Francis was called up in midseason 1960 by the Pittsburgh Pirates to strengthen their bullpen. The 24-year-old right-hander logged 18 innings in seven appearances and sported a nifty 2.00 earned-run average, but came down with shoulder problems and was sent back to minors when the Bucs signed 11-year veteran Clem Labine in August. Francis was recalled during the team’s September pennant drive and was on the Pirates’ World Series roster, but did not play. Lauded by manager Danny Murtaugh for his unlimited potential and touted as a future 20-game winner, Francis progressed to the point where he was named the Bucs’ Opening Day starter in 1963, but a sore arm led to his demotion to the minors a year later and his retirement from Organized Baseball in 1966 with a 16-23 big-league record.1
Earl Coleman Francis was born on July 14, 1935, in the small unincorporated hamlet of Slab Fork, in Raleigh County in southwest West Virginia, about 250 miles south of Pittsburgh. His father, Millard, originally from North Carolina, worked in maintenance at a local coal mine, the main employer in the Appalachian hills. His mother, Cordie, a native of Virginia, found piecemeal work. Together, they nurtured their three children, Earl, his older brother, Millard Jr., and his younger sister, Fredella, in a deeply segregated, rural, and poor society. Stressing an education they themselves were denied as African-Americans, Millard and Cordie sent their children to Stratton High School, an all-black school in Beckley, about 12 miles from home.
A star football player for Stratton, Earl was offered a scholarship to play on the gridiron for West Virginia State College (later renamed West Virginia State University), a historically black public college in metropolitan Charleston; however, his passion was baseball, and he passed up the chance. Earl remembered accompanying his brother to a tryout for an American Legion baseball team in Raleigh County, West Virginia. “I was only 13 and went along for the ride. … But I didn’t think much of the pitchers and asked the manager for a chance to pitch. I made the team before Millard did.”2 Playing four years for Post 70, Earl caught the attention of local bird-dog scout Jimmy Vennari who recommended him to the Pirates’ chief scout, Rex Bowen. Bowen signed the 18-year-old Francis in 1954, the same year he signed another prospect born in West Virginia, Bill Mazeroski.
Assigned to one of the Pirates’ three Class D teams, the Clinton (Iowa) Pirates in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, Francis pitched well and ranked among the top ten in almost all pitching categories, including wins (11), innings (180), starts (23), and ERA (3.10); however, off the diamond, Francis felt alone and far from home. Despite a promising future, he enlisted in the US Air Force. Pitching for base teams during his four years in the service, Francis led Bolling Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C., to the Air Force world title in 1958 by striking out 53 batters in 27 innings in the playoffs, including 14 in the title game. Francis batted .394 with three home runs in the tournament and shared the most-valuable-player honors.
By the time Francis returned to the Pirates organization in the spring of 1959, the team had undergone substantial changes. New general manager Joe L. Brown, building on Branch Rickey’s foundations, aggressively signed prospects and in 1958 his team enjoyed its best season since 1944. Brown at first planned to have Francis pitch for the Columbus (Georgia) Pirates in the Class A South Atlantic League, but decided to put him on the fast track to the major leagues and assigned the big right-hander to the Pirates’ Salt Lake City affiliate in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. There Francis fell under the tutelage of skipper Larry Shepard, a longtime minor-league hurler known for developing young pitchers. With a team-high 27 starts for the Bees, Francis won six of 11 decisions and posted a 3.33 ERA, but arm and shoulder tenderness limited him to 154 innings. At the conclusion of the season, during which the Bees won the PCL championship, Francis was added to the Pirates’ 40-man roster and sent to play for Ponce in the Puerto Rican Winter League to work on his control after walking a league-high 113 batters. Excited about his future with the Pirates, Francis voiced his frustration with the quality of play in Puerto Rico, where, he said, many players didn’t play as hard as they did during the regular season.3
Reporting to his first major-league spring training in 1960, Francis competed for a roster spot, but was assigned to the Columbus Jets of the Triple-A International League when the Pirates decided to keep a more experienced right-hander, 29-year-old Jim Umbricht.4 No doubt the Bucs rued their decision. While Umbricht floundered (5.80 ERA in 15 games through June) with the Pirates, Francis blossomed with the Jets, cutting down on his walks and exhibiting the power pitching the team expected from him. In what was described as a “startling move” by The Sporting News, the Pirates optioned right-handers Bennie Daniels and Umbricht to the Jets and brought up Francis and the hard-throwing Tom Cheney in late June.5 On June 30 at Forbes Field, Francis made his major-league debut when he replaced reliever Paul Giel to start the fifth inning in mop-up duty against the San Francisco Giants. In his longest outing of the year, Francis pitched five innings, surrendering seven hits and three earned runs in an 11-0 loss.
With six relief appearances in July, Francis seemed to have solved the Pirates’ need for a strong right-handed reliever. In 13 innings, he surrendered just seven hits and one earned run (0.69 ERA) while walking just one and striking out eight. In relief of Joe Gibbon on July 16, Francis pitched the last two frames to record his first major-league victory when Dick Stuart cranked a walk-off solo homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the Cincinnati Reds, 6-5. In his last outing of the season, on July 27 in St. Louis, Francis “developed shoulder trouble” and was removed after tossing three innings.6 With Francis unable to pitch, the Pirates signed former Brooklyn Dodgers All-Star reliever Clem Labine in mid-August and returned the ailing Francis to Columbus. Francis was recalled in September but didn’t pitch during the last month of the regular season or in the Pirates’ exciting and historic World Series victory over the New York Yankees. The players voted him a quarter-share of World Series winnings ($2,104.48, about one-quarter of his annual salary).7
After his second spring training with the Pirates, Francis was once again optioned to the Columbus Jets, where he reunited with new Jets skipper Larry Shepard. On a team boasting hard throwers Bob Veale, Tom Cheney, and Al Jackson, Francis stood out. “Earl belongs in the major leagues,” said Shepard, who opined that Francis (with a 3-1 record and 1.76 ERA in 41 innings) was the best pitcher in the International League.8 In early June Francis was recalled by the Pirates to replace the ailing George Witt and shore up the relief corps. After eight appearances, Francis was given a start on June 28 against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Forbes Field. He outdueled Sandy Koufax, striking out a career-high ten batters in eight innings while surrendering three hits and two runs to win his first game as a starter.
Manager Murtaugh was impressed with the 25-year-old, saying, “[Francis] has a major league arm and probably has the best fastball and best curve on our staff.”9 But in his next start, Francis was pulled with arm stiffness after six strong innings against the Reds, missed two starts, and was never able to establish consistency or completely overcome arm problems the rest of the season. He finished with a disappointing 2-8 record and a 4.21 ERA in 102 innings. Privately, the Pirates questioned Francis’s dedication and commitment to baseball and challenged him to do better. “He must adjust himself mentally,” said Murtaugh.10 “I have the guts [to play],” said the typically quiet and unassuming Francis, “but I’m lacking in determination. I’ll have it next year. I’ve got to.”11 Throughout their tenure together, Francis and Murtaugh had a strained relationship, no doubt a product of the polar opposite personalities.
In 1960 Bucs outfielder Joe Christopher introduced his roommate, Francis, to Marie “Dee Dee” Stotts, a schoolteacher and Pittsburgh native. With his most important pitch thus far in his career, Francis asked Marie to marry him, and they were wed in December 1961 at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. After their marriage they resided in Gary, Indiana, where Marie, a graduate of Cheney University in Philadelphia, was involved in desegregating the school system. In following offseasons, the couple resided in Pittsburgh, where they raised five children, sons Earl, Michael, and Shannon and daughters Lydia and Shawn. Francis was also an avid hunter and enjoyed spending time outside.
Despite an outwardly shy demeanor, Francis was easygoing and a practical joker, and got along with his teammates well. In a 2012 interview Marie Francis recalled how infielder Gene Baker, the most experienced of the Pirates’ African-American players and later a team coach, served as a mentor to Francis and helped him find his way in the clubhouse and off the field. She said Earl greatly respected pitcher Vern Law for his professional approach to the game, but also for the way he made Earl feel part of the team. Francis developed a close friendship with Christopher and Baker, and later outfielder Ted Savage. The segregation Francis experienced in West Virginia still permeated major-league clubhouses in the 1960s. Mrs. Francis recalled how they had very little social contact with any of the white players on the team.
After an impressive spring training in 1962, Francis was named to the Pirates’ Opening Day roster. They got off to a hot start, setting a team record by winning their first ten games of the season. Francis was an integral contributor with “magnificent relief pitching,” tossing 8? scoreless innings while surrendering just three hits in three appearances.12 In light of Vern Law’s slow start and Joe Gibbon’s elbow miseries, Francis was given a spot start on April 28 in Los Angeles against Sandy Koufax. Both pitchers tossed complete games, but Francis was on the losing end after surrendering a two-out walk-off single to Tommie Davis that gave the Dodgers a 2-1 victory. “Thanks to manager Danny Murtaugh for sticking by me when I was going bad,” Francis said of his unexpected success to start the season.13 He also credited fellow pitcher Bob Friend with helping him concentrate and relax on the mound. In June The Sporting News ran a feature article on Francis and described him as the Pirates’ “most effective man on the hill.”14 “I have something new I never had before – confidence,” Francis said. “I now feel I can do the job and when I go to the mound, I just rear back and throw. I’m not afraid of the batters or not afraid of being sent down to the minors.”15
Though Francis seemed to have hit his stride as a starter, he struggled to pitch more than six innings (only five times in 17 starts) and was demoted to the bullpen after two bad starts to conclude July. Given a spot start on August 25 in St. Louis, Francis tossed his only major-league shutout by blanking the Cardinals on three hits while striking out five. Unexpectedly, Francis commenced the best five-week stretch in his professional career. His explanation: “I pitched a long time with a ‘flat’ fastball until I went to [pitching coach] Bill Burwell one day and asked for help. He suggested that I grip the ball across the seams. Now I have more hop to the ball.”16 Francis followed his shutout with three consecutive complete games pitching every sixth or seventh day in Murtaugh’s convoluted rotation. After tossing a career-high 10? innings against the Phillies on August 31 and losing when he surrendered a walk-off triple to Don Demeter, he rebounded to beat the Dodgers in Los Angeles, 10-1, while striking out nine. In San Francisco Francis held the Giants to one unearned run to even his record at 8-8 and also hit his only major-league home run, a three-run shot off Bobby Bolin in the eighth inning. “[His] curveball reminds me of Don Newcombe’s,” said coach Burwell, impressed with Francis’s transformation.17 Francis also boasted a deceptive changeup and occasionally used a knuckler which he called his “pension pitch” should his fastball ever leave him.18 In his 23rd and last start of the season, Francis hurled arguably the best game of his career: a complete-game, ten-inning two-hitter to defeat the Cincinnati Reds, 1-0, at Crosley Field. Involved in nine one-run verdicts (he won four of them and lost five), Francis finished with a 9-8 record and a 3.07 ERA in 176 innings, while the Pirates led the NL with a 3.37 team ERA.
After honing his control in the Arizona Instructional League in the offseason and having a subsequent impressive spring training in 1963, Francis was rewarding by being named Opening Day starter in 1963 over longtime veterans Bob Friend and Vern Law. Named the “best young pitcher” on the staff by The Sporting News, Francis faced the Reds on April 8 in Cincinnati.19 The second batter he faced was Pete Rose, making his major-league debut; he drew a walk and scored on Frank Robinson’s home run. Francis was lifted for a pinch-hitter after pitching just two innings and was tagged with the loss. Despite the predictions of success, Francis was undone by arm and elbow miseries that accompanied him all season. After pitching 7? scoreless innings against the Cubs to notch his first victory of the season on April 22, Francis missed two weeks and never fully recovered. Splitting his time between the bullpen and the starting rotation, he managed only four wins in ten decisions and logged just 97? innings while posting a dismal 4.53 ERA.
Baseball can be a cruel game. Less than a year after becoming the first African-American Opening Day starting pitcher for the Pirates, Francis was back in the minors in 1964, optioned to Columbus at the end of spring training. After leading the Jets with 29 starts and 180 innings while compiling a 10-10 record, Francis was recalled to the Pirates in September. He had two appearances, including his last major-league start in the final game of the season during which he surrendered six runs in five innings in a 6-0 loss to the Braves in Milwaukee.
While playing for Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League, Francis was traded on December 15, 1964, along with outfielder Ted Savage to the St. Louis Cardinals for two utilitymen, Ron Cox and Jack Damaska. After Francis helped lead Aguilas to the league championship, highlighted by his commanding two-hitter with ten strikeouts over Licey in the playoffs, Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam was excited about the 29-year-old’s chances of making the 1965 squad and invited him to spring training as a nonroster player.
Francis took a liking to manager Red Schoendienst, whom he respected for his honesty and fairness. However, the reigning World Series champs had a secure staff and highly touted (and handsomely compensated) bonus-baby pitchers waiting in the wings. Consequently, Francis was optioned to the Jacksonville Suns in the International League. Posting an unspectacular 10-11 record and 4.10 ERA in 182 innings, he was again a late-season call-up and made his final two appearances in the major leagues, both in relief.
Francis was a nonroster invitee to the Cardinals’ spring training again in 1966, but his contract was sold to the Seattle Angels, the California Angels’ affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Limited to just five games, Francis was sold to the Indianapolis Indians, where he finished his final professional season with the Chicago White Sox’ PCL affiliate. Marie Francis said the Cardinals offered Earl a job working with the team’s pitching prospects in the Mexican League, but he rejected it in order to spend time with his family in Pittsburgh. After years of chronic arm and back miseries, Francis retired at the conclusion of the season. In his six-season major-league career, Francis posted a 16-23 record with a 3.77 ERA in 405? innings. In his seven-year minor-league career he won 52 games, logged 942 innings, and posted a 3.55 ERA.
After his playing days, Francis, his wife, and their children settled in suburban Pittsburgh, where he began a long, successful career as a meatcutter for a local grocery chain. Mrs. Francis told the author that her husband felt hurt about the way his career ended and because of the strained relationships with the Pirates’ front office. “He was from the coal mines of West Virginia,” she said. “He wasn’t ready for all of the city slickers taking advantage of him. I was outspoken for him.”20 Francis participated in occasional reunions of the 1960 World Series championship team, but otherwise had limited contact with the Pirates. Suffering from the effects of diabetes, Francis died at the age of 66 on July 3, 2002, at Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh. He was buried in Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh. “I remember him as being a man’s man,” said former teammate Bill Virdon upon learning of Francis’s death. “He had a good arm, a strong arm. He was always willing to throw.”21
This biography is included in the book “Sweet ’60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates” (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.
The author would like to thank Marie Francis who was interviewed via telephone on December 18, 2012. She provided great insights to her husband’s life and career.
The Sporting News
1United Press International, “Stuart May Be Pirates Top Bait in Trade Talks,” Beaver County Times, Beaver, Pennsylvania, November 14, 1962, 37.
2 United Press International, “Francis Solves ‘X’ Quantity He Needed,” Raleigh Register, Beckley, West Virginia, May, 9, 1962, 13.
3 John Flynn, “Earl Francis to Take the First Shot at the Pittsburgh Pitching Staff,” Raleigh Register, Beckley, West Virginia, February 23, 1960, 9.
4 Tony Constantino, “Postscripts,” Morgantown (West Virginia) Post, June 30, 1960, 15.
5 The Sporting News, July 6, 1960, 37.
6 The Sporting News, August 3, 1960, 10.
7 The Sporting News, November 2, 1960, 10.
8 United Press International, “New Buc Claimed Best in Circuit,” Morgantown (West Virginia) Post, June 3, 1961, 11.
9 The Sporting News, December 20, 1961, 30.
10 United Press International, “Murtaugh Sizes Recruits on Pirates Prospect List,” Morgantown (West Virginia) Post, December 8, 1961, 11.
11 George McLaughlin, “Francis Says He’ll Do Better in 1962,” Raleigh Register, Beckley, West Virginia, October 19, 1961, 21.
12 The Sporting News, April 25, 1962, 11.
13 United Press International, “Francis Solves ‘X’ Quantity He Needed,” Raleigh Register, Beckley, West Virginia, May, 9, 1962, 13.
14 The Sporting News, June 23, 1962, 15.
16 The Sporting News, September 15, 1962, 10.
17 United Press International, “Francis Solves ‘X’ Quantity He Needed,” Raleigh Register, Beckley, West Virginia, May, 9, 1962, 13.
19 The Sporting News, April 20, 1963, 14.
20 Telephone interview with Marie Francis, wife of Earl Francis, December 18, 2012.
21 Rick Shrum, “Obituary: Earl Francis. Pirates Pitcher in the 60s,” Post-Gazette.com. July 6, 2002. http://old.post-gazette.com/obituaries/20020706francis2.asp