Even professional athletes sometimes die suddenly and at quite young ages in ways that one might not expect. After his career in professional baseball ended, Ray Francis joined the Atlanta Police Department on July 14, 1932. He was on the beat on July 6, 1934 – his first day as a motorcycle policeman – and was at a downtown intersection when he told two fellow officers that he felt ill and overheated. He went into a drugstore to seek some medicine, collapsed, and died of an apparent heart attack.1 The Associated Press story explained that after “receiving a wound in an attempt to arrest a negro a year ago, Francis had been doing light work at the police station while recovering. He was unused to any exertion and fellow officers said he spent 30 minutes cranking his motorcycle just before he was stricken.” Francis had turned 41 earlier in the year. The official diagnosis was “organic heart disease.”2
In July 1932 Francis had taken the examination to join the force and scored a 92, the highest score in his class.3 We were unable to find an account of how he was wounded in the arrest attempt.
Ray Francis was born in Sherman, Texas, on March 8, 1893. Sherman is the county seat of Grayson County, nestled up against the Oklahoma border. His parents were James Thomas Francis, a farmer, and Beulah Lee (Cole) Francis. They had six children: Myrtle, Forrest, Bertha, Ray, Thomas, and Henry, and they moved (with three railroad cars of yearlings and a carload of household goods) to Francis Township, Greer County, Oklahoma, in 1895. They planted cotton on their 160 acres and gradually built up a 2,238-acre property. The local history book reports Ray’s given name as James Roy Francis, but acknowledges that he was known as Ray.4
After the Oklahoma Territory became the 46th state and the county lines were redrawn, Francis Township became part of Harmon County. It was known as Francis from 1896 to 1902, long enough to become memorialized as such in the 1900 census. What was once called Francis was renamed Trotter on April 25, 1902, but shortly the area was sold to “a sheep man named Vinson, who promptly moved the post office back to its original site and named it Vinson.”5 Harmon County itself has lost population in every census since 1910.
Francis was a left-hander, and at the time of his baseball career stood 6-feet-1 and weighed is 182 pounds.
Francis was already married during his first year in the pros, 1917, in the Texas League. He was 4-10 in 122 innings for Beaumont and then San Antonio, but had a very strong .314 batting average. Around 1912 or 1913, he had married Ona Bowman. The couple had a 7-year-old daughter, Lillian, at the time of the 1920 census. The local history book gives her name as Nadine. They were living in Dinuba Township, Tulare, California, at the time of the census. Ona Francis worked as a dressmaker. There was reportedly a second marriage to a woman named Florence, and two more daughters, Jamie Ray and Tommie Lee.6
At least one story says that Francis played with San Antonio in 1918 and again in 1919, though we do not find a record of same.7
In 1920 Francis worked for the Seattle Rainiers. He joined the team in July and was 2-1 at one point in August but in the first part of September, the team received a telegram from the National Commission suspending him for “contract jumping” until further notice.8 A couple of weeks later, Seattle was told that Francis was suspended for five years for springtime play in the independent San Joaquin Valley League.9 Perhaps that seemed too much of a draconian punishment; in any event, the following January, he was reinstated.10
Seattle welcomed Francis back and in 1921 he won 12 games (12-11, with a 3.63 ERA in 49 appearances). Three major-league clubs were said to be after him and Seattle president William Klepper dickered with them regarding Francis and catcher Frank Tobin. The Philadelphia Athletics wanted to buy Francis outright, but had no pitchers they could supply Seattle to make up for his absence.11 On August 9 he was traded to the Washington Senators for three players – a shortstop, outfielder, and pitcher.12
In 1922 Francis traveled to Tampa for spring training and made the team. Washington manager Clyde Milan expected good things from Francis and the Washington Evening Star was soon calling him the “much-touted” Ray Francis.13 His major-league debut came at Griffith Stadium on April 18. Walter Johnson started for the Senators but gave up six runs in five innings and Francis came in to pitch the sixth. He let the Athletics score five more runs in just the one inning. Philadelphia won 17-2. It was May 19 before Francis got his first win, a 3-2 victory over Detroit. His two best games were a 2-0 six-hit shutout against the Red Sox at Washington in the Fourth of July’s second game and a four-hit 5-0 shutout of the Browns in St. Louis on September 20. All told, Francis had a rough year, 7-18 (with a 4.28 ERA), with the most losses of any pitcher for the sixth-place Senators.
The December 15 Washington Post and Evening Star reported that Francis had been traded to the Detroit Tigers for shortstop Chick Gagnon. Washington owner Clark Griffith felt that even though Francis had pitched well enough in his first season, he had enough left-handers and that Gagnon could offer more to his team.14 Tigers manager Ty Cobb said he realized Francis hadn’t won that much but hoped he would come through for Detroit.15
Francis relieved on the Tigers’ Opening Day and was credited with the victory in a 9-6 win over the Browns. Though he had started 26 games for Washington, he was used primarily in relief by Cobb. He started six games and relieved in 27. He wasn’t used nearly as much – 79⅓ innings compared with 225. (There’d been a little trouble, too; Francis was fined $100 in May and suspended indefinitely for “breaking training rules.”)16 He was 5-8 with a 4.42 ERA. After the season, on December 22, his contract was sold to the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association.17
The 1924 season with Atlanta was a breakout year. Francis won 24 games and lost only 13, with an excellent 2.86 ERA. He threw 302 innings. Not waiting for the season to be over, the New York Yankees purchased his contract on August 13.18
Francis took his time getting to spring training from his home in Merced, California, in 1925, and no one seemed to know where he was for some weeks. As late as March 13, he hadn’t been heard from and manager Miller Huggins declared he’d be suspended indefinitely and placed on baseball’s ineligible list if he didn’t turn up.19 He did arrive, and his first workout was on the 19th.
Huggins used Francis in relief three times in April and once in May. He threw 4⅔ innings, but with a 7.71 ERA, due to one bad outing. On May 5, the Yankees traded Francis to the Boston Red Sox, sending along $9,000 too, in exchange for Alex Ferguson and Bobby Veach. Despite his struggles with the Yankees, the Red Sox were hoping his 24 wins for Atlanta were a harbinger of what he would bring to Boston.
That was not to be. One newspaper wrote, “The debut of Pitcher Ray Francis with the Red Sox was an unqualified success – for Cleveland. The Indians won, 6 to 4, scoring five runs in the first inning and driving Francis from the mound.”20
The Red Sox used Francis in six games, two of which he lost (he had no wins). He had the same 7.71 ERA for Boston that he had had for New York. His last game in the majors was on June 10. In 28 innings, he’d given up 29 runs, all but five of them earned. A week later, on June 17, he was released to the Cincinnati Reds, who refused to waive on him. Red Sox manager Lee Fohl “could not see where Francis would be of any use to the Boston club.”21
Francis still had seven more seasons in baseball, however. Though he hadn’t been able to succeed at the major-league level, he was with the Minneapolis Millers in 1925 and 1926, transitioning back to Atlanta in 1926 and playing there again in 1927. He began 1928 with the Crackers but was dealt to Birmingham by June, and played there into 1929. In 1930, he made the reverse trip – Birmingham back to Atlanta. His last two years were with the Raleigh Capitals in the Piedmont League in 1931 and 1932. All told, Francis posted minor-league stats of 109-87 (3.49), in the seasons we have records for.
Then, as noted, he left the game to become a policeman in Atlanta.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Francis’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com. Special thanks to Judith Forehand of the Margaret Carder Library in Mangum, Oklahoma.
1 Associated Press story from, among other newspapers, the Greensboro Daily News and the Greensboro Record, July 7, 1934.
2 Certificate of Death, Georgia Department of Public Health.
3 Macon Telegraph, July 8, 1932.
4 Vinson History Book Committee, Vinson Memories Book (1995), 52.
5 Ibid., page number unknown.
6 Ibid., page number unknown.
7 Ben Cothran, “A Cracker a Day,” undated 1928 newspaper clipping found in Francis’s Hall of Fame player file.
8 The Oregonian, September 12, 1920.
9 Seattle Daily Times, September 27, 1920.
10 San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 1921.
11 Seattle Daily Times, July 14, 1921.
12 The Oregonian, August 10, 1921. The value of the players provided Seattle was apparently $20,000. See the Washington Post of June18, 1922, which called Francis the “$20,000 recruit.”
13 Washington Evening Star, March 21, 1922.
14 Washington Evening Star, December 15, 1922.
15 San Diego Evening Tribune, January 8, 1923.
16 Washington Post, May 25, 1923.
17 Miami Herald, December 23, 1923.
18 New York Times, August 14, 1924.
19 New York Times, March 14, 1925.
20 Rockford Republic, May 14, 1925.
21 Boston Globe, June 18, 1925.