Timeless Hitter

Julio Franco, who totaled more than 3,300 hits in professional leagues, debuts on Hall of Fame ballot

December 14, 2012
2013 BBWAA Hall of Fame Candidate Julio Franco (NBHOF Library)

Julio Franco broke into the major leagues as one of the most heralded prospects of the 1980s. He ended his career as the oldest player to hit a big league home run.

In between, Franco proved to be one of the most successful batters of his era. And today, Franco stands on the verge of Cooperstown as he debuts on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot.

“An MVP-type player, the kind of guy you build an infield around,” said former Cleveland Indians manager Mike Ferraro, Franco’s skipper when he became a regular with the Tribe in 1983.

Franco is one of 37 players on the 2013 Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for the Class of 2013 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Franco is making his debut on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot.

BBWAA members who have at least 10 years of tenure with the organization can vote in the election, and the results will be announced Jan. 9. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all BBWAA votes cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2013. The Induction Ceremony will be held July 28 in Cooperstown.

Franco was born Aug. 23, 1958 in the Dominican Republic, and attended high school in San Pedro de Marcoris, which – thanks to Franco’s help – became known for producing big league shortstops throughout the 1980s. He was signed by the Phillies as an amateur free agent in 1978, despite the fact baseball was never his favorite sport.

“Basketball was my best sport,” said Franco, who starred for his high school team as a guard. “I couldn’t get enough.”

But Franco continued to play pick-up baseball games at diamonds near his home, and he was spotted by a scout from the Phillies. Four minor league seasons later – after never failing to hit .300 and twice being named his team’s Most Valuable Player – Franco reached the big leagues, playing 16 games for the Phillies in 1982 while shuttling back and forth to the minors.

But with Philadelphia having signed shortstop Ivan DeJesus to a long-term contract that year, the Phillies saw Franco as trade bait. Following the 1982 season, the Phillies acquired outfielder Von Hayes from the Indians for five players: Jay Baller, Manny Trillo, George Vukovich, Jerry Willard and – the centerpiece of the deal – Franco.

Franco immediately won the Indians’ starting shortstop job, hitting .273 with 80 RBI and 32 stolen bases en route to a second-place finish in the 1983 AL Rookie of the Year vote. His unorthodox batting stance – with the bat pointed directly at the pitcher’s mound – generated a whip-like action that resulted in line drives sprayed throughout the field.

Franco remained the Tribe’s shortstop through the 1987 season, then moved to second base in 1988, where he posted his fourth season with at least 180 hits and won his first Silver Slugger Award.

“The hardest thing (about moving to second base),” Franco said, “was turning the double play.”

But with the Indians entering a rebuilding phase, Franco was dealt to the Rangers before the 1989 season for youngsters Jerry Browne and Oddibe McDowell and first baseman Pete O’Brien.

With the Rangers, Franco was named to three straight AL All-Star teams, winning the All-Star Game MVP in 1990 and culminating in 1991 when he won the AL batting title with a .341 average.

“He is one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen,” said former Indians general manager Joe Klein. “He knows exactly what he’s doing up there.”

Franco injured his knee in 1992, missing all but 35 games in 1992. He returned in 1993 to hit .289 with 84 RBI, then left the Rangers following the 1993 season to sign with the White Sox. As Chicago’s designated hitter in 1994, Franco hit .319 with 20 homers and 98 RBI in just 112 games during that strike-shortened season.

With the strike still unsettled in December of 1994, Franco signed to play with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan’s Pacific League. He returned to the United States in 1996 with the Indians, hitting .322 with 14 homers and 76 RBI as a part-time first baseman and DH. After splitting the 1997 season with Cleveland and Milwaukee, Franco spent 1998 back with Chiba Lotte and most of 1999 – save for one at-bat with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays – in the Mexican League.

He played pro ball in Korea in 2000 and again in the Mexican League in 2001 before signing with the Atlanta Braves at the tail end of the 2001 season.

In each of the next four seasons, the now 40-plus Franco appeared in at least 103 games a season with Atlanta, playing first base against mostly left-handed pitching while hitting .291. During this time, Franco was the oldest player in the big leagues – but he was productive enough to earn a two-year, $2.2 million deal with the Mets for 2006 and 2007.

Franco set a record (which he eventually extended) by hitting a home run on April 20, 2006 – becoming, at 47, the oldest player in big league history to hit a home run. Franco is also the oldest player in big league history to hit a grand slam.

The Mets released Franco midway through the 2007 season, but he hooked on with the Braves for the remainder of the year. After starting out the 2008 season in the Mexican League, Franco retired for good early in that season.

He finished his big league career with a .298 batting average, 2,586 hits, 1,285 runs scored and 407 doubles. He was named to three All-Star teams, won five Silver Slugger Awards (four at second base and one at DH) and retired as the all-time hits leader among natives of the Dominican Republic (since passed by Vladimir Guerrero).

Factoring in his seasons in Japan, the Mexican League and in Korea, Franco totaled more than 3,300 professional hits.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum