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Hartford's Jimmy Francoline, 91, Recalls His Baseball Glory Days

DOM AMORE

May 29, 2009

Jimmy Francoline was finished with baseball. It was 1943, time to make a living, settle down, raise his three children.

Then the phone rang. The best manager he had ever played for needed him. What could he say?

"Del Bissonette called, and he told me, the station wagons they were coming up in, there was an accident ... and they needed a center fielder that night," Francoline remembers. "I had no spring training. ... I tried to retire four times, but they kept calling me back."

And with that, Francoline became a member of the hometown Hartford Bees at age 25 during the time when many minor leagues but not the Eastern League shut down because of World War II. The next year, the Bees were known as the Laurels, and they proved to be one of the greatest minor league teams ever assembled.

"They were saying that we were a bunch of misfits," said Francoline, 91, as though it still chafes. "We were no misfits. We knew the basics. We knew how to play the game."

Not misfits ... ringers, maybe.

It was almost too good to be true. Francoline had been playing minor league baseball since signing with the Cardinals in 1935, but not for his hometown team in Hartford, whose parent club was the Boston Braves. He had grown up just outside the left-field fence at Bulkeley Stadium, close enough for stray balls to roll into his backyard. Now he could work full time at Pratt & Whitney, doing his bit in the war effort, go home for dinner with his beautiful new bride, Helen, who had passed on a chance to model to build a life in Hartford. Then they'd walk around the block to his second job outfielder.

To this day, Francoline, who lost Helen four years ago, lives in that same house that his father built in 1912, and can still make his way around the corner and to the spot where Bulkeley Stadium stood. Just this week, he helped his friends Norm Hausmann and Jack Hale plant flowers around the monument that commemorates the ballpark torn down in 1960. Ellis Manor, a rehabilitation center, sits there now on George Street.

Francoline, whose three children still live in the state, one with him, dropped seeds for buttercups on the spot that was right field. That was his normal position 65 years ago, the unforgettable summer of '44.

"We had a hell of a team," Francoline said. "If we were around today, we could all play in the majors."

Francoline played at Bulkeley High and for various semipro teams before Cardinals scout Ray Didinger signed him in 1935. The next spring, he was at one of Branch Rickey's famous instructional camps where players assembled to stock more than 30 farm clubs.

"I was in the dugout and Branch Rickey said, 'You're the Italian boy from Connecticut,'" Francoline said. "There were 500 guys there and he knew who everybody was. He said, 'You got great speed, you got a hell of an arm. You go hit .375 and I'll call you up.'"

Francoline never hit .375, and in 1937 he was one of dozens of players given free agency by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who did not like Rickey's stockpiling of players. Francoline hit .307 for Bissonette at Bradford, Pa., in the PONY League in 1941, so when Bissonnette was hired by the Braves to manage their farm club in Hartford, he knew where to find a solid ballplayer in an emergency.

"He was the best manager I ever played for," said Francoline. "He was a hundred-percent baseball man. If you messed up, he never yelled at you. He'd say, 'I want to see you in my office after the game.' He knew everything you did wrong."

With the war on, players were hard enough for major league teams to find. With travel limited, Bissonette ran spring training in East Hartford and assembled a team of veteran players, many in their late 20s and living in the area, on whatever terms he could get them. He even employed his 41-year-old pitching coach, Merle Settlemire, who had pitched for the Red Sox in 1928, as a reliever.

Francoline, who had failed his Army physical because of high blood pressure, agreed to play only the home games in 1944, after his day shift. He'd make about $450 for the season.

After a so-so April, the Laurels caught fire in May and began winning game after game, often by big scores.

"One time, a guy on the other team made a mistake and we started getting all over him," Francoline said. "'Don't you know how to play?' Bissonette gave us a look, told us to be quiet. 'We'll learn from their mistakes.' He didn't want us to say anything unless we checked with him."

Pete Naktenis, who had played in the majors in the mid-1930s, was pitching part time despite a left arm that he couldn't straighten. He went 18-3 with a 1.93 ERA. Roland Gladu hit .375, and ended up playing a few games in Boston at the end of the year, as did second baseman Steve Shermo. Vince Shupe (.339) played for the Braves in '45. Bissonette was hired to manage the big-league club late in 1945. Catcher Bob Brady and 18-year-old shortstop Charlie Aikley were Eastern League All-Stars.

Francoline, who hit .268 in 69 games, remembers hitting a ball over the left-field fence and being called out for missing first base. When he continued jawing with the umpire the next night, he was ejected. Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt intended in his "green light" letter, the Laurels were giving the folks exciting baseball after the 5 o'clock whistle. By late summer, the city was buzzing with excitement as the Laurels threatened to win 100 games.

"We played Albany, they were our big rival," Francoline said, gesturing with his cane. "And they sold out. They ended up putting a rope around the outfield, they shortened it by about 10 feet ... anything hit in there was a double."

Bissonette persuaded Francoline to take one road trip, to Albany, where the Laurels clinched first place. Hartford finished 99-38, a .723 winning percentage that is still the Eastern League record. But the playoff series against Utica ruined the story. In the fifth and deciding game, the Laurels made six errors, Naktenis threw two wild pitches and the season was over.

"Charlie Aikley got sick," Francoline said. "And Bissonette said, 'You're playing shortstop.' It was the worst game I ever played."

Francoline played with the Chiefs, as they were called in 1945, and threw batting practice to Babe Ruth, who came to town for an exhibition. He stayed in the game, as a player, manager or general manager for various minor league teams, until 1952. Francoline said that he still follows the game and that Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia reminds him of himself. Francoline never played in the major leagues. Didn't need to.

"I have all the memories," Francoline said. "I've sure had an exciting life."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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