Tom Joyce Staff Reporter
September 2, 2013
Not many people are around these days who can say they pitched to Jackie Robinson, but a Mount Airy man happens to be one.
It was in the late 1940s to early 1950s and Bill Francis was a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, which in 1947 had welcomed Robinson into its fold as the first black player in Major League Baseball’s modern era.
During that period, Francis took part in spring-training sessions at Dodgers facilities in Vero Beach, Fla., where he rubbed elbows with some of the sport’s legendary figures. There also was elbow grease involved, since Francis often found himself pitching against various players during batting practice — including Robinson, whose story was chronicled in the acclaimed movie “42” that hit theaters in April.
“He wanted me to throw him low balls,” Francis said of the sessions that were aimed at helping the star player hone his craft — with the normal hurler’s goal of a strikeout allayed for the time being.
“He was a real good runner — he was a real fast guy and a great base-stealer,” Francis recalled.
Francis, a native of Connecticut, never actually played on the Dodgers’ regular roster, but pitched for multiple minor-league teams in its organization. And each spring, members of the 29 different clubs involved, including the big-league squad, would gather in Florida for tryouts that would lead to their respective assignments.
That’s where Francis encountered Robinson and other stalwarts who played for the Dodgers at that time.
Francis later would abandon his big-league pitching hopes, partly due to a childhood head injury that reoccurred, but would go on to enjoy a career with a major industry that was arguably just as lucrative as he could have had in baseball.
He retired to Florida but later moved here, and for about the past five years has lived quietly with his wife Gloria on Lakemont Trail in Mount Airy, situated on Greenhill Lake.
Francis’ baseball history with Robinson came to the forefront last Sunday when he gave a talk about it at his church, Rockford Street United Methodist.
The local resident said he had many conversations with Robinson during his tenure with the Dodgers, and was impressed by the way in which he integrated himself into what previously was an all-white bastion.
“I think he handled the situation very, very well,” Francis said, pointing out that Robinson wasn’t militant in his behavior — but classy. “He knew what he could do and what he couldn’t do.”
Around the same time Jackie Robinson was shattering a baseball color barrier, Bill Francis was a star high school pitcher in his hometown of Deep River, Conn.
While some communities are football towns, Deep River was most decidedly a baseball place. One of its residents was Paul Hopkins, a former pitcher with the Washington Senators who held the dubious distinction of giving up home run No. 59 to Babe Ruth in 1927 when Ruth set a record of 60 homers in a season.
“He was a big influence on me in helping me through the younger days,” Francis said of Hopkins.
“It was a big deal when I was a young boy — I always wanted to play baseball,” added the local man, who said Little League squads did not exist at that time.
As an eighth-grader, Francis found himself playing for his high school’s team. Despite being a smaller school — with only about 45 students in Francis’ graduating class in 1949 — Deep River beat many larger schools in the state playoffs. Although it never captured the championship, his team always accounted itself well, said Francis, who put up stellar strikeout numbers along the way.
The right-hander, who describes himself as more of a finesse pitcher than a power pitcher, also played in a highly regarded industrial league in the summers while working for a ball-bearing company in New Britain, Conn. Though he was only 16, Francis competed against college athletes.
“So I was playing baseball morning, noon and night.”
Francis soon gained hot-prospect status, at the same time two others in his home state were doing the same, Bobby Valentine and Jimmy Piersall. “I guess you could say we were the three up-and-coming players in Connecticut at the time, or so we thought,” he remembers.
The young hurler would gain the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers, which sent Whitey Piurek, who scouted for the team in New England, for a look. Francis said in those days, scouts could watch someone play, but were not allowed to converse or discuss business with a player — to avoid enticing someone to quit school to play ball.
But at the appropriate time, he was summoned to the office of Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ president and general manager, at 215 Montague St. in New York City. Rickey, who was portrayed by Harrison Ford in “42,” had signed Jackie Robinson.
Rickey told Francis that he was “going to put a uniform on you and let you work out with the Dodgers.”
“They gave me a uniform, number 31, and said ‘you’re a major-leaguer,’” Francis described of the event that would lead to his spring-training experiences with the Dodgers in Florida. “So I threw batting practice and did the best I could to look the part.”
Living A Dream
Being associated with the Dodgers was a heady experience in itself, Francis said. It was during an era when that team was one of baseball’s best, serving as the National League’s representative in the World Series four out of seven seasons from 1947-53.
The Dodgers’ 1949 roster boasted the likes of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and even Chuck Connors, better known as “The Rifleman” on television.
“And I was in awe of all of them,” Francis said.
He helped out where he could, including assisting fellow hurler Rex Barney. “He could pitch harder than anybody,” Francis said. “I was the other type of pitcher — very good control — so I tried to help him.”
By that time, Jackie Robinson had been joined by other African-American players with the Dodgers, including Campanella, Don Newcombe and Joe Black.
“I’m sure it opened the door for a lot of Negroes to play ball,” Francis said of Robinson’s pioneering role.
The accounts of racial slurs and other abuse directed toward Robinson at the time are well-documented, and Bill Francis said he got a taste of that as well.
Growing up in Connecticut, racism was never an issue, he said, but that was a different story when he headed south to Florida for spring training and players would venture into Vero Beach to spend leisure hours.
“I made a few mistakes down there, like riding the black bus into the movies, things like that.”
Francis’ minor-league career included stints with a Dodgers’ team in Hornell, N.Y., where he was teammates with Don Zimmer.
He mentioned that Bob Crane, who later would star in TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes,” began his show-business career with a radio station in Hornell and announced the team’s games.
The local resident is most proud of his time with another team, in Hazard, Ky., where he registered a 10-2 won-loss record in 1950.
The young pitcher volunteered for the Army when the Korean War broke out, but found it difficult to distance himself from his baseball role to take on that of a soldier. “All my paperwork is saying I’m a Brooklyn Dodger,” Francis said, pointing out that officers where he was assigned at Fort Jackson, S.C., were eagerly waiting his arrival.
“They actually had a league there,” Francis said. He joined a baseball team and for much of his 18-month military career, “all I did was play baseball.”
Francis later suffered from problems with his head from an old injury. “I ended up getting a medical discharge.”
Although he had a fear of getting hit in the head with a ball, he continued to play some, including one last spring training session with the Dodgers and a stint with a team in Greenwood, Miss.
Francis also had gotten married to his first wife, Susan, in December 1952, and eventually decided to “throw in the towel” concerning his baseball career.
He returned to Connecticut and went to work for Pratt & Whitney-United Technologies, the largest employer in the state. “I never went to college,” said Francis, who attended school at night to help him grasp the high-tech operations of that company, which included building airplane engines, rockets and similar products.
After 49 years of marriage, his wife Susan died after they had retired to Florida. In addition to his present wife Gloria, Francis’ family includes two sons and three grandchildren.
He still is a big sports fan who watches games on TV. “Anything that involves a ball,” his wife joked.
Francis also is a champion table tennis player who enjoys games in Winston-Salem from time to time.
But his experience with the Brooklyn Dodgers is a cherished memory, including the time spent with Jackie Robinson, who left an impression that surpassed what the groundbreaking athlete did on the field.
“He set a great example…just as a human being,” Francis said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.