White Sox History Wormhole: Julio Franco’s 1994

There’s never a bad reason to get caught up exploring the history of random White Sox players. In this case, this tweet that caught my eye was this one:

First of all, the man’s right. Franco hit .319/.406/.510 in 505 plate appearances for the Sox in 1994, played in 112 of the team’s 113 games despite being a 35 year-old coming off of knee surgery, and shored up a DH slot that had been the achilles’ heel of the division-winning 1993 club. Hard to imagine, I know, the White Sox punting away the DH position for a full season, but they did, and Julio Franco was a remarkably brilliant signing.

The hubbub around him on Twitter is concerning his Hall of Fame candidacy, which, has pretty much no chance. Franco’s offensive numbers are impressive for a middle infielder, but Franco was not particularly impressive as a middle infielder, and is not really remembered for sticking around there, especially since his time as a capable reserve backup 1st basemen stretched out around seven years longer than anyone could have anticipated.

His single season with the White Sox might be the most luminous entry on Franco’s resume, but the aftermath might have been the final nail in any notions of his candidacy.

After hitting 25 home runs and knocking in 112 to cover up a .294 on-base percentage in 1992, George Bell was an easy, universal type of bad in ’93, but there was still a unmistakable whiff of forward thinking in the White Sox selection of Franco as his replacement. Sure, there was plenty of discussion of Franco being an RBI-man, and providing “lineup protection” for Frank Thomas, but his sheer knack for getting on-base, compared to Bell’s hacktastic ways, were noted both by the Chicago Tribune’s Alan Solomon…

“Together, the nine Sox who played DH hit 22 homers and drove in 103 runs in 654 at-bats, which are competitive numbers. But together, they scored just 69 runs, worst in the league (Franco alone scored 85 in 529 at-bats); and they drew 33 walks, easily worst in the league (Franco walked 61 times.)”

…and White Sox manager Gene Lamont:

“There probably are going to be people who say a DH should have a little more power,” Lamont said. “It’s always nice to have home runs, but it doesn’t really matter how you score ‘em as long as you score ‘em, and he has been a real good big-league hitter for quite a while.”

Franco wound up having plenty of power as it turned out. He hit 20 home runs in just those scant 112 games, but that was already enough to be his career-high. Also a career-high in a strike-shortened season were Franco’s 98 RBI. I generally dismiss RBI as a meaningful measure of performance, but it serves as a reminder that Franco was hitting behind Frank Thomas every day. It was the last time the Sox could flaunt two .300/.400/.500 guys in the same batting order.

Despite Franco’s incredible season, he spent the next year out of major league baseball. Unwilling to wait out the strike that pushed on till April of 1995, Franco agreed to play in Japan for the year. His departure was his own independent decision likely brought on by Franco’s desire for job certainty, but it’s unlikely that he would have found a welcoming home on the South side even if a resolution had been reached months earlier.

Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was identified by many as a primary figure in prolonging the MLB strike and taking a hardline stance against larger shares of the revenue being doled out to players. From that, one could make a tangential argument that Reinsdorf drove Franco away–Frank Thomas certainly held it against him at the time. But while Reinsdrof is seen as a hypocrite for later handing out a mega-contract to Albert Belle, there’s no questioning his commitment to combating the inevitable upward trend in player salaries in the immediate aftermath of the new labor agreement.

“My original plan was to unload all the high-salaried guys except for Frank Thomas and trade for young players, rebuild the ball club. To get the payroll down [from $44.8 million] to $20-$22 million. If we drew a million fans, my accountant had it figured out we’d make a $5 million profit. It would have been the smart thing to do. Then I got nervous. What if I destroyed the franchise? I thought if I signed Albert Belle I’d excite the city.”

There’s a few years between those events, in which time the Sox sent away Jack McDowell for a package headlined by Lyle Mouton, were less successful in their attempts to acquire cheap, aging DH’s with Chris Sabo and John Kruk, and probably didn’t charm anyone by letting Joey Cora walk in free agency, even if Ray Durham was ready. The Sox made a point of spending less, and the team floundered. No further investigation of the cause and effect relationship was desired.

At the time, a Chicago press that is commonly complimentary to Reinsdorf these days, and defers to the descriptions given of him by his closest employees, was surprisingly merciless. The Tribune’s Robert Bonner decried the dishonesty of pinning the blame of the failure of the 1995 team on Gene Lamont rather than his boss, and the Daily Herald’s Scot Gregor prefaced a call for the Sox to be sold to someone who cared more about winning with the admission: “This is probably going to cost me my free-meal ticket at Comiskey Park.”

But I digress. It’s hard to focus on Julio Franco, or any element of the early-90′s White Sox without addressing their dismantling. It’s easily forgotten, since some of the most outspoken critics at the time–Thomas and Robin Ventura–couldn’t be on much better terms with ownership these days. Franco wasn’t around long enough for his departure to have much emotional resonance, and his envoy to Japan was more damaging to him personally than it was for the fan base.

Franco would wind up 414 hits short of the 3000 hit club, a plateau which would have lent arbitrary legitimacy to his case for the Hall. Nothing from his follow-up season to his career-year would count toward his major league totals, and while he was offered some full-time opportunities again, he would never eclipse the 505 plate appearances he garnered in strike-shortened 1994. He never had Herm Schneider as a trainer again, and was never healthy for the duration of a six-month season again. Just one of those coincidences, perhaps.

Or maybe not much was lost at all. The 1994 White Sox weren’t the sure shots for the World Series they’re often romanticized as–they were behind the Yankees for best record in the AL when play was stoped, and only one game up on Cleveland.  They were a playoff team, but could hold off on getting fitted for rings.. Julio Franco was coming off his age 35 season, and there’s a difference between taking a one-year flier and  paying for him coming off of his career-year. If Reinsdorf hadn’t made his intentions so clear, his departure could have been easily rationalized. Probably by someone like me.

But brief anomalies in history are more enjoyable when explored for all they might have been. Even if it takes 1200 words.

 

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan

 

Topics: Chicago White Sox, Jerry Reinsdorf, Julio Franco

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