Philly Negro League star Bill Francis to have grave marked
Bill Francis, who was born in Philadelphia 135 years ago this Friday but was buried in an unmarked grave in a Chicago cemetery in 1942, will became the latest beneficiary of the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, which places stones at the final resting places of the league’s players.
Philadelphia is, remarkably, a baseball city known for its third basemen. Four of the hot corner players in the Hall of Fame were inducted as members of Quaker City teams, earning renown not only for themselves but also for the city they represented.
But instead of a spot in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, one Philadelphia-born third sacker — one much respected by both his contemporaries and historians — has been long forgotten. His place in the history of America's pastime has for decades been an unmarked grave hundreds of miles from his hometown.
But, that, at least, will soon change, when William Henry "Bill" Francis, who is anonymously buried in Chicago's Lincoln Cemetery, becomes the latest beneficiary of the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, which places stones at the final resting places of the league's players. Such a development perhaps takes on extra significance now, during Black History Month.
NLBGMP president Jeremy Krock said Lincoln Cemetery is a place where numerous other Negro League figures rest. Krock said Francis deserves recognition as one of the best, if overlooked, segregation-period hardballers.
"It takes some research for one to recognize that Billy Francis was one of the premier Negro Leagues players in the early 1900's, playing on some of the finest deadball-era teams," Krock said.
But a dark cloud followed Francis almost his entire life, and certainly during his career playing for some of the nation's best all-black teams during the first two decades of the 20th century.
In that era, when de facto segregation was strictly enforced in the baseball business, Francis was one of the premier third sackers in the game before he developed into a skilled manager later in his career.
"Recognized as one of the best third basemen [in] the first two decades of the century," wrote James A. Riley in his comprehensive volume, "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues."
"The chunky little infielder had good hands, wide range, and was a member of the great teams of the deadball era ... A good defensive player, Francis ... without question would have starred in the major leagues had he been given the opportunity."
Francis — who, according to his 1918 World War I draft card, was born in Philadelphia 135 years ago this Friday — began his professional career in 1904 with his hometown Philadelphia Giants. He stayed with the squad until 1910, then, like many Negro League stars, shifted around from team to team, until his retirement in the mid-1920s.
Along the way, he competed for several fantastic squads, including Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants in the 1910s and returning home to man third base for the legendary Hilldale Daisies of Darby, Pa.
In fact, it was with Hilldale that a quirk of history helped put in end to Francis' playing career. When Francis himself recruited an up-and-coming infielder named Judy Johnson to join the Daisies in 1921, the wise, weathered veteran quickly recognized the youngster's adeptness at third base. To make room for Johnson and nurture his nascent talent, Francis shifted his position to allow the youngster to slide in at the hot corner.
The result? Johnson went on to a Hall of Fame career, while Francis watched with a mixture of pride and resignation as his own career slowly burned out.
But that was not the only twist of fate that struck the plucky Francis. After gaining a managerial reputation for his tactical acumen and ability to relate to his players, Francis was brought back to Hilldale to skipper the 1928 team. But a tumultuous upheaval in management led to his unceremonious sacking before the campaign even began.
His perfunctory ouster was lamented by the Philadelphia Tribune's Lloyd Thompson.
"Here was Breezer Bill, a native son," Thompson wrote, "who had carried the banner of the Quaker City in baseball while many of the present day stars were unable to have their eggs straight up, and later had starred with the same Daisies and captained the club, now with the bearded reaper exacting his toll, the respected and esteemed son was to step back in the role of managing Philadelphia's representative team.
"One of the cudgels wielded in the internal fracas slipped its mooring to deal an undeserved blow to Bill Francis ... Time alone would have measured Francis' ability to lead the Daisies out of the ruck. Time alone will measure the wisdom of 'scratching' Bill from the post."
Francis was, indeed, one of black Philadelphia's most treasured native sons, a product of a fertile African-American baseball scene in the Quaker City.
"The city of Philadelphia had a very thriving black baseball culture that dates back to the immediate post-Civil War era," said Dr. Courtney Smith, an award-winning professor at Cabrini College who has studied the subject extensively. "I believe that the city's baseball culture is an extension of the culture and society that supported free African Americans before the Civil War. The city maintained its position as a key focal point for black baseball until the 1940s."
Francis sprang from that backdrop, but unfortunately, his exact background is murky, if not completely lost. Extensive research has failed to locate neither the identity of his parents nor any siblings. In fact, on his Chicago death certificate from 1942 — he settled in the Windy City after retirement, having spent several years there player for the powerful American Giants — his parents' names and birthplaces are listed as "unknown." The same goes for his date of birth, a day (Feb. 28, 1879) that's gleaned only through his WWI draft card.
All that is publically known is that he was married twice — his first wife died in 1933, and he soon remarried — and that he seems to have adopted a daughter with his second wife.
And aside from a terse death notice in the Chicago Defender, the only high-profile writer to take any notice of Francis' passing as a result of a stroke was the Defender's Fay Young, who wrote, as a footnote to a longer memorial to Hall of Fame catcher Louis Santop: "Perhaps as a coincident, last week, William Francis, who started his baseball career in Philadelphia and later became the ace third sacker for the American Giants ... was buried."
Also unknown for more than seven decades had been his final resting place in Lincoln Cemetery, the final strike of horrible luck for a baseball great. But with the efforts of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project — aided by the donation of a bronze marker from TriGard Memorials in Danville, Ill. — that condition will soon be rectified.
"Such efforts are important to preserve the memory and legacy of baseball players who did not receive the kind of attention they deserved during their lifetimes," she said.
Added Krock: "Having played baseball in anonymity, we don't want Mr. Francis to be buried in anonymity for eternity. By placing this marker, we help keep the history of Billy Francis and the Negro Leagues alive."
Ryan Whirty is a freelance writer. You can read more of his work at homeplatedontmove.wordpress.com.