Fran Boniar: The greatest hitter you never heard of

 

BASEBALL HAS ALWAYS been a game of numbers. From the tally of hits, home runs and wins to the digits worn on every player’s back, the game and its history is defined by numbers. And among all these figures and statistics, certain combinations carry a significant connotation that every fan can identify, such as 400 – as in a .400 batting average.

Since the beginning of organized baseball, hitting .400 or above has been the mark of an elite batsman, a rarefied position reached only by the likes of Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams. Indeed, since Major League Baseball was established in 1876, this number has been surpassed only 28 times, with Ed Delahanty, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby each hitting .400 or better three times each, and no player besting Hugh Duffy’s .440 set in 1894.

In the minor leagues, the list of .400 hitters is a bit longer, but even with lower-quality pitching, the ability to belt the ball at a .400 clip through an entire season is still a noteworthy accomplishment. Out of the 15 players who recorded the highest single-season batting averages in the minors, more than half made it to the majors. And out of those 15, only one name appears twice – yet, he is not one of the players who got the call to The Show.

Who was this guy, and why didn’t he get the call despite batting over .400 twice? His name is Fran Boniar, and this is the story of the greatest hitter you never heard of.

FRANCIS THEODORE BONIAR was born in South Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1933. About 45 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, South Uniontown was a hub of steel mills and coal mining. Fran’s parents, Paul and Veronica, were Polish immigrants from Tornow, a village near the present day German border. The couple had ten children, divided evenly between boys and girls. Fran was a three-sport letterman in high school, graduating in 1949, who then took a job as a shipper in a meat packing plant. Now fully grown to 6’ 1” and 190 pounds, Fran spent weekends playing American Legion ball until his draft number came up and he followed his brothers into the U.S. Army. Upon his discharge in ‘54, Fran returned to Uniontown and was playing for a semi-pro team when Brooklyn Dodgers scout Leon Hamilton signed him to a contract for 1955.

1955 would be the high-water mark of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The club had been a solid National League contender every season since 1946, but now the core group of players who kept Brooklyn in the first division were getting close to their sell-by dates. Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson were all in their thirties. Scouts like Leon Hamilton were dispatched to scour the country for fresh talent, and it was only natural that one of the places he prowled was Pennsylvania, where the team’s current star right fielder, Carl Furillo, had been discovered years before.

Like Carl Furillo, Fran Boniar was a line-drive hitting outfielder. While his bat didn’t have the home run power of Furillo, Boniar was almost impossible to strikeout, had a great eye and could consistently put the ball in play – a great asset for an organization that had begun to specialize in aggressive base running. He was also a first-rate outfielder, his long legs allowing him to easily traverse his outfield position.

The Dodgers placed their new prospect with their Bakersfield club in the California League. Boniar was batting a smooth .290 after 44 games when another Brooklyn farm team, the Hornell Dodgers, sent word they needed a big bat. Boniar flew cross-country to the east coast and commenced decimating the New York-Penn League pitching. When it was all over, Fran Boniar had batted .435 to not only lead the New York-Penn League, but all of professional baseball.

Each year since 1934, bat maker Hillerich & Bradsby awarded a full-size silver-plated bat to the player who recorded that season’s highest batting average. Officially named the “Louisville Slugger Award,” but commonly known as the “Silver Bat,” Fran Boniar was the 1955 recipient.

THE DODGERS showed their confidence in their budding star by bumping him up to the Class B level. However, just when things were starting to come together for the Dodgers young phenom, tragedy struck. Early in the spring Fran rolled an ankle. Compensating for the lame leg caused him to run awkwardly, and shortly afterward Boniar injured his back running out an infield hit. The injury quickly grew worse and all Boniar would manage in his sophomore season was .275 split evenly between the Wichita Falls Spudders and Cedar Rapids Raiders.

Nothing doctors prescribed worked, and Boniar spent spring training in constant pain. When the season began the Dodgers assigned Boniar to Pueblo of the Western League. In 11 games Boniar hit just .243 with only one extra-base hit. Unsure of what to do, but unwilling to give up on him, the team sent their struggling prospect to the Reno Silver Sox of the California League. On the way to reporting to Reno, Boniar made the radical decision to visit a chiropractor.

Today, chiropractors are more or less an accepted avenue of treatment for disorders of the musculoskeletal system, but in 1957 this was practically akin to visiting a witch doctor. Practitioners of the chiropractic arts were often considered a step above snake oil salesmen and many chiropractors were jailed for practicing medicine without a license, including its founder, D.D. Palmer. As late as 1966 the American Medical Association labeled chiropractic an “unscientific cult.”

So this is the level of desperation that drove Fran Boniar to walk into a chiropractor’s office in the spring of 1957. Miraculously, after a session of back adjustment, he walked out pain-free with a second chance at his career.

THE 1957 RENO SILVER SOX were a pretty good outfit, stocked with young Dodger talent. Led by legendary minor league slugger and player-manager Ray Perry, the Silver Sox could boast six future major leaguers. Although Boniar’s back problems were well-known, Reno’s management was thrilled to have the 1955 Silver Bat Award winner fill their vacant right field spot.

Any doubts about Boniar’s back condition was swept away when he tripled in his first at bat for Reno. Throughout the summer, Boniar pounded the ball, hitting sizzling line drives in every California League ballpark. Boniar was not a conventional hitter but his superior batting eye meant he rarely whiffed, doing so just 23 times in 1957. Reno Gazette-Journal sportswriter Bob Nitsche described Boniar as a “Yogi Berra-type hitter in that he didn’t wait for perfect pitches. If he could reach it, he drilled it.” And “drilled it” he did, with his average hovering around .450 all year and his on-base percentage just past the .500 mark. 37 year-old Ray Perry, who batted in front of Boniar in the lineup, claimed the young slugger shortened his playing career because of all the running he had to do when he was on base as Fran pounded out another hit. Boniar told Bob Nitsche “he used to cuss me out for making him run all the time.”

When you go by the stats, Boniar’s season looked as flawless as could be, but in fact he had to weather several set-backs throughout the summer. The first was a high fever thought to be brought on by tonsillitis, which forced him to sit out several games mid-season. Then, a calcium condition in his wrist threatened to cause his average to sink below the .400 mark. Playing through the pain, Boniar missed just a single game before a series of injections successfully dissipated the problem and he started hitting again with a vengeance.

Powered in part by Boniar’s batting, the Silver Sox kept statisticians busy as they set all sorts of new club and California League records, but the big story was the team’s right fielder. When it was all said and done, Fran Boniar recorded 193 hits in 110 games for Reno, including 33 doubles, 15 triples and 11 home runs. He drove in 138 Silver Sox runs and walked 60 times. His .504 on-base percentage was second only to Ray Perry’s .507. Among all those offensive numbers, it was Boniar’s .436 batting average that garnered all the attention. According to William J. Weiss, official statistician of the California League, Boniar’s .436 was the highest in the history of the league and overall the 4th highest ever recorded in organized baseball since 1900. For the second time in three years, Fran Boniar could claim the highest batting average in baseball, and Hillerich & Bradsby presented him with his second Silver Bat.

The Silver Sox met the Salinas Packers in the 3 out of 5 playoff to decide the California League pennant. Warming up in a team practice before the series began, Boniar re-injured his back. Whereas the pain had previously been localized in his upper back, it was now radiating from top to bottom. The team trainer applied the old standby, heat treatments, to no avail. Despite the constant pain, Boniar was committed to helping Reno win the pennant.

In the first game, Boniar was batting in the bottom of the first when he came around late on a ball. The awkward hitch in his swing was the final blow to his long-suffering back. Almost crippled by pain, Boniar stayed in the box, fouling off several pitcher before he grounded out. By the time he reached the dugout he knew his season was over. Without their automatic hit machine in right field, the Silver Sox were swept by the Packers.

THE DODGERS arranged for their star prospect to be flown out of Reno the following day for treatment in Los Angeles. After a year like he had in 1957, the Dodgers were willing to pull out all the stops in order to keep Boniar healthy. The LA specialist diagnosed the lingering problem as a faulty bone in the base of the spine that had worked its way out of position. Boniar was fitted with a back truss and instructed to wear it all winter in order to give his back a chance to heal.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers front office crossed their fingers as winter slowly turned to spring. The team couldn’t have been more pleased with the numbers Boniar put up in Reno. Back in Brooklyn, right fielder Carl Furillo had batted .309, the last time he would break the .300 mark. His 35 year-old legs meant that he could not cover his position in the way that made him one of the National League’s greatest defensive right fielders. With his pair of Silver Bats and high marks in right field, Fran Boniar’s path to the majors looked free and clear.

As expected, Boniar was invited to take spring training with the big club in Vero Beach. The team was now based in Los Angeles and their temporary home grounds in the cavernous L.A. Coliseum meant the Dodgers would need a speedy young right fielder sooner rather than later. Already the team was retooling their lineup, filling their roster with home-grown farm hands that would evolve into the team that would rule the National League in the early 60s. Fran Boniar was fully expected to be a big part of it.

The Dodgers promoted Boniar to their top farm team in Montreal, bumping him from Class A to AAA in one leap. Then, with all eyes on Carl Furillo’s heir-apparent, tragedy struck again. At some point in spring training, Boniar re-injured his back again. Reporting to Montreal, Fran hit just .150 in 14 games before he was reassigned back to Class A ball. There Boniar recovered enough to .328 in just over 100 games with the Des Moines Bruins.

This would be the last good season of Boniar’s career. As the Dodgers were winning pennants in LA, Fran toured the lower reaches of the Dodgers minor league system. Once thought of as the future of the Dodgers outfield, Boniar was passed up by Wally Moon, Tommy Davis, Frank Howard and Willie Davis, all of whom would all find fame roaming the far reaches of the newly-built Dodger Stadium.

The constant bus travel common in the lower minors eventually took its toll on Fran’s body. Wracked by constant back pain with no relief in sight, Boniar ended his baseball career in 1961, playing 39 games for the Birmingham Barons. Fran enjoyed the Alabama city so much that he made it his home for the rest of his life. The former Dodgers phenom took a job in an auto parts warehouse and played on the company softball team. When he aged out of that, he transitioned to bowling, talented enough to play for a traveling team. Over the years he gave away his two Silver Bats, one to a brother in Georgia and the other to a nephew in Virginia.

Though he never made it to the majors, Boniar was occasionally featured in “remember when” articles in the small Dodgers farm team towns where he was once a star. Sometimes his name would find its way into newspaper articles about the highest batting averages or “can’t-miss” prospects who failed to make good. His two Silver Bat Awards is still a record, and it was this unique notoriety that allowed Fran Boniar to appear one last time in newspapers across the country. In a 1980 syndicated story on a recent spike in silver prices, writer Mark Heisler managed to track down Boniar and inform him that each of his two Silver Bats were now worth $15,000 apiece – to which Fran replied, “I better get ‘em back.”

Before passing away in 1993, the life-long bachelor told sportswriter Bob Nitsche, “I’ve always been pretty happy-go-lucky. Still am.” Indeed, you won’t find any story or interview where Boniar complained about his hard luck and missed opportunities. But then again, this is the kind of class one would expect from the only ballplayer in history to earn two Silver Bat Awards.

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Special thanks to Chris Meiman, Curator of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, for graciously sharing his research on the history of the Silver Bat Award.

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This week’s story is Number 17 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. I will also start a Subscription to the series as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 006 and will be active through October of 2019. Booklets 1-5 can be purchased as a group, too.

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