Catching up with Fran Healy

In September 1970, the Omaha Royals won the playoff championship of the Triple A American Association, with Francis Healy ’73 of Holyoke as their catcher. Two days after that playoff clincher, Healy walked up the steps of Lee Hall and into his first class as an AIC student. He arrived as a junior, transferring in from Holyoke Community College.

Thus began “a very interesting four years,” as Healy puts it, in which he would spend the fall semester at AIC, then skip the second semester because he had to report to baseball spring training in March.

Over that time span, he was traded from the Kansas City Royals to the San Francisco Giants, then back to the Royals. He made the big leagues with the Giants in 1971 and ’72, and spent the full 1973 season with KC.

Somehow, while all that baseball was going on, he found a way to complete his studies at AIC, graduating in the class of 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. Of course, he didn’t make it to commencement. On that big day, June 3, he was at Yankee Stadium, where the Royals lost 5-3 to the Yankees.

“I can remember sitting in the dugout before the game and thinking: ‘hey, I’m graduating today.’ It was quite a feeling,” Healy says.

After AIC, he went on to more “very interesting years.” In 1974, for instance, he caught an American League-high 139 games for the Royals, then led by his former Omaha manager Jack McKeon. Steve Busby pitched two no-hitters for the Royals with Healy behind the plate. When he was with the Giants, he had the pleasure of catching future Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry.

Fran Healy

In May 1976, the Yankees needed a backup to all-star catcher Thurman Munson. Their scouts recommended Healy, and he was headed to what he would find to be baseball’s version of the “Bronx Zoo.”

The Yankees of 1976, ’77, and ’78 won three pennants and two World Series despite a clubhouse that was deeply divided. Manager Billy Martin was at the center of the turmoil, until he would be fired by his boss, George Steinbrenner. Altogether, the Yankee owner hired and fired Martin five times.

Healy and superstar Reggie Jackson became friends during those stormy Yankee seasons, and they remain close today. (It was Healy who helped break up a dugout feud between Martin and Jackson during a 1977 game at Boston’s Fenway Park.)

With Munson playing virtually every day, Healy saw little game action. However, he did have the opportunity to catch two aces, Catfish Hunter and Ron Guidry. And he got a World Series ring with the Yankees of ’77.

Shoulder and back injuries hampered him during his Yankee years, leading to his decision to retire in the spring of 1978. Steinbrenner offered him a job as a broadcaster, and with that he began a new career that is still going strong.

Healy still ranks as a sports celebrity as a broadcaster and interviewer. He did TV stints as a color commentator for both the New York Yankees and New York Mets, then ventured into interviewing. His first such show, Halls of Fame, ran for thirty years and enabled him to interview countless Hall of Famers, ranging from Ted Williams (last of the .400 hitters) to John Force (patriarch of drag racing).

Healy now does two shows, Focused and In the Spotlight, in which he chats with more sports headliners. He recently did an episode with Jim Calhoun ’67, Hon ’00, who became a three-time NCAA Division I champion men’s basketball coach at UConn, and now has come out of retirement to coach at Division III University of St. Joseph, in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Healy loved it when Calhoun referred to himself as “a fast-talking Irish guy from Boston.” Why? Because Healy sees himself as “a fast-talking Irish guy from Holyoke.”

When he worked for the Yankees, and later the Mets, he had an opportunity to team with colorful characters like Phil Rizzuto, Ralph Kiner, and Rusty Staub.

“Scooter and Ralph weren’t big on statistics, but they could entertain you all night with stories from their baseball careers,” Healy says. As he listened to them, he began thinking that he should hone his own interviewing skills.

Healy with AIC baseball team catcher, junior Anthony Clark.
Healy with AIC baseball team catcher, junior Anthony Clark.

Over the years, his shows have won fifty-one New York Emmys, for which he gives producer Roman Gackowski and his crew full credit. The shows are carried on Fox regional sports outlets across the country. Those with a New England flavor, like the one starring Jim Calhoun, are carried on NESN.

Healy credits his college years with helping him become a good interviewer.

“I found the education to be invaluable,” he says. “I had some great, dedicated professors and advisors. They did all they could to work with me and accommodate the kind of fractured schedule I had. I’m really thankful for my time at AIC. I just wish I could have been on campus more often to enjoy the college environment, but baseball was a big part of my life, too, so I had to strike a balance.”

Why did he choose AIC?

“Simple answer,” he says. “I knew Art Ditmar had done it while he was playing, so I figured AIC could be the place for me.”

Ditmar ’62, a native of Pittsfield, completed his studies while he was pitching for the Yankees and then for the Kansas City Athletics. After his big league career, Ditmar returned to AIC in 1965 as the head baseball coach, a role he served for eight seasons.

In Healy’s case, the idea of a professional ballplayer getting an education goes back to his father, Bernard Healy.

In the summer of 1965, Fran was playing for the Dubuque (Iowa) Packers, a Cleveland Indians farm club in the Class A Midwest League. He was eighteen years old, taking his first steps toward his goal of becoming a major leaguer. While he had to concentrate on learning to play the professional way, he now and then would think about something his father had told him.

“Get a college degree. You never know when it will come in handy,” his father said, soon after guiding his son through the signing of his first contract. That was in August 1964, two months after his graduation from Holyoke High School.

“My dad was a wise man. He made sure my contract included a clause that would pay for college if I decided to go,” Healy recalls.

His baseball genes can be traced to Bernard, who played two seasons of minor league ball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, and his uncle, Francis Paul Healy, who had short big league stints with the New York Giants and Cardinals of the 1930s.

It was during the summer of ’66, when Fran was playing for Pawtucket of the Double-A Eastern League, that he decided to follow his father’s advice. That fall, he enrolled at Holyoke Community College. He was able to do two full years there because Cleveland’s farm director, Hoot Evers, allowed him to skip spring training and report to his minor league ball club in June.

“No more of that when I went to AIC,” Healy says. “The Royals and Giants wanted me in spring training, period.”

During the 1972 fall semester, Healy took a music course. “My professor knew I was with the Giants, so she suggested that I do a research paper on the San Francisco Symphony, which had Seiji Ozawa as its conductor. So I did the paper and got a good grade. One of my classmates was the daughter of Gerry Healy (no relation), AIC’s sports information director at the time. When he heard about my paper, he got it published in the Springfield Republican, then in the Hartford Courant, and, finally, in The Sporting News. It was amazing, really—one of the highlights of my time at AIC,” Healy says.

His life as an athlete of much promise really began at age fourteen, when he had a spurt of growth that turned him into a six-foot-five ninth-grader at Holyoke High School.

Baseball coach Jinx O’Connor saw that promise and gave Healy a spot on his varsity team even though he was just a freshman.

That happened in 1961 and proved to be the first big step in his sometimes dizzying life as a Major League Baseball player and, later, award-winning broadcaster.

“When Jinx gave me a spot on his team as a catcher, that was a huge confidence builder,” he says. “And, guess what, the first high school game I ever caught, at Springdale Park, Billy O’Connell threw a no-hitter against Holyoke Catholic, my sister’s school.”

Healy left Holyoke High as a junior to attend Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts. As a Tabor star, he earned the opportunity to play in Hearst-sponsored all-star games at Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds (then home of the Giants), and Fenway Park.

“Tabor was great for me. Their coach, Julius Luchini, was a peach, but I decided to go back to Holyoke because I wanted to graduate with my original class,” he says.

Although he never forgets his Holyoke roots, he spends much of his time in New York City. “I love the chaos,” he says.

Now as he reflects on his time at AIC, he’s reminded of something he heard when he was thinking about getting a college degree.

“I was playing in Pawtucket,” he says, “and I heard somewhere that only one percent of professional ballplayers who go to college actually finish. Well, I wanted to beat those odds—and thanks to AIC, I did it.”

 

By Garry Brown ’55, Hon ’14 :: Photos by Leon Nguyen ’16