A few stories of dads with special places in the sports world

Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona (left) with his father, Tito, at Cleveland’s Progressive Field in 2016.
jim davis/globe staff/file
Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona (left) with his father, Tito, at Cleveland’s Progressive Field in 2016.

I’m a tad late to the Father’s Day celebrations and commemorations, but after Alex Cora’s heartfelt dugout moment talking about his late father Sunday (Nick Cafardo captured it beautifully in his column), I wanted to cite a few of the dads who’ve impacted sports figures in our region through the years.

  Next time you’re watching Steve Burton deliver Red Sox highlights on Channel 4, keep this story in mind.

Steve is the proud dad of four Division 1 college varsity athletes. He’s also one of five siblings, including three brothers who played football at Northwestern. Steve played at Northwestern, but his path to the Big Ten was unconventional. Steve’s dad, the late Ron Burton Sr., was an original Patriot running back in 1960 and dedicated his post-football days to helping underprivileged youngsters from the inner city.


When Steve was a hotshot football player at prestigious St. Mark’s, he got a little sloppy with his schoolwork and one day got a letter from the headmaster informing him that he’d been dismissed from St. Mark’s. He had to go home and tell his parents he’d been thrown out of school.

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With his tail between his legs, young Steve transferred to Framingham North and turned his life around. It was the wake-up call he needed. It wasn’t until 20 years later when he was invited back to speak at St. Mark’s that he learned the true story of his dismissal. He was informed by a veteran teacher that the whole thing had been orchestrated by his father.

“It turned out that my dad had asked them to throw me out of the school,’’ recalled Steve. “He requested that they send me the letter, and he knew I’d have to take it to him. And he never told me. Not even 20 years later.

“It turned out it was the best thing to ever happen to me. It forced me to get my act together. It was tough love.’’

  Larry Bird’s dad was Joe Bird, who served his country in the Korean War and came home to work jobs at a chicken farm, a piano company, and a shoe factory in French Lick, Ind. Joe and Georgia Bird had six kids, money was tight, and the family moved 15 times in 16 years.


Joe and Georgia divorced when Larry was 16, and in his book (“When the Game Was Ours,” written with Magic Johnson and Jackie MacMullan), Bird said that on more than one occasion, Joe Bird told him, “You’d all be better off without me.’’ Joe Bird took his own life a few years later.

“I looked up to my father and he wasn’t a celebrity, he was just a working man,’’ Bird wrote. “A man once said to me, ‘You’re my son’s biggest idol.’ I replied, ‘Why aren’t you his idol?’ He said, ‘Because I don’t play basketball.’ I said, ‘That doesn’t mean anything.’ I told him my father was always my idol.’’

The final basketball game of Bird’s career was Team USA’s gold-medal game in Barcelona in 1992. MacMullan wrote, “As Bird stood on the medal stand with [Patrick] Ewing at his side and Magic in front of him, he remembered his father, Joe Bird, a veteran of the Korean War who loved his country and stood straight and proud whenever the national anthem was played.’’

  In 1970, when veteran major league outfielder Tito Francona was nearing the end of his career, he directed his 11-year-old son to walk across the field before a game and introduce himself to the manager of the Washington Senators, Ted Williams.

Little Tito went over and said, “Mr. Williams, I’m Mr. Francona’s son and he wanted me to come over and say hello.’’


Later that summer, Big Tito took his son on a three-city road trip.

“I had a ball,’’ Terry recalled. “To this day, I love hotel lobbies. I love watching the people. I think it reminds me of those first days on the road with my dad.’’

In his managing days with the Red Sox, when Francona’s young lefty, Jon Lester, was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, Francona told Lester’s parents, “We will take care of your son.’’

After Lester recovered and won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series, the pitcher said that Francona had been like a second father to him.

“That made me feel good, but I didn’t ever want to say something like that,’’ responded Francona. “You only have one father.’’

When Tito Francona died at the age of 84 in February, Terry said, “The majority of whatever I do know, or what I care about, came from him. I love the game because of my dad.’’

  In the spring of 2012, former Boston College baseball captain Pete Frates was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis when he was only 27. At that moment, Pete’s dad put his career and his life on the shelf. Since Pete was diagnosed, John Frates (along with Nancy Frates) has dedicated every day to his son’s care and well-being.

We see John Frates at ceremonies for the Ice Bucket Challenge and at building dedications and Hall of Fame events, but the work of caring for Pete is all-consuming and never-ending. On Sunday, Pete Frates — who is also a dad now — posted a photo of himself with his dad and grandfather, inscribed, “happy dads day, y’all.’’

  Sunday at the Globe, we honored the best Massachusetts student-athletes from six MIAA districts and the City of Boston. Fourteen graduating high school seniors were cited, and most of them made the trek to downtown Boston with their parents on a sun-splashed afternoon — even though it was Father’s Day.

These kids are superstars of ballfields, gyms, rinks, and classrooms. Included in the group was Tabitha Earls, who graduated No. 1 in her class of 32 at North Brookfield and also played three years of varsity field hockey, basketball, and softball. When I congratulated her and teased her about the small class size — joking that it does wonders for one’s class rank — her proud dad smiled and reminded me, “She would have been No. 1 in any class.’’

Exactly. A great Dad Moment. On Father’s Day.

  William J. Shaughnessy was born in Cambridge in 1914, graduated from Boston College, and was awarded the Purple Heart for his service overseas in World War II. He raised a family of five in Groton. He wasn’t much of a sports guy, but enjoyed watching the forever eighth-place Red Sox on black-and-white TV with his youngest son after cutting the grass on Saturday afternoons.

Popping open his weekly gold can of Miller High Life, listening to Curt Gowdy describe another loss unfolding, my dad would tease me and say, “Looks like the pennant!’’

The last time I saw him was in Fenway Park in 1979. The last time we spoke was when I phoned him from the Baltimore stadium press box before the first game of the 1979 World Series. I was at the ballpark the next day when an Orioles official told me my dad had died in his sleep. He is buried in a cemetery next to a Little League ballfield.

Whether they are professional athletes or workers in shoe factories, they are all dads, and when they are gone, we miss them every day.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy.