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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 27 2014

Did You Know That: Frank Gravino was feared at the plate, on the mound

The most feared slugger ever to play professional baseball for a North Dakota team was a former pitcher.

In a little more than two and a half seasons, Frank Gravino hit 140 home runs, drove in 440 runs, and hit for a .322 average for the Fargo-Moorhead Twins.

Frank John Gravino was born Jan. 29, 1923, in Newark, N.Y., to Domenic and Angelina Gravino. Domenic was a night watchman for a paper box factory. Due to their large family, Frank, like many of his siblings, quit school after eighth grade and got a job.

All of the Gravino boys played baseball, and when his brother Joe signed a contract to play minor league baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938, playing professional baseball became Frank’s obsession.

Scouts noticed Frank because he threw a wicked fastball, and he was signed in 1940 by the Cardinals and sent to Williamson in the Mountain State League. There, he compiled a 10-5 win-loss record with a 4.57 ERA in 130 innings. What the management found most promising was his power and skill with the bat.

When Frank Gravino returned to Williamson in 1941, he was converted to the outfield. Gravino spent the last half of the season with Batesville in the Northeast Arkansas League.

In 1942, he was sent to Albany in the Georgia-Florida League and played as an outfielder and a pitcher. He was most effective as a pitcher, compiling a 13-9 record with a 3.52 ERA.

Gravino enlisted Jan. 27, 1943, and remained in the Army until his discharge on Dec. 9, 1945. He then returned to baseball.

In 1946, he hit 17 home runs and batted .334 with Hamilton in the Pony League, and he also hit four home runs and batted .350 with Allentown in the Interstate League. He was promoted to Omaha in the Western League in 1947, but after struggling was sent to Winston-Salem in the Carolina League, where he hit 16 home runs and batted .310.

In 1948, he was promoted to the Rochester Red Wings in the International League, which was the Cardinals’ top minor league affiliate. He knew that if he had a good season, he would be brought up to the majors.

Needless to say, Gravino was very excited to play for Rochester, which was located only 35 miles from his hometown of Newark. He started out the season as the team’s best hitter, batting .342 with 12 home runs by the end of June, and the press began heralding Gravino as “the next (Stan) Musial.”

In mid-summer, he was hit in the head with a pitch, which affected his eyesight and caused him to go into a slump. His average dropped to .277, and he only hit six more home runs.

With his eyesight affected, Gravino was no longer able to get a proper read on a curveball, and the Cardinals sent him to Columbus in the South Atlantic League to work on his hitting. After some success, he was promoted to Omaha, but his curveball struggles returned, and he was released by the Cardinals.

For the next two seasons, Gravino played for the St. Jean Braves of the independent Provincial League. In 1950, he hit .266 with 18 home runs. In 1951, his average improved to .289 and his home run production jumped to 42.

Meanwhile, the F-M Twins were coming off a mediocre 59-65 record and were looking for players who could help their team in 1952. Jack O’Connor, general manager of the team, called Gravino and offered him $1,300 a month to play for the Twins in 1952. Gravino accepted the offer.

The Twins played their home games at Barnett Field at 19th Avenue North and Broadway. The team got off to a horrible start. After some coaching, though, Gravino saw a dramatic improvement and, by mid-season, made the All-Star team. After playing in 94 games and hitting 32 home runs, he was promoted to Cedar Rapids of the Three-I League, but once again, his statistics suffered because pitchers threw many more curveballs.

Back with the Twins in 1953, he was joined in the outfield by 18-year old Fargo native Roger Maris. The youngster’s parents asked Gravino “to watch over him.”

Gravino had an incredible year, batting .352, hitting 52 home runs, and driving in 174 runs, (the latter is a Northern League record). In 1954, Gravino batted .301, hit 56 home runs (a Northern League record), and drove in 158 runs. Primarily because of Gravino, the two best years of the Twins in franchise history were 1953 and 1954, with the team going 86-39 and 85-55.

Realizing that his eyesight would no longer allow him to play, Gravino retired in 1954 to work construction in Rochester, N.Y. According to city directories, by 1960 he had become a parking lot attendant.

Gravino died on April 5, 1994. Fargo has recognized Maris by honoring him with a museum, an annual celebrity golf tournament, and a cancer treatment center. However, Frank Gravino has become one of the city’s forgotten sports’ heroes.

"Did You Know That" is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.