Monday, April 30, 2007

Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente 1954

Imagine sitting in a stadium during a warm sunny day. The game is to start within a few minutes and the home team is taking their places in the field. As you scan the players on the field you recognize two players in particular. In center field you notice the “Say Hey” kid himself Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Next to him in right field is his fellow Hall of Famer, Roberto Clemente. Sounds unreal? Think of it as something that you could only do in a game like Strat-O-Matic or by flipping baseball cards? Well, it really happened. When you ask? Read on and find out.

The year is 1954 and the location is Puerto Rico. Playing in the Puerto Rican Winter league on the team known as the Santurce Cangrejeros. Now the 1954 season in the United States was punctuated by the arrival on the national scene of a young 23-year-old named Willie Mays. This was seen specifically with arguably with the over the head catch by Mays off of a blast of the Cleveland Indians’ hitter Vic Wertz during Game 1 of The World Series. In contrast, Roberto Clemente had come off of a frustrating rookie season with the Montreal Royals, which was an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was frustrating in that The Dodgers were trying to hide him from all of the other scouts and wanted him to get proper seasoning by playing a number of years in the minors. So his playing time was limited. In the end, their hesitance to play him worked against him as the Pittsburgh Pirates took Clemente with the 1st pick of the Rule V draft in the Winter of 1955. But let’s get back to Puerto Rico in late 1954.

So again, you’re sitting in this stadium watching two of the most exciting ballplayers to ever grace the diamond in any stadium and they are playing on not only the same field but on the same team! Now you may ask, how does this happen. The economic reality of the game in those years was much different than today. Where today’s player makes at least six figures at a minimum, players in the 1950’s didn’t make much money. So when the opportunity to play baseball year round in an ideal setting like the Caribbean came along the ballplayers took it. In addition to making more money, players who were either Black or Latino found that the exclusionary racial environment they faced on a daily basis in the United States was virtually non existent in the Caribbean. They were able to dine and go where they wanted and were treated with respect.

So, once again, you’re sitting in the stadium and have the luxury of knowing what kind of players Mays and Clemente would become. It’s easy for us to know how the players would develop, but in reality so did the Puerto Rican fans. Mays was already known and Clemente had been playing for the Santurce team from the age of 19 and he was known from his High School days as being an amazing player. So, though the Santurce team won their league and advanced to the Caribbean Series, Mays and Clemente were not the only ones who contributed. The vaunted lineup was also made up of sluggers Buster Clarkson, Bob Thurman, and George Crowe. Together with Mays and Clemente, they were known as El Escuadrón del Pánico (The Panic Squad). Also on the team was Puerto Rican legend Luis Rodriguez Olmo and a young shortstop named Don Zimmer.

Playing against the Legendary Almendares of Cuba, Carta Vieja of Panama and the home team Magallanes of Venezuela, The Puerto Rican team was able to win the round robin tournament by going undefeated (5-0). Mays ended the tournament with 2 homers and 9 RBI’s. Clemente also had one homer. Surprisingly, the MVP of the tournament was the unlikely hero, Don Zimmer, who hit 3 homers to take the honors.

There are many players that I personally could say that I wish I had the privilege to see in person. Though I could see footage of Mays and Clemente nothing could compare with seeing these Hall of Fame ballplayers in person. I can see in my head images of Mays making amazing catches with the ease that only he could. I also imaging Clemente running full speed to make an amazing basket catch then firing the ball to any base (And most times successfully) throwing runners out on the fly. I hope that as baseball fans you can imagine what I can and then some. Enjoy.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Cuidad Trujillo Dragons 1937

I’m going to take a bit of a different take on this week’s blog entry. I know that this blog is about Latin American baseball history. And trust me it is. But I’m going to mix in some Negro League flavor into the mix. Now the path of the Negro League baseball players and the Latin American baseball players is one that has been the same. Many of the Latin American players of color during the 1930’s and 1940’s were relegated to being able to play ball in the Negro Leagues due to “The Gentlemen’s Agreement” in Major League Baseball. Now, not that the Negro Leagues was a lesser league. The competition in the Negro League was on par with the competition in MLB but talent wise it might have been superior.

It was this superiority that led to 1937 tournament in the Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic. We all know today that the effect of the Dominican baseball players is great. With the Dominicans making up the largest amount of foreign born players in the majors. But that was not the case in 1937. The Dominican Republic was considered vastly inferior to the Cubans in terms of not only Negro League talent but also Major League talent (Adolfo Luque of the Cincinnati Reds for one). I believe that before I go on, a little bit of background information is in order.

General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina (a.k.a. Trujillo) who presided as the absolute ruler of the country for a total of 31 years (1930-1961) was the engineer of the baseball tournament of 1937. He ruled the country with vicious precision, eliminating enemies without recourse. His high handed rule went hand in hand with a massive megalomania. Many a town was named after him including the capital city of the Dominican Republic (From Santo Domingo to Cuidad Trujillo). So it was within political climate that politics intermingled with baseball.

With the victory of the 1936 Dominican League of the team from San Pedro (Las Estrellas Orientales), Trujillo wanted to make sure that the teams from his city would not lose again. So for the next season, the two teams that played in the nation’s capital, Los Tigeres de Licey and Los Leones de Escogido, had their best talent raided by Trujillo who made one team, named Los Dragones de Cuidad Trujillo. In response, the owners of the other teams in the league brought in some high paid talent from the Negro Leagues and Cuba. Trujillo also realized that he would need to raise the stakes by bringing in some high-class talent of his own. Trujillo would not tolerate anything short of victory.

With the recruitment of Negro Leaguers, certain factors came into play. First of all, the Latin American leagues were usually limited in how many foreign players they could have on their teams. In doing so, they often paid top dollar for the talent. By signing with the Latin American teams, the Negro Leaguers made more money in Latin America than they would have in the United States. Secondly, the potential of more pay went hand in hand with a racial environment that was different than they were used to. Unlike the blatant racial segregation that was in place through much of the United States, they did not have to deal with that in Latin America, whose population was very much made of many races and cultures.

So, when Trujillo (with the aid of Dr. Jose Aybar who ran the Cuidad Trujillo team) decided to recruit Negro League players, the action was done in earnest. Satchel Paige was the first to be approached. Then came Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Sammy Bankhead, Cy Perkins, Leroy Matlock and Harry Williams. Also on the team was Puerto Rican baseball player named Perucho Cepeda, the father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda. Countering the power play of the Cuidad Trujillo team, the Santiago team (Las Aguilas Cibaeñas) countered with Negro Leaguers Horacio Martinez, Luis Tiant, Sr., Chet Brewer and Martin Dihigo (Baseball Hall of Famer). The San Pedro team was made up of a mix of Dominican and Cuban players. The Negro Leagues in contrast, had to play their 1937 season without it’s biggest and best drawing players. Those Negro leaguers who played in the Dominican faced lifetime suspensions from the league. Played in the baseball-crazed environment of The Dominican Republic, the tournament is still being talked about on the island among the baseball old timers.

With games being played on weekend, the tournament came down to the final game. In a matchup between Cuidad Trujillo and Santiago, the game was moving along swiftly with the Santiago team leading 2-0. On the mound was Negro Leaguer Chet Brewer, who had only a week earlier thrown a 1 hit shutout of the Cuidad Trujillo team. By the 5th inning things were about to change. A series of hits, capped off by a Sammy Bankhead grand slam chased Brewer from the game. The Santiago tram was able to cut the lead of the Cuidad Trujillo team to two runs (8-6) before Satchel Paige came in close the game and win the tournament for the Dragons.

Professional baseball would never be the same on the island. Due to the great cost that was incurred by all of the owners of the Dominican teams, professional baseball would not return to the island until 1951. That did not mean that there was no baseball. Amateur games were being played in the schools and among the sugar mill workers throughout the island. Also, the military had their own teams that played throughout the island. This led to the future advancement of The Dominican Baseball player in Major League Baseball with Osvaldo Virgil being the first Dominican Baseball player in the Majors (1952) and the arrival of such players as the Alou Brothers and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal. As for the Negro Leaguers, the lifetime ban was not a prudent move. They were allowed to return to their respective team by paying a week’s worth of salaries as fines.