Runs and Bases: the 1950's (part 2)

SWC75

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“TOO MANY MEXICANS”

(My primary sources for this are an article by Rob Ruck in the 1989 edition of Total Baseball and Peter C. Bjorkman’s book “Baseball With a Latin Beat”)

My parents retired down south back in the 80’s and I visited them often. They had a bigoted neighbor who once told me that he used to be a baseball fan but didn’t think much of the sport these days. I asked him why. “Too many Mexicans”. What he meant was that the game seemed almost to have been taken over by Latin American players. The history of Latin American baseball and its impact on the majors is interesting.

In “The Missiles of October”, (it’s on You-Tube and I highly recommend it- it’s one of the best dramatic presentations I’ve ever seen), the CIA guy tells President Kennedy that they know the Russians are in Cuba because they saw soccer fields there. “The Russians play soccer. The Cubans play baseball.” We think that the entirety of Latin America must be baseball crazy because of all the Latin players in the Major Leagues but, in reality most of them come from certain countries: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela, as well as the US territory of Puerto Rico. The rest of the countries are football, (soccer) crazy or, if they were British possessions, they prefer cricket.

The story of Latin American baseball beginnings in the 1860’s. it has two origin stories, both involving Cuba. One has it that a Cuban student named Nemesio Guilliot who went to the US to be educated brought the sport and some of its equipment back home with him. Another has the crew of a US ship teaching the locals to play the game, (one version of that one is that they taught them the game so they could sell them the equipment, which fits in with the way they see us down there). However it started, the Cubans went crazy for the game and they were the primary “carriers” around the Caribbean to the nations they did business with or sent workers to. Dominican sportsman Julio Santana told Rob Ruck “it was much the same as happened with Christianity. Jesus could be compared to the North Americans but the apostles were the ones that spread the faith and the apostles of baseball were Cubans. Even though the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico were occupied by North Americans, the Cubans first brought baseball here and the Mexico and Venezuela, too.”

That was well before the Spanish-American War, when Cuba was still a Spanish colony. When that war came Cuba became a US possession until 1902 and Cuba “fell into orbit around the United States” until the Castro revolution. By then Cuba has already created its own professional league, (1878) and sent its first player to play in the American Leagues, (Estaban “Steve” Bellan, who played in the National Association from 1871-73). Spanish officials had been suspicious of the game, feeling that imported baseball bats could be used as weapons in a revolution. They even imprisoned Emilio Sabourin, the “Albert Spalding of Cuba”, who had formed the league. He died in captivity. But it didn’t halt the spread of the game. After the war, Cuba became a popular place for US teams to tour or hold spring training. It also welcomed black American players who couldn’t play major league ball. With the weather down there, the game could played year around and there were two seasons: summer and winter. It was the winter leagues that were really special. It contained a combination of Cuban stars, Negro League stars and Major League players staying in shape and making some extra money while still playing the game over the winter and some of the best baseball that has ever been played was played there.

It helps that sugar cane is a major crop in the area. “The six month long ‘tiempo muerto’, or dead season, when the cane required minimal attention and most workers were unemployed, contributed to an intense sporting environment, first for cricket and ultimately for baseball.”

Baseball in the Dominican Republic dates from when Cuban refugees from their first attempt at a revolution, called the Ten Years War, (1868-1878) moved there to escape the violence. They helped found the island’s sugar cane industry. “From the outset, sugarcane and baseball have been inseparable in molding the island’s exciting baseball saga…The story of Dominican baseball begins with the story of Dominican cricket…The game of “bats and balls” was inherited in its most primitive from the island’s British rather than Hispanic ancestors and is thus not strictly a product imported directly from Cuban sources alone. Yet the Cubans did play a major role in transporting the American form of the game to Hispaniola and Puerto Rico and numerous other Caribbean ports of call. But first the Cubans brought their sugarcane industry, one that truly revolutionized life on Hispaniola….That war of independence had already succeeded in largely obliterating Cuba’s thriving sugar production at the very time sugar had emerged as an item of highest demand and a new working-class addiction in Europe and most of the Western Hemisphere. “

“In addition to these remnants of a booming Cuban sugar trade, these expatriate settlers brought the game of baseball, which they were soon teaching to Hispaniola’s coastal inhabitants. And, once the sugar mills were up and operating, there was an immediate need for a substantial labor force to carry out the tasks of cutting and processing on which the new industry heavily depended. The small population of the Dominican island itself had easy access to abundant land and thus little incentive to tackle the slave-like conditions in the sugar mills and cane fields. The labor had to be imported from over-populated neighboring Caribbean islands, especially the British Virgin islands and Dutch Antilles…And with this batch came a new breed of ballplayers, those raised on the British game of cricket…By the dawn of the 20th century two new sporting traditions coexisted in the sugar mill towns of the Dominican Republic British Virgin Islanders were as dedicated to their ancient native game of cricket as the Cuban descendants were to their far younger North American version of rounders….But British games and all things culturally English were doomed in a Spanish sphere constantly becoming more ethnocentric….Barnstorming Negro League ball clubs, crack visiting Cuban teams and an occasional contingent of touring big-leaguers also fueled interest in the North American game. “ But the British influence can be seen in the surnames of many of the Dominican stars: Alfredo Griffin, George Bell, Mariano Duncan, Manuel Lee, Juan Samuel and Rico Carty. The earliest teams were formed as long ago as 1907, when the Los Azules (known as Licey) in Santo Domingo was founded, wearing their blue and white striped flannels. There was an annual championship of club teams from 1912. A professional circuit was started in 1951.

The most famous story of Caribbean baseball came in 1937 when Dominican Dictator Rafael Trujillo had assembled a team that may have been the best in the world at that time with Negro league stars Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige and Sam Bankhead, along with Cuban star Silvio Garcia and Puerto Rican legend Perucho Cepeda, Orlando’s father. He wanted his team, Ciudad Trujillo Dragones, (formed from two prior clubs he had taken over), to win the pennant over Estrllas Orientales, which was owned by a political rival who was running against who had forced a popular election.

“Lofty salaries were further supplemented by luxury accommodations underwritten by the host ballclubs and free from any hint of racial segregation. Black stars roomed in the plushest hotels and penthouse apartments that Havana and the Dominican cities had to offer…..here there were no parking-lot meals on rattletrap buses or bare cots in black-only back-alley hotels….And, if off-field playing conditions were superior, onfield playing conditions were often even more dream-like. First, the schedule of games was a breeze…and those ballgames were played in first rate ballparks of undisputable major-league quality before large and enthusiastic crowds. A typical stateside Negro-League game might draw 10,000 or 15,000 with competitive teams; here throngs of up to 40,000 jammed the downtown ballparks of Havana and Ciudad Trujillo. And a winning hit or game-saving snag often promised to bring extra cash to its author when these enthusiastic partisans would “pass the hat” throughout the grandstand at game’s end to reward their instant heroes.”

But then things got tight. “In the end, the drama came down to one final game for the Dominican championship. Paige and his mates were locked up under house arrest the night before the big game to ensure that they would be ‘in proper playing shape’ to win the title on which Trujillo’s political fortunes seemed to ride. On game day, soldiers supporting each side occupied the opposing grandstands with the appearance of heavily armed firing squads. The contest itself, by all accounts, proved most dramatic. Paige trailed 3-2 in the seventh but Sam Bankhead rescued the game and perhaps his mates lives with an eighth-inning round-tripper. Paige then calmly recorded the final six crucial outs from the hill, 9five on strikeouts), in typical ice-water fashion.“

This illustrates how baseball in Latin America was often connected to politics. So does the famous story of Fidel Castro being a big league pitching prospect. “What famous dictator might have pitched for the new York Yankees if only some bush-league scout had been a better judge of pitching talent? That is how the question is most often phrased. The truth is that the popular legend about Castro’s prodigious hurling talent has little basis in fact. It is well documented that Castro was an arch fanatic who later appeared regularly at Havana Sugar Kings games during the years surrounding his rise to power., often donning the uniform of his informal club the Barbudos, (bearded ones), and tossing a couple of exhibition inning preliminary to Havana’s International league contests of the late fifties. ..yet no documented or believable account suggests that any scout assessed the future dictator as a legitimate prospect….Latin baseball scholars are stone silent on Fidel Castro, failed rookie pitching prospect of the 1940’s One respected Cuban authority- former Havana sports journalist Jorge Figueredo of Tampa, Florida perhaps comes closest to the truth in speculating that Castro likely fostered the popular legend simply to add luster to the dictator’s public image…Castro recognized a near-certain public relations victory to be gained from hitching his rising star to a baseball culture. Baseball, after all, was the national passion of not only his subjugated countrymen but his political enemies and his bothersome gringo rivals.”

In Puerto Rico it was again Cuban immigrants that brought the game to the local population. “The first newspaper reports of an amateur contest on the island dated from 1897, (the year of Puerto Rico’s independence from Spain)….Professional play arrived in Puerto Rico in 1938 with the founding of the island nation’s winter circuit….Throughout the fifties the Puerto Rican winter league earned a reputation as something of a launching pad for major league stardom. Bob Clemente, of course, first earned his wings on hometown turf in the uniform of the Santurace Crabbers. Luis Olmo would emerge from an illustrious Puerto Rican winter career that spanned 15 seasons to earn unique distinction as the first Puerto Rican to stroke a home run in a World Series game. …And Luis Arroyo would learn the craft on his native island that would eventually make him one of the most feared relievers on the 1960’s with the New York Yankees.”

Many young big-league players came down to play in the Puerto Rican winter league and learn their profession. “Future Hall-of-Famer Mike Schmidt would eventually credit his adjustments to major-league pitching to a 1973-74 trip around the Puerto Rican winter circuit. The touted Phillies rookie had batted only .196 in his 1973 rookie campaign but jumped nearly 100 points and paced the National league in round-trippers the very next season. And Rickey Henderson would hone his base-stealing skills on the island in the mid-1970’s.

Baseball came to Venezuela when “Cuban adventurers”, (Bjarkman’s term), demonstrated it there in 1895. The game there developed slowly and it wasn’t until the 1940’s that “the country first tested the waters of international competition with an amateur tournament played that year in distant Hawaii. While the Venezuelans were barely competitive the first time around with a respectable fifth-place finish, their showing indicated that a half century of amateur play at home had developed a fair mastery of the game. The world of amateur baseball was hardly prepared, however, for the surprise performance of the 1941 world-tourney entrant from Venezuela, which upset heavily favored Cuba and walked away with championship laurels in their second international completion. To prove that their sudden arrival on the amateur scene was no fluke, the Venezuelan team captured the 1944 and 1945 wartime world amateur championships.” A professional circuit was founded in 1946 “with local and imported Cuban and US talent”. The New York Yankees made a spring training tour of Venezuela in 1947. Venezuelan players started showing up in the major leagues in the 1950’s.

In Mexico the big man was not a dictator but a businessman, Jorge Pasqual, who bought most of the Mexican League and decided he wanted to make it into a major league. He started offering major league players what were then exorbitant amounts of money to come down to Mexico and play for his teams. Baseball had been introduced into Mexico in 1880’s by Cubans in the Yucatan area and by railroad workers to the north. There was a semi-pro league established by the 1920’s and a formal professional league in 1925. Pasquel , “ A rich man who liked to flaunt his wealth, (Pasquel owned six Lincolns and had a haberdashery in his home)“, began buying up franchises in the early 40’s and importing Negro League stars. Eventually, he became president of the league.

“The New Mexican League President of 1946 was also a man driven by nationalistic fervor and perhaps a smoldering hatred of the Yanqui interests, perhaps fueled by the US Marine bombardments of Veracruz during his childhood years. His personal frontal attack on Yanqui imperialism would come in a plan to build the newly prosperous Mexican League into a full-fledged rival of the major league circuits operating to the North. Un 1946, Pasquel decided to launch a full-scale raid on the majors….The motive for Pasqual’s raid on US talent may have been in part an upcoming presidential campaign by his business partner and childhood pal Miguel Sleman. Aleman’s election promised a windfall of preferential treatment for Pasquel business interests and any bolstering of big-time baseball by the Aleman-Pasquel camp could not fail to impress the baseball crazy Mexican electorate.”

“Max Lanier would later complain that once Aleman had won the 1946 election, Pasquel began reneging on his contracts, salaries of imported players being cut in half. The true fact of the matter may have been that Pasquel, for all his wealth, had over-committed himself and was running out of pocket money to throw at baseball. No capital upgrade in stadiums had accompanied the high-priced player talent. The Mexican population, for all its reported fervor, was not large enough to support a big-time circuit and gate revenues simply did not offset the bloated payrolls.” ”

Pasquel’s most famous offer was to Stan Musial. In two alternate versions of the story Pasqual either dumped $50,000 in cash on Stan’s kitchen table or his hotel room bed. Stan was making $13,000/year at the time. But “I looked at my young son and I just couldn’t say yes”, (a quote which favors the kitchen table story).

But others took the bait: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/legendary/Mexican_League.shtml
These players were banned from the major leagues by Commissioner Happy Chandler. The shady Pasqual’s operation by 1948 had collapsed . The players sought re-instatement to the major but Pasqual filed lawsuits for them to fulfill their contracts. He lost and soon got out of baseball. “With the collapse of Pasquel’s ambitious scheme faded any grand dream of a Mexican baseball tradition on a par with the baseball of Cuba and the United States. That lofty dream would never materialize despite the total reorganization of the Mexican league in 1949 with entirely new management.” Pasquel died in a 1955 plane crash.

It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened if Pasqual had joined with others to create a Caribbean league and sought major status for a larger and better funded organization. This was about the same time that the PCL was seeking major status as a west coast major league. If they and a Caribbean League could have gotten together to play their own version of the World Series there might have eventually been a clamor to have the win play the major league champion. But that’s an arc of history that was cut off by the collapse of Pasqual’s more limited venture, the integration of the majors and the franchise shifts of the 1950’sand expansion of the 1960’s.Those events led to Latin players seeking stardom in the major leagues and so many of them found it that it caused my parent’s neighbor to conclude there were “too many Mexicans” in the game. At the time of Bjarkman’s book, over 600 major leaguers had been born in Latin America, including 159, (of 1040) on the 40 man rosters of 1992. It could be argued that the influx of Latin players has had at least as great an influence on the talent pool in the major leagues as that of black players and that at present it is much greater.

Negro league players found their time in the Latin leagues appealing because of the lack of racism. Willie Wells wrote to Wendell Smith, the leading black newspaper writer of the time. That he was staying in Mexico because “I’ve found freedom and democracy here, something I never found in the United States. Here I am a man.”

The history of Latin players in the major leagues goes back much farther than Jackie Robinson. They just had to be light enough to “pass”, (which illustrates the absurdity of prejudice: how little African “blood” can you have in you and still make the major leagues?). Estaban “Steve” Bellan has played in the National Association in the 1870’s. In 1911 two Cubans, Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, showed up in Cincinnati playing for the Reds. Club president Garry Herrmann “arrived to pick up the imports upon their arrival at the Cincinnati train station, he suffered near heart seizure when he saw a couple of brown Pullman porters disembark moments ahead of the expected ballplayers. Soon, however, Cincinnati newspaper were boasting that the two dark-skinned Cubans were “two of the purest bars of Castilian soap ever floated to these shores” once the ended documentation had arrived.” The documentation were “certifications” by Cuban officials that they were of Castilian, not black heritage. Ahhhh….the good old days…

The Reds later acquired the services of the greatest Cuban pitcher, In terms of career victories), Adolfo, “Dolf” Luque. Luque was 10-3 for the Reds 1919 World Series champs and won 194 games in his career, including a 27-8 mark in 1923. He later pitched for the Dodgers and Giants and went 8-2 for the Giant’s 1933 World Series champions. The “Castilian” looking-Luque:
http://sports.mearsonlineauctions.com/ItemImages/000035/e9843b9d-09bd-4028-b865-8ba5181a2ca9_lg.jpeg

As great as Luque was, he wasn’t any greater that his countryman and contemporary Martin Dihego, who had an image problem:
http://sports.mearsonlineauctions.com/ItemImages/000035/e9843b9d-09bd-4028-b865-8ba5181a2ca9_lg.jpeg

What is interesting is that two other Cubans, Jacinto Calvo and Jose Acosta, played briefly in the majors in the early twenties for the senators and the White Sox and also played in the Negro leagues. But don’t tell anybody.

Ironically, the owner most interested in singing “Castilians” was Clark Griffith of the Senators. Years later his son Calvin would say to a gathering in Minneapolis, (with Rod Carew sitting next to him” that he was glad he moved the club to a town “full of hard-working white people”. His father was interested in hard-playing ball players who wouldn’t ask for too much money and saw the Caribbean as a rich source of them. He hired a legendary scot named “Papa” Joe Cambria who came to know Caribbean baseball as well as anybody and who signed many Latin players for the lowly Senators. Cambria “who had worked his way from sandlot player in his native Massachusettsto controversial minor league club owner in Albany, New York and finally to Griffith’s back-room assistant in Washington), eventually signed over 400 Cuban prospects. He “opened the eyes of competing general managers to a rich and untapped pool of Latin American player talent seemingly ripe for the picking.”

Washington writer Morris Beale “carpingly claimed (Griffith and the Senators) would do even better if he would get over his predication for Cubanolas.” But Bjarkman points out “the thin pool of wartime talent made Cuban athletes all the more attractive. They were not subject to the military draft and they demanded small wages.” 18 Cubans played big league baseball during the war. Bjarkaman says that two of them, pitcher Tommy de la Cruz of the Reds and the oddly-named Hiram Bithorn of the Cubs, were “of dubious racial stock”. Branch Rickey snickered to Red Smith that Clark Griffith “was hardly one to object to Jackie Robinson, given his known propensity for hiring Cuban blacks”. Jackie Robinson integrated a sport that had already been integrated. The problem was, people didn’t know it. Or want to admit it.

Later the Pittsburgh Pirates, also having trouble competing, followed the Senator’s example, hiring Howie Hack to work Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic the way Cambria worked Cuba. They became one of the leading teams in importing Latin talent, including the most famous of them all, Roberto Clemente. “Haak relentlessly conducted the same old-style tryout camps with the same time-worn methods, even though by the 1980s other ball clubs were moving into his well-worked territory to compete head-on with large training complexes and newer recruitment strategies Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the venerable Howie Haak, however was the force and charm of his personality. All that he accomplished from the 1950’s through the 1990’s he had managed with only enough broken Spanish to get by. “

There were some attempts to incorporate Latin baseball into the structure of “organized baseball”. The remnants of Pasqual’s Mexican league were made part of the minor leagues, although they were not formally farm teams of any major league team. In fact, “Mexican teams retain first rights to sign any native amateur. A major League club, therefore, must buy the contract from a player’s Mexican club, usually for more than it costs to sign a prospect elsewhere in the region. For that reason, there are far more Dominicans and Venezuelans in the Major leagues than there are Mexicans.

There was a possibility that the first black major leaguer of the 20th century might have been a Latin player. Branch Rickey had his eye on Cuban star Silvio Garcia in the mid 40’s and sent Walter O’Malley down to look at him. Differing accounts say that Garcia (a) had been drafted into the Cuban army or (b) was on a drinking spree or (c) when asked by O’Malley how he would respond to racist taunts, said “I’ll kill the guy”. Whatever, nothing came of it. Rickey had the idea that because Cubans had played in the major leagues before, a Cuban black might be deemed more acceptable. Instead, he went with Jackie Robinson.

Papa Joe Cambria founded the Havana Sugar Kings, in 1946 as a Class C team in the Florida International league. In 1954, now owned by they made the International League even more international. It proved to be a wild, colorful place to play baseball, especially during the Cuban revolution. The most famous incident occurred in 1959 when celebrating rebels fired guns in the air outside the stadium. Some of the descending bullets landed on the field and Rochester third base coach Frank Verdi, (later the manager of the all-conquering 1970 Syracuse Chiefs), and Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas received minor wounds as they evacuated the field. The Sugar Canes won the 1959 Governor’s Cup. That era ended in 1960, when the Sugar Canes were moved to Jersey City after Castro nationalized all US enterprises in Cuba.

Some Cuban refugees still made their way to the major leagues, Such as Tony Oliva, Tony Perez and Luis Tiant. But from then on the balance of power shifted east to the Dominican Republic as far as producing major leaguers.

Latin players had all of the same challenges playing baseball in the United States that black players had had with the added problem of unfamiliarity with the language and culture. And they received little help from their ballclubs, coaches or teammates. Latin players developed reputations as “hot blooded…showboats…who didn’t play the game with heart, courage or even the proper dose of native intelligence”. Also, they didn’t play hurt, as white players did. Every conflict meant they were all hotheads. Every bit of showmanship by such as Vic Power or Juan Marichal made them showboats. Language problems were made fun of, proving that they were stupid. And, when asked questions about injuries through translators, they answered honestly. It’s hard not to do so through a translator.

They also faced quotas as did American blacks. The Dodgers had Roberto Clemente in their farm system but didn’t call him up because they felt they had enough blacks in their line-up. They held onto him too long and the Pirates were able to claim him. With Clemente, Duke Snider and Carl Furillo in their outfield, they would have had the three greatest outfield arms ever put together for one team and one of the best all-around outfields in history. The Yankees had a chance to acquire Vic Power but “owners Dan Topping and Del Webb were apparently not ready to have a black man don the hallowed Yankee uniform and if they did have a black in uniform, it would certainly not be one who called attention to himself and his individualistic style of play.” They eventually went for the soft-spoken Elston Howard. Their first Hispanic black was the defensively inept Hector Lopez.

Their names often got mangled or anglicized, (which was not too different for them. Victor Pollet became Vic Power. Roberto Clemente was “Bob”, just as Roberto Avila had been “Bobby”. Saturino Orestes Arrieta Armas somehow became “Minnie Minoso”. Minoso was the name of some half-brothers he played with in Cuba. Minnie was either a shortening of that name, a reference to his height or, as “Minnie” tells it, a lady in his dentist’s office who was summoned from the waiting room and he thought they were saying his name.

Orlando Cepeda described arriving in Salem, Virginia in 1955 from ethnically tolerant Puerto Rico after “a nightmare overnight bus trip through Georgia and the Carolina…Cepeda innocently enough strolled through a downtown shopping district only to be strong-armed by shotgun-toting police as soon as he stopped to stare through a shop window. Black males, it turned out, were no permitted to walk the streets of downtown Salem after dark. The terrified youngster could only repeat “Beisbol!”over and over until someone at the local lock-up finally phoned team officials to bail him out of a frightening set of circumstances. Minnie Minoso was shocked to see that he wasn’t allowed to play in a minor league game in Memphis and that when he did play in Dayton, Ohio, fans canceled their season tickets “Knowing little English and frightened by an unfamiliar and often hostile environment, (Tony) Olivia would walk the dozen miles each day from his apartment to the Bloomington ballpark.” . Antonio (Tony) Taylor was stuck in the Texas League and wanted to fly back to Havana but it cost $86 and he only had $84, so he stayed and never went back to Cuba.

The whole thing was summarized by a statement Giant manager Alvin Dark made in an interview: “We have trouble because we have so many Spanish-speaking and Negro players on the team. They are not able to perform up to the white ballplayers when it comes to mental alertness…..You can’t make most Negro and Spanish players have the pride in their team that you get from white players. “ Dark actually banned the Spanish language from use in his clubhouse and discouraged “fraternization” between Latin American teammates.

Power made light of it all. When he saw “whites only” signs he started crossing streets during red lights, insisting that the green light was for whites only. When told a restaurant didn’t serve colored people, he informed the waiter that that was OK, since he didn’t eat them. If people are determined to make you unhappy, smile at them. That’s what Vic Power did.

Meanwhile baseball has continued to thrive in the Caribbean area major leaguers and Negro league stars no longer play “Winter Ball”, although there are still winter leagues for natives and minor leaguers. There are no Negro leagues and major leaguers make too much money. But young Latin players still love baseball and dream of success in the majors. And there’s a “Caribbean World Series”, (or Serie del Caribe) that has existed, with a couple of interruptions, since 1949 where teams from each of the baseball playing countries of the region play each other for a regional championship. It was the brainchild of Venezuelan entrepreneur Pablo Morales and brought together teams from his country, Panama, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Mexico and the Dominican Republic joined later. The series was interrupted when Castro pulled out of it was not held from 1961-69. It was also not held in 1981 due to a strike by the Venezuelan players. The Dominican Republic has won 19 times, Puerto Rico 14 times, Mexico 8 times, Cuba 7 times, (which shows their dominance in that first decade), Venezuela 7 times, and Panama once, (the first tournament in 1950). In the old days, this tournament would have included major league stars, (as when Willie Mays homered with Roberto Clemente on base in 1955), but they are still fanatically popular. “Baseball remains ‘el rey de deportes’, (King of Sports) in the region.
 

SWC75

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LATIN LEGENDS

Here are some of the top Caribbean players who played before the explosion in their use by the major leagues that occurred in the 1950s:

Cuba:

JOSE MENDEZ first made his name when the dominated the Cincinnati Reds when they were touring Cuba in 1908 and a one hit 1-0 performance. Other teams followed and went home talking about Jose Mendez and wishing they could sign him. John McGraw thought he might be as good or better than Christie Mathewson, who managed to beat Mendez’s 5 hitter with a three hitter, 0-4. “Legend has it that by 1911, Mendez was the most popular man on the Cuban island. All he had to do was appear in public to receive a standing and nearly endless ovation from his delirious countrymen.” His arm went dead in 1915 but he kept playing and even occasionally pitching and wound up a Kansas City Monarch. He died in 1928 of tuberculosis.

JOSE ACOSTA took over as the Cuban League’s top pitcher when Mendez’ arm went dead and tied his record of leading the league in wins five time. Unlike Mendez, he was light-skinned enough to pitch for the Senators and White Sox for three years early in the 1920’s.

ADOLFO “DOLPH” LUQUE was the right color and got to play in the big leagues. He hit the big leagues in 1914 with the braves and began a 22 year big league career. He became the first Latin-born player to appear in the World Series when he pitched 5 scoreless innings against the Black Sox for the reds in 1919. He was lights out for the Reds in 1923, going 27-8 with a 1.93ERA, which would have won him the Cy Young A award if it had existed at the time. He was back in the Series with the Giants in 1933, closing it out with a four inning relief stint against the Senators. He won 194 big league games and 103 more in the Caribbean winter leagues. He went on to become a elgednary manager in those leagues. Sal Maglie said Luque was the one that taught him to pitch inside such that he became known as “The Barber”. Luque was baseball’s original barber.

CHRISTOBEL TORRIENTE was Cuba’s greatest hitter. He was called “The Cuban Strongboy”. He went to America and became the biggest run producer for Rube Foster’s Chicago-American Giants. He was regarded as one of the three greatest outfielders of the negro leagues, along with Oscar Charlestown and Cool Papa Bell. His life-time batting mark in Cuba was .352, .339 in the Negro Leagues and .311 in games against touring white major league teams. “Torriente wore bracelets on his wrist and when he’d shake those bracelets, look for the ball up against the fence: that’s where he was going to hit it…A prodigious hitter, a rifle-armed thrower and a tower of strength on defense…..deceptive speed and the ability to cover worlds of territory, from the right field foul line to deep right center. He was one of the best bad-ball hitters in baseball and could hit equally well to all fields. “ He faced a team featuring babe Ruth in Cuba just after the 1920 season when Ruth had shocked the baseball world by hitting 54 home runs. Torriente opened the game with two opposite field home runs. Ruth who was 0 for 3, took the mound to try to get him out and Torriente hit a double off the wall. Ruth returned to the outfield and Torriente, after grounding out finished the game with a third home run. He had 14 total bases. Ruth went hitless, although he walked twice and reached on an error. Torriente, naturally, became “The Babe Ruth of Cuba” after that. A fondness for the Good Life proved Torriente’s weakness and he died in 1938 “in poverty and obscurity”.

ALEJANDRO OMS was Cuba’s second greatest outfielder behind Torriente. He hit .351 lifetime in Cuba and .330 in the Negro Leagues. “A four-tool player (his arm was not great), Alejandro had a very good baseball career altogether.” (Baseball Reference.com). He played from 1917-1938.

MARTIN DIHIGO is perhaps the most renowned Caribbean player of the pre-integration period. He was also famous in the Negro leagues. Bjarkaman talks more about him than any other player, calling him “the Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb of Cuba rolled into one.”He calls Dihigo “The Maestro”. His Spanish nickname was El Inmortal (“The Immortal”). Perhaps his most famous moment was in the Mexican League in 1938, when he out-dueled the great Satchel Paige who wilted in the heat after eight innings. Dihigo, (pronounced “Dee-go”) then hit a walk-off homer off the guy who replaced Paige. His record that year in the Mexican league was 18-2 with a .387 batting average. Dihigo could play all nine positons and sometimes did. He played form 1922-1947, winning a documented 256 games, (but probably many more ) while hitting .304 with 133 home runs in the 1,286 games that have been documented. He was too old for integration but was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.

SILVIO GARCIA stated as a pitcher and shortstop, first making his mark in the 1936 Cuban Winter League, going 10-2 as a pitcher but batting just .234. The next year he played in the DR and the year after that in Mexico where he again went 10-2 but hit .349. He hurt his arm in 1940 and stuck to hitting and playing in the field. He hit with power and ran with speed, leading leagues in both homers and steals. He came to the USA after the war but to play in the negro Leagues. For a couple of years. He then played for a couple years in the minors but was too old to get one of the few spots in the majors available to blacks. He was known as a great fielder. Leo Durocher said Marty Marion couldn’t carry his glove. He lacked plate discipline but Tommy Lasorda said he was one of the toughest batters to get out he ever faced.

LUIS TIANT SR. was the “mirror image of his son, as they both had a dozen different pitches and deliveries; the only difference was the elder Tiant was left-handed.“ he had a devastating screwball and mastered the spitball to boot, (it was allowed in negro league play). He pitched for a tam call the Cuban Stars in New York’s Polo grounds until his arm finally gave out at age 42. He was famous for disguising his pick-off move so well the umpire called a strike on the batter at home plate.

AGAPITO MAYOR was pitcher of the year in the Cuban League in 1941-42 and in the Mexican league 1945-46 but he’s most famous for pitching three victories in the inaugural Caribbean World Series in 1949. He also spent several years in the minor leagues in the US, winning 87 games from 1940-52.

JESUS LORENZO CABRERA “But legendary baseball feats have been accomplished down through the years in ballparks from Santiago to Tijuana to Mexicali. What dedicated Dominican or Mexican or Venezuelan fanatic could forget Jesus “Chitiquin” Cabrera’s .619 average , which stunned fans art the 1951 Caribbean series? Chitiquin Cabrera’s heroic single-series batting exploits took place in Caracas and still inspire the same enthusiasm around that Venezuelan capital city as those of Williams or Doerr might evoke among 1950’s fans anywhere in New England.” But this Cabrera was a Cuban. I haven’t been able to find out anything else about him.

MINNIE MINOSO Most of Minnie’s career came after integration But I’ll put him here because of the incredible length and breadth of it. His playing career extends, consecutively from 1945 to 1973, 9not counting the two times in 1976 and 1980 that White Sox owner Bill Veeck brought him back for single plate appearances to extend his record of consecutive decades in which he played major league ball to six). He played in the Cuban winter league from 1945-61, in the majors from 1949-64 and in the Mexican league from 1965-73. He also had three season of minor league ball in the US. Bjarkman figures “the Comet” played in 3,903 games, had 4,090 hits, and batted .300 with 366 home runs. Unfortunately, he doesn’t list stolen bases. Minnie led the AL in that category three years running. There was no off-seasons when he played. If you were a baseball player, you played baseball.


Puerto Rico:

PERUCHO CEPEDA Orlando’s father. His real name was Pedro. “Perucho” means “The Bull”. “Many still consider him the island’s greatest ‘pelotero’ of a bygone era….a muscular shortstop and first baseman.” He won the batting title in the first Puerto Rican Winter League, (1937-38) and the next year set the all-time record for batting average at .464. he also won batting titles with averages of .383 and .394. “Cepeda refused offers to play in the Negro Leagues in the mainland United States as he abhorred the racism endemic to American society at the time…According to his son Orlando, Perucho was a hot-headed man who lacked the inclination to put up with racial segregation nor the temperament to endure racism. His nature was so volatile that he was known for regularly battling with hecklers in the stands into his 40s, for which he would be arrested the sent home with an admonishment by the authorities….Perucho Cepeda never made more than $60 a week playing baseball. A hard-living, hard-drinking man (one of the reasons he was compared to Babe Ruth as he lacked the Babe's power), Pedro Cepeda worked for the San Juan Water Department during the 1940s while continuing to play in the Puerto Rican winter league. He died in 1955 from either cirrhosis of the liver or complications of malaria. Before he died, he ensured that his son Orlando, whom he had mentored as a ballplayer, had been signed to a pro contract with one of his old teams, Santurce. On April 27, 1955, Cepeda died in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Orlando used the $500 signing bonus to pay for his father's funeral. After Orlando was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York on May 18, 2004, he toured the museum. He was shown a team picture of the famous Cuidad Trujillo team of 1937, which featured his father. Orlando said: “It’s amazing. I didn’t know my father was here, in that picture, like he was waiting for me. What a surprise!” (Wikipedia)

FRANCISCO “PANCHO” COIMBRE Had the highest career batting average in the history of the Puerto Rican leagues, .337 over more than two decades. He made a run at Cepeda’s single season record by hitting .425 in 1945.

LUIS ANGEL MARQUEZ “And jet black Luis Angel “Canera” Marquez not only built a similar legendary career as batsman in his native homeland but was young enough (a fate denied both Cepeda and Coimbre) to taste a brief major league trial (99 games and an anemic .198 in two season with the braves, Cubs and Pirates) after integration had finally come to major league baseball. A canera is a sugar cane knife. This knife sliced out 3,457 hits in all venues and a .306 lifetime batting average.

SATURNINO “NINO” ESCALERA was the Cincinnati reds first black player and is third all-time in base hits and runs scored in the Puerto Rican leagues.

JUAN “FELO” GUILBE is still regarded by old-timers as perhaps the island’s greatest outfielder, even above Clemente. “Guilbe was a regular attraction on ball fields throughout Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, the United States and Canada across most of three decades.”

HIRAM BITHORN joined the Cubs in the early 40’s as a pitcher and by 1942 was the staff ace, (18-12: the Cubs were 74-79 that year). He then spent two years in the Navy “While sustained on Navy chow, Bithorn ballooned to 225 pounds, developed a sore arm and kissed good-bye his promising big league career.” You wonder if Bithorn developed his sore arm by bending his elbow too much. He does have the distinction with Cuban catcher Sal Hernandez, of being the first all-Latino battery. Hi was the first Puerto Rican to make the major leagues. He ahd a tragic end: “Bithorn died in 1951, at age 35, when he was shot and killed by a policeman in Mexico. The policeman shot Bithorn in the stomach after a misunderstanding over the selling of a car. After being shot, he was taken to the nearest hospital - which was 84 miles away.” (Baseball reference.com)

LUIS OLMO was called “El Jíbaro”, a term that started meaning that he came from the mountains. It used to have a negative meaning, suggesting he was primitive or backwards but in the 20’s century it has come to mean “hard-working, simple, independent, and prudently wise…..a representation of the roots of the modern day Puerto Rican people and symbolizes the strength of such traditional values as living simply and properly caring for homeland and family.” He had a 15 year in the Puerto Rican leagues but also a stint with the Brooklyn Dodgers, for whom he had an excellent 1945 season, hitting .313 and leading the league in triples with 13. When he hit a home run in the third game of the 1949 World Series, it was the first series home run by a Latin player.

Dominican Republic:

DIOMEDES OLIVO is the most revered of the early Dominican players. He was a top pitcher in the Dominican and Mexican Leagues through the 1940’s and 50’s before the Pittsburgh Pirates picked him up late in the 1960 season as a 41 year old rookie. His relief pitching helped to help mail down the pennant. They put him in Columbus for 1961 and he went 11-7 in the International league, (including a no-hitter), then 5-1 for the Pirates at age 43 in 1962.

Mexico:

RAMON BRAGANA He was Cuban but played so many years in the Mexican league, I’ll put him here. He played there from 1938-55 and is most famous as the only Mexican league pitcher to win 30 games, which he did in 1944, going 30-8 for Veracruz. He also holds the Cuban winter League record with 39 2/3 scoreless innings.

HECTOR ESPINO was “The Babe Ruth of Mexico”. Bjarkman compares him to Sadaharu Oh. Espino hit a combined 763 home runs in the Mexican summer and winter leagues. His 46 homers in the summer league remained a record for 22 years. His career batting average was .333 and he had an incredible 2,693 runs batted in. The St. Louis Cardinals signed him to a contract in 1964 and he played 32 games for the Jacksonville Suns but he went home due to “homesickness”. He declined to report for spring training in 1965. Most sources agree that Espino could not handle the racism he encountered in Florida and preferred to play his baseball in Mexico after that. “His number 21 has been retired by all professional teams in the Mexican summer and winter leagues.”

RONALDO CAMACHO was Espino’s biggest rival in the Mexican Leagues. He hit 317 homers in the summer league but batted only .272. However he walked 1,411 times, the Mexican League record.

Venezuela:

LUIS APARICIO SR was the very first batter in the very first Venezuelan Winter League game in 1946. “A crack shortstop for Magallanes whose son would be the greatest star the nation would ever produce.” That is Bjarkman writing in 1994. There have bene some pretty good Venezuelans since then, including Magglio Ordóñez, Johan Santanna, and Miguel Cabera. Luis Sr. was “basically a line-drive hitter and speedy base runner, Aparicio was never a dominant hitter, but his defense though was what made him great, as he is widely regarded as the best Venezuelan shortstop of his era. He was prized by his wonderful range, smooth hands, and a quick and strong arm, while showing a great ability to make plays on the move and throw base runners out from all over the infield. Besides, he has been described as an intelligent player that possessed exceptional baseball sense and instincts to anticipate the play.” (Wikipedia) he started the tradition of great Venezuelan shortstops and mentored several of them, including his son.

ALEX CARRASQUEL was the uncle of one of the elder Aparicio’s pupils, ‘Chico’ Carrasquel, who preceded Aparicio Jr. as the White Sox shortstop, (early Latin players in the big leagues often wound up being called “Chico” just as Native American players became “Chief”). Alex was a pitcher who “passed only tolerably well for a white player from 1939 through 1945, winning 50 games for the cellar-anchored Senators.” In his first game he came in in relief against the Yankees and got out Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey to retire the side. It was the first appearance vy a Venezuelan player in the major leagues. “Seemingly, the nation’s capital was a slightly less hostile environment for ‘borderline whites’ than the heartlands or southern Ohio. Yet Carraquel was nonetheless heckled for his dark complexion by fans and opponents alike and when he tired to avoid attention by Anglicizing his name to Alex Alexandra, the beat writers around the league were hardly taken in by such a ploy and never flagged from calling him simply “Carrasquel the Venezuelan”. At least he wasn’t Mexican….
 

SWC75

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RUNS AND BASES

1955 National League

Runs Produced
Duke Snider BRO 220
Willie Mays NY 199
Wally Post CIN 185
Hank Aaron MIL 184
Ted Kluszewski CIN 182
Del Ennis PHI 173
Stan Musial STL 172
Ernie Banks CHI 171
Eddie Mathews MIL 168
Gus Bell CIN 165

Bases Produced
Willie Mays NY 485
Duke Snider BRO 451
Ernie Banks CHI 440
Ted Kluszewski CIN 425
Eddie Mathews MIL 412
Wally Post CIN 412
Stan Musial STL 403
Hank Aaron MIL 377
Gus Bell CIN 369
Richie Ashburn PHI 356

1955 American League

Runs Produced
Al Kaline DET 196
Jackie Jensen BOS 185
Mickey Mantle NY 183
Al Smith CLE 178
Bill Tuttle DET 166
Yogi Berra NY 165
Ray Boone DET 157
Roy Sievers WAS 155
Harvey Kuenn DET 155
Nellie Fox CHI 153

Bases Produced
Mickey Mantle NY 437
Al Kaline Det 409
Al Smith CLE 391
Jackie Jensen BOS 380
Vic Power KC 336
Walt Dropo CHI 323
Roy Sievers WAS 323
Bill Tuttle DET 323
Ted Williams BOS 318
Mickey Vernon WAS 317

1956 National League

Runs Produced
Hank Aaron MIL 172
Duke Snider BRO 170
Stan Musial STL 169
Frank Robinson CIN 167
Ken Boyer STL 163
Eddie Mathews MIL 161
Stan Lopata PHI 159
Ted Kluszewski CIN 158
Willie Mays NY 149
Willie Jones PHI 149

Bases Produced
Willie Mays NY 430
Duke Snider BRO 426
Frank Robinson CIN 391
Stan Musial STL 387
Eddie Mathews MIL 383
Hank Aaron MIL 379
Stan Lopata PHI 366
Gil Hodges BRO 358
Gus Bell CIN 358
Jim Gilliam BRO 351

1956 American League

Runs Produced
Mickey Mantle NY 210
Al Kaline DET 197
Minnie Minoso CHI 173
Harvey Kuenn DET 172
Vic Wertz CLE 168
Larry Doby CHI 167
Jim Piersall BOS 164
Harry Simpson KC 160
Roy Sievers WAS 158
Jackie Jensen BOS 157

Bases Produced
Mickey Mantle NY 498
Al Kaline DET 404
Jackie Jensen BOS 387
Minnie Minoso CHI 384
Roy Sievers WAS 357
Charlie Maxwell DET 347
Vic Wertz CLE 346
Ted Williams BOS 344
Harvey Kuenn DET 342
Jim Lemon WAS 337

1957 National League

Runs Produced
Hank Aaron MIL 206
Willie Mays, NY 174
Ernie Banks CHI 172
Eddie Mathews MIL 171
Gil Hodges BRO 165
Don Blasingame STL 158
Stan Musial STL 155
Don Hoak CIN 148
Walt Moryn CHI 145
Duke Snider BRO 143

Bases Produced
Willie Mays NY 480
Hank Aaron MIL 427
Ernie Banks, CHI 422
Eddie Mathews MIL 402
Duke Snider BRO 378
Frank Robinson CIN 377
Stan Musial STL 374
Gil Hodges BRO 364
Ed Bouchee PHI 355
Don Hoak CIN 337

1957 American League
Runs Produced
Minnie Minoso CHI 187
Mickey Mantle NY 181
Roy Sievers WAS 171
Frank Malzone BOS 170
Nellie Fox CHI 165
Jackie Jensen BOS 162
Vic Wertz CLE 161
Al Kaline DET 150
Jim Piersall BOS 147
Ted Williams BOS 145


Bases Produced
Mickey Mantle NY 477
Ted Williams BOS 426
Roy Sievers WAS 408
Minnie Minoso CHI 355
Jackie Jensen BOS 338
Nellie Fox CHI 337
Vic Wertz CLE 330
Al Kaline DET 330
Jim Piersall BOS 329
Charlie Maxwell DET 316

1958 National League

Runs Produced
Ernie Banks CHI 201
Willie Mays SF 188
Hank Aaron MIL 174
Ken Boyer STL 168
Frank Thomas PIT 163
Orlando Cepeda SF 159
Harry Anderson PHI 154
Bob Skinner PIT 150
Eddie Mathews MIL 143
Frank Robinson CIN 142


Bases Produced
Willie Mays SF 459
Richie Ashburn PHI 398
Ernie Banks CHI 395
Hank Aaron MIL 391
Orlando Cepeda SF 353
Frank Robinson CIN 351
Eddie Mathews MIL 350
Ken Boyer STL 343
Frank Thomas PIT 339
Bob Skinner PIT 330

1958 American League

Runs Produced
Mickey Mantle NY 182
Jackie Jensen BOS 170
Vic Power CLE 162
Bob Cerv KC 159
Pete Runnels BOS 154
Roy Sievers WAS 154
Al Kaline DET 153
Rocky Colavito CLE 152
Frank Bolling DET 152
Minnie Minoso CLE 150

Bases Produced
Mickey Mantle NY 454
Jackie Jensen BOS 401
Rocky Colavito CLE 387
Bob Cerv KC 358
Minnie Minoso CLE 342
Ted Williams BOS 339
Pete Runnels BOS 337
Al Kaline DET 327
Vic Power CLE 312
Harvey Kuenn DET 304

1959 National League

Runs Produced
Hank Aaron MIL 200
Frank Robinson CIN 195
Willie Mays SF 195
Ernie Banks CHI 195
Vada Pinson CIN 195
Eddie Mathews MIL 186
Orlando Cepeda SF 170
Charlie Neal LA 167
Johnny Temple CIN 161
Gus Bell CIN 155

Bases Produced
Hank Aaron MIL 459
Eddie Mathews MIL 434
Willie Mays SF 427
Ernie Banks CHI 417
Vada Pinson CIN 406
Frank Robinson CIN 402
Orlando Cepeda SF 372
Ken Boyer STL 365
Wally Moon LA 365
Charlie Neal LA 346

1959 American League

Runs Produced
Jackie Jensen BOS 185
Minnie Minoso CLE 163
Frank Malzone BOS 163
Harvey Kuenn DET 161
Harmon Killebrew WAS 161
Rocky Colavito CLE 159
Eddie Yost DET 155
Al Kaline DET 153
Hector Lopez NY 153
Vic Power CLE 152

Bases Produced
Mickey Mantle NY 392
Harmon Killebrew WAS 375
Rocky Colavito CLE 375
Jackie Jensen BOS 371
Eddie Yost DET 371
Al Kaline DET 353
Bob Allison WAS 348
Pete Runnels BOS 340
Harvey Kuenn DET 336
Minnie Minoso CLE 329

Cumulative Rankings (10 points for first, 9 for second, etc.)

Runs Produced

Honus Wagner (1897-1917) 137
Ty Cobb (1905-28) 126
Stan Musial (1941-63) 119
Cap Anson (1871-97) 119
Lou Gehrig (1923-39) 111

Babe Ruth (1914-35) 109
Sam Crawford (1899-1917) 96
Ted Williams (1939-60) 89
Rogers Hornsby (1915-37) 89
Mel Ott (1926-47) 85

Tris Speaker (1907-28) 81
Joe Medwick (1932-48) 79
Joe DiMaggio (1936-51) 77
Nap Lajoie (1896-1916) 77
King Kelly (1878-93) 76

Hugh Duffy (1888-1906) 75
Eddie Collins (1906-30) 74
Dan Brouthers (1879-1904) 73
Jimmie Foxx (1925-45) 72
Sherry Magee (1904-19) 68

Bobby Veach (1912-25) 66
Charlie Gehringer(1924-42) 66
Jim O’Rourke (1872-1904) 64
Ed Delahanty (1888-1903) 60
Mickey Mantle (1951-68) 58

Bases Produced

Ty Cobb (1905-28) 129
Babe Ruth(1914-35) 125
Stan Musial (1941-63) 121
Lou Gehrig (1923-39) 120
Ted Williams(1939-60) 115

Honus Wagner (1897-1917) 112
Tris Speaker(1907-28) 110
Mel Ott (1926-47) 107
Rogers Hornsby (1915-37) 98
Jimmie Foxx (1925-45) 96

Cap Anson (1871-97) 91
Billy Hamilton (1888-1901) 89
Eddie Collins (1906-30) 89
Harry Stovey1880-93) 88
Sam Crawford (1899-1917) 86

Dan Brouthers (1879-1904) 83
Ed Delahanty (1888-1903) 79
Jim O’Rourke (1872-1904) 73
Max Carey (1910-29) 73
Roger Conner (1880-97) 70

Joe DiMaggio (1936-51) 69
Mickey Mantle(1951-68) 67
Sherry Magee (1904-19) 66
Johnny Mize (1936-53) 64
Ralph Kiner (1946-55) 63

Comment: Stan Musial and Ted Williams put on late charges to climb near the top of the standings in runs and bases. They are still short of the summit but neither are done and both still have at least one good season left, (Musial hit .330 in 1962 and Ted finished his career in 1960 hitting .316 with 329 homers). But old players have trouble playing full seasons. Stan is 18 points short of Honus Wagner in run production and 8 points short of Ty Cobb for base production. Ted had no shot at Wagner, (48 points behind) and is 14 short of Cobb. Since the most points you can get in one year is 10 for finishing first, he’s done chasing #1. But he could still creep up a bit more in the standings. Stan missed a year and Ted all or most of five years defending their country or they would probably have topped the standings before they were done.

Speaking of topping the standings, you can’t do better than Mickey Mantle did in producing bases in this period. He led the AL five times in a row for 50 points, the most you can get in a half-decade. He didn’t do too badly in runs, either (37), despite not making the top ten in the Yankee’s down year of 1959. Willie Mays was nearly as good, leading the NL in bases four times and finishing third the other time for 48 points. He never led in runs produced but was second three times and third another time, finishing with 36 points. He had a lot of competition from Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson.

Mantle will be limited by his injuries. Mays will have a full career- except a year and half in the service from 1952-53. That may prevent him from getting to the top of the standings. But nothing will stand in the way of Hank Aaron. Down the road, watch out for him.
 

SWC75

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THE PLAYERS

THE MICK

Every baby boomer baseball fan has a MICKEY MANTLE memory. Mine is very limited but still telling. For many years, the voice of the Syracuse Chiefs was John Harmon, like so many of the top broadcasters back then, a dignified southerner not given to overstatement. John used to give us a scouting report on each pitcher as he entered the game and each batter as he came to the plate. For the batters he’d provide a verbal hit chart, saying things like “He hits it well down the line, with occasional power to the opposite field” or “good power to both alleys”, etc. We had some guys with pretty good pop come through the IL over the years but I only heard him say this once: In a hushed tone, “Tremendous power to all fields.” He said it for Mickey Mantle. Whenever I’ve heard Mickey’s name mention since, I hear John Harmon’s voice saying that .

There isn’t much I could tell you about Mantle you don’t already know. Maybe I can just refocus his image a bit. He created a public image as an “aw shucks” country boy that was no more than partially true. There are many stories of his off the field misadventures, suggesting that he wasn’t really dedicated to the game and got by on talent alone. He’s famous for his many injuries and playing in pain. People wondered what he might have accomplished if fully healthy. The story of his family, in which the males tended to die you of Hodgkins Disease. Mickey therefore felt that he should live life the way he wanted because it was going to be short anyway, (I’ve often wondered if that was Barry Bonds’ thought when he started using steroids to break records, after his father had died young). When Mickey lived to be 63 he half-joked that if he’d known he was going to live that long, he would have taken better care of himself. His wife said after his death that, as other, lesser players, (or less hyped players) passed his home run total he had wished that he took better advantage of his talent. It creates an image of wasted talent and bypassed opportunities. It is a false image, even if Mickey could have been even better than he was.

Mickey Mantle hit .298 lifetime with 536 home runs. He was a three time MVP and the star center fielder of 12 pennant winning teams who won 7 World Series. His record of 18 World Series Home Runs will never be eclipsed. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer. He was the big boy playing in the big ballpark for the big team in the big town and the guy everyone wanted to be.

In his first Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James compares Mickey Mantle to Willie Mays: “Mickey Mantle was, at his peak in 1956-57 and again in 1961-62 clearly a greater player than Willie Mays- and it’s not a close or difficult decision. …it is an issue upon all forms of analysis and all indicators within each for agree and distinguish between the two players by such a margin…even if Mays is given every considerable break on every unknown-defense, base running, clutch hitting- his performance would still not match Mantles.” James uses his “runs created” formula to compare them, (it differs from “runs produced because it projects what runs should have been scored based on a player’s contributory numbers, rather than looking at what runs were actually scored, the theory being that the difference would be a product of what a player’s teammates did more than what he did). Mantle in what James feels were his best year: 1956, 1957 and 1961, created 188, 178 and 174 runs while Mays in his best years , which James says are 1954, 1955 and 1958, 157, 157 and 152. Mantle did this while producing fewer outs: 355, 312 and 360 vs. 391, 424 and 413. That’s 25 more runs created per year on 67 fewer outs per year. He uses several other sabermatricians pet formulas and comes up with the same result.

My own humble approach, bases on what actually happened, comes to the same conclusion, at least for the seasons James selected, although it’s closer than he suggests. Mays produced 451 bases and 188 runs in 1954, 485 and 199 in 1955 and 459/188 in 1958. Mantle produced 498 bases and 210 runs in 1956, 477/181 in 1957 and 491/205 in 1961. May’s average is 465/191 to 489/199 for Mantle. James picks Mantle as his #1 all-time center fielder in peak value, with Mays at #3. In career value, Willie was still #3 with Mickey at #5.

In his new HBA, published 15 years later, James compares Mantle to DiMaggio and Mickey again comes out ahead. He compares their numbers per 162 games over the first 13 years of their careers, (which was the length of DiMaggio’s career). Joe out-hit Mickey, .325 to .311, had more hits 207-175, more doubles 36-25, triples 12-6, RBIs 143-112 and runs scored 130-128. That might be enough for most people but Mickey was ahead in home runs 40-34 and walks 112-74. (Sabrmetricians just love walks.) He also created fewer outs, 400 vs. 444 and stole more bases, 133-30 with a better success rate. He grounded into far fewer double plays, 72-175. And if you adjust for the number of runs scored in Joe’s era, (the American league scored 4.83 runs per game), vs. Mickey’s, (4.33), Mickey’s run production looks a lots better. Maybe the most interesting comparison is this: Mantle played 1,787 games in his first 13 years vs. 1,736 for DiMaggio: “DIMaggio had quite a few injuries and he missed more time with injuries than Mantle did.” In his latter tome, he doesn’t rate players on peak and career value, just over-all. He’s now elevated Mays to the #1 spot, then Cobb, then Mantle, followed by Tris Speaker and then DiMaggio.

Bill Jenkinson, in his book “Baseball’s Ultimate Power”, ranks Mantle his #3 all-time power hitter, behind Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx. He recalls seeing him hit a home run in an exhibition game played in Connie Mack Stadium on October 10 1958, (I cite the date because this would have been a day after the Yankees won the World Series over the Braves- can you imagine a modern player playing in an exhibition game- it was part of a tour of the Mickey Mantle-Willie Mays All Stars- the day after playing in the final World Series game?). “But Mickey Mantle made the biggest impression by blasting a ball far over the Philco billboard atop the grandstand roof just left of center field. It was the longest drive that I had ever seen or would ever see.” He also recalls Mantle busting it to beat out a grounder to second. Jenkinson later attended the Olympic Games in Montreal and the sprinters there didn’t seem to be running as fast as his memory of Mantle.

Mickey hit his first big league home run in Comiskey park in Chicago on May 1, 1951. “The ball was lined 450 feet into the center field end of the right field grandstand. Three days later, Mantle blasted one about 25 feet farther to right field at Sportsman’s Park in St, Louis.” In 1953, playing in an exhibition at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, “Mantle launched an amazing drive from the left side that cleared the towering right field grandstand. It passed out of sight about 100 feet in height and about 400 feet away, resulting in a 510 foot estimate.” Eight days later he hit his famous 565 foot home run at Griffith Field in Washington, which Jenkinson feels actually went about 510 feet, (see below). He hit a 500 footer in St, Louis in April 28th that made it over the left field roof and a 525 footer in Shibe Park in Philadelphia that went “over the left center field roof onto a house across Somerset Street.” On September 12th he hit a ball at Yankee Stadium that “landed in the far end of the left upper deck. The seat that blocked the final stages The seat that blocked the final stages of the of the flight was measured at 425 linear feet and 80 feet above the ground. At that distant point, the ball was still traveling so fast that it ricocheted 60 feet back onto the field!. Estimated at 515 feet, the drive was hard to believe.”

Even at age 21, (he was 22 on October 20th), couldn’t fool the panel on What’s My Line:
(Mickey’s on at 17:50)

He was already famous, which contrasts with Frank Gifford, his contemporary with the football Giants, who could do the show without being the “mystery guest” on the thought that nobody would know who he was three years later, in 1956:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwH4yqTRhqM

That says something about the prominence of the two sports in the 1950’s as well as the big splash Mickey was making with these long blasts early in his career. The trouble was, while he was possessed of an unprecedented combination of speed and power, he was a bit short of setting the game on fire in those early years:

1951 .267ba 13hr 8sb 65rbi 61rs (in 96 games)
1952 .311ba 23hr 4sb 87rbi 94rs
1953 .295ba 21hr 8sb 92rbi 105rs
1954 .300ba 27hr 5sb 102rbi 129rs.

The 129 runs in 1954 led the league and that’s very good but it’s the only thing he led the league in in those first four years. He was a cog in the Yankee machinery in those days, an exciting one but not the main driving force. Mays and Snider were putting up much bigger numbers. Willie, in his first full year in 1954, hit .345 with 41 homers, 8 steals, 110rbi and 119 runs scored. And his team won the pennant and World Series. Snider hit .341 with 40hr, 6sb 130rbi and 120 runs. Steals were not yet in vogue for sluggers, (although Willie was about to change that). But people wondered when Mantle’s ability to do things others could not do would result in statistics they could not match.

Then he put together as good a four year stretch as you’ll ever see, with the Yankees winning the pennant every year:

1955 .306ba 37hr 99rbi 121rs (he led in homers, triples with 11, walks with 113 and on base percentage with .433 and slugging with .611)
1956 .353ba 52hr 10sb 130rbi 132rs (Triple Crown plus runs scored and slugging with .705)
1957 .365ba 34hr 16sb 94rbi 121rs (led in runs and walks with 146. Has an OBP of .515 but Ted Williams was at .526!)
1958 .304ba 42hr 18sb 97rbi 127 runs (led in homers, runs and walks with 129.)

From then on he was America’s hero, even moreso when the less colorful Roger Maris showed and HE was the one that broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.

Jenksinson continues with tales of Mickey’s long bombs:

4/18/54 “a 470 foot triple off the center field wall under the Ed Barrow plaque. This brings up an interesting question: how many home runs did Mickey lose to, (or gain from), Yankee Stadium’s somewhat ridiculous dimensions? Per Baseball Refernce.com, not much. In fact, Mickey hit only four more homers on the road than he did at home, 270-266. There’s also a small difference for Babe Ruth, 367-347. Compare that to Joe DiMaggio at 213-148. Lou Gehrig is at 251-242. Yogi Berra is the reverse of DiMaggio: 148-210. Roger Maris is 153-122. I think the hitters with the greatest power tend to be spray hitters: they don’t have to pull the ball to get it out. Short porches don’t interest them. And, when they get a hold of one, it will tend to go out anywhere. And, of course, Mickey was a switch hitter.
6/5/55: “bombed on to the base the light tower atop the left field roof” in Comiskey Park. 500 feet.
6/21/55 At Yankee Stadium, slugged a homer all the way to the ninth row of the center field bleachers beyond the 461 foot sign. 505 feet.
4/17/56 Opening day in Washington: “launched two magnificent drives over the 30 foot wall in center field. The first cleared the 408 foot sign in dead center while the second disappeared at the 438 foot mark a little to the right. There were reports that one landed on the4 roof at 2014 Fifth Street, confirming the extraordinary length of 530 feet.
4/21/56 The Stadium: “drove the ball into the 20th row at the far end of the right field upper deck.
5/30/56: His historic shot collided with the right field roof façade, 117 feet above ground and 370 feet from the starting point. Since the trajectory was that of a high fly, this ball probably would have flown just shy of 500 feet…It was the first homer to reach that rarified plateau since the grandstand was completed in 1938.
8/23/56: “515 feet to 20th row in left field upper deck.”
9/21/56 In Boston “to bleacher wall atop center field bleachers- 510 feet”
Mantle also had 475 foot home runs that year in Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland and Boston.
1957: hit several 460 foot + home runs, including one in Baltimore that went “over the hedge beyond the center field fence at Memorial Stadium
1958: Had an inside the park home run on a 450 foot shot to the flagpole at the Stadium, also 440 and 460 foot outs caught by the Senator’s Albie Pearson, both in the same game.
1959 was an “off” year with .275ab and 31hr, none of them notable.. The Yankees finished third at 79-75. People wondered if the injuries and lifestyle were catching up to Mantle and the league to the Yankees. 1960: Mickey rebounds with a 40 homer season, including a 480 footer to the upper deck in Cleveland on 7/20.
9/10/60, Tiger Stadium, Detroit. “A tremendous wallop, flying about 500 feet.” This one has been exaggerated to ridiculous proportions, (see below).
6/21/61: “Mickey thumped a pair of 475 footers at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. The first banged off the scoreboard in deep right center and the second cleared the outer right field wall before landing on Brooklyn Avenue.” They have a Brooklyn Avenue in Kansas City?
6/30/61: “Mickey again dented the center field wall for another inside-the-parker.” One thing I don’t understand about Mantle: He played his entire career in spacious Yankee stadium. With his power and speed, why didn’t he get more doubles and triples? He had more than 28 doubles only once and was double figures in triples only twice. For his career he averaged 23 doubles bad 5 triples per 162 games. Just to pick somebody, Ryne Sandberg averaged 30 and 6 playing in Wrigley Field. George Brett averaged 40 and 8. Cal Ripken had no speed and only averaged 2 triples per 162 games but he averaged 33 doubles. Why wasn’t the Mick an extra base hit machine? Probably too many fly balls.
6/22/61 “slammed a ball over the 457 foot sign into the bleachers in deepest left center.
6/23/61: “Launched one of his seven homers that season that landed in the right field upper deck. .
1963: “Warmed up with twin 450 footers in Baltimore (May 11) and New York (May 15).
5/22/63: “The Mighty Mick thundered the longest and mightiest home run of his life…As he said many times in alter life, he connected with all his power and a perfect swing, making optimum contact in the process. The ball sped upward in a savage line trajectory and momentarily looked as if it would clear the right field roof. Ultimately, it smashed into the ornamental roof façade not far from where Mantle’s 1956 blast had collided with the same structure. The difference, and it was a big difference, was that the ’63 blast was a line drive. That was demonstrated by the fact that the ball caromed back to the second baseman. The estimate for this extraordinary blow has been debated by physicists, baseball experts and common fans ever since. It should be noted that it has been scientifically proved that the ball was on its way down when it struck the façade. Prudent judgment places the correct distance at 540 feet.
7/24/64: “Mickey smacked one against the edge of the left field roof at Tiger Stadium.”
8/12/64: Mickey belted then longest-ever center field drive in New York…so far over the 461 foot sign that it came down in the 12th row. It was estimated at 512 feet.
4/9/65: Playing in an exhibition game at the Astrodome, Mantle logged the first Major League home run ever stuck indoors. It was a rousing 400 foot line drive into the seats in right center. “
6/27/65: “He again topped the 457 foot mark in left center, which nobody else has done in recent memory.
5/14/67 “he hammered a ball to the second row in the left center field upper deck. That was a blow of 462 feet.”
7/25/67: Mickey visited the 12th row of the bleachers past the auxiliary scoreboard in left center. That 455 footer was the final tape measure homer that Mantle would record.
6/29/68: “When called upon to pinch hit in the 8th inning, the old warrior slammed a 450 foot drive near the monuments in center field. It won the game, 5-4. A young Mantle would have circled the bases but, nearing age 37, Mickey limped into second base before leaving for pinch runner. The end was near.”

The mythic nature of Mantle’s blasts have encourages a lot of myths about them and Jenkinson takes pains to debunk them, as the reality of his power was more than enough to make him an iconic figure. But Mickey’s fans have come up with some amazing assertions about the distances of his home runs:
http://www.themick.com/10homers.html
Whereas Jenkinson tends to try to be conservative in his estimates, Mickey’s fans are looking for the longest possible estimate. Here are Jenkinson’s comments on some of these estimates:

Regarding the “656 foot” home run Mickey is supposed to have hit in an exhibition vs. the USC team at Brovard Field on 3/26/51: “Some folks believe to this day that Mantle struck a 600 foot home run to right center during that contest. Essentially, they base their convictions on the recollections of Southern Cal’s center fielder Tom Riach, who was interviewed many years later. It is alleged that Riach grabbed the top of the right center field fence after the ball had flown over his head. He did this to pull himself into positon to witness the ball landing on the far side of an adjoining football field. Assuming that Mr. Tiach made such assertions, we are then left with the manageable task of simply measuring the distance. The figure does not exceed 600 feet. There are aerial photographs of Bovard Field that can be analyzed by any qualified person: the actual distance is about 550 feet.” Judging by the picture on the “The Mick”, the football field is flush with the boundary of the baseball field and the ball went over the fence at right-center. A football field is 53 ½ yards wide. The other side of the football field is thus about 160 some feet from the baseball fence. The fact that it landed in the corner of the field rather than directly across that might push that up to perhaps 200 feet. For the drive to have been 656 feet, then right center would have to have been 456 feet away. This would seem unlikely, especially at a college venue. 550 seems a better estimate. Even that is an amazing clout, as Jenkinson admits: “Mantle was just a teenager and launched one of the longest drives in baseball! By any standard, that demonstration of physical prowess is among the most remarkable in the annuals of sports.” But it wasn’t 636 feet. Jenkinson interviewed Rod Dedeaux, who is quoted on The Mick. Per Jenkinson, “Dedeaux dismissed any notions of 600 foot flight distances as “ridiculous”. Jenkinson also interviewed other living members of the USC team and read all the newspaper articles about the game and there were no claims of a 600 foot home run.

The famous 565 foot blast in Washington, 3/26/53: “Mickey personally told me he didn’t think the ball flew that far and everyone who has seriously studied the event agrees with me….Mickey belted a high, towering drive toward the bleachers in left center. With the help of a powerful tailwind, the ball carried completely over the 32 rows of seats and caromed off the right side of an old football scoreboard that was then serving as an ad sign. At that moment, the ball had flown 462 linear feet and ricocheted out of sight at a height of 55 feet. Since those stands had not been cleared in their prior 28 year existence, this homer was instantly recognized as a genuinely historic blow. Yankee publicist Red Patterson saw his duty and immediately went in search of the details. Outside the ballpark, he found a neighborhood boy, whom he identified as 10 year old Donald Dunaway. The child was holding the ball he had recovered at 434 Oakdale Street, prompting Red to pace off the distance from that house track to the outer wall of the stadium where the ball had left the premises. Returning to the press box, Patterson reviewed the stadium dimensions and initially estimated the flight distance at 563 feet. Then, two additional feet were added to the thickness of the outer wall, whereupon the final distance was computed at 565 feet. …The whole process was based on the assumption that young Donald had found the ball where it had landed. But that is not what happened.“ Patterson had never asked Dunaway if the spot where he picked the ball was the spot where it had initially landed. He admitted to Jenkinson that he had no idea where the ball actually landed. “So how far did the ball actually fly? I can’t say for sure but several physicists with whom I have consulted agree that it could not have been more than 510 feet. “ Mantle told Jenkinson, ”I hit about 5-6 balls a lot better”.

Then there’s “643 foot” home run Mantle hit in Detroit on 9/10/60. “The ball passed through a lattice framework of metal beams that supported a light tower and sailed out of sight 370 feet away and 95 feet above field level. At the time it was regarded as another impressive Mantle 500 footer but nothing of historic significance. However, some 20 years later, a group of researchers announced that the ball had flown 643 feet, and were campaigning to this homer as the longest in baseball history…. Essentially, they were basing their conclusions on the testimony of a second-hand witness by the name of Sam Cameron. When the event actually occurred, Cameron was making a truck delivery in his capacity as an employee of the Brooks Limber Company, which was located across Trumbull Avenue from the ballpark. In his absence, co-worker Paul Borders was working in the open lot behind the building, when he witnessed the Mantle blast land a few feet away. Borders was so impressed he told Cameron about it when Sam returned from his truck-driving duties. By the 1980’s Borders had passed away but Cameron was still working for the same employer. That is where he was tracked won by the zealous researchers. They interviewed Sam, who reportedly identified the landing spot of the epic 1960 Moon shot. The distance from home plate was then calculated as the astounding distance of 643 feet.”

“All the while, I was having trouble reconciling that distance with the laws of physics. I reviewed ever first-hand source that I could find and, although all the contemporary witnesses were impressed, they consistently placed limitations on how far the ball could have flown. None of the newspaper accounts describe the homer as a line drive. They all agree where the ball went and, in a highly unusual scenario, the Detroit Free Press even published a photograph showing the ball passing through the light tower.” Jenkinson talked to Cameron. “I then asked the single most important question that any serious historian must ask in such an inquiry: “Did Mr. Borders ever tell you that he saw the ball land here in uninterrupted flight? Cameron thought for a few moments and said “No.” I then queried “Can you recall exactly what he said?” Again, Cameron reflected before responding. “Yes, he said he was standing here doing some work when, all of a sudden the ball hit right at his feet and then rolled over to the corner of the garage over there.” The spot in question was paved in asphalt. I followed with: Are you sure that he used the ‘rolled’?” Sam said “Yes.”….At that moment, I heard my 14 year old son groan and say “Come on Dad, let’s get out of here. Let’s go see Tiger Stadium.” Even a 14 year old kid could see through the absurdity of the 643 foot assertion. Of course, his instincts were right. Subsequent tests confirmed that any ball flying 600 feet and landing on hard asphalt wound generate a first bounce of more than 75 feet…..The ball almost certainly landed on Trumbull Avenue , where three different newspapers said that it did, and bounced onto the low roof of the lumber company. It then bounded across the roof to where it toppled off and then ‘rolled’ past Borders. I estimate that this magnificent home run by the wondrous Mickey Mantle travelled 500 feet in the air.”

The Mick says “Considered along with the Bovard Field homer, it demonstrates that Mickey's unheard of home run distances are no flukes.” Actually the real stories behind these home runs demonstrate that the claimed distances on some of the The Mick’s listed home runs are surely exaggerated, something that is unnecessary to describe Mickey Mantle’s greatness.

Mickey Mantle’s 500th home run:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Orw6YsDn2o

Mickey Mantle comes from behind to beat Willie Mays in “Home Run Derby”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpp9aLTi9PU

Allen Barra’s book “Mickey and Willie” tells the backstory of this confrontation. Writer Charlie Einstein, (author of the excellent “Willie’s Time”), flew to LA with Willie to write about the home run duel, (they are in LA’s Wrigley Field, home of the old PCL Los Angeles Angels and early home of the AL team of the same name). Barra reports that in addition to the prize money, they had a $500 side bet, (real money in those days).

Einstein wrote that “Mickey took these one-on-one confrontations more seriously than Willie and he wasn’t above using some gamesmanship to get an edge.” He offered to bat from the right side of the plate, supposedly his weaker side, not telling Willie that, due to an injury, he was having a hard time swinging from the left side. Willie, in the early going, was hitting more home runs but Mickey was hitting the longer ones, including a 450 shot. Mickey jokingly asked Willie, “Can I get two for that one?” Einstein: “Willie thought he could hit them as far as Mickey. He couldn’t, but he could hit them pretty far. He once said to me: Maybe I don’t hit ‘em as far as Mickey but I hit ‘em far enough.” It’s a silly thing, but I think it unnerved Willie just a bit to find out once and for all that he just couldn’t hit a ball as far as Mickey.”

Mickey expresses embarrassment with his early, unsuccessful efforts, even replying to one Mark Scott question with a grunt. “But Mickey was working on Willie. Mickey passed him while going to bat and said “Willie, man, we ought to add up the length on all these. I think my three went as far all yours”, (8 at the time). Willie tried to laugh it off but was a little indignant. “Man, what you lookin’ at? Did you see the one I hit by that pole in center field? I got you today, man.” Mickey just grinned and made a gesture like “Hey, what do you want from me? He then went out and hit three towering homers. Willie was now not so much concerned with winning but with matching Mickey distance for distance and he started overswinging….Mickey said “You want to double that bet?” Willie just looked at him and said “You on, man.” But he didn’t get good wood on a pitch for the rest of the contest and Mickey got three more in the final inning to win, 9-8. If you watch the recording, you can see Willie in the press box, the smile gone. “
 

SWC75

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SOME OTHERS

After Joe DiMaggio retired in 1951, the Yankees turned center field over to a handsome young blonde muscle boy with an alliterative name. His name was JACKIE JENSEN. He was not only similar to Mickey Mantle. He seemed to anticipate Bo Jackson. He’d been an All-American football player at California, leading them to a 10-0-0 record and the Rose Bowl in 1948. There they were upset by Northwestern, 14-20 after Jensen was injured early in the second half. The previous spring he’s led the school’s baseball team to victory in the first College World Series, both pitching and playing outfield. He’d out-pitched Texas and Bobby Layne in the West Regional Final and then beat a Yale team that had future President George H. W. Bush on it in the final.

In part due to academic problems, he elected to sign a contract with the Oakland Oaks. The Yankees eventually bought his contract and used him as a pinch runner in the 1951 World Series, making him the first athlete to playing in both the Rose Bowl and the World Series, (the only other is Chuck Essegian, who played for Stanford in the 1/1/52 Rose Bowl and pinch-hit for the Dodger sin 1959 series). They viewed Jensen as the heir to DiMaggio and started the 1952 season with JJ in center and MM in right field. Jensen got off to a poor start and the Yankees abruptly changed their mind and traded Jensen to Washington on May 3. Casey Stengel later called it the worst trade the Yankees made in his tenure there. Jensen was batting .329 by the All-Star break and 82 year old Clark Griffith, still running the Senators, was making jokes that the Yankees were his #1 farm team.

Jensen had a couple of decent years in Washington but was held back by the dimensions of the park. He had good power but not Mantle’s. He also had good speed, leading the league in steals with 22 in 1954. He really blossomed when traded to the Red Sox. He was perfect for Fenway Park and, in six years there, he hit 157 home runs and drove in 667 runs. Mantle in the same years hit 223 home runs but drove in only 597. (Another mystery of Mantle’s career is that he had only four years in which he drove in 100+ runs. Jensen, in a shorter career, had five such years). Jensen was named MVP in 1958, when he had career highs in home runs, (35) and RBIs (122).

He was called the “Golden Boy” and had a high profile marriage to an Olympic Diving champion that made them a popular couple in the press. But the marriage was problematic and stressful and so was the prospect of having to fly to games in the wake of expansion. Jensen was deathly afraid of flying, to the point of having panic attacks in airports. He abruptly quit the game after the 1959 season at the age of 32. He had trouble supporting their expensive lifestyle without baseball and came back for the 1961 season but was a step slower and hit only .266 with 13 home runs. He couldn’t handle the plane flights and retired again. His marriage subsequently ended. He remarried more agreeably but still faced financial problems and eventually heart problems as well. He died of a heart attack at age 55.

MM vs. JJ on Home Run Derby:


A guy who would have been a natural for the Yankees is ROCKY COLAVITO, a native of the Bronx and ardent Yankee fan who wound up being the darling of Cleveland. A tall, rangy guy, (6-3 190) with perhaps the best throwing arm in baseball history. Jenkinson, who rates players for other things beside home run power, has him at #1. It was tested in San Diego in 1956. He threw the ball five times, the longest one traveling 435 feet. One throw was from home plate and sailed over the 426 foot sign in center field. That one was never measured. The previous year he’d thrown a ball from home plate in Indianapolis over the 40 foot high scoreboard at the 385 foot mark. Once he made it in the pros and proved to be one of the league’s top sluggers, the experiments ended. One time in Detroit, he caught a ball in medium left field and, after receiving some razzing by Tiger fans for a batting slump, displayed his anger by throwing the ball over the right field roof. Legendary Detroit journalist Joe Falls called it the longest throw he’d ever seen.

What mattered to the Indians was Rocky’s home run hitting. After getting 21 and 25 homers his first two seasons, he exploded on the scene in 1958, hitting .303 with 41 homers and 113 RBIs. He topped that with a league-leading 42 homers in 1959, including a 4 home run game in Baltimore, and driving in 111 runs. When Mickey Mantle and the Yankees were having contract negotiations, the Yankees would threaten to trade him to Cleveland for Rocky. Instead, Rocky was traded to Detroit by new GM Frank “Trader” Lane, a guy who liked headlines more than he liked winning. (When he was briefly the Cardinal’s GM he tried to trade Stan Musial to the Phillies.) He was traded for banjo-hitting batting champion Harvey Kuenn. The Indians had their last real contender for decades in 1959 and, after Red Sox fans invented “The Curse of the Bambino”, Cleveland fans came up with “The Curse of Colavito” to explain their woes.

Falls, for some reason, took a dislike to the normally affable Colavito, (it may have been related to Rocky complaining about a controversial error Falls gave him one game when he was official scorer). He kept attacking Colavito in the Detroit newspapers, creating a stats” runs not batted in” just for Rocky. But there were precious few of those in 1961 when Rocky had his greatest season, hitting .290 with 45 homers, 140 RBIs and 129 runs scored. But when Rocky asked for a richer contract than Detroit hero Al Kaline was getting and when he invaded the stands to help his father fight off a drunken fan who was bothering his wife, public opinion turned against him. He had another strong year in 1962 with 37 homers and 112 RBIs. But when he had an off year in 1963 with 22 homers, he was traded to Kansas City. He came back with 34 homers and then was traded “back home” to Cleveland to finish his career there.

SABR: “Cleveland general manager Gabe Paul said he had tried to right the wrong made by Lane five years earlier. "I made more then 100 offers to Detroit when Colavito was there." Cleveland fans flooded the switchboards of the Indians and the local newspapers, complimenting Paul on a shrewd deal. "I'm glad to be going home-and I do mean home," said Colavito. "Every year when I went into Cleveland with the Tigers or Athletics, I would say to myself, 'Wouldn't it be nice to be playing here again?'"

In 1965 Rocky hit 26 home runs and led the league with 108 RBIs. He also set a record that can never be broken by playing 162 games in the outfield without making an error. He didn’t have the greatest range but if he could get a glove on ‘em, he caught ‘em. He had his last good year in 1966 with 30 homers. He then wound up on the White Sox, the Dodgers and then finished his career playing alongside Mickey Mantle for the Yankees.

Rocky takes on Jackie Jensen in HRD:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ET48mxvE5I


ERNIE BANKS became a Chicago Cub very late in the 1953 season after a stretch in the Army and a stint with the Kansas City Monarchs. His first real season was 1954, which was also Hank Aaron’s rookie year. By the end of the 50’s Banks had played 902 games, hit 228 home runs and won two MVPs while Aaron had played 886 games, hit 179 homers and won 1 MVP. Ernie, first obtained by the Cubs to “keep company” with their first black player, Gene Baker, (who had a minimal career), exploded on the scene in 1955 with .295ba-44hr-117RBI. Two years later he hit .285-43-102. He won MVP in 1958-59, despite the Cubs’ losing records with .313-47-129 and .304-45-143. He had a couple more really good years: 1960, when he was .271-41-117 and 1962, .269-37-104.

Bill James: “it can reasonably be argued that the peak of performance reached by Ernie Banks in the late fifties was as high as anyone has ever seen- in other words, that Ernie Banks in the late 50’s was the most valuable player there ever was. I don’t know that I buy the argument but you’ve got a Gold Glove shortstop here who hits over .300 with well over 40 home runs a year, driving in more runs than Jim Rice.” (He wrote that in his 1985 HBA, when Rice was still in his prime.)

But injuries and illness limited him after that. By the time Leo Durocher took over as the Cubs manager in 1966, per his autobiography: "he was a great player in his time. Unfortunately, his time wasn't my time. Even more unfortunately, there was not a thing I could do about it. He couldn't run, he couldn't field; toward the end, he couldn't even hit. There are some players who instinctively do the right thing on the base paths. Ernie had an unfailing instinct for doing the wrong thing. But I had to play him. Had to play the man or there would have been a revolution in the street."

Ernie skills made him very popular but so did his seemingly perpetually sunny personality. Authors Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt wrote that Banks "just was not the crusading type. He was so grateful to be playing baseball for a living, he did not have time to change the world, and if that meant some people called him an Uncle Tom, well, so be it. Banks was not about changing anyone's mind about the color of his skin; he was about baseball, pure and simple." (“Crossing the Line: Black Major leaguers 1947-59”)

Ernie’s attempt to always be positive came at a cost. Everyone demanded to see the sunny Ernie character every day. I’ve read in a magazine article from several years ago that Ernie actually had to consult an analyst to deal with the idea that it was OK for him to human and have all the emotions of a normal human being, rather than please all the people, all the time.

Ernie said that Jackie Robinson had paid him a visit early in his career. Robinson told Banks, "Ernie, I'm glad to see you're up here so now just listen and learn." But Banks wasn’t Robinson. "For years, I didn't talk and learned a lot about people." Over time when Banks felt like becoming more vocal, he discussed the issue with teammate Billy Williams, who advised him to remain quiet. Williams drew the analogy of fish that get caught once they open their mouths. "I kept my mouth shut but tried to make a difference. My whole life, I've just wanted to make people better", (Wikipedia)

William’s subsequent career reads like what the second half of Banks’ career might have looked like if Ernie had remained healthy. And Billy seemed to adopt his manner if not his extroverted persona. Aaron’s career ended the same year Billy’s did, (1976). Ernie had been retired for five years. If you use a “best ball” approach on Ernie’s and Billy’s home runs, you get 716 home runs.

Here’s Ernie taking on Mickey Mantle in Home Run Derby:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWD9w5PyzCM


The 1950’s Washington Senators have been described as “an entire team of utility infielders”. That was changing in the late 1950’s when HARMON KILLEBREW started belting them out of even spacious Griffith Stadium.

Harmon was the son of a small college All-American football player and was a high school All-American quarterback. At 5-11 213, he seems more like a fullback or lineman of the time. He turned down a scholarship offer from Oregon to sign with the Senators for a $50,000 bonus. Under the weird bonus rules of the time, he not only got all that money but had to be on the roster of the big league team immediately. He made his major league debut at the age of 18 in 1954, but played sparingly and not very well, hitting .215 with 4 home runs and 34 strike-outs in 93 at bats in his first two years. But his first major league home run on June 24, 1955 went to the 24th row of the left field bleachers at Griffith, 470 feet from home plate.

He was sent down to the minors when his bonus contract was over in 1956 and worked his way back up to the big club in 1959. He had a break-out year hitting 42 homers and, per Bill Jenkinson, “some of them were leviathans. On the road he belted 450 footers in Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City and Boston as well as a 470 footer into the parking lot in Kansas City on July 27.At home he drove one two thirds up the distant left field bleachers for a 465 footer on May 20 but later topped that distance twice. On June 19, Harmon reached the 28th row, and on July 11, he knocked one into the 26th row. These blows were estimated at 490 feet and 485 feet, respectively and identified Killebrew as the strongest right-handed batsman in the American League.”

He went on to hit over 40 homers seven more times and led the league six times. He also drove in over 100 runs nine times, leading the league three times, with highs of 49 homers in 1964 and 1969 and 140 RBIs in 1969. He hit only .256 lifetime and never more than .288 but he walked 100 times seven times and led the league four times, giving him a career on base percentage of .376 Rod Carew hit 72 points higher at .328 but his on base percentage was only 17 points higher at .393. Rod drove in 100 runs once- 100 even in 1977, the year he hit .388. He also scored 128 runs that year- his only time over 100. Harmon scored 100 runs twice. Interestingly, even though they exact opposites as players, their career number sin the categories I am using are almost identical: Harmon played 2,435 big league games and produced 5,721 bases and 2,294 runs. Rod played 2,469 games and produced 5,369 bases and 2,347 runs. No wonder they called them the “Twins”. I guess they were fraternal but hardly identical.

He continued to hit monster shots all over the league, his two longest coming on consecutive days in 1967: 522 feet on 6/3/67 “to the second row in left field upper deck” and a 510 footer the next day “off façade of left field upper deck. Unfortunately for Washington, those were hit in Minnesota, where the team had moved in 1961, to be replaced by an expansion team that also seemed to have an entire roster of utility infielders. Harmon also had a 505 footer in Detroit in 1962 “onto left field grandstand roof” and a 500 footer in Chicago in 1960 “line smash off girder under left field roof.” He wound up with 573 home runs. In his time, only mickey mantle hit them farther and Harmon hit more of them.

“The Killer was one of the most feared sluggers in baseball history, but he was also one of the nicest people ever to play the game. He was one of the few players who would go out of his way to compliment umpires on a good job, even if their calls went against him. I'd call a tough strike on him and he would turn around and say approvingly, "Good call." And he was the same way in the field. And he never did this to get help on close plays, as some players do. The man hit 573 major league home runs and no umpire ever swung a bat for him.”
Ron Luciano, Umpire Strikes Back, page 59

Harmon was the guy whose image was used for Major league baseball’s logo. I guess that makes him the Jerry West of the sport.
http://static2.businessinsider.com/image/4dd2b578ccd1d5b670260000/remembering-harmon-killebrew-the-inspiration-for-the-mlb-logo.jpg

And here is Harmon, just after his first big year in Washington, taking on Mickey Mantle in Home Run Derby:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urPWxedYKYs


For years I’ve made jokes about all the money AL KALINE must have made in the battery business, (alkaline- get it?). But he made pretty good money in baseball as the star player of the Detroit Tigers for 20 years. He had an odd record, full of “almosts”. He hit 29 home runs twice and 27 four times but never made it to 30, despite playing in what was known as a hitter’s park. Al wound up with 399 homers. Tiger Stadium was one of those downtown ballparks that had short porches to right and left, (the stands actually jutted out over the outfield wall on the second deck so fielders would line up to catch pop flies and see them settle into the stands above them), but a deep center field (440 feet). Al must have been a spray hitter. He did make it to 3,000 hits (3,007) but by then his batting average had slipped under .300 to .297.

Still, as the Yankees had Mickey Mantle, the Red Sox Carl Yastrzemski, the Giants Willie Mays, the Braves Hank Aaron, the Cubs Ernie Banks and the Pirates Roberto Clemente, the Tigers had Al Kaline. I always considered him a sort of poor man’s Stan Musial, or maybe a middle class one. He wasn’t a legendary home run slugger but a great all-around player who could hit home runs. He was a so a consistent and highly respected player who used that consistency to accumulate strong career numbers. .

He was, like Harmon Killebrew a bonus baby, ($35,000), but he made an immediate splash, winning the American league batting title at age 20, (still the youngest ever), with probably his best all-around year, .340BA, 27 homers, (of course!) , 102RBIs and 121 runs scored. He may have never had a better year than 1955 but he punched out the very good years with amazing consistency and became the American League’s outstanding defensive right fielder to boot. He won 10 Gold Gloves and played in 18 All-Star games.

Al’s great start created high expectations. He was being compared to Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio. When he failed to live up to those expectations, relations with the press became a bit tense. He also had some salary disputes that were played up in the press. SABR: “Many fans viewed Kaline as an ego-driven player, and many reporters implied as such with pointed, sometimes hostile questions. Kaline became so upset that he began to ignore the press, becoming more introverted than he already was.”

Bill James in his 1985 HBA makes a stat by stat comparison of Kaline to Clemente that is mostly in Al’s favor, (more home runs, walks, higher on base percentage, , scored and drove in more runs. equal outfield range). He rates Clemente ahead in peak value, Kaline in career value. In 2000 volume, he has two interesting quotes about Al. One is from writer David Falkner: “His natural gifts became an extension of his thinking”. The other was from Al Hirschberg: “still somewhat shy, he has learned to accept the bitter with the sweet, for he gets along well with writers and announcers, the very people he once resented.”

Al had something in common with Mickey mantle: Osteomylitis. He got it in his left foot at age 8 and had to have a bone removed. It gave him trouble throughout his career and he missed 594 games due to this and other injuries. Wikipedia: “Sportswriter Milton Gross described Kaline's deformed foot, saying, "The pinky and middle toes don't touch the ground. The fourth toe is stretched. The second and third are shortened. The first and third toes overlap the second and the fourth is beginning to overlap the big toe, which has begun to bend to the left. It is hard to believe, but for all of his career with the Tigers while he has been called the perfect player, Kaline has bordered on being a cripple." He also suffered a broken collarbone, a broken arm and a broken finger in different seasons. But he played through the pain. He said “I wasn't meant to be a superstar. I'm no Willie Mays, or Mickey Mantle,"But he was Al Kaline and that was plenty.

Here’s Al taking on Hank Aaron in the Home Run Derby:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LWNbHiClHs

By the way Home Run Derby, which was filmed after the 1959 season and was shown from January 9- July 2, 1960. It was filmed in Wrigley Field Los Angeles, home of the PCL’s Los Angeles Angels and the future venue of the American League Los Angeles Angels in their first season. The Wrigley family owned both the Cubs and the PCL Angels. Mark Scott, the announcer, had been the play-by-play man for the Hollywood Stars, another LA area PCL team and was being considered for a similar positon with the new Angel team. But he died of a heart attack at age 45 on 7/13/60. The producers of the Home Run Derby elected not to continue the series without him. His children look at the only shows to remember their father.

Before we leave the 1950’s, I have one more name to mention. He was not a superstar. He was a classic example of a journeyman ballplayer. His name was BILL TUTTLE. He’s up there in 1955, 5th in the American league in runs produced and 8th in bases, (career totals: 6 points in runs and 3 in bases). That was Bill’s best year. He played in all 154 games, in center field, alongside Al Kaline in right. He led the American League in put-outs with 442, (17 more than Boston’s Jimmy Piersall and 70 more than Mickey Mantle), aided by that spacious center field in Tiger Stadium, (and probably a pitching staff that produced a lot of fly balls). He hit .279 but with a career-high 14 homers. He drove in 78 runs, (13 more than in any other season) and scored 102, (25 more, probably batting ahead of Kaline in the order). He managed to hit and even .300 in 1959, after he was traded to Kansas City but his lifetime batting average was .259, with 67 home runs. His big league career ended in 1963 with the Twins.

He would be forgotten and I would not even be aware of him except for two things. He did what a lot of old ballplayers did in those days: the chose to continue his career in the minor leagues. He just loved playing the game and he came to Syracuse, NY to play it. He’d played for Seattle in the PCL in 1963-64 but arrived at MacArthur Stadium in 1965 and stayed for three years. He put up the same sort of numbers he’d had in the bigs. His batting average started at .287, the fell to .271 and then .237. He hit 24 home runs in three years. But among all the young prospects, he stood out as a guy who’d been around and he became a fan favorite, as well. I started following the Chiefs in that era and Bill was my favorite Chief. I was there at the tail end of the 1967 season when he’d announced his retirement and the Chiefs had “Bill Tuttle Day” at the ballpark. They didn’t simply have a pre-game ceremony with gifts and speeches. Old Bill agreed to perform the stunt of playing all nine positons, one per inning. He not only hit the game winning home run but got the decision, as well. He then waived goodbye to the fans and baseball and headed for the clubhouse. For years afterwards, my Dad would ask me rhetorically, “I wonder whatever happened to old Bill Tuttle?”

I never expected to find out. Bill’s face appeared as I was flipping through “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, trading and Bubble Gum Book” by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris in 1973. He had a large bulge in his left check, (as he does in many of his cards). The caption read: “Bill Tuttle looked like the perfect answer to “What’s the use?” He was a starting outfielder for several seasons for the Detroit Tigers- a team painfully short of qualified starting outfielders – who was forced in 1961 to undergo the ultimate in baseball indignity- being sold by the 9th place Kansas City Athletics to the 7th place Minnesota Twins, who promptly turned him into a third baseman. This is a little like being expelled from the Bowery for slovenliness and then deported to Denmark for a s e x change operation. Bill was not actually as bad a ballplayer as he looked, (this being a physical impossibility). But it was close. He led the American league in putouts in 1955 and 1960, which Frank Lary and Billy Hoeft to the contrary, was more of a reflection on the Detroit and Kansas City pitching staffs than it was on Bill…..Cheer up there Bill, it’s all over now….”

But it wasn’t. Bill suddenly became a national celebrity two decades later- for the worst of reasons. All those chaws of tobacco he favored had produced a cancer in his mouth. Wikipedia: “During the last years of his life, Tuttle was facially disfigured due to extensive surgery for oral cancer. He traveled widely as a public speaker, warning major league players of the dangers of chewing tobacco. "It's going to be pretty hard to tell someone making $4 million a year not to chew," he admitted. "So what we're trying to do is get it off TV." What Tuttle was trying to do was to stop baseball players from chewing tobacco, and thus setting a bad example for the young people who watch baseball. He died in July 1998 at age 69.”

I recently heard a radio interview with Rob Dibble who recalled when Joe Garagiola and Bill went around to big league clubhouses giving these lecture. Dibble said that, “like all big league athletes, we considered ourselves invincible . We were sorry that this had happened to him but it could never happen to us, we figured, so it had no effect.” I’m sure it had no effect on Rob Dibble, (one of baseball’s biggest jerks), but I hope that it had an effect on others.

Bill the ballplayer:
http://www.hollywoodmemorabilia.com/files/cache/bill-tuttle-autographed-baseball-card-minnesota-twins-1963-topps-127-very-light-signature-67_d91be1b4ab50aecbd5a41cb0c1608447.jpg

Bill the crusader:
http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-CiamRoCc-S0/UxXg7-Viw0I/AAAAAAAAAI4/taOK8DJmpEU/s1600/images.jpg
 

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