Sunday, August 6, 2017
When I first started this blog back in 2010, I started receiving many requests for players to be profiled and given The Infinite Baseball Card Set "treatment." Out of all the emails, I began to notice that it was not one particular player that was asked for the most, but rather an ethnic group: Jewish ballplayers. Early on I had illustrated cards and written stories on the site of Sandy Koufax and Moe Berg, but I began slowly researching different players who shared the Jewish faith, trying to find characters who would fit in with the kind of stories I like to write - players with interesting stories who may not be known to the casual fan of baseball history. The modest research I did culminated in the Test Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball" which featured 12 profiles of Jewish ballplayers. This prototype became the model in which I based the current incarnation of "21".
I was never happy with that original product, and eventually I plan to do a more elaborate "21" dedicated to Jewish ballplayers. In the years since the original, I have been steadily adding to my Jewish ballplayers file, one the characters in there being Cy Malis.
Cy's single game for the 1934 Phillies earned him place in all the books on Jewish ballplayers, but it is the rest of his story that makes him so much more interesting. Plus, digging into Cy's career was for me a researchers delight, as I found that the extent of his pro career that can be found in record books and online is quite incomplete. Old box scores and creative searching enabled me to fill out Cy's minor league career quite a bit more than any other source that I've been able to find. And then, from an artistic point of view, the uniforms worn by one of Cy's semi-pro teams were so visually stunning that I couldn't wait to depict Cy in full color.
So, with that teaser, I'll get right into Cy's story...
Cy Malis was born in Philadelphia, the second son of Frank and Anna (called "Ray") Malis. Both Frank's parents were from Russia while Ray's father immigrated from Jerusalem and her mother from Russia. Frank worked an an inspector for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company and Ray kept house in the family's apartment on 10th Street. Ray and Frank were married around 1905 and their son Charles was born shortly afterward. The Malis' second son, Cyrus came along on February 26, 1907. Both boys played baseball, working their way up the sandlot ranks. Charles was an infielder while Cyrus - who was now going by "Cy" - was, appropriately enough, a pitcher. While Charles played for Central High, Cy starred for Brown Prep School, lettering in basketball and football as well as baseball. In his sophomore season with Brown, Cy posted a 15-4 record and struck out 22 in a game against Villanova Prep. It appears that Cy left school after his second year, joining the vibrant semi-pro baseball circuit around Philadelphia.
Like other large eastern cities, Philly boasted many top-rank semi-pro clubs. Youngsters began playing for their local neighborhood athletic clubs, then, if they were good enough, were either hired by a large company who sponsored a team or was invited to join one of the semi-pro traveling clubs who were just a step below the minor leagues.
Cy Malis' first stop was with the Waco Athletic Club. His brother Charles may have preceded him on the team, for both their names frequently appear in box scores at this time. Waco played other medium-level teams in Philadelphia and South Jersey. Then, in mid-August, Cy began pitching for the formidable Hebrews club.
The Hebrews, also known as the Sphas (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), were one of the better semi-pro clubs in the Philly-Trenton area. The South Philadelphia Hebrew Association began sponsoring athletic teams around World War I, and by the early 1920's had become known not only for baseball, but for their basketball team as well. In fact, the basketball team actually turned pro, first joining the Eastern League in 1929, then the American Basketball League in 1933. When the NBA was formed after World War II, the Sphas best players splintered off to form the nucleus of the Philadelphia Warriors.
With the baseball Sphas, Cy not only had a first rate ball club backing him up, but he also had good press coverage with would help further his career. His competition was also of a higher class, playing against the various traveling teams that criss-crossed the country before World War II, such as Jim Thorpe's Indians and various Negro League clubs.
Cy's half season with the Sphas earned him an invitation to spring training with the minor league Wilkes-Barre Barons in 1925. The April 24 edition of the Scranton Republican said the Malis "has shown plenty of form in the preliminary workouts", but just two days later he was back in Philly pitching for the Waco A..A. and later the Sphas again. Still only a teenager, Cy had plenty of time to develop into professional material.
Malis' second chance at organized ball came along the following spring when he was signed by Petersburg Broncos of the Virginia League. In his professional debut on April 14, 1927, Malis was sent in to relieve Petersburg starter Lefty Fowlkes, pitching an inning and third, allowing a hit and two walks plus a balk. Richmond scored a run, but it was charged as an error since the outfielder dropped the ball. Soon both Cy and Lefty Fowlkes were shipped to the Northampton Red Sox of the Eastern Shore League. Malis started off the season well, winning five consecutive games, but overuse took a toll on his arm. When Cy asked management for some time off to rest his tired flinger, the Red Sox handed their ace pitcher his release. 1920's baseball was a cruel and impersonal sport, and back then a pitcher, especially a young one, was expected to pitch a complete game every time he took the mound. With minor league rosters consisting of only 15-18 players, clubs couldn't afford to carry too many pitchers, so the ones they had were used as often as possible. When Cy raised an issue about over use, it was only natural that the club would choose to jettison their ace instead of working with him, the reason probably being that if his arm is feeling fatigue now at this low level, how could he make it all the way to the majors? Minor league teams back then made their payroll by selling off their good players to higher level clubs - thus, a sore arm pitcher was of no monetary value to them. Sound front office reasoning in 1927. Fortunately for Cy, one other team in the league, the Cambridge Canners, were willing to take a chance with him. Working out of the bullpen, he finished out 1927 with a 5-6 record.
Despite a mediocre record, a team quite a bit higher up the food chain than the Cambridge Canners became interested in Cy - his hometown Philadelphia Phillies.
Like most big league teams, the Phillies were always on the look out for home grown talent, a native son that could blossom into a star that would in turn put more fans in the stands. As the Phils were perennially mired in last place, it would take something or someone interesting to get fans to shell out the money to watch a lousy team. With his well publicized mound exploits with Brown Prep and the Sphas, Cy Malis was a perfect candidate to be that someone interesting. The Phils signed him for 1928 and shipped him off to their Lynn Papooses farm team in the New England League. From the skeleton of statistics it looks like control was Cy's biggest obstacle - for instance in the June 1, 1928 game against Salem, Cy pitched the first 3 2/3 innings, giving up 4 bases on balls and a hit batter, taking the loss. On June 12 Cy lasted 5 1/3 inning against Brockton, issuing five free passes and 12 hits for another loss. By mid-June his record was no wins and four losses in 12 innings pitched. The Papooses released him, and Cy went back to the Philly semi-pro circuit.
Every source I found on Cy Malis has no professional record for him in 1929, but I dug up some newspaper articles that say otherwise. A small article written about Cy a year after his death in 1971 states that he had played in the Philadelphia A's farm system. I thought that perhaps this was a misprint, mistaking the Philadelphia Phillies for the Philadelphia A's. Or, I thought it might have been Cy or a relative of his doing a little creative remembering, switching out the last place Phillies for the 1929 World Champion A's. Much to my relief (I don't relish debunking little white myths held dearly by old ball players and their descendents), the article actually held up to my research.
Seems that Cy had attracted the eye of his hometown's other big league team, Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. The A's were right at the beginning of what would be an incredible three pennants and two World Championships, a team thought to be the greatest ever assembled in Major League history. The A's signed Cy to a minor league contract, sending him to their Martinsville White Elephants team in the Blue Ridge League. I found several box scores that record his record with Martinsville. On April 25, 1929, Cy pitched 4 innings, giving up 6 hits, 2 walks and striking out 2 against Hagerstown. On May 11 he gave up 5 hits in 5 1/3 innings of relief, walking no one and picking up the win over Chambersburg. Cy pitched one more game before he was released, his final 1929 record set at 13 hits, 6 runs, 13 walks, 3 strike outs and a wild pitch in 16 innings.
Once again Cy returned to the Philadelphia scene where he was now a much sought after arm for hire. Besides his regular gig with the mighty Sphas, box scores show Cy appearing for several other teams in the area. The Jersey Shore was a particularly lucrative spot for semi-pro ball, as all the beach communities competed against one another to field the best ball team. Not content to hire just a few ringers to supplement their team, some town hired complete semi-pro outfits to represent them. Cy was with the Trenton Club when they were rented out to represent the town of Bradley Beach.
In 1933 Cy was hired by the Berlin, Maryland team to help them beat rival Dagsboro in the five-game Eastern Shore Championship Series. Malis pitched Game 2, shutting out Dagsboro on six hits. The "Quaker City speedball artist" was tabbed to pitch the deciding Game 5, but served up three home runs early on which gave Dagsboro the game and championship.
In 1934 he was back with the Sphas. On July 29, Malis pitched and won a 14 inning marathon at Paterson, N.J., then came back to Philly where the next night he pitched a one-hitter for the Bartram club. Cy's continued good press inevitably was noticed by the moribund Phillies. For the second time, Philadelphia signed Cy Malis to a contract, but where as back in 1927 he was farmed out to the sticks, this time he was issued a uniform with number 49 on the back and sent to join the big club.
On Friday, August 17, 1934 Cy Malis made his major league debut against the Cardinals at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. The Gas House Gang Cardinals were on their way to a World Championship with a line up that featured future Hall of Famers Joe Medwick, Frankie Frisch, Pepper Martin and sluggers Ernie Orsatti and Ripper Collins. Their mound corps was led by the Dean Brothers, Dizzy and Paul, who would collectively win 49 games that summer. In the bottom of the 5th, the Cards were up 7-2 with Phillies reliever Reggie Grabowski on the mound. Burgess Whitehead led off with a single and with one out, advanced to second when Frankie Frisch got a base on balls. Joe Medwick smashed a long single to center, scoring Whitehead and moving Frisch to third. Medwick then stole second, sending Grabowski to the showers.
Phillies manager Jimmy Wilson waved Cy Malis in from the bullpen. With men on second and third, Malis faced Ripper Collins who quickly hit a double to riht field, scoring Frisch and Medwick. Cy got Bill Delancey to fly out to center field but then lost Chick Fullis to a base on balls. Now with two on and two away, Leo Durocher stepped in and hit a flyball to right which was caught to end the inning. Wilson left Malis in to pitch the 6th, during which he gave up a single to lead off hitter Paul Dean, then got two quick pop outs. Frankie Frisch reached base on an error but Malis got Medwick to fly out to left, ending the 6th. Cy Malis' spot was first up in the top of the 7th and he reached base when he was drilled by a Paul Dean pitch. Malis watched Dean expertly dispose of the next three Phillie batters and was left standing on second base when the inning ended. In the bottom of the 7th Malis gave a lead off walk to Ripper Collins who was then caught stealing second. A fly ball out and a strike out ended the seventh. The Phils failed to score in the top of the 8th and the score remained 10-2. In the Cards half, Mailis gave up a single to Durocher, followed by a Paul Dean fly out. Burgess Whitehead ripped a triple to left-center, scoring Durocher. Whitehead scored on a long fly out to right field but an infield pop fly by Pat Crawford ended the inning. All the Phillies could manage in their last frame was a harmless single as St. Louis clobbered Philadelphia 12-2. Paul Dean picked up his 13th win of the year and Phillies starter Cy Moore took the loss.
All told, Cy's big league debut wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't lights out either: 3 2/3 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and a strikeout. Remember, he was facing the eventual World Champions with a lineup overflowing with powerful bats. Still, that single game was to be the extent of Cy Malis' major league career. The Phillies released him shortly afterward.
Now a free agent, Malis was invited to spring training with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Despite reporting to camp overweight, Malis worked hard and lost twenty pounds in three weeks. Sportswriters were impressed with the hard work he put in, as were the Angels, especially after he held the team's veterans to a measly three hits in an intramural game. At this time the Angels were the top farm club of the Chicago Cubs and usually finished at, or near the top of the PCL each season. The Angels pitching staff boasted future Brooklyn Dodgers ace Hugh Casey, 28 game winner Fay Thomas, 20 game winner Mike Meola and future journeyman major leaguer Newt Kimball, but Cy's hard work gained him a spot as a reliever when the 1935 season started.
On March 28, Malis relieved Hugh Casey in the sixth inning when the Padres jumped on him for 6 runs. and pitched three innings, giving up three runs on three hits. In the April 3 game against Oakland, Malis was thrown in to stop an Oaks rally, but quickly got knocked off the mound himself as Oakland bulldozed two other Angels pitchers on the way to a 12-3 win. Malis then came down with the flu, which sidelined him for a few games. He pitched 1 1/3 inning of relief on April 12, giving up a hit and two walks. Two days later threw three innings against Portland, relinquishing 5 hits and 2 runs in the 10-4 loss. On April 16, the Angels handed Malis his walking papers. As he had back in Philly, Malis fell back on the semi-pro scene to make a living. In Los Angeles, Cy was eagerly picked up by Twentieth Century-Fox, which played in a league made up of all the major Hollywood movie studios.
Being recruited by a film studio not only let Cy keep a foot in baseball, but also opened up the door to his second career - acting. Malis made his celluloid debut in the MGM boxing picture "The Crowd Roars", as an uncredited extra. At this time dozens of studios were filming in the Los Angeles area and Cy found plenty of work. By 1940, he was married to an Alabama native named Jane, and the couple were living in a residential enclave of movie people on North Argyle Street in LA. Cy listed his occupation as "actor" and was recorded in the 1940 census and pulling in the nice yearly salary of $1500, a nice bump above the average worker at that time.
In 1942, a 35 year-old Cy enlisted in the Navy. It was during his short stint in the service that his life took an unexpected, and what could have been a tragic, turn. While undergoing gunnery training, one of the massive gun turrets swung around and slammed into Cy, breaking his neck and back. The accident landed him in the hospital for what would be a long, painful recovery period. From the start, the pain was so intense that Cy was unable to help loudly thrashing around in his bed and gnashing his teeth. To save both Cy's teeth and let the other patients get an undisturbed night's sleep, doctors prescribed morphine, the highly addictive opiate commonly used at the time for pain management. In small doses, under strict observance and over a short period of time, morphine was perfect for the job. However, in a crowded Naval hospital in wartime, Cy's use of morphine went unchecked.
Months later, when he finally was able to get his broken body out of bed, Cy came to the realization he could not function without morphine. He was hooked. Like shell shock (now called PTSD), morphine addiction was one of those little-talked about side effects of war. Thousands of wounded soldiers were treated and released back to their civilian lives with a dependence on the morphine that was supposed to heal them. Addiction to drugs and alcohol was something not fully understood during this time, yet Cy somehow recognized that his dependence was something he needed to get control of. With no program or treatment readily available to him, Cy began the difficult process of weening himself off the drug. However, behind Cy's morphine dependence was the still crushing pain of his injured neck and back. To make this constant pain manageable, the old ballplayer turned to alcohol. Looking back from the 21st century, we know that this was just substituting one evil for another, but in 1943 being alcohol dependent was much more acceptable than being a junkie. In the spring of 1943 the Navy gave Cy his discharge and he returned to civilian life. While his back and neck gradually healed, Cy went to work ratcheting down his intake of alcohol as a pain killer. It must have been unbelievably hard work, taking almost superhuman inner strength, but somehow he managed to do it.
With his part in the war through and his addiction under control, Cy threw himself back into Hollywood. He quickly became an often used extra, working with famed directors John Ford, William Wellman and Robert Wise. The list of actors he shared the screen with reads like a who's who of Hollywood's Golden Age: Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall (Designing Woman), Lucille Ball (The Fuller Brush Girl), Cary Grant and John Garfield (Destination Tokyo), John Wayne and Richard Widmark (The Alamo), even Shirley Temple (The Story of Seabiscuit). Malis is even credited with being a stand in in for two different Stooges, Larry and Shemp. Besides his work in front of the camera, Cy was able to leverage his pro baseball experience into a couple technical advisor rolls on the baseball pictures "It Happened in Flatbush" and "Flashing Spikes".
Through all this Hollywood work, Cy still had to deal with his morphine and alcohol withdrawal. In 1953, a forward thinking LA Sheriff's narcotics detective approached an Alcoholic Anonymous member with the idea that a similar organization focusing on drugs might help the growing number of heroin and speed addicts in his city. In mid-July, the very first meeting of what would become Narcotics Anonymous was held in a church in the Moore Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Among the handful of people present was Cy Malis and Jimmy Kinnon. The small group hashed out the pillars of the budding organization and in a few weeks Kinnon would be elected Narcotics Annonymous' first leader and accepted "founder".
Despite being present at the very beginning and taking part in its initial program, Cy charted his own course separate from NA. In his spare time he appeared before groups telling the story of his own addiction and the long, painful route he traveled in order to kick it. In the 1950's this was a very brave thing to do as drug addicts were considered the lowest of the low, and to admit to being one took an awful lot of guts. By the late 1950's Cy realized that while groups such as Narcotics Anonymous helped people out on the streets, nothing was being done for addicts behind bars. It was in the prison system that Cy Malis found his calling.
Cy Malis now became the main driving force behind helping convicts overcome their addiction and subsequent withdrawal. So successful was Cy that when the assistant warden of San Quentin was being interviewed about drug addiction problems in his prison, the jailer responded "they have improved vastly since Mr. Malis started his program. But perhaps the greatest compliment came from a former inmate and admitted addict who, when introduced to Cy called him "the best friend we dope fiends have". This wasn't a hollow compliment - back in the 1960's when this took place, dope addicts were an ignored and disparaged part of society, one for which good people did not consort with, let alone try to help. In this hostile atmosphere, Cy Malis bravely stepped forward to offer a hand to those who needed it, and he in turn was revered for it.
In between acting and technical advising in Hollywood and offering a lifeline to thousands of addicts behind bars, Cy also found time to coach Little League. The old ballplayer even managed his club to the league championship in his first summer as skipper. A kick by a horse on the set of a movie injured Cy to the point that it effectively ended his movie career and his health deteriorated. Cy's brother told a sports writer that shortly before Cy's death in 1971, the two brothers were visiting New York when a friend showed Cy a copy of the 1970 Philadelphia Phillies yearbook. Inside was a list of all the players who appeared in a Phillies uniform over the course of the team's history. There, under M's was Cy Malis. Charles told the sports writer that his brother was quite pleased at the remembrance of his one day as big leaguer.
Cy passed away on January 12, 1971, just 63 years old.
Cy Malis' big league career might have lasted but a single afternoon and takes up no more than a single line of statistics, yet his life can not be measured in stats or amount of space in a record book. Cy's personal experience of taking a tragic turn of events and making it mean something helped thousands of people. With them, Cy Malis' winning percentage was 1.000, no matter what the record book shows.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
The photo-hosting site I used for my website has decided to charge an insane amount of money to continue using. Without warning, all my pictures (and everyone else who uses this site) were taken down and replaced with a (poorly designed, I might add) icon. I will be slowly replacing all the illustrations, so please be patient and all the art will return...
UPDATE: So far I've replaced the illustrations for all the stories going back to number 199.
UPDATE: So far I've replaced the illustrations for all the stories going back to number 199.
Sunday, July 2, 2017
This week we have a special guest author, John Klima. John wrote the very well reviewed Willie's Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend. If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend it. As the title suggests, Willie's Boys is the story of the 1948 Black Barons. Today, the Black Barons are overshadowed by the more well-known teams like the Monarchs and Grays, yet Birmingham can boast some really great alumni, such as Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Artie Wilson, Sam Bankhead, Charley Pride, Sam Streeter, Lyman Bostock, and of course, Willie Mays. Throughout the 1940's Birmingham was the strongest club in the Negro American League, winning pennants in 1943, 1944 and 1948. The '48 squad was piloted by by their 4-time All-Star second baseman, Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, and it is Piper who John Klima has so graciously written about, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of his birth. So, without further ado, here's author John Klima...
Happy 100th, Piper Davis
Piper Davis was born to play in the big leagues. Time and circumstances got in the way of his destiny but never changed the way he viewed his life. He played until his bones ached and his body became bridle, swinging the bat long enough to afford to put his children into college, and with enough years behind him to influence decades of baseball players who gravitated to his knowing pull. They followed the scent of his swirling pipe smoke and listened to him speak. His voice was booming and robust, soulful and soothing. He saw things in the game others could not readily see and he freely shared his knowledge.
There was not a touch of greed within him, and when he died there was no regret or lament. Time had taken a toll on his memories but not his spirit, and from the time he was born on July 3, 1917 to the time he died on May 21, 1997, Birmingham's favorite son was sure of one thing -- though he had never appeared in a major league game, Piper Davis knew he was a big leaguer. Never had a doubt about it. He didn't need you to tell him that. He knew it all along.
I got to know Piper, posthumously, when I wrote my book Willie's Boys, which was published in 2009. The book was about how Willie Mays, Piper's young charge on the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, navigated the world of segregated baseball and was eventually signed by the New York Giants in 1950. I still maintain that this is the greatest single story in the history of free agent scouting, for all the moving parts and behind-the-scenes connections and contacts that made the career of Mays possible. Piper's part in all this was unreported and enormous, and the fingerprints of his character were all over Mays's career. Simply put, Piper put the youngster first.
When a talented young amateur player comes around, you will find if you stay in baseball long enough, that greedy adults will do everything in their power to manipulate the player to their advantage. They will do so for personal benefit and at the expense of the young player's development. This dynamic exists today, and it always gets dicey in June and July.
Piper was a rarity -- a man of immense character, a man of God and a man of Family, who refused to deviate from the time he knew Mays needed to become a pro. He taught him and pushed him. He preached and he punished. He left in the bus without him. He also hit him cleanup and played him in center field when he decided Mays was ready. When white scouts came to ask about Mays, it was Piper they sought. Though Piper himself wanted out of the Negro Leagues before it was too late, never once did he tie his future to Mays. He refused to compromise Mays for his own personal gain.
Willie's Boys was about Mays but the story belonged to Piper, because the reason baseball had Willie Mays is Piper Davis. When I called Willie, he very genially reflected and said, "You know this stuff better than I do." And when I asked about his fondness for Piper, he simply reflected and said, "He was a very special person to me."
Piper had that affect on players he met and people who never met him. So on the occasion of what would have been his 95th birthday, July 3, 2012, I decided to do something that hadn't been done before. I decided to try to get Piper Davis into a major league game.
Luck was on my side. The Cincinnati Reds were in Los Angeles, at Dodger Stadium. The manager of the Reds at the time, Dusty Baker, has an affinity for history and a deep awareness of those who came before him. These characteristics were handed down to him as a young man when he was placed under the wing of Henry Aaron and when Satchel Paige made the young Johnnie B. Baker tote his fishing poles. As a Dodger, Dusty admired the heritage of Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Though the decades, Dusty has shown he has a lot of Piper Davis in him, too -- a guy whose instincts and feel for the game, for talking to young ballplayers and older players alike is unique. In the modern era where baseball is a game of massive information drops on a daily basis, there still comes a need for a communicator with the feel of a baseball man. And so Dusty was just the right man for this job.
I went to the visiting manager's office at Dodger Stadium and sat down inside one of the old locker stalls and asked Dusty to get Piper into a big league game. My idea was to have him write Piper's initials on his wristbands. Dusty had a better idea.
"What position would he play?" Dusty asked.
"Second base," I said. "Right-handed hitter."
So Dusty took his black pen (black for right-handers, red for left-handers) and where his second baseman for the day, Brandon Phillips was written, Dusty instead wrote in PIPER DAVIS, batting fourth, playing second base.
Cleanup hitter on a first place club. That would be just fine.
Dusty handed the new card to his bench coach, Chris Speier and asked him to print it off. A few minutes later, here comes Chris with the lineup. He hands it to Dusty, who signs it, making it (unofficially) official. Dusty handed me the lineup card. I told him it was going to Birmingham.
The Reds lost that game, 3-1, but the only run the Reds scored was an RBI double to center field in the fourth inning off the bat of the cleanup hitter, second baseman Brandon Phillips. Fitting -- it was a short, compact powerful swing from a second baseman, to straightaway center. It was as if Piper was swinging the bat himself. You can dream on that if you like.
After the game, I made a color copy to keep for myself. I sent the original to Faye Davis, Piper's daughter, who over the years has done an admirable job keeping her father's memory alive. I told her, on Piper's birthday, he finally "appeared" in a major league game. Even got himself a double, so to speak.
She was moved by the gesture. She also showed the lineup card to her mother, Piper's widow Laura, who after all those years waiting, finally saw her husband's name in a big league game. A few years later, she passed away, but not before Dusty Baker signed Piper Davis into the big leagues. As Piper always said, without reservation, he knew he was a big leaguer all along.
The path Piper Davis took to professional baseball was as long as winding as the dirt roads leading to the coal mines in his hometown of Piper, Alabama. From the coal mining company teams of his boyhood, Piper realized that baseball was his path to prosperity. He joined the Birmingham Black Barons in 1942 and spent the next two seasons playing baseball in the summer and basketball in the winter for the Harlem Globetrotters. He was an All-Star in the Negro Leagues and was frequently mentioned as an integration candidate for "White Folks Ball," as the black players referred to organized baseball. The St. Louis Browns took an option on him in 1947, which proved to be a fruitless endeavor, and in 1948 he became player-manager of his hometown Black Barons.
From the moment he perched his front foot onto the top step of the dugout at Rickwood Field, Piper's personality had a pull on his players. He understood how to be their teammate and their manager. He drew lines. He was a married man and so he did not partake in the nightlife. He did not drink or use profanity. The years after 1947 were a trying time for Negro League players, who could see their once proud league dying a slow death, and who recognized that the white majors were not in a hurry to sign them all despite the successful arrival of Jackie Robinson.
Piper's 1948 Black Barons were special for the arrival of the young Willie Mays, then a high school sophomore. Mays played with the Black Barons until the time of his high school graduation in 1950. In 1948, the Black Barons beat their rival, the Kansas City Monarchs, to win the Negro American League. They played in the last Negro League World Series, losing to the Homestead Grays.
When the Boston Red Sox purchased Piper and made him the first black player the organization purchased, he was released shortly before Mays graduated when it became clear the Red Sox were not going to acquire Mays. Shortly thereafter, Mays was signed by the Giants. The great ballplayers of the '48 Black Barons scattered, including Piper.
He settled into the Pacific Coast League in the 1950s, playing his best years for the Oakland Oaks and winding down with the Los Angeles Angels. While with the Angels, he often schooled a young infielder named Gene Mauch, who loved Piper for his personality and his wisdom. Piper finished his career with Fort Worth in the Texas League, playing until 1950.
You can find his career path online but to feel his contributions, you had to talk to the people who knew him. When I wrote Willie's Boys, Piper was a constant. I would listen to those who knew him and read what he had to say. When you write books, sometimes you feel as though you "get to know" people who have died long ago. Piper's lessons, as it pertains to developing ballplayers, guide me to this day. Piper once said, in all humility, that "if he had played today, he'd have been a million dollar ballplayer," but never once complained. So here on his 100th birthday, we think it is fitting that we share Piper Davis' story, and how he posthumously made it to the big leagues -- a centennial for a man born to be a big leaguer.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
It's the moment every ballplayer dreams of - when the rep from Hillerich & Bradsby sits down and guides you through the process of ordering your very own custom signature-model Louisville Slugger bats. This rite-of-passage dated back to the early 1900's when Honus Wagner became the first pro ballplayer to have his own Louisville Slugger with his signature stamped into the barrel. Since then, the Kentucky bat maker had given everyone from Hank Aaron to Frankie Zak his own custom model. It's as momentous a moment as when a rookie gets his own big league uniform, visual and physical proof that he had really "made it" as a ball player.
That spring day in 1944 must have been especially sweet for Jesus "Chucho" Ramos. His Louisville Slugger order not only marked his personal advancement to the major leagues, but also a historic moment for his native country: Ramos would be joining the Cincinnati Reds as the very first position player from Venezuela.
Students who studied abroad in America imported baseball to Venezuela in the 1890’s. The Amenodoro brothers formed the Caracas Baseball Club in 1895, and the game slowly spread from there. American engineering and oil companies also formed their own company teams, and in 1917 the Navegantes del Magallanes were formed. This club still exists today and is kind of the New York Yankees of Venezuela. When the country formed its first professional league, the Federación Venezolana de Béisbol in 1927, the Navegantes were among the first ball clubs to join. Because Venezuela was a considerable distance from the other Caribbean baseball hot spots like Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Venezuelans had to play on those islands in order to advance their careers.
If a Venezuelan ball player like Jesus Ramos had dreams of playing the United States, he had a long road ahead of him that would require not only talent, but also other provisions before he reached his ultimate goal. First among them was the language barrier. Common baseball terminology was universal, but simple interaction with teammates or during travel from town to town could be daunting and frustrating if one did not grasp basic English. Unlike today, no team would consider hiring a translator to help out a Spanish-speaking recruit. Why would they when there were thousands of eager English speakers to take their place? And if a player was able to master the language barrier, there was the ever-present issue of race. Though several Latinos had played in the majors before World War II, they were usually singled out for heckling and derision. Just like every other ethnicity, Latino's were known for certain crude stereotypes that were accepted as common knowledge. A Latino had an even harder time if his skin tone was a shade or two darker than an Italian, Native American or other "accepted" ethnicities with a swarthy complexion.
So, these were the obstacles Jesus Ramos had to navigate before that day in 1944 when he sat down and ordered his first batch of signature model Louisville Sluggers.
Jesús Manuel Ramos García was born on April 12, 1918 in the city of Maturín. Capitol of the state of Monagas, Maturín was one of the hubs of Venezuela's petroleum industry. He was an outstanding all-around athlete in high school where he was a track star as well as ball player. Ramos picked up the nickname "Chucho" as a boy. "Chucho" translates to "Babe" and is a term of endearment in his native Venezuela. Though being called Babe would later lead to his being confused with being a home run slugger, Ramos would freely point out the more innocent origins of the name he would be known by his entire life.
After high school, Ramos entered the prestigious Venezuelan Military Academy where he continued to enjoy success in numerous sports. At the age of 19, Ramos was selected to represent Venezuela at the 1937 South American Olympic Games, where he won the gold in the 100 and 220-meter races. That same year he began playing in the Federación Venezolana de Béisbol, initially for Nacional in 1937, then switching to Vargas for the next three seasons. At this point in his career, Chucho was a left-handed pitcher and played the outfield. In the meantime, Ramos graduated from the military academy as an artillery specialist. He joined the Caracas police department, working in the headquarters of the San Agustín district where he picked up the additional nickname "El Comisario", or "The Captain".
During this period, Venezuelans had made a small, but distinct, impression on the international stage. Several had played in the Cuban and Puerto Rican winter leagues, and pitcher Alejandro Eloy Carrasquel Aparicio (better known as Alex Carrasquel) became the first Venezuelan to reach the major leagues when he suited up for the Senators in 1939.
In 1941, Ramos was selected to represent his country in the Amateur World Series. The tournament had been played annually since 1938, but this was only the second year Venezuela fielded a team. Playing against teams from Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Dominican Republic, United States, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and El Salvador, Venezuela's 7-1 record tied them with Cuba, setting the stage for a climactic playoff game. Venezuela's ace, Daniel Canónico, out-dueled future big leaguer Connie Marrero for the gold medal. Ramos played outfield during the series and hit a nice .389 for the team that would become known in Venezuelan baseball history as "Un héroe del 41" (The Heroes of '41).
1941 was also the year Ramos reached the big time when he joined Navegantes del Magallanes. The Magallanes were and still are the class of the Venezuelan League. Ramos acquitted himself well, hitting over .400 in 1942-43 and then .365 in 1943-44. At the plate, Ramos batted right handed, a natural line drive hitter. The speed he exhibited as a track star translated well into base running. His former pitching arm plus his speed made him a skilled outfielder, and he also played first base when needed. In an odd twist, while a right-handed batter, Ramos threw left-handed. This baseball anomaly added to his versatility, giving him the option of playing first base when needed.
Eventually word spread of Chucho Ramos. The Brooklyn Dodgers were reportedly interested in signing Ramos in 1942, but he ultimately chose to stay home in Venezuela.
After a couple years of war, America's baseball's talent pool was completely decimated. Anyone able to hold a rifle was lost to the service, and anyone left over was siphoned off to work in the war industry or face being drafted. To fill this void, many major league teams looked to Latin America. The Washington Senators, Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds were three teams who made extensive sweeps through the Cuban and Puerto Rican leagues looking for players. In the spring of 1944, Hector Gouvernier, an English teacher and State Department official in Caracas, contacted Reds General Manager Warren C. Giles to suggest a prospective player. The two men had previously met in New York, and Giles invited Gouvernier's prospect to spring training on his word alone. Within days Chucho Ramos was on his way to America. As he was in transit to America, an offer from the Washington Senators arrived on the recommendation of Ramos' fellow countryman Alex Carrasquel.
International and domestic travel in 1944 was extremely difficult due to the war. Civilians were regularly bumped from planes, trains and buses to make room for servicemen, and Ramos was even more handicapped by his lack of English. Somehow he made it from Caracas to Miami via Pan American Clipper, then by train to Cincinnati, successfully navigating all the connections and delays. He arrived in Cincinnati on April Fools Day and reported to the Reds offices, all in one piece, but shivering in the late winter freezing weather. A front office employee took pity on Ramos and helped him purchase his very first overcoat. This protected, Chucho was sent on to the Reds spring training camp in Bloomington, Indiana. Due to wartime travel restrictions, all major and minor league spring training was to take place within a close proximity to the cities they represented. Because Cincinnati trained in Indiana, Ramos was able to experience snow for the first time.
The Reds team Ramos was joining in 1944 was a shell of its former self. Cincinnati had won back-to-back pennants in 1939-1940 and won the World Championship in 1940. However, the leaders of those teams were either on the downside of their career or serving in the military. Manager Bill McKechnie did his best to cobble together a competitor, but players slipped away to the war like sand through fingers.
While on many of the other big league clubs Ramos would have immediately ran into the language barrier, the 1944 Reds had Cuban pitcher Tommy de la Cruz and linguist-relief pitcher Joe Beggs to translate for him. The other Reds players found Ramos a very likeable fellow and instead of the usual mean-spirited ethnic ribbing, seemed to enjoy having the Venezuelan in the clubhouse. His limited English gave birth to the teams' spring training rally cry of "Ho Kay!", one of the only phrases Ramos knew when he arrived and with which he answered almost all questions posed to him. With Cruz' and Beggs' help, Ramos quickly added to his vocabulary, and soon he was able to speak enough English to talk to reporters and coaches. As was common in those days, his English skills were a point of humor in the newspapers, though in Chucho's case it appears more good-natured than malicious. For instance, scribes particularly enjoyed the formality by which Ramos addressed people: Reds coach Hans Lobert was "my dear coach", Traveling Road Secretary Bill McCorry was "my dear secretary," and newspaper writers were addressed as "my dear newspaper." A big gold tooth that sparkled in the sunlight added to Chucho's colorful and exotic image.
After his first day in the Reds camp, Ramos was excited enough that he insisted on placing a person-to-person call to his mother back in Venezuela. Tommy de la Cruz helped him navigate the logistics of an international call and timed the conversation so it would not run past the 3-minute limit. As it turned out, de la Cruz didn't need to keep time as Ramos was so excited that he ended the conversation after a minute and a half, even though he had paid the full $17 for three minutes. The beat writers ate this stuff up.
His second day in camp was when Chucho Ramos was asked to join the likes of Ruth, Cobb and DiMaggio by signing a contract for his own personalized bat. Tommy de la Cruz and Joe Beggs helped Louisville Slugger rep Junie Hillerich smooth out the details with Ramos. The Venezuelan looked over his teammates bats and selected a Bucky Walters model that suited his specifications. As the ever-present beat writers looked on, Ramos signed his name with a flourish, ordering his first batch of bats that would bear his name.
Although Ramos had been primarily and outfielder in Venezuela, McKechnie had the rookie work out at first base where his snappy play made a good impression on the coaches. His nickname of Chucho (Babe) had led to Ramos being perceived as a home run hitter, but he quickly let the writers know that Chucho was not in reference to the great Babe Ruth, but a term of endearment given to children back home. Home run hitting aside, Ramos made an impression with his line drive hitting ability, though one of them he hit in batting practice severely injured Estell Crabtree when it hit him above his eye.
Ramos' hustle and good nature made him a pleasant addition to what would have otherwise been a very mediocre Reds spring training. The Reds had a surplus of outfielders, but Ramos' speed and first base option made him worth keeping. McKechnie told reporters that Ramos looked "very promising," and it was thought that bringing him along slowly over the course of the upcoming season would gain him the experience needed to make good. When the team broke camp and traveled to Cincinnati for Opening Day, Chucho Ramos was with them.
Wearing number 24, Chucho Ramos made his major league debut on May 7, 1944 in the second game of a Sunday double header in St. Louis. On the mound that day was Max Lanier, one of the Cardinals' best pitchers. Batting seventh in the lineup and playing right field, Ramos had his first at bat in the top of the 2nd. With a runner on first, he lined a single to right, advancing the runner to third. Trying to take advantage of his speed, McKechnie signaled Ramos to steal second, but Lanier cut him down at the base. In his next at bat, again with a runner on first, Ramos hit a double off the Cardinals ace, moving the runner to third, who scored on the next play. In the 6th Ramos hit an infield single to extend his perfect record. It wasn't until the top of the 9th that Lanier was able to retire Ramos, getting him to hit into a forced out. 3 for 4 against one of the National League's best pitchers was a heck of a way to make a debut. When word reached Venezuela the following day, the nation's baseball fans rejoiced at Chucho's success.
Besides being only the second Venezuelan to make the majors, Ramos' debut marked just the third time in the history of the game that a player made it to the majors without appearing in a minor league game. The first was White Sox legend Ted Lyons, and the second, coincidentally, was Ramos' fellow countryman, Alex Carrasquel.
On May 12, Ramos was sent in to pinch run for catcher Ray Mueller, but was stranded when the inning ended with a fly out. On May 21 against the Dodgers, McKechnie sent Ramos in to hit for Max Marshall in the 6th inning. Chucho hit a single off Fritz Ostermueller and stayed in for the rest of the game, though he had no other at bats. After three big league games, Chucho Ramos' batting average was a lofty .800.
Seven days later Ramos would play what would be his last big league game. Facing the Philadelphia Blue Jays at Shibe Park, Ramos went 1 for 5 and scored a run in the Reds 7-4 win. That night, a check of newspaper box scores showed that Chucho Ramos of Cincinnati was batting .500.
With this win, the Reds were now 2 games out of first place, but disaster was close at hand. A series of injuries suffered by most of the pitching staff sent manager Bill McKechnie into damage control mode. Reaching down into his limited farm system, McKechnie started bringing up young arms. In order to make room, the Reds no longer had the luxury of breaking in Ramos over the course of the season. On June 2nd, the Reds skipper asked Ramos to come to his office. Waiting for him was Tommy de la Cruz who translated the bad news that he was to be sent down to the Syracuse Chiefs. In what probably both shocked and perplexed the veteran McKechnie, Ramos slumped into a chair and broke out in tears. Though what was said went unrecorded, McKechnie most likely explained through de la Cruz that Ramos would be better off playing every day in Syracuse where his added experience would make him more valuable when he rejoined Cincinnati. When he regained his composure, Chucho gathered his things and bid farewell to his teammates, adding, "I'll be back."
Ramos finished out the 1944 season in Syracuse where he hit a disappointing .259. The Reds had him return to spring training the following year, but he was farmed out Syracuse again for the entire 1945 season, finishing with a .255 average.
With the war over, 1946 saw a huge influx of returning veterans. For a wartime foreign replacement such as Chucho Ramos, this meant some stiff competition to compete against. Unfortunately for Ramos, he was never given the opportunity to do just that. In late January the Reds mailed him his unconditional release. Although the doors to the big leagues were closed, there were still plenty of venues still open for a ball player like Ramos. He was still a star in Venezuela and he quickly rejoined the Magallanes. For the next 11 years, Chucho Ramos established himself as the greatest first baseman in Venezuelan baseball history, helping the Magallanes win pennants in 1950, 1951 and 1955. After the 1955 championship season, the 38 year-old Ramos retired, credited with a .271 lifetime batting average.
Chucho remained close to the game, though as he aged he opined that the newer players and management lacked the love and mysticism players of his generation held for the game. Jesús Manuel Ramos García passed away on September 2, 1977 from respiratory failure in Caracas. He was aged 59 and was survived by his beloved wife of 21 years, Rosa Elena.
Although Chucho Ramos' career in The Show was brief, his .500 average and acknowledgement as a trailblazer inspired more than 200 of his fellow countrymen to reach the major league level. To mark his importance to Venezuelan baseball history, a league in that country was named in his honor, and in 2009 Chucho Ramos was elected to the Venezuelan Baseball Hall of Fame.
Saturday, May 13, 2017
229. Luis Olmo: Minor league kidnapping, Harlem safehouses and other obstacles encountered on the way to the Big Leagues
A few weeks ago, a 97 year-old ball player passed away. This just wasn't any ball player, but a guy whose 1943 debut marked him as only the second Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues. While that's something, Luis Olmo's story encompasses so much more than race, or an ethnic first (or, in his case, a "second"). It's the age-old story of a kid, born in a far away place, who had a dream of making the major leagues. It's a story of big shot baseball executives pulling out all the stops in order to get their hands on the talented and unsuspecting young man. And it's a story of how a former big leaguer lived out the final chapters of his life graciously sharing the story of his modest part in the history of the game he loved so much. Because much has already been written about his major league career, I'll recount the early part of Luis Olmo's journey, which, if you ask me, is much more fascinating than coughing up a list of firsts, dates and hard statistics.
Luis Francisco Rodriguez Olmo was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico in 1919, the third of four sons born to carpenter Jose Francisco and his wife Ana Olmo. Of the four boys, Luis was the only athlete, encouraged by his oldest brother, Jose. Luis would later relate that he had been playing baseball since he was born, but he also excelled in several other sports such as basketball, soccer and track. At first, Olmo aspired to become a major league pitcher, but an injury suffered throwing a javelin ended his mound hopes at age 15. Luis' older brother Jose was a subscriber to The Sporting News, and through its pages the younger Olmo idolized Cubs second baseman Billy Herman, so he made the switch to the keystone sack. Continuing his schooling, Olmo moved to the city of Caguas to attend high school. Because the school offered no other sport except baseball, Olmo perfected his game without distraction. Playing second base, outfield and occasionally catching, Olmo evolved into a promising ballplayer, but Caguas was a long way away from the big leagues.
With the Great Depression in full swing, the road to the minor leagues in America was choked with thousands of American-born hopefuls trying to gain a foothold in organized baseball. Besides being born far away from the nearest minor league team, Olmo's dream of becoming a big leaguer was further hindered by the language barrier. A Spanish-speaking prospect had to show promise above and beyond an ordinary English-speaking player in order for a team to take a chance on him. And before that, he had to first catch the eye of a scout. Fortunately, Luis Olmo came of age at the perfect time in Puerto Rican baseball history.
Though Puerto Rico had a rich amateur baseball circuit, the island did not have the professional league that neighboring Cuba did. That changed in 1938 when the Puerto Rican Winter League was formed. For the first time, Puerto Rican players could showcase their talent at home as a group instead of scattering to other countries around the Caribbean and North America. The undisputed attraction that initial season was Millito Navarro, the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues and a bonafide star. But that inaugural year also introduced the baseball world to a few young up and comers, among them pitcher Hi Bithorn of the San Juan Senators and Luis Olmo of the Caguas Creoles.
The teenage Olmo was recruited by his hometown team for the princely sum of $7 a week. Although he was young, the Creoles player-manager, Pito Álvarez de la Vega, knew in Olmo he had something special. The older man carefully mentored Olmo throughout the season, correctly assessing that this kid had what it took to make the major leagues one day. Olmo responded by hitting .335 his rookie season, generating much praise as the guy to watch in the near future.
Among those impressed with Olmo that first season was Jose Seda, a Puerto Rican baseball lifer who also scouted on the side for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers had just begun a resurgence under the leadership of new general manager Larry McPhail. Flush with money and grandiose plans, McPhail hired Cardinals GM Branch Rickey's son, Branch Jr., to create and oversee a Dodgers farm system modeled on what his father had built for St. Louis. Seda had kept an eye on Olmo throughout the season, evaluating him as a prospective Dodger. However, Seda wasn't the only one with connections who was taking an interest in Olmo. A traveling salesman named Miguel Lloreda contacted Eddie Mooers, owner of the minor league Richmond Colts. The Colts were the only unaffiliated club in the Class B Piedmont League, and while the other teams relied on their parent club to provide players, independent owners relied on freelance tips such as Lloreda's to score talent. Whatever Lloreda wrote, it was impressive enough that Mooers decided to take a chance on the 19 year-old. At the conclusion of the 1938-39 season, the Colts wired Olmo money to take the steamship Barranquilla to New York where a team representative would meet him and accompany him to Richmond where he would sign a contract.
Now things began to get a little cloak and dagger. Just as Luis was getting on the ship to America, Jose Seda wired Branch Rickey, Jr.:
"Good ballplayer named Luis Olmo arriving on Barranquilla. Stop. Get him. Stop. -Jose."
Branch Jr. rushed down to the docks and waded through the disembarking passengers until he identified a guy who looked like a ballplayer. Using high school Spanish, Branch, Jr. was able to convince Olmo to accompany him back to the Dodgers offices in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, Rickey's Spanish wasn't good enough to convince the young Puerto Rican to put his name on a Dodgers contract. Rickey then bundled Olmo into his car and drove over to the home of Alberto Flores, a Puerto Rican third baseman that Rickey was on the verge of signing to a Brooklyn contract. Olmo was familiar with Flores, but when he and Rickey arrived, the third baseman was gone - he'd just signed a contract with the Richmond Colts.
Temporarily foiled, Branch, Jr. stalled for time while he decided how to proceed, stashing Olmo at a Dodgers safe house up in Harlem with another Puerto Rican prospect. In the meantime, the Richmond representative was desperately trying to track down the star import. With some pro sleuthing, Richmond's man was able to deduce that Olmo was Shanghaied by Branch, Jr., and then correctly figured he'd hide him with the Dodgers only remaining Spanish speaking prospect. Before morning, Olmo was located, his signature inked on a Richmond Colts contract, and on his way south to Virginia. Luis Olmo had slipped through the Dodgers fingers - for now...
Richmond placed their young import with the Tarboro Goobers of the lower level Coastal Plain League. The Goobers had no place for him so he was released and then optioned to the Wilson Tobs of the same league. Olmo got into 56 games and batted a credible .329. He returned to Caguas after the season fully expecting a contract for the next year - only it never arrived.
The reason he did not hear from the Colts was that the contract was sent to the wrong name and address: Roberto Olmo of Cuba. How the Richmond front office made that mistake is unknown, but by the time the 1939-40 Puerto Rican Winter Season began, Luis Olmo figured he was now a free agent.
Olmo once again manned the outfield for the Creoles. Word of the league's successful inaugural 1938-39 season had spread, and its sophomore year saw an influx of first-rate Negro League talent including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Leon Day and Bill Byrd. Even when thrown into the mix with seasoned outsider baseball giants, Olmo continued to impress. Another Dodgers scout, Ted McGrew, approached the budding star about signing with Brooklyn, and, with no word from Richmond by March, Olmo signed a Dodgers minor league contract. Branch, Jr.'s reaction is unrecorded, but one can imagine the younger Rickey sinking into his leather chair behind his desk and lighting a celebratory cigar, just like his old man.
Olmo traveled to Macon, Georgia for spring training with the Elmira Pioneers. In one of his first exhibition games, Olmo's career almost ended when he tried breaking up a double play by coming into second base standing. He broke up the play, but at the expense of being beaned in the right ear by the throw. After being out for a half hour, Olmo recovered his senses, vowing to slide in the future. Meanwhile, Richmond noticed that their foreign import not only was absent from spring training, but his contract and all correspondence gone unanswered. Somehow word got back to Eddie Mooers in Richmond that Olmo was camped out in Macon with Elmira, the Dodgers newest acquisition. Now confronted with a second attempt by Brooklyn to poach his property, Mooers filed a protest with Minor League Baseball president William G. Bramham.
The Colts owner was able to convince Bramham that he did tender a contract in good faith before the contract deadline, even though it was mis-addressed. Olmo was awarded to Richmond for the 1940 season and the Dodgers contract voided. The Puerto Rican outfielder has slipped through Brooklyn's fingers - for the second time.
The name and nationality confusion prompted Luis' older brother Jose to write to The Sporting News correcting the misinformation printed about his kid brother. In a small piece printed in the April 18th edition, Jose penned: "His correct name is Luis Rodríguez Olmo, but he is known as Luis Olmo, and he is a Puerto Rican, a proud American citizen. No doubt the contract was not received by my brother because it was incorrectly addressed. So far his name has been given out correctly only once, when you published the reserve lists. Later he was called Lewis Elmo and now as Roberto Olmo. Some confusion with Spanish names.”
Richmond sent Olmo back to the Wilson Tobs. At once it was clear he was well beyond the Class D level. By July he was batting just below the .350 mark with 18 homers. His superior play and potent bat had pushed the Tobs to a comfortable 18 game lead and locked in for the Coastal Plains pennant. He was called up to Richmond where he hit .271 to help the Colts take the Piedmont League pennant. Olmo returned to Caguas were he continued hitting, leading the Creoles to the Puerto Rican Winter League Championship. Olmo had turned a hat trick of pennant winners. 1940 was capped off with his marriage to Emma Paradis, a union that was still going strong when the old outfielder passed away seven decades later.
By now, Olmo was exclusively playing the outfield where his speed helped him make tremendous running catches. One of his trademarks was the basket catch. This later became a Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente staple, but Olmo had adapted this a decade before. There was a difference in styles, however: Mays caught his at waist level while Olmo positioned his glove chest-high. Clemente later credited his fellow countryman with teaching him the basket catch when he was in the minor leagues. Olmo was also blessed with a strong, accurate arm that made many runners think twice about taking an extra base.
1941 saw Olmo return to Richmond. Despite interest from major league organizations, Eddie Mooer held onto his prized foreigner, figuring another season or two of good stats would drive up his selling price. Olmo benefited from the extra seasons in Richmond, mostly due to his manager, Ben Chapman. Today, Chapman is known solely for his warped racism and the sick invectives hurled against Jackie Robinson when he was the Phillies manager in 1947. But before all that, Chapman was a truly outstanding ballplayer with several major league clubs. He was the Yankees lead off hitter in the early 1930's, and his bat and base running skills earned him a spot in the very first All-Star Game in 1933. He also had a fiery temper that got him into numerous on-field fights and led to his numerous uniform changes while in the majors. By the early 1940's, Chapman's career as a big leaguer was through, but he still had enough talent to become a respected player-manager in the minors. Whatever Chapman's feelings were towards Latinos, he became a huge influence on Luis Olmo, and the ball player later credited his Richmond skipper with teaching him more about the game than any other manager, coach or scout. The two men apparently were friendly away from the field as well. Olmo was a very talented pool player and he played his manager almost every day before lunch, loser buying the other man's meal.
I'll pause here to address the ever-present issue of race. Although Latinos had played in the majors since the early 1900's, they were still few and far between. Part of the reason was the language barrier, which could only be overcome by a player learning English. No team was going to spring for a translator when you could just reach into the minors and get a comparable English speaking replacement. Therefore, a Latino trying to make it to the majors had to be extraordinary. This was still a time of accepted ethnic stereotypes - heck, even Life Magazine ran a feature on Joe DiMaggio in 1939 that read: "Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent and is otherwise well adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he keeps his hair slicked with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti."
Imagine what the perception of Puerto Ricans were to a public unfamiliar with the people or the culture of the island. Indeed, several of the profiles written about Olmo before or just after he made the majors made sure to remark how his mild manner was quite different from the stereotypical perception of the fiery Latin. This line from the April 8, 1943 edition of The Sporting News serves as an example: "Although of Latin lineage, Olmo is not hot-tempered".
Besides the perceived temper issues Latinos had to contend with, there was also the added problem of color. A whole rigid system of skin colors dictated what was and what was not acceptable in order to be labeled "white". Fortunately for Luis Olmo, his skin tone fell within the acceptable range. He was further fortunate in that his face was said to resemble Tony Lazzeri, the Yankees star second baseman of acceptable Italian heritage.
Despite a mug that resembled a Yankees All-Star, Olmo still had to deal with the occasional racial taunt and bean ball at the plate. These, he took in stride - he had to. The game was a whole lot rougher in the days before million dollar salaries and union reps. Gaining an edge in a game often came down to getting into the opposing player's heads - name calling and bean balls were two ways to achieve that. In order to make the majors, Olmo knew he had to accept and deal with these obstacles, and this he did, telling The Sporting News "But that is baseball. So I get up and hit again."
Olmo finished the 1941 season first in home runs and triples, second in hits and slugging percentage and fifth in batting average. In September he was given additional reason to celebrate when he and Emma welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Ana Lucy. In the winter he returned to the Winter League where he augmented Chapman's teachings by playing with and against Negro League superstars such as Josh Gibson, Lenny Pearson, Roy Campanella and Bill Byrd, the later pair his teammates on the Caguas Creoles.
Olmo had developed a batting stance that he later said was based on Joe DiMaggio's. He stood back in the box, feet spread and firmly planted, the bat gripped at the end and cocked way back. Olmo favored a Louisville Slugger of the Joe Medwick or Babe Ruth model, 35 inches in length and weighting 32 ounces.
The next year, Olmo again dominated the Piedmont League, this time leading in home runs, hits, triples and slugging, coming in second in batting average and doubles. He voted the most popular player in the league, but was edged out of the MVP Award by his manager Ben Chapman. Olmo's stock could get no higher in Richmond and Eddie Mooers knew this. The Luis Olmo bidding began, and in the thick of it was Branch Rickey, Jr.
Rickey had never forgotten the Puerto Rican outfielder that twice slipped from his grasp. Now that he was available, Branch Jr. made sure the Dodgers were in there with an offer. There was one big problem - his father, Branch Rickey, Sr. The elder Rickey had by now heard of Luis Olmo. The elder recognized the hustle and spark shown by Olmo, just the kind of player he favored for his Cardinals. Branch, Jr. knew this, and began maneuvering to keep his father out of the negotiations with Mooer. This covert operation was hampered by the fact that both men were staying under the same roof at the Rickey estate outside St. Louis. Branch, Sr. had an idea of what was transpiring, but his son successfully kept the old man out of the estate's telephone room while he hammered out a deal with Richmond. Branch, Jr's. evasive action worked, and Luis Olmo finally became property of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
While the phone lies were burning up between Richmond and St. Louis, Luis Olmo was traveling the long route back home for the winter. The war had made long distance travel a nightmare, and it took more than a week of waiting in Mami for Olmo to get a seat on a flight to Puerto Rico.
Waiting for him when he landed was his older brother Jose, bursting with news that he would be joining his childhood idol Billy Herman as teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers.
This is story is just the very beginning of Luis Olmo's baseball odyssey. When he took the field as a Dodger rookie on July 18, 1943*, he was only the second Puerto Rican-born player in the majors (Hi Bithorn was the first, debuting with the Cubs in 1942). Olmo would later join the outlaw Mexican League in 1946, and then return to the Dodgers in 1949 where he became the first Puerto Rican to play and homer in a World Series. Before he ended his career in the mid-1950's, Olmo had playedball in not only the United States and his native Puerto Rico, but also Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Venezuela, earning the nickname "America’s Baseball Player." In retirement he became the elder statesman of Puerto Rican baseball, active in his local SABR chapter and a living link to the island's first season of professional winter baseball that endures to this very day. Luis Olmo passed away on April 28, 2017.
*Olmo's debut game on July 18, 1943 was the second game of a doubleheader against Boston. The game was halted in the 6th inning locked a 4-4. The game was continued September 13, 1943, resulting in a 7-6 Boston victory. Purists may therefore say that Olmo's true debut was on July 23 against the Reds...
Special thanks to my friend Angel Colon, Puerto Rican Winter League historian who introduced me to Luis Olmo's story.