Tuesday, February 18, 2014

169. Hi Bithorn: Puerto Rico's First Big Leaguer

It's odd today to think that of the hundreds of native Puerto Rican ballplayers who have played in the majors to date, the first one debuted only as recently as 1942. That he only played 4 seasons of big league ball and the average baseball fan probably never heard of him doesn't mean he doesn't have a hell of a story...

On December 27, 1951 Almante, Mexico police officer Ambrosio Castillo Cano was escorting a suspected car thief to jail. Officer Cano had apprehended the man as he tried to sell his '47 Buick for a few hundred dollars, suspiciously way below what it was actually worth. When officer Cano asked to see the ownership and registration papers the suspect couldn't produce them which caused his arrest. As the pair rode to the police station, the suspect suddenly attacked the officer, causing him to fatally shoot the suspect. As he lie bleeding in the street outside the town bus station, the suspect used his dying words to utter "I am a member of a communist cell on an important mission". It was an odd story but one that possibly would have ran under the radar had this suspected car thief and Commie agent not been Hi Bithorn, former Major League baseball player and nothing short of a hero in his native Puerto Rico. 

 Hiram Gabriel Bithorn-Sosa was the husky offspring of a Dutch mother and Puerto Rican father. 6-1 and 200lbs, Bithorn made a name for himself on the island as a star basketball player, playing for the national team in the 1935 Central American and Caribbean Games. Unfortunately there was no future for even the greatest basketball players back then - the sport was still an amateur and collegiate novelty. Besides, Hi loved baseball and there was indeed a future in that. 

Puerto Rico had produced a number of good home grown talent, but unfortunately their avenue of advancement was severely hampered by their skin tone. It was tough enough already for a lily-white Latino to make it in organized baseball in America, but the darker the skin pigment, the fewer opportunities there were. Unfortunately guys like Pancho Coimbre, Millito Navarro and Perucho Cepeda (Orlando Cepeda's pop) would be known only to fans of outsider baseball, simply because they were judged too dark.

But not so with Hi Bithorn. By 1936 the sturdy pitcher had made enough waves with his semi-pro Leones de Ponce team that people began to take notice. When the visiting Brooklyn Eagles Negro League team came to Puerto Rico in the spring of 1936, they were a little light in pitching. The team, featuring Hall of Famers Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge and Leon Day, tapped the 20 year-old Puerto Rican to start their game against the Cincinnati Reds. For seven innings the young Bithorn held the big leaguers to a single run before yeilding 3 to tie the game up. Brooklyn eventually won the game and the young pitcher became a national hero. Along with his local fame, his credible performance brought Major League interest. Besides a good fastball, Bithorn's pigment was working in his favor as well: as a light skinned Puerto Rican with one European parent, Bithorn was deemed racially safe enough to be signed by the best ballclub in the world - the New York Yankees. 

In the States, Bithorn consistently posted winning records: 16-9 with Norfolk in 1936 followed by 17-9 for Norfolk and Binghamton the next year. However, no matter how many games he won or how high he climbed in the Yankees chain, he was stuck behind one of the best pitching staffs in the majors - Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Spud Chandler, Bump Hadley, Monte Pearson, Atley Donald, Johnny Murphy - the Yanks pitching staff was a never ending rotation of All-Star arms. No matter how good he was, the Yankees simply had no room for him. Luckily, after a half dozen years stuck on the Yankees farm, Bithorn was picked up by the New York Giants and then acquired by the Chicago Cubs in 1941. 

After winning the pennant in 1938, the Cubs never recovered from their 4 game sweep by the Yankees in the World Series. Their pitching staff was a mess and looking for a miracle, so in the spring of 1942 all eyes were on their new Puerto Rican import. Carrying the honor and responsibility of being the very first from his island to make it to the majors, Bithorn put up a 9-14 record for the year. As is so often the story, numbers don't tell the whole story of course - the Cubbies were miserable in '42 and when you take Bithorn's 3.68 ERA in account his year looks a little more promising. 1943 was his breakout year, easily establishing himself as the Cubs ace by going 18-12 with a nice 2.60 ERA. His seven shutouts topped the National League and the future seemed bright for Chicago's newest star.

Unfortunately World War Two was raging and Bithorn enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The Cubs ace was quoted in newspapers as quiping "after being with a losing team many years, I am now joining an outfit that can't lose."

Stationed at the San Juan Naval Air Station, the Navy put Bithorn's star status in Puerto Rico to good use as manager of a service team that entertained troops and raised money for the Red Cross and other causes. It was during his time in the service that Bithorn may have suffered the first of a succession of arm injuries, which was compounded by packing on over 25 pounds (some reports state as much as 45lbs) from solid Navy food.

Discharged in September of 1945, Bithorn missed out on the Cubs pennant and World Series but was expected to be an integral part of their post-war plans. As he did before the war he joined the San Juan Senators for the Puerto Rican Winter League season and helped lead the team to the Championship against Mayaguez. It was during that series that Bithorn suffered an injury to his arm during a play at the plate. The injury was still unhealed when he joined the Cubs in the spring of 1946 and seemed to worsen as the summer wore on. By the end of the season he was relegated to the bullpen and managed a weak 6-5 record. It was clear he no longer had his stuff and the Cubs sold their former ace to the Pirates who quickly sold him to the White Sox.

Bithorn returned to Chicago in 1947 but pitched just 2 innings in as many games before he was released to the Hollywood Stars who cut him loose after 4 games. Realizing he needed help, Bithorn underwent surgery on his arm and sat out the 1948 season in the hopes his arm would recover. His comeback fizzled out after he gave up 65 hits in 46 innings during a season split between Oklahoma City and Nashville. Still wanting to stay in the game, Bithorn changed uniforms and learned to be an umpire. He completed his training and was hired by the Pioneer League for the 1951 season, the first Puerto Rican umpire in organized baseball. After the season Bithorn went south to Mexico to attempt a comeback in the Mexican Winter League. When the season ended, Bithorn loaded up his '47 Buick and began the long lonely drive back to the United States. 

He made it as far as the dusty little town of Almante.

That's right, the deceased secret agent car thief was Hi Bithorn. When the press got wind of Puerto Rico's first big leaguer's death and questions started to be asked, Officer Cano's story started coming apart. For starters, why the hell would Hi Bithorn be selling his Buick, his only means of transportation, in the middle of nowhere? Plus, the former Cub had over a thousand U.S. dollars on his person, negating the theory he needed some quick cash. And that whole Commie confession? Bithorn's brother swore up and down his brother was no Red. In the paranoid Cold War atmosphere of 1951, Officer Cano probably figured he'd be looked on as a hero for gunning down a real Red spy. Probably thought he'd get a medal. No, it became pretty obvious Officer Cano was an inept shakedown artist with a badge and he had murdered an unarmed Hi Bithorn. The Mexican justice system agreed and Cano was sentanced, albeit to a paltry 8 years for the ballplayer's execution.

It was a sad and pointless end to a promising life. While in America his role as the very first of a long line of fine Puerto Rican ballplayers is a footnote at best, back in Puerto Rico, Hi Bithorn is far from forgotten. When it came time to name the island's biggest and most modern baseball stadium in 1962, it was a given that it would bear the name "Estadio Hiram Bithorn" in his honor.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Another Quick Book Preview: Shoeless Joe Jackson

One of my favorite stories I have written on this site has been the day-in-the-life of Joe Jackson during his days as a baseball mercenary. When I started envisioning the stories and drawings I wanted to include in my book, this one always can to mind first - indeed it was one of the handful I included in my book proposal. I knew from the start that I wanted to make it a 6-7 page story with 3 different illustrations interspersed with the text. I saw the main, full-page drawing being of Jackson in action on that bush-league Hackensack ball field, a million miles away from Comiskey Park. Knowing that I would be giving it full-page status, the extra space enabled me to expound on what I had wanted to do with the original drawing. One of those things was that I wanted to portray the overflowing crowd that lined the rural ball field, and opposing players and cars in the parking lot - all of which I now poured into this piece. Other little details include Jackson's trademark two-toned "Black Betsy" bat and his plain, grubby, second-hand gray flannel uniform. 

And now, here is the story behind the drawing...

Shoeless Joe Jackson's One Day in Baseball Purgatory  
The man standing in the shade of the building was deeply suntanned and wrinkles ran round his face, making him seem older than his 32 years. He wore a black suit, finely tailored, though of an older style cut and starting to show it’s age around the edges. In his rough, calloused hand he gripped a leather travel bag, which, upon closer examination, showed that the ornate brass plaque between the handles had been crudely altered: someone had scratched away all traces of the original engraved initials.

The man stood outside the box office entrance to the town ballpark. It was a small, well built ball yard, but in actuality he hardly took notice. After all, he’d played in a different one almost every weekend that summer and now they were all starting to blend together. If he hadn’t stopped at the coffee shop back in the train station he’d probably have had no idea where exactly he was, which, by the way, was Hackensack, New Jersey.

After standing around in the late morning sun for a few minutes a caravan of dirty open cars turned into the dirt lot beside the ballpark. Stopping in a cloud of dust, a dozen men poured out. These were to be his teammates for today’s ballgame. He watched as the men unloaded canvas bags of equipment. The oldest looking one of the group saw him standing near the box office door and walked quickly over to him, extending his hand. He introduced himself as the manager. In his other hand he offered up a manila envelope. The suntanned man opened it and pretended to count the money inside and quickly shoved it in his coat pocket. It was time to get ready.

The locker room was a locker room in name only. The small room was damp and had 2 long wooden benches that ran the length of the room and the walls had a shelf about neck high opposite each bench and a row of hooks beneath that. Each of the ballplayers staked out a space on one of the benches and unpacked their small traveling bags. Most of the players talked loudly with one another, laughing and throwing around swear words. Their accents were harsh to his ears and sometimes not too easy to follow. A few of the players stared unabashedly at the suntanned man and he began to grow more uncomfortable than he usually felt. As the suntanned man undressed he hung his jacket from the hook and folded his black pants and silk pink shirt. Running his hand over the folded silk garment to smooth it out before placing it on the shelf, he quietly touched the gold embroidered “J” monogram over the pocket.

The suntanned man removed a worn baseball uniform from his leather satchel. It was of a rougher quality wool than he was used to but it was a baseball uniform just the same. There was no name on the front, just black pinstripes. The cap he retrieved from the satchel was black as well, with a white button and white “P” on the front - a souvenir of an afternoon up in Poughkeepsie the week before. His name was “Joe Nutter” that day.

The manager appeared with another ballplayer in tow. He introduced him as “Smith” but the suntanned man recognized him as a young pitcher with Toronto. He couldn’t recall his name, but it sure as hell wasn’t Smith. The manager repeated the story he’d already heard - that his Westwood town team, traditionally a local powerhouse, had been unexpectedly clobbered by Hackensack a month before. There was always a heated rivalry between the two towns and the games always attracted spirited betting, the action being covered by heavies from nearby New York City and Newark. Westwood swore Hackensack had a few ringers on their team that day and, needless to say, much money was lost by Westwood’s fans that day. Plenty of people were pissed off and thirsty for revenge. Taking up a collection, Westwood decided to purchase some insurance for today’s game, hence the manila envelope of cash. Today, the suntanned man’s name was “Josephs,” at least that’s what it said on the lineup card.

By this time he could hear the roar of the crowd. Through the row of filthy windows that lined one wall above the shelves he could make out much movement as hundreds of people jostled for seats. He could hear men shouting and children squealing. Someone threw something through one of the open windows and every few minutes some wiseguy would bang on the glass and shout something nasty. One of the suntanned man’s temporary teammates sidled up and said: “They know you’re here.”

Emerging out from the darkness of the locker room he pulled his cap down as low as he could over his eyes to protect them from the sun. The crowd went wild when they recognized him.

“My God, it’s Shoeless Joe Jackson!”

Spectators were spilling out onto the field and bits of paper littered the field. Glancing out to center field he could see it was cleared of fans, which made him feel a little better. The roar was deafening. There must be more than 1000 here today, probably more. Ugly, twisted faces shouted unintelligible words at him. Small children stared and women craned their heads and stood on tip-toes to catch a glimpse of him. He’d seen it all before. He did this every weekend.
The game wasn’t much to remember as far as he was concerned. It was a standard affair - the Hackensack manager came over to the Westwood bench and in between swearwords made it clear his team would be playing the game under protest. Westwood held back the Toronto pitcher until he was unleashed in the 3rd inning after Hackensack scored a few runs. It was smart managing as it gave the gamblers time to settle the odds before the Toronto kid shut them down for the rest of the game.

In between hitting a home run, double and two singles there were a few notable incidents. A news photographer ran onto the field while Westwood was batting and attempted to take a photo of him as he sat on the bench. Two of his teammates started shoving the newsman and threatened to beat the hell out of him if he didn’t get back to the stands. When Westwood’s catcher reared back, ready to throw a punch, the fella ran off so fast he left his hat behind. The catcher stomped on it with his spikes and the rest of the ballplayers laughed. A few times the game was stopped, not by the umpire but because everyone paused to watch a fist fight in the bleachers. He noticed that the couple of policemen stood by and did nothing - wading into a crowd like this was pointless and after a few minutes the fighting stopped on its own anyway. At a few points in the afternoon the play was stopped while the players collected some of the larger items that were thrown onto the grass. Bottles of beer, scorecards, newspapers and even a few straw hats were picked up and thrown in a pile behind home plate. One call by the amateur umpire cause a heck of a row. When he called Westwood’s left fielder out for supposedly not touching first base on his way to an easy double, the bench cleared and for a time it looked like the poor umpire was going to catch a beating. He sat on the bench and watched. The guy missed touching first by a mile anyway. A few innings later a Westwood fan charged out of the stands and accused a Hackensack outfielder of putting a concealed second baseball in play when he couldn’t get to a deeply hit fly ball. He just pulled his cap lower over his eyes and thought about his wife.

He was proud of one play he made that day, not at bat but in the outfield. On a long ball hit out to him in center, he’d made the catch and threw a straight liner back to the surprised catcher who tagged out the equally surprised runner to end the inning. The bases had been loaded and it squelched a rally and when all was wrapped up it probably made the difference in Westwood’s 9 to 7 defeat of Hackensack. Most of the crowd cheered but some threw even more crap on the field. This wasn’t Comiskey Park.

After the game he tried to dress as quickly as possible. Half the team was drunk and in various stages of undress. One of the guys threw his spikes through one of the glass windows. He was too busy packing his leather satchel to find out why. Someone was pounding on the locker room door but no one answered. After a while he slipped his black suit coat over his pink silk shirt, once again obscuring the embroidered “J” above the pocket. He opened the locker room door and ignoring the lingering spectators in the parking lot headed off towards the train station, trying to remember where he was going to be next weekend and what his name would be when he got there.