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.