Wednesday, January 20, 2016

211. Claro Duany: The Giant


When I was doing the press for my book "The League of Outsider Baseball", one of the most often-asked questions was which chapter was my favorite. That was tough question - I liked them all for different reasons. "The Bad Guys" was chock-full of great stories like murderer Blackie Schwamb and "The Odd Balls" had Victory Faust. "The Bush Leaguers" featured some of my best research with the story of Lou Gehrig's summer playing in New Jersey under an assumed name and "The Could Have Beens" had the too-good-to-be-true Steve Dalkowski. Yet when pressed I inevitably said my favorite was "The International Game". In that chapter I was able to tell the stories of all the players who spread the game throughout the world - Cuba, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Russia, Japan... I guess I really gravitated towards these players because their stories were often overlooked in the big-picture of baseball history. Despite the dozens of players I put into that chapter, I had many more I just couldn't fit in because the book would have been twice the size of its eventual 240 pages. One of the guys who had to be cut was Claro Duany, the 4-time batting champ of two different countries...

Mexico City, July 25, 1946. 

Mickey Owen, former catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, warily watched the big Cuban standing 90 feet away on third base. Before putting his mask back on he wiped the sweat from his forehead and eyeballed the man they called "El Gigante" - "The Giant".

Owen had made it known that he did not like playing with or against Black ball players. However, the Mexican League was completely integrated with Blacks, Latinos and Whites, and Owen's opinion was in the minority. Still, he did his best to accommodate his rapidly out-dated way of thinking. As manager of the Veracruz Blues he traded away all the darkest hued players for appropriately lighter ones, a move which angered fans and gained him nothing more than a second-division ball club. With the Blues at the bottom of the standings, he was canned and demoted to just a catcher. Despite struggling at the plate, Owen was the catcher for the South team in the Mexican All-Star Game. When Booker McDaniels, an American Negro Leaguer who was leading the league in strike outs took the mound, Owen refused to catch him. The South team's manager Ernesto Carmona had to threaten Owen with arrest to get his keister behind the plate. When McDaniels gave up 2 quick runs and failed to strike out a batter in three innings, it got around that Owen was telling the batters what was being thrown. Whether it was true or not didn't matter. Owen was now persona non grata and the press and opposing players had made him the laughing stock of the Mexican League. Owen knew it was only a matter of time before some player decided to make a statement at his expense.

Looking at El Giagante 90 feet away, Owen knew that time was now.

When the pitcher released the ball, Owen could see the big man start chugging towards home. As the ball popped into Owen's mitt, he pivoted to block the plate and waited for the impact. Instinctively Owen smashed the mitt into the charging ball players mug. Then came the crash with the two men tangled up under a cloak of dry dust. Owen scrambled to his feet and swung ineffectively at El Gigante, who reeled back and floored the ex-Big Leaguer with a left hook. Then the benches cleared and fans began climbing over the fences to get in on the action. 

By the end of the day, word of the fight had crossed the border and made the U.S. newspapers. This was 1946 and Jackie Robinson was still a season away from crossing the Major Leagues' color line. At the time of the Mexican League fight, Robinson was in Montreal trying to prove Blacks and Whites could play in the same ballpark without causing a race war. The Mickey Owen-El Giagante fight seemed to illustrate the segregationist's darkest fears...

The man called "El Gigante" was born Claro Duany y Hiedra in the port city of Caibarien, Cuba in 1917. Claro spent his youth as a stevedore, loading sacks of sugar onto the ships that filled the harbor. The hard work gave the 6'-2" kid broad shoulders and bulging biceps - the perfect build for a future slugger. Like most Cuban kids, Claro played baseball year round and it wasn't long before he was the star of his stevedore union's baseball team. With his local fame came a series of better jobs in the local sugar mills. From the 1910's through the 1940's these mills fielded powerful semi-pro baseball clubs that acted as a sort of minor league for the Cuban League. The winter of 1942 marked his debut as a professional with the Alemendres Alacranes. The big rookie was a fourth outfielder on the team that won the Cuban Championship that winter. With Alemenderes already stocked with top-shelf talent, Claro was traded during the 1943-1944 season to the Havana Reds. After the season ended he ventured north to America where he joined the New York Cubans of the Negro National League. 

The 1944 Cubans were a battle-tested veteran club. Guys like Tetelo Vargas, Poncho Coimbre, Dave Barnhill and Schoolboy Taylor played pro ball year-round and the big Cuban soaked up all the advice he could get from these wizened ball players. Claro's size made him down-right slow on the base paths so he learned to make contact and hit for distance. While he was never strictly a home run hitter, Claro learned to power his scorching line drives all over the field. He hit a solid .333 in 39 league at bats.

When the 1944-45 Cuban League started, Claro - now called "El Gigante" - was ready. Splitting the season between Alemenderes and Marianao, Claro led the league with a .340 average. With a batting title under his belt, El Gigante was able to shop his talent around and in 1945 the most money a dark skinned Cuban ball player could make was in Mexico.

Veracruz importer Jorge Pasqual had taken over the helm of the Mexican League and was determined to make it into a circuit rivaling the Major Leagues. His first step was to actively recruit the best players in outsider baseball, and since 1940 the Mexican League attracted Negro League legends Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Leon Day, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin and Wild Bill Wright. Claro's 1945 batting title made him prime outsider baseball property and Jorge Pasqual wanted him bad. The big Cuban didn't disappoint. Playing for the Monterrey Industriales, Claro's .375 average not only led the league but his 100 RBI was the second highest in the history of the league - only Josh Gibson's 124 in 1941 was better. As a guide to how dominant El Gigante was in 1945, Negro Leaguer Ray Dandridge, often named as the best hitting third baseman of any color, was playing in Mexico that summer. The future Hall of Famer, at this point in the prime of his career, finished a full nine points behind Claro. 

The big man returned to Cuba for the 1945-46 winter league. The defending batting champ only managed to hit .288 but finished second in RBI. It may be that El Gigante's weight began to catch up with him. At 6'-2", Claro was large for his time but he was also prone to packing on the pounds. It's not out of line to suspect that the 2-time batting champ might have done some celebrating in the off season that caused him to get out of shape. Whatever the cause for his sub-.300 season, he was back in Mexico for 1946.

While Jorge Pasqual was pleased with his league's progress so far, he still had dreams of elevating it to the same par as the Major Leagues. Negro League and Latino stars were fine, they were as good or better than many white Big Leaguers, but they were still outsiders and not many knew who they were. Pasqual wanted marquee names - and that meant white Major Leaguers. The end of the Second World War meant the return of all the big leaguers who were away in the service. This forced hundreds of guys who kept the game going during the war back into the minor leagues and the stars who returned now demanded more money from the owners. Big league baseball was threatened with strikes as disgruntled players faced off with owners trying to maintain the status quo. Into this mess stepped Jorge Pasqual. 

With an endless supply of cash from his family import operation, Pasqual coaxed several big leaguers south including bona-fide stars like Vern Stephens of the Browns and Mickey Owen of the Dodgers. For the first time on a large scale, white big leaguers would be mixing it up on a ball field against Negro Leaguers and Latin ball players. With the Dodgers having just signed Negro Leaguers Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright to a minor league contract, the baseball establishment watched what was going on in Mexico with a watchful eye.

As it turned out, Mickey Owen, Vern Stephens and most of the other white imports turned out to be a bust. The oppressive heat, language barrier, altitude sickness and unfamiliar food all combined to make the former big leaguers sag in the statistical columns. Vern Stephens fled north after a few weeks and Mickey Owen's racial intolerance and minuscule batting average made the former All-Star a joke both north and south of the border. When he fought El Gigante that afternoon it was the last straw for the former Dodger catcher - he and his wife soon took a $250 taxi ride north to the U.S. border.

Claro not only won the fist fight but also finished the season with his second consecutive Mexican League batting crown. Back in Cuba his .368 led the Cuban League and he had his fourth batting crown in two different leagues and countries. 

Back in Mexico, Jorge Pasqual's league was imploding. His big league imports didn't come close to producing like he expected and in fact became an embarrassment. When he announced he was going to cut salaries for 1947 the best players looked elsewhere for employment. Now a 4-time batting champ, Claro was a hot commodity and America was the place with the most money. 

The Negro Leagues were experiencing the last of their boom years. Jackie Robinson's debut with the Dodgers sent Negro League turnstiles clicking as black and white fans rushed to see the players the Major League teams were scrambling to sign. Claro attempted to re-join the New York Cubans, but there was a problem. 

The Negro National League, just like the white Major Leagues, were hit hard by the Mexican raids. As punishment, both leagues had banned all the players who played South of the Border from re-joining the fold. The Major Leagues, who had the luxury of a bottomless talent pool to choose from, slapped a stringent 5 year ban on the rebel players and stuck to it. Mickey Owen, for example, had to wait until 1949 before he was allowed to play organized ball again. The ban caused him to miss three prime years and by the time he was reinstated in 1949 he was a well-traveled 33 and past his peak. The 4-time All-Star played a few seasons for the Cubs and Red Sox before ending his career as a footnote

The Negro Leagues on the other hand, depended on big-name stars to fill ball parks. That's why after initially banning Claro from appearing in the Negro National League, the owners folded and allowed the 4-time batting champ to join the New York Cubans. He was going to put butts in the stands.

The New York Cubans of 1947 were relatively un-touched by both the Mexican raids and the Major League rush to sign Negro Leaguers. Claro joined forces with veterans Silvio Garcia and Dave Barnhill and newcomers Ray Noble and Minnie Minoso to form a potent Cubans squad. In 75 league plate appearances Claro hit a nice .429. As a testament to his danger at the plate, pitchers walked the big Cuban 12 times, giving him a resounding .520 on base percentage. Claro was selected to start the first of two East-West All-Star Games held that summer. In the first he went 0 for 2 with an RBI and in the second he failed to get a hit in a pinch-hitting appearance. The Cubans went on to break the Homestead Grays' 6 year stranglehold on the Negro National League pennant and faced the Cleveland Buckeyes in the World Series. Claro performed magnificently, hitting .428 in the 4 games to 1 rout of Cleveland. 

Back in Cuba, El Gigante's .306 was the tops on his Marianao team and his 20 doubles led the league. He also hit a home run when he met his future wife Aida after a game in Havana. Claro and teammate Minnie Minoso were driving home in a new Packard sedan when they passed two pretty sisters walking in the same direction. Minoso asked the women if they'd like a ride and the lure of a new Packard and two star ball players proved to be too much for the two sisters to turn down. Claro married Aida in 1950 and the pair had two daughters and a son. 

With the Negro Leagues in quick decline and the Mexican League drained of all the good talent, Claro joined the Canadian Provincial League. Not part of organized baseball, the Provincial League provided a haven for Black ball players whose ages precluded them from being signed by Major League teams. Many hoped that a good season in Canada would convince a big league scout to take a chance on them. El Gigante joined the Sherbrooke Athletiques. Although his .365 average and 27 homers helped his team clinch the pennant, no Major League scouts appeared with contracts. 

By now the thirty year-old El Gigante was starting to show his age. In Cuba he hit a disappointing .244 but still finished second in home runs. Back in Canada for 1949, Claro led the league in RBI but still no scouts wanted to take a chance on him. His bat still had some potency and he continued to play in Cuba in the winter and alternated between Canada and Mexico in the summertime. Finally in 1952 at the age of 33, he was given a shot by the Washington Senators. Claro and Dave Barnhill became the first Black players in the Florida International League. The aging Cuban hit .243 but his 13 homers was good enough for second in the league. With hundreds of younger Blacks and Latinos available, no other Major League team was willing to take on Claro and he retired after the 1955-56 Cuban Winter League season.

After Castro took over Cuba in 1958, Claro and his family fled to America where he settled in Evansville, Illinois. The former slugger started a very successful trucking company and retired in 1982. He was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 and he passed away later that year at the age of 79.

Despite fears at the time, the Mickey Owen-El Gigante fight didn't derail the integration of the Major Leagues. For his part, Owen later opened up a baseball school and taught the game he loved to kids of all races, including a young Michael Jordan. When Mickey Owen was managing in the Puerto Rican Winter League in the mid-1950's, he received high marks from all the players on his integrated team.

Although there isn't much found in one place on El Gigante's career in English, two books were very helpful in bringing Claro Duany's Mexican story to life. "Mexican Raiders in the Major Leagues" by G. Richard McKelvey and "South of the Color Barrier" by John Virtue. Both books deal mainly with the American players who went south to play ball in Mexico but due to his batting titles Duany makes appearances throughout. McKelvey's book relates the threat the Mexican League posed to Major league baseball and Virtue's explores the American Negro Leaguers who played in Mexico. Both are indispensable to anyone interested in the story of the Mexican League, but I've always thought that since the 1946 season was the first large scale fully-integrated league, this remarkable story should be told in its entirety - which means including all nationalities and races in the story. This may have already been done in Spanish, but not in English - at least not yet... 






Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker out of jealousy or boredom. I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.

1 comment:

  1. As usual, an excellent history lesson and commentary.

    ReplyDelete