Wednesday, May 24, 2017

230. Chucho Ramos: An historic número dos



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. 

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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.


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