Wednesday, October 17, 2012

133. Melo Almada: Not quite Mexican, Not quite American

My girlfriend, who happens to be as much of a degenerate baseball fan as I am, casually asked me one night "when did it become bad form to bunt to try to break up a no-hitter?" 

The reason she brought that up was earlier this season Justin Verlander of the Tigers was throwing a no-hitter against her L.A. Angels. Erick Aybar tried to get on base by laying down a bunt in the 8th inning. Fundamental baseball, right? Not to Verlander. Detroit's ace was pissed someone would dare try to put his no-hitter in jeopardy. He went so far as to call Aybar a "bush-leaguer" for trying to get on base and get the Angels moving. Apparently "big leaguer" Verlander thought a no-hitter was something the other team was just supposed to hand over to you after a certain amount of innings had been played. What is that magic inning number? The 7th? 8th? What is it? 

When did baseball become like youth soccer? Maybe Verlander should be playing right wing or some other stupid position on a community soccer field somewhere. In my opinion, if you can't deal with a bunt in the late innings then you don't deserve a no-hitter - you don't even deserve to wear that Detroit ball cap. Bush league. Hell, with an attitude like that Verlander should just pull up his socks, pull on some ad-riddled polyester jersey and hit the soccer field. At least between the goals no one will call you a sissy if you fall down and writhe around in pain if you get bumped.

It used to be that baseball was a tough sport. The outfield walls weren't padded. Guys slid hard into a base and someone in the opposing dugout always found something in your ethnic background to needle you ceaseless with. You broke up a double play with your body and every time you stepped up to the plate the chances of having an 82 mph fastball thrown directly at your head was frightfully good.

It was a tough game and unfortunately, it wasn't always for everyone, no matter how good they were. So that brings me to Melo Almada, the first Mexican-born ball player to make it to the majors.

He was born Baldomero Almada Quiros but everyone called him Melo or Mel. He was recklessly handsome, olive skinned with a thousand watt grill that made the broads go limp. He was musically inclined and his travel luggage included a state-of-the-art radio which he immediately installed in each hotel room, keeping up with the newest hits. His manners were as impeccable as one of those mustachioed stars you saw in a Hollywood musical. And he was a heck of a promising young ballplayer.

His Pop was the Mexican Consul in Los Angeles, a position he accepted because the governorship of Baja California he was initially posted to came with an incumbent who didn't seem to want to vacate. The hundred-man private army he surrounded himself with made any attempt at collecting the keys to the governor's mansion seem, well, stupid. And Melo's father was anything but stupid.

The Almada's traced their lineage right back to Spain and countless "Dons" and "Donas" dangled from the family tree. By the time Almada Senior was handed the Baja governor's job his family controlled silver mines and their vast land holdings amounted to the size of Belgium. When the Mexican revolution broke out in 1910 the Almada's and their wealth became a prime target of the angry peasants and quite a few Almada's were victims of the violence that Mexico descended into. So in 1914 when Almada Senior realized the odds of him becoming governor of Baja was a certain death wish, he wisely realized the time had come to get the heck out of Mexico. 

Melo was but a year old when the family settled in Los Angeles. Both he and his older brother Lou quickly adapted to life in America and of course that included baseball. Their father also developed a passion for the game and encouraged his boys to play the sport. Lou was good enough that he turned pro in 1927 and within a year was well on his way to becoming the first Mexican-born major leaguer when he was injured. Meanwhile younger brother Melo was back in high school breaking every athletic record he could find. Track and field, football, baseball - you name it Melo excelled at it. But, and Melo was the first to admit this, his older brother was the better baseball player. After Melo graduated high school, Lou, who was now with the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League, invited his little brother to spring training in Santa Cruz. The younger of the two Almada boys was in a quandary whether to go to college or play baseball. Melo chose baseball.

Though he originally pitched like his older brother, Seattle recognized Melo's speed and power and quickly converted him to be an outfielder.In a twist that was eerily similar to the DiMaggio brothers, Melo actually swiped his brother's place on the team. It wasn't that Lou was a poor ballplayer - it just made fiscal sense since he was holding out for a bigger contract. 

For Melo, the speed came naturally but fielding did not and he struggled to learn his trade. Throughout the 1932 season Melo batted an impressive .311 and before anyone knew it, the rookie was the team's regular left fielder. Over in San Francisco older brother Lou was slugging .320 for the Mission Reds who picked him up after being let go by the Indians.

By the time 1933 season was half way over Melo was the best outfielder on the coast and being touted as the guy who would become the first Mexican national in the big leagues. While the Mexican fans in the cities around the league honored the kid with "Melo Almada Day's" and the sports page coined all kinds of dopey nicknames utilizing his Mexican heritage, Almada always thought of himself as a regular ol' American. In interviews he stressed this point, telling the Sporting News " see, I am very much an American."

The Red Sox came calling first and the $40,000 they paid Seattle reportedly saved the club from financial ruin. On September 8th, 1933 Melo Almada emerged from the Red Sox dugout and took his place in center field, the first Mexican American to make it to the majors. Boston kept him up with the big club for the remainder of the season and the next year sent him to their American Association farm team for seasoning. Playing outfield for the Kansas City Blues, Almada clobbered the ball at a .328 clip, swiped 30 bases, was named the teams' most valuable player and made the all-star team before the Red Sox saw enough and sent for him. He batted only .233 in just over 20 games but the Sox liked the speedy outfielder and when 1935 began Melo was with Boston for good. Six months later he'd hit .290 and was being called the best Red Sox outfielder since the mythical Tris Speaker.

And just as fast as it came, it quickly started to fade away. Baseball was a tough sport back in the depression years. Guys held onto their jobs with all means necessary. Every man knew that the farm teams that littered the countryside were chock-full of kids desperately trying to claw their way into their very seat in the dugout. Desperate times leads to desperate measures and as a result, big league baseball was not for the feint of heart. Clinging to their big league berths, ballplayers used every edge they could find to get the jump on the opposition. Somewhere, sometime around 1938 Almada was beaned by a pitch. Like I said, this wasn't an uncommon occurrence, hell, the brush back was a just another pitch in a pitcher's arsenal. 

Thing was, Melo took it all personally. Coupled with the expected racial ribbing he received for being Mexican, a fastball at the noggin took on a more sinister meaning to Almada. He was convinced opposing teams singled him out and were trying to hurt him. And as he tortured himself by thinking about where the next pitch was going to be aimed, his batting average plummeted. 

Was there a big league conspiracy to drive the first Mexican out of the majors? Nah, no way. Melo's own brother Lou thought he was wrong, telling him that those guys were throwing at him not because he was Mexican, they were throwing at him because he was a batter. In 1937 it was just part of the game. What probably happened was opposing pitchers caught on to Melo's fear and soon everyone was brushing him back. For many, once you get beaned even a mildly close fastball is enough to throw off your concentration and that fear was an edge any pitcher worth his salt would exploit to their benefit. 

The Red Sox dealt Almada to the Senators who in turned passed him down to the Browns. He rebounded a few times but by 1939 the perceived head-hunting drove him out of the majors. After a disappointing season back where it al started in the Pacific Coast League Melo headed south to the land of his birth.

Melo Almada was the highly-touted player-manager of the Torreon Union Laguna team. His experience as a successful major leaguer should have made him the keystone of the fledgeling Mexican League which was trying to establish itself as a professional level entity. Unfortunately, that was not meant to be. Though he was batting .343, Almada quit in early May. Seems that the very thing that should have made him a star in the Mexican League was what drove him back north. Almada, though considered Mexican by American fans and sportswriters, was considered "Americanized" by Mexicans who resented his success up north and his privileged upbringing. In the States he was "olive-skinned," down there he was "high-white." The rough characters in the league threw at him with a vengeance and his own players refused to respect him. After 26 days he threw in the towel and quit the game.

Back in Southern California Almada's good looks got him some movie parts and when the war started he served in the U.S. Army. In the mid-1950's he gave baseball another try and managed the Sonora team in the Mexican Pacific Coast League. This time it went much better and the league's rookie of the year award is called the Baldomero Almada Trophy.

So was it a tragedy that bean balls and brush backs ran Melo Almada out of the majors? Sure. A few guys who played with and against Almada went so far as to say if he played today he might have enough to be Hall of Fame material. But in Almada's time, baseball was a tough game. Still is. Nothing is handed to you. It's up to every man who puts on a uniform to play his best and win the game for his team. Back in 1938 bean balls and brush backs helped a pitcher do just that, and until this season, I though a well-placed bunt did as well. To Erick Aybar and the Los Angeles Angels it still does, but I guess to Justin Verlander it's a thing of the past.

  • Nowlin, Bill, Mel Almada (SABR Bio Project)
  • The Sporting News (Sept. 5, 1935)
  • The Sporting News (August 29, 1988)
  • Wilson, Nick, Early Latino Ballplayers in the United States (McFarland and Company, 2005)

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