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.
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.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

229. Luis Olmo: Minor league kidnapping, Harlem safehouses and other obstacles encountered on the way to the Big Leagues

A few weeks ago, a 97 year-old ball player passed away. This just wasn't any ball player, but a guy whose 1943 debut marked him as only the second Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues. While that's something, Luis Olmo's story encompasses so much more than race, or an ethnic first (or, in his case, a "second"). It's the age-old story of a kid, born in a far away place, who had a dream of making the major leagues. It's a story of big shot baseball executives pulling out all the stops in order to get their hands on the talented and unsuspecting young man. And it's a story of how a former big leaguer lived out the final chapters of his life graciously sharing the story of his modest part in the history of the game he loved so much. Because much has already been written about his major league career, I'll recount the early part of Luis Olmo's journey, which, if you ask me, is much more fascinating than coughing up a list of firsts, dates and hard statistics.

Luis Francisco Rodriguez Olmo was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico in 1919, the third of four sons born to carpenter Jose Francisco and his wife Ana Olmo. Of the four boys, Luis was the only athlete, encouraged by his oldest brother, Jose. Luis would later relate that he had been playing baseball since he was born, but he also excelled in several other sports such as basketball, soccer and track. At first, Olmo aspired to become a major league pitcher, but an injury suffered throwing a javelin ended his mound hopes at age 15. Luis' older brother Jose was a subscriber to The Sporting News, and through its pages the younger Olmo idolized Cubs second baseman Billy Herman, so he made the switch to the keystone sack. Continuing his schooling, Olmo moved to the city of Caguas to attend high school. Because the school offered no other sport except baseball, Olmo perfected his game without distraction. Playing second base, outfield and occasionally catching, Olmo evolved into a promising ballplayer, but Caguas was a long way away from the big leagues.

With the Great Depression in full swing, the road to the minor leagues in America was choked with thousands of American-born hopefuls trying to gain a foothold in organized baseball. Besides being born far away from the nearest minor league team, Olmo's dream of becoming a big leaguer was further hindered by the language barrier. A Spanish-speaking prospect had to show promise above and beyond an ordinary English-speaking player in order for a team to take a chance on him. And before that, he had to first catch the eye of a scout. Fortunately, Luis Olmo came of age at the perfect time in Puerto Rican baseball history. 

Though Puerto Rico had a rich amateur baseball circuit, the island did not have the professional league that neighboring Cuba did. That changed in 1938 when the Puerto Rican Winter League was formed. For the first time, Puerto Rican players could showcase their talent at home as a group instead of scattering to other countries around the Caribbean and North America. The undisputed attraction that initial season was Millito Navarro, the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues and a bonafide star. But that inaugural year also introduced the baseball world to a few young up and comers, among them pitcher Hi Bithorn of the San Juan Senators and Luis Olmo of the Caguas Creoles.

The teenage Olmo was recruited by his hometown team for the princely sum of $7 a week. Although he was young, the Creoles player-manager, Pito Álvarez de la Vega, knew in Olmo he had something special. The older man carefully mentored Olmo throughout the season, correctly assessing that this kid had what it took to make the major leagues one day. Olmo responded by hitting .335 his rookie season, generating much praise as the guy to watch in the near future.

Among those impressed with Olmo that first season was Jose Seda, a Puerto Rican baseball lifer who also scouted on the side for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers had just begun a resurgence under the leadership of new general manager Larry McPhail. Flush with money and grandiose plans, McPhail hired Cardinals GM Branch Rickey's son, Branch Jr., to create and oversee a Dodgers farm system modeled on what his father had built for St. Louis. Seda had kept an eye on Olmo throughout the season, evaluating him as a prospective Dodger. However, Seda wasn't the only one with connections who was taking an interest in Olmo. A traveling salesman named Miguel Lloreda contacted Eddie Mooers, owner of the minor league Richmond Colts. The Colts were the only unaffiliated club in the Class B Piedmont League, and while the other teams relied on their parent club to provide players, independent owners relied on freelance tips such as Lloreda's to score talent. Whatever Lloreda wrote, it was impressive enough that Mooers decided to take a chance on the 19 year-old. At the conclusion of the 1938-39 season, the Colts wired Olmo money to take the steamship Barranquilla to New York where a team representative would meet him and accompany him to Richmond where he would sign a contract.
Now things began to get a little cloak and dagger. Just as Luis was getting on the ship to America, Jose Seda wired Branch Rickey, Jr.: 

"Good ballplayer named Luis Olmo arriving on Barranquilla. Stop. Get him. Stop. -Jose." 

Branch Jr. rushed down to the docks and waded through the disembarking passengers until he identified a guy who looked like a ballplayer. Using high school Spanish, Branch, Jr. was able to convince Olmo to accompany him back to the Dodgers offices in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, Rickey's Spanish wasn't good enough to convince the young Puerto Rican to put his name on a Dodgers contract. Rickey then bundled Olmo into his car and drove over to the home of Alberto Flores, a Puerto Rican third baseman that Rickey was on the verge of signing to a Brooklyn contract. Olmo was familiar with Flores, but when he and Rickey arrived, the third baseman was gone - he'd just signed a contract with the Richmond Colts.

Temporarily foiled, Branch, Jr. stalled for time while he decided how to proceed, stashing Olmo at a Dodgers safe house up in Harlem with another Puerto Rican prospect. In the meantime, the Richmond representative was desperately trying to track down the star import. With some pro sleuthing, Richmond's man was able to deduce that Olmo was Shanghaied by Branch, Jr., and then correctly figured he'd hide him with the Dodgers only remaining Spanish speaking prospect. Before morning, Olmo was located, his signature inked on a Richmond Colts contract, and on his way south to Virginia. Luis Olmo had slipped through the Dodgers fingers - for now...

Richmond placed their young import with the Tarboro Goobers of the lower level Coastal Plain League. The Goobers had no place for him so he was released and then optioned to the Wilson Tobs of the same league. Olmo got into 56 games and batted a credible .329. He returned to Caguas after the season fully expecting a contract for the next year - only it never arrived.
The reason he did not hear from the Colts was that the contract was sent to the wrong name and address: Roberto Olmo of Cuba. How the Richmond front office made that mistake is unknown, but by the time the 1939-40 Puerto Rican Winter Season began, Luis Olmo figured he was now a free agent. 

Olmo once again manned the outfield for the Creoles. Word of the league's successful inaugural 1938-39 season had spread, and its sophomore year saw an influx of first-rate Negro League talent including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Leon Day and Bill Byrd. Even when thrown into the mix with seasoned outsider baseball giants, Olmo continued to impress. Another Dodgers scout, Ted McGrew, approached the budding star about signing with Brooklyn, and, with no word from Richmond by March, Olmo signed a Dodgers minor league contract. Branch, Jr.'s reaction is unrecorded, but one can imagine the younger Rickey sinking into his leather chair behind his desk and lighting a celebratory cigar, just like his old man.

Olmo traveled to Macon, Georgia for spring training with the Elmira Pioneers. In one of his first exhibition games, Olmo's career almost ended when he tried breaking up a double play by coming into second base standing. He broke up the play, but at the expense of being beaned in the right ear by the throw. After being out for a half hour, Olmo recovered his senses, vowing to slide in the future. Meanwhile, Richmond noticed that their foreign import not only was absent from spring training, but his contract and all correspondence gone unanswered. Somehow word got back to Eddie Mooers in Richmond that Olmo was camped out in Macon with Elmira, the Dodgers newest acquisition. Now confronted with a second attempt by Brooklyn to poach his property, Mooers filed a protest with Minor League Baseball president William G. Bramham.

The Colts owner was able to convince Bramham that he did tender a contract in good faith before the contract deadline, even though it was mis-addressed. Olmo was awarded to Richmond for the 1940 season and the Dodgers contract voided. The Puerto Rican outfielder has slipped through Brooklyn's fingers - for the second time.

The name and nationality confusion prompted Luis' older brother Jose to write to The Sporting News correcting the misinformation printed about his kid brother. In a small piece printed in the April 18th edition, Jose penned: "His correct name is Luis Rodríguez Olmo, but he is known as Luis Olmo, and he is a Puerto Rican, a proud American citizen. No doubt the contract was not received by my brother because it was incorrectly addressed. So far his name has been given out correctly only once, when you published the reserve lists. Later he was called Lewis Elmo and now as Roberto Olmo. Some confusion with Spanish names.” 

Richmond sent Olmo back to the Wilson Tobs. At once it was clear he was well beyond the Class D level. By July he was batting just below the .350 mark with 18 homers. His superior play and potent bat had pushed the Tobs to a comfortable 18 game lead and locked in for the Coastal Plains pennant. He was called up to Richmond where he hit .271 to help the Colts take the Piedmont League pennant. Olmo returned to Caguas were he continued hitting, leading the Creoles to the Puerto Rican Winter League Championship. Olmo had turned a hat trick of pennant winners. 1940 was capped off with his marriage to Emma Paradis, a union that was still going strong when the old outfielder passed away seven decades later.

By now, Olmo was exclusively playing the outfield where his speed helped him make tremendous running catches. One of his trademarks was the basket catch. This later became a Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente staple, but Olmo had adapted this a decade before. There was a difference in styles, however: Mays caught his at waist level while Olmo positioned his glove chest-high. Clemente later credited his fellow countryman with teaching him the basket catch when he was in the minor leagues. Olmo was also blessed with a strong, accurate arm that made many runners think twice about taking an extra base. 

1941 saw Olmo return to Richmond. Despite interest from major league organizations, Eddie Mooer held onto his prized foreigner, figuring another season or two of good stats would drive up his selling price. Olmo benefited from the extra seasons in Richmond, mostly due to his manager, Ben Chapman. Today, Chapman is known solely for his warped racism and the sick invectives hurled against Jackie Robinson when he was the Phillies manager in 1947. But before all that, Chapman was a truly outstanding ballplayer with several major league clubs. He was the Yankees lead off hitter in the early 1930's, and his bat and base running skills earned him a spot in the very first All-Star Game in 1933. He also had a fiery temper that got him into numerous on-field fights and led to his numerous uniform changes while in the majors. By the early 1940's, Chapman's career as a big leaguer was through, but he still had enough talent to become a respected player-manager in the minors. Whatever Chapman's feelings were towards Latinos, he became a huge influence on Luis Olmo, and the ball player later credited his Richmond skipper with teaching him more about the game than any other manager, coach or scout. The two men apparently were friendly away from the field as well. Olmo was a very talented pool player and he played his manager almost every day before lunch, loser buying the other man's meal.

I'll pause here to address the ever-present issue of race. Although Latinos had played in the majors since the early 1900's, they were still few and far between. Part of the reason was the language barrier, which could only be overcome by a player learning English. No team was going to spring for a translator when you could just reach into the minors and get a comparable English speaking replacement. Therefore, a Latino trying to make it to the majors had to be extraordinary. This was still a time of accepted ethnic stereotypes - heck, even Life Magazine ran a feature on Joe DiMaggio in 1939 that read: "Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent and is otherwise well adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he keeps his hair slicked with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti." 

Imagine what the perception of Puerto Ricans were to a public unfamiliar with the people or the culture of the island. Indeed, several of the profiles written about Olmo before or just after he made the majors made sure to remark how his mild manner was quite different from the stereotypical perception of the fiery Latin. This line from the April 8, 1943 edition of The Sporting News serves as an example: "Although of Latin lineage, Olmo is not hot-tempered". 

Besides the perceived temper issues Latinos had to contend with, there was also the added problem of color. A whole rigid system of skin colors dictated what was and what was not acceptable in order to be labeled "white". Fortunately for Luis Olmo, his skin tone fell within the acceptable range. He was further fortunate in that his face was said to resemble Tony Lazzeri, the Yankees star second baseman of acceptable Italian heritage.

Despite a mug that resembled a Yankees All-Star, Olmo still had to deal with the occasional racial taunt and bean ball at the plate. These, he took in stride - he had to. The game was a whole lot rougher in the days before million dollar salaries and union reps. Gaining an edge in a game often came down to getting into the opposing player's heads - name calling and bean balls were two ways to achieve that. In order to make the majors, Olmo knew he had to accept and deal with these obstacles, and this he did, telling The Sporting News "But that is baseball. So I get up and hit again."

Olmo finished the 1941 season first in home runs and triples, second in hits and slugging percentage and fifth in batting average. In September he was given additional reason to celebrate when he and Emma welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Ana Lucy. In the winter he returned to the Winter League where he augmented Chapman's teachings by playing with and against Negro League superstars such as Josh Gibson, Lenny Pearson, Roy Campanella and Bill Byrd, the later pair his teammates on the Caguas Creoles.

Olmo had developed a batting stance that he later said was based on Joe DiMaggio's. He stood back in the box, feet spread and firmly planted, the bat gripped at the end and cocked way back. Olmo favored a Louisville Slugger of the Joe Medwick or Babe Ruth model, 35 inches in length and weighting 32 ounces.

The next year, Olmo again dominated the Piedmont League, this time leading in home runs, hits, triples and slugging, coming in second in batting average and doubles. He voted the most popular player in the league, but was edged out of the MVP Award by his manager Ben Chapman. Olmo's stock could get no higher in Richmond and Eddie Mooers knew this. The Luis Olmo bidding began, and in the thick of it was Branch Rickey, Jr.

Rickey had never forgotten the Puerto Rican outfielder that twice slipped from his grasp. Now that he was available, Branch Jr. made sure the Dodgers were in there with an offer. There was one big problem - his father, Branch Rickey, Sr. The elder Rickey had by now heard of Luis Olmo. The elder recognized the hustle and spark shown by Olmo, just the kind of player he favored for his Cardinals. Branch, Jr. knew this, and began maneuvering to keep his father out of the negotiations with Mooer. This covert operation was hampered by the fact that both men were staying under the same roof at the Rickey estate outside St. Louis. Branch, Sr. had an idea of what was transpiring, but his son successfully kept the old man out of the estate's telephone room while he hammered out a deal with Richmond. Branch, Jr's. evasive action worked, and Luis Olmo finally became property of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

While the phone lies were burning up between Richmond and St. Louis, Luis Olmo was traveling the long route back home for the winter. The war had made long distance travel a nightmare, and it took more than a week of waiting in Mami for Olmo to get a seat on a flight to Puerto Rico.

Waiting for him when he landed was his older brother Jose, bursting with news that he would be joining his childhood idol Billy Herman as teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers.

This is story is just the very beginning of Luis Olmo's baseball odyssey. When he took the field as a Dodger rookie on July 18, 1943*, he was only the second Puerto Rican-born player in the majors (Hi Bithorn was the first, debuting with the Cubs in 1942). Olmo would later join the outlaw Mexican League in 1946, and then return to the Dodgers in 1949 where he became the first Puerto Rican to play and homer in a World Series. Before he ended his career in the mid-1950's, Olmo had playedball in not only the United States and his native Puerto Rico, but also Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Venezuela, earning the nickname "America’s Baseball Player." In retirement he became the elder statesman of Puerto Rican baseball, active in his local SABR chapter and a living link to the island's first season of professional winter baseball that endures to this very day. Luis Olmo passed away on April 28, 2017. 

*Olmo's debut game on July 18, 1943 was the second game of a doubleheader against Boston. The game was halted in the 6th inning locked a 4-4. The game was continued September 13, 1943, resulting in a 7-6 Boston victory. Purists may therefore say that Olmo's true debut was on July 23 against the Reds...

Special thanks to my friend Angel Colon, Puerto Rican Winter League historian who introduced me to Luis Olmo's story.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

228. Jack Kloza: Home Runs, Mosquitos, Hats and the Rockford Peaches

Like so many of the players I write about, I found Jack Kloza while searching for something else. And, like so many of the outsiders I write about, what at first just seemed like a marginal career highlighted by a brief cup of coffee in the majors, turned out to be a very interesting tale on so many levels. I was drawn to this fella because the grainy 1936 newspaper article I found showed a guy who looked remarkably like a young Charles Bronson. A glance at the name "Kloza" and I could tell it was some kind of "Americanized" Polish name. A little more digging and I found out that Jack Kloza was indeed not only of Polish ethnicity, but was one of only four major leaguers to have been born in Poland. That alone was enough to add his name and clipping to my "to do" files. And then, as the years passed by, the "Kloza File" grew and grew, each new piece of his career making an already interesting character more appealing. Finally, with the Kloza File just under an inch thick, I spread it all out in my studio and began typing...

Note: Although every record book and internet database has him listed by a nickname of "Nap Kloza", every single piece of research I have accumulated refers to him as "Jack Kloza" - the name "Nap" never appears in any contemporary newspaper story in my file. Because of this, I refer to him by the name of "Jack".

Jack Kloza was born Jan Klojzy on September 7, 1903 in Siedliska, Poland. Siedliska is located in the south-eastern part of modern day Poland. This region was called Galicia, and had changed hands several times since Poland was divided between Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary at the end of the 18th century. When Jan Klojzy was born in 1903, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Jan was the second child of Wawrzyniec and Franciszka, his sister Marta being born two years earlier. Shortly after his son's birth, Wawrzyniec emigrated to the United States. After landing at Ellis Island, he proceeded west to Milwaukee where there was a large community of Galician Poles. He took odd jobs as a general laborer, and after five years had saved enough to secure passage to America for his wife and two children. Franciszka, Marta, and Jan sailed to America in the spring of 1908 and joined Wawrzyniec in Milwaukee. The family first lived on Dousman Street and then Bolton Street, both in the city's predominantly Polish 13th Ward.

The 13th Ward had a particularly vibrant baseball scene dating back to the turn of the century when the first wave of Polish immigrants arrived. Like immigrants before and after them, Milwaukee's Poles embraced the game of baseball as a way of blending into the fabric that is America. The "Patron Saint" of Polish baseball in Milwaukee was Louis Fons. Born in Milwaukee in 1878, Fons was the son of Polish immigrants and had been a pretty good semi-pro ballplayer before becoming a real estate investor. A pillar of the Polish-American community, in 1909 Fons assumed the reigns of the Kosciuszko Monument Cigars team that played in the City League. Besides being the team's financial backer, Fons played second base and captained the club. After finishing in second place that first year, Fons hung up his spikes and concentrated on making his team a powerhouse. He outfitted the team in uniforms of bright red - Poland's national color - and dubbed the club the Kosciusko Reds. Note the dropping of the "z" from Kosciuszko to "Americanize" the moniker and allowing it to fit better on the new uniforms. Dubbed the "Koskys" in the newspapers, the Kosciusko Reds ruled Milwaukee's semi-pro scene for the next decade. 
In this vibrant baseball culture, young Jan Klojzy learned to play ball. Sometime during his teen years, Jan Klojzy became Jack Kloza, and he began making a name for himself on the Milwaukee sandlots as a hard-hitting catcher. Kloza caught for a succession of amateur clubs, first the Gordon's, then moving over to the Straub's, followed by the Jay-Kays and finally St. Casimir's. 

By 1924, Kloza's bat was powerful enough that he was invited to join the semi-pro Bonita Kandy Kids. Like many large companies in the decades before World War II, the Bonita Candy Company of Fond du La, Wisconsin fielded a highly competitive baseball team. Besides guaranteeing their ballplayers an easy day job in exchange for playing ball on the weekends, companies like Bonita Candy paid their players an extra salary on a per-game basis. As the Kandy Kids backstop, Jack Kloza earned the princely sum of $5 a game, about what the average factory worker made in an 8 hour day. The following year Kloza was dropped from the Kandy Kids when the league instituted a no-ringers clause.  

Fortunately, Kloza's renown in the Wisconsin sandlot scene attracted the interest of  George "Stormy" Kromer. "Stormy Kromer" may sound familiar to natives of the upper Midwest as it is the name of a style of hat popular in that region. Although you might not know it by that name, a Stormy Kromer cap looks like a thick wool ball cap with ear flaps. Holden Caulfield wore one throughout the book "A Catcher in the Rye" and bomber crewman wore a leather and fur version during World War II. Available at any outdoor and camping outfitters, you still see hunters and fishermen donning these caps today. In fact, the Stormy Kromer hat was invented by George "Stormy" Kromer. Kromer was a Milwaukee semi-pro baseball player around the turn of the century who became a railroad engineer after his playing days ended. When he lost one too many hats at work to the wind, Kromer had his wife modify one of his old baseball caps with ear flaps, and the "Stormy Kromer" was born. The hat proved so popular that Kromer's wife was swamped with orders, and in 1903 the Kromer Cap Company was founded. Now a wealthy haberdasher, Stormy Kromer returned to his first love, baseball.

In 1925 Kromer bought the Blytheville, Arkansas Tigers of the Class D Tri-State League. Already known for creating a new headgear in his image, Kromer installed himself as the Tigers' general manager and skipper, and set about modifying bush league baseball. 

Up until this point, the minor leagues were used as a stepping stone to the major leagues. Even the most low level minor league team was expected to field a competitive team, and as such, their rosters were a mixture of veterans sprinkled with a few youngsters trying to make good. If a young player was lucky - and talented enough - he gained experience by watching the older players on his team. Dedicated coaching staffs were still decades in the future and a young player was basically left to sink or swim as he made his way up the ladder of organized ball. Stormy Kromer looked to change that. Once assuming the helm, Kromer invited over 211 aspiring ballplayers to try out for the Tigers. Many of these kids were from Kromer's native Wisconsin, including a sizable contingent from Milwaukee. 

Stormy piloted the Tigers to a 31-77 record, and a dismal 35 game losing streak set a new organized baseball record. Stormy maintained all along that he was concentrating more on developing young players than winning a pennant, but that didn't soothe the embarrassed Blytheville rooters. Although today's low-level minor leagues are used entirely to develop young players, back in 1925 this was a new idea. Kromer's revolutionary concept was lost on the Blytheville fans who expected their local nine to at least field a competitive lineup, and the community sued the forward-thinking owner/manager for $2,500 for breach of contract. Needless to say, Kromer was the most unpopular man in the state of Arkansas, but 11 of his kids were indeed sold to higher level minor league teams, including a 21 year-old catcher named Jack Kloza.

Kloza's gaudy .373 average had shone like a diamond amidst the muck of Blytheville's season, and was tops in the Tri-State League. Birmingham of the Southern Association purchased his contract and Kloza was sent to their farm team in Alexandria for 1926. The manager took Kloza out from behind the plate and stationed him at third base. He adjusted well to his new surroundings, and after less than a dozen games was promoted to the Montgomery Lions. Kloza's .379 was second-highest in the Southeastern League (the league leader hit .392 in just 73 at bats as opposed to Kloza's 114). The third baseman did, however, lead the loop with 19 triples and came in second with 29 doubles. 

For 1927, Kloza's contract was shifted to the Albany Nuts of the same league. Right from the start Kloza tore apart the league's out-classed pitchers. He hit well over .400 throughout the summer as local sportswriters called him the "Babe Ruth of the Southeast" and scouts frothed at the mouth trying to obtain his services. On July 24th it was reported that the Brooklyn Dodgers had shelled out $65,000 for his contract ($20,000 now, $45,000 later in trade and incentives), a record amount for a Class B player. It was also stated that Connie Mack, in the midst of assembling what will be called the greatest dynasty in Major League history, had bid $25,000 for Kloza, but came up short. Somewhere along the way the Dodgers deal fell through and Kloza remained under contract with Birmingham. In 122 games he was hitting .404 with 28 home runs when the parent club called him up in September. The Barons were locked in a tight pennant race with New Orleans, and it was hoped that the addition of the Southeastern League's "Babe Ruth" would be enough to put them over the top. Kloza got into 19 games and hit a modest .255 with a pair of homers before the Barons finished in second place. All told, Kloza was the Southeastern League's batting champ and runner up in home runs. Though the Brooklyn deal collapsed, the Washington Senators stepped in and purchased the slugging third baseman for spring, 1928 delivery. 

In March 1928, Jack Kloza prepared travel to Tampa, Florida for his first big league spring training camp. Then, his mother Franciszka took sick and postponed his departure. Although I haven't found any hard evidence, Franciszka Kloza doesn't show up in any public record after 1927, so it is probable she passed away at this time. Meanwhile, Kloza's impending arrival was much anticipated in the Tampa camp. When he did make his appearance, Jack Kloza did not disappoint. Scribes described him as "a powerfully built chap" with "hands of really enormous proportions". His first at bat produced a drive which one writer delusionally touted as "250 yards". Kloza continued to knock the ball all over the training field, leading the Senators veteran manager Bucky Harris to exclaim to owner Clark Griffith "If you think we have some sluggers on this ball club wait until you have looked at this fellow Kloza".

By the second week of camp the beat writers were reporting that Kloza was a lock to make the club. Management moved the big slugger to the outfield where his sped and cannon arm could do the most damage to opposing teams. On March 23 Harris put Kloza in to replace Sam Rice in the outfield in a game against the Reading of the International League. In his pair of at bats he hit a triple and a home run. A week later, after ten spring training games, Kloza was leading all Washington batters with a .750 average. Granted, this is spring training, but you have to think that at the time the Senators lineup featured Hall of Famers Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Joe Cronin and George Sisler.

The week of March 28, 1928 would be the high point of Jack Kloza's career.

In the first week of April it began to be reported that Kloza's prodigious strength at the plate began to slip. On the surface it would be easy to speculate that the rookie just cooled off after a fast start, however, the truth was quite different. Kloza had contracted the disease that haunted all ballplayers in the pre-World War II south - malaria. This mosquito-born disease which we now only associate with tropical third-world countries was once common in the southern United States. Not only did malaria hit you when first infected, but the disease could reappear at random points throughout a person's life. The fear of contracting malaria was once so prevalent that many northern-born baseball players refused to be assigned to southern ball clubs, even if it meant giving up a promotion. Although by the late 1920's the chances of contracting the disease was less than it was at the turn of the century, Jack Kloza was one of the unlucky ones who did. His once strong body wracked with fever and vomiting, Kloza lost 40 pounds before he was able to leave the hospital. With his strength sapped, Kloza could not hit nor field like he did in March. The Senators broke camp and headed north to start the 1928 season, leaving Jack Kloza behind. 

The Senators optioned Kloza to the Louisville Colonels, but still ravaged by malaria, he couldn't produce. After an 0 for 22 slump and batting just .100, Kloza was released to Chattanooga of the Southern Association where he floundered. Most ball players would have given up at this point, but not Jack Kloza. The Montgomery Lions took a chance and signed their old batting champ for 1929. Kloza managed to assemble a decent season trying to play himself back to health. On September 7 he married his hometown sweetheart, Rose Ronowski, in a ceremony held in Montgomery. Kloza finished off the season by hitting .299 with scouting reports good enough to earn a promotion to the Texas League for 1930.

Playing for the Witchita Falls Spudders, Kloza murdered the ball at a .347 clip. He also finished in the top five in hits, total bases, and home runs. On August 7, the Kloza's welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Rosann. The only downside to his fine season was that his work in the outfield was sub-par, leading the Texas League in errors with 24 misplays. It was a miraculous come-back and one which earned him trip back home - not in defeat, but as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.  

The Brewers were members of the American Association, which back then was one of three minor leagues that were ranked just one level below the Major Leagues. A good season in the American Association could earn Kloza a second chance at the big leagues. Going into August, Kloza was batting .308. On August 14th, the Brewers and Toledo Mud Hens were locked in a 0-0 pitcher's duel when Kloza hits a 7th inning home run to put the Brewers on top. Three days later Jack Kloza was playing right field for the St. Louis Browns in the American League.

The Browns obtained Kloza in exchange for outfielder Tom Jenkins. He made his big league debut in the August 16th double header against Washington. In the first game Kloza went hitless in two at bats with a strike out. In the night cap he went 1 for 3 with a walk and strike out. Four days later Kloza struck out in his only two at bats against the Yankees. Then, before he could get into another game, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis voided the Kloza-Jenkins trade and returned both players to their original teams. Newspaper reports were kind of vague in regards to Landis' ruling, but it had something to do with Jenkins being out of minor league options which made him ineligiable for a trade with Milwaukee. Whatever the reason, Kloza was back with the Brewers. A few weeks later the Browns tried to do the same maneuver, but again, Landis blocked the trade. The Browns were obviously very keen to get Kloza back in St. Louis because the notoriously cash-poor franchise eventually coughed up cash to buy the outfielder out-right. The deal stipulated that Kloza was to report to the Browns for spring training the following year. 

At spring training, Kloza was one of the more highly touted prospects. The Browns were in the midst of a couple decades of baseball ineptitude, and a promising slugger like Jack Kloza stood out. With the dearth of talent available, plus regular right fielder Red Kress holding out for more money, Kloza had a great shot at making the club as a starter. Then, just as it did in 1928, tragedy grabbed hold of Jack Kloza. On March 16, Kloza was batting against Browns ace George Blaeholder in an inter-squad game. Blaeholder was the first major leaguer to throw the slider on a regular basis, and it might have been one of those unfamiliar pitches that slammed into Kloza's wrist that afternoon. The injury was serious enough that he was removed from the game and sent to the hospital. X-rays showed no broken bones, but Kloza remained sidelined for the next few weeks. Even with his mangled hand, the Browns had Kloza penciled in alongside Goose Goslin and Fred Schulte as one of the three starting outfielders for when the season began. Then, just before opening day, Red Kress ended his hold out and signed his contract. Though now relegated to reserve outfielder, Kloza still made the Browns opening day roster.

Right from the start, Jack Kloza failed to meet the expectations placed on him. It's unknown whether his hand was still damaged from the drilling it took in spring training or his inability to hit big league pitching. Whatever the reason, his batting average hovered below .200. With veterans Kress, Goslin and Schulte, Kloza's playing time was reduced to mostly pinch hitting, a specialized skill that even the best players seldom master. Still, every once in a while, Kloza showed a bit of what the Browns expected from him: on May 24 he came off the bench to hit an RBI triple that sparked a 7-run rally to beat Detroit. Kloza got into ten more games, again, mostly as a pinch hitter, before sending him back to the minors in exchange for Art Scharein. Now with the Longview Cannibals, Kloza tried his best to slug his way back to the Browns. On August 13th, Kloza batted in 8 runs with two doubles and a home run against the Tyler Sports. The Browns recalled him in mid-September, but he never made it into a game.

Kloza was back with Milwaukee for 1933, and over the next couple of seasons he became one of the best sluggers in the American Association. Kloza hit a healthy .326 with 26 homers in 1934, sparking rumors of another trip to The Show. But, just as it always seemed to do, bad luck stepped in. A collision with a telephone pole that made up part of the outfield wall in Milwaukee's Borchert Field damaged Kloza's right elbow. The injury robbed Kloza of both his strong throwing arm and the power needed to drive the ball out of the park. He limped through the summer of 1935 with a .305 average paired with a lousy 8 homers before the Brewers shut him down in mid-August. In a gutsy move for the time period, the team sent their prized player to a surgeon who removed a growth in hopes it would restore the elbow back to full strength. In spring training the following year, Kloza gamely tried to work his elbow back into shape, but after a few days admitted he couldn't do anything with it. He returned to Milwaukee where doctors were unable to help him. Kloza appeared in 19 games as a pinch hitter and managed just two hits, one of them a homer, before he quit the team. The Brewers kept him on as a scout and he underwent a second surgery in anticipation of another comeback. His signing with Milwaukee for 1937 made headlines in the Midwest, but the old power just wasn't there and Kloza was released just before the season began.

Jack Kloza was 33 years old with a career as a baseball player now behind him. He and Rose now had two more children in addition to Rosann: Jacqueline born in 1931 and Jack Jr. born in 1935. Jack needed to look for a new career. Since he'd had his last gasp of glory playing for Milwaukee, he was still extremely popular in his hometown. Kloza leveraged his celebrity into a succession of jobs teaching baseball to the city's kids. The newly-retired ballplayer teamed up with fellow Milwaukee big leaguer Anthony "Bunny" Brief to create two baseball leagues. Brief, whose given name was the tongue-twisting Anthony Grzeszkowski, had played with the Browns, White Sox and Pirates from 1912 to 1917. He took the league representing the neighborhoods from Milwaukee's Southside and Kloza took the Northsiders. By 1944 the "Stars of Yesteryear" league had 85 teams with 6,500 kids. Many local kids learned the fundamentals of the game from these two former big leaguers, and the city of Milwaukee was able to boast that it had one of the most talented sandlot baseball scenes in the nation. This level of talent was represented in the city being represented by winning teams in most of the national tournaments held throughout the 1940's and 50's.

Besides coaching Milwaukee's kids, in 1944 another opportunity opened up for Jack Kloza. Two full years of war had fully depleted the major and minor leagues. With no end in sight, and an increasingly poor product passed off as big league baseball, the All-American Professional Girls Baseball League was formed in 1943. When the league was expanded from four to six teams the following year, Jack Kloza joined former major leaguers Max Carey, Marty McManus, Bubber Jonnard and Bert Niehoff plus Chicago Blackhawks hockey star Johnny Gottselig as managers. Kloza was assigned to the Rockford Peaches, the team made famous in the movie "A League of Our Own". Despite having the best player the AAGPBL produced, Dottie Kamenshek, at first base, the Peaches found themselves in last place in the mid-July. With his record standing at 24-32, Rockford gave Kloza the boot. Then again, contradictory newspaper articles contend that Rockford's skipper resigned over some kind of disagreement with the league office in Chicago. For his part, Jack Kloza refused to say why he left.

Kloza went back to Milwaukee and poured his energy back into the Stars of Yesteryear League. Through he and Bunny Brief's tireless efforts, the league expanded to include over 10,000 boys. While he must have been proud whenever one of his boy's made good, 1952 must have been extra special. That year, his son, Jack, Jr., was selected as the catcher for the team representing Milwaukee in the annual Hearst Sandlot Classic tournament in New York. Jack Jr. later went on to study at St. Mary’s University and became a high school coach.

The big slugger passed away on June 11, 1962, aged 58. Besides leaving behind his wife Rose and four children, Jack Kloza left a legion of thankful Milwaukee kids who learned to play baseball from the friendly former major leaguer. Although he played just 22 games in the majors, Jack Kloza batted .329 with 129 home runs over 12 minor league seasons. And while he might not have a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he did make it to Cooperstown, as part of the exhibit on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.