50th Anniversary of Hank Aaron’s 715th HR and his 1953-54 Caguas Criollos Season

Hank Aaron’s 715th HR

On Monday, April 8, 1974, the author was a Freshman at Berry College, Rome, Georgia, 70 miles northwest of Atlanta. He watched Aaron hit HR #715, off LHP Al Downing, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on NBC from a dorm recreation room TV. It came in the fourth inning with Darrell Evans on base. The ball was drilled to left-center and fell into the hands of reliever Tom House in the Braves bullpen to eclipse Babe Ruth’s 714 homers. Curt Gowdy was on NBC TV, but Vin Scully (Dodgers broadcaster) made the call for KABC radio, as did Milo Hamilton (Braves) on WSB radio. Mike Marshall relieved Downing with no outs in the fourth and pitched three innings, followed by Charlie Hough’s two. Atlanta won, 7-4, behind Ron Reed and Buzz Capra. The author alerted his college friends that Aaron played for the 1953-54 Caguas Criollos in Puerto Rico’s Winter League (PRWL). They had no idea that a 19-year-old Aaron polished his skills in winter ball, nor did they realize that in Puerto Rico (PR), he was moved from second base (2B)—his position with the 1953 Jacksonville Suns—to right field (RF), upon the suggestion of Caguas skipper Mickey Owen. This blog highlights Aaron’s 1953-54 PRWL season and illustrates that 25 of the Top 100 career HR hitters in big league history once played in the PRWL. Aaron was the highest-paid big leaguer in 1974—the final year of a three-year, pre-free agency $600,000 contract. He hit 398 homers with the 1954-1965 Milwaukee Braves, 335 in nine Atlanta seasons (1966-1974), and 22 for the 1975-76 Milwaukee Brewers.

Al Downing wore number (44) as did Aaron in 1974. Photo credit: www.ebay.com.

Aaron went to RF from 2B with 1953-54 Caguas Criollos

Hank Aaron was 19 when he joined the 1953-54 Caguas Criollos for their 80-game PRWL season. He impressed Milwaukee Braves officials and 1953 Jacksonville Braves skipper Ben Geraghty, leading the integrated Class A South Atlantic (Sally) League with a .362 BA, 115 runs, 208 hits, and 125 RBI as their All-Star 2B, and formed a double-play combination with SS Félix Mantilla, his 1953 roommate, from Isabela, PR. Coincidentally, Aaron and Mantilla were married to ladies they met in Jacksonville before the 1953-54 PRWL season. Mantilla was later inducted into the PR Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.

Aaron told Lonnie Wheeler, his [1991] biographer, that he «needed what Félix needed—a little money and all the ballplaying I could get.» Aaron added: «The Puerto Rican League was loaded with major-league pitchers, and it would be a good chance for me and the Braves to find out how ready I was as a hitter. It was also a good chance to find a position I could play.» Aaron was fielding poorly at 2B for Caguas and hitting .125 two weeks into the season when Mantilla convinced the Caguas owner not to send Aaron home. Mickey Owen, the Caguas manager, changed the course of MLB history by moving Aaron to RF.

«Aaron was one at-bat from getting sent back to the States,» recalled Ozzie Virgil Sr., who played for the 1953-54 Mayagüez Indians. The «avión de Jaimito» (Jaimito’s airplane) was the slang used to say goodbye to imports (Stateside players) who were not producing. Mickey Owen knew where he could get a better 2B than Aaron. «So, one day, I [Owen] hit him [Aaron] a few flyballs in morning practice, and he went to it and got them easy, and he threw good. I said, you’re not an infielder, you’re an outfielder,» Owen continued: «Once I told him to hit one to RF, and he hit a bullet there. Aaron said I helped him hit to right, but all I did was urge him to hit the ball there.» (Aaron became «more of a pull hitter after the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966.”) Owen saw a «bit of Rogers Hornsby in the young Aaron» since «both would get that big end of the bat around so fast…get their hands started before the swing, like a sprinter getting a running start…» Aaron’s July 2, 1952, Billy Southworth Scout Card (Individual Player Report) mentioned that, at 18, «he has had very little baseball experience not having attended high school.» He was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 5, 1934.

                                               Source: Baseball in Pics  @baseballinpix     

Aaron’s move to RF solidified the Criollos. Owen secured 2B Charlie Neal, who played for the 1953 Newport News Dodgers versus Owen’s Norfolk Tars, a Yankees farm team, in the Class B Piedmont League, including the finals, won by the Tars. Rance Pless, Criollos 3B, was an All-Star 3B with the 1951 Jacksonville Tars when they were a segregated New York Giants farm team. Pless, a white Southerner from Greenville, Tennessee,  respected and appreciated the young Aaron (and Mantilla), who dealt with 1953 discrimination in the States. A [1953] Jacksonville Journal columnistwrote: «I sincerely believe that Aaron may have started Jacksonville down the road to racial understanding.» Víctor Pellot Power, aka Vic Power, impressed Aaron with his positive and «can do» attitude. Caguas LF Juan Esteban «Tetelo» Vargas, 47-year old «Dominican Deer,» came off a 1953 batting title (.355 BA) with Estrellas Orientales, Dominican Summer League. Aaron later recalled a baseball stadium named after Tetelo in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. Power was a team leader with the 1953-54 Criollos. «When I first joined Caguas [1947-48], it was something to be around Tetelo, Perucho Cepeda, and Piper Davis,» said Power. «They were veterans I looked up to…[player-manager] Quincy Trouppe, a father figure, did a lot for me too.»

Dale Long, a Springfield, Missouri native, as was Mickey Owen, played 1B the first part of 1953-54, when Power played third. Long’s widow (Dorothy) noted that «they enjoyed living in Caguas» and «Dale liked playing for Owen.» Long later homered in eight straight games for the 1956 Pittsburgh Pirates, a team with Roberto Clemente. Aaron’s most intense Criollos teammate was CF Manuel Joseph «Jungle Jim» Rivera, born in New York City of Puerto Rican parents. He tied Aaron with a league-leading nine HR for Caguas. Still, he got all special prizes—cash and cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes—when Aaron returned to the States after first-place Caguas (46-34) won the finals. Long clouted eight HR, third in the league. Aaron’s .322 BA was third, behind Luis A. «Canena» Márquez’s .333 with Mayagüez and Charles Harmon’s .325 for Ponce. Aaron’s 42 RBIs trailed Mayagüez’s Gene Freese’s 48 and Márquez’s 43. Aaron’s PR stats are at: https://www.beisbol101.com/hank-aaron-3/ Bob Buhl (14-3), Brooks Lawrence (13-7), and Ray Crone (6-1) were a combined 33-11 for Owen, who caught the latter part of the regular season, taking over for Luis St. Claire aka Güigüí Lucas. Owen was also caught in the finals and February 18-23, 1954 Caribbean Series, won by Caguas (4-2 record).

Aaron’s PRWL All-Star Game Heroics

Cefo Conde congratulates Hank Aaron on his home run.

When Caguas hosted the December 23, 1953, League All-Star Game, Aaron cracked two HR for the Imports (Stateside players) in their 11-1 win over the Natives. Caguas’s Yldefonso Solá Morales Stadium had bleachers 400 feet from home plate and a big stone wall behind those bleachers. «There were only three balls hit over those bleachers all [1953-54] year long,» recalled Aaron. One was hit by Stan Lopata, Ponce Lions catcher. The other two were hit by Aaron in this All-Star Game. Aaron, this All-Star Game MVP, and his [first] wife [Barbara] were blessed by the birth of their first child [Gaile] in Caguas. Four other PRWL players homered twice in a PRWL All-Star Game: Joshua Gibson, Game Two, January 1, 1942; Roberto Clemente, December 12, 1954; Ismael Oquendo, January 6, 1980; and Candy Maldonado, January 6, 1981. On January 6, 1976, Aaron was the «symbolic batter» with Bob Feller throwing out the first pitch before the PRWL All-Star Game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Félix Millán, Aaron’s ex-Atlanta teammate, 1966-72, called it a «special moment.» Orlando Cepeda, another ex-Atlanta teammate of Aaron, 1969-1972, once said: «Hank was not just the best HR hitter I ever saw; he was the best hitter I ever watched play.»

PRWL Opposing Pitcher Testimonials

The PRWL was vital to Aaron’s development, per opposing pitchers from Mayagüez, Ponce, San Juan Senators and Santurce Crabbers. Aaron told a reporter: «There’s no question it [Puerto Rico] was a stepping stone in my getting to the major leagues. It gave me confidence.» Here are quotes on facing Aaron in Puerto Rico:

  • Natalio «Pachy» Irizarry, Mayagüez RHP—» I led the League in ERA (1.49) and pitched 29 straight scoreless innings, a record for Natives, but never forgot Hank Aaron’s 450-foot plus HR off me in the All-Star Game.» It cleared the stone wall. «That was quite a shot,» remembered Irizarry, adding: «What I liked about the All-Star activities was the reception hosted at La Fortaleza [Governor’s Mansion] by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. It was a nice atmosphere, and we had a good time.» (Aaron found out Muñoz Marín was a knowledgeable baseball fan who rooted for the Criollos.)
  • Jack Harshman, San Juan LHP—»He had great hand-wrist action. I had him 0-2 once and threw him a high and inside fastball to force him away from the plate. But he leaned back and hit it over the center field wall. Aaron had the best hands I’ve ever seen.»
  • Bob Turley, San Juan RHP, fanned 17 Caguas batters on January 3, 1954, to tie Satchel Paige’s mark, set for Guayama versus Mayagüez, December 3, 1939, since broken by San Juan’s Pat Dobson’s 21 versus Arecibo, December 10, 1967. «You could tell Aaron had a major league stroke…way he sprayed the ball to right and right-center.»
  • Tom Lasorda, Santurce LHP, a 1953-54 teammate of Roberto Clemente: «It was hard to pitch to Aaron with his reflexes and talent. I faced Aaron, Clemente and Mays in Puerto Rico. That was one tough league in the 1950s with great competitors; PR helped many players…»
  • Bill Greason, Santurce RHP—»Hard-working kid, consistent, very mature for his age…I was Willie Mays’s 1948 teammate [Birmingham Black Barons] and 1954-55 Santurce teammate with Roberto Clemente. Aaron could do it all, too.»
  • Rubén Gómez, Santurce RHP—»He was quiet, respectful, baseball-smart, disciplined. We [Santurce] were last in 1953-54, but give credit to Aaron, Pellot [Vic Power], and others. I reinforced Caguas in the [1954] Caribbean Series.»
  • Bob Thurman, Santurce OF-LHP—» I pitched a SHO against Caguas [December 28, 1953]. Aaron could adjust to different pitches, but my off-speed stuff that night gave him some problems. PR allowed him to prove himself…»
  • Luis «Tite» Arroyo, Ponce LHP—» Aaron was a no-nonsense player with Caguas who went from A ball to Puerto Rico and the major leagues quickly.» More information on Caguas Criollos’ history is at:
Caguas Criollos: Roy Campanella and Luis Olmo to Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente (Part I)

Aaron Plus 24 Others in the Top 100 Major League Career HR List played in the PRWL

Table I includes 25 of the Top 100 big-league career HR sluggers who once played in the PRW, from Aaron (#2 overall) and Willie Mays (#6), to Ellis Burks (#96-tie) and Chili Davis (#99).

Table I: Twenty-five Big Leaguers, Top 100 Career HR List, and PRWL Highlights

Player HR/RankPRWL Team(s)Season(s)PRWL Highlights
Hank Aaron!755 (2)Caguas Criollos1953-54.322 BA, 9 HR, 42 RBIs.
Willie Mays!660 (6)Santurce Crabbers1954-55.395, 12 HR, 33 RBIs, and 1955 Caribbean Series (CS) All-Star.
Jim Thome!612 (8)Ponce Lions1992-93.255, 2 HR, 21 RBIs.
Frank Robinson!586 (10)Ponce, Santurce1954-55; 1968-71,72-75, 1978-80.Played for Ponce; managed Santurce to two PRWL titles.
Rafael Palmeiro569 (13)San Juan (SJ) Metros1986-87.238, 4 HR, 21 RBIs.
Reggie Jackson!563 (14)Santurce Crabbers1970-71.272, 20 HR, 47 RBIs, 9 SB.
Mike Schmidt!548 (16)Caguas Criollos1972-74.253, 21 HR, 52 RBIs, and 1974 CS title.
Eddie Murray!504 (28)Caguas Criollos1976-79.315, 18 HR, 76 RBIs.
Carlos Delgado473 (34)Santurce, SJ, Carolina Giants1990-96, 97-99, 2009-10.245, 36 HR 138 RBIs; 1995 CS Dream Team.
Dave Kingman442 (43)Santurce1973-74.237, 6 HR, 24 RBIs.
Carlos Beltrán435 (47)Arecibo Wolves, CaguasLate 1990s-early 2000s2001 CS: 9/22, .409 BA, 2 HR, 8 RBIs, .773 SLG.
Juan González434 (48t)Ponce, Caguas, Santurce, SJ, Carolina1986-90, 92-93, 96-97, 2006-07.268, 42 HR, 135 RBIs; 1995 CS  Dream Team.
Cal Ripken Jr.!431 (50)Caguas1980-82.299, 16 HR, 88 RBIs. Led PRWL: 50 RBIs, 1981-82.
Darrell Evans414 (54)Bayamón Cowboys1975-76.276, 8 HR, 39 RBIs.
Joe Carter396 (62)Ponce1983-84.244, 10 HR, 35 RBIs.
Johnny Bench!389 (65)SJ Senators1967-68.323, 5 HR, 27 RBIs, 20 doubles.
Frank Howard382 (70t)Caguas1960-62.300, 28 HR, 84 RBIs.
Albert Belle381 (73)PonceLate 1980sLeft on «Jaimito’s» plane.
Orlando Cepeda!379 (74t)Santurce1955-62, 63-65, 66-68, 71-72, 74-75..323, 89 HR, 340 RBIs, and 1958-59 batting champ, 2x HR champ (57-58t, 61-62).
Tony Pérez!379 (74t)Santurce1964-68, 69-71, 72-73, 78-80, 82-83..303, 65 HR, 319 RBIs. The 1966-67 MVP: .333, 9 HR, 63 RBIs.
Lance Berkman366 (85)Bayamón1999-00Only played three games.
Greg Vaughn355 (92)Ponce1989-90League-leading 10 HR.
Lee May354 (93t)SJ Senators1967-68, 69-70.285, 15 HR, 80 RBIs. Led PRWL: 59 RBIs, 1967-68.
Ellis Burks352 (96t)Caguas1986-87.291, 7 HR, 30 RBIs.
Chili Davis350 (99)Ponce1982-84.258, 10 HR, 42 RBIs.

!Cooperstown inductee. Sources: Jorge Colón Delgado, José Crescioni Benítez, and the author.


Bryan Goldberg, the author’s first cousin and rabid Los Angeles Dodgers fan, knew Al Downing well when he called DODGER Talk in the 1980s. «We even played golf once [late 1980s] when I was in high school,» said Bryan. «Al did not like to talk about giving up Aaron’s 715th HR and gave short answers. He is the only player in [Yankees] uniform for Roger Maris’s [61st] and Aaron’s [715th] home runs.» Downing formed the first New York Yankees Black battery with Elston Howard in 1961 and led the AL with 217 strikeouts in 1964. He resides in Los Angeles at 82. Tom House’s last pro season was with the 1979 Caracas Metropolitanos in Bobby Maduro’s Inter-American League. Aaron passed away in Atlanta on January 22, 2021, two weeks before turning 87. On Saturday, April 6, 2024, John Boyette’s column in the Aiken [South Carolina] Standard ended with this Aaron quote: «I never wanted them to forget Babe Ruth,» he said. «I just want them to remember Hank Aaron.»

With special thanks and appreciation to Hank Aaron, and Lonnie Wheeler, Aaron’s 1991 biographer. Thanks to Luis «Tite» Arroyo, Orlando Cepeda,  Bryan Goldberg, Rubén Gómez, Bill Greason, Jack Harshman, Pachy Irizarry, Tom Lasorda, Dorothy Long, Félix Millán, Mickey Owen, Rance Pless, Vic Power, Jim Rivera, Bob Thurman, Bob Turley, and Ozzie Virgil Sr. Jorge Colón Delgado did the editing and photo placements.

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