65th Anniversary of Sam Jones’ Puerto Rico Pitching Triple Crown; Willie Mays’ Batting Title and Caribbean Series Homer off Ramón Monzant

Jorge Colón Delgado uncovered that Sam Jones, winner of the 1954-55 Puerto Rico Winter League Pitching Triple Crown with 14 wins, 171 strikeouts, and 1.77 ERA, was League MVP, instead of Willie Mays, his Santurce Crabbers teammate. Old league records had Mays, with his .395 AVG (68 hits/172 AB), listed as Puerto Rico MVP, a nice honor post-Mays’ selection as 1954 National League (NL) MVP. This blog pays tribute to the 65th anniversary of the 1954-55 Puerto Rico season and February 1955 Caribbean Series by RHP Sam Jones, 1954 NL MVP Willie Mays, Santurce manager Herman Franks, plus recognition of Venezuelan RHP Ramón Monzant, a teammate of Mays with the New York/San Francisco Giants, and briefly—a teammate of Sam Jones with the 1960 San Francisco Giants.

Sam Jones

Sam Jones was an intimidating pitcher, per his detailed and fascinating SABR bio by Rory Costello, found at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/b2f99b7e. The 6 feet 4, 200-pound hurler had a terrific curveball, and led the NL in strikeouts and walks 3x (1995, 1956, and 1958), post 1954-55 season with Santurce. Costello noted that Jones was the first African-American major leaguer to pitch a no-hitter (in 1955). Two of Jones’ best seasons were in Puerto Rico—13-5, 2.51 ERA for the 1951-52 San Juan Senators, and the 14-4, 1.77 ERA with the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers. Jones helped the 43-29 San Juan club and 47-25 Crabbers win league titles. He didn’t pitch in the 1952 Caribbean Series, but was 1-0 in a key Game Three of the 1955 Caribbean Series.  The 27-10 W-L mark by Jones in Puerto Rico, in two 72-game seasons, was the equivalent of a 30-10 ledger in a 162-game MLB season.

Santurce owner Pedrín Zorrilla had seen Sam Jones pitch well against arch-rival Santurce in 1951-52. Pedrín, a student of baseball history, remembered Jones and Quincy Trouppe formed the first black battery in AL history on May 3, 1952, as noted by Costello. Pedrín—determined to win a third Caribbean Series title—knew that Jones had major-league stuff before the Chicago Cubs acquired him in a trade with Cleveland on September 30, 1954. (Jones pitched 187 innings for 1953 Indianapolis, Class AAA, American Association and 199 innings for the same team in 1954, with a combined 25-20 record, 296 strikeouts and 244 walks.) Teams in Puerto Rico were allowed 10 active Imports, and no more than five from the same major-league organization.  

Pedrín’s 1954-55 Santurce roster had talented ex-Negro Leaguers. He appreciated that Sam Jones had pitched in the Negro Leagues (Cleveland Buckeyes) under player-manager Quincy Trouppe. The 1947 Buckeyes won the Negro American League (West) title, but lost their World Series to the New York Cubans in five games, a club with Minnie Miñoso, Luis Tiant Sr., Impo Barnhill, etc. Earlier that (1947) season, Jones bested Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs, 1-0, per Rory Costello. Paige told Jones, post-game: “You’ll be a good pitcher, boy – but you got to know how to make a ball move around. You ain’t going nowhere with just you and a fastball.” Chet Brewer, Jones’ teammate with the Cleveland Buckeyes, and Mel Harder, Cleveland Indians pitching coach, helped Jones become a better pitcher.

Seven of Jones’ 14 wins for Santurce in 1954-55 were shutouts. His 14 victories outpaced teammate Rubén Gómez (13); Roberto Vargas of Caguas (12); San Juan’s Larry Jackson (11); and Ponce’s Bob Kelly (10). Jones’ 1.77 ERA outdistanced teammate Bill Greason (2.34); Caguas’ Chichí Olivo (2.75) and Roberto Vargas (2.79); and Rubén Gómez’s 2.80. The 171 strikeouts by Jones were well ahead of Gómez’s 107; Tom Lasorda’s 86 for Mayagüez; Luis “Tite” Arroyo’s 75 with Ponce; and Paul Stuffel’s 72 for Mayagüez.

Jones also won Game Five of the league finals versus Caguas, and Game Three of the 1955 Caribbean Series versus Venezuela’s Magallanes Navigators. More on this later.

Pedrín Zorrilla hugs Sam Jones after winning game five of the final series.

Record of Sam Jones in Puerto Rico https://beisbol101.com/sam-jones/

Willie Mays

Much has been written of Willie Mays in terms of his 1979 induction in Cooperstown, perhaps the best catch in World Series history [1954 versus Cleveland], his 12 Gold Gloves and so on. Prior to his 1951 NL Rookie of the Year season with the New York Giants, Mays was supposed to play winter ball for the Almendares Scorpions (aka Blues) in Cuba, but this never happened. Hoyt Wilhelm, a future teammate with the New York Giants, pitched for the 1950-51 Havana Reds; Clem Labine, a Brooklyn Dodgers prospect, pitched in Venezuela, 1950-51. Mays joined the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico, two weeks after the New York Giants swept Cleveland in the 1954 World Series.

Pedrin Zorrilla welcomes Willie Mays at his arrival to Puerto Rico.

Mays arrived at Isla Grande [Airport] on October 16, 1954, accompanied by New York Giants scout Frank Forbes and writer Tom Meany. The welcoming party included Pedrín Zorrilla; Herman Franks—Santurce’s manager and 3B coach of the New York Giants; and some 1,000 fans, eagerly awaiting the 6:40 a.m. flight. Meany later wrote that there were bets Mays would return to the States by November 1, and then by December 1. Meany affirmed Mays came to Puerto Rico to play ball as well as leave New York.

Wiilie Mays and Rubén Gómez after game 3 of the 1954 World Series.

Rubén Gómez, Mays’ teammate with the 1954 New York Giants, alerted the author that Mays (and the New York Giants) were returning the favor to Zorrilla for Pedrín’s suggestion that the Giants sign Rubén Gómez prior to the 1953 NL season. Gómez won a combined 30 regular season games in 1953 and 1954, plus Game Three of the 1954 World Series.

Mays, 1B George Crowe and RHP Bill Greason were three Santurce imports who lived in the Gallardo Apartments, near Sixto Escobar Stadium, home of the Crabbers and San Juan Senators. Mays and Greason (a teammate of Mays with the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons) had most of their meals out until Mrs. Greason came to Puerto Rico. Rice and chicken, local seafood and roast pig were Mays’ favorite dishes. He enjoyed chatting with Herman Franks on bus trips to away games in Caguas, Mayagüez and Ponce. Mays and teammate Bob Thurman played dominoes in the town plazas to pass away some free time. (Neither one smoked or drank.)

One of the greatest teams of all times Santurce 1954-55: Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Buster Clarkson, Bob Thurman and George Crowe.

Mays had a comfort level playing for Herman Franks in Puerto Rico. Pete Burnside, Santurce LHP, opined that “Mays and Clemente had a friendly rivalry.” Burnside also noted the team’s camaraderie was excellent, with ex-Negro Leaguers such as Mays, 3B James “Buster” Clarkson, RF Bob Thurman, Sam Jones, Greason, Alfonso Gerard and George Crowe being real gentlemen off the field, and extremely talented on it. Burnside earned his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth, and had done extensive research on Negro Leaguers. Mays hit his first league HR off Mayagüez’s Tom Lasorda, on November 7, 1954, in a suspended game, completed December 8.

Off-the-field, Horace Stoneham, New York Giants executive, signed Mays to a $25,000 contract for the 1955 big league season during a visit to Puerto Rico. Stoneham was impressed with Mays’ new batting stance and first few Santurce homers. Mays took time to help teammate and LF Roberto Clemente with fielding and getting rid of the baseball more quickly and efficiently. Historian Jorge Colón Delgado chronicled late morning practices attended by Franks, Clemente, Mays, and 17-year old Orlando Cepeda, who caught balls thrown by Clemente and Mays, who used basket catches, as did Luis Rodríguez Olmo, a Santurce reserve OF. Santurce was the only team in Caribbean winter league history with an OF trio who caught fly balls via basket catches.

Rubén Gómez stated that Mays preferred cherry soda and did not touch alcohol. Circling back to Sam Jones, Rubén recalled the time he spiked Jones during a close play at the plate in a 1951-52 San Juan-Santurce contest, telling the author “Jones was a hard-nosed competitor, like himself (Gómez) who would throw at hitters, if necessary.” Rubén acknowledged Jones had a terrific 1954-55 season for Santurce, and “Jones’ fine mound efforts motivated him (Gómez), too.” Both starters were a combined 27-9 for 1954-55 Santurce, best one-two starters in the league.

The league’s All-Star game was played in Mayagüez, December 12, 1954, between San Juan and Santurce players (“North”) against the “South” team of Caguas-Mayagüez-Ponce. Clemente hit two HR; Mays had an inside-the-park HR in the first inning. Rubén Gómez got the win. Mays’ positive attitude rubbed off on his teammates. Branch Rickey Jr. saw Mays warm up the Santurce batting practice pitcher during a regular season game in Caguas. Mays threw a strike to second base on the final warm-up pitch. “I’ve always maintained that you can learn more about a ballplayer by watching him two days in the winter leagues than you can by watching him for two weeks in the States,” said Branch Rickey Jr. “Down here, the fellow who puts out is the fellow who likes to play…and the fellow who likes to play is the fellow who’ll help your club.”

Mays won the league batting title—68 hits/172 AB, .395, followed by Elston Howard (.369) of San Juan; Canena Márquez (.364) of Mayagüez; Roberto Clemente’s .344; and Dixie Howell’s .335 for Mayagüez. Mays’ 12 HR were good for a fifth-place tie behind Bob Cerv’s 19 for San Juan; 15 and 14, respectively, by teammates’ Clarkson and Thurman; and 13 by San Juan’s George Freese. The 15 doubles by Mays were good for second (Willie Tasby of Caguas had 17.) Mays’ seven triples led the league and his 63 runs scored were second to Clemente’s 65. Mays and teammate Don Zimmer tied for fourth with 10 SB, trailing Jim Rivera (14) of Caguas; Carlos Bernier (13) of Mayagüez; and Nino Escalera (12) of San Juan. Buster Clarkson (61) and Thurman (60) were one-two in RBIs. Thurman occasionally pitched at times.

Record of Willie Mays in Puerto Rico https://beisbol101.com/willie-mays/

Burnside, Sam Jones, Mays, and Ramón Monzant—1955 Caribbean Series

The rotation of Jones, Gómez, and Greason was phenomenal for the 47-25 Crabbers. Burnside was the team’s batting practice pitcher for the February 1955 Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela, after Santurce bested Caguas, four games to one, in the league finals. Joey Jay, losing pitcher for Caguas in Game Three, hid in a Caguas home for several days to avoid being threatened by Caguas fans. Jones won Game Five, the clincher, with relief help from Greason.

Burnside complimented the team owner with these remarks: “Pedrín released me, but kept me at the same salary for the Caribbean Series,” said Burnside. “As I remember, there were armed guards in the stadium with automatic weapons. We stayed at the Hotel Tamanaco on the hill in an upper-class section.”

Rubén Gómez won the February 10, 1955 opener, 6-2, over the Almendares Blues. Harry Chiti and 2B Ronnie Samford drove in two runs apiece; Zimmer homered in the seventh. Zimmer and Greason each homered the next night versus Carta Vieja, Panamá in a 2-1 win. Mays was in a 0-for-12 slump when he stepped up to the plate against Ramón Monzant of the host Magallanes Navigators, February 12, 1955. Sam Jones had gone 11 innings for Santurce and the game was tied at two, precisely two minutes past midnight local time. Clemente singled to open the home 11th frame. Mays homered on a 1-1 pitch at 12:03 a.m. Güigüí Lucas, the Magallanes catcher, walked away as Mays stepped on home plate after Clemente scored the actual winning run.

Record of Rubén Gómez in Puerto Rico https://beisbol101.com/ruben-gomez/

Juan Vené, renowned Venezuelan sportswriter and baseball commentator, covered this series. He noted [to the author] that the baseball Mays hit fell halfway into the bleachers, after going over the 385-foot sign in left center. “Mays was quite friendly with the press,” said Vené. “He spoke some words in Spanish to us and identified himself with Puerto Rico.”

Ramón Monzant pitched in six games for the 1954 New York Giants. Herman Franks managed Monzant with the 1953-54 Magallanes Navigators in Venezuela, when the 6 feet, 165-pound hurler posted a 14-6 record, 2.88 ERA, in 34 games, including 26 starts. Monzant started over one-third of Magallanes’ 76 games, logging 181 innings, with 132 strikeouts and 69 walks. Franks respected Monzant, someone he and Leo Durocher (New York Giants manager) called Ray. Coincidentally, Monzant was a 1952 graduate of the Virgil Trucks Baseball School in Auburndale, Florida. An ad in the October 27, 1954 The Sporting News, claimed “100 of our students, enrolled in our 1954 school, received contracts; RAMON MONZANT, Giants pitcher, graduated from our 1952 class.” The author conversed (via phone) with Virgil Trucks when doing a 2010 Joe Gibbon SABR bio. Trucks, author of two no-hitters in 1952 with Detroit, had memories of Monzant as someone with “determination, a fine disposition, but a bit homesick.”

Mays went four-for-five in Santurce’s 7-6 win over Almendares on February 13, 1955.  Santurce was trailing, 6-4, in the home ninth, when Gerard pinch-hit for reliever Jorge “Garabato” Sackie, and singled to left. Zimmer then homered to left center field, to tie the game at 6. Clemente walked on four pitches, and Al Lyons came in from the pen to face Mays. The “Sey Juey” [juey is the Spanish word for crab] kid singled to right and Clemente never stopped running. Almendares RF Lee Walls bobbled the ball, but got it to 2B Al Federoff, who threw it wide of the plate, in Santurce’s come-from-behind (and walk-off) 7-6 triumph.

Santurce clinched the series crown with a 11-3 thrashing of Panamá’s Carta Vieja Yankees. Greason won his second game and Mays got three of Santurce’s 16 hits. Chiti’s three-run HR and Clemente’s two triples were key blows. Magallanes defeated Santurce in a meaningless final game of the series, February 15, 1955.

Manager Herman Franks congratulates Don Zimmer

The Crabbers placed five players on the series All-Star team: Chiti at catcher; series MVP Zimmer at shortstop; CF Mays, pitchers’ Greason and Sam Jones. Mays (11-for-25, .440) finished second to Rocky Nelson (.471) of Almendares for the series batting title, but Mays had the most hits (11) and RBIs (nine). Clemente scored the most runs (eight). Puerto Rico Governor Luis Muñoz Marín sent a congratulatory telegram to Pedrín Zorrilla: “I commend Puerto Rico’s representative for their resounding triumph…it exemplifies the fighting spirit of our people.”

Bob Thurman, all-time career HR record holder in Puerto Rico with 120, in 12 seasons, got animated when talking about the 1954-55 Crabbers during an October 1991 weekend in Ponce, when he, Rubén Gómez, Orlando Cepeda and seven others were the first class of Puerto Rico’s Professional Baseball Hall of Fame inductees. “That [1954-55] ball club was the greatest ball club I had ever been on. Then, too, we were just like a big family; everyone would do something for somebody else…it just jelled ‘cause we had the talent to play the game…and it’s really a happy situation when you can play with a bunch of good kids and win like that. With all those long ball hitters and guys catching balls over their heads…nobody could beat us. I often thought that we could beat any major league club with the set-up we had”.

Record of Bob Thurman in Puerto Rico https://beisbol101.com/bob-thurman/

Sam Jones became a 1959-1960 teammate of Willie Mays with San Francisco, and briefly, a 1960 Giants teammate of Ramón Monzant. Jones won 21 games in 1959, and was named NL Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. He pitched for Panamá in the first (1949) Caribbean Series, going 1-1; and reinforced the 1963-64 Aguilas Cibaeñas in the Dominican Republic (4-1, 1.55 ERA) and 1964-65 Boer Indians in Nicaragua (2-0). Jones passed away in Morgantown, West Virginia, November 5, 1971, at 45.

Rubén Gómez was inducted in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame in 1999, followed by Mays in 2005, and Pedrín Zorrilla (2007). Ramón Monzant passed away at 68 in his hometown of Maracaibo, August 10, 2001. He was inducted in Venezuela’s Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 2006; and, in the Magallanes Navigators Hall of Fame, 2012. Roberto Clemente was inducted in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame in 2015, five years before Thurman and Clarkson’s induction, held February 6, 2020. Herman Franks stayed in touch with Pedrín Zorrilla until the latter passed away April 9, 1981, and with Diana Zorrilla (Pedrín’s widow). Franks passed away March 30, 2009, at 95. He was a successful investor/business manager who once handled the financial affairs of Willie Mays and Ernie Banks.

Thanks to Herman Franks (deceased); Pete Burnside, Joe Gibbon (deceased), Rubén Gómez (deceased), Bob Thurman (deceased), and Virgil Trucks (deceased); Rory Costello, SABR Bio Project Co-Director/Chief Editor; Jorge Colón Delgado, official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League; Juan Vené and Miguel Dupouy Gómez, Venezuelan Winter League experts.

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