Águilas Cibaeñas (AC): Bill Mazeroski to Joe Gibbon (Part II)

Part I covered the 1951-to-1954 Dominican Republic summer seasons, ending with the creation of the LIDOM (Liga Dominicana), a 1955-56 winter league. Luichy Sánchez alerted the author of his 2020 program on You Tube, via his blog, “El Nido de Luichy” (Luichy’s Nest), where he chronicles how four LIDOM teams chose colors from four teams in Cuba’s Winter League in the early 1950s when day baseball was prevalent. Escogido and Licey could play night baseball at Trujillo Stadium, starting October 23, 1955, but Estrellas Orientales (EO) and AC could only host day games. Luichy noted: “Licey took Blue, the color of the Almendares Scorpions; Escogido—Red, color of the Havana Lions; Águilas Cibaeñas opted for Yellow, mamey (tropical) fruit color, similar to Marianao Tigers; Estrellas Orientales went for Green, same color used by the Cienfuegos Elephants. Dominican sportswriters called AC el “colectivo mamey.”

The mamey fruit.

Illustration of early 1950s Marianao Tigers uniforms, Cuban Winter League.

By 1960, AC uniforms were like those of the Pittsburgh Pirates, since the original yellow did not blend well with the incandescent lights. In a more recent blog, Luichy mentioned that 37 former “Aguiluchos” (nickname for AC players), including several from their 2021 Caribbean Series championship team, were in MLB spring training camps, late February 2021. Among the 37 were Luis Severino, RHP, New York Yankees; and Juan Lagares, OF, Los Angeles Angels.

LIDOM 1955-56

Luichy’s father—Juan Bautista Sánchez Correa—was President of the 1955-56 AC, when AC “became the first Dominican team to sign an official working agreement (“convenio”) with a big-league team”—the Pittsburgh Pirates. This agreement was signed by Sánchez Correa and Branch Rickey Jr., Pirates Vice President, and Farm System Director. One outcome was 19-year-old Bill Mazeroski becoming Pittsburgh’s youngest prospect to sign with 1955-56 AC. Howie Haak, who joined Branch Rickey Sr. with the Pittsburgh Pirates in November 1950, per his SABR bio https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/howie-haak/, eventually became Pittsburgh’s “super scout” in the Caribbean, Central, and South America. Haak frequently traveled to Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. He had “bird dogs” positioned in Colombia, Nicaragua, and Panamá. Herb Raybourn scouted for Pittsburgh in Panamá, 1969-to-1976, and signed three Buccos who played for AC: Manny Sanguillén, Rennie Stennett, and Miguel Diloné.

Mr. Sánchez Correa traveled to the States in the summers. He had arranged the signature of prospect Ozzie Virgil Sr., for AC, in 1955, on a trip to Dallas, Texas, when Virgil played for the Class AA Dallas Eagles, a New York Giants affiliate. Virgil was born in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic, the same province as Juan Marichal. However, per Mario Emilio Guerrero, the New York Giants were setting up a working agreement with the Escogido Lions. (Escogido was the second LIDOM team to sign a convenio with a big-league team.) To compound matters, Francisco Martínez Alba, President of Escogido, was the brother of First Lady María de los Ángeles Martínez, married to Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. So, Virgil ended up with Escogido.

“I later [1971-72] managed AC to the title and had success in Venezuela with the Aragua Tigers,” noted Virgil, to the author via phone (1993). “My mother was from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico; I played for Mayagüez as a Native in 1950s and 1960s; and Escogido.” (Virgil’s family moved to the Bronx, 1947; he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1950; served in the U.S. Marines (1950-52). He played for first-place (35-18) Escogido, 1955-56, managed by Frank Genovese, long-time minor-league manager and scout for New York/San Francisco Giants.

Ozzie Virgil Sr., 1955-56 Escogido Lions.
Photo: lasligasmenores.com.

Pittsburgh sent Larry Shepard to manage AC, 1955-56, along with Mazeroski, to improve his game. Shepard was player-manager, 16-7 as a pitcher, for the 1955 Williamsport Grays, Class A Eastern League, a Pittsburgh club. Mazeroski played well for Shepard at Williamsport (.293 AVG with 11 HR), and with AC—56 games, 66 hits in 215 AB, a .307 AVG, but zero HR. Shepard led AC to a 30-23 record, when day games were still the norm. AC’s best pitcher was LHP Fred Waters, from Benton, Mississippi, 11-5, 2.23 ERA. Ron Kline, 7-5, 2.97 ERA, another Pittsburgh prospect, pitched well.

Fred Waters, 1955 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Photo Credit: diamondsinthedusk.com.
Bill Mazeroski taking batting practice, 1955-56 LIDOM season. Photo Credit: https://rmyauctions.com/bids/bidplace?itemid=34901

Kline pitched for the 1954-55 Mazatlán Deer in the Mexican Pacific Coast (Winter) League, who bested Poza Rica in the country’s “Little World Series.” Per Dick “Siete Leguas” Hall—Kline’s Mazatlán teammate—he was asked by Kline to walk a young lady (María Elena Nieto) home, after Kline danced with her all evening at a party. Hall was fluent in Spanish, whereas Kline was not. Hall ended up marrying María Elena Nieto on December 31, 1955! The key point, baseball-wise, is that Branch Rickey Sr. was a “big believer in Winter League baseball.” He and Howie Haak were on the “same page” here. Coincidentally, Dick Hall was Pittsburgh’s only Stateside player who conversed with Clemente in Spanish during 1955-57 NL seasons. The Pirates wanted Hall to pitch in Puerto Rico, 1955-56, but Hall convinced Branch Rickey Sr. he could work on more pitches in Mexico, which was a “weaker league.” Hall really wanted to marry María Elena.

Hall’s future Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver joined AC for 1955-56 as a 2B/shortstop. Weaver was an IF with the 1955 New Orleans Pelicans, Class AA, Southern Association, a Pittsburgh affiliate. OF Bob Skinner joined AC, late in the season. Skinner was Pittsburgh’s LF, 1960 World Series, with Bill Virdon in CF and Roberto Clemente in RF. Gerald “Jerry” Lynch, a 1955 Bucco and future pinch-hitter deluxe, was AC’s top slugger with five HR and 30 RBI in 173 AB. Fans at The Hipódromo in Santiago, aka Estadio Presidente Trujillo, had witnessed the longest HR ever hit there—summer of 1951—by Luis “King Kong” Villodas, with six round-trippers in 156 AB, a better ratio: one HR/26 AB, than Lynch’s one HR/34.6 AB. The Pirates had drafted Lynch in the 1953 Rule 5 Draft, from the New York Yankees, two years after New York had purchased his contract in 1951 from Greenville (Mississippi), Cotton States League.

Pittsburgh native Bobby Del Greco was AC’s 1955-56 CF, a slick-fielding one, with a .214 AVG. The Pirates traded Del Greco and LHP Dick Littlefield to St. Louis for Bill Virdon, on May 17, 1956, a good trade for the Buccos. Pittsburgh wanted its prospects to improve via winter ball, but were “not shy” about trading some. Branch Rickey and Howie Haak were impressed by Virdon’s performance with the 1954-55 Havana Lions—his .340 AVG, six HR and 54 RBI—and excited about Clemente’s 344 AVG, six HR and 37 RBI, for the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers.

Pittsburgh had a weak pitching staff in the mid-1950s with a 1955 ERA of 4.39, and 1.48 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched). Fifteen of their 19 hurlers in 1955 started games. The 60-94 Pirates finished last in the NL, 38.5 games behind 98-55 Brooklyn Dodgers. Enter LHP Fred Waters, who pitched two games and five late-season innings for the 1955 Buccos. Waters, from rural Benton, Mississippi, was one of five players from then-Mississippi Southern College (now University of Southern Mississippi), in Hattiesburg, to play big-league baseball. Waters played for the 1947 and 1948 collegiate Golden Eagles; then, starred for the 1949 Greenwood (Mississippi) Dodgers, Cotton States League. He was a pleasant surprise for 1955-56 AC, whose other pitchers were a combined 19-18, compared to Waters’s 11-5. AC finished five games behind Escogido, before sweeping Licey, two games-to-none, in the semis. Waters won, in relief, after Kline’s 14-inning start versus Licey, in the opener. Bill Greason matched Kline, with 13 innings and one run allowed. Licey featured Luke Easter and Alonzo Perry. Native Federico “ChiChí” Olivo was the loser, in AC’s 2-1 win. AC’s Bob Alexander won the second game, 5-1.

Alexander, Kline and Waters were 1-1 in the finals, versus Escogido, with Rafael Quezada (0-1).

Skinner (.348 AVG) and Mazeroski (.304 AVG) hit well in the seven-game series, won by Escogido. So did 3B Bubba Phillips, who replaced Earl Weaver on AC’s roster. Phillips—a college teammate of Waters in Hattiesburg—had 10 hits/30 AB for AC, a .333 AVG. Escogido’s hitting stars were Virgil (11-for-22, seven RBI) and Willie Kirkland (14-for-28, two HR and seven RBI). Future Bucco Don Hoak played 1B, to accommodate Virgil at 3B. Hoak, who had a .419 OBP in the finals, earned a World Series ring with the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.

LIDOM 1956-57

Escogido captured 1956-57 and 1957-58 crowns, for a three-peat (1955-58). Licey (35-17) won the 1956-57 regular season over Escogido (31-21) and AC (29-23), but Escogido swept AC, three games-to-none, in the semis, before topping arch-rival Licey in the finals. John Fitzpatrick, a Pirates coach from 1953-55, and Williamsport’s 1956 skipper, managed AC. There was a power outage, in terms of HR, at that time. Catcher Danny Kravitz hit four of AC’s 11 HR, to lead the club and the league! Mazeroski (2) and R.C. Stevens (2) were his only teammates with two HR. “I played for the San Juan Senators, 1954-55 and 1955-56,” recalled Kravitz. “In Puerto Rico, I would go fishing with Rubén Gómez of the Santurce team. In Santiago [1956-57], we had R.C. Stevens and Maz, from the Pirates [organization]. Julián Javier was my AC teammate, too, and he had signed with the Pirates [[in 1956]. Santiago was different than the capital [Ciudad Trujillo] and La Romana…but all the fans knew their baseball and were loyal.” RHP Bennie Daniels, who pitched for Pittsburgh, 1957-to-1960, reinforced AC, going 7-8, with a 3.28 ERA.

Last-place (10-44) Estrellas Orientales (EO) hit three HR all of 1956-57, two of them by Roger Maris, in 56 AB. Escogido hit 15 HR and Licey slugged only two round-trippers. Just 31 HR were hit by the four teams in the regular season, compared to 43 the prior (1955-56) season.

Escogido outscored AC, 23-7, in sweeping the Yellow team. Bob Lennon (.583 AVG) and Virgil (.500 AVG) had the hot bats for the Lions. Sparky Anderson (2B) and Andre Rodgers (SS) were a solid double-play combo. Steve Bilko (1B) had been released by the Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico, in a cost-saving move. He produced, as did 21-year old OF Felipe Rojas Alou. Escogido’s best pitcher was lefty Pete Burnside (11-6), who conversed with the author at various times about his pitching for the great 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers team with Willie Mays, Clemente and many other stars. “My undergraduate thesis at Dartmouth was on Negro Leaguers,” noted Burnside, who roomed with teammate Don Zimmer at the Gallardo Apartments, near Sixto Escobar Stadium. “Buster Clarkson, George Crowe and Bob Thurman…were all class acts, in Santurce. The [New York] Giants sent me to Escogido in 1956-57. Santurce, mid-1950s, also had a [key] connection with the Giants.” Burnside fanned 11 AC hitters in 6.2 innings, in his win.

RHP Jim Brosnan, let go by last-place Ponce, 1956-57, had a 3-9 record in Puerto Rico. He then flew to Santo Domingo to reinforce Escogido, and later won his semi-final start versus AC. “It was a tough winter—I had personal problems; was dealing with an illness and did not pitch well in Puerto Rico.” Brosnan was 0-2 for Escogido at the end of the regular season, before his pitching improved in the post-season. (Brosnan became better known for his 1960 book, titled The Long Season.) Brosnan came through with a SHO versus Licey in the league finals.

Felipe Alou, during a 1992 spring training conversation with the author, noted he was a “huge Escogido fan growing up, with teenage memories of Willard Brown and Bob Thurman playing for his beloved Lions.” Alou was appreciative of the opportunity to play for, and later manage Escogido. He once related a story to another sportswriter of a summer 1953 game when Licey’s Luis Rodríguez Olmo robbed Willard Brown of a HR. “I was totally devastated,” said Alou.

LIDOM 1957-58

Frank Oceak managed AC to a 20-31 record, fourth and last-place. Oceak was the 1956-57 skipper of Poza Rica Oilers, in Mexico’s Veracruz (Winter) League. He joined Pittsburgh’s 1958 coaching staff and remained there for 15 seasons, including his role as their 3B coach when they won the 1960 and 1971 World Series. The one bright spot for AC was 1B Dick Stuart, with a league-leading 14 HR and a .277/.345/.559 slash line, plus .904 OPS. Julián Javier was the regular 2B, but posted a .216 AVG. Fred Waters, now age 30, was 1-3 with  a 6.59 ERA. Billy Dufour, a 5’9” 175-lb. RHP went 6-2, with a 1.87 ERA, in eight AC starts. Oceak’s SABR bio is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/frank-oceak/. It does not refer to his 1957-58 LIDOM season.

Per this Bienvenido Rojas blog, https://www.diariolibre.com/deportes/blogs/brv/dick-stuart-creo-la-leyenda-de-los-411-BA22557677, Stuart hammered a long HR over a 411-foot sign against Ray Rippelmeyer of the EO. Rippelmeyer recalled he was not pitching well in the LIDOM, and welcomed his trade to the San Juan Senators for Don McMahon, in a rare Inter-League trade between teams in the LIDOM and Puerto Rico’s Winter League. Stuart clubbed his 14th HR of the season, January 16, 1958, off a Carlton Willey fastball, in a 3-1 win over EO. This broke Pedro Formental’s old league mark of 13, with 1951 AC. Stuart’s Dominican nickname was “El Peje Cajón.” He once hit 66 HR for the 1956 Lincoln Chiefs, with 158 RBI and 171 strikeouts.

LIDOM 1958-59

Leónidas Rhadamés Stadium, named after one of President Trujillo’s sons, was inaugurated on October 25, 1958, thanks to the foresight and coordination of engineer Juan B. Sánchez Correa, with help from engineer Bienvenido Martínez Brea aka Bebecito, and Reynaldo “Papi” Bisonó. Its seating capacity was about 10,000. http://www.vidasocial.com.do/60-aniversario-del-estadio-cibao/ Oceak returned for a second season, along with Pirates including 1B Stuart and RHP Daniels. Other Pirates prospects included LHP Joe Gibbon and SS Kenny Hamlin. The author spoke with Gibbon in Newton, Mississippi, circa 2010. “Kenny Hamlin and I were the only Americans without wives or family, and we were going crazy. They checked your mail—if you wrote a letter saying something ‘bad’ about the country, your family would never get it. … I lost three or four in a row. They wanted to run me out of the country; then I started winning…”

Once Gibbon started winning, he was invited to parties and met dignitaries. Gibbon was scouted by big-league teams when he pitched collegiately at the University of Mississippi. In 1957, after hitting .425, third highest single-season average in school history; being named to the All-SEC team; playing in the 1957 College World Series; Gibbon signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, with Howie Haak’s approval, after being scouted by the Pirates’ regional scout, Sammy Moses, of Yazoo City, Mississippi. “The Braves and Phillies—from my high school days—were interested in me,” said Gibbon, “but Milwaukee had a (1957) rotation of Spahn, Burdette, and Buhl. I was not interested in the Phils; the Pirates were a weaker team, in need of left-handed pitching, so I signed with them for a $1,000 bonus, plus $3,000 for my first pro season … bought my first car: 1957 Chevrolet Sports Coupe for $2,700; got it financed for one year. Atley Donald of the Yankees scouted me in high school.” Gibbon’s first pro manager at Lincoln of the Class A Western League, was Larry Shepard, who Gibbon said was someone who could “motivate me better than the rest of them.” (Gibbon was an excellent basketball player—drafted by the Boston Celtics, spring 1957.) https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/joe-gibbon/ By the time Gibbon first pitched for Pittsburgh (1960-65), the Pirates Gold and Black uniform layout was strikingly like AC uniforms.

Joe Gibbon, Pittsburgh Pirates.
Photo Credit: baseball.fandom.com.

Another interesting personality was AC RHP Rudy Hernández, born in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Back in 1950-51, he was a rookie pitcher for Rogers Hornsby’s Ponce Lions; and lived in the same Ponce building as teammates Clint Courtney and Bill Skowron. Hernández came to Puerto Rico via the Dominican Republic and New York City. His dad was the son of Trujillo’s top general in the Dominican military. His mom came from Puerto Rico, qualifying Hernández—like Ozzie Virgil Sr.—to play as a league Native. Prior to the new (December 16, 2020) ruling via Commissioner Rob Manfred that Negro Leaguers from 1920-to-1948 are now major leaguers, Hernández was the first Dominican-born pitcher in the majors, with the 1960 Washington Senators, two weeks and two days prior to Juan Marichal’s debut with the San Francisco Giants. However, Dominican hurler Pedro Alejandro San, who pitched for the 1926-1928 New York Cubans, Eastern Colored League, is now the first Dominican big leaguer AND first Dominican pitcher in major league history, due to baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s December 16, 2020 statement on seven Negro Leagues (1920-to-1948) elevated to Major League status. San also pitched for some great Concordia teams based in Venezuela, early-to-mid-1930s, a powerhouse. Those teams, at times, included Luis Aparicio Sr., Martín Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Johnny Mize and a host of other terrific players.

Rudy Hernández, 1960 Washington Senators. Photo Credit: Momento Deportivo RD.

Felipe Alou, Willie McCovey, Bill White and Ozzie Virgil were some of Escogido’s top hitters. One long McCovey three-run HR off Licey’s Bob Gibson, December 2, 1958, sent Gibson to the showers, and generated his release with a 2-6 record and 5.00 ERA in 45 innings. Cuso García, President of the Licey Baseball Club, prepared Gibson’s release papers. Licey, however, qualified for the playoffs with a 29-29 record, ahead of third-place AC (26-34).

AC picked up San Juan pitchers Luis “Tite” Arroyo and Ray Rippelmeyer, for the semi-finals against Licey. Tite pitched superbly, with 13 strikeouts and one walk in 10.1 innings. He had a tough-luck, 1-0 loss, in Game Four, February 2, 1959, in Santiago. Reyes Figueroa, from Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, homered in the fourth, after Norm Larker and Pedro González were retired. Rippelmeyer relieved Arroyo in the ninth, and started an earlier game. San Juan’s Nino Escalera reinforced AC, but Licey prevailed, three games-to-one with timely hitting and pitching, led by Pete Burnside, Nelson Chittum and Don Choate. AC’s only win was by Bennie Daniels. Licey then bested Escogido, five games-to-four. https://www.diariolibre.com/deportes/beisbol/el-licey-gano-la-serie-regular-1958-59-y-amenazo-con-retiro-DX1440063

Table I: AC-Pittsburgh Pirates Connection, 1955-59

Player or MGRPOSSeason(s)AC Highlights
Bill Mazeroski#2B1955-5794 G, 366 AB, 106 hits, .290 AVG, two HR, 39 RBI.
Jerry LynchLF1955-5645 G, 177 AB, .277 AVG, five HR, 30 RBI.
Bob SkinnerLF1955-5648 AB, .313 AVG, one HR, four RBI.
Bobby Del GrecoCF1955-56.214 AVG; excellent center fielder.
Earl Weaver^2B/SS1955-56.246 AVG, .371 OBP, 26 BB to four strikeouts.
Danny KravitzC1956-57League-leading four HR. A .239 AVG with 22 RBI.
R.C. Stevens1B1956-57.250 AVG, .401 OBP, 38 BB to 32 strikeouts.
Dick Stuart1B1957-5914 HR in 1957-58 set a new LIDOM season record.
Ken HamlinSS1958-59.239 AVG, three HR, 15 RBI.
Julián Javier2B1956-59.316 AVG, 1958-59. In Pirates farm system, 1956-60.
Ron KlineRHP1955-567-5, 2.97 ERA.
Fred WatersLHP1955-5811-5, 2.23 ERA, 1955-56. Led league in wins.
Joe GibbonLHP1958-594-7, 3.21 ERA, 51 strikeouts in 70 innings.
Bennie DanielsRHP1956-57, 58-5912-7, 1.92 ERA, 1958-59. Led league in wins.
Larry ShepardMGR1955-5630-23 W-L; won semi-finals versus Licey, 2G to none; lost finals to Escogido, 4G to 3G.
John FitzpatrickMGR1956-5729-23 W-L; lost semi-finals to Licey, 3G to none.
Frank OceakMGR1957-5946-65 W-L, lost 1958-59 semis to Licey, 3G to one.

#Mazeroski was inducted in Cooperstown via the Veterans Committee (2001). ^Earl Weaver was a 1996 Cooperstown Inductee, as MGR. Note: Martín Dihigo was the first AC ex-player/MGR inducted in Cooperstown (1977). Dihigo was an AC player/MGR, summers of 1937 and 1951. This link highlights Cooperstown Inductees of those who played pro baseball in the Dominican Republic. https://www.diariolibre.com/deportes/blogs/brv/inmortales-cooperstown-rd-NB641852

On February 25, 2021, Dennis Lewallyn furnished feedback on Fred Waters (pitching star for 1955-56 AC), his Escambia High School coach, Pensacola, Florida. Lewallyn was a “baseball lifer,” having retired—after 48 years in pro baseball—when he completed duties as pitching coach of the 2019 Mississippi Braves, Class AA affiliate, Atlanta Braves. “I was fortunate enough to play for coach Waters,” affirmed Lewallyn. “He was a great person for giving us advice on Jr. colleges and four-year schools.” Shortly after Lewallyn’s high school sophomore season (1969), Waters managed Bert Blyleven in the Gulf Coast League. When Blyleven and Lewallyn were teammates on the 1981 Cleveland Indians, Blyleven told Lewallyn that “Fred Waters was the best pitching coach I ever had.” https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/dennis-lewallyn/

With special thanks and appreciation to Luichy Sánchez and Mario Emilio Guerrero, for LIDOM insights; to Dennis Lewallyn, for thoughts on Fred Waters, his high school baseball coach. Thanks to Felipe Alou, Jim Brosnan, Pete Burnside, Joe Gibbon, Rudy Hernández, Danny Kravitz, Ray Rippelmeyer, Ozzie Virgil Sr. and Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Puerto Rico Professional Baseball League.

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