On a pleasant, mid-October 1991 day, the author was in Ponce, Puerto Rico, with time to kill. Ponce would host the [first] October 20, 1991 Induction Ceremony of the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame. Héctor Díaz Salichs, a ponceño, knew where Luis “King Kong” Villodas lived. He drove to Villodas’s Ponce home with the author in the passenger seat. It was a treat to visit with Villodas, Puerto Rico’s first MLB catcher, having caught for the 1946 and 1947 Baltimore Elite Giants. Villodas covered several topics, but for this blog, we will focus on his 1951 and 1952 summer seasons in the Dominican Republic, playing for the Águilas Cibaeñas (AC).
King Kong Villodas played winter ball for the Mayagüez Indios when he reinforced the “Aguiluchos” in the early 1950s. His nickname originated with a visit to Villodas’s Ponce home by Alfonso Valdés, Mayagüez Indios owner. When Villodas was summoned by his mom from a nap, a startled Valdés stated, “That’s King Kong.” The muscular Villodas was 6’2”, 205 lbs.
Some Background on AC
The team was initially created on January 2, 1933 as the Santiago Baseball Club (BBC). Santiago de los Caballeros, located in the north-central part of the Dominican Republic, with four surrounding municipalities, had an estimated one million residents, as of 2020. Its sister-cities include Fort Myers, Florida; Havana, Cuba; Santiago de Compostela, Spain; San Juan and Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.
In 1936, Santiago BBC competed against Estrellas Orientales (EO), the Green Team; Licey Tigers (Blue Team) and Escogido Lions (Red Team). Then, on January 28, 1937, a group of sports enthusiasts/businessmen met in the roof garden of the Mercedes Hotel, in Santiago de los Caballeros. They approved a name change to Águilas Cibaeñas, whose yellow AC logo has remained constant to this day. Stateside players who once played for AC have referred to it as the Yellow Team. So do fans, writers and Native players. As far back as 1936, their uniform had an eagle—English word for águila—on the sleeve. Current Facebook groups include “Pandilla Amarilla” (Yellow Gang).
AC faced Ciudad Trujillo Dragons—funded/sponsored by Dominican Republic President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina—and EO in a special summer season. AC contracted Martín Dihigo—Cuba’s best and most versatile baseball player—and other imports, i.e., LHP Luis Tiant Sr., RHP Chet Brewer and IF George Scales. They finished second to Ciudad Trujillo in the regular season; and lost the finals, four games-to-three, to the Dragons, after winning the first three. The Dragons had Josh Gibson, James “Cool Papa” Bell, William Perkins, stellar hurler Satchel Paige and other Negro Leaguers.
The exorbitant amount of money spent by politicians and promotors for this 1937 “season” bankrupted professional baseball in the Dominican Republic until 1951. A representative of President Trujillo, for example, gave Paige $30,000 to recruit players, with half ($15,000) for Paige; and, the other $15,000 for Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and several others. From 1951-to-1954, there was a summer Dominican Republic League. Then, it transitioned to its present status, as an official Liga de Béisbol Profesional de la República Dominicana, or Liga Dominicana (Dominican League). Its winter league acronym is LIDOM.
AC only played day games for 1951-54 summer league contests. Their home stadium in Santiago was called El Hipódromo (The Racetrack), since it was originally an oval where horse racing competition took place. Licey and Escogido played their home day games at La Normal in Ciudad Trujillo. EO hosted opponents in a San Pedro de Macoris ballpark. Their refurbished home stadium was later named after Tetelo Vargas.
1951 Dominican Summer League (DSL)
Licey (32-24) and Escogido (27-30) won the respective halves, with Licey prevailing in the finals. AC (27-27) and EO (24-29) failed to qualify for the finals. This league usually featured 54-game seasons, divided into halves, followed by playoffs. AC, in 1951, were managed by Dihigo (12-12 as skipper), OF-1B Pedro Formental (3-0) and Rafael Valdez (12-15). King Kong Villodas had 54 hits in 156 AB, including six doubles, one triple, six HR and 25 RBI. His slash line was .346/.410/.513, with a .923 OPS.
Roster changes were frequent. AC signed Cuban Pedro Formental, who slugged 13 HR and drove in 31, in just 108 AB. Villodas and Formental accounted for 19 or 90.5 percent of AC’s 21 HR. Alonzo “His Majesty” Perry was Licey’s best hitter: 36 hits/90 AB, a .400 AVG, but not enough plate appearances to win the batting title. Villodas earned the batting title with 175 plate appearances, 3.24 for every AC game. The only two catchers in DSL or their Winter League, aka as “Liga Dominicana” (LIDOM), to lead their leagues in AVG include:
- King Kong Villodas, AC, 1951, .346
- Tony Peña, AC, 1979-80, .317.
Note: Josh Gibson, in 1937, with Ciudad Trujillo, had a .453 AVG (24-for-53), to pace hitters in a three-team tournament.
Fellé Delgado, Licey’s last 1951 manager, after Horacio “Rabbit” Martínez, Manuel Hernández and Perry, opined this was an “interesting league with ex-Negro Leaguers (including himself), top talent from Cuba, Puerto Rico. Venezuela and the host country.” Escogido featured José St. Clair, known as Pepe Lucas; Willard “Ese Hombre” Brown; pitchers Roy Partlow, Domingo Sevilla and Luis Rafael Cabrera. EO had hometown hero Juan Esteban “Tetelo” Vargas, and Efigenio “Cocó” Ferrer from Puerto Rico. Willard Brown pitched a 10-inning CG (loss) for Escogido; Alonzo Perry was used in relief by Licey. Versatility was highly regarded by all DSL teams.
To reinforce Fellé’s “interesting league” point, Escogido’s three skippers were: Dick Seay (5-5)—coach for Santurce Crabbers 1950-51 Caribbean Series champs; Francisco “Pancho” Coímbre (4-11)—who retired (as a player) after his 1950-51 season with Ponce, in Puerto Rico, where he served as hitting coach for manager Rogers Hornsby; and, Dominican 1B Pepe Lucas (16-10), whose Game Seven walk-off HR for Santurce, February 17, 1951, versus Caguas, became known as “The Pepelucazo,” the “Shot Heard Around the Caribbean.”
Villodas told the author he hit the “longest HR at Santiago’s old Hipódromo Stadium. “The fans went wild,” recalled Villodas. “They passed a hat with money in it, to give me…those [AC] fans loved their baseball.”
Licey’s Luis Rodríguez Olmo was 1952 batting champ (.344 AVG). Olmo was known as “El Pelotero de América,” (Ballplayer of the Americas). He scouted for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves, and was Caguas’s player-manager in Puerto Rico. “I played in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic,” said Olmo. “We had a very good [Licey] team with Alonzo Perry and Rubén Gómez, my good friend.” https://www.licey.com/fallece-el-expelotero-luis-rodriguez-olmo-el-jibaro/
Gómez joined Licey, late June 1952, after departing from the Kansas City Blues, top farm of the New York Yankees. “I pitched a game for Kansas City, and they didn’t use me for a month. So, I went to play ball in the Dominican Republic and the Yankees suspended me. (DSL was not affiliated with Organized Baseball in the States, but big-league teams sent scouts there.) At that end of that season, I bought out my own contract with Kansas City for $3,000 by giving the money to another person who gave the cash to them.” In Gómez’s words, he was “encojonao” (terribly upset) at Kansas City and Yankees officials. Rogers Hornsby saw Gómez pitch gems against his 1950-51 Ponce Lions and watched him pitch for Santurce in the 1953 Caribbean Series, hosted by Havana. Hornsby told Casey Stengel that the “Yankees made a mistake in letting Gómez go.”
AC had two excellent starters: Terris “The Great” McDuffie and Emilio “El Indio” Cueche. McDuffie (14-3), 1.82 ERA, hurled 158.1 innings in 18 starts, completing 13. Cueche, a 5’8” 180 lb. Venezuelan, pitched 148 innings, with a 9-9 W-L and 2.80 ERA. AC went 35-22 under Cuban manager Rodolfo Fernández. The author met Fernández, in New York City, early 1990s, at a special function featuring Negro Leaguers. “I was familiar with the Dominican Republic,” stated Fernández, who played for the 1937 Ciudad Trujillo Dragons. “We made good money [in 1937] and early 1950s. I managed AC in 1952 and 1953.”
The first-half lasted from Saturday, April 26, 1952 until Monday, July 2. There was a break prior to the second-half. AC and Escogido tied for first, in the first-half; Licey took second-half honors. The country’s Baseball Commission, presided by Dr. Pedro Julio Santana, authorized a best-of-three series between AC and Escogido, late August, with the winner facing Licey in the finals. AC won the August 28 contest in Santiago, plus the August 31 game in Santo Domingo.
AC’s balanced line-up had four players driving in 20 plus runs: Guillermo Vento (3B-catcher), with 33; Villodas-28; OF Alejandro Crespo-27; and Fernando Díaz Pedroso (2B-OF), with 20. AC OF Tiant Tineo led the loop with 17 SB. Villodas’s five triples led the league. “Many think catchers can’t run,” said Villodas.” It was hard to hit HR in the Dominican Republic. I hit triples, too.” AC’s stable roster, 15 Natives and seven Imports, the whole season, was a plus. McDuffie, Cueche, Willie “Gachito” Morales (6-4 W-L), from Puerto Rico) and Dominican LHP Tomás Gómez Checo were four solid starters, with Gómez Checo relieving nine times and starting eight. McDuffie’s statement “la hit no gana juego” (the hit does not win a game) was popular among Dominican sportswriters.
Licey’s mound aces were Guayubín “Diómedes” Olivo (10-5, 1.33 ERA) and Rubén Gómez (8-3, 1.57 ERA). Four of Gómez’s eight regular season wins were against AC. Alonzo Perry had a .327/.404/.599 slash line: 1.003 OPS, with 11 HR and 38 RBI. The Licey-AC finals began Saturday, September 6, at the Hipódromo in Santiago. Gómez pitched a 10-inning CG, in his 4-3 win. Cueche took the loss. Olmo went 2-for-5, including the game-winning hit in the 10th. Game Two was the next morning, a 5-4 McDuffie victory, with a Gómez Checo save. That afternoon, Federico “ChiChi” Olivo blanked AC, 5-0, after pitching five relief innings in the morning.
Game Four was held at La Normal, Ciudad Trujillo, Saturday, September 13. Rubén Gómez and Cueche hurled 10 innings apiece, when the 5-5 contest was called due to darkness. AC swept the September 14 twin-bill, 1-0 and 4-3. The 1-0 AC win was a three-hit SHO by Gómez Checo over ChiChí Olivo. That afternoon, McDuffie won on Alejandro Crespo’s walk-off HR. AC 1-0 (morning) win was the first baseball game televised in the Dominican Republic, by “Radio Televisión Dominicana.” https://archivodeportivo.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/beisbol-veraniego-dominicano-1952-final/
AC needed one more win when the series resumed in Santiago, September 20-21, 1952. The Saturday game was rained out. Rubén Gómez pitched Licey’s 3-1 win on Sunday (September 21), to even the series at three games each. The final game was Thursday, September 25, at “Estadio de la Escuela Normal Presidente Trujillo” (La Normal’s full name). Starting line-up for AC was: Tineo (CF), Guillermo Estrella (SS), Gachito Morales (LF), Vento (3B), Fernando Bueno (1B), Crespo (C), Pedroso (RF), Cueche (P) and Julio Martínez (2B). Host Licey lined up with Othello “Juanita Morel” Renfroe-SS, Alcibíades Colón-RF, Silvio García-3B, Olmo-LF, Perry-1B, Casey Jones-C, Luis Báez-CF, Fiquito Suárez-2B and Rubén “El Divino Loco” Gómez-P. Cueche won it, 4-1. Tomás Gómez Checo got one out in the ninth; McDuffie, the last out and save. Cueche fanned 10 in 8.1 innings. Writers voted Gómez Checo the Final Series MVP.
1953 and 1954 DSL
Wilmer “Red” Fields made $2,200 per month with 1953 EO, eastern part of the Island—San Pedro de Macoris. He was the club’s top hitter with a .393 AVG, in 107 AB, with a .393/.484/.514 slash line and .998 OPS, but got little run support as a pitcher, going 2-7 with a 3.90 ERA. EO finished fourth (last) with a 15-39 record. “I still made more money in two plus months with EO ($5,000), than I would have in the U.S. (via a $4,000 contract the entire baseball season.) The author visited Fields at his Manassas, Virginia home, in 1992. Fields loved the fan support throughout the Caribbean and South America—Puerto Rico, Cuba (February 1949 Caribbean Series), Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Colombia. Fields stated:
“If you didn’t produce, your butt was coming across that creek and somebody else was on the way.” Two of Fields’s EO teammates also had fine seasons: league batting champ Tetelo Vargas (.355 AVG) and switch-hitting 3B Howard Easterling, from Mt. Olive, Mississippi. They were “old-timers” with Vargas, age 47, and Easterling, 42. Fields was the “baby” at 41. Fields did not have required plate appearances to win the 1953 DSL batting title.
Player and manager turnover was a reality in the DSL. It was not about developing players—the emphasis was on winning. The EO had seven managers in 1953, five more than the AC. Rodolfo Fernández had AC in good shape at 29-16, when he departed. Catcher Bill Cash replaced him and had a 2-7 managing record. Licey avenged their 1952 Final Series defeat to AC by winning the 1953 finals, four games-to-one. AC had three solid starters—Cueche (13-9, 3.41 ERA); McDuffie (8-4, 2.53 ERA); and Agapito Mayor (5-6, 3.44 ERA). Cueche’s 13 CG and 96 strikeouts led the league.
Licey counteracted with the Olivo brothers, who pitched superbly for Cuban manager Oscar Rodríguez. Licey finished 36-18 in the regular season and 40-19, overall, including the finals. U.S. Virgin Islander (USVI) Valmy Thomas caught for Licey. Their trio of 3B Bert Haas, 1B Perry and Olmo—aka as “The Tanks”—combined for 120 regular season RBI.
The 1953 Escogido Lions reinforced themselves with two LHP from Puerto Rico: Roberto Vargas (10-8) and Luis “Tite” Arroyo (6-6). Alfonso Gerard, from the USVI, played OF. Bob Thurman (1-1, 3.19 ERA) was their top HR hitter, with seven in 104 AB. Thurman, age 36, had a .519 SLG. He conversed with the author, in Ponce, October 1991, on his career, including two summer seasons in Ciudad Trujillo. “Puerto Rico was my favorite [Winter] League,” said Thurman, who played 12 seasons in Puerto Rico, and is their All-Time Professional Baseball League HR leader, with 120. “I appreciated the Dominican Republic, with its love for baseball. We (African-American players) were treated very well. It was a fine atmosphere; I enjoyed my two seasons there. Later [1964-65], I managed the Green Team (EO), part of one season.”
EO, under skipper Ramón Bragaña (from Cuba), won the 1954 title, with RHP José de la Trinidad “Carrao” Bracho—an import from Venezuela—going 8-1, 2.47 ERA. Bracho was 2-0 versus Licey in the finals. His catcher was Earl “Maricutana” Taborn, known for his effeminate gait. Johnny “El Gaucho” Davis contributed a .308 AVG to EO. Carrao Bracho also earned six Caribbean Series wins, to tie Rubén Gómez and Cuba’s Camilo Pascual, for most wins in Caribbean Series history. Pascual was 6-0; Gómez, 6-2; and Bracho, 6-4, during Phase I of this regional event, between 1949-1960. (The Dominican Republic did not participate in Phase I, but has in Phase II, since 1970.)
AC won 11 of 48 games. Easterling, now 43, led the team with a .305 AVG. Back in 1946-47, Easterling was signed to play for the Ponce Lions, as a “replacement” for Jackie Robinson, who was supposed to reinforce Ponce, as did RHP Johnny Wright. Player-manager Olmo contributed a .290 AVG, with two HR. Pitching was non-existent. Johnny Wright (age 38) was 0-7 for AC with a 4.94 ERA, in 40 innings. Barney “Brinquitos” Brown pitched 13 innings, with an 0-1 record and 5.54 ERA. So, Olmo went from first (in 1953 with Licey) to worst (in 1954) with AC. “I have fond memories of playing in the Dominican Republic. It was a good league with many veteran Negro Leaguers, some prospects and talent from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
Bob Thurman led the 1954 DSL with 11 HR and 34 RBI, for Escogido. He concurred with Olmo, on the mix of players, noting “I wanted to play in the National or American League. The DSL was a step in that direction…I proved myself with the Homestead Grays, Santurce Crabbers, Pacific Coast League and others…” Thurman’s Escogido teammates included 3B Ray “Talúa” Dandridge (age 41) and 26-year-old RHP José “Pantalones” Santiago, from Coamo, Puerto Rico. Table I is a partial list of Negro Leaguers who played in the DSL, 1951-54.
Table I: Partial List of Negro Leaguers, 1951-54 DSL
|Player and Position||DSLTeam||Season(s)||DSL Highlights|
|Luis “King Kong” Villodas- C/1B||AC||1951-52||1951 batting champ: .346 AVG; hit longest HR at El Hipódromo, original AC Stadium, in Santiago, 1951.|
|Willard Brown-OF/P||Escogido||1951-53||.304 AVG, 9 HR, 29 RBI, .379 OBP, 1952.|
|Johnny “El Gaucho” Davis-OF/P||Escogido, EO||1952-54||.308 AVG for EO, 1954; .385 AVG in finals versus Licey.|
|Bob Thurman-OF/P||Escogido||1953-54||Led 1954 league in HR (11) and RBI (34).|
|Alonzo “His Majesty” or “The Prince” Perry-1B/P||Licey||1951-54||League-leading 11 HR and 53 RBI, 1953. Top 1954 AVG (.336).|
|Tetelo Vargas-OF||EO||1951-54||1953 batting champ: .355 AVG at age 47.|
|Ray Dandridge-3B||Escogido||1954||.281 AVG, four strikeouts in 178 AB.|
|Howard Easterling-3B||Escogido/EO/ AC||1952-54||.331 AVG; three strikeouts, 124 AB-1953 Escogido; .305 AVG for 1954 AC.|
|Wilmer Fields-P/3B||EO||1953||.393 AVG and two wins as a pitcher. Earned $2,200 per month in salary.|
|Pedro Formental-OF/1B||AC and EO||1951-53||.324 AVG, 13 HR in 108 AB; .486 OBP, .704 SLG and 1.190 OPS, 1951 AC.|
|Barney Brown-P||Escogido and AC||1952, ‘54||3-1, 2.12 ERA for 1952 Escogido.|
|Terris McDuffie-P||AC and EO||1952-54||14-3, 1.82 ERA for 1952 AC champions.|
|José “Pantalones” Santiago-P||Escogido||1954||3-3, 3.14 ERA.|
|Roy Partlow-P||Escogido||1951||5-0, 0.57 ERA in five regular season starts.|
|Johnny Wright-P||Escogido and AC||1952-54||10-5, 2.05 ERA for Escogido, 1952.|
|Roberto Vargas-P||Escogido||1953||10-8, 2.82 ERA.|
Historian Mario Emilio Guerrero wrote about the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, two-island links in the Listín Diario of September 12, 2020: https://listindiario.com/el-deporte/2010/09/12/158558/el-beisbol-es-el-principal-vinculo-entre-rd-y-pr
Transition to Pittsburgh Pirates 1955-56 Convenio with AC
There was no DSL in 1955. Instead, the LIDOM was established for the 1955-56 winter season. Luichy Sánchez alerted the author that his 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. One outcome was 19-year-old Bill Mazeroski becoming Pittsburgh’s first prospect to sign a contract with 1955-56 AC.
Part II picks up with 2B Mazeroski and other 1955-56 AC players, including 2B/SS Earl Weaver; LHP Fred Waters, from Benton, Mississippi, 11-game winner for AC, 1955-56. It will highlight AC accomplishments of Mazeroski, 1B Dick Stuart, OF Bob Skinner, LHP Joe Gibbon—from Hickory, Mississippi—and catcher Bob Oldis, who earned 1960 World Series rings with Pittsburgh.
With special thanks and appreciation to Luis “Kong” Villodas, Bob Thurman and Wilmer Fields, for sharing time and stories; Mario Emilio Guerrero and Luichy Sánchez, for insights on pro baseball in the Dominican Republic; Félix “Fellé” Delgado, for his 1951 DSL “history lesson;” and, Héctor Díaz Salichs, Rodolfo Fernández, Rubén Gómez, Luis Rodríguez Olmo, Germán J. Rivas and Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Puerto Rico Professional Baseball League.