Bert Thiel remembers his 1951-52 & 1954-55 seasons with Caguas Criollos in Puerto Rico

Bert Thiel won 145 minor-league regular season games and lost 108, with a 3.76 ERA. His one 20-win season came with the 1948 Jackson (Mississippi) Senators, Southeastern League. He pitched in four major league contests for the 1952 Boston Braves. An April 11, 2020 Boston Globe article by Peter Abraham highlights Thiel’s memories from three decades in baseball as a pitcher, coach, manager, and scout  https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/04/11/sports/bert-thiel-one-two-surviving-boston-braves-played-four-games-has-lifetime-memories/. But most Stateside baseball fans may not know about Thiel’s 14-7 season for the 1951-52 Caguas Criollos in Puerto Rico, nor that he returned to Caguas in 1954-55, and pitched against Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente of the legendary 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers, perhaps the best Winter League baseball team ever assembled.

Thiel was born May 4, 1926, in Marion, Wisconsin, and still lives there. He spoke with the author by phone, on April 13, 2020, on his fond memories of Puerto Rico; two minor-league no-hitters, 1949 and 1951; the 1951 Junior World Series title with the Milwaukee Brewers—the greatest class AAA team ever assembled, from Thiel’s point-of-view; his 1952 NL debut in Braves Field; and, managing José “Palillo” Santiago (1960). The two persons with the most influence on Thiel were connected to Babe Ruth: 1) George Selkirk, New York Yankees RF, 1934-to-1942, who took over for Ruth in RF; and 2) Charlie Root, who threw the “called home run shot” pitch against Ruth, October 1, 1932, at Wrigley Field, Game Three, 1932 World Series.

World War II through 1951

At 18, Thiel arrived in Europe after the Battle of the Bulge and helped push the Nazis back into Germany until they surrendered in 1945. He took part in liberating several concentration camps and after the fighting ended was part of a unit that taught German children how to play baseball, per the Boston Globe. Thiel alerted Van Hyning that he enjoyed attending portions of the Nuremberg trials in 1946; they provided key historical insights to a young combat veteran. It became clear to him that German youth were more interested in soccer than in any other sports.

Back in the States, Thiel worked as a logger in Wisconsin. This kept him in shape in his pro baseball career, beginning with the 1947 Eau Claire Bears, class C Northern League. He posted a 10-10 record in 30 games, with a 3.60 ERA in 190 innings. In 1948, he doubled his win output to 20, in posting a 20-12 ledger for the Jackson (Mississippi) Senators, class B Southeastern League. More importantly, he met his wife (Jean), a native of Philadelphia, Mississippi. They were married and eventually had nine children, 17 grandchildren, and 22 great grandchildren!

Two seasons with the class A Hartford Chiefs in 1949 and 1950, preceded Thiel’s 1951 season with Milwaukee. He was a combined 24-17 for Hartford, with a 9-10 campaign followed by 15-7 in 1950. He had some bone chips removed from his (right) pitching elbow in Boston, at that time. His medic stated: “If you pitch, you’re going to have pain…” Thiel’s first no-hitter was against Elmira on June 10, 1949, seven-innings, in a 7-0 win. Whitey Ford, 1949 Binghamton Triplets, was the Eastern League’s best pitching prospect. The 1951 Milwaukee Brewers (94-57) were outstanding. George Crowe at 1B, .339 AVG, 24 HR, and 119 RBIs, and Buster Clarkson at SS, .343 AVG, 5 HR, 49 RBIs, provided pop, as did CF Jim Basso, .264, 25, 114, and RF Luis Olmo, .279, 8, 52. Billy Klaus, at 3B, scored 105 runs; LF Bob Thorpe scored 108. Al Unser, catcher and American Association MVP, had a .293 AVG, with 17 HR and 62 RBIs. Billy Reed, the 2B, cracked 30 doubles, with a .311 AVG. Johnny Logan and Gene Mauch were utility IF. Eddie Mathews, future Cooperstown Hall of Famer, played in 12 games; .333 AVG, one HR, and five RBIs. Five pitchers won 12 or more, including Ernie Johnson (15-4), Murray Wall (15-7), Thiel (14-9, 3.71 ERA), Virgil Jester (13-6), and Charlie Gorin (12-9). Dick Donovan (7-5), Dick Hoover (5-4), and Art Fowler (4-7) contributed. They beat the Kansas City Blues, four games-to-one, in the semis; and, St. Paul Saints, four games-to-two, in the finals.

The 1951 (and 1952) Milwaukee-Kansas City match-ups preceded the 1957 and 1958 Milwaukee Braves-New York Yankees World Series events. Mickey Mantle, Bob Cerv, and Bill Skowron were Kansas City Blues hitters facing Thiel and others in 1951. Johnny Logan (1951 and 1952) and Billy Bruton (1952) were Milwaukee Brewers who played in the 1957 and 1958 World Series for the Milwaukee Braves. George Selkirk—manager of the 1951 Kansas City Blues—worked closely with Thiel, from 1953-55, when Selkirk managed the Toledo Sox in the American Association. Coincidentally, Clay Hopper, manager of the 1951 St. Paul Saints, in the Dodgers organization, managed Jackie Robinson at Montreal, in 1946. Hopper, from Greenwood, Mississippi, was depicted in several movies about Jackie Robinson. On facing Mantle, Thiel said: “Mickey, he could do everything. He hit for power and average and he could really run. You knew they [Mantle and Mays] were going to be big stars.” Mays first faced Thiel when Minneapolis played Milwaukee, 1951 American Association, prior to Mays’s NL call-up.

Thiel’s 1951 Brewers won the Junior World Series in six games over the Montreal Royals. Luis Olmo’s bases-loaded triple off Tom Lasorda was the key hit in Game Six, a 13-10 Brewers win, October 2. Olmo asked Thiel, Wall, Klaus, and pitcher Earl Harrist to reinforce Caguas, the Puerto Rico Winter League team Olmo managed and played for. Olmo was impressed by Thiel’s toughness, work ethic, plus a (seven inning) no-hitter Thiel pitched against Toledo, August 16, a 5-0 victory. “There was a limit of five imports per team in Puerto Rico, 1951-52,” recalled Thiel.

1951-52 and 1954-55 Caguas Criollos

Thiel (14-7) won one-third of Caguas’s (42-30) games. Rubén Gómez, ace of the Santurce Crabbers, won 14. So, did Charlie Gorin (Thiel’s 1951 Brewers teammate) with two wins for Mayagüez and 12 with San Juan. Sam Jones won 13 for San Juan, fourth-best in the league.  Thiel recalls winning a bunch of cases of Don Q rum, but having to leave them behind at season’s end. He was not fond of the long bus trips to Ponce and Mayagüez, but Olmo allowed him, Wall, and Klaus to drive to these away games in a used Cadillac. “Luis just wanted to make sure we got to the games on time,” said Thiel. “We respected and liked Luis—a great guy.” Thiel, Jean, and two children, age two and six months, lived in a nice apartment that winter.

By season’s end, Wall was with Santurce, which eliminated Caguas, three games-to-none, in the semi-finals. Clarkson played for Santurce.  Crowe (Caguas-San Juan) tied for the league lead with nine HR, with Vic Power (Caguas), Johnny Davis (Santurce), and Al Smith (Ponce). Crowe’s 70 RBIs and 23 doubles led the league. Olmo (55) and Vic Power (54) were third-fourth in RBIs; Bob Thurman’s 57 for Santurce were second. Gorin won two final series contests versus Santurce sent San Juan into the February 1952 Caribbean Series. Thiel’s 2.50 ERA was third-best behind Harrist’s 1.24 and Gorin’s 2.36 ERA. Only Luis “Tite” Arroyo’s 180.2 innings for Ponce surpassed Thiel’s 176.1. Thiel had a combined 28 wins and 319.1 innings between the 1951 Brewers and 1951-52 Criollos, excluding post-season play.

Three years later, Thiel was 3-4 for Caguas (regular season) and 1-1, post-season. He had off-season arm problems as a logger, when he asked his boss if it was OK to go to Puerto Rico. “He sent me down to Puerto Rico,” recalled Thiel. “The warm weather would be helpful.” Thiel showed good form in a 2-1 win over Mayagüez, December 6, 1954, preceding a 2-1 win by teammate Don McMahon over Ponce the following night. Thiel also faced Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente when Caguas played Santurce. “Willie, he was a bad-ball hitter. You could throw it anywhere and he could hit it. Sometimes you were better off throwing it down the middle,” noted Thiel to Abraham. “Clarkson, Crowe, and Clemente could really hit [for Santurce],” added Thiel to Van Hyning. Thiel won Game Four for Caguas, 5-4, in their semi-final series versus San Juan, to win this best-of-five series. Rance Pless’s two-run HR in the eighth, won it. Cerv homered off Thiel for San Juan. Thiel had a rough outing in Game Three of the finals against Santurce, an eventual 14-0 Crabbers win. McMahon returned to the States after the San Juan series, and Joey Jay just threw two pitches in his final series start against Santurce, before departing that game. Caguas (42-30) still had a good season, under skipper Ben Geraghty. The number of imports for Island teams had increased to nine by the mid-1950s.

Four Games with the 1952 Boston Braves and back to Milwaukee, American Association

Thiel’s two weeks in the NL lasted April 17-30, 1952. At Braves Field, on April 17, he replaced Gene Conleyin the fifth, and retired Carl Furillo, Johnny Schmitz, and Pee Wee Reese to leave Gil Hodgesstranded at second. He hit Jackie Robinson with a pitch in the sixth; then struck out Roy Campanella for the second out. Duke Snider doubled to center and Robinson scored. Andy Pafko’s double drove in Snider before Hodges grounded out. “I was upset that I gave up two runs with two outs. But I’ll never forget that day,” said Thiel, by phone, to Abraham. “It was a dream come true to pitch in the majors. It was what I wanted my whole life from when I was playing baseball with my father.” The 5’10” Thiel pitched at 185 pounds.

Two days later, Thiel won his only NL game, at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. Starter Warren Spahn was relieved by Sheldon Jones (fifth) and Thiel (seventh). Boston went up in the eighth on a three-run HR by Eddie Mathews. Lew Burdette pitched a scoreless ninth to preserve Thiel’s 9-7 win, after Thiel’s two scoreless innings. On Tuesday, April 22, 1952, Thiel gave up a game-winning single to Roy Campanella, in the home ninth at Ebbetts Field, a 2-1 Dodgers win. Thus, Thiel was 1-1 as a NL pitcher. His last Boston Braves outing was at Forbes Field, April 30, 1952, an 11-5 Pittsburgh win. The rest of 1952 was with the 101-53 Milwaukee Brewers. Thiel went 8-6. Their top hitters were Luis “Canena” Márquez (.345 AVG, 14 HR, 99 RBIs, 100 runs, and 24 SB); Crowe (.351 AVG, 6 HR, 29 RBIs, 94 AB); Clarkson (.318 AVG, 12 HR, 68 RBIs, in 299 AB); and CF Billy Bruton (.325 AVG, 130 runs, and 30 SB). Bruton went from these 1952 Brewers to Santurce (1952-53) to the 1953 Milwaukee Braves, and was mentored by Clarkson and Crowe. Márquez, with the 1951-52 San Juan Senators, played against Thiel in Puerto Rico.

1953-55 Toledo Sox through 1974

Thiel went 27-22 for the Toledo Sox, 1953-55. He developed a special friendship with, and respect for, George Selkirk, who took over Toledo’s managing reins a month into the 1953 season, and led them to a 90-64 record, and two-game edge over second-place Kansas City (88-66). Toledo played Kansas City in the league finals, where the Blues prevailed in seven games. Vic Power was Kansas City’s star player for manager Harry Craft, from Ellisville, Mississippi. (Power was traded to the Philadelphia A’s by the Yankees prior to the 1954 season, and never played for the Bronx Bombers.) Thiel also bonded with Charlie Root, his Toledo pitching coach, 1953-55. “They (Selkirk and Root) taught me so much about the game and about pitching. I was a winner everywhere I went because of them,” affirmed Thiel. “I had a better fastball before I went in the Army, but Charlie, he showed me how to pitch in different situations.”

The New York Giants selected Thiel in the Rule V Draft, November 27, 1955. He went 18-11 in 33 starts for the 1956 Dallas Eagles (94-60), second to the Houston Buffaloes (96-58).  Then, the Boston Red Sox acquired him in 1957, and placed him with the San Francisco Seals, Pacific Coast League. He pitched well in relief, 5-4 record, 2.79 ERA, 109.2 innings, for Joe Gordon, inducted in Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee, in 2009. (Van Hyning attended that ceremony; his father, Sam Van Hyning, had played high school baseball against Gordon, in Portland, Oregon, early 1930s.) Thiel recalled that Gordon let him start a late-season game; Thiel went 10 innings and won it, 3-2. The Seals (101-67) won the pennant. Steve Bilko was the most powerful hitter Thiel faced. “You made more money in the PCL than in the majors,” said Thiel. Thiel also roomed with Jimmy Piersall, a “real character,”during spring training. Piersall once brought a water pistol to the plate and squirted the umpire when he struck out, per Thiel. In 1959,

Thiel pitched for the New Orleans Pelicans, managed by Mel Parnell, and had a winning (11-10) record. He also hurled several games for Corpus Christi in 1959.

George Selkirk, Director of Player Personnel with the Kansas City A’s, 1957-1961, hired Thiel to manage their 1960 Albuquerque Dukes club, class D Sophomore League. José “Palillo” Santiago, from Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico, was a special project. Santiago, age 19 at the time, called Thiel his “second father,” a “good teacher,” an “exquisite human being,” along with being a “good manager,” when he and Van Hyning conversed by phone, April 13, 2020. Santiago opined that Thiel had a lot of credibility as a veteran pitcher in the minors, in Puerto Rico, and with the [1952] Braves. Santiago (15-6. 3.30 ERA, and 217 strikeouts) led the league in ERA and strikeouts, and pitched a no-hitter on June 13, 1960, versus Hobbs. Thiel was thrilled when he heard Santiago hit a 1967 World Series HR for Boston off St. Louis ace Bob Gibson. “He [Santiago] should be in the Hall of Fame for that,” relayed Thiel to Van Hyning. Thiel managed and pitched for Pocatello in the class C Pioneer League (2-1, 2.67 ERA), in 1961. He later managed the Dubuque (Iowa) Packers, a class A coop team, in 1974. Thiel scouted for the Washington Senators, 1964-69, during most of George Selkirk’s tenure as General Manager with the Senators. His scouting also included stints with the Chicago White Sox and Atlanta Braves.

Bert Thiel, age 93, and 90-year old Del Crandallare the only former Boston Braves players still living. Thiel told Abraham that he “loved baseball,» but “wasn’t much of a hitter and I didn’t run very well. But I had a strong arm. That’s why I became a pitcher.” Thiel also found a Southern lady [Mississippian] who “didn’t mind the cold in Wisconsin,” adding, “It was a tough life sometimes. We were having kids and I was always going off to play somewhere in the spring.”

Thiel had success in the minors and Puerto Rico, against high-caliber teams and players. There were eight NL teams in existence, 1947-1961, and eight AL clubs, 1947-1960. Thiel told Abraham “There were Triple A teams that were just as good as some major league teams.” One of his sons, Kevin, was drafted by the Angels in 1976, and played three seasons in the minors. Thiel also helped coach youth players in Wisconsin for many years. He took over a tavern owned by his parents, named The 10th Inning, and he ran it into his late eighties. Thiel is impressed with modern players. “They’re better athletes than we were,” he told Abraham. “They work on baseball all year long. Me, I was home in the winter working as a logger and sawing trees.”

Ex-players were impressed with Thiel. José “Palillo” Santiago was genuinely pleased when Van Hyning mentioned Bert Thiel, his 1960 Albuquerque Dukes manager, on April 13, 2020. Rubén Gómez (1993) recalled Thiel was a “tough competitor for Caguas, in 1951-52,” Gómez’s MVP season. Rance Pless remembered Thiel as a “1954-55 Caguas great teammate and nice guy,” when we spoke by phone (1992). Luis Olmo loved Thiel’s approach to the game, per a 1991 interview.

Sadly, Thiel passed away on Friday, July 31, 2020, four months after this interview. May he rest in peace!

With thanks and appreciation to Bert Thiel, José “Palillo” Santiago, Rubén Gómez (1927-2004), Luis R. Olmo (1919-2017), and Rance Pless (1925-2017). Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado for putting Van Hyning in touch with Santiago, and for providing Thiel’s won-lost records with the Caguas Criollos.

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