Buster Clarkson: First Player-Manager to win a Caribbean Series Title

The February 20-25, 1953 Caribbean Series was hosted by Havana, Cuba, in their Grand Stadium. Havana—the defending champions—were favored. They won the 1952 series in Panamá with a 5-0-1 record, after finishing second in 1951 with a 4-2 mark, one game behind the 5-1 Santurce Crabbers. Santurce brought a strong team to Havana in 1953, led by shortstop Buster Clarkson, their player-manager. The Crabbers earned the tickets to Havana by besting the Ponce Lions in the Puerto Rico Winter League semi-finals, followed by defeating the San Juan Senators—their arch-rivals—four games to two, in the league finals.

Buster Clarkson led 1952-53 Santurce to a 42-30 record in the five-team Puerto Rico Winter League, three games behind the 45-27 San Juan club. Clarkson, age 37, played in 14 NL games for the 1952 Boston Braves, hitting .200 (5-for-25) with one RBI in his only MLB experience. But he was a seasoned pro, having starred in the Negro Leagues, minors, Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico. From 1950-52 he had three solid seasons with class AAA Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association. His Brewers 1952 slash line was .318/.448/.541, with a .989 OPS. He had 12 HR and 68 RBIs in just 74 games, and was a role model to the team’s younger players, including CF Billy Bruton. Clarkson brought Bruton to Santurce for the 1952-53 winter season.

1953 Caribbean Series: Havana, Cuba, February 20-25, 1953

The Crabbers swept all six contests in Havana. The champions had a .367 BA and .575 team SLG, and scored 50 runs! Bob Thurman went nine for 19 for an outstanding .474 BA! But Willard Brown stole the headlines with four HR and an amazing 13 RBIs, in going 10-for-24, a .417 BA. Brown was named series MVP.  Junior Gilliam batted .545 (12-for-22) and scored seven times. Clarkson hit a robust .467 (six-for-15), and Vic Power—a Caguas reinforcement—scored six runs and batted .385. Bobo Holloman (2-0) and San Juan reinforcement Ellis “Cot” Deal both went 2-0 on the mound. Havana (3-3), Chesterfield Smokers from Panamá (2-4) and the Caracas Lions (1-5) were overwhelmed by Santurce. Martín Dihigo, the legendary player from Cuba, managed Caracas. Roberto Clemente, an 18-year old rookie with Santurce, did not travel to Havana for this Caribbean Series—replaced on the roster by reinforcement Vic Power.

Dignitaries who took part in the opening ceremonies on February 20, 1953, included George M. Trautman, president of the National Association, and Colonel Roberto Fernández Miranda, Cuban sports commissioner and brother-in-law of President Fulgencio Batista. Perhaps more significant was series attendees included Branch Rickey, Vice-President and GM, Pittsburgh Pirates; George Sisler, Chief Scout, Pittsburgh Pirates; Cincinnati Reds executive Gabe Paul; and Rogers Hornsby, then-Cincinnati Reds manager. Hornsby managed the 1950-51 Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico, and thought highly of José “Pantalones” Santiago, Ponce hurler who reinforced Santurce in this (1953) Caribbean Series; and, Joe Montalvo—member of the San Juan Senators—but chosen by Santurce to catch in the 1953 Caribbean Series. Hornsby also opined that the New York Yankees made a mistake in giving Rubén Gómez his [1952] release, prior to Gómez receiving his $10,000 bonus to sign with the 1953 New York Giants.

February 22, 1953 featured the key series match-up between host Havana—winners of 11 straight Caribbean Series games (four-1951, five-1952 with a tie and two-1953)—and Santurce.  Pantalones Santiago pitched well until Havana scored three in the top of the eighth to take a 4-3  lead. LHP Roberto Vargas relieved Santiago; then, Ellis “Cot” Deal, aka “Mr. Refuerzo” relieved Vargas to squelch Havana’s rally. Santurce look an early 2-1 lead when Willard Brown homered in the home second, followed by singles from Clarkson, Bob Thurman and Luis St. Clair, to go up 2-1. Santurce scored once in the third, but it evaporated in the eighth. Deal gave up a run in the ninth, so Santurce was down by two runs when most of the 16,700 fans were anticipating a win as Carlos Pascual retired Santurce’s first two hitters before Deal stepped up.

Deal doubled and scored on a Canena Márquez base hit, to make it 5-4. Junior Gilliam singled, and Mike González—Havana’s manager—brought in Mario Picone to face Vic Power. And Power singled to tie the contest. Rubén Gómez, who entered the game in the seventh inning as a pinch-runner for Willard Brown, came up. Cot deal takes it from here.

“The [Cuban] fans got all over him [Gómez] listed as a starter on our roster,” said Deal. “When Gómez drove in Gilliam with the winning run on a base hit, they got quiet all of a sudden.” Deal was the MVP of the 1952-53 Puerto Rico season, and a pitcher-OF for San Juan, but was proud to help Clarkson’s Santurce club dethrone Havana as Caribbean Series champs.

José “Pepe” Seda, a Puerto Rico baseball pioneer, scout, manager, GM and writer, wrote:

When the score was 5-3 [in favor of Havana] and with two outs, I accepted defeat like a presidential candidate when the partial number of votes come in…when Cot Deal lit the match and Canena and Gilliam kept it alive, I thought about our battling citizens who struggle to overcome their problems. The game-winning and miraculous hit by Gómez was emotionally satisfying to all Puerto Ricans.

Rubén Gómez told the author [in 1992] that his game-winning hit versus Havana was his most special memory in 28 seasons wearing the Santurce uniform. “Nothing can top that one,” said Gómez. “It was the only time a [professional] team from Puerto Rico won the Caribbean Series in Cuba.”

On February 23, 1953, Deal pitched a complete game versus Chesterfield, allowing 14 hits and three runs, in a 6-3 Santurce win. Gilliam and Power had three hits apiece. Havana stayed alive with a 6-4 victory over Caracas in the nightcap. Pedro Formental, Havana’s RF, had four hits in four AB. Chico Carrasquel drove in Caracas’s final two runs in the ninth frame. Then, Bobo Holloman went the route in hurling Santurce to a 9-2 triumph over Caracas on February 24, 1953. Holloman drove in two runs; Joe Montalvo and Willard Brown homered. Later that evening, Chesterfield upended Havana, 5-3, as LHP Pat Scantlebury got out of a bases-loaded jam. This clinched the series for Santurce. February 25, 1953 saw Chesterfield edge Caracas, 3-2, and Santurce finish undefeated with a 7-3 victory over Havana. Clarkson gave the ball to LHP Roberto Vargas, and then brought in Rubén Gómez to preserve the win.

Clarkson showed good managing skills with a talented team of Crabbers—a club with solid reinforcements from San Juan (Deal, Canena Márquez and Montalvo); Caguas (Power and Vargas); and Ponce (Pantalones Santiago). Márquez was the first black player signed by the New York Yankees in 1949; Power was a star with the 1952 Kansas City Blues in the Yankees system; Montalvo had caught for the 1951 first-place Seattle Rainiers (99-68) under Rogers Hornsby in the Pacific Coast League (PCL). Bob Thurman, one of the first black players initially signed by the New York Yankees in 1949, played for the 1951 and 1952 San Francisco Seals in the PCL (He was the first black player to play for the Seals.)  Clarkson counted on switch-hitting 2B Junior Gilliam, destined to be promoted to the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers after two fine (1951 and 1952) seasons with the class AAA Montreal Royals. Willard Brown’s slugging, mentioned earlier, made Clarkson’s managing job a lot easier in this series.

Santurce placed five players on the 10-player All-Star squad: catcher Montalvo, 2B Gilliam, SS Clarkson, LF Willard Brown and RHP Holloman. Bob Thurman was deprived of a spot on this All-Star Team when the writers cast their votes for Havana’s RF Pedro Formental, whose 14 hits in 25 AB resulted in a series-leading .560 BA. Those 14 hits were (and remain) a series record. Only Randy Ready—Mayagüez, 1986 Caribbean Series—and San Juan’s Roberto Alomar, for the Puerto Rico Dream Team, 1995 Caribbean Series, had 14 hits in a single Caribbean Series. Clarkson was also named as manager on this select 1953 Caribbean Series All-Star team, the first time someone earned series honors as BOTH a player and manager.

Santurce would also win the 1955, 1993 and 2000 Caribbean Series. Their 2000 undefeated series champs posted a .368 BA, .573 SLG, 58 runs and six HR, compared to Clarkson’s 1953 squad with a .367 BA, .575 SLG, 50 runs and nine HR. The Crabbers were the first team to win two Caribbean Series (1951 and 1953), and three series (1951, 1953 and 1955). Buster Clarkson deserves a lot of credit for his playing and managing skills on the legendary 1953 Caribbean Series champions. Clarkson has the distinction of being Roberto Clemente’s FIRST manager in professional baseball with the 1952-53 Crabbers.

Special thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado who nominated Bob Thurman and Buster Clarkson for consideration as 2020 Caribbean Series Hall of Fame Inductees. Willard Brown, Rubén Gómez, Vic Power, Pantalones Santiago, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Pedro Formental and Roberto Alomar, among others, are in this Hall of Fame. The author thanks Rubén Gómez for several in-person interviews and Cot Deal for several phone interviews, during prior research efforts.

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