Caguas Criollos: José Cardenal and Ferguson Jenkins to Félix Millán and Jerry Morales (Part IV)

José Cardenal

The 1963-64 Puerto Rico Winter League season featured talented Cuban ballplayers, classified as Imports, including Octavio “Cookie” Rojas and Tony Oliva with Arecibo; Aurelio Monteagudo, Chico Ruiz, Diego Seguí and José Tartabull with Santurce, managed by ex-Caguas skipper Preston Gómez, originally from Cuba; and José Cardenal, with the Caguas Criollos. Oliva won the league batting crown, .365 AVG, besting Ponce’s Walt Bond (.349) and San Juan’s Roberto Clemente (.345). Cardenal led the loop with 16 HR, in a 70-game season. He stole 14, third-best after Joe Christopher’s 16 and Chico Ruiz’s 15; Thus, Cardenal was a “30-30” player projected to 162 games, with 37 HR and 32 SB. He was a key reason why Caguas (41-29) won the regular season title, under skipper Luis R. Olmo, Criollos player-manager, 1949-50 through 1952-53, and Caguas’s 1964-65 skipper.

Cardenal, a native of Matanzas, Cuba, is Bert Campaneris’s second cousin. Coincidentally, Campaneris and Cardenal were Criollos teammates in 1964-65. Ray Birch’s SABR bio of Cardenal noted the cousins lived a few blocks apart in Matanzas. Cardenal’s father was a carpenter; his mother, a homemaker. Cardenal received a $200 signing bonus from the San Francisco Giants in 1960, at age 17. (He left Cuba on March 23, 1960, seeking a better future in the States.) Three years later (1963), he made his MLB debut with San Francisco, a club with Caribbean players including Orlando Cepeda and José A. Pagán from Puerto Rico; Juan Marichal, Felipe, Matty and Jay (Jesús) Alou from the Dominican Republic. Cardenal would play 18 MLB seasons with nine different teams.

Fred Talbot, the Vultures and a trip to the Dominican Republic

Fred Talbot (10-3) and nine-game winner Camilo Estevis, a Dodgers prospect, who was 16-12 for the 1963 Albuquerque Dukes, were Olmo’s best 1963-64 starters. Talbot opined he was the “best pitcher in the Puerto Rico League with Caguas (1963-64) and Santurce (1964-65).” Estevis never pitched in the majors, finishing his career with the 1966 and 1967 Veracruz Blues in Mexico. Talbot was highly regarded by Monchín Pichardo, owner, Licey Tigers, Dominican Winter League. After Caguas was eliminated by fourth-place Mayagüez in the 1963-64 semi-final series, Pichardo sent team officials aka “vultures” to Puerto Rico, to sign certain players, including Talbot, Tony Oliva, Ray Barker, John Boozer and eventually Mayagüez pitcher Allan Koch to strengthen Licey for the Dominican League finals versus the Aguilas Cibaeñas.

Caguas was swept by Mayagüez, January 15-18, 1964. Future Cooperstown Hall of Famer Phil Niekro homered and pitched a gem, in winning Game One of the semi-finals.  Allan Koch won the third game, 9-1, on January 17. Mayagüez came from behind in the home tenth, to win Game Four, 4-3. Caguas went home after reliever Julio Navarro hit Junior Rodríguez with a pitch, with the bases loaded and the score deadlocked, 3-3. A week later, Koch flew from San Juan to Santo Domingo, to join Fred Talbot with the Licey Tigers in their final series. That series started January 25, 1964. Dick Hughes, a Licey starter in the regular season, went home to Arkansas before the Dominican League’s post-season. Jim Beauchamp, Licey 1B, was released to make room for Mayagüez’s Ray Barker. Santurce’s Miguel de la Hoz reinforced Licey at 3B. Vern Benson, Licey’s manager, was A-OK with the changes. He wanted to win.

Talbot started Game One for Licey, against Steve Blass, ace of the Aguilas Cibaeñas. (In June 2018, the author met Blass at SABR’s Annual Conference in Pittsburgh; Blass mentioned that 1963-64 winter season was “instrumental for his Pittsburgh Pirates pitching career, starting in 1964.”) Blass pitched a CG, 3-1 win over Licey, as Talbot took the loss. Coincidentally, Willie Stargell was Blass’s teammate with the Aguilas Cibaeñas, who also signed Arecibo’s Cookie Rojas, Santurce’s Rubén Gómez and Julio Navarro for the finals. Licey lost the next two games, prior to hosting Games Four-to-Seven in Santo Domingo, their home turf. The Tigers roared back to win all four home games, January 28-31, plus Game Eight, in Santiago de los Caballeros, the Aguilas home. Tony Oliva scored the game-winning run in Game Four; Talbot went the route in his 7-3 Game Five victory; Boozer went the distance in Game Six, a 2-1 win, with Oliva’s two triples; and Guayubín Oliva pitched a CG in a Game Seven win. Finally, a de la Hoz HR and Koch’s CG gave Licey a 4-3 win, to cop the best-of-nine series, on February 1, 1964.

Ferguson Jenkins Benefits from Caguas, 1964-66

Fergunson Jenkins

Ferguson Jenkins had pitched winter ball in Nicaragua for two seasons, before joining the Criollos, 1964-65. The Philadelphia Phillies sent Jenkins and other prospects, including Rick Wise and Grant Jackson to Caguas, mid-1960s. Cal McLish, the Phillies pitching coach, monitored their progress. Jenkins’s two winters with Caguas included a league-leading 1.38 ERA, 1965-66. “I was down there to learn how to pitch and increase my knowledge to basically earn a major-league job with the Phillies,” Jenkins recalled. “I didn’t pitch much in the minors, so Puerto Rico was useful, in that I learned how to throw a slider, conduct myself on the mound, throw pitches in certain situations to set the hitters up. I was down there to learn how to pitch.”

Nino Escalera, a Caguas coach in both of Jenkins’s seasons, noticed his continued improvement in Puerto Rico. He was Jenkins carrying around an iron ball to strengthen his pitching arm. “The more he pitched, the better he got in Puerto Rico,” said Escalera. “His control was very good, so he was on his way. That iron ball was always with him after a game or between starts.”

Jenkins posted an 8-6 record for fifth-place (32-37) Caguas, one-fourth of their wins. First-place Santurce (41-28) had the league’s best pitching staff with Fred Talbot (league-leading 1.30 ERA), Terín Pizarro (2.12 ERA), Rubén Gómez, George Brunet (1.75 ERA) and Manly Johnston. Jenkins faced hitters such as Santurce’s Lou Johnson, the batting champ, and Crabbers’ 3B Tony Pérez; Mayagüez’s Jim Northrup and Mickey Stanley; Arecibo’s Johnny Briggs and Carlos Bernier; among many others. Northrup made $1,500 per month in Puerto Rico, which was more than his 1965 AL rookie salary with the Detroit Tigers of $1,330. Tommie Sisk, who pitched for the 1964-65 San Juan Senators, was offered $1,500 by a vulture, to pitch in the Dominican Republic, after the Senators were eliminated by arch-rival Santurce, in the semi-finals. Sisk was tired and returned to his Utah home for a pre-spring training break. Jenkins accepted an offer from a vulture to reinforce the Escogido Lions in their finals versus the Aguilas Cibaeñas. He is one of 17 players or managers, inducted in Cooperstown, who played in the Dominican Republic, per: Jenkins did not fare too well versus the Aguilas, but 1965-66 was a different story with Caguas: 10-6 record, 1.38 ERA, 84 strikeouts and 14 BB.

RHP Jenkins (10-6) and LHP Grant Jackson (10-3) were a combined 20-9, .690 for third-place Caguas (37-34), who lost a tie-breaker to Ponce, for second-place. Ponce bested Caguas, managed by Frank Lucchesi, four-games-to-one in the semi-finals. Jenkins started, and lost, Game Two, 3-2, January 26, 1966. Ponce LHP Steve Carlton won it, in long relief—first post-season game in Puerto Rico Winter League history when future Cooperstown Hall of Fame pitchers were involved in a decision. (Guayama’s Satchel Paige faced Aguadilla’s Leon Day, 1939-40 regular season; when future Cooperstown Hall of Famers started against each other.

In the 1965-66 regular season, Jenkins was 4-1 versus Ponce; 3-0 against San Juan; 2-2 versus Arecibo; 1-1 against Mayaguez; and 0-2 versus last-place Santurce, managed by Luis R. Olmo. Jenkins’s primary 1965-66 catcher was Pat Corrales, with Eliseo Rodríguez, as back-up. Corrales had a cup of coffee with the 1964 Phillies and caught for them in 1965, prior to finding out—while in Caguas—that he, Alex Johnson and Art Mahaffey were traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Dick Groat, Bob Uecker and Bill White. Nearly six months later (April 21, 1966) Jenkins, 1B Johnny Herrnstein and OF Adolfo Phillips were traded to the Chicago Cubs for veteran pitchers Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson. Buhl once pitched for the 1953-54 Criollos; Jackson hurled for San Juan, 1954-55; Herrnstein played 1B for 1963-64 Arecibo; and Phillips played in two games for Arecibo, 1965-66. Also, Uecker caught for Arecibo, 1961-62; and Bill White had played 1B for Santurce, 1955-56, and part of 1956-57, when he got to hit against Caguas’s LHP Sandy Koufax. At 1965-66 season’s end, Ponce’s John Boozer was named the All-Star RHP, over Jenkins.

Coincidentally, 26-year-old Cookie Rojas managed Arecibo, 1965-66. Rojas was a 1965 NL All-Star 2B with the Phillies, and impressed by Jenkins’s pitching for Caguas. (Rojas was not happy about Jenkins being traded to the Cubs.) José Cardenal, who later became a Cubs teammate of Jenkins, opted to play for the 1965-66 Arecibo Wolves. He liked Cookie Rojas’s presence and demeanor; the fact Arecibo signed Cuban Tito Fuentes, whom Cardenal had known from the San Francisco Giants, to replace Rojas at 2B for Arecibo; and enjoyed being a teammate of fellow Cuban Miguel “Mike” Cuéllar, Arecibo’s talented LHP. Cuéllar learned how to throw the screwball from Rubén Gómez, when they were 1964 Jacksonville Suns teammates. The author saw Cuéllar start in a 1964-65 Arecibo-Santurce contest at Bithorn. It ended on a Tony Pérez walk-off HR for the Crabbers. As noted earlier, many talented Cuban players participated in Puerto Rico’s Winter League during the 1960s.

Jenkins is one of 54 ex-MLB players, managers, umpires or broadcasters, who participated in the Puerto Rico Winter League, and were inducted in Cooperstown, including Ford C. Frick Award recipients. Fourteen—including broadcaster Buck Canel—have a connection to the Caguas Criollos.

Table I. Caguas to Cooperstown

Hall of Famer and InductionCaguas Career Highlights
Roy Campanella             1969Hero, grand slam, 1940-41 finals; co-leader, eight HR
Sandy Koufax                 1972Two SHO, 76 strikeouts, 64.1 innings, 3-6 W-L, 4.35 ERA
Roberto Clemente           1973.529 AVG, 1957-58 finals; ,391 AVG 1958 Caribbean Series
Hank Aaron                    1982.322 AVG, 1953-54; tied Jim Rivera with nine HR, 1953-54
Buck Canel#                   1985Radio broadcaster, 1947-50; phrase “Pantano Iluminado”
Ferguson Jenkins            1991Best ERA, 1.38, 1965-66; 18-12 W-L, 1.70 ERA, two seasons
Mike Schmidt                 1995MVP, 1972-73 All-Star Game; 1974 Caribbean Series title
Jim Bunning                   199678-52, .600 PCT, as Caguas manager, 1974-75 and 1975-76
Tom Lasorda                  1997Koufax teammate, 1956-57; pitched in 1956 Caribbean Series
Gary Carter                     2002All-Star catcher, 1974 Caribbean Series, for champion Criollos
Eddie Murray                  2002.318 AVG, 18 HR, 76 RBIs, 1976-79 (three winter seasons)
Cal Ripken Jr.                 2007All-Star 3B, 1980-81, 1981-82; ,299 AVG, 16 HR, 88 RBIs
Roberto Alomar              20111987 Caribbean Series champs; League All-Star 2B, 1987-88
Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez 2017Caguas uniform number 7 retired on January 25, 2017

# Buck Canel was a Ford C. Frick Award recipient.

Next, is Caguas’s mythical 1960s All-Star Team. Fred Talbot (1963-64 season) was added to it by the author, based on reviewing his fine season for the Criollos, in its historic context. A 10-win season during a 70-game campaign translates to 23 victories over a 162-game season.

Table II: Caguas Criollos All-Star Team, 1959-60 to 1968-69, per Héctor Barea & Van Hyning

Player-PositionSeasonCaguas Season Highlights
Eliseo Rodríguez-C1967-68.227AVG; key player in league championship season
Héctor Valle-C1964-65.206 AVG; caught Ferguson Jenkins with Caguas
Frank Howard-1B1961-62.318 AVG, 14 HR, 49 RBI; hit .300 for Caguas in two seasons with 28 HR and 84 RBI; hit a 536-foot HR
Vic Power-1B1959-60.347 AVG for 2nd batting crown; player-manager
Félix Millán-2B1968-69.317 AVG to win first of his two batting titles
Nate Oliver-2B1962-63.332 AVG; another Dodgers prospect with Caguas
José A. Pagán-3B1967-68.34166 AVG, second to Tony Taylor’s .34183 AVG
Félix Torres-3B1960-6113 HR and 43 RBI for Criollos; reliable 3B and SS
Tony Martínez-SS1962-63.282 AVG; fine double-play combination with N. Oliver
José Cardenal-OF1963-64League-leading 16 HR; 42 RBI (third-best)
Tommy Davis-OF1959-60MVP 1960 Caribbean Series with .409 AVG, .818 SLG
Alex Johnson-OF1964-65League-leading 47 RBI; fifth-best AVG at .301
Cleon Jones-OF1965-66.306 AVG, fifth-best; 16 doubles—fourth-best
Jim Rivera-OF1961-6211 SB, fourth-best; replaced manager Preston Gómez
Ted Savage-OF1963-64Second-best 14 HR; helped Caguas win 1967-68 title
Grant Jackson-P1966-679-6 W-L; 2.19 ERA;1965-66 LHP, league All-Star Team
Ferguson Jenkins-P1965-6610-6 W-L; league-leading 1.38 ERA; 84 K’s to 14 BB
Julio Navarro-P1967-6810-1 W-L; 2.72 ERA in 109.1 IP
Fred Talbot-P1963-6410-3 W-L; 2.82 ERA in 140.2 IP; 78 strikeouts (fifth)
Tom Timmermann-P1967-689-1 W-L; league-leading 0.88 ERA as a reliever (81.2 IP)
Earl Wilson-P1959-6015-3 W-L, 2.06 ERA (2nd in league); 109 K’s (2nd)
Nino Escalera-MGR1967-6843-27 W-L, second-place; defeated Santurce in finals

Grant Jackson’s seven seasons with Caguas covered parts of the 1960s and 1970s. In a more “perfect world,” Ferguson Jenkins “would have been his Phillies teammate for a few years.” Jackson loved everything about Caguas—fans, owner Dr. Emigdio Buonomo, his teammates. He (Jackson) married a lady from Caguas, as Luis R. Olmo did a generation earlier. Jackson was a special Import in Puerto Rico, who was always positive, and got along with Natives and Stateside players. When the author reconnected with Jackson at the June 2018 SABR Annual Conference in Pittsburgh, he still held special feelings for Caguas.

John “Red” Murff, long-time scout from Texas, was Caguas’s 1966-67 skipper, until December 18, 1966, when player-coach Vic Power replaced him. Murff discovered and signed future Cooperstown Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, along with catcher Jerry Grote for the New York Mets. Murff suggested that RF Ron Swoboda join Caguas, 1966-67 season. Swoboda played in 66 of Caguas’s 70 games, with a .236 AVG, six HR and 24 RBI. More importantly, he improved his OF defense and faced tough pitchers just about every game. Jim Beauchamp also reinforced Caguas. He appreciated the opportunity to get more playing time and earn extra money in the off-season. The same could be said for Danny Cater, who mainly played LF in every Caguas game; batted .286, but only hit one HR. (He was later traded by the New York Yankees to the Boston Red Sox for LHP Sparky Lyle. pre-1972 season). Joe Foy was Caguas’s everyday 3B.

Talented Crop of Native Criollos

Félix Millán

A “3M” trio—Félix Millán, Jerry Morales and Guillermo “Willie” Montañez—were making their presence felt for the fourth-place (33-37) Criollos. Millán once played 2B for the 1963-64 Pastora Milkers in Venezuela’s Occidental League, since Caguas had Nate Oliver at 2B and plenty of IF depth. Pastora had RHP Phil Niekro, first part of 1963-64, before Niekro left for Puerto Rico, to pitch for Mayagüez. (Niekro also pitched in the Dominican Winter League, 1966-67.) Niekro and Millán were reunited as Atlanta Braves teammates in 1967. Millán met Luis Tiant, who pitched for the 1963-64 Lara Cardinals, in Venezuela. Millán was signed by Milwaukee Braves scout Félix “Fellé” Delgado, who played for the 1936 Cuban Stars and 1941 New York Cubans. As of December 16, 2020, Delgado is now considered a former MLB player! Fellé had many contacts throughout the Caribbean. He had Millán’s best interests at heart. A 2x NL Gold Glove recipient, Millán won Puerto Rico batting titles with Caguas, 1968-69 and 1969-70, his “proudest achievements.”

Jerry Morales

Jerry Morales was nicknamed “El Teenager de Yabucoa,” at age 17. Yabucoa—the hometown of Morales and Félix Millán—is in southeastern Puerto Rico. Morales went from Team Puerto Rico in the 1966 Central American and Caribbean Games, to a pro contract with Caguas. He became a regular CF for Caguas in 1968-69, after his reserve role in 1966-67 and 1967-68. Morales was “Mr. Consistency” in 18-year Puerto Rico pro career. He had a fine MLB career; coached with the Montreal Expos, under Frank Robinson; and played on four league champions with Caguas: 1967-68 (to be covered in Part V), 1973-74, 1976-77 and 1980-81.

Guillermo Montañez

Vic Power was Willie Montañez’s role model. In Montañez’s first season as a Caguas regular (1966-67), Power played in 17 games for the Criollos. Their paths almost intersected in the States. Montañez played in eight games for the 1966 California Angels after Power’s MLB career ended with the 1965 Angels. Montañez learned well, and played 18 winters, all but four with Caguas. He led the [1971-72 Puerto Rico] league in HR after clouting 30 for the 1971 Phillies. A talented fielder, Montañez emulated Power’s flair for catching pop ups and scooping up throws. “Whatever I learned about playing first base came from Vic Power,” asserted Montañez. “He is the person I am in debt to for all he did—fielding tips, hitting left-handers, confidence factor.” What a role model! Power won seven AL Gold Gloves at 1B (1958-to-1964) by the time he mentored Montañez.

Eduardo Figueroa

Let’s not forget Eduardo “Ed” Figueroa, Jerry Morales’s teammate on Puerto Rico’s National (Amateur) Baseball Team, 1966 Central American and Caribbean Games, hosted by San Juan. Puerto Rico took Silver, behind powerful Cuba (Gold) and ahead of Panamá (Bronze). Figueroa then pitched for Caguas, 1966-67, posting a 0-3 mark in 13 games (one start), with a 3.90 ERA. He benefitted from watching Grant Jackson and Julio Navarro pitch for Criollos, along with reliever Carrol Semberra and starters’ Dick Selma and Joe Verbanic. “The [Puerto Rico] League helped me become a major league pitcher,” said Figueroa. “It gave me seasoning and confidence.” Figueroa’s pitching career was interrupted by combat duty as a U.S. Marine, in Vietnam (1969). He told the New York Daily News in 2008:“I learned that it’s beautiful to be alive. I saw a lot of people dead there. When I got out of there [Vietnam], I was happy I was alive…” Figueroa proudly served in the U.S. military and appreciated Pedrín Zorrilla for making contacts to help him (Figueroa) return to pro ball with the 1969-70 Arecibo Wolves.

Caguas lost a seven-game semi-final series to Ponce. José A. Pagán (.370 AVG) and Cater (.357 AVG) hit well for the Criollos. The pivotal Game Five, at Caguas, January 23, 1967, was a pitchers’ duel between Steve Carlton and Grant Jackson. A paid crowd of 6,253 saw Carlton hurl a four-hit SHO, 1-0. Jackson allowed five hits. Two nights later, Ponce’s John Boozer pitched a four-hit SHO in besting Caguas, 2-0, Game Seven, at Paquito Montaner Stadium, Ponce’s “Lions Den.”

The Santurce Crabbers swept Arecibo in the other semi-final, before defeating Ponce, four games-to-two, in the finals. Santurce (45-26) lost a tie-breaker with Ponce (46-25) for first-place, but copped the league title behind skipper Earl Weaver and a fine ream—Paul Blair, Tony Pérez, Orlando Cepeda, Dick Hughes, et al. Blair won the Ponce series with a three-run HR, at Ponce, off a Game Six Boozer spitball!

With deep appreciation to Héctor Barea, Paul Blair, Pat Corrales, Miguel Cuéllar, Fellé Delgado, Nino Escalera, Eduardo Figueroa, Dick Hughes, Grant Jackson, Ferguson Jenkins, Félix Millán, Jerry Morales, Guillermo Montañez, Cookie Rojas, Tommie Sisk and Fred Talbot. Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

Foto José Cardenal cortesía de Joe Torres.

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