Caguas Criollos: Roberto Vargas and Vic Power to Woody Huyke and Héctor Valle (Part II)

Roberto Vargas

Roberto Vargas threw the javelin in high school during part of World War II (1944-45) and 1946-47. Roberto Clemente also was a high school javelin thrower [1950-53] when the Korean War took place. The LHP Vargas and Clemente were NL rookies in 1955—Vargas, with the Milwaukee Braves; and Clemente, for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Both made their respective MLB debuts on April 17, 1955, prior to being Caguas teammates for parts of 1956-57 and 1957-58. Vargas had deep links with Vic Power, too: both were Caguas Criollos rookies in 1947-48, under player-manager Quincy Trouppe, their mentor. Trouppe put in a good word for Vargas to officials with 1948 Chicago American Giants of  the Negro Leagues and reconnected with Vargas as 1950 Jalisco Charros teammates, Mexican League. The bespectacled Vargas—born in Santurce—was listed at 5’11” and 170 pounds. He was a fixture as a starter and reliever for the Criollos, 1947-48 through 1960-61, before ending his Puerto Rico playing career with the expansion 1961-62 Arecibo Wolves, managed by Luis R. Olmo, a close friend and scout for the Milwaukee Braves, when Vargas was acquired by Milwaukee in the November 22, 1954 Rule V Draft, held in New York City. Coincidentally, Roberto Clemente was selected by Pittsburgh for $4,000, as the first of 13 players chosen by big-league teams in the same draft. https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/1954_Rule_V_Draft

Vic Power

Vic Power played his entire Winter League career with the Criollos, retiring at age 40 after eight AB, 1967-68 season, two decades post-Caguas debut under player-manager Trouppe. Player-manager Power led the Criollos to a 1959-60 league title and February 1960 Caribbean Series berth in Panamá, four years after winning the 1955-56 batting title (.358 AVG). He was 1959-60 league batting champ (.347 AVG), and Caguas’s first manager to win a league batting crown. (Félix Millán won back-to-back batting titles with Caguas in 1968-69 and 1969-70, before helping them win the 1978-79 league title as player-manager; Ramón Vázquez, Caguas’s 2020-21 skipper, is trying to become the third Criollo to accomplish this.) Power was the first player-manager in Puerto Rico to call upon a pinch-hitter (Herminio Cortés) to bat  for him, 1959-60 season. Cortés was the OF Caguas acquired in a pre-1959-60 season trade with the San Juan Senators for Roberto Clemente.

Roberto Clemente flirts with .400

Roberto Clemente

Clemente needed to go two-for-four in the final game of 1956-57, a third-place tie-breaker at Caguas between the 39-33 Criollos and 39-33 San Juan Senators, to reach a .400 AVG, but San Juan’s LHP Luis “Tite” Arroyo, pitching on one day rest, held him to one hit in four AB. Clemente’s 89 hits in 225 AB was a .39556 AVG (rounded to .396) with two teams—Santurce and Caguas. (Caguas acquired Clemente, Juan “Terín” Pizarro and Ronnie Samford for $30,000, from Santurce.) Clemente’s .396 league-leading average was the league’s highest in the 1950s, barely surpassing Willie Mays’s .39535 AVG (68-for-172), rounded to .395. Coincidentally, Arroyo put an end to Clemente’s 23-consecutive game hit streak, January 5, 1957, when he collared Roberto in Game Two of the twin-bill. Tom Lasorda took the loss for Caguas.

“I was his [Clemente’s] teammate with Santurce [1953-54] and Caguas [1956-57],” Lasorda recalled. “What a great competitor. With Caguas, we had Power, Mantilla, Luke Easter, Wes Covington, Koufax—some tremendous ballplayers.” Arroyo told the author he accompanied Clemente on Roberto’s first [1955] trip to Ft. Myers, Florida, for spring training with the Pirates, at the behest of then-Santurce owner Pedrín Zorrilla. Circling back to 1956-57, the surprising Mayagüez Indians, managed by Mickey Owen, won the league title, and represented Puerto Rico in the February 1957 Caribbean Series hosted by Havana, Cuba. San Juan, managed by Ralph Houk, fell short in the playoffs, as did the Santurce Crabbers, regular season winners.

The 1956-57 Criollos had good team chemistry, in a competitive league. Jim Landis, future five-time AL Gold Glove winner (1960-64), was “most appreciative  of his Caguas teammate Luke Easter, whose suggestions and hints were helpful confidence builders.”

José “Ronquito” García, a Mayagüez OF, and 1956-57 League MVP, was runner-up to Clemente with a .331 AVG. but propelled Mickey Owen’s club to the Puerto Rico title. García remembered Clemente getting three or four hits whenever he [García] had two or three in a game. “Give Roberto credit for the batting title,” said García. “We won the championship and that’s why the writers voted me the MVP.”

1957-58 Title and Close Call, February 8-13, 1958 Caribbean Series

Juan Pizarro

Caguas won their fourth league title of the 1950s, propelled by Terín Pizarro’s pitching Triple Crown: 14 wins, 183 strikeouts and a 1.32 ERA! He pitched 170.1 innings in 19 starts, or nine innings per start. He was 14-5, .737 PCT, for the 33-31 Criollos, Other Caguas pitchers were 19-26, a .422 PCT. On November 20, 1957, Pizarro fanned 19 Ponce Lions to set a league nine-inning mark, one which stood for a full decade until San Juan’s Pat Dobson—with Johnny Bench behind the plate—struck out 21 Arecibo Wolves in nine frames, on December 10, 1967. José “Palillo” Santiago, Dobson’s teammate, affirmed Dobson “had an incredible curve ball that day…I sat on the bench the whole game and could not believe it…21 strikeouts! I don’t think this one will be broken.” Conversely, Pizarro—a decade earlier—mostly threw fastballs.

Roberto Clemente spent most of 1957-58 resting, due to his ailing back. He was activated on January 12, 1958, and played nine regular season games for Caguas (eight-for-32, .250 AVG), but went nine-for-17, a .529 AVG, in the Criollos four-game Final Series sweep over Santurce, regular season winners: 36-28 record. Ronnie Samford’s two-run HR off Rubén Gómez propelled Caguas-Rio Piedras (1957-58 was the final season the Criollos were known by this name) to a 9-2 win on January 30, 1958. Clemente cracked a double and two singles off  his friend and ex-Santurce teammate, Bill Greason, the next night, in a 5-0 Caguas win. The series moved to Sixto Escobar, February 1-2. Pizarro fanned 15 Crabbers in Game Three, a 7-4 Caguas win. Jerry Nelson—who had a 1.50 ERA in the regular season, second to teammate Pizarro—clinched it with a 10-3 win on February 2. Caguas chose Santurce catcher Valmy Thomas and Crabbers pitcher Marion Fricano as Caribbean Series reinforcements.

Cuba’s Marianao Tigers won their second straight Caribbean Series, hard-fought with Marianao (4-2 W-L) winning the final game, 2-0, versus Caguas (3-3). The Carta Vieja Yankees (3-3) tied Caguas for second place. Venezuela’s Valencia Industrialists (2-4) were fourth. Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso (.318 AVG) and Solly Drake (.333 AVG) starred for Marianao, as did 2B Casey Wise (.407 AVG) and starter Bob Shaw (14-5, 1.48 ERA, regular season, Cuban Winter League). Shaw blanked Caguas 2-0, on February 13, 1958, and Jerry Nelson allowed two unearned runs in the ninth. Clemente (.391 AVG) hit Caguas’s only HR. He and 1B Power (.458 AVG and series-best eight RBI) were named to the Series All-Star Team. Pizarro pitched a gem versus Panamá’s Carta Vieja entry—17 strikeouts in his two-hit SHO on February 8, 1958. Two nights later, José “Pantalones” Santiago, versus Marianao, had a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth, but Fricano allowed two runs and blew the lead. Lou Limmer had a fine series for Valencia (Venezuela): .381 AVG, .571 SLG, two HR and five RBI. Caguas, 60 years later (2017 and 2018), duplicated Marianao’s back-to-back series titles in 1957 and 1958.

For 1958-59, it was Caguas-Guayama, not Caguas-Rio Piedras. New team ownership chose “Los Criollos Embrujados de Caguas-Guayama,” translated as Haunted Criollos of Caguas-Guayama. Guayama was once known for voodoo practices, and its league team from 1938-39 to 1941-42 was called the Guayama Witches. Caguas, founded in 1775, is derived from the Indian chieftain Caguax. It is south of San Juan and just north of the beautiful Cayey mountain range. Criollo, within the context of Puerto Rico, refers to individuals who are natives of, and indigenous to, this Island. Native players who represent Spanish-speaking countries in Caribbean Series events are called criollos, too.

Johnny Powers, a Criollos OF, hit 17 HR in 1958-59, two more than Ponce’s Leon Wagner. Orlando Cepeda and Willie Kirkland of Santurce each hit 11 HR; San Juan’s Herminio Cortés was fifth with 10 HR. Vic Power finished third with a .339 AVG, behind Santurce’s duo of Orlando Cepeda (.362 AVG) and Jackie Brandt (.349 AVG). Caguas-Guayama advanced to the 1958-59 league finals, after a third-place (30-33) regular season. Santurce won this best-of-nine series, five games-to-two, behind the pitching of Julio Navarro and the hitting of Orlando Cepeda and José Pagán. Santurce reinforced itself for the 1959 Caribbean Series with Vic Power and pitcher Lloyd Merritt, won by Cuba’s Almendares Scorpions, featuring Tom Lasorda, Bob Allison, Tony Taylor, Orlando Peña, Camilo Pascual, and others.

Table I: Caguas Criollos All-Star Team, 1949-50 to 1958-59, per Héctor Barea & Van Hyning

Player-PositionSeasonCaguas Season Highlights
Ray Murray-C1955-56.330 AVG; key player in league championship season
Luis St. Claire-C1950-51.311 AVG; brother of José St. Claire (Pepe Lucas)
George Crowe-1B1950-51.375 AVG led the league (team finished 57-20, .740)
Charlie Neal-2B1954-55.292 AVG; helped Caguas win 1953-54 league title
Rance Pless-3B1953-54.319 AVG; key HR vs. Cuba, 1954 Caribbean Series
Vic Power-3B1955-56.358 AVG led league (first of two league batting titles)
Stan Breard-SS1949-50.267 AVG, clutch hitter; highly regarded by Luis Olmo
Félix Mantilla-SS1954-55Slugged 11 HR; consistent and reliable infielder
Hank Aaron-OF1953-54.322 AVG; co-leader, nine HR; All-Star Game MVP
Roberto Clemente-OF1956-57.396 AVG; top league AVG in 1950s
Wes Covington-OF1955-56League-leading 51 RBI (second with 53 RBI, 1956-57)
Luis R. Olmo-OF1951-5255 RBI (third-best); player-manager 1949-50 to 1952-53
Johnny Powers-OF1958-5917 HR led the league
Jim Rivera-OF1953-54Co-leader, nine HR; 1950-51 (76 runs); 1954-55 (14  SB)
Bob Buhl-P1953-5414 wins (2nd); 93 strikeouts (4th); 2.01 ERA (5th)
Mike Clark-P1950-5114 wins (best); 77 strikeouts (4th); gave up “Pepelucazo”
Brooks Lawrence-P1953-5413 wins (3rd); reason Mickey Owen caught again
Juan “Terín” Pizarro-P1957-5814-5 W-L, 1.32 ERA, 183 strikeouts: Triple Crown—P
Roberto Vargas-P1950-5110-1 W-L, 2.55 ERA; 64-60 W-L for Caguas, 1950s
Mickey Owen-MGR1953-5446-34 W-L, first-place; won 1954 Caribbean Series

Caguas’s Two Major Trades, pre-1959-60

Caguas-Guayama officials were concerned Roberto Clemente only played nine regular season games in 1957-58 and missed the entire 1958-59 season due to his training commitment with the U.S. Marines at Parris Island, South Carolina, Fall 1958-first quarter of 1959. (Puerto Rico residents—U.S. citizens since 1917—have served in U.S. Armed Forces since World War I.) Caguas traded Clemente to San Juan for 26-year old OF Herminio Cortés, who hit 10 HR and drove in 33 for the 1958-59 San Juan Senators. Cortés completed nine seasons of minor-league ball in the States, culminating with 30 HR and 90 RBI for the 1959 York White Roses (59-81), Class A, Eastern League, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. The White Roses also had a pitcher from Puerto Rico, Florentino Rivera, who hurled for Mayagüez.

Puerto Rico’s Winter League teams were designed  to win, not develop players. The above trade benefitted San Juan, since Clemente had a fine 1959-60 season for the Senators, .330 AVG, .392 OBP; .488 SLG, .880 OPS. He played in 57 games and drove in 42, second in the league to the MVP, Mayagüez’s Ramón “Wito” Conde’s 58. (Clemente’s 42 RBI and 12 SB were his most in a Puerto Rico season). Wito Conde told the author he cherished his 1959-60 MVP Award, knowing that Clemente was probably on his way to an outstanding NL career; and, that Vic Power—who led the league with a .347 AVG as Caguas’s player-manager—had already won two AL Gold Gloves by then; and was more highly touted than Clemente, at that moment.

Herminio Cortés never made it to the majors. He spent 1960-to-1964 playing in the Mexican League for the Mexico City Reds, Puebla Pericos, Poza Rica Petroleros and Reynosa Broncos.

The other major pre-1959-60 Caguas trade was sending Terín Pizarro to Santurce for IF José A. Pagán and RHP Julio Navarro. Pizarro recalled his nostalgia for wearing a Crabbers uniform; he was born in Santurce and lived in Santurce’s Barrio Obrero sector, noted for its working-class residents, many of whom were rabid Crabbers fans. Pizarro once pitched for the Santurce amateur (class AA) team, a club owned by Harry Rexach. He (Pizarro) made his Santurce debut in 1955-56 with Orlando Cepeda, Pagán and Navarro. This trade strengthened both clubs. Pizarro was the ace of the Santurce staff in the 1960s and early 1970s. Pagán and Navarro stayed with Caguas through 1970-71, pre-trade to San Juan.

Los Angeles Dodgers-Caguas Connection, 1959-60 to 1962-63

Ramón “Monchile” Concepción, long-time coach for the Santurce Crabbers, and their skipper,  1958-59 title season, joined the Criollos as a 1959-60 coach. Concepción was a Caribbean area scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He met Al Campanis—a top Brooklyn Dodgers scout—during Roberto Clemente’s [1952] tryout at Sixto Escobar, when Clemente impressed Campanis by running the 60-yard dash in 6.4 seconds, twice. Monchile Concepción played and barnstormed in the Negro Leagues between 1929 and 1934, including stints with 1929 Danny McCllelan All-Stars and 1931 Stars of Cuba II.

Héctor Valle, a rookie catcher with the 1959-60 Criollos, recalled the Dodgers-Criollos connection, early 1960s, when Tommy Davis, Frank Howard, Ron Perranoski and Pete Richert played for Caguas. Valle went 13-for-39, .333 AVG. for 1959-60 Caguas. He still gets chills remembering the 1960 Caribbean Series. “Just being in [host] Panamá was something.” Valle became Puerto Rico’s first catcher to play at the MLB level, with the 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers. His biggest thrill in the majors was catching Sandy Koufax in a game at Philadelphia. “They rested [John] Roseboro after Los Angeles had a 7-1 lead,” recalled Valle. “Koufax told me his experience with Caguas was a pleasant one and good for his career. He is a very nice person.”

Félix Mantilla

Mantilla led the 1959-60 Puerto Rico League with 23 SB, followed San Juan’s Carlos Bernier (21), Vic Power (14), Clemente (12) and San Juan’s Nino Escalera (12). Roberto Vargas went 5-2, with a 2.85 ERA, in 72.1 innings. Félix Torres, Caguas 3B-SS, hit nine HR, good for a third-place tie with Santurce’s Orlando Cepeda. Co-leaders in HR, with 10, were Santurce’s Al Nagel and Jim McDaniels. The 39-24 Criollos were 1.5 games behind 41-23 San Juan, prior to besting Santurce, four games-to-two, in the semis, and topping San Juan, five games-to-one, in the finals.

Elwood “Woody” Huyke earned league Rookie of the Year laurels for Caguas, with a .302 AVG. His break as a rookie was when Félix Mantilla reported late. Huyke went 0-for-10 before getting a single, double and HR off San Juan’s Tite Arroyo at Escobar Stadium. He stayed in Power’s line-up throughout the season and got the last day off to keep his [.302] AVG above .300. Huyke was a catcher most of his Puerto Rico career. Years later, as a manager with Bradenton, Gulf Coast (Rookie) League, Pittsburgh Pirates system, he suggested that Tim Wakefield throw a knuckle ball—a pitch which propelled Wakefield to his Pittsburgh and Boston Red Sox career.

Caguas had two workhorses: Earl Wilson (15-3, 2.06 ERA, 139.2 innings) and Bob Giggie—2.31 ERA, 140.1 innings. Wilson’s 2.06 ERA was second to Bob Bruce’s 1.98 ERA for Mayagüez. Wilson’s 15 wins tied a Caguas franchise record set by Billy Byrd, 1940-41. LHP George Brunet was another Caguas starter. Roberto Vargas and Julio Navarro started/relieved.

Santurce won its first two semi-final games with Caguas. Terín Pizarro was the Game One winner on January 20, 1960, a 3-2 win, with help from Valmy Thomas’s two-run HR. Pantalones Santiago won Game Two, 2-1. The series moved to Escobar for the next three games, all Caguas wins behind Brunet, Navarro and Giggie. Earl Wilson wrapped it up with a 3-1 win on January 25, 1960. Orlando Cepeda ruined the SHO with a HR. The Criollos, after defeating San Juan, in the finals, added Cepeda, Pizarro and Pantalones Santiago for the Caribbean Series.

February 10-15, 1960 Caribbean Series

Cuba’s Cienfuegos Elephants dominated with a 6-0 record, featuring an all-Native squad, including RHP Camilo Pascual (2-0). The host Marlboro Smokers (3-3), Caguas (2-4) and Rapiños of Venezuela (1-5) could not keep pace. Caguas’s Tommy Davis earned Series MVP honors, despite Caguas’s third-place finish. He displayed power with a series-leading three HR, tied with Héctor López of Marlboro and teammate Félix Torres; drove in six; stole two bases, to tie Orlando Cepeda, Félix Mantilla and Willie Davis of Rapiños; and, led hitters with a .409 AVG (nine-for-22). Marlboro’s Eddie Napoleon and Cienfuegos’s George Altman each had a .438 AVG (seven-for-16), but lacked necessary 19 plate appearances to win the batting crown.

The author interviewed Napoleon at The Ballpark in Arlington, in June 1998, when Napoleon was a coach with the Texas Rangers, and feels a special bond with him. Napoleon left Baltimore, with his family, when he was two weeks old for Panamá’s Canal Zone in 1937, almost two decades before the author’s family moved to Puerto Rico on a cargo ship leaving Baltimore in 1956, when Van Hyning was age two. Napoleon and Van Hyning graduated from high school in the Canal Zone and Santurce, Puerto Rico, respectively.

Marlboro’s Stan Palys led all series players with 12 RBI. “We [Marlboro] had two close games against Cuba,” remembered Palys. “Our team hit a bunch of HR [10] and scored the most runs [45] of all teams. Héctor [López] and I were a strong one-two punch.” Palys had .370 AVG and .704 SLG; López, .370 AVG and .778 SLG. Tommy Davis’s .818 SLG for Caguas was series-best. Woody Huyke (..350 AVG) went seven-for 20, playing 3B. SS Félix Torres (.385 AVG) had a .808 SLG, second to Tommy Davis. Torres played SS, with Félix Mantilla (one-for-22) in LF. Orlando Cepeda (seven-for-21) played 1B and RF, with a .333 AVG and .524 SLG. Vic Power went 0-for-12, as a part-time 1B. José A. Pagán was seven-for-27 (.259 AVG). Herminio Cortés went two-for-11. Ronquito García was one-for-five as a reserve OF. Héctor Valle got one AB (0-for-1), backing up Frank Reveira. Earl Wilson (1-1) and Pizarro (1-1) recorded Caguas’s only wins. Brunet (0-1) and Pantalones Santiago (0-1) lost their CG starts. Giggie, Julio Navarro and Ray Rippelmeyer—a San Juan reinforcement—pitched in relief for the Criollos.

With deep appreciation to Luis “Tite” Arroyo, Héctor Barea, Wito Conde, José “Ronquito” García, Woody Huyke, Jim Landis, Tom Lasorda, Lou Limmer, Eddie Napoleon, Julio Navarro, Luis R. Olmo, Stan Palys, Juan “Terín” Pizarro, José “Palillo” Santiago and Héctor Valle. Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, and to Luis R. Mayoral.

1 comentario en “Caguas Criollos: Roberto Vargas and Vic Power to Woody Huyke and Héctor Valle (Part II)”

  1. Wow, cuando el baseball era baseball verdadero,con todas esas luminarias de los Años cincuentas y sesentas.mi equipo de toda mi Vida LOS Criollos Embrujados de Caguas Guayama.

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