Gold Gloves—Part II: MLB Pitchers in Puerto Rico Winter Ball (Imports)

Steve Carlton with Ponce Leones

This is Part II in a series on Gold Gloves (GG) earned by MLB players who played pro ball during the winter months in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League. Seven MLB pitchers who once hurled in Puerto Rico have 24 Rawlings Gold Gloves (GG) between them: five American League (AL) and 19 National League (NL). This covers 1957-to-2018. In 1957, GG were awarded to nine total MLB players by position. From 1958-on, separate AL-NL recipients received this award.

Bob Gibson, a starter for the 1961-62 Santurce Crabbers, won nine straight GG with St. Louis, 1965-to-1973, second all-time in the NL to 18 by Greg Maddux. The first MLB pitcher to win GG post-Puerto Rico was Harvey Haddix, who won three straight GG with the 1958 Phillies and 1959-1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. Haddix pitched for the 1952-53 San Juan Senators.

A two-year Army hitch from 1950-to-1952 was one reason why the St. Louis Cardinals wanted Harvey Haddix to work out the rust in Puerto Rico. St. Louis coach Johnny Riddle, San Juan’s manager, received instructions that Haddix must return to the States by December 1, 1952. This timetable for imported pitchers in Puerto Rico became more prevalent in the 1980s.  Haddix’s nickname in Puerto Rico was “el conejo” (the rabbit) for the way he hopped to-and-and-from the mound. He pitched brilliantly for San Juan: 6-2, 1.09 ERA, 62 strikeouts in 74 IP. MLB’s criteria of 162 innings pitched in a 162-game season for league-leading ERA would give Haddix the Puerto Rico League ERA crown in a 72-game season. League records indicate Santurce’s Rubén Gómez’s 1.79 ERA (196.2 IP) had the lowest ERA, followed by San Juan’s Ellis “Cot” Deal (1.85), Ponce’s José Santiago (2.07) and San Juan’s Guayubín Olivo (2.07). The San Juan baseball club gave Haddix a banquet in his honor, as a going away present.

Haddix’s early departure affected the first-place (45-27) Senators’ post-season since arch-rival Santurce defeated them, four games to two, in the finals. Puerto Rico came in handy–Haddix had his only 20-win MLB season for the 1953 St. Louis Cardinals. He was a 3x All-Star with St. Louis, 1953-1955. “I lost five years, including three in World War II and two in Korea,” said Haddix. “Puerto Rico helped me get the feeling back for pro ball. I remember a hitter by the name of [Willard] Brown.” Willard Brown-Bob Thurman were Santurce’s powerful one-two punch. Roberto Clemente was an 18-year old rookie with Santurce. Haddix, 3x NL All-Star with St. Louis, joked a lot with Clemente when they were Pittsburgh Pirates teammates, 1959-to-1963. “Roberto called me Herschel,” said Haddix. “We went back-and-forth with each other.” Haddix helped Pittsburgh defeat the favored New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series with his game five start—a 5-2 win—plus the ninth inning in Pittsburgh’s 10-9 win in game seven. For this memorable World Series, Haddix was 2-0, 2.45 ERA, six strikeouts/one walk, 7.1 IP.

Haddix is best remembered for pitching 12 perfect innings versus a powerful Milwaukee Braves team, May 26, 1959, before losing, 1-0, in the 13th frame. Those Braves won back-to-back NL pennants in 1957 and 1958, plus the 1957 World Series. Haddix also earned his second World Series ring as pitching coach for the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bob Gibson pitched 1958-59 winter ball with the Licey Tigers in the Dominican Republic—2-6, 5.00 ERA, in 45 IP. He improved dramatically two years later with the Valencia Industrialists in Venezuela, leading them to the February 1961 Inter-American Series crown over San Juan—with Roberto Clemente-Orlando Cepeda in their line-up—Nicaragua and Panamá. Gibson was brought to Puerto Rico by St. Louis coach Vern Benson, October 1961, to improve his pitching. Benson, the Santurce manager, went with a four-man rotation of Juan Pizarro, Gibson, Craig Anderson and Al Schroll. Santurce finished third in the six-team league at 42-38. Gibson was 6-8, 2.12 ERA (third-best), 142 strikeouts, 135.2 IP. Only Juan Pizarro had more strikeouts (154).

Gibson saved his best pitching for the post-season. On January 24, 1962, he fanned 13 Caguas hitters in a 10-0 shutout, game one of the semis. Four nights later, he struck out seven Criollos in Santurce’s 8-1 game five win. Santurce made it to the finals versus Mayagüez. Gibson’s game

two shutout, February 1, 1962 was a masterpiece—two-hitter/14 strikeouts. Leo Cárdenas scored the only run on a Joel Horlen balk with Gibson at the plate. Santurce swept this series in four games to host the 1962 Inter-American Series at Sixto Escobar Stadium, their home field. Gibson bested the Marlboro Smokers (Nicaragua-Panamá) in the first contest, February 6. Orlando Peña saved Santurce’s 5-4 win. Gibson’s second series win came against the Caracas Lions on February 10. His three-run HR was the difference in the 5-2 victory, saved by Craig Anderson in the ninth. Gibson’s final appearance was a no-decision on February 14, 1962, an eventual 5-4 Santurce win over Mayagüez, invited to this series as Puerto Rico runner-up.

Bob Gibson was 5-0 in six post-season starts with Santurce, January 24-February 14, 1962. He convinced Hiram Cuevas, Santurce’s owner, to furnish first-class plane tickets for himself/wife and Craig/Judy Anderson, to return to the States after Santurce won the Inter-American Series. Thirty years later, Gibson sent a summary, to me, via mail, and answered questions on what his winter season with Santurce meant to him: “It provided experience in a high classification without major league pressure,” summarized Gibson. Vern Benson remembers a thank-you note he got from Gibson after the pitcher’s retirement from baseball. “I wouldn’t want to take any credit for the success Gibson had after that [Puerto Rico], but that tells me something.” Gibson, 1968 NL MVP with a 1.12 ERA, was MVP of the 1964 and 1967 World Series. The 8x NL All-Star and 5x 20-game winner with two Cy Young awards, made it to Cooperstown in 1981.

Phil Niekro was sent to Puerto Rico in 1961-62 by the Milwaukee Braves organization, to pitch for the Arecibo Wolves. Niekro’s most important start for Arecibo was a tie-breaker for fourth place against San Juan on January 23, 1962. Niekro was knocked out early, but Arecibo came back to win it behind the relief pitching of Claude Raymond. During the post-game celebration at Sixto Escobar, an Arecibo fan came up to Raymond and thrust a $100 bill into his hand. Niekro experimented with the knuckle ball in Puerto Rico without hesitation. A turning point came in Niekro’s 1963-64 season with Mayagüez, after he played part of the season in Venezuela with the Pastora Milkers, a team with his future Atlanta teammate Félix Millán at 2B.

Cal Ermer, Mayagüez’s 1963-64 manager, encouraged Phil Niekro to rely on the knuckle ball, his eventual big league meal ticket. “Ten years later, I had [Phil’s brother] Joe Niekro at Mayagüez,” Ermer recalled. “It’s ironic, both Niekros made it after I suggested they use their stuff properly.” Phil Niekro made it to the Milwaukee Braves in 1964, after a 7-11 ledger, 3.72 ERA, 81 strikeouts, 156 IP, two Puerto Rico seasons. He had a good 1966-67 winter season with Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican Republic: 8-6, 2.60 ERA, 64 strikeouts, 142 IP. His five GG with the Atlanta Braves were 1978-to-1980, 1982 and 1983. Niekro, a 5x NL All-Star and 3x 20-game winner, won 318 MLB games to land in Cooperstown in 1997.

Steve Carlton’s 1965-66 season with the Ponce Lions included post-season experience. His first winter showed 2-4, 4.07 ERA, 28 strikeouts-to-30 walks, 48.2 IP. Carlton won a semi-final series game against Caguas, going 1-0, 1.69 ERA, 10.2 IP, followed by 1-1, 1.88 ERA in 14.2 IP versus Mayagüez, in the finals, won by the Indios. How did Carlton get permission to pitch for pitch for Ponce?  Luis “Tite” Arroyo, Ponce’s manager, traveled to St. Louis, August 1965, on a mission to sign imports. He noticed a tall lefty warming up in the bullpen. It was Steve Carlton. Arroyo was intrigued with bringing Carlton to Puerto Rico, but the St. Louis brass were not, since he was a top prospect they wanted to shield from possible injuries in winter ball. Arroyo convinced St. Louis to send Carlton to Ponce and received permission to speak with the 20-year old. Per Tite Arroyo: “Carlton frequently told me how much the Puerto Rico Winter League meant to him. He didn’t even know how to get ready on the mound with men on base. All the runners on first got to second easily. He didn’t pivot properly. We worked on that.”

The LHP returned to Ponce in 1966-67. Carlton was 9-5 in the regular season, 2.09 ERA, with a 93 strikeouts-to-31 walks in 116 IP, plus five SHO. Nelson Briles (12-3), John Boozer (10-7), Pedro Ramos (8-3) and Carlton were a formidable rotation, with 32 complete games in 62 starts and 13 SHO. Ponce (46-25) edged Santurce (45-26) for first place by winning a one-game tie-breaker. Carlton was 1-1, 1.72 ERA in the seven-game semi-finals versus Caguas. Carlton lived in Ponce’s Darlington Apartments. Back then, the team traveled to away games on the team bus. 

The Santurce Crabbers, managed by Earl Weaver, won the 1966-67 finals versus Ponce, in six games, thanks to a three-run homer by Paul Blair in game six, off a John Boozer spitball. Carlton showed hit tenacity with two complete games in this series, going 1-1, 2.12 ERA in 17 innings.

He used this winter as a springboard to make the 1967 St. Louis Cardinals rotation.  Carlton’s two seasons with Ponce resulted in an 11-9 regular season record, 2.67 ERA, 121 strikeouts, 57 walks, in 165 IP. For the post-season, Carlton went 4-3 for Ponce, with a 1.89 ERA in 57 IP. His MLB highlights include a 1967 World Series title with St. Louis; 19 strikeouts versus the 1969 Mets, September 15, 1969; 27 wins for the 1972 Phillies—who won just 59 games; 1981 GG with the Phillies, the season after his Phillies won the 1980 World Series; four Cy Young Awards; 6x 20-game winner; 10x All-Star; 329 MLB wins; and a 1994 Cooperstown inductee.

Jim Palmer’s career was in peril when Baltimore made the decision to send him to Puerto Rico. Frank Robinson had replaced Earl Weaver as Santurce’s manager in 1968-69. Hiram Cuevas, Santurce’s owner, was on excellent terms with Harry Dalton, Baltimore’s Director of Player Personnel. Per Cuevas, Dalton offered to cover Palmer’s Puerto Rico salary, while he remained on the inactive list in Puerto Rico; Santurce was to chip in once Palmer was activated.

Santurce was well stocked with Elrod Hendricks, George Scott, Julio Gotay, Joe Foy, Leo Cárdenas, Dave May, Paul Blair and Félix Juan Maldonado. Their starters were Juan Pizarro, Rubén Gómez, Wally Bunker and Dave Leonhard. Palmer wasn’t rushed into action, but when he did pitch, the results were excellent. He twirled a seven-inning no-hitter at Mayagüez, December 22, 1968. The one hour-and-25 minute game was attended by 1,843 fans. Ozzie 

Virgil Sr., normally an IF/OF, gave up four runs to the Crabbers in the first. Palmer breezed through the Indios line-up, fanning 10 and walking three. Larry McCoy was the home plate umpire. He later umpired in the AL from 1970-1999, and become the first arbiter to work home plate in a World Series game wearing an inside chest protector, in game three of the 1977 series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees.

Palmer was 5-0, 2.79 ERA, with 33 strikeouts in 29 IP, with Santurce, pre-semis versus San Juan. He gave up two home runs to José Cardenal in game seven of that series [plus a HR to Cardenal in game three], won by San Juan. Santurce, with a 49-20 regular season record—most regular season franchise wins in team history—was favored over the 36-34 fourth-place Senators, managed by Sparky Anderson, who recalled two fine series games hurled for San Juan by Mike Cuéllar after a lackluster regular season. Anderson never forgot the Hiram Bithorn Stadium stands going wild when Cardenal hit two HR in game seven. “Santurce was loaded, said Anderson. “They had the best club, with Scott, Gotay…Palmer, Pizarro, Gómez. We had Tony Taylor, Cardenal, [Jim] Beauchamp, [Mike] Kekich, Cuéllar, Orlando Peña and José Morales.”

Puerto Rico resurrected Palmer’s career. There were no more rehab stints in Miami or Rochester. Nick Acosta, Santurce’s trainer, recalled Palmer coming to Puerto Rico with an inflamed right rotator cuff. “We gave him first-class treatment in Puerto Rico. He recovered and became a Cy Young winner [three times]. Jim listened to me, and that was a plus. He is a very intelligent person and followed all the tips al pie de la letra [by the book].”  Palmer was an 8x 20-game winner, 6x All-Star, 3x World Series champion and 1990 Cooperstown inductee.

Mike Boddicker, another Baltimore pitcher who derived benefits from Puerto Rico in 1980-81, had a cup of coffee with the 1980 Orioles: one start, 0-1, 6.14 ERA. He got a call during the off-season from Ray Miller, asking Boddicker, an Iowa native, to pitch for Caguas. Boddicker won two key regular season games to help 29-31 Caguas finish fourth, one game ahead of 28-32 Santurce, and qualify for the playoffs.  The Criollos had a strong line-up with 3B Cal Ripken Jr., team MVP; OF José Cruz, Jerry Morales and Héctor Cruz; 1B Willie Montañez and others. Dennis Martínez was the staff ace.

Caguas won their semi-finals series with the Bayamón Cowboys, four games to one; and, were up, two games to one, in the finals versus Mayagüez, when Boddicker took the mound for game four. Boddicker blanked the Indios on a three-hitter. “The writers were saying we [Caguas] only had Dennis Martínez as a quality pitcher,” Boddicker. “So that motivated me.”

My conversation with Boddicker took place, spring training, March 1993, his last season in pro ball. He was with the Kansas City Royals and reminisced about his success with Caguas/MLB. Boddicker was determined to pitch well for the 1983 Baltimore Orioles after five seasons with class AAA Rochester. He was 16-8, 2.77 ERA for the 1983 World Champions, and then blanked the Chicago White Sox in the ALCS with 14 strikeouts, followed by a three-hit,  complete game win versus the Phillies in the 1983 World Series, allowing an unearned run. He was a 20-game winner and All-Star for the 1984 Orioles, and 1990 GG recipient with the Boston Red Sox.

Mike Hampton was stretching in the Houston Astrodome, May 16, 1998, when I noticed several other Astros hurlers who had pitched in Puerto Rico, including Billy Wagner, Trever Miller and

Mike Grzanich, doing likewise. Hampton pitched for the 1993-94 San Juan Senators; the other three reinforced the Santurce Crabbers in the mid-to-late 1990s. All were well aware of the heated San Juan-Santurce rivalry. Hampton (5-1, 1.94 ERA, 41.2 IP, 29 strikeouts) was a key starter for the 35-13 regular season champion Senators, who won the league finals. He was still with the club when San Juan bested the Cuban national team, 4-3, in a special exhibition game on December 1, 1993. Carlos Reyes started that contest, since it was his turn in the rotation and his off-speed stuff was better suited to stifling the Cuban bats, perhaps, than Hampton’s fastball.

Hampton was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Houston Astros on December 10, 1993. Mike Felder and Hampton went to Houston for Eric Anthony. Houston alerted San Juan team officials that Hampton would not pitch anymore in Puerto Rico. This created some tension and appeared to be one of the reasons why Frankie Thon, an Astros scout and the San Juan GM, resigned from his GM position. Hampton went on to have a 22-4 season in his last (1999) year with Houston. His 15-10 record helped the New York Mets win the NL East in 2000. And he was 2-0 versus St. Louis in the 2000 NLCS, allowing zero runs in 16 innings. Hampton was 0-1 versus the Yankees in his only World Series. He won five Silver Slugger awards between 1999-and-2003, two NL All-Star designations, along with a 2003 GG with the Atlanta Braves.

The seven pitchers who performed in Puerto Rico with 24 GG—19.4 percent of 124 GG awarded to pitchers—include four Cooperstown Hall of Famers (Carlton, Gibson, Phil Niekro and Palmer) and 10 combined World Series titles: three-Palmer, two each-Carlton, Gibson and Haddix, and one for Boddicker. The seven hurlers performed well in Puerto Rico and used that league as a steppingstone to MLB greatness. Combined, they won 20 games or more 25 times; made 35 All-Star teams; had nine Cy Young and five Silver Slugger awards.   

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