Jacksonville Tars, Braves, Jets, Suns, Jumbo Shrimp Connection to Winter Ball (Part I)

Between 1981 and 1984, the author exercised at Santurce’s Parque Central (Central Park), a nice facility, administered by San Juan (SJ) municipal officials, including ex-pitcher Juan “Terín” Pizarro. The author conversed with Pizarro at various times about his baseball career with Santurce Crabbers, Milwaukee Braves, Chicago White Sox, Jacksonville Braves…

So, how important was Jacksonville to Pizarro and numerous other players, including ones from the Caribbean and Stateside athletes with a connection to winter ball? The purpose of this blog is to link Jacksonville’s minor-league baseball franchise to players and managers who benefitted from playing or managing there, along with some who competed against Jacksonville, the largest city in the contiguous U.S., in square miles (840). It’s the most populous city in Florida and is named after Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. President, and the first military governor of the Florida Territory. In late October it hosts the annual Georgia-Florida football game.

Early Minor-League Baseball (1904-1930)

Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson

Ty Cobb, 1904/1905 Augusta Tourists, Class C South Atlantic (Sally) League, was the first Cooperstown Inductee (1936) who played versus Jacksonville Jays, who debuted in 1904. Cobb’s one minor-league batting title was with the 1905 Tourists (.326). Jacksonville won their first Sally League crown in 1908 (77-34, .694 PCT), under player-manager Dominic Mullaney, who ended his 15-year minor-league playing career, as player-manager, 1911 Yazoo City Zoos, Class D Cotton States League. In 1909, Mullaney managed against Luis Miguel “Jud” Castro, from Medellín, Colombia, who led the 65-48 Augusta Tourists to the finals versus the 84-36 Chattanooga Lookouts, the winner. Tourists’ player-manager Castro is Latin America’s first big-leaguer, based on 42 games with 1902 AL first-place Philadelphia A’s (83-53), managed by Connie Mack, who briefly managed Shoeless Joe Jackson (1909) after Jackson’s batting title with 1909 Savannah Indians; he led the Sally League with a .358 BA. From 1911-1916, Jacksonville was the Tarpons. They won their second Sally League crown in 2012 (70-41), winning the finals. In 1917 they were the Roses. From 1921-1923 the Jacksonville Scouts played in Class C Florida State League, after three years without a team. Dominic Mullaney managed the 1921 Scouts.

Shoeless Joe Jackson, 1909 Savannah Indians. Photo credit: https://deadballbaseball.com/2012/09/shoeless-joe-jackson-comes-to-savannah/

Jacksonville re-emerged as the 1926 Tars, Class B Southeastern League and remained there through 1930. The 1927 Tars (90-63) won the eight-team league by four games over the Montgomery Lions. Al López turned 19 that summer for Jacksonville as the Tars’ catcher and did a fine job handling the pitching staff. He posted a .276 BA with three HR. Fifty years later he was inducted in Cooperstown based on managing Cleveland and Chicago White Sox. Rube Marquard, who managed the 1929 and 1930 Tars, made it to Cooperstown in 1971, on his merits as an NL hurler, 1908-1925, with a 201-177 W-L record. The 1929 Tars were 68-68 in Marquard’s “partial” managing season, followed by a 69-66 third-place finish in 1930.

Jacksonville Tars (1936-1942)

The eight-team Sally League was home to the 1936-1942 Tars. They were second to 1936 Columbus Red Birds, led by Enos “Country” Slaughter, with a .325/.394/.497 slash line, and .892 OPS. Bill Steineke managed the 1937 Tars—he played four games for the 1931 Pittsburgh Pirates; managed 1945-46 Mayagüez Indios in the PRWL, as the first National Leaguer to manage a PRWL team. (Joe Buzas was the first American Leaguer—1945 NY Yankees—to manage in the PRWL when he replaced Steineke, fired by Mayagüez. Josh Gibson, a Major Leaguer since December 16, 2020, preceded Steineke and Buzas as a PRWL big-league skipper when he managed the 1939-40 Santurce Crabbers, after doing likewise with the 1936-37 Brooklyn Eagles (barnstorming).

In 1939, Jacksonville was sixth, as first-place Columbus Red Birds edged Augusta by a half-game. Columbus was managed by Clay Hopper, Jackie Robinson’s 1946 Montreal skipper. Hopper managed catcher Walter Alston with 1939 Columbus and led them to the Sally League’s 1940 post-season title. He was 1,916-1,675 as a minor-league skipper. Jacksonville’s best hurler, 1939-1942, was Adrián Zabala, from San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. He won 64 for the Tarps in those four seasons, per Table I. In 1942, Jacksonville was a New York Giants farm team, and a 1937 Washington Senators farm club. Zabala made his pro debut with the 1938-39 Cuba team, Cuban Winter League, featuring catcher William “Thou Shall Not Steal” Perkins, Ray Dandridge, pitchers Leroy Matlock, Alejandro “Patón” Carrasquel, and others. Infielder Cal Ermer played four games for the 1942 Tarps before enlisting in the US Marine Corps. On September 26, 1947, he played his only big-league game for the Washington Senators. In 1967, Ermer managed the Minnesota Twins, replacing Sam Mele. Ermer managed Ponce and Mayagüez in the PRWL. In the minors, he was 1,906-1,728, 20th place, behind #19 Hopper.

Table I: Jacksonville Pitching Stats, Hurlers connected to PRWL/other winter leagues, 1939-1956

1939Adrián Zabala37   13-115.02206232 901.56
1940Adrián Zabala28   9-84.55170181 541.38
1941Adrián Zabala43   20-174.06277265 941.30
1942Adrián Zabala25   16-52.26187183 391.19
1942Bob Hooper6   0-2 1419 122.21
1946Bob Hooper29 1019-113.5116415690791.43
1947Art Fowler36 16 11-14.360210233104871.81
1947Bob Hooper26 11 8-123.4815015173701.47
1948Bob Hooper35 16420-92.4520618799711.25
1949Hoyt Wilhelm#33 18117-122.66223198126661.30
1950Jack Harshman22  1-16.751212NA91.75
1953Ray Crone333120419-112.382532001741041.20
1954Humberto Robinson363323423-8241276201243971.08
1955Noel Oquendo2617727-33.2911711461701.56
1955Adrián Zabala3611 11-31.82746532251.22
1956Gerry Nelson1817618-32.7611410662531.40
1956Terín Pizarro313127623-61.772741493181491.09
1956Adrián Zabala3222 5-23.21565825141.29

#Inducted in Cooperstown. Sources: Multiple ones.

Jacksonville Tars (1946-1952)

Jaime Almendro

Jaime Almendro, “Phil Rizzuto of Puerto Rico,” played SS for the SJ Senators. His 1945-46 and 1946-47 SJ double-play partners were Monte Irvin and Larry Doby. In 1948 he played his last minor-league season with the 1948 Tars. “I was hopeful the [NY] Giants would bring me up,” recalled Almendro. “But it wasn’t to be.” Almendro was a PRWL veteran who earned $500/month as the league’s best-fielding SS. He remembered Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched for the Jacksonville Tars, in 1948 and 1949—one of many NY Giants prospects who plied their trade at Jacksonville post-World War II. He was 17-12 for 1949 Tars. His 1949 Tars skipper was Cuban native Jack Aragón, a catcher, who had one pinch-running appearance with the 1941 NY Giants (August 13, 1941), after catching Luis Tiant, Sr., Barney Brown, Early Wynn, Martín Dihigo, and Rodolfo Fernández, with the 1938-40 Havana Lions. Tommy Lasorda pitched for the 1949 Greenville Spinners—one of 25 Brooklyn Dodgers minor-league clubs! Lasorda was 7-7 for the third-place Spinners. Don Mueller starred for the 1947 Tars, earning All-Star designation as an OF. Bob Hooper went 20-9 for the 1948 Tars and was claimed by the Detroit Tigers, in the November 15, 1948, minor-league draft. Hooper pitched for Almendares, 1949-50 Cuban Winter League, and was selected to the February 21-27, 1950 Caribbean Series All-Star Team, per Table II, after this round-robin event at Sixto Escobar Stadium, SJ, Puerto Rico.

1949 Jacksonville Tars. Hoyt Wilhelm standing, first, L to R: Photo credit: Brett Honeycutt,  https://hoytwilhelmonlinemuseum.blogspot.com/2020/02/hoyt-wilhelm-with-jacksonville-tars.html

Table II: February 1950 Caribbean Series All-Star Team, SJ

Fermín GuerraCAlmendares (Cuba)
Andrés Fleitas1BAlmendares
Spook Jacobs2BCarta Vieja (Panamá)
Héctor Rodríguez3BAlmendares
Alfonso CarrasquelSSMagallanes (Venezuela)
Luis R. OlmoLFCaguas (PR)
Dick BurgettCFCarta Vieja
Roberto OrtizRFAlmendares
Bob HooperPAlmendares
Wayne BlackburnMGRCarta Vieja (5-2 W-L)

Wilhelm (8-6, 2.36 ERA) pitched for 1950-51 Havana Lions, plus two starts, February 22 and 25, 1951, in the Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela. He went 1-1 in this four-team event, losing the opener to Santurce, and José “Pantalones” Santiago but pitching a four-hitter against Panamá’s Spur Cola, a 2-1 win. Adrián Zabala, with Jacksonville (1939-1942, 1955-1956), won two games for Havana—against Santurce (4-3) and host Magallanes (7-5)—but Santurce (5-1 W-L) won behind Pantalones (2-0 W-L) and Rubén Gómez (2-0 W-L) and MVP Luis R. Olmo: .423 BA, three HR, and nine RBIs. Table III has the Series All-Star Team.

Table III: February 1951 Caribbean Series All-Star Team, Caracas

Güígüí LucasCSanturce (PR)
Lorenzo Cabrera1BHavana (Cuba)
Spook Jacobs2BSpur Cola (Panamá)
Jim Dyck3BMagallanes (Venezuela)
Stan BreardSSSanturce
Pedro FormentalLFHavana
Luis R. OlmoCFSanturce
Bob ThurmanRFSanturce
Pantalones SantiagoPSanturce
George ScalesMGRSanturce (5-1 W-L)

Multiple sources for Tables II-III.

Rance Pless

Rance Pless was a minor-league “lifer” (1947-1960) except for 48 games and 85 AB with 1956 KC A’s. From 1949-1951 he toiled for the Jacksonville Tars. He made the 1951 Sally League All-Star Team at 3B, with a .321 BA. His Tars hitting stats are in Table IV, with other Jacksonville players, 1939-1956, connected to winter ball. Pless posted a .293 BA with nine HR and 82 RBIs in three seasons (1953-56) with the Caguas Criollos. Ben Geraghty, Pless’s 1951 Jacksonville skipper, was his 1954-56 Caguas manager. Geraghty managed 1951 and 1952 Tars in the NY Giants chain and remained in this capacity (1953-1956) when Jacksonville transitioned to the Milwaukee Braves.

Table IV: Jacksonville Hitting Stats-Players connected to PRWL/other leagues, 1939-1956

1939Félix Ríos129471 164444  .348.471
1947Don Mueller12246981163349482.348.486
1947Billy Gardner11045955111185141.262.326
1948Jaime Almendro35125 33321 .264.344
1948Billy Gardner154548 1402643 .255.334
1949Jack Aragón80183274592123.246.333
1949Gip Dickens15356067129212359.230.291
1949Bob Lennon150553731401771368.253.380
1949Rance Pless3811819327 117.271.356
1950Rance Pless48189 52113  .305 
1951Rance Pless13757788185374785.321.435
1953Hank Aaron#137574115208361422125.362.589
1953Jim Frey11742964136254237.317.408
1953Félix Mantilla129490110136226648.278.384
1954Jim Frey139529891674041165.316.469
1954Horace Garner9432354104251855.322.480
1955Wes Covington1345319317321141681.326.509
1956Ed Charles9534742861041156.248.395
1956Joe Morgan13247685143248945.300.441
1956Mike Roarke11435946991211355.276.423

#Inducted in Cooperstown. Sources: Multiple ones.

Hank Aaron (L) and Ben Geraghty (R), 1953 Jacksonville Braves. Photo credit: www.imageevent.com.

Hank Aaron: Jacksonville Braves-Caguas Criollos (April 1953-February 1954)

Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron, Horace Garner, and Félix Mantilla integrated the 1953 Jacksonville Braves, affiliated with Milwaukee for eight seasons: 1953-1960. Aaron (2B) and Mantilla (SS) were double-play partners for skipper Ben Geraghty. These 93-44 (.679) Braves won the pennant over Columbia Reds (92-48) but the Reds prevailed over them in the finals, four games-to-three. Team owner Samuel W. Wolfson, who was Jewish, “had been impressed by many of the players in the Negro American League and decided to integrate his team.” https://jaxexaminer.com/hank-aaron-played-for-the-jacksonville-braves-in-1953/ They were one of the first integrated teams in the Sally League and in Florida. With Jacksonville, Aaron lived a few blocks from Durkee Field (off 8th Street and Durkee) and walked to-and-from the ballpark. He was League MVP and All-Star 2B with a .362 BA, 22 HR, and 125 RBI. Mantilla was the All-Star SS.

1953 Jacksonville Braves. Félix Mantilla, 2nd, L to R, and Horace Garner, 4th, L to R, standing; Hank Aaron, far right, standing. Photo credit: www.pinterest.com.

Aaron and Mantilla then were 1953-54 Caguas Criollos teammates, PRWL, with pitchers Bob Buhl (14-3) and Ray Crone (6-1), who won 19 games for the 1953 Jacksonville Braves. He joined Caguas in December 1953, and opined there was a “certain chemistry between him and Caguas skipper Mickey Owen,” who “brought out his best.” Mickey Owen changed the course of Aaron’s career, moving him from 2B to RF.

“I knew where I could get a better second baseman than Aaron, [but] he could sure hit,” remembered Owen. “So one day I hit him a few flyballs and he went to it and got them easy, and he threw good. I said, you’re not an infielder, you’re an outfielder.”

Owen secured 2B Charley Neal to reinforce Caguas and moved Aaron to RF. Neal and Mantilla were a fine combination; Aaron, CF Jim Rivera, and 47-year-old LF Tetelo Vargas, an excellent OF. Catchers Güígüí Lucas and Owen were solid, with the latter taking over, late-regular season and post-season. Dale Long (1B) hit the long ball before departing for the States. Vic Power (3B-1B) was there, with Pless, a good left-handed hitter. Aaron earned MVP honors on December 26, 1953, PRWL All-Star Game, with two HR. He is one of five players with two HR. The others are Josh Gibson, January 1, 1942 (Game Two); Roberto Clemente, December 12, 1954; Ismael Oquendo, January 6, 1980; and, Candy Maldonado, January 6, 1981. Jack Harshman and Bob Turley, with SJ Senators, were awed by Aaron in the PRWL. “You could tell Aaron had a major league stroke, the way he sprayed the ball to right and right-center,” said Turley.  Like Turley, Harshman was awed by Aaron in Puerto Rico. “He had absolutely great hand-wrist action. I had him 0-2 once and threw him a high and inside fastball to force him away from the plate. But he leaned back and hit it over the CF wall. Aaron had the best hands I’ve ever seen.” Table V has Aaron’s pro baseball hitting stats.

Table V: Hank Aaron Stats, Minors (1952/1953), PRWL (1953-54), Majors (1954-1976)

NAL#26    112 41  533.366 
Eau Claire87345 1161949 .336.493
PRWL All-Star Game1     2   
World Series14558202139.364.600

#1952 Negro American League-Indianapolis Clowns. !1953-54 Caguas Criollos, PRWL. ^Major League All-Star Games. Blank spaces = NA. Sources: Baseball Almanac, Baseball Reference, Stats Crew, Howe Sports Data, https://www.beisbol101.com/hank-aaron-3/

Bill Howerton and Rance Pless: February 21, 1954, versus Almendares

Bill Howerton, a 1954 Caribbean Series replacement for Aaron, hit a homer to tie Almendares, 1-1, top of seventh, February 21. (Aaron departed for the States after Caguas bested SJ, PRWL finals.) Sportswriter Rafael Pont Flores wrote: “When the import [Howerton] crossed the plate, he was received like a famous native who has been absent from the country a long time.”

Pless’s two-run blast gave Caguas a 3-1 lead—the decisive Caribbean Series blow! Per Pless: “The [Sixto Escobar] crowd went crazy. After we won the series, there were parades and we were serenaded all night long. I went up to the plaza and gave a speech…was given a portable TV and other gifts. Winning that Caribbean Series meant a lot to us. Heck, the fans were passed out everywhere the next morning.” Caguas’s 4-2 W-L record gave them the series title.

Humberto Robinson and Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson

Humberto Robinson won the pitching Triple Crown for 1954 Jacksonville. The Panamá native pitched in the Caribbean Series, 1953-1956, and beyond. With Jacksonville, he faced Frank Robinson (.336/.442/.591 slash line and 1.032 OPS) with Columbia Reds. Both Robinsons made the 1954 Sally League All=Star Team. Frank returned to Columbia, in part of 1955, after a brief 1954-55 PRWL stint with Ponce.

Noel Oquendo and Terín Pizarro

Juan Pizarro

Noel Oquendo (1955) and Juan “Terín” Pizarro (1956) illustrate the gamut of players with Jacksonville, 1939-1956. Oquendo, a minor-league journeyman, never played in the majors. He was 17-17 for SJ Senators, 1953-54 through 1957-58; pitched in the minors for 11 seasons (1949-1959), ending with Nuevo Laredo.  Pizarro received a $30,000 signing bonus with Milwaukee, before posting a 23-7 record for 1956 Jacksonville (87-53), with 318 strikeouts, and being named League MVP.  He led them to the regular season and post-season crown. “The Sally League was a good one to start my career in the States,” said Pizarro. “I began my PRWL career with 1955-56 Santurce Crabbers under manager Herman Franks and flew to Florida for spring training. Ben Geraghty—my 1956 manager—managed Caguas to the 1955-56 post-season title over my Crabbers. Ben was familiar with Puerto Rico and supportive, in Jacksonville.”

Thanks to Jaime Almendro, Ray Crone, Jack Harshman, Bill Howerton Sr.-Jr., Mickey Owen, Terín Pizarro, Rance Pless, and Bob Turley. Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, did the editing-photo layout; shared Aaron’s PRWL hitting stats. Joe Torres did the colorization of photos.

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