José “Cocó” Laboy: From Ponce’s Barrio San Antón to the 1969-73 Montreal Expos

Marvin Staehle was playing shortstop for the 1963-64 San Juan Senators, in a post-season night game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, shared by San Juan and the Santurce Crabbers. San Juan was beating Ponce badly when the whole San Juan side in the stands lit matches. Staehle looked over to Cocó Laboy, playing third, and asked him what was going on. Laboy replied, “A funeral. We’re burying them and they’re holding a funeral.” In Staehle’s words, “It was incredible.”

The above interchange between Staehle and Laboy illustrates an important aspect of winter ball in Puerto Rico—a Stateside player could benefit from learning about the local culture; and a native player such as Laboy, appreciated an “import” (Staehle) showing an interest in local customs and reactions. When the author conversed by phone with Laboy, June 10, 2020, the 79=year old Laboy stated: “Staehle was so friendly he would shake the paw of a dog.” Laboy remembered San Juan teammate Deacon Jones spoke Spanish well and interacted with the native players. (Jones and Staehle even did Spanish interviews on a local radio station; Staehle had an excellent high school Spanish teacher in Chicago who took the students downtown and required them to order meals in Spanish.) Laboy appreciated Stateside players who showed an interest in Puerto Rico. Later, we will see how-why Montreal baseball fans loved Laboy, a hero to them.

Ponce Lions, 1958-59 through 1962-63

Laboy never played Little League baseball, or high school baseball at Ponce High, the alma mater of Francisco “Pancho” Coímbre. Laboy and his Barrio San Antón buddies kept a supply of nails available to hammer them into old bats, so they could be re-used. But an 18-year old Laboy showed enough ability to catch the eye of Martiniano García, owner of the Ponce Lions. García was in a “cost-cutting mode” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, for a franchise destined to finish last or tied for last, five straight seasons, 1958-59 through 1962-63. As an 18-year old, Laboy had 86 AB for 1958-59 Ponce, with 21 hits, including one HR and four RBIs, for a .244 AVG. The 26-38 Lions were managed by the legendary George Scales, the first month of the season, prior to Ray Murray taking over. (Scales had managed Ponce to five league titles in the 1940s, and Santurce to a 1950-51 title and 1951 Caribbean Series crown.) Coincidentally, Santurce owner Pedrín Zorrilla made the scouting arrangements for Laboy to sign with the San Francisco Giants organization, in time for the 1959 minor-league season, but more on this later.

Laboy, born in Ponce, July 3, 1940, showed pop (eight HR and 22 RBIs) for the 1959-60 Lions, a 17-45 club. Martiniano would not authorize the signing of young Stateside prospects. Instead, Tom Lasorda had one start (a win) and 42-year old Bob Thurman hit the final three of his 120 HR in Puerto Rico, for Ponce, to conclude his career as the league’s career HR leader, one more than José “Cheo” Cruz. Hardin Peterson was replaced as Ponce’s skipper by Luis “Canena” Márquez, in-season. Cal Ermer, one of Laboy’s all-time favorite managers, “a real gentleman,” took over as Lions skipper, 1960-61 and 1961-62. Laboy had 217 combined AB (1960-62), after leading the club with 206 AB in 1959-60. He had a .224 AVG in 1960-61 and a .210 AVG in 1961-62, but the league had excellent pitching those seasons with Santurce’s Bob Gibson (1961-62), Mayagüez’s Joel Horlen (1961-62), among others. The Pittsburgh Pirates had a working agreement with Ponce. Thus, Elmo Plaskett played for the Lions, winning the 1960-61 Triple Crown. But Tom Cheney (3-3, 3.39 ERA) and Joe Gibbon (2-0, 0.56 ERA), both left Ponce early in 1960-61, after pitching for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates pennant and World Series winners.

Laboy’s final season with Ponce (1962-63) had him split time at 3B with Eddie Olivares and Don Leppert—Ponce’s player-manager, after Bill Adair’s removal. Laboy recalled Donn Clendenon, Ponce Lions, 1958-59 through 1962-63 Ponce 1B, as “un caballete” (the guy), a power hitter. He remembered LHP Bob Veale (league-leading 104 strikeouts) as Ponce’s hardest thrower. Ponce (26-44) finished behind the other clubs: Mayagüez (42-28), Caguas (41-29), Santurce (36-34), Arecibo (35-35) and San Juan (30-40). Laboy and Olivares were traded to San Juan for Horace Clarke, prior to 963-64.

San Franciso Giants System, 1959-to-1962

Laboy’s four years in the Giants system covered Class D (Artesia, 1959 Sophomore League) through AA El Paso Sun Kings, 1962 Texas League. He hit well at all stops, including .305, 10 HR and 83 RBIs, for the 1960 Fresno Giants, Class C, California League, with a .411 OBP. In 1961, it was .311, 7, 46 for Springfield, Eastern League champs, 85-54 W-L. Paul Doyle, a Springfield teammate, thought quite highly of Laboy: “We were stuck in the Giants system,” said Doyle, a LHP. “Jim Davenport was San Francisco’s third baseman then; their pitching staff was stable and strong, with no opportunity [for us] to move up. I would see [in 1963] Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn and Rusty Staub move up to Houston…but, with San Francisco…stuck.” After his 14 hits in 36 AB for 1962 El Paso, Laboy was on the move again, traded to St. Louis.

St. Louis Cardinals System, 1963-68

Most of 1963 was spent at Winnipeg, Class A Northern League. Laboy responded with 21 HR, 77 RBIs and a .508 SLG. He followed this with a .340 AVG, .630 SLG, 1.074 OPS, 24 HR and 74 RBIs for class A Raleigh, in 1964. A promotion to Class AA Tulsa took place that season. His 1965 campaign for class AAA Jacksonville was solid: .276 AVG, eight HR and 44 RBI ats. Ken Boyer, St. Louis 3B, was traded to the New York Mets, after the 1965 MLB season, but the Cardinals kept Laboy at AAA Tulsa, 1966-68. (St. Louis moved RF Mike Shannon to 3B after the 1966 season, and traded 3B Charley Smith for RF Roger Maris, prior to 1967.)

Laboy produced at Tulsa to the tune of .308 AVG, 1966; .298 in 1967; and, .292 in 1968. He had 15 HR and 100 RBIs for Warren Spahn, his Tulsa manager, in 1968. (Spahn managed Laboy at Tulsa in 1967 and 1968.) The 1968 Tulsa Oilers (95-53) bested Spokane (85-60), four games-to-one for the Pacific Coast League title. Tulsa won the East Division; Spokane took the West. Don Zimmer, who managed Laboy in Puerto Rico, 1967-68, managed the 1968 Indianapolis Indians. Ellis “Cot” Deal, skipper of the 1968 Oklahoma City 89ers, managed Laboy, San Juan, 1969-70.   

San Juan Senators, 1963-64 through 1970-71

The eight winters with San Juan involved much commuting for Laboy, from Ponce-to-San Juan.

“I took a publico (public car) from Ponce to San Juan, on ‘La Piquiña,’ those mountain roads,” said Laboy. “When we [San Juan] played Ponce in Ponce, then I went to the ballpark from my Ponce home.” 

Roberto Clemente was a major influence on Laboy as a San Juan teammate, starting in 1963-64, and as a 1964-65 player-manager, and 1970-71 manager. “Clemente had a lot of integrity,” said Laboy. “He was always on top of us, motivating us to do our best…a likeable fellow; all of us loved and respected him.” Laboy recalled the moment a fan in Nicaragua threw a huge iguana at Clemente, in RF, playing for San Juan, in the February 1964 Interamerican Series, an event between two teams from Nicaragua; the Panamá team; and San Juan. “He [Clemente] was reluctant to come out of the dugout, for a time, after that incident.” Cinco Estrellas, from the host country, won that series with a 5-1 record. José “Palillo” Santiago won Game One, but Santiago recalled a three-run HR off Juan “Terín” Pizarro in Game Two, versus Cinco Estrellas, changed the momentum that Round-Robin event.

On a positive note, Laboy befriended Tony Taylor, San Juan’s second baseman, 1966-69. Taylor once told a Sports Illustrated reporter that: “I knew when I first saw him [Laboy] that he could make the major leagues,” said Taylor, who recommended Laboy to Gene Mauch, after Mauch was named manager of the 1969 Montreal Expos, one of two National League (NL) expansion teams. (San Diego Padres were the other 1969 expansion club.) Mauch was a proponent of winter ball, having played 2B for the 1952-53 Caguas Criollos, in Puerto Rico. He also was aware that Johnny Bench caught for San Juan, 1967-68; Clemente continued to play at various times with San Juan; and, that Sparky Anderson, managed Laboy with the 1968-69 San Juan Senators. Laboy was picked in the 27th round by Montreal, as the 54th overall NL draft pick.

Montreal Expos, 1969-73; minors, 1972-73

Laboy struggled some in spring training games at West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1969, per

https://retrosimba.com/2018/10/14/coco-laboy-cardinals-outcast-brought-joy-to-expos/. Mauch continued to remember Taylor’s recommendation of Laboy. “Several times when I was managing the Phillies, I talked to Tony Taylor about Laboy,” Mauch said. “Before we went to the draft meetings, I talked to Tony again.”

Taylor said Laboy “is a good ballplayer and a smart one. He is the kind of player Mauch likes.”

The Expos went into their inaugural season with Laboy starting at 3B. In the season opener on April 8, 1969, against the Mets at New York, the Expos led, 8-6, in the eighth when Laboy hit a three-run home run against Ron Taylor, the former Cardinal. Laboy’s HR was the difference in an 11-10 Expos triumph, to the dismay of most of the 44,541 in attendance. Tom Seaver (Mets) and Mudcat Grant (Expos) were the starters. Laboy will never forget Montreal fans lining the city streets to welcome the Expos back from their road trip. “Montreal fans were waving signs and yelling, Cocó, Cocó,” said Laboy. “They were shaking my hand…simply incredible.”

In the Expos home opener, April 14, 1969, Laboy doubled off St. Louis’s Gary Waslewski [his

1966-67 San Juan teammate] and scored the game-winner on pitcher Dan McGinn’s single to LF. “I never ran harder,” said Laboy, in this 8-7 win, in front of 29,184 paid fans. Laboy was glad the game-winning run came against St. Louis. “They never gave me a chance,” said Laboy. “I wanted specially to beat them today [April 14, 1969.]” http://www.puertorico-herald.org/issues/2003/vol7n18/CantForgetCoco-en.html

Laboy was involved in two no-hitters, with Montreal, both pitched by Bill Stoneman.  On April 17, 1969, at Philadelphia, a night game, Laboy had a key assist, plus a putout, in Montreal’s 7-0 win. Laboy’s four-for-five night boosted his AVG to .417, for the 4-5 Expos. Stoneman’s second no-hitter came on October 2, 1972, versus the Mets, at Jarry Park, home of the Expos. It was the first MLB regular season no-hitter pitched outside of the States. Jim Fregosi, who played 3B for the 1972 Mets, had managed Ponce in 1969-70, when Laboy played 3B for San Juan, managed by Cot Deal. Fregosi remembered Laboy, his 3B counterpart, October 2, 1972, as a “very capable defender at 3B,” and “a very intelligent player.” Stoneman’s second no-hitter was also a 7-0 win. He had nine strikeouts and seven walks in the 1972 gem; and eight strikeouts to five walks, in the 1969 no-hitter. “Stoneman hugged me after the [first] no-hitter,” said Laboy. “On the grounder, the ball stuck in my chest, but I threw to second, in time.”

Back to April 1969, Laboy finished that month with a .377 AVG and 14 RBIs in 20 games. Mauch was quoted as saying: “Every day he does something that just tickles me. Sometimes I want to kiss him.”  When a reporter asked Mauch why Laboy was doing so well, the manager stated: “Character. Cocó’s got that. He just tries so damn hard to do what you want…and he’s doing it.”

Laboy was selected 1969 Sporting News Rookie of the Year, with a .258 AVG, 18 HR and 83 RBIs, but the NL writers chose Ted Sizemore of the Los Angeles Dodgers, for this honor. However, Laboy only had a .199 AVG for the 1970 Expos, while leading the team with 26 doubles. Teammate Claude Raymond opined that Laboy was seeing “a lot more breaking pitches and fewer fastballs in 1970. Pitchers were more careful with him after 1969.” In 1971, Laboy saw reduced playing time due to injuries and Bob Bailey playing more 3B for Montreal. Laboy’s 76 games resulted in 151 AB, one HR, 14 RBIs and a .252 AVG. He rehabbed the first part of 1972 with Peninsula, .327 AVG, two HR and 17 RBIs, in 31 games, before joining the Expos. With Montreal, he was 18-for-69, a .261 AVG, three HR and 14 RBIs. Laboy’s final season with the Expos was 1973. He went four-for-33 in limited playing time, before his release. Laboy spent time with the 1973 Peninsula Whips (Class AAA) and Quebec Carnavalis, in the Expos system.

Caguas Criollos (1971-73) and Mayagüez Indios (1973-75)

Laboy and three other San Juan teammates—Luis Alvarado, Samuel Parrilla and Iván de Jesús—were traded to Caguas for José A. Pagán and Julio Navarro, prior to the 1971-72 season. But Laboy suffered a severe knee injury (damaged cartilage), on a relay play with Caguas, and missed most of 1971-72. The injury required surgery, and curtailed his playing with Montreal. Laboy played in 44 games for Caguas, 1972-73, when the Philadelphia Phillies sent catcher Bob Boone and 2B-3B Mike Schmidt to the Criollos, with OF Roger Freed and Jay Johnstone, and pitcher Wayne Twitchell, as part of a working agreement. This resulted in Phillies coach Billy DeMars managing Caguas, 1972-73. (Bobby Wine was Caguas’s 1973-74 skipper; and Jim Bunning managed Caguas for two seasons: 1974-75 and 1975-76.)

When Schmidt returned to Caguas in 1973-74, to play 3B, on an everyday basis, the Criollos opted to trade Laboy to Mayagüez. This gave Schmidt the opportunity to jump start his Cooperstown career, after a disappointing 1973 rookie season with the Phillies. Otto Vélez, who is also from Barrio San Antón in Ponce (where Laboy is from), told the author: “Schmidt had to overcome a [1973 NL] season with a lot of strikeouts.” Laboy hit 10 HR in 1973-74, including three for Mayagüez, December 12, 1973. (He was the seventh player in league history, at the time, to accomplish this feat.) Laboy told Jorge Colón Delgado and Raúl Ramos, Monday night, June 8, 2020, on the program Baseball entre Amigos (Baseball among Friends), that “I nearly had a fourth HR that night; hit one to deep left-center field, which was caught.” Laboy ended his Puerto Rico career after 37 games with the 1974-75 Indios, managed by Frank Verdi. Cookie Rojas, who also played for Gene Mauch with the Phillies, joined Mayagüez during that season.

Thanks for the Memories

Laboy coached for various Winter League teams in Puerto Rico. The author recalled Laboy coaching with the 1984-85 Criollos, when Víctor (Vic) Pellot Power was their manager. Laboy was successful managing several amateur baseball teams in Puerto Rico. Some of Laboy’s fondest memories from the Pacific Coast League were the “road trips” to Hawaii, a place which reminded him of Puerto Rico, in terms of climate, atmosphere and friendly residents. Laboy cherishes some time he spent with Roberto Clemente prior to, and after games, during the 1969-72 NL seasons. This included some meals, whether in Pittsburgh or Montreal.

The author developed a friendship with Gilberto Flores, originally from Barrio Cuatro Calles, in Ponce. Flores played the OF for Ponce, 1974-75 through 1984-85, before relocating to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the author later interviewed him. And Flores thought very highly of Laboy, who retired after the 1974-75 season, Flores’s first campaign with Ponce. (The author picked up a trophy for Flores at his family’s Cuatro Calles home, during the early 1990s, on a research trip to Puerto Rico.) Laboy, in turn, remembered Flores as a talented outfielder and fellow ponceño.

Bill Stoneman, who became an executive with the Expos and VP and GM of the 2002 World Champion Anaheim Angels, noted that: «Cocó was the only player who started in both those (1969 and 1972 no-hitters) games…it was comforting to know he was there because he was our best defensive third baseman. He had good hands and a great arm.»

Jim Fanning, GM of the Expos during Laboy’s tenure, recalled that: “He (Cocó) was sound fundamentally and that was what (manager Gene Mauch) wanted. Mauch liked players who didn’t make a noise. Laboy became one of his favorites and Cocó repaid the confidence that was given him.” John McHale, Expos original president and CEO, called Laboy a “perfect gentleman and a plus for the team on-and-off the field. He had a million-dollar name and the fans loved it.”

On March 25-26, 2019, the Toronto Blue Jays played two exhibition games against the Milwaukee Brewers, in Montreal. Former Expos participated in autograph sessions before each of the two games. They were: Tim Burke, Ross Grimsley, Dennis Martínez and Claude Raymond, on March 25; followed by Denis Boucher, Mike Fitzgerald, Laboy, Steve Renko and Javy Vázquez, the next day. Laboy recalled hugging Charlie Montoyo, the Blue Jays manager, before one of the games. (Montoyo is from the municipality of Florida, Puerto Rico.)

Laboy’s complete minor-league stats are at: https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=laboy-001jos. His Puerto Rico Winter League stats can be located at: https://beisbol101.com/jose-coco-laboy/ For his Expos stats, go to: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/laboyco01.shtml. Brian Joseph’s SABR bio of Cocó Laboy is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/909eaf85.

With special thanks and appreciation to José “Cocó” Laboy, for his time and feedback during two phone conversations (afternoon-and-evening), Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Raúl Ramos furnished Cocó’s phone number. Jorge Colón Delgado provided Cocó’s complete Puerto Rico Winter League (since 2012, the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League) regular season stats. Thanks to Cot Deal, Paul Doyle, Gilberto Flores, Jim Fregosi, Marv Staehle, Tony Taylor and Otto Vélez.

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