Luis Rodríguez Olmo—The Ballplayer of the Americas (Part III)

Luis Rodríguez Olmo managed the Arecibos Lobos in its first two seasons.

Pedrín Zorrilla signed Olmo as Santurce’s reserve OF and right-handed pinch-hitter for 1954-55, with a $1,500 monthly contract, approximately the same amount Willie Mays earned that winter. Mays, Olmo and Roberto Clemente all did basket catches in the outfield. This was the first (and only) time a professional baseball team in Puerto Rico, and perhaps the entire Caribbean, could have three OF who caught fly balls this way. According to Jorge Colón Delgado, the only other OF from Puerto Rico who later specialized in basket catches were Jerry Morales and Jaime “Jimmy” Rosario. Author Colón Delgado chronicled the epic 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers in his book La Maquinaria Perfecta (The Perfect Machine). Roberto Clemente played LF that 1954-55 season because Bob Thurman, the RF, had a better and more accurate throwing arm at the time! Alfonso Gerard was another Santurce reserve OF and left-handed pinch-hitter. Olmo went 20-for-73 with Santurce, for a .274 BA, two HR, nine RBIs. In the February 1955 Caribbean Series hosted by Venezuela—and won by Santurce (5-1)—Olmo got a hit in two AB. Thus, Olmo went 23-for-76 in four (4) Caribbean Series events, for a .303 BA, four HR and 13 RBIs. He played on two Caribbean Series champions—the 1950-51 and 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers. Pete Burnside, a Santurce teammate in 1954-55, opined that “Olmo was someone who spoke English very well…a very dignified guy.” This was high praise, considering that Burnside had a college degree from Dartmouth, a prestigious Ivy League school.

Olmo returned to Santurce for 1955-56 in a reserve role—60 AB, 14 hits—and concluded his playing career with San Juan, 1956-57, with a hit in three AB. His 15 Puerto Rico seasons included 2,182 AB, 340 runs, 632 hits, 128 doubles, 35 triples, 40 HR, 365 RBIs and 21 SB. His lifetime BA was .290; he had a .435 SLG. By the time Olmo retired as a player, Sandy Koufax and Tom Lasorda were starters for the 1956-57 Caguas-Rio Piedras Criollos.

San Juan hired Olmo to manage them in 1957-58 and 1958-59, both winning seasons. The 1957-58 San Juan Senators (33-31) tied Caguas for second-place, but lost to the Criollos, three games-to-one, in the semis. Olmo was the first manager in league history to use a closer. Don McMahon, with the Milwaukee Braves at the time, was his 1957-58 San Juan closer. But the team (after the midway point) traded McMahon (3-2, 1.37 ERA) for starter Ray Rippelmeyer, who had been pitching in the Dominican Republic. Rippelmeyer pitched well for Olmo, 3-2, 2.25 ERA, in 1957-58; then, 11-5, 1.67 ERA, in 1958-59. Rippelmeyer informed me, via responses to written questions in July 2019, that “Olmo had a personal touch and let you pitch your game. He handled the natives well and he was always in your corner. I really enjoyed playing for him.”

The 1958-59 San Juan Senators were 38-24 at season’s end, 2.5 games ahead of 36-27 Santurce, but Caguas ended San Juan’s season by winning their semi-final series, which went seven games. Luis “Tite” Arroyo went 9-6 for Olmo as a starter; Arroyo had also reinforced Caguas when Olmo was their player-manager in the 1950 Caribbean Series. Arroyo spoke highly of Olmo. As a matter of fact, I never heard anyone say anything negative about Olmo, with the exception of a frustrated Santurce fan in the 1965-66 winter season, when Olmo managed those Crabbers.

Santurce hired Olmo halfway through the 1959-60 season, when Ray Murray was fired. Murray, with the San Francisco Giants organization, wanted Orlando Cepeda to play LF for Santurce. But there was resistance to this by the Santurce ownership…and Olmo replaced Murray as skipper. Olmo, who loved betting on the horse races, shared a love for this sport with José “Pantalones” Santiago, a Santurce pitcher, and one of the team’s two player reps with Rubén Gómez. On days Pantalones was not pitching, Olmo would have his pitcher make the trek to El Comandante Race track, and place a “cuadro” (bet) on Olmo’s behalf. Olmo, prior to taking the 1959-60 Santurce managing job, did some radio broadcast work for San Juan (Spanish transmissions). Phil Rizzuto did the English-language broadcasting version for a time.

Santurce’s 1960-61 edition finished 29-35, tied for fourth with Ponce, and out of the running for a playoff spot in the five-team league. Juan “Terín” Pizarro, Santurce’s star pitcher, had been signed by Olmo—in Olmo’s capacity as a scout for the Milwaukee Braves—a few years earlier. (Olmo’s role as a MLB scout will be featured in Part II, in addition to Olmo’s MLB and U.S. and Canada minor league playing career.) Orlando Cepeda missed the first-half of the season due to the San Francisco Giants tour of Japan. Olmo was tired by season’s end. He needed 10 days in a Santurce hospital to recover from an ulcer attack that he experienced on the last day of the 1960-61 regular season. San Juan manager Luman Harris selected Cepeda and Pizarro to reinforce the Senators in their February 1961 Inter-American Series in Venezuela. Bob Leith, San Juan’s owner, picked up Pizarro at Pizarro’s Villa Palmeras (Santurce) home en route to the airport.

The expansion Arecibo Wolves (Lobos) gave Olmo a two-year contract to manage their first-

ever 1961-62, and 1962-63 ball clubs. Santos (Sandy) Alomar Sr. was one of many Arecibo players who admired their skipper. Olmo also was instrumental in signing Sandy Sr. for the Milwaukee Braves (more in Part IV). Some of Arecibo’s more colorful players included Lee Maye, a very talented professional singer, who sang several Stateside hit songs, including “Only You,” on the team bus, after Arecibo (42-39) defeated San Juan (41-40) in a tie-breaker at Escobar Stadium to determine the fourth-place team and playoff qualifier. That game was remembered for Roberto Clemente arguing a close call at 1B on a double play grounder he (Clemente) hit. Clemente and Napoleón Reyes—the San Juan manager—got into heated arguments with Mel Steiner, the 1B umpire. Doug Harvey also was an umpire in this game. Carlos Manuel Santiago, an Arecibo coach that expansion season, noted the team chemistry with Tommie Aaron, Phil Niekro, Moe Drabowsky and others was terrific. The author got to meet Bob Uecker—who caught for Arecibo in 1961-62—prior to a 1993 MLB game between the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles. Uecker only had time for one question—which was: “Did you enjoy playing for Luis Olmo, with the 1961-62 Arecibo Wolves.” Uecker’s replied: “Most definitely; I loved playing for Luis, one heck of a guy.” Arecibo was eliminated in the semi-finals both seasons, losing four games-to-one, both times.

Octavio “Cookie” Rojas played 2B for Olmo, 1961-62 and 1962-63. In our March 1993 interview, prior to the expansion Florida Marlins spring training game, Rojas stated: “I was in New Jersey with the former Havana Cubans franchise, who had moved to Jersey City. I got word from Arecibo in 1961 that they were interested in my services. It was a joy from the beginning to play for Luis Olmo, a great player in his days and I’m proud of having played for, and learning a lot from him.”

Olmo returned to manage Caguas for 1964-65, but the 32-37 Criollos came in fifth of six clubs. Ferguson Jenkins, who pitched for this team, also had kind words for Luis Olmo, affirming “Olmo was a player’s manager, who communicated well with his players and obviously had a lot of credibility.” Olmo managed the Latin American squad in the January 6, 1965 League All-Star Game and gave the ball to Juan Pizarro. Preston Gómez, manager of the North American team, had George Brunet start. The game went into extra innings and Olmo was forced to use IF José Antonio Pagán to pitch the tenth and eleventh innings, in a game won by the North Americans. Roberto Clemente got a pinch-hit single for Olmo’s team.

Santurce hired Olmo one last time in 1965-66, but the team lost their first 10 games, and finished last at 29-41, in a six-team league. Olmo had to ask a police officer at Hiram Bithorn Stadium—shared by San Juan and Santurce—to remove an agitator from the stands.  Rubén Gómez, Tany (Tony) Pérez, Angel Luis Alcaraz and Félix Juan Maldonado all played for the Latin American squad in the All-Star game, January 6, 1966. Maldonado stole home to give the Latin Americans a 3-2 win. Bill Wilson, a pitcher, was Santurce’s only import on the North American team. But Art Shamsky, who played the OF for Olmo in 1965-66, once mentioned how helpful that season with Santurce was for his MLB career. Shamsky, at the time, was with the Cincinnati Reds, and Tany Pérez was instrumental in getting Shamsky interested in playing for the 1965-66 Crabbers.

Olmo’s final managerial stint came with the 1983-84 San Juan Senators, a fifth-place club (26-34), four games behind fourth-place Arecibo (30-30). Tony Gwynn was San Juan’s best hitter with a .327 BA (66 for 202). Gwynn fondly recalled the San Juan-Santurce rivalry, known as the “City Championship Series” with a lot of fan enthusiasm. He also spoke highly of Luis Olmo and Puerto Rico’s baseball-savvy fans. The 1983-84 Senators had a powerful line-up with SS Dickie Thon; 1B Ismael Oquendo, whose 15 HR were tied for 2nd with Candy Maldonado of Arecibo; OF Kevin McReynolds, who hit 14 HR for Olmo; among other hitters. But San Juan did not have the pitching to make the playoffs.

Olmo’s Puerto Rico regular season managing record includes: 204-164, .554, with Caguas; 119-109, .522, with San Juan; 77-74, .510, with Arecibo; and 70-96, .422, with Santurce, excluding the 1942-43 and 1943-44 seasons due to on-going research by Jorge Colón Delgado. This is a 470-443, .515 PCT.  Olmo was 16-23 in league semi-final series; 8-8 in league finals; and 4-3 in the February 1950 Caribbean Series.

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