Luis Rodríguez Olmo—The Ballplayer of the Americas (Part IV: minors-MLB)


Jackie Robinson with Luis Rodríguez Olmo at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, New York, 1949. Olmo is translating a section of El Diario de Nueva York. Photo Credit: Salas, 1949. Olmo and Robinson were very good friends during their 1949 season as Brooklyn Dodgers teammates.

Luis Rodríguez Olmo’s first minor-league playing experience was with the 1939 Wilson Tobs (North Carolina), Class D Coastal Plain League. José “Pepe” Seda, Olmo’s 1938-39 manager with the Caguas Criollos, was a Brooklyn Dodgers scout. Seda wired Branch Rickey Jr., farm director for the Dodgers, on Olmo’s arrival on the mainland via the Barranquilla steamship. The Richmond Colts—an independent club—tracked Olmo’s whereabouts and signed him before the Dodgers could do so. With Wilson, he was chosen to the league’s All-Star Team, after registering 72 hits in 219 AB, for a .329 BA.

 In 1940, Olmo had 20 doubles, seven triples and 18 HR in 82 games for Wilson, and a .348 BA. With Class B Richmond, 1940 Piedmont League, he hit .271 with two HR in 48 games. He then batted .311 for Richmond in 1941, with a .491 SLG, product of 20 doubles, 17 triples, 13 HR and league-leading (tie) 89 RBIs. Olmo was a 1941 league All-Star, before claiming the 1942 Triple Crown for Richmond with a .337 BA, 10 HR and 92 RBIs. Olmo’s 29 doubles and 19 triples helped him post a .529 SLG. Ben Chapman, Richmond’s 1942 player-manager, however, was named the MVP. Olmo became the first player from Puerto Rico to win a minor-league Triple Crown. The other two are: Orlando Cepeda, 1956 St. Cloud Rox, Class C Northern League, .355/26/112; and, Lou Montañez, 2008 Bowie Baysox, Class AA Eastern League, .335/26/97.

Sportswriters opined that Olmo had a close facial resemblance to Tony Lazzeri, manager of the 1942 Portsmouth Cubs, in the Piedmont League. Olmo’s SABR bio noted that he (Olmo) was “bean-balled into the dirt (with 1942 Richmond),” but he bounced back, black eyes flashing, and beat their brains out. Consensus is that he has it!” The Brooklyn Dodgers purchased Olmo’s contract from Richmond, October 1, 1942, per his SABR bio, located at: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/a26bda17).  The Dodgers assigned him to the 1943 Montreal Royals, their top farm team, Class AA International League. Olmo played there for three months, with a .315/.343/.460 slash line and .804 OPS. The Dodgers, impressed with Olmo’s 12 triples, promoted him in July 1943. Olmo related (to Van Hyning) that he faced Joe Page (14-5 W-L) of the 1943 Newark Bears, perhaps the hardest-throwing lefty in the 1943 International League. Newark was a farm club of the New York Yankees.

Olmo, who played at 5’11” and 185 pounds, had a .303/.325/.412 slash line with Brooklyn and .737 OPS, in 57 games. He hit four HR and drove in 37. One of his HR was an inside-the-park line drive versus Pittsburgh. Harold Parrot of the Brooklyn Eagle mentioned Olmo’s power to right center and his speed. Olmo also had seven OF assists from CF in 54 games. (He played RF and LF in three other contests.) The Sporting News (October 1943) called Olmo’s distinctive batting style “probably more like Joe DiMaggio’s than anyone else.” It mentioned Olmo’s unusual buggy-whip batting style. Olmo had turned 24 on August 11, 1943; he was in his prime.

The 1944 and 1945 NL seasons were spent with Brooklyn. Olmo—who wore #21 for Brooklyn, 1943-45—played in 136 games the former season, with a .258/.284/.367 slash line, and 141 games in 1945, where he led the league in triples with 13. Olmo’s 110 RBIs in 1945 tied him with Andy Pafko of the Chicago Cubs for third-place, behind Harry Walker (124) of Brooklyn and Tommy Holmes (117) of the Boston Braves. Olmo had a .315/.343/.460 slash line; a .804 OPS in 1945. His 15 SB led the team and one of his 10 HR was a grand slam versus the Cubs at Ebbets Field on May 18, 1945. That same game, he hit a bases-loaded triple, for seven RBIs, in Brooklyn’s 15-12 win. Olmo was versatile, playing 2B and 3B for Leo Durocher, his Brooklyn manager, in 1944 and 1945. Olmo and Durocher had a “curious relationship” per Rory Costello. They might play gin rummy and a game of pool together, but Durocher (in 1945) “broke my bat right in front me,” recalled Olmo, in his 2011 interview with Costello. Olmo felt the Dodgers wanted to send him back to the minors “so they wouldn’t have to pay me” and opined “they [Brooklyn] wanted Dixie Walker to beat me out and I was playing more than Dixie Walker.”

Olmo’s three years (1946-48) playing in Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela were covered in Part II. Happy Chandler, MLB Commissioner, issued a general amnesty—early June 1949—to MLB players who “jumped” to Mexico in 1946. Olmo accepted Brooklyn’s offer for a $12,000 salary, and left the Pastora Milkers, the Venezuelan team he served as 1949 player-manager.

Olmo helped Brooklyn (97-57) win the 1949 NL pennant by one game over 96-58 St. Louis. He was mainly a back-up OF and pinch-hitter from late June until season’s end, with a .305 BA (32 hits/105 AB) in 38 games, one HR and 14 RBIs. It was Olmo’s spectacular catch at Ebbets Field, August 24, 1949, versus St. Louis, which may have been the difference-maker in the pennant chase. Brooklyn was two games back of St. Louis, and leading the Cardinals, 2-0, in the top of the fifth. Stan Musial hit a long fly ball to the opposite field with the tying runs on base. Olmo, in LF, made a spectacular leaping catch to end this rally and preserve Brooklyn’s eventual victory.

Luis Muñoz Marín, Governor of Puerto Rico with Jackie Robinson, who autographed the bat for the Governor; and Luis Rodríguez Olmo, at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, New York, 1949.

Luis Muñoz Marín, Puerto Rico’s Governor, was a rabid New York Yankees and Caguas Criollos baseball fan. On a trip to New York City—where he once lived as a child and young adult—the Governor found time to visit with Olmo and Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field during the summer of 1949. The author’s father (Sam Van Hyning) was an Economic Advisor to Muñoz Marín, 1956-to-1964. Sam Van Hyning recalled that the Governor knew the statistics of all the New York Yankee players during that era, including how many pitches (97) Don Larsen threw against Brooklyn, during Larsen’s October 8, 1956 perfect game! Luis Muñoz Marín was also familiar with Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators, having lived in the nation’s capital when his father (Luis Muñoz Rivera) was Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in D.C.

Olmo was 30 years old and wore #37 when his Dodgers faced the 1949 New York Yankees in the World Series. He appeared in four of the five World Series contests, with three hits in 11 AB; two runs scored, two RBIs, a .545 SLG and .818 OPS. Game three was at Ebbets Field, October 7, 1949, following the Yankees 1-0 win in Game One; and Brooklyn’s 1-0 game-two victory. Burt Shotton, the Dodgers skipper, put Olmo in the line-up, batting sixth, behind Gil Hodges; in front of Duke Snider. Roy Campanella hit eighth. Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Miksis, Carl Furillo and Jackie Robinson were at the top of the order. Ralph Branca started versus LHP Tommy Byrne of New York. The Yankees line-up was Phil Rizzuto, Tommy Henrich, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Bobby Brown, Gene Woodling, Cliff Mapes, Jerry Coleman and Byrne. Joe Page came on in relief for Byrne in the fourth, with the game tied at one, after walks to Robinson and Hodges loaded the bases. Page retired Olmo and Snider. New York scored three in the ninth off Branca to take a 4-1 lead. Page got Hodges to ground out leading off the home ninth. Olmo blasted a long HR to deep LF; Snider struck out; Campanella homered; and pinch-hitter Bruce Edwards fanned, looking, to end the 4-3 Yankee victory.

“From what I heard,” Olmo told the author, “my home run off Page set off a chain reaction throughout Puerto Rico, as if an atomic bomb was dropped on the Island. Puerto Rico’s fans were celebrating well after my blast, Campanella’s one and the game’s final out.” This was the first World Series home run hit by a Latin American player. Olmo was also the third Latin American player in a World Series, following Cuban pitcher Dolf Luque for the 1919 Cincinnati Reds and Mike González, a Chicago Cubs catcher from Cuba, in the 1929 World Series.

Two days later, October 9, 1949, Olmo pinch-hit for LF Marv Rackley, and struck out against Page in the seventh frame, in New York’s 10-6, World Series clinching-win.  Leland Speed, a 17-year old high school senior from Jackson, Mississippi, was at this Game Five, with a ticket courtesy of Yankee OF Johnny Lindell, a family friend. “It was an amazing game and Yankee win,” recalled Speed some 55 years later. “I got permission to get on the Yankee team bus outside of Ebbets Field, going to Yankee Stadium…got to meet Joe DiMaggio [and others] on the team bus! Brooklyn fans were not too happy…” Leland Speed was Executive Director of the Mississippi Development Authority when he related this to the author in 2004.

This was Olmo’s last game in a Brooklyn uniform. On December 24, 1949, he was traded to the Boston Braves for Jim Russell, Ed Sauer, and cash. Olmo saw limited action in 1950 and 1951, in 69 and 21 games, respectively, wearing #15. He batted .227 in 1950; and .196 in 1951. Olmo befriended teammate Gene Mauch, who he managed with the 1952-53 Caguas Criollos. Boston sent Olmo to their 1951 Class AAA Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association. They finished 94-57; won the regular season and post-season. Olmo’s slash line in 82 games was .279/.318/.407, and a .725 OPS; eight HR and 52 RBIs. Olmo was reunited with 1B George Crowe, whom he managed at Caguas, 1950-51. Olmo’s MLB slash line was .281/.39/.405, with a .724 OPS. His U.S. and Canada minor-league career BA was .317. He hit 58 HR in the minors.

The Boston/Milwaukee Braves retained Olmo as a Puerto Rico scout in the 1950s-early 1960s.

Olmo signed Félix Mantilla (1951), Juan Pizarro (1956) and Santos “Sandy” Alomar Sr. (1960). He offered Roberto Clemente $30,000 to sign with the Milwaukee Braves, but Clemente gave his word to the Brooklyn Dodgers he would accept their $10,000 signing bonus. Elrod Hendricks also benefited from Olmo’s guidance in signing a pro contract, and from playing in Puerto Rico.

Olmo loved to bet on horse racing in Puerto Rico, and also became proficient in golf—a sport he started playing in the late 1960s. Rubén Gómez was a frequent golf partner. Olmo once played a round of golf with Joe DiMaggio, in Puerto Rico, and they enjoyed reminiscing about old times.

The February 1995 Caribbean Series, hosted at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, was dedicated to Mr. Olmo. It was the first series a Caribbean Series team representing Puerto Rico wore PUERTO RICO on their uniforms. Prior to 1995, they were their league uniforms—San Juan, Santurce, Caguas, Ponce, Mayagüez and Arecibo. “It means a lot to me,” said Olmo. “It’s an honor which I accept with pride and appreciation on behalf of my family.” In 1997, Héctor Barea, ex-Caguas public relations official and team historian, named Olmo as OF on Caguas’s all-decade team, 1938-39 to 1948-49, along with OF Tetelo Vargas and Manolo García.

Olmo’s honors included having Arecibo’s professional baseball stadium named after him—Luis Rodríguez Olmo Municipal Stadium. He was inducted in eight (8) Hall of Fames, including Arecibo and Caguas, Brooklyn Dodgers, Puerto Rico Sports and Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fames, Caribbean Series Hall of Fame, Santurce Sports Hall of Fame and the Latin American Baseball Hall of Fame. Olmo passed away in Santurce on April 28, 2017, due to Alzheimer’s issues. He was 97.

With deep appreciation to Luis Rodríguez Olmo for his kindness when we spoke at his home. Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado for insights and providing Puerto Rico League and Caribbean Series stats. Rory Costello’s SABR bio of Mr. Olmo was valuable. And thanks to all those former players quoted in this four-part series on Luis Rodríguez Olmo.

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