Luis Rodríguez Olmo—»The Baseball Player of the Americas» (Part II)

Luis Rodríguez Olmo

Olmo signed a deal with the Pasquel brothers from Mexico, reportedly for at least $10,000 per season (three years) with a $40,000 ceiling. Happy Chandler, MLB Commissioner, did impose a five-year ban on those who went to Mexico, but he tweaked this in June 1949, by declaring an amnesty to the Mexico signees. The Veracruz Blues (Azules) was the club Olmo signed with, but per his SABR bio, the Pasquel brothers assigned Olmo to Mexico City during the 1946 summer season. Olmo’s .289 BA was in 59 games with nine HR and 42 RBIs. In 1947, Olmo played 102 games for Veracruz, with a .301 BA, 14 HR and 72 RBIs.  Olmo wintered in Cuba, 1947-48, and played with a new league—La Liga Nacional aka Players’ Federation League. This one allowed “outlaws to play” per Olmo’s SABR bio. Santiago was Olmo’s initial Cuban team, but he moved to the Havana Reds (Rojos) in mid-December 1947 when Santiago disbanded.  Olmo’s .318 BA, eight HR and 47 RBIs, earned him 1947-48 MVP laurels. The league only lasted that one winter.    

In 1948, Olmo opted to play in Venezuela’s Liga Occidental (Western League). He saw the payroll cuts imposed by the Pasquel brothers and other challenges staying in Mexico. Olmo’s 1948 season in Maracaibo produced a Triple Crown–.384, 10 HR, but unknown RBI, per Rory Costello’s SABR bio of Olmo. Olmo’s second summer in Venezuela included taking the managing reins of Pastora, after Dolf Luque’s departure. Olmo continued to hit well, showing a .360 BA with seven HR, when he departed Venezuela to play for the 1949 Brooklyn Dodgers.   

The 1949-50 Caguas Criollos welcomed Olmo back as their player-manager, a role he continued through the 1952-53 Puerto Rico Winter League season. Olmo’s 1949-50 Criollos finished first at 47-31, before disposing of Ponce in the semis (four games-to-one) and Mayagüez in the finals, in four straight. The February 21-27, 1950 Caribbean Series was hosted by Puerto Rico at Sixto Escobar Stadium in San Juan. Caguas finished in a first-place tie with the Panamá’s Carta Vieja Yankees, with 4-2 records. Carta Vieja then won the tie-breaker, 9-3, behind winning pitcher Chet Brewer. Dan Bankhead took the loss. Olmo, who hit .280 for Caguas in the regular season with 33 walks to 13 strikeouts, went seven for 24 in the Caribbean Series (.292 BA), one RBI.

Olmo’s 1950-51 Criollos went 57-20, .740 PCT, most regular season wins in Puerto Rico Winter League history. Víctor Pellot (Vic Power) noted, when we conversed in Puerto Rico, that “this was the best Caguas team he ever played on, despite losing a tough seven-game final series to Santurce.” Power praised Olmo for his leadership and baseball acumen, affirming he, too, was born in Arecibo. Olmo hit .282 for Caguas with one HR and 40 RBIs. George Crowe (.375) played 1B for Caguas, in winning the batting title; Jim Rivera scored 76 runs for the Criollos to pace the league; and the pitching trio of Mike Clark (14-6), Manolo Cáceres (12-1, 2.24 ERA) and Roberto Vargas (10-1, 2.55 ERA) was outstanding. Santurce’s starters were Rubén Gómez (13-6), Bill Powell (9-4), Bob Thurman (6-5), Rafaelito Ortíz (5-1) and Cabrera (2-3). John Ford Smith (5-3) was not with the post-season Crabbers. Neither was Caguas’s Cecil Kaiser (5-5).

In game seven of the finals (February 17), Caguas went ahead, 1-0, in the top of the third, with a Gene Markland homer. Santurce tied it in their half on a Jim Gilliam triple and Buster Clarkson’s fielder choice. Clarkson’s sixth-inning homer gave Santurce a 2-1 lead. Caguas tied the game at 2 in the eighth on Pedro Alomar’s pinch-hit, later followed by a Jim Rivera fielder’s choice. Mike Clark relieved Roberto Vargas, the Caguas starter, and pitched a scoreless eighth. Cabrera pitched a scoreless ninth. Bob Thurman, .362, 13 homers, 66 RBIs, .605 SLG, 11 SB and Willard Brown, .325, 14 homers, 76 RBIs, .544 SLG, 10 SB, were Santurce’s best hitters. OF Alfonso Gerard (.339), rookie catcher Valmy Thomas (.302), 2B Jim Gilliam (74 runs, 18 SB) and 3B Buster Clarkson, .299 BA, league-leading 18 HR, 61 RBIs, 16 SB, complemented Brown and Thurman. Rubén Gómez could hit with his .295 BA, one homer, 17 RBIs, 95 AB.

Pepe Lucas, a weak-hitting 1B, drilled a Mike Clark fastball to left center as Tetelo Vargas and Olmo watched the ball sail over the fence. The standing-room only crowd of 16,713 at Escobar Stadium went wild. Mike Clark said: “It was noisy, Pepe Lucas became a hero. And I threw my glove into the stands.” Charles Ferrer, son of Santurce’s team medic, was on the stadium roof-ecstatic. “Cabrerita’s submarine ball was working,” said Ferrer. “Buster Clarkson hit one [homer] for my uncle and Pepe Lucas hit it out. Olmo just looked up—he didn’t move.” Olmo reinforced Santurce for the 1951 Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela despite his wife’s objections. She was a rabid Criollos fan who refused to travel to Caracas, per Jorge Colón Delgado. Olmo became a hero by hitting three HR for Santurce and driving in nine in the six-game Caribbean Series, February 22-26. His 10 hits in 24 AB (.417 BA) for manager George Scales included a double. Olmo’s .833 SLG and 1.314 OPS for Santurce (5-1) were difference-makers in besting 4-2 Havana. Juan Vené, now retired, was a Venezuelan sportswriter who saw Olmo play CF for Pastora in 1948 and 1949.  “I spoke with Olmo during the 1951 Caribbean Series,” said Vené. “Many women had their eyes on him…he’s good looking and enjoyed the parties. But he was a talented and serious ballplayer.”

Olmo was Caguas’ player-manager in 1951-52 (42-30) and 1952-53 (26-46). His 55 RBIs in 1951-52 were third-best in the league to George Crowe’s 70 and Bob Thurman’s 57. Caguas lost a semi-final series to Santurce in 1951-52, and finished fifth of five teams in 1952-53. Olmo did reinforce San Juan for the 1952 Caribbean Series hosted by Panamá. San Juan only earned a tie with Cuba (5-0-1), in going 0-5-1. Olmo hit one HR and drove in two, but only went five for 26, a .192 BA. Havana’s Tommy Fine threw the only no-hitter in Caribbean Series history and also pitched eight hitless innings in his following series start, before allowing some ninth-inning hits.

Three summer seasons, 1952-to-1954, were spent playing in the Dominican Republic. Olmo played with the Licey Tigers in 1952 and 1953; then, with the 1954 Aguilas Cibaeñas (AC). He won that league’s 1952 batting title, hitting .344 (65 hits/189 AB). He and Alonzo Perry (.327, 11 HR, 38 RBI’s) formed a dynamic duo for the 28-25 Tigers, who lost in the finals to the AC. Rubén Gómez was 8-3 regular season for Licey and 2-1 in the finals. In 1953, Licey went 36-18, and did win the league’s regular season and post-season title. A trio of Licey players—3B Bert Haas, 1B Alonzo Perry and CF Olmo—were called “Los Tanques” (The Tanks). This trifecta’s nickname became quite popular during radio broadcasts in 1953 when the announcer would say: “Aquí vienen los tanques” (here come the tanks). Olmo hit .265 in 1953, driving in 27; Perry knocked in 53; and Haas had 40 RBIs. Olmo’s 1954 AC season was a .290 BA, two HR and 16 RBIs in 37 games. His career stats in the Dominican Republic were: 143 games, 359 AB, 66 runs, 161 hits, 22 doubles, three triples, nine HR, 72 RBIs, 41 walks-to-19 strikeouts for a .299/.349/.401 slash line, and .750 OPS. Dominican baseball fans loved Luis Olmo’s demeanor and style of play.

Caguas brought in Mickey Owen—who had also “migrated to Mexico for extra cash” in 1946—to be their 1953-54 player-manager. Owen made the decision to move Aaron from 2B to RF. There is speculation that shortstop Félix Mantilla—a close friend of Hank Aaron—and perhaps Olmo, as well, recommended this move to Owen. He (Owen) told me via a phone interview that “one day I hit him (Aaron) 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 Charley Neal to play second base, and the rest is history. With Hank Aaron in RF, Jim Rivera in CF and Tetelo Vargas in LF, Olmo realized his time as a Caguas OF had passed. The 1953-54 Criollos (4-2 record) won the February 1954 Caribbean Series in San Juan, with several OF reinforcements including Carlos Bernier (LF) and Bill Howerton (RF). The latter replaced Aaron, who returned to the States after the league finals. Olmo just had 27 AB for the 1953-54 Criollos, with six hits, and a .222 BA.

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