Luis Tiant: 1959 Mexico City to 1964 Portland, Oregon, (Part I)

Luis Tiant with Caguas

Luis Tiant, a RHP, is best known for winning Games One and Four, 1975 World Series, versus Cincinnati, and a Game Six no-decision, a historic 6-3, 12-inning win for Boston, on Carlton Fisk’s three-run HR at Fenway Park. Boston was 0-4 in games Tiant did not start, and 3-0 in contests he started. How did Tiant become a New England celebrity in his mid-30s, after critics said he was “washed-up” by age 30? How helpful was winter ball for him in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela? What role did José “Palillo” Santiago play in Tiant’s comeback with Boston? Why does Tiant remember Martín Beltrán, 1B-OF, Santurce Crabbers, Puerto Rico; Johnny Lipon, his manager, 1962 Charleston Indians, 1964 Portland Beavers and 1964-65 Ponce Lions; Pat Tabler, his 1982-83 Santurce teammate; José “Ronquito” García, Santurce’s 1982-83 GM? 

Tiant was born in Marianao, Cuba, November 23, 1940. His father, Luis Tiant Sr., was an outstanding LHP in Cuba and the Negro Leagues. Tiant Sr. was 10-0 in his final pro season for the 1947 New York Cubans, winners of the Negro National League pennant. He started two World Series games versus the Negro American League Cleveland Buckeyes, in a [Negro Leagues] World Series won by the Cubans. One of his nicknames was “Cuban Carl Hubbell.” Tiant Jr.’s fine SABR bio by Mark Armour covers aspects of the Tiant father-son relationship at, his minor-league and MLB career, but not Tiant Jr.’s winter-league career. Thus, readers can learn more about him, aka “El Tiante.”

Mexico City Tigers, 1959-to-1961 and 1960-61 Havana Reds

Tiant’s pro career got off to a weak (5-19, 5.92 ERA), as an 18-year old for last-place Mexico City Tigers (39-104), Class AA Mexican League. He observed hurlers Roberto Vargas from Puerto Rico (13-3, 2.55 ERA) and Dominican Diómedes Olivo (21 wins, league-best 233 strikeouts), pitching for Poza Rica, and picked up “some words of wisdom” from them. In 1960, Tiant improved to 17-7, 4.65 ERA for the same Tigers, but walked 124 in 180 innings, with 107 strikeouts. His team (77-66) won the pennant by seven games over the Veracruz Eagles, and Tiant was selected league’s All-Star pitcher, with Veracruz’s Silvio Castellanos. It should be noted that Guillermo “Memo” Garibay, Tiant’s manager, was quite helpful in Tiant’s development. Dick “Siete Leguas” Hall first became a pitcher under Garibay’s tutelage, 1954-55 Mexican Pacific Coast (Winter) League, with Mazatlán. “Memo was a former catcher,” said Hall. “He was highly thought of in Mexico, knew how to handle a pitching staff, and was particularly good at instilling confidence in younger pitchers who needed more experience…” Craig Anderson’s first pro season was with the 1960 Tulsa Oilers, Class AA Texas League. This league’s teams played a home-and-away series with Mexican League teams. Anderson recalled Bobby Avila was Mexico City’s 2B. (Avila, 1954 AL batting champion with Cleveland, led the 1960 Mexican League with 125 runs scored and 124 walks, in his final year of pro baseball.)

The 1960-61 Havana Reds, four-team Cuban Winter League, were managed by Fermín Guerra, ex-catcher, who managed 1948-49 Almendares Scorpions to the February 20-25, 1949 Caribbean Series title, in Havana, first-ever Caribbean Series. Ed Bauta, Tiant’s 1960-61 Havana teammate, was a rabid Almendares fan in his youth— “Almendarista rabioso.” Bauta idolized Guerra and OF Roberto Ortiz, ex-Almendares legends. In 1960-61, he roomed with OF José Tartabull of the Marianao Tigers, in a Havana house. “I made $1,000/month in 1960-61, a bit more than a rookie, i.e., Tiant,” said Bauta. but the Cuban government took half our salaries, for ‘the Revolution’—not fair.” Bauta said (April 28, 2020 via phone) that the young Tiant was “bien amistoso” (very friendly), “muy vivo” (lively), “buena gente” (nice guy), “chévere” (cool), adding “tiraba duro” (threw hard). Tiant, 10-8, 2.72 ERA for Havana, led them in wins, ERA, innings (158.2), strikeouts (115), and walks (90), and was league Rookie-of-the-Year. Cienfuegos’s Pedro Ramos (16-7, 2.04 ERA) was the loop’s top hurler. Cienfuegos (35-31) edged 34-32 Almendares, followed by Havana (32-34), and Marianao (31-35). Teams played twin-bills in Havana’s “Gran Estadio.” Imported players were not allowed, due to restrictions imposed by Fidel Castro’s regime. Cookie Rojas (.322 AVG) won the batting crown; and noted that Tiant, his teammate, “was impressive.” Tony Taylor, Almendares 2B, liked Tiant’s “ability to get the job done.”

Tiant’s last year with Mexico City, 1961, produced 12 wins, one-fourth of the team’s 48 wins, for Garibay’s last-place (48-86) Tigers. Tiant married María del Refugio Navarro, a native of Mexico City, in August 1961. Rather than return to Cuba, he ended up pitching for the Caguas Criollos, in Puerto Rico. Mexico City Tigers had sold his contract to the Cleveland Indians for $35,000, thanks to Bobby Avila’s recommendation (Avila scouted for Cleveland.) Luis Tiant Sr. alerted his son not to return to Cuba, post-1961 season with Mexico City. One friend from the Mexican League was OF José “Ronquito” García, who played for Nuevo Laredo and Veracruz.

Caguas Criollos (1961-62) and 1962 Interamerican Series

Tiant turned 21 as a Caguas Criollo, a term for natives; e.g., Venezuelan Winter League uses “Criollo” for native players, and “Importado” for non-natives. Caguas comes from the Indian Chief Caguax. Tiant, a Caguas “import,” by virtue of being Cuban, benefitted from a tougher league, one with MLB, class AAA, and other minor-league players, plus nice gestures by team officials. Woody Huyke, a Caguas 1961-62 catcher, mentioned Caguas management would find furnished homes for the imports, and their wives, including María Tiant; select kitchen supplies at the Caguas ballpark; and take them to their winter home by taxis. Stateside Caguas imports like Frank “El Condominio” (The Condominium) Howard, Pete Richert and Tiant did not rent cars. They traveled to away games by team bus, and lived close enough to their home stadium to catch a ride from a teammate. Richert recalled that “José Pagán and Félix Mantilla found a way to take care of us—after a game, drive 30 miles to San Juan for a show and something to eat.”

Julio Navarro (9-4, 3.57 ERA), Earl Wilson (7-7, 3.58 ERA), Richert (7-6) and Tiant (5-6, 3.94 ERA, 82.2) innings), were Caguas’s main starters. Navarro, who no-hit Santurce (seven-inning gem), January 14, 1962, noted “Tiant was raw, threw hard, but had the ability to have a long big-league career.” Navarro encouraged Tiant to become a pitcher, instead of a “thrower.” Caguas (43-37) finished second to Mayagüez (45-35), but ahead of Santurce (42-38), and fourth-place Arecibo (42-39). Arecibo bested fifth-place San Juan, in a tie-breaker contest at Sixto Escobar Stadium, shared by San Juan and Santurce. Craig Anderson—Santurce’s #3 starter behind Juan “Terín” Pizarro and Bob Gibson—watched the tie-breaker with his wife (Judy). It featured an early double-play grounder hit by San Juan’s Roberto Clemente, off Phil Niekro, resulting in a heated argument between 1B umpire Mel Steiner and Clemente, along with Napoleón Reyes—San Juan’s 300-pound manager—who bumped Steiner, and was tossed from the game.

Caguas then faced Santurce in a best-of-seven semi-final, with Arecibo playing Mayagüez. Bob Gibson blanked Caguas, 10-0, in Game One, at Escobar, January 24, 1962. Gibson fanned 13 and allowed three hits. Orlando Cepeda and Martín Beltrán each cracked a double and a HR. Earl

Wilson struck out 12 Crabbers the next night, and Frank Howard went 4-for-4. Earlier that season, Howard homered off Craig Anderson, in a 1-0 Caguas win, abbreviated to five innings due to heavy rainfall. The series moved to Caguas, with the Criollos winning Game Three, 5-4, on a two-run HR by player-manager Jim Rivera, but Santurce claiming Game Four, also 5-4, on Al Schroll’s game-winning pinch-hit. (Schroll was Santurce’s fourth starter, regular season.) Gibson took Game Five, 8-1, with seven strikeouts, and Cepeda hit his second series HR. Escobar hosted a January 29, 1962 double-header, to conclude this series. Wilson won the first game, 6-2, a seven-inning one. Then, Tiant faced Pizarro—league’s strikeout king (154), for the fifth-straight season. Beltrán’s sixth-inning HR off Tiant was the game’s only run.

Tiant (March 1993) told the author: “That was my first winter season in Puerto Rico. The league was very strong and had many good pitchers [Joel Horlen, Bob Bolin, Bob Gibson] including Pizarro. We gave it our best, but Beltrán [St. Louis Cardinals prospect] got hold of my fastball. Ay [oh], Martín Beltrán!” Tiant’s complete Puerto Rico Winter League regular season pitching record is at

Santurce swept Mayagüez, four straight, after the Indios bested Arecibo, in their semi-finals. Anderson-Gibson-Pizarro-Schroll pitched well for the Crabbers in the finals. Santurce signed Orlando Peña, early January 1962, to replace Ed Bauta, who departed with a sore arm. The four-team Interamerican Series then took place at Escobar, a nine-game round-robin, February 6-14, 1962. Mayagüez participated, due to Cuba no longer having a pro league. And they added Tiant and San Juan’s Luis “Tite” Arroyo to their roster. The Caracas Lions and the Marlboro Smokers (Panamá-Nicaragua circuit) flew into San Juan. Santurce added Cookie Rojas, Arecibo 2B, along with San Juan’s Miguel de la Hoz (league batting champ, .354 AVG) and Tony “El Haitiano” González. The Crabbers dominated this tournament, going 8-1, with their only loss to Mayagüez, and starter Tiant. Mayagüez (5-4), Caracas (4-5), and Marlboro (1-8) did their best in this series.

Tiant and Wito Conde hit HR in the 12-8 win over Santurce, February 12, 1962. Tiant’s HR was the 13th hit by Mayagüez, a new Interamerican Series mark (The short-lived Interamerican Series lasted from 1961-to-1964.) Tite Arroyo saved this Tiant’s victory, per Jorge Colón Delgado’s 2019 book, Los Indios de Mayagüez. Earlier in the series, Tiant bested Marlboro, 6-2, with relief help in the eighth from Bob Dustal. On February 14, 1962, in the final pro baseball game played at Sixto Escobar Stadium, Tiant relieved Dustal in the seventh, against Santurce. Both teams scored in the ninth, to make it a 4-4 game. Elrod Hendricks (Santurce) and Ozzie Virgil, Sr. (Mayagüez) had homered for their teams. Gibson gave way to Schroll in the tenth. Then, Miguel de la Hoz’s walk-off HR off Tiant, home eleventh, ended it. “I liked the way the ball carried at Escobar,” said de la Hoz. “There was a favorable ocean breeze toward left field.” De la Hoz, who hit four HR with 13 RBIs, was voted to the All-Star team (3B), along with teammates’ Tony González (CF), RF Orlando Cepeda, Peña (RHP) and Pizarro (LHP). Mayagüez’s Charlie Lau

was the All-Star catcher. Jim Frey (1B), César Tovar (2B) and Teodoro Obregón (SS) were Caracas All-Stars. Marlboro’s Al Pinkston—who also faced Tiant in Mexico—was All-Star LF. Vern Benson, Santurce’s manager, complimented Tiant (2-1) for his determination and ability.

U.S. Minors and Venezuela, 1962-64

Tiant went from a Mayagüez Indians uniform, February 1962, to a Charleston Indians uniform, Class A Eastern League. Charleston (67-73) finished fifth in the six-team league, managed by Johnny Lipon. Tiant respected and appreciated what Lipon did for him. “Lipon spoke pretty good Spanish—I first worked with him in the minors in 1962. When one comes to the U.S. without speaking English, it’s very difficult, but Lipon did a lot for us.” Lipon first picked up some Spanish when he played in Cuba, 1954-55 season, and later managed there at the AAA level. He was a skipper in Venezuela during four winters, as well as spending two seasons apiece in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, plus managing Tiant at Ponce, 1964-65. Tiant’s 7-8 record, 3.63 ERA in 139 innings, was acceptable to Cleveland management. Sonny Siebert (15-8) and 19-year old Tommy John (6-8) were also being closely watched by the parent team.

There was improvement with the 1963 Burlington Indians, Class A Carolina League—14-9, 2.56 ERA, a league-leading 207 strikeouts (in 204 innings), with six SHO and 17 CG in 24 starts. On May 7, 1963, Tiant no-hit the Winston Salem Red Sox, a nine-inning gem.

Valencia, Venezuela came next, 1963-64, when Tiant posted a 4-3-mark, 2.68 ERA, in nine starts. He still had control issues—44 walks in 77.1 innings, but fanned 59 and allowed 67 hits. Valencia (26-24) lost to Caracas in the playoffs. Tiant (1-1) pitched 18.1 innings, with a two-to-one strikeout/walk ratio (16-to-eight) and 4.42 ERA. Elrod Hendricks joined Valencia at the tail-end of the season, after Santurce was eliminated in Puerto Rico. He caught Tiant in the post-season. Hendricks was a rookie catcher with 1961-62 Santurce, and opined that “Tiant was a class act, on-and-off the field, and ready for the majors by the time he caught him in Venezuela.” Tiant’s complete pitching record in Venezuela is at

Portland, Oregon came next, 1964. Johnny Lipon managed the Pacific Coast League (PCL) Class AAA Portland Beavers to a 90-68 record in the PCL West, one game behind the 91-67 San Diego Padres. Sam McDowell (8-0) and Tiant (15-1) were Lipon’s top two starters. McDowell got called up by Cleveland May 30, 1964, with a 1.18 ERA for Portland, 102 strikeouts, 76 innings. “I pitched for Santurce [1962-63],” recalled McDowell. “So, I wasn’t there when Luis pitched in Puerto Rico, but Luis was something else with Portland and Cleveland.” Tiant began Portland’s 1964 season in the bullpen, after being left off Cleveland’s 40-man roster. (No other AL or NL team would claim Tiant for the $12,000 price.) Per Tiant’s SABR bio, he was 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA, when McDowell was called up. Tiant was slower to get the attention of the Indians’ brass; he lost his only Portland game, 2-0 on June 5, but won four more to finish June at 12-1. The Indians recalled him on July 17 when Tiant was 15-1 (PCL record .938 W-L PCT), in 17 games, with a 2.04 ERA, 13 CG in 15 starts. He fanned 154; and walked 40, in 137 innings.

With deep appreciation to Luis Tiant, for his time and goodwill. Thanks to Craig Anderson, Ed Bauta, Vern Benson, Miguel de la Hoz, Elrod Hendricks, Frank Howard, Woody Huyke, Johnny Lipon, Sam McDowell, Julio Navarro, and Pete Richert. Jorge Colón Delgado furnished Tiant’s Caguas and Ponce pitching stats, in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

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