Nineteen NL Rookies of the Year played/managed in Puerto Rico’s Winter League ( Part I)

Nineteen NL Rookies of the Year once played or managed in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, formerly the Puerto Rico Winter League. They range from OF Sam “The Jet” Jethroe (1950 recipient) to catcher Geovany Soto, the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year. These 19 players and managers were 32.2 percent of 59 NL Rookie of the Year honorees, 1950-to-2008. None of the 2009-2019 NL Rookies of the Year played professionally in Puerto Rico. Top rookies are chosen in each league since 1949. Jackie Robinson (1947 Brooklyn Dodgers) was the first Rookie of the Year for both leagues followed by Alvin Dark for the 1948 Boston Braves. Part I focuses on Sam Jethroe—who played for the 1944-45 and 1946-47 San Juan Senators, and Willie Mays, 1951 NL Rookie of the Year, who starred for the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers.

Sam Jethroe

Sam Jethroe, born in Lowndes County, Mississippi, January 23, 1917, was 27 years old when he patrolled CF for the 1944-45 San Juan Senators, managed by Luis Rodríguez Olmo. Four teams in the Puerto Rico League at the time were the Ponce Lions, San Juan, Santurce Crabbers and Mayagüez Indians. The 40-game schedule was grouped into two parts or “vueltas.” Ponce went 18-10 to win the first vuelta; and, 10-1, to cop the second vuelta. No playoffs were held. San Juan (22-20), Santurce (19-22) and Mayagüez (11-27) finished second-third-fourth.

“Jethroe could really run and was a good switch-hitter,” reminisced Olmo in a 1992 conversation with the author. “But his throwing arm was weak and his OF defense left a lot to be desired. I played 3B that winter as a player-manager. Sam led our team in batting average and league in triples. (Jethroe’s seven triples were a league-best; his .342 BA was tops for San Juan.) Sam and I were teammates with the [1950 and 1951] Boston Braves—he was two years older than me.”

Teams in Puerto Rico were allowed three active Imports (Stateside or Cuban players) in 1944-45. San Juan’s Imports included Jethroe, catcher Quincy Trouppe and pitchers’ Raymond Brown and Roy Partlow. Trouppe and the author met at an event in New York City in the early 1990s. Trouppe enjoyed playing for San Juan. He encouraged Jethroe to play winter ball in Puerto Rico. (Trouppe later served as player-manager for the 1947-48 Caguas Criollos championship team.) He alluded to how pleasant it was playing in Puerto Rico and Mexico during the 1940s.

On December 3, 1944, Jethroe got the only hit off Santurce ace Luis Rafael Cabrera, in a Sunday double header contest. This heated City Champ rivalry between two capital city teams featured games at Sixto Escobar Stadium through 1961-62, before continuing in Hiram Bithorn Municipal Stadium, 1962-63. San Juan won the 1944-45 City Champ Series, eight games to six, to the delight of Senators’ fans. Jethroe’s season-ending .342 BA was good for sixth place, behind two Ponce players—Francisco Coimbre (.425) and Marvin Williams (.378); two Mayagüez stars—Canena Márquez (.361) and Tetelo Vargas (.358); and Santurce’s Alfonso Gerard (.348). Gerard—a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands—and Márquez were co-Puerto Rico League Rookies of the Year in 1944-45. Márquez and Jethroe later were teammates with the 1951 Boston Braves.

Jethroe played for Quincy Trouppe—player-manager for the 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes—in the Negro American League (West Division). Cleveland won the (Negro Leagues) World Series over the Washington Homestead Grays. Details on Jethroe’s career in the Negro Leagues and elsewhere are in his excellent SABR bio by Bill Nowlin, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/5f1c7cf9.

Nowlin’s first paragraph of Jethroe’s bio noted that Jethroe “tried out for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, along with Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams, but the Red Sox pursued none of them.” This was in 1945. Jethroe and Marvin Williams played exceptionally well in Puerto Rico, 1944-45. Jackie Robinson had a fine season with the 1945 Kansas City Monarchs. Jethroe earned the 1945 Negro American League (West) batting title, hitting .393 for Cleveland.  One of Jethroe’s most interesting baseball experiences came after this 1945 season.

The Jethroe-Jackie Robinson-Marvin Williams trio was part of the All-American Stars from the Negro Leagues, playing 14 contests in Venezuela from November 24 – December 23, 1945, versus Estrellas del Caribe and Cervecería Caracas. Miguel Dupouy Gómez shared this blog on nine games played by the Negro Leaguers in the round-robin, followed by five more versus Cervecería Caracas (http://beisbolinmortal.blogspot.com/2019/08/las-estrellas-americanas-visitan.html?m=1). Jethroe, perched at first base after his base hit, scored when Jackie Robinson homered of Andrés Alonso, a Panamanian hurler with Estrellas del Caribe, in the series opener, November 24, 1945. Buck Leonard followed with another homer, which resulted in Alonso’s removal.  

Jethroe showed his slugging prowess in two games played December 16, 1945. He hit two homers with none on versus Cervecería Caracas in game one, an 11-6 win. Then he doubled, tripled and homered in a 9-5 victory over Estrellas del Caribe. The Negro Leaguers proceeded to sweep Cervecería Caracas in five straight final series games, played from December 17-23, 1945. They were 7-2 in the round-robin phase before their five consecutive final series wins. Jethroe, per John Holway, batted .339, the same batting average produced by Jackie Robinson. Buck Leonard (.425), Parnell Woods (.419) and Quincy Trouppe (.413) were the top three hitters in this series. Gene Benson and Roy Campanella also were members of this select squad.

Jethroe’s second and final Puerto Rico season was 1946-47, with San Juan. He hit .333 but left early after registering 13 hits in 39 AB. Roy Campanella was also with San Juan a portion of that season, clouting two homers in just 45 AB. The team’s three most valuable imports were LHP Barney Brown (16-5, 1.24 ERA), the league MVP; 2B Larry Doby (.349 BA, 12 HR, 42 RBIs); and CF Monte Irvin (.387 BA, 11 HR, 41 RBIs), in a 60-game season. (Jackie Robinson was recruited by the 1946-47 Ponce Lions; the Brooklyn Dodgers declined this opportunity, so Ponce signed switch-hitting 3B Howard Easterling, a native of Mount Olive, Mississippi.) Jethroe finished his Puerto Rico career with a robust .340 BA (68 hits/200 AB).

Jethroe, age 33, appears to be the oldest Rookie of the Year in MLB history, when he was named 1950 NL Rookie of the Year, stealing 35 bases and scoring 100 runs. He also led the NL in SB in 1951, with 35. His 1952 season for the Boston Braves would be his final one in the majors. Billy Bruton became the starting CF for the 1953 Milwaukee Braves. Jethroe played in the minors, 1953-58. He spent the 1954-55 winter season playing for the Cienfuegos Elephants in Cuba.

Willie Mays

Much has been written of Willie Mays in terms of his 1979 induction in Cooperstown, perhaps the best catch in World Series history [1954 versus Cleveland], his 12 Gold Gloves and so on. Prior to his 1951 NL Rookie of the Year season with the New York Giants, Mays was supposed to play winter ball for the Almendares Scorpions (aka Blues) in Cuba, but this never happened. Hoyt Wilhelm, a future teammate with the New York Giants, did pitch for the 1950-51 Havana Reds; Clem Labine, a Brooklyn Dodgers prospect, pitched in Venezuela, that 1950-51 winter.

Mays joined the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico, two weeks after the New York Giants swept Cleveland in the 1954 World Series.

Mays arrived at Isla Grande [Airport] on October 16, 1954, accompanied by New York Giants scout Frank Forbes and writer Tom Meany. The welcoming party included Pedrín Zorrilla—owner of the Santurce Crabbers; Herman Franks—Santurce’s manager and 3B coach of the New York Giants; and some 1,000 fans, eagerly awaiting the 6:40 a.m. flight. Meany later wrote that there were bets Mays would return to the States by November 1, and then by December 1. Meany affirmed Mays came to Puerto Rico to play ball as well as leave New York.

Rubén Gómez, Mays’ teammate with the 1953 and 1954 New York Giants, alerted the author that Mays (and the New York Giants) were returning the favor to Zorrilla for Pedrín’s suggestion that the Giants sign Rubén Gómez prior to the 1953 NL season. Gómez won a combined 30 regular season games in 1953 and 1954, plus Game Three of the 1954 World Series.

Mays, 1B George Crowe and RHP Bill Greason were three Santurce imports who lived in the Carmen Apartments, near Sixto Escobar Stadium, home of the Crabbers and San Juan Senators. Mays and Greason (a teammate of Mays with the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons) had most of their meals out until Mrs. Greason came to Puerto Rico. Rice and chicken, local seafood and roast pig were Mays’ favorite dishes. He enjoyed chatting with Herman Franks on bus trips to away games in Caguas, Mayagüez and Ponce.

Mays hit his first league HR off Mayagüez’s Tom Lasorda, on November 7, 1954. Horace Stoneham, New York Giants executive, signed Mays to a $25,000 contract for the 1955 big league season during an early winter season visit to Puerto Rico. Stoneham was impressed with Mays’ new batting stance and first few homers for Santurce. Mays took the time to help Santurce teammate Roberto Clemente with his fielding and getting rid of the baseball more quickly and efficiently. Historian Jorge Colón Delgado chronicled late morning practices attended by Franks, Clemente, Mays and 17-year old Orlando Cepeda, who caught the balls thrown by Clemente and Mays. Clemente and Mays used basket catches, as did Luis Rodríguez Olmo, a reserve OF with Santurce in 1954-55. Santurce was probably the only team in winter league history throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and Venezuela with an OF trio who caught fly balls via basket catches.

Pete Burnside, a LHP for Santurce, opined that “Mays and Clemente had a friendly rivalry.” Burnside also noted the team’s camaraderie was excellent, with ex-Negro Leaguers such as Mays, Buster Clarkson, Bob Thurman, RHP Sam Jones, Greason, Alfonso Gerard and George Crowe being real gentlemen off the field, and extremely talented on the field. Burnside earned his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and had done extensive research on Negro Leaguers.

The league’s All-Star game was played in Mayagüez, December 12, 1954, between the “North” team of San Juan and Santurce players, against the “South” team of Caguas-Mayagüez-Ponce players. Clemente hit two HR in this contest; Mays had an inside-the-park HR in the first inning. Rubén Gómez got the win.

Mays won the league batting title—68 hits/172 AB, .395, followed by Elston Howard (.369) of San Juan; Canena Márquez (.364) of Mayagüez; Roberto Clemente’s .344; and Dixie Howell’s .335 for Mayagüez. Mays’ 12 HR were good for a fifth-place tie behind Bob Cerv’s 19 for San Juan; 15 and 14, respectively, by teammates’ Buster Clarkson and Bob Thurman; and 13 by San Juan’s George Freese. The 15 doubles by Mays were good for second (Willie Tasby of Caguas had 17.) Mays’ seven triples led the league and his 63 runs scored were second to Clemente’s 65. Mays and teammate Don Zimmer tied for fourth with 10 SB, trailing Jim Rivera (14) of Caguas; Carlos Bernier (13) of Mayagüez and Nino Escalera (12) of San Juan. Santurce’s Clarkson (61) and Thurman (60) were one-two in RBIs.

Jorge Colón Delgado uncovered the fact that RHP Sam Jones won 1954-55 Puerto Rico League MVP honors and not Willie Mays. Older league records incorrectly had Mays listed as the MVP. Jones (14-4, 1.77 ERA and 168 strikeouts) won the league’s pitching Triple Crown. The rotation of Jones, Gómez (13-4) and Greason was phenomenal for the 47-25 Crabbers. Burnside ended up as the team’s batting practice pitcher for the February 1955 Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela, after Santurce bested Caguas, four games to one, in the league finals. ”Pedrín released me, but kept me at the same salary for the Caribbean Series,” said Burnside. “As I remember, there were armed guards in the stadium with automatic weapons. We stayed at the Hotel Tamanaco on the hill in an upper class section.”

Rubén Gómez won the February 10, 1955 opener, 6-2, over the Almendares Blues. Harry Chiti and Ronnie Samford drove in two runs apiece; Zimmer homered in the seventh. Zimmer and Greason each homered the next night versus Panamá in a 2-1 win. Mays, however, was in a 0-for-12 slump when he stepped up to the plate against Ramón Monzant of the host Magallanes Navigators, February 12, 1955. Sam Jones had gone 11 innings for Santurce and the game was tied at two, precisely two minutes past midnight local time. Clemente singled to open the home 11th frame. Mays homered on a 1-1 pitch at 12:03 a.m. Gui Gui Lucas, the Magallanes catcher, walked away as Mays stepped on home plate after Clemente scored the actual winning run.

Juan Vené, renowned Venezuelan sportswriter and baseball commentator, covered this series. He noted [to the author] that the baseball Mays hit fell halfway into the bleachers, after going over the 385-foot sign in left center. “Mays was quite friendly with the press,” said Vené. “He spoke some words in Spanish to us and identified himself with Puerto Rico.”

Mays went four-for-five in Santurce’s 7-6 win over Almendares on February 13, 1955.  Santurce was trailing, 6-4, in the home ninth, when Gerard pinch-hit for reliever Jorge “Garabato” Sackie, and singled to left. Zimmer then homered to left center field, to tie the game at 6. Clemente walked on four pitches, and Al Lyons came in from the pen to face Mays. The “Sey Juey” [juey is the Spanish word for crab] kid singled to right and Clemente never stopped running. Almendares RF Lee Walls bobbled the ball, but got it to 2B Al Federoff, who threw it wide of the plate, in Santurce’s come-from-behind (and walk-off) 7-6 triumph.

Santurce—the only championship team in Caribbean Series history to win this event without reinforcements from other league teams—clinched the series crown with a 11-3 thrashing of Panamá’s Carta Vieja Yankees. Greason won his second game and Mays got three of Santurce’s 16 hits. Chiti’s three-run HR and Clemente’s two triples were key blows. Magallanes defeated Santurce in a meaningless final game of the series, February 15, 1955.

The Crabbers placed five players on the series All-Star team: Chiti at catcher, series MVP Zimmer at shortstop; CF Mays, pitchers’ Greason and Sam Jones. Mays (.440) finished second to Rocky Nelson (.471) of Almendares for the series batting title, but Mays had the most hits (11) and RBIs (nine). Clemente scored the most runs (eight). Puerto Rico Governor Luis Muñoz Marín sent a congratulatory telegram to Pedrín Zorrilla: “I commend Puerto Rico’s representative for their resounding triumph…it exemplifies the fighting spirit of our people.”

Willie Mays’ positive attitude rubbed off on his teammates. Earlier that winter season, Branch Rickey Jr. saw Mays warm up the Santurce batting practice pitcher during a regular season game in Caguas. Mays even threw a strike to second base on the final warm-up pitch. “I’ve always maintained that you can learn more about a ballplayer by watching him two days in the winter leagues than you can by watching him for two weeks in the States,” said Branch Rickey Jr. “Down here, the fellow who puts out is the fellow who likes to play…and the fellow who likes to play is the fellow who’ll help your club.”

Bob Thurman, (https://beisbol101.com/bob-thurman/ ) all-time career HR record holder in Puerto Rico with 120, in 12 seasons, got animated when talking about the 1954-55 Crabbers during an October 1991 weekend in Ponce, when he, Rubén Gómez, Orlando Cepeda and seven others were the first class of Puerto Rico’s Professional Baseball Hall of Fame inductees. “That [1954-55] ball club was the greatest ball club I had ever been on. Then, too, we were just like a big family; everyone would do something for somebody else…it just jelled ‘cause we had the talent to play the game…and it’s really a happy situation when you can play with a bunch of good kids and win like that. With all those long ball hitters and guys catching balls over their heads…nobody could beat us. I often thought that we could beat any major league club with the set-up we had.”

With thanks to former players’ Pete Burnside, Rubén Gómez Luis Rodríguez Olmo, Bob Thurman and Quincy Trouppe. Thanks to Bill Nowlin for his insightful SABR bio on Sam Jethroe. Deep gratitude to Miguel Dupouy Gómez of Venezuela for sharing his blog on the November 24 – December 23, 1945 round-robin tournament in Venezuela featuring Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Sam Jethroe, Buck Leonard, Marvin Williams and other talented Negro Leaguers. Juan Vené’s insights on the February 1955 Caribbean Series hosted by his country (Venezuela) are appreciated. Jorge Colón Delgado continues to amaze me with his on-going research as official Historian of the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

Record of Sam Jethroe in Puerto Rico https://beisbol101.com/sam-jethroe/

Record de Willie Mays in Puerto Rico https://beisbol101.com/willie-mays/

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