One-two with Félix Mantilla

Author’s note: This is an abridged interview offered to Bé The longer version was originally published in Memories of Winter Ball, Interviews with Players of the Latin American Leagues of the 1950s (2013) by Lou Hernández.  

Historically speaking, Félix Mantilla’s greatest baseball test was passed as a 19-year-old in the South Atlantic League. In 1953, Mantilla, Henry Aaron and Horace Garner, as Jacksonville Braves teammates, integrated the racially intolerant league for the first time. (Fleming Reedy and Al Israel, playing with Savannah the same year, also comprised for posterity the first men of color to play in the “Mother of the Minors.”)

A versatile infielder who also played outfield, Mantilla spent 11 summers in the
major leagues, more than half of them with the Milwaukee Braves. In 1959, it was Mantilla’s 13th-inning, lead off ground ball hit to third baseman Don Hoak that Hoak misfired on to first base that initially ruined Harvey Haddix’s “greatest game pitched.” Five years later, the two-time World Series participant slugged 30 homers with the American League Red Sox.

That same winter, Mantilla and Aaron played together again, wearing the colors of the Caguas Criollos. It was the second of 12 seasons Mantilla spent on the professional diamonds of his native country. After ten campaigns with Caguas, Mantilla played his final two seasons with San Juan. His years with Caguas took Mantilla to four Caribbean Series, winning it all, once, in 1954, on home soil.                                                                                                                

Félix, who has lived in the United States for more than 50 years, resided in Wisconsin with second wife Kay at the time this interview was conducted in 2011.  

Where in Puerto Rico are you from?

I was born in Isabela and I was raised in Isabela.

And how many were in your family?

My sister and my mother and father, who have long since passed away.

Who were your favorite players?

In high school, the players I admired were Luis Canena Márquez, El Jibaro Olmo – Luis Olmo, Victor Pellot, Rubén Gómez. There were a lot.

Was it in high school that you started playing baseball seriously?

I started in Isabella on a Police Athletic League team. I was about 14. I then played with the Lobos of Arecibo. That was a higher level than the P.A.L. After two years in Arecibo, we went to play in a tournament in Mexico and our team won it. I was then signed professionally by El Jibaro Olmo, who was player-manager with Caguas at that time. I played with Caguas for ten years. Olmo was also a coach with the Boston Braves. I also signed with the Braves. Hughie Wise, a Braves scout, signed me. The Braves sent me to Evansville, Class D ball. That was 1952.

That was your first winter season as well.

My first year [1952-53] with Caguas was not a good one. We finished last and I did not play very well at shortstop. Then Olmo switched me to the outfield. That is when I learned to play the outfield.

Henry Aaron became a teammate of yours in 1953 with Caguas.

Aaron played second and I played shortstop. Aaron and I had played at Jacksonville earlier in the year. Then we played winter ball. When I first met Aaron he hit cross-handed. His left hand was above his right on the bat handle. [amused] Buster Clarkson was the manager of Santurce, and he wanted to sign Aaron. But I spoke to Aaron and asked him to wait until I spoke to the Caguas’ owners. I did, and the owners were interested in Aaron, so he signed with us instead of Santurce.

Aaron did not start well, and Caguas was going to cut him. I spoke on his behalf, and the team agreed to give him a little more time. The Márquez family owned the Caguas team, they were large furniture store owners.  Aaron turned it around and went on to [nearly] lead the league in hitting. And Caguas was the champion of the league. Aaron did not participate in the Caribbean Series. We signed Canena Márquez as a replacement. When we won the Caribbean Series, there was a caravan of cars and fans from San Juan to Caguas. A lot of people. Mickey Owen was our manager. I remember him [victoriously] riding our [mule] mascot after the Series. Owen was a catcher for the Dodgers. When he went to Puerto Rico, he had a dubious reputation. I guess from his time in Mexico, Owen had a reputation of being sort of a racist. But in Puerto Rico, he was a tremendous guy. There were never any problems with him. He treated everyone the same.

The team would rent us a house. I lived in Villa Turabo. Then, later, I lived in Villa Blanca. Pagán lived there. José Pagán, who died recently.

The following winter was also a memorable one in Puerto Rico with the arrival of Willie Mays.

The next year, Santurce won it all. They had Willie Mays and Bob Thurman  — Mays was like a god. The middle of Santurce’s lineup [Mays, Thurman, Clemente, Clarkson and George Crowe] was called El Escuadrón del Pánico (Murderers Row).  They also had Rubén Gómez and Sam Jones. It was a tremendous team. They beat us in the finals.

In 1955-56, Caguas then won its second championship in three years.  The team traveled to Panama City to compete in the Caribbean Series.

We were champions of the league, again, but did not play well in the Caribbean Series. I think we were 2-4 [record]. The Cuban team won. They always had a great team. All I remember about the stadium in Panama was that the infield was pebbly. It was tough to play on that infield.

In the winter of 1956-57, Sandy Koufax pitched for Caguas.

Sandy, I remember. In one of the games of a doubleheader against Santurce, he barely gave up a hit, but lost, 2-0, because of walks. Incredible velocity but not much control. Pizarro and Clemente were exchanged between Santurce and Caguas [with Ronnie Samford] that season in a blockbuster deal.

In 1957-58, Pizarro pitched for us the entire season. Pizarro pitched a no-hitter against Mayagüez, and he struck out 17 in another game against Ponce.  Ted Norbert was our manager. His son played with us, too. Norbert was a nice guy. But a lot of the players did not agree with how he managed. But our team was so good, we won it all anyway. In the [1958] Caribbean Series, Pizarro struck out 17 against Panama. I played in that game.  Nobody could even foul a pitch off him. It was strikeout after strikeout after strikeout. At that time Pizarro was young [20 years old] and he was a hard thrower.

There was a game in that Series where there occurred another tremendous rhubarb. An umpire ruled an outfielder had not caught a ball, and the fans started throwing bottles on the field. We lost the Series to Cuba on the final day.                                                 

What was it like having to commute to the other cities and play in their ballparks?

We traveled by car. Five or six in a car. The natives would be in one car. The North American players were in another. It was about a five-hour trip to Mayagüez from Caguas. San Juan and Santurce had their own buses.

Solá Morales [Caguas’ ballpark] had a capacity of about 7,000. In all the parks the fences were far away. Down the line it was 340. I imagine that has been cut down now. The problem with Sixto Escobar Stadium was with high fly balls, the ocean breeze would carry the ball, sometimes over the fence. The stadium was right by the beach.

You finished your career with San Juan, so you received a taste of the rivalry between the two capital city teams. 

When San Juan played Santurce, it was war. There was a City Championship involved. The fans, when they bought their tickets, had to inform who they rooted for so they could be directed to one particular side of the field. The Santurce fans sat on one side and the San Juan fans sat on the other. But that did not keep the fans apart too often when one team took the lead.

What are your fondest winter league memories?

In Caguas, we used to say that we would play any team in the league with only our native players. We had Victor Pellot at first. I was at second. Pagán, short. Félix Torres played third. We had Luis St. Clair, who was dominicano-boricua, at catcher. Pedro Alomar, Jim Rivera, in the outfield. We would play anybody with just that team of natives. Ponce had good native players but not the competitive caliber of our team.  Pellot was the best first baseman in the big leagues and the best first baseman in Puerto Rico.

Rubén Gómez was a tremendous pitcher in the Puerto Rican League. He pitched, as I recall, 27 years in the league. Rubén and Pizarro and Tite Arroyo. Pantalones Santiago. Julio Navarro. All had long and great careers.                                                      

It was a great time for all of us players. The goal really was to play in the Puerto Rican League, where all the great Puerto Rican players had played. Like Canena Márquez, Carlos Bernier, [Francisco] Coimbre. And that is where I wanted to play. I never really dreamed of playing in the major leagues. I wanted to play in the Puerto Rican League.

Félix Mantilla´s record:

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