One-two with José Santiago

Author’s note: This is an abridged interview offered to Béisbol101.com. The longer version was original published in Memories of Winter Ball, Interviews with Players of the Latin American Leagues of the 1950s (2013) by Lou Hernández.  

José Guillermo Santiago was one of only a handful of pitchers to win 100 games in the Puerto Rican Winter League (Luis Arroyo, Luis Cabrera, Rubén Gómez, Juan Pizarro, the others). Best known by his baseball nickname “Pantalones” (Pants), Santiago hurled in all or parts of 16 P.R.W.L. campaigns. His most accredited mound work came during his nine seasons with Ponce, beginning in 1946-47. 

Santiago pitched in six of the first 12 Caribbean Series (1949-1960), tied with Rubén Gómez and Venezuela’s José “Carrao” Bracho for the most appearances by any one pitcher. Santiago’s four victories in six decisions trails only Gómez, Bracho, Pedro Ramos and Camilo Pascual for the most Caribbean Series career wins.

The right-hander pitched in the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Athletics for short durations in the mid-fifties. In 1949, as a 21-year-old, Santiago threw a 5-hit, 16-inning complete game for the Dayton Indians of the Central League. His opposite number, Joe Nuxhall, also went the distance, suffering the 3-1 defeat. 

Where are you from?

I was born in Coamo in the same month of the great San Felipe hurricane that struck Puerto Rico in September 1928.  When I was 27 days old, I was brought to New York. I lived in New York until I was six. My father wanted me to learn Spanish well, so I came back to Puerto Rico and attended school here until ninth grade. Then I returned to the United States. I went to Seward Park High School in lower Manhattan, close to Chinatown and Little Italy.  

When did you come into your own as a baseball player?

At 17, I played with a Police Athletic League team against two semi-professional teams in Puerto Rico. We were beaten pretty badly. But I stayed over to pitch two other games. I matched up against the two best pitchers in the semi-pro league and beat them both – one by shutout. Martíano García, owner of Ponce, signed me on the advice of Pepe Ruíz, who worked for him. García was involved in the education system. I signed my contract in New York and then returned to play with Ponce. I received a $1,000 bonus. My first contract was for $35 a week. Pancho Coimbre, the best player in Puerto Rico, was making $50. Willard Brown and Thurman, great players, also made $50. The salaries became a little better once the new parks were built.

I began my career in 1946-47. I finished the season, 8-2, and was named Rookie of the Year. No one really showed me how to pitch. In those times, you fended for yourself. But I was fortunate enough that George Scales [Ponce manager] gave me an opportunity to pitch. He had gone to high school in New York. I became one of the four starters on the Ponce team. We won the league championship that year.

With as an accomplished career as you had, you must have known Pedrín Zorilla.

Pedrín Zorilla was my closest friend in baseball. He added me to his championship club in 1951 – Santurce – and we won the Caribbean Series. You could reinforce your Caribbean roster team with a few players in the league. It was the first time that a team from Puerto Rico won the Caribbean Series. I was the top pitcher. I won two games in the tournament. I beat Hoyt Wilhelm, New York Giants pitcher, and Clem Labine, who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I received a hero’s welcome when I arrived back in Ponce. There were over a thousand people in the town square to honor me.

That was your first Caribbean Series, but certainly not your last.

In 1953, again with Santurce, I substituted for, you know who? Roberto Clemente. He was a rookie. The Series was held in Havana. I started on the mound in the famous comeback game against Habana. I was removed in the eighth inning, ahead 3-2. Roberto Vargas relieved me. I think Habana scored three runs against him. We were behind in the last of the ninth inning by two runs with two outs, and we made five straight hits and we won, 6-5. Formental, in right, could not play a ball hit by Cot Deal. He was the winning pitcher, too, because Deal had relieved Vargas. There is a famous photo of me and Rubén Gómez with a Puerto Rican flag that was taken right after the game.

Zorilla always chose me for all of his Caribbean Series squads, except in 1955, when he decided to go with his team as it was. Pedrin convinced the Giants to let Willie Mays come to play in Puerto Rico. With Clemente and Mays, Santurce won the championship that year.  In that Caribbean Series, Mays went 0-for-10 until he obtained his first hit. Don Zimmer was the outstanding hitter in that Series.

I pitched in six Caribbean Series. I was a reinforcement player in all of them. Except in 1957, I was with Mayagüez. In the Caribbean Series, I seemed to pitch my best games against Cuba. The only game Marianao [Cuban team] lost in the 1957 Series was the game I beat them, 6-0. That Series was also played in Havana.

In the 1958 Series, I was pitching against Bob Shaw, from the Chicago White Sox. Shaw was pitching for Marianao. I was ahead 4-3, but gave up a walk in the ninth and was replaced by [Marion] Fricano. The manager, Ted Norbert, told me I looked tired. I was not tired, I said, but he was the manager. Marianao loaded the bases, and the next batter hit a fly to Canenita Allen in right field. Allen had trouble with it, but snagged the ball at his shoe tops. The umpire called “safe,” no catch, that Allen had trapped the ball. The fans went crazy. Everything was thrown out onto the field, including chairs. The game was suspended and finished the next day. Pizarro walked the first batter with the bases loaded and we lost.

My last Caribbean Series was 1960, in Panama. I remember Panama more from my boxing days. I was involved in the Esteban de Jesús fight.

You must have seen all the great players.

People pick Willie Mays over Hank Aaron, but Aaron was the best major leaguer from my period. I saw all the great ones. Mays, Aaron, Clemente, [Frank] Robinson. Mays was a better fielder. I became a good friend of Mays. Yes, Mays played at Candlestick, where the wind blew in. But DiMaggio played at Yankee Stadium with that left field, and Ted Williams played at Fenway Park.

Pancho Coimbre was the best hitter in Puerto Rico. Clemente, also, although it is difficult to compare eras sometimes. Roberto was a good friend of mine. Terin Pizarro was the best pitcher.  Pizarro threw harder than Herb Score. I told Hank Greenberg [Cleveland general manager] about Pizarro and he did not listen to me. Cleveland let Milwaukee sign Pizarro away. Willard Brown was the best foreign player. I understand he was the first black player to hit a home run in the American League. Vic Power was the best first baseman in the world.

 Frank Howard hit the longest home run ever at Sixto Escobar Stadium. Josh Gibson played when there was no outfield fencing at Sixto Escobar. Gibson’s home run distances were helped by their bounces. Howard hit the longest home run. Howard’s ball cleared the fence, the wall, the light tower, the beach and even the ocean. [exaggerated laugh] Koufax played with Caguas. He was wild and did not pitch that much. Koufax became a friend and is one the best people I have ever met.

What was your preferred ballpark?

I liked pitching in Ponce, my home park, because it was spacious. In 1948, they put in lights at Sixto Escobar [San Juan]. The league played three days a week – Thursday and Saturday and a doubleheader on Sunday. Later, three new parks were inaugurated at the same time – in Mayagüez, Caguas and Ponce. I won the first game at the new park in Ponce. We inaugurated the park on a Saturday and lost. The next day, Sunday, I pitched and we won.

It is interesting to note that you played abroad in the Negro Leagues before reaching the majors.

Believe it or not, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters signed me to play in organized baseball. Abe Saperstein. I was playing with the New York Cubans in the United States. In 1947, we won the Negro League championship.  

We were based in New York City. All of the players had their own apartments. I lived at home in New York. We played the Cleveland Buckeyes for the championship. I did not pitch in the series; I was 18, too young.  The next season [1948] with the Cubans, I won six and lost two. Saperstein alerted a scout he knew with Cleveland, Bill Killefer. Saperstein was friends with Bill Veeck. I also recommended that Cleveland sign Minnie Miñoso, who played third base for us. [Team owner Alex] Pompez sold me to Cleveland for $10,000 and sold Miñoso for $5,000. Miñoso was 28 then; he is 91 years old  now and looks great.

Pitching for the Cubans that year, I defeated the Birmingham Black Barons and struck out 17. I struck out Willie Mays four times in that game. Willie never forgot that. In spring training later, he told me, ‘I have to get even with you. I have to get even with you.’ It was  good-natured. Willie and I played pool. I was older than Willie at that time, and I beat him at pool, too. [chuckles] We did not play for money; it was just for fun.  Right after my 17-strikeout game, the Negro League All-Star Game was held at Yankee Stadium. I attended the game with Saperstein and Killefer. Miñoso had four hits in four at-bats. That is when they decided on Miñoso, too. 

You carry a distinction among Puerto Rican major leaguers.

In 1949, I was the first black player from Puerto Rico to go to a big league spring training camp. It was the year after Cleveland had won the World Series. My roommate in spring training was Satchel Paige. Myself, Paige and Larry Doby were the only blacks on the team. We trained in Tuscon, Arizona. So did the Giants, in Phoenix. The Giants had Willie Mays and Hank Thompson as the only black players.

You certainly have many things to look back on with pride.

One of my favorite memories from the league is winning both ends of a doubleheader. I pitched and won a morning game, then came into relieve in the nightcap, which we won in 19 innings. It was against Santurce. I also remember well the New York Yankees when they came to train in Puerto Rico in 1947. I faced six batters and struck out four. I received a great deal of publicity for that because I helped beat the Yankees in the game. I pitched a no-hitter at Paquito Montaner Stadium [Ponce]. Winning Rookie of The Year….I am enshrined in many different Sports Halls of Fame. In my hometown, in Ponce, in Puerto Rico’s. I am in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame, too.

You remained active in the sports world after your baseball retirement.

After I retired, I became a coach with San Juan. Then I entered  into the boxing world, working with Puerto Rican fighters. I partnered with both Don King and Bob Arum. King told me to leave Arum and stay with him, which I did. But within the last year or so, I had to leave that completely to take care of my wife, Matilde.* She has Alzheimer’s. We have been married 63 years.

* Post interview note. Matilde died in the fall of 2012.

   José Santiago passed away in October 9, 2019, five weeks after his 90th birthday.

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