Author’s note: This is an abridged interview offered to Béisbol101.com. 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.
A winner of 98 Puerto Rican Winter League games, Julio Navarro’s career spanned San Juan’s two main baseball venues. As a Santurce Crabbers rookie in 1955-56, Navarro performed at Sixto Escobar Stadium over four campaigns. A trade to Caguas in 1959 saw Navarro continue his more than two decade-long career at Hiram Bithorn Stadium as a visiting pitcher, beginning in 1962.
A friendly fellow, Navarro, during our phone talk, placed his “biggest fan” – his wife of53 years – on the line to say hello to me, a person she did not know from Adam. La negra, as Navarro fondly referred to her, told me all about her six grandchildren and four children, including former big league pitcher Jaime Navarro, employed as pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners.
The elder Navarro was a career relief pitcher in the major leagues with the California Angels, Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves. Navarro passed away in January 2018, six years after this interview was conducted. He was 84.
Tell me about yourself and your early family history.
I was born in the district of Vieques in 1934 and was raised in St. Croix. In our family there were eight of us, I was the second. One of the children is now deceased.
How did baseball become part of your life?
I went to Catholic school. I played cricket and softball. The church in St. Croix formed a baseball team and that is how I began with baseball. I was 15 or 16. I was invited to participate in a tryout they had for a professional league made up of players that had played in Puerto Rico and players from St. Croix. Joe Christopher played in that league. He played for the Red Sox and Mets. Alfonso Gerard and Horace Clarke also played in that league. I made enough of an impression in an exhibition game that I ended up pitching for the St. Croix team against more or less an all-star team from Puerto Rico, made up of players mostly from San Juan and Santurce. Nino Escalera saw me pitch in the game, and he wanted to sign me. But Gerard came to me and said, ‘Don’t sign with anybody. I have already talked to Santurce and they want to sign you. We are leaving for Puerto Rico tomorrow.’ And that is how I started my baseball career.
What do you remember about breaking into the league as a young pitcher?
Santurce sent me to Florida, to an instructional camp. José Pagán was there. I was helped by the fact that I knew English, thanks to my St. Croix upbringing. I knew Creole, too. Pedrín Zorilla was the owner of Santurce. He had a connection with the New York Giants. I hurt my arm due to the cold weather. I was not use to that. A chiropractor in Puerto Rico, Dr. Sierra, helped me recover. After a year, I was able to pitch in my first game with Santurce. I pitched in relief at Sixto Escobar. It was 1955.
With Santurce, I met Roberto Clemente, Terín Pizarro, Rubén Gómez. Luis Rodríguez Olmo. I met Pantalones Santiago, who was my idol. I used to listen to games in St. Croix when Santiago pitched for Ponce. Buster Clarkson, Bob Thurman. Willard Brown I saw, but he was old, at the end of his career. Santurce put me on a weight-gain regiment, because I weighed 150 pounds, soaking wet.
I lived with other rookies, young players in an apartment in Santurce at the parada diecinueve. I was single. I kid my wife, Ana, not to worry about the girlfriends I had when I first arrived in Puerto Rico, because they are all dead now. My wife is my biggest fan. When I first arrived in San Juan from St Croix, it was like arriving at 42nd Street in New York. San Juan was so pretty. The people were so pleasant.
Do you recall an infamous playoff game incident between Santurce and Mayagüez?
Yes, I remember that playoff game with Santurce. Afterwards, the Mayagüez fans pelted our team bus with rocks. Rubén Gómez started that game and he beaned Joe Christopher, my former teammate in St. Croix. That is what started it. It was thanks to the Mayagüez police that our team was able to get out of there in one piece. The police escorted us out from the stadium and to the edge of town. We won the playoffs, and I played in my first Caribbean Series, in Caracas.
That was the 1959 Caribbean Series.
In my first Series start, I shut out the Panamanian team. I met Orlando Pena and Camilo Pascual in that Series. I also first met in Caracas Norman Cash, who I later played with in Detroit. The Caribbean Series was played at University Stadium. We were beaten in a game on a play that should not have counted. I asked Norman Cash about the ball they ruled that he caught in centerfield, which turned out to be the game-changing play, and Cash told me that he did not catch it. I asked Cash when we were with Detroit. ‘Tell me the truth. Did you catch the ball?’ He told me, ‘No, I did not catch it.’
The same thing had happened to another Puerto Rican team [Caguas] the year before [1958 Caribbean Series] in Puerto Rico. I did not participate, but I just so happened to be sitting near the right field bullpen when Canenita Allen caught the ball they [umpire] said he did not. I was there. I saw him catch it. It was a low liner he caught. He threw it back in for a double play, but the umpire ruled he had not caught it. Everybody saw it but the umpire.
You also participated in the last of the original Caribbean Series in 1960.
It was during the 1959-60 season that I became a starter, which I owe to Monchile Concepción [Santurce manager], who gave me the original opportunity. It came about after I was traded to Caguas. That same season, I went to my second Caribbean Series, in Panama, with Caguas.
I will tell you how I ended up being traded to Caguas. Zorilla had sold the team Santurce] to a man named Ramón Cuevas, who had sold off Terín Pizarro to Caguas. José Pagan and I were in a contract dispute. Santurce wanted to get Pizarro back, so they sent me and Pagan to Caguas for Pizarro. Pagan and I then played many years for Caguas. I pitched into the 1970s.
During your extended career, who were the best players to play in Puerto Rico?
I saw various. I never saw Willie Mays. I saw Roberto Clemente. He could hit, run, field and throw. Intelligent player. And he played to win. I remember hearing Clemente say that he always tried his best, so that he would never have any self-doubts about whether he gave it his all. I think the same words were attributed to Willie Mays or Joe DiMaggio. I saw Olmo, not a lot. But from what I saw, the way he played left field, you did not forget him. Olmo was elegant. It was Clemente and Olmo.
There were a lot of good pitchers. Terín Pizarro. A North American pitcher, Ellis “Cot” Deal, who played with the Cardinals. Tite Arroyo with Ponce. Pantalones Santiago. I remember Sandy Koufax. When I saw that lefty with that high leg lift, he let the ball go with such ease. But Koufax was wild then, because he had not developed. I later saw him when I was with the Angels at Chávez Ravine. We shared the park with the Dodgers. Koufax told me what a great time he had in Puerto Rico. He commented how everyone was so nice to him. How blacks could move around everywhere.
What was the issue of race like for you?
White fans tended to root for San Juan. Santurce’s followers were darker-skinned. But it was “en familia” (in the family). The divisiveness had more to do with geographic boundaries.
At that time, it was work and baseball. It was parties, with dancing. There were no drug problems or so much crime. The economy was good. They were great years. I thank God for having lived them and for the friendships I made throughout.
Record of Julio Navarro in Puerto Rico and Major Leagues.