Paul Hartzell Remembers Rubén Gómez and Epic Santurce-Bayamón Game on December 7, 1976

Paul Hartzell

Paul Hartzell turned 23 in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on November 2, 1976, early in the 60-game winter season. He was recently married and coming off a fine rookie season with the 1976 California Angels, managed by Dick Williams and Norm Sherry. Hartzell (8-2, 2.92 ERA, 92.1 innings) was Jack McKeon’s best starter with the 1976-77 Santurce Crabbers in the Puerto Rico Winter League (PRWL), a team dubbed the «Blue Machine» by sportswriter Rafael Pont Flores. The 6-5, 200 pound Hartzell was a true student-athlete, earning a 1975 degree in Mechanical Engineering from Lehigh, after posting a 690 score in math and 600 verbal on his (high school) Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Hartzell played basketball his first two years at Lehigh but focused more on baseball starting in the summer of 1973 with Johnny’s, a Baltimore-based amateur team that won the 1973 All-American Amateur Baseball Association (AAABA) tournament in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Hartzell was tournament MVP. He pitched superbly for the 1974 Boulder Collegians in Colorado and won two games in the National Baseball Congress (NBC) semipro tournament in Wichita, Kansas. The PRWL started as a 1938-39 through 1940-41 Semipro League; its 1938-39 and 1939-40 champion Guayama Witches played the NBC tournament winners—Oklahoma’s Duncan Cementers in 1939 and Enid Refiners in 1940—at Sixto Escobar Stadium in San Juan.

Hartzell gained international experience in Fall 1974, pitching for Team USA in the Amateur World Series, held at spring training sites in Florida. He beat Taiwan in relief for his first win and won his second game versus Nicaragua, recalling that catcher Rick Cerone—who later caught for the 1976-77 Ponce Lions—picked two runners off first and threw out three more trying to steal second. Hartzell’s 1975 collegiate season featured a 6-4 mark for 12-16 Lehigh, with 10 complete games, 92 innings, 83 strikeouts, 33 walks, and a 1.66 ERA.

Rubén Gómez, the “Divino Loco” (Divine Crazy)

Rubén Gómez with Bayamón.

Rubén Gómez was also college-educated, with a 1949 degree in Physical Education from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). He was also a Track & Field star for UPR, in the 300-yard run, 4 x 100 relay, high jump, and pole vault. Gómez, who played at 6-0, and 170 pounds, later became a good golfer, playing many rounds with his friend Luis R. Olmo, the «Ballplayer of the Americas.» Gómez earned his nickname via his intensity on the mound and his love of sports cars, resulting in driving to Santurce away games at high speeds and challenging world-class Formula I drivers on racetracks. He was born in Arroyo, east of Guayama, on July 13, 1927. Gómez played volleyball and baseball at George Washington High School, in Guayama, and did Track & Field. His baseball mentor and coach was Cándido Fortier, who encouraged him to pitch. Arroyo, Puerto Rico, is where the first Caribbean telegraph was transmitted on March 1, 1859. The telegraph inventor Samuel Morse introduced wired communication to Latin America with the Puerto Rico Telegraph system in the late 1850s. Morse’s oldest daughter (Susan) married a Danish merchant (Edward Lind) who worked at and later owned the Sugar Cane Hacienda La Enriqueta in Arroyo, where Morse wintered. Gómez idolized Satchel Paige (19-3 W-L), star hurler for 1939-40 Guayama, and 16-game winner Barney Brown, Guayama’s 1941-42 ace, voted PRWL MVP over Santurce’s Joshua Gibson.

When Gómez took the mound at Bayamón’s Juan Loubriel Stadium, Tuesday, December 7, 1976, he was 49 years and 21 weeks old, compared to Hartzell, age 23 and five weeks. Gómez had pitched 28 winter seasons for Santurce, 1947-1976, with a 173-118 record, plus his 27-10 post-season PRWL mark for the Crabbers. Thus, he won 200 games for Santurce, excluding his 6-4 record in Caribbean Series events and PRWL All-Star Games. Hartzell was 11 months old when 27-year-old Gómez won Game Three of the 1954 World Series, 6-2, for the New York Giants versus Cleveland.

December 7, 1976 Contest

José A. Pagán managed Bayamón, who won back-to-back PRWL titles in 1974-75 and 1975-76, and the 1975 Caribbean Series. They were the ex-San Juan Senators, arch-rivals of Santurce. Pagán began his PRWL playing career in 1955-56 after Pedrín Zorrrilla signed him and pitcher Julio Navarro. (Zorrilla signed 18-year-old Orlando Cepeda for 1955-56, three years after signing 18-year-old Roberto Clemente to a 1952-53 Santurce contract.) Pagán and Clemente each drove in a run in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 Game Seven win over Baltimore on October 17, 1971, in the Fall Classic.

Jack McKeon, Santurce’s skipper, had recently been signed by Charles O. Finley to manage the 1977 Oakland A’s. One of his 1977 A’s coaches would be Cal Ermer, Ponce’s 1976-77 manager. McKeon loved smoking cigars and did so on December 7, 1976, when driving Hartzell to Loubriel Stadium. «What I do remember is that for some reason, Jack drove me to the [December 7] game, and his cigar might have influenced my early-inning problems,» recalled Hartzell, in his February 28, 2024 e-mail to the author. «They [Bayamón] did have a fine team, and I remember Dan Driessen as a tough out for me.»

Driessen was having a banner season for Bayamón but departed later that month after his Cincinnati Reds traded Tony Pérez and Will McEnaney to Montreal for hurlers’ Woody Fryman and Dale Murray on December 16. The Reds probably encouraged Driessen to «come home» since he was penciled in as their 1977 first baseman. Going into the December 7 game, Driessen was 35-for-89, a .393 BA. He went 2-for-3 versus Santurce, upping his BA to .402 (37-for-92). Conversely, Santurce’s Ismael Oquendo, went 2-for-4, upping his league-leading BA from .424 (42-for-99) to .427 (44-for-103).

Santurce’s line-up included Sandy Alomar Sr. (2B), Nolín Ruiz (SS), Danny Walton (DH), Tony Solaita (1B), Ismael Oquendo (RF), Juan Beniquez (CF), Ron Pruitt (C), Mike Cubbage (3B), Luis Delgado (LF). For Bayamón: Sergio “Cuchito” Ferrer (SS), Orlando Álvarez (LF), Art Howe (3B), Dan Driessen (1B), Rusty Torres (LF), Manny Sanguillén (DH), Mike Vail (RF), Papo Rosado (C), and Danny Monzón (2B). Hartzell allowed two runs in the first and five in the second, plus seven hits and two walks, before taking an early shower. Four runs were unearned. His ERA jumped from 2.25 to 2.56, but was not involved in the decision. Mike Overy held Bayamón scoreless for three frames, and long reliever Estaban Texidor went five innings, giving up four hits, one earned run, and six walks to two strikeouts. Ramón «Mon» Hernández took the loss, allowing three hits and the winning tally in two-thirds of an inning. Ferrer’s walk-off hit drove in Monzón with the decisive run.

Gómez pitched 5.1 innings, giving up six hits, three runs, and five walks before Pagán summoned Carlín Velásquez from the pen with a 7-3 lead. Carlín allowed two inherited runners to score plus two more without recording an out. Fernando Vega’s 1.2 innings included two hits, and one run was allowed. Julio Navarro pitched one-third of an inning with a strikeout and one hit allowed. Joaquín Quintana pitched 3.2 scoreless innings for the win. He scattered three hits, fanned three, and walked one. Santurce left 14 on, with Bayamón stranding 13. Alomar, Delgado, and Walton cracked doubles, and Beníquez homered. Monzón and Sanguillén hit doubles. Driessen had a triple. The line score read: Santurce 8-15-2 and Bayamón 9-17-2. Pruitt was HBP by Quintana, while Ruiz was HBP by Navarro. Ferrer and Sanguillén got four hits apiece for the victors. Beníquez also drilled four hits for Santurce. Attendance was 9,847 (capacity 12,500) for the three-hour and thirty-five-minute game.

The Umpires

Vito Henry «Vic» Voltaggio, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam War veteran who also served in Okinawa and the Philippines, was behind home plate. Voltaggio had a 20-year American League (AL) umpiring career from 1977 to 1996. He umpired 2,118 regular season games, a World Series, an All-Star Game, and three American League Championship  Series (ALCS). Twenty-seven-year-old Mike Reilly was the first base ump that night. He umpired in the 1976 Caribbean Series hosted by the Dominican Republic and had a distinguished 1977-1999 AL umpiring career followed by 11 more seasons (2000-2010) in MLB games. Reilly umpired in four World Series (1984, 1992, 2002, and 2007), plus nine League Championship Series and six Division Series.

The third-base umpire was Manache Hernández, called «Cuchilla» (slang for biased calls). Manache and Charlie Román, per fellow umpire Dan Morrison (1978-1980), «Just took us in. It wasn’t like we were working with them; it was like we were just one of them—very unusual. Here we are in a different environment than what we’re used to, and these people took us under their wings.» Other Stateside umpires with PRWL experience—Dale Ford, Tim McClelland, and Durwood Merrill—sang Manache’s and Román’s praises. Merrill liked Román, saying, «Charlie would carry a gun on the field.» Dick Butler, AL Supervisor of Umpires, would «Select the umpires from [class] AAA to go down and get a better feel for what competition would be like in the majors,» said McClelland. «So he [Butler] would select six prospects he thought were major league caliber and come down and critique us.»

Ten-Mile Walk Home

Hartzell took an early shower but remained until the game’s end before walking home, a distance of 16 kilometers—10 miles—from Loubriel Stadium to his McLeary Avenue apartment in the Condado section of Santurce. «I’m sure I stayed until the end of the game before walking home,» said Hartzell, a physical fitness aficionado who skipped rope and did other exercises. «I think it took two hours or more. I’m also sure no other people were walking along the roads either. I did the same thing once in Milwaukee and walked from the old County Stadium to the Pfister Hotel. I do remember that walk went close to Marquette University and it was a tough neighborhood too.»

Other 1976-77 PRWL and Major League Developments

On November 5, 1976, Manny Sanguillén was traded by Pittsburgh with $100,000 to Oakland for Chuck Tanner, 1976 A’s skipper. This trade allowed Charles O. Finley to hire Jack McKeon as his 1977 manager. Ponce’s Roger Freed was selected by the St. Lous Cardinals, from Montreal, in the December 6, 1976, Rule 5 major league draft. Santurce was 19-15 after the Bayamón win, a half-game back of the 19-14 Cowboys. The Caguas Criollos (20-13) and Ponce Lions (20-13) were tied for first. Mayagüez (12-20) and Arecibo (9-24) were fifth-sixth.      

On December 12, 1976, Bayamón released DH Ken Brett (13-for-47, a .277 BA, five RBIs) and catcher Skip Jutze. Hartzell befriended Brett in the PRWL, who were Angels teammates in 1977 and 1978. The Cowboys activated infielder Luis Aguayo and catcher Eliseo Rodríguez. Mayagüez traded infielder Efraín Vázquez to Ponce for second baseman Ramón Avilés. Tony Pérez told the Associated Press, after his December 16, 1976 trade to Montreal, that «I am both happy and sad. The [three-year, $500,000] multi-year contract will give my family security. That is important.» The Baltimore Orioles released Mike Cuéllar—who was pitching for Caguas—on December 21, 1976.

PRWL 1976-77 Final Standings and League Leaders

Caguas finished 40-20, two games ahead of Ponce (38-22), six up on Bayamón (34-26), and 7.5 games in front of Santurce (32-27). Hartzell won 25 percent of the Crabbers’ 32 wins to tie Dennis Martínez’s eight victories, one behind league leader Eduardo «Volanta» Rodríguez’s nine. Hartzell was 2-2 versus Caguas, including an early season day game win, and 6-0 against the other four teams. Caguas had the strongest/deepest pitching staff with Dennis Martínez, Volanta, Scott McGregor, Mike Krukow, Mike Cuéllar, Roric Harrison, and Ed Figueroa, who joined the Criollos late after winning 19 games for the 1976 Yankees. Table I includes the Top Five ERA leaders.

Table I: PRWL 1976-77 ERA Leaders

José “Witito” MartínezPonce66141.91
Eduardo ¨Volanta¨ RodríguezCaguas93282.71
Mike CuéllarCaguas79.1242.72
Esteban TexidorSanturce62.1192.74
Paul HartzellSanturce92.1302.92

Source: José Crescioni Benítez, El Béisbol Profesional Boricua, 1997.

The Criollos had a .307 team BA, and five of the Top Six individual BA paced by Sixto Lezcano (.366), José «Cheo» Cruz (.338), Julio César González (.337), Félix Millán (.322), and Tony Scott (.322). Santurce’s Ismael Oquendo slumped to finish fourth with a .335 BA. Ponce’s Roger Freed hit 16 homers and drove in 48 to lead in those categories. Bayamón’s Art Howe hit a league-leading 22 doubles, and Arecibo’s Iván de Jesús hit six triples to lead the loop. His 20 steals were second to Scott’s 25. Dan Driessen’s 44 hits in 117 AB, equaled a .376 BA. He would have challenged Lezcano for the batting title if he had remained on the Island. Coincidentally, Ken Griffey Sr. also left Bayamón early, with nine hits in 20 AB, a .450 BA. Griffey won the 1974-75 PRWL batting crown with a .357 BA.

The January 6, 1977 PRWL All-Star Game between the Imports (Stateside players) and Natives was dedicated to Rubén Gómez, who threw the first pitch to Valmy Thomas. Pedrín Zorrilla—who signed Rubén for Santurce in 1947—was the symbolic batter. Danny Walton won the pre-game HR hitting contest with two blasts in five swings. The Natives, managed by José A. Pagán, edged the Imports, 8-7. Bayamón’s Eliseo Rodríguez was the MVP, scoring three runs and going 2-for-2 with a walk. Freed and Scott homered for the Imports.

Post Script

Jack McKeon became the only manager in pro baseball history to win over 1,000 big-league games (1,051) and minor-league contests (1,146). He led the 2003 Florida Marlins to the World Series title over the New York Yankees, and corresponded (by mail) with the author over the past three decades. Rubén Gómez—whom the author first met in 1965—was inducted into the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame (1991), Caribbean Series Hall of Fame (1999), and, posthumously, Latino Baseball Hall of Fame (February 9, 2011. He died in San Juan, on July 26, 2004, at 77. Hartzell, inducted into the Roger S. Penske/Lehigh Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998, was recognized as the 91st «greatest California-Anaheim-Los Angeles Angels» in 2020.

Special thanks to Paul Hartzell for his recollections. Thanks to umpires Dale Ford, Tim McClelland, Durwood Merrill, and Dan Morrison. Jorge Colón Delgado did the editing and photo placements.

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