Remembering Hank Aaron’s remarkable 1953-54 season in Puerto Rico

Hank Aaron was 19 when he joined the 1953-54 Caguas Criollos, for their 80-game season in Puerto Rico’s Winter League. Aaron impressed Milwaukee Braves officials and 1953 Jacksonville Braves skipper Ben Geraghty leading the integrated Class A South Atlantic (Sally) League with a .362 AVG, 115 runs, 208 hits, and 125 RBI, as the League’s All-Star 2B, and formed a double-play combination with SS Félix Mantilla, his 1953 roommate, from Isabela, Puerto Rico. Coincidentally, Aaron and Mantilla were married to ladies they met in Jacksonville prior to Puerto Rico’1953-54 s winter season began.

Félix Mantilla

Aaron told Lonnie Wheeler, his [1991] biographer, that he “needed what Félix needed—a little money and all the ballplaying I could get.” Aaron added: “The Puerto Rican League was loaded with major-league pitchers, and it would be a good chance for me and the Braves to find out how ready I really was as a hitter. It was also a good chance to find a position I could play.” Aaron recalled he was fielding poorly at 2B for Caguas, and hitting .125, two weeks into the season, when Mantilla convinced the Caguas owner not to send him [Aaron] home. Then, Mickey Owen, the Caguas manager, changed the course of MLB history by moving Aaron to right field (RF).

Mickey Owen

“Aaron was one [Puerto Rico] at-bat from getting sent back to the States,” recalled Ozzie Virgil Sr., who played for the 1953-54 Mayagüez Indians. The astute Owen knew where he could get a better 2B than Aaron. “So, one day I [Owen] hit him [Aaron] a few flyballs, in a morning practice, and he went to it and got them easy, and he threw good. I said, you’re not an infielder, you’re an outfielder,” Owen relayed to Van Hyning: “I never told Aaron to do anything except once I him to one to RF, and he hit a bullet there. Aaron said I helped him hit to right, but all I really did was urge him to hit the ball there.” (Aaron told Bob Costas in a 2010 interview that he became “more of a pull hitter after the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966.”) Owen saw a “bit of Rogers Hornsby in the young [19-year old] Aaron,” since “both would get that big end of the bat around so fast…get their hands started before the swing, like a sprinter getting a running start…”

Aaron’s move to RF solidified the Caguas Criollos. Owen secured 2B Charlie Neal, who played for the 1953 Newport News Dodgers versus Owen’s Norfolk Tars, a New York Yankees farm team, in the Class B Piedmont League, including the League Finals, won by the Tars. Rance Pless, Criollos 3B, was an All-Star 3B with the 1951 Jacksonville Tars, when they were a segregated New York Giants farm team. Pless, a white Southerner from Greenville, Tennessee,  respected and appreciated the young Aaron (and Mantilla, too), who dealt with discrimination in the States, circa 1953. A columnist for the [1953] Jacksonville Journal wrote that: “I sincerely believe that Aaron may have started Jacksonville down the road to racial understanding.”

Tetelo Vargas

One Island superstar with the Criollos was 1B-3B Víctor Pellot Power, aka Vic Power. Aaron was fully aware that Power should have been the first Black [and first Puerto Rican] player for the New York Yankees in the early 1950s, instead of Elston Howard in 1955. Power’s positive and “can do” attitude in the Caguas clubhouse impressed Aaron. Another Caguas player that Power looked up to was LF Juan Esteban “Tetelo” Vargas, 47-year old “Dominican Deer.” Tetelo was coming off a 1953 batting title–.355 AVG, with Estrellas Orientales, Dominican Summer League. Aaron remembered there was a baseball stadium named after Tetelo. (This is in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, not in Puerto Rico.) Power did tell Van Hyning that the “1950-51 Caguas team—which won 57 games and lost 20—was special, but did not win the Final Series,” whereas “in 1953-54 we won the pennant [at 46-34], playoffs and Caribbean Series.” Power was a Caguas team leader by 1953-54, noting: “When I first joined Caguas [1947-48], it was something to be around Tetelo Vargas, Perucho Cepeda, and Piper Davis. They were veterans I looked up to…[player-manager] Quincy Trouppe did a lot for me too.”

Dale Long

Dale Long, a Springfield, Missouri native, as was Mickey Owen, played 1B the first part of the season, when Power played 3B. Long’s widow (Dorothy) alerted the author that “they enjoyed living in Caguas, Puerto Rico part of that winter,” and that “Dale liked playing for Owen.” Dorothy was proud of her husband hitting HR in eight straight games for the 1956 Pittsburgh Pirates, a team which included Roberto Clemente.

Aaron’s most colorful and intense Criollos teammate was CF Manuel Joseph “Jungle Jim” Rivera, born in New York City of Puerto Rican parents, who played for Caguas as a Native. Rivera overcame time in Federal prison during the 1940s, to become a talented and respected member of the St. Louis Browns, Chicago White Sox, Caguas Criollos, U.S. minor-league teams, Mexico City Reds (winter league club), among others. Rivera and Aaron each hit nine HR for Caguas, most in the league, but Rivera ended up with special prizes including cash and cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes, when Aaron opted to return to the States. later hit .450 to pace all hitters in the February 1954 Caribbean Series won by Caguas, and earning Series MVP laurels.

Jim Rivera

On November 25, 1953, after Caguas lost a regular season game to San Juan, 3-1, Aaron witnessed a post-game clubhouse fight between Jim Rivera and Mickey Owen. Rivera was on second with Vic Power in the batter’s box. Owen called for a hit-and-run. Power grounded out to 2B, but Rivera ran through Owen’s stop sign and scored Caguas’s only run. Owen tried to discuss the matter with Rivera after the game, but neither man suffered injuries. Aaron recalled that Mantilla, Power and RHP Brooks Lawrence intervened to keep the fight from escalating.

Brooks Lawrence

“Brooks Lawrence was the best pitcher on our staff; he could start or relieve,” said Owen. “He was the reason I went back to catching. Lawrence moved the ball around the plate with a sliding curve and big curveball and GuiGuí Lucas felt uncomfortable catching certain pitches. GuiGuí was a character—he carried his money and even a paycheck in his back pocket. He had played in lots of places where money was taken from locker rooms.”

Hank Aaron hit one of his nine homers in Puerto Rico. Greeting him, legend Cefo Conde.

When Caguas hosted the December 23, 1953 League All-Star Game, Aaron cracked two HR for the Imports, in their 11-1 win over the Natives. Caguas’s Yldefonso Solá Morales Stadium had bleachers 400 feet from home plate, and a big stone wall behind those bleachers. “There were only three balls hit over those bleachers all [1953-54] year long,” recalled Aaron. One was hit by Stan Lopata, Ponce Lions catcher. The other two were hit by Aaron in this All-Star Game. In addition to being All-Star Game MVP. Aaron and his [first] wife [Barbara] were blessed by the birth of their first child [Gaile] in Caguas, another reason why Aaron appreciated Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico: 1953-54 MLB Steppingstone for Mr. Aaron

This section highlights Puerto Rico’s importance to Aaron, from his perspective, plus opposing pitchers from Mayagüez, Ponce, San Juan Senators and Santurce Crabbers. Aaron himself told a reporter: “There’s no question it [Puerto Rico] was a stepping stone in my getting to the major leagues. It gave me confidence.” Here are quotes on facing Aaron in Puerto Rico:

  • Natalio “Pachy” Irizarry, Mayagüez RHP—”I led the League in ERA (1.49) and pitched 29 consecutive scoreless innings, a record for Natives, but never forgot Hank Aaron’s 450-foot plus HR off me in the All-Star Game.” It cleared the stone wall, as noted by Aaron earlier. “That was quite a shot,” remembered Irizarry, who added: “What I really liked about the All-Star activities was the reception hosted at La Fortaleza [Governor’s Mansion] by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. It was a nice atmosphere and all of us had a good time.” Note: A 19-year old Aaron not only met the Island’s Governor; he found out Mr. Muñoz Marín was a knowledgeable baseball fan, who rooted for the Caguas Criollos.
  • Jack Harshman, San Juan LHP—“He had absolutely great hand-wrist action. I had him 0-2 once and threw him a high and inside fastball to force him away from the plate. But he leaned back and hit it over the center field wall. Aaron had the best hands I’ve ever seen.”
  • Bob Turley, San Juan RHP, who fanned 17 Caguas batters, January 3, 1954, to tie Satchel Paige’s mark, set for Guayama versus Mayagüez, December 3, 1939 (current mark is 21 by San Juan’s Pat Dobson, December 10, 1967)—»You could tell Aaron had a major league stroke…way he sprayed the ball to right and right-center.”
  • Tom Lasorda, Santurce LHP, a 1953-54 teammate of Roberto Clemente: “It was hard to pitch to Aaron with his reflexes and talent. I faced Aaron, Clemente and Mays in Puerto Rico. That was one tough league in the 1950s with great competitors; don’t forget I pitched in Cuba, too [1952-53 and 1958-59]. Puerto Rico helped a lot of players…”
  • Bill Greason, Santurce RHP—“Hard-working kid, consistent, very mature for his age…I was Willie Mays’s 1948 teammate [Birmingham Black Barons] and 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers; and Roberto Clemente’s Santurce teammate. Aaron could do it all, too.”
  • Rubén “El Divino Loco” Gómez, Santurce RHP—“He was quiet, respectful, baseball-smart, disciplined. We [Santurce] were inconsistent in 1953-54, but give credit to Aaron, Pellot [Vic Power] and the rest. I reinforced Caguas in the [1954] Caribbean Series.”
  • Bob “El Múcaro” Thurman, Santurce OF-P—”I pitched a SHO against Caguas [December 28, 1953]. He [Aaron] could adjust to different pitches, but my off-speed stuff that night gave him some problems. And Puerto Rico allowed him to prove himself…”
  • Luis “Tite” Arroyo, Ponce LHP—”Aaron was a no-nonsense player with Caguas and mature for his age…went from A ball to Puerto Rico and the major leagues quickly.”

Caguas’s 1953-54 Team Etched in History

Ray Crone joined the Criollos and posted a 6-1 mark, as the third starter, behind Lawrence (13-7) and Bob Buhl (14-3). Combined, the trio was 33-11, for a .750 PCT. The other Caguas pitchers were 13-23. Caguas won the pennant by four games over 42-38 San Juan, before defeating Mayaguez (41-39) in the finals, four games-to-one. (Mayagüez eliminated San Juan, three games-to-none, in the only semi-finals.) Dale Long clouted eight HR for Caguas, just one behind co-leaders Aaron and Jim Rivera. Aaron’s .322 AVG was good for third, following Luis A. “Canena” Márquez’s .333 with Mayagüez and Charles Harmon’s .325 for Ponce. And Aaron’s 42 RBI only trailed Mayagüez’s Gene Freese’s 48 and Márquez’s 43, Aaron’s Puerto Rico regular season stats are at: https://beisbol101.com/hank-aaron-3/

Mayagüez’s Bill Howerton replaced Aaron for the February 18-23, 1954 Caribbean Series, played at San Juan’s Sixto Escobar Stadium. Howerton hit the tying HR against the Almendares Blues from Cuba, February 21, followed by Rance Pless’s two-run blast, in a 3-1 win by Brooks Lawrence. A day earlier, Rubén Gómez pitched a CG, 3-2 win over Venezuela’s Pastora Milkers. Vern Benson was Pastora’s SS; his back-up was Luis Aparicio. Caguas finished at 4-2, first-place, thanks to two other wins by reinforcements Tite Arroyo and Corky Valentine. Almendares (3-3) and Carta Vieja (Panamá) tied for second; Pastora finished at 2-4. Jim Rivera won the series batting crown (.450) AVG and was named to the All-Star Team and Series MVP. Vic Power (1B) and (San Juan) reinforcement Jack Cassini (2B) were other Caguas All-Stars. Part I Caguas Criollos has more details on this series at https://beisbol101.com/caguas-criollos-roy-campanella-and-luis-olmo-to-hank-aaron-and-roberto-clemente-part-i/

Fast Forward to 1974-1999

On April 8, 1974, the author was completing his Freshman year at Berry College, Rome, Georgia. That Monday night, he and friends watched Aaron hit MLB HR #715, off LHP Al Downing, on NBC, from a dorm recreation room TV. Curt Gowdy was on NBC TV, but Vin Scully (Dodgers broadcaster) made the call for KABC radio. So did Milo Hamilton (Braves) on WSB radio. The author alerted his friends that Aaron once played for Caguas.

The author and Berry College friends drove to Atlanta (a one-hour drive), Sunday, May 12, 1974, to see Atlanta host San Francisco in a twin-bill. Fortunately, Aaron hit his eighth HR of 1974, off LHP Ron Bryant. It was a thrill to see Dusty Baker and Ralph Garr play the OF with Aaron. (Baker played winter ball in Venezuela, and with the 1971-72 Santurce Crabbers, managed by Rubén Gómez; Garr had a fine winter baseball career in the Dominican Republic.) Davey Johnson, ex-Santurce Crabbers 1967-68 2B, played for Atlanta.

One month later, the author and his mother visited relatives in Los Angeles, including the author’s grandmothers (Hilda Matsner Swarthe and Florence Postal Swarthe). Hilda was celebrating her 90th birthday. Florence, via a business contact (Tom Singer), coordinated the author’s trip to Dodger Stadium, to watch a June 12, 1974 St. Louis Cardinals-Dodgers game, when a good seat cost $3.50. It was a thrill to see Lou Brock, MLB’s top base-stealer, with 118 SB in 1974, pre-Rickey Henderson, a month after seeing Aaron hit career HR #721. Coincidentally, Mickey Owen alerted the author that he scouted Brock for the Chicago Cubs, when Brock played for Southern University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Buck O’Neil eventually signed Brock for the Cubs, who (1964) traded him to St. Louis for RHP Ernie Broglio.

On January 6, 1976, Aaron was the “symbolic batter” with Bob Feller throwing out the first pitch, prior to Puerto Rico’s All-Star Game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Félix Millán, Aaron’s ex-Atlanta teammate, 1966-72, spent some time with “The Hammer” and called it a “special moment.” Orlando Cepeda, another ex-Atlanta teammate of Aaron, 1969-72, once said: “Hank was not just the best HR hitter I ever saw; he was the best hitter I ever watched play.”

The author spent the summer of 1976 as a “roustabout” for Phillips 66, in Chatom, Alabama, to earn enough money to complete his Senior [1976-77] year at the University of Georgia. Chatom is 62 miles north of Mobile, Hank Aaron’s hometown. The author caught a ride to Mobile, from Athens, Georgia (and thought about Aaron). He then traveled from Mobile to Chatom, via bus.

From 1980-85, the author spent some week night evenings exercising at Santurce’s Parque Central (Central Park), when Juan “Terín” Pizarro was a Park Administrator. Terín and the author conversed numerous times about MLB and Puerto Rico’s Winter League. “We had the talent, in Milwaukee, to win four straight NL pennants, 1956-59,” said Terín, one evening. “Those [Brooklyn] Dodgers beat us by two games in 1956 and we tied Los Angeles in 1959, but lost two-out-of-three playoff games…” Aaron, per Terín’s magnificent SABR bio by Rory  Costello, lamented the trade which sent Terín and Joey Jay to the Cincinnati Reds, after the 1960 season. (Terín was immediately dealt to the Chicago White Sox.) “I’ve always felt we (Milwaukee) would have won some more championships if we had hung onto Pizarro and Jay; needed young pitchers to take over for Spahn, Burdette and Buhl.”

Bryan Goldberg, the author’s first cousin, and a rabid Dodgers fan, got to know Al Downing well when he would call in to DODGER Talk in the 1980s. “We even played golf,” said Bryan. (Downing did not like to talk about giving up Aaron’s 715th HR and gave short answers.) Bryan—who idolizes Vin Scully—texted a hand-written note penned by an ex-Brooklyn RHP to the author, via Scully’s Twitter account, dated 3/18/99, and reads: “Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of your 715th—you will remember that I contributed to that total–#20, #25, #44, #97 & #123. Of course, I faced you many times. You are admired and respected.” Carl Erskine

Hank Aaron (February 5, 1934 – January 22, 2021), who passed away in Atlanta at 86, is deeply admired and respected by Puerto Rico’s baseball fans. May he Rest in Peace.

With special thanks and appreciation to Hank Aaron, for on and off-the-field contributions. Lonnie Wheeler, Aaron’s 1991 biographer, co-wrote an excellent book with Aaron. Bryan Goldberg came through with links to Al Downing and Vin Scully. Thanks to Luis “Tite” Arroyo, Orlando Cepeda, Rory Costello, Ray Crone, Carl Erskine, Rubén Gómez, Bill Greason, Jack Harshman, Bill Howerton Sr., Pachy Irizarry, Tommy Lasorda, Dorothy Long, Félix Millán, Mickey Owen, Juan “Terín” Pizarro, Rance Pless, Vic Power, Jim Rivera, Bob Thurman, Bob Turley, Ozzie Virgil Sr., and Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Puerto Rico Professional Baseball League.

2 comentarios en “Remembering Hank Aaron’s remarkable 1953-54 season in Puerto Rico”

  1. El pelotero que vino a jugar en esa época daba el máximo. Mi padre me llevo al parque Sixto Escobar a ver juegos. Con salarios bajos el pelotero que jugaba en las Ligas Negras hizo una contribución importante en el béisbol de Puerto Rico. Hank Aaron fue un gran ejemplo porque hizo trabajo comunitario después del retiro.

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