Remembering Ronnie Samford’s baseball career in Puerto Rico

Ronnie Samford

The author lived in Santurce, Puerto Rico, when the Arecibo Wolves returned from Caracas, Venezuela, after winning the February 1983 Caribbean Series. Instead of taking the 500-mile flight from Caracas to San Juan, they took a cruise with stops in Aruba and the Dominican Republic. Kevin Hagen, Arecibo RHP, recalled the excitement in the port of San Juan. “It was like we won the World Series,” said Hagen. “We visited the Governor’s Mansion and the roads from San Juan to Arecibo were lined two, three deep with people on our parade route.”

What does this have to do with Ronnie Samford, born in Dallas, Texas, February 28, 1930, and, who passed away there, January 14, 2021, at age 90? He experienced similar emotions felt by Hagen, when the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers—called “the best Winter League team ever assembled,” by Don Zimmer—returned to San Juan (via airplane) after their 5-1 W-L record in Caracas, gave Santurce their third Caribbean Series crown in five years. Samford, like Hagen, enjoyed a parade, albeit from the airport; a reception at Governor Luis Muñoz Marín’s mansion, and a lot of parties. Caribbean Series historians tend to rate the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers as the “best Winter League team in Phase I, 1949-to-1960,” between Cuba, Panamá, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.

Per Samford, when he conversed with the author by phone: “It was the only time I met the governor [a fan of the Caguas Criollos, who Santurce defeated in the league finals]. Shoot, we loved it.” Samford and his wife socialized with Rubén and Teresa Gómez, their best friends in Puerto Rico. The Texan (by phone from Dallas) recalled fishing a lot with Gómez, during his two-and-a-half winter seasons with the Crabbers.

“Santurce fans called me the ‘White Sea’ and Jim “Junior” Gilliam the “Black Sea’ because we covered so much ground. (Gilliam was the Crabbers 2B, 1950-53, when they were 2x Caribbean Series champs.) They (fans at Sixto Escobar Stadium, shared by Santurce and San Juan) put money in two five-gallon buckets during the game. After the game, I walked to my apartment across the street with two buckets full of nickels and dimes. Oh, God, I get to thinking about it…those good times.”

  1. Santurce Crabbers, a Team of Destiny
Santurce 1954-55

Santurce, at 15-13, was in a tight pennant race with San Juan and Caguas. The Crabbers had a strong line-up with Willie Mays (CF), Roberto Clemente (LF), and Bob Thurman (RF); and, solid at 1B with George Crowe; and, 3B, with Buster Clarkson. However, their middle IF with Billy Klaus, Artie Wilson and Billy Gardner was inconsistent. Valmy Thomas was a good receiver, but not hitting that well. Thomas became a reserve, once Cubs prospect Harry Chiti signed with Santurce.

Herman Franks

Enter Ronnie Samford and Don Zimmer. Samford played a handful of games for the 1954 World Champion New York Giants. Herman Franks, one of the Giants coaches, was Santurce’s 1954-55 skipper. “Samford was a scrappy player with a good attitude,” recalled Franks. “I thought he could help us [Santurce].” Zimmer was in a different boat. Brooklyn sent some of their prospects (young and old) to Mayagüez, including LHP Tommy Lasorda, SS Zimmer, and catcher Homer E. “Dixie” Howell. But Mayagüez, in a cost-cutting move, released Zimmer. Fortunately, Pedrín Zorrilla, Santurce’s astute owner, once scouted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and liked Zimmer’s “can-do” qualities.

Santurce played at a 32-12 clip (.727), once Samford joined the team. Per Jorge Colón Delgado, the Crabbers were 30-10 (.750) with Samford in their starting line-up; 23-8 with Samford leading off; 5-1 with Zimmer leading off, and Samford hitting second; 15-7 when Samford led off, and Clemente hit second. Santurce was 13-6 with Chiti catching, versus 34-19 when Thomas or Manuel “Liquito” Traboux caught. Santurce (47-25, .653) was five games up on Caguas; nine ahead of San Juan. (In 1967-68, Earl Weaver led Santurce to a 47-22 mark; Frank Robinson’s 1968-69 club went 49-20, the most single-season wins in franchise history.

Here are some Final Series highlights of Samford’s 1954-55 Crabbers:

  • February 3, 1955—in Game One, finals versus Caguas, Samford went 3-for-4, with three runs and a RBI, in the Crabbers 10-3 win. Rubén Gómez went the route. Franks had Samford batting eighth.
  • February 4—Chi Chí Olivo had a 7-3 CG win for Caguas. Zimmer cracked a two-run HR.
  • February 5—Santurce blanks the Criollos, 14-0, behind Bill Greason. Samford and Thurman both go 2-for-5, with three runs and two RBI. Valmy Thomas responds with a 3-for-5 night.
  • February 6—RHP Gómez prevails, 13-1. Chiti and Mays each go 3-for-5; with the catcher driving in five, and the “Say Juey” kid with three RBI. (Caguas Game Three starter Joey Jay went into hiding, after departing early the prior night; he hid at a doctor’s house in Caguas, due to the displeasure by Caguas fans.)
  • February 7—Sam Jones’s seven strong innings, plus Greason’s relief work, gave Santurce a 6-2 win, at Caguas. Criollos reliever Bert Thiel retired Zimmer, Mays, and Clemente, in the top of the ninth, before Greason retired Rance Pless; walked Bob Montag; induced Mike Roarke to fly out to LF; and got PH Juan “Tetelo” Vargas to ground out, 4-6, with Samford flipping the ball to Zimmer. It was Tetelo’s final AB in a splendid Puerto Rico Winter League career.

“That was my second winter, pitching in Puerto Rico,” recalled Thiel. “They [Santurce} were strong in 1951-52 with Willard Brown and Bob Thurman, but their [1954-55] line-up was strong from top to bottom.”

Samford’s regular season AVG for the 1954-54 Crabbers was .271. He was solid in the league finals, but went 2-for-23 in Caracas, during the 1955 Caribbean Series, in which Zimmer was voted MVP, with a .385 AVG and three HR. Mays’s .440 AVG (11-for-25), came after he started the series 0-for-12. His two-run, walk-off HR off Magallanes’s Ramón Monzant, in Game Three, was Santurce’s highlight reel of this six-day event, one where 122,000 series spectators produced a gate of $206,000.  

Santurce LHP Pete Burnside was Santurce’s batting practice pitcher in Caracas, after being “released” in the season. “Pedrín released me, but kept me at the same salary for the Caribbean Series,” said Burnside. “There were armed guards in the stadium with automatic weapons. We stayed at the Hotel Tamanaco on the hill in an upper class section.”

Don Zimmer

Samford and Zimmer, per Nick Diunte, met Almendares Blues (Cuba) manager Bobby Bragan in a Venezuelan bar. Samford laid the challenge right on the table. “I remember going to Caracas, and Bobby Bragan was managing the Cuban team,” Zimmer said in 2011. “He [Bragan] said to me, ‘They said you got a good team, huh? You’ll wind up second.’ Ronnie Samford was in a bar that night with us having a beer. I didn’t want to say nothing to Bragan, but Ronnie said, ‘You couldn’t beat us.’”

Samford Returns to Santurce and Sold to Caguas

The 1955-56 Crabbers were 25-11 at the halfway point, on a pace for a 50-win regular season. The team had great chemistry with an IF of Bill White (1B), Samford (2B), Clarkson (3B), and Zimmer (SS), plus rookie SS-3B José Antonio Pagán. But Zimmer suffered a fractured wrist (October 24, 1955), followed by an appendicitis attack, December 17. Daryl Spencer filled in at SS. Orlando Cepeda, another Crabbers rookie, complimented Bill White, and other veterans on this club. “Bill was there with his advice and goodwill,” said Cepeda. “He was a gentleman.” Cepeda also had kind words for other teammates, including Samford.

Samford met legendary LHP Carl Hubbell, in his capacity as New York Giants minor league coordinator. Hubbell arrived in Puerto Rico, January 9, 1956, to get a closer look at Gómez, Steve Ridzik, and Al Worthington, the Crabbers top three starters. (Bill Greason, a fine RHP, was Santurce’s fourth starter.)

Santurce went 18-18 in the second-half, 1955-56, to finish first, 43-29. Caguas bested them in the finals behind the pitching of Lasorda, Taylor Phillips, and Roberto Vargas. Félix Mantilla’s two HR for Caguas sealed the Criollos’s Game Six 8-3 win.. Santurce’s two wins were by Ridzik and Gómez. Bob Thurman’s late-season injury resulted in the Crabbers signing OF Bob Lennon, who had played in Venezuela the prior winter, and was with Magallanes for their 1955 Caribbean Series.

Samford posted a .257 AVG for the 1955-56 Crabbers (69-for-269) with  41 runs scored. He was shocked, when he, Roberto Clemente, and LHP Juan “Terin” Pizarro were sold to Caguas, late December 1956, for $30,000. Pedrín “gave the team” (cedió el equipo) to Ramón Cuevas. A tearful Pedrín bid his players farewell before the game against Caguas, December 27, 1956, exhorting them to play hard. Mr. Cuevas was now  their new owner. The Crabbers had a $30,000 debt; this sale liquidated Santurce’s debt. Cuevas confirmed the $30,000 sale, December 30. Pedrín treated all his players like family, and continued helping some financially, i.e., Luis Rafael Cabrera. Samford liked playing home games at Escobar, across from his Gallardo Apartments, the same building where most of Santurce’s imports lived, mid-1950s, such as Burnside, Greason, Mays,  Ridzik, and Zimmer.

The 1956-57 Criollos looked strong on paper, despite losing Sandy Koufax in mid-December 1956, due to a league ruling that prohibited more than three active MLB players on a team roster. Caguas (39-34) finished fourth of five teams, after losing a tie-breaker game to San Juan, for third-place. Luis “Tite”Arroyo dominated the Criollos on short rest after he insisted “that [San Juan] manager Ralph Houk give me the ball.” Samford’s combined (Santurce-Caguas) 1956-57 AVG dipped to .237, but he clouted five HR and drove in 37, his highest Puerto Rico total.

1957-58 Caguas Criollos and 1958 Caribbean Series

Caguas (33-31) won their fourth league title of the 1950s, after besting San Juan (semi-finals) and Santurce (finals). Three “protagonists” of the $30,000 sale came through for Caguas: Terín Pizarro won the pitching Triple Crown with 14 wins, 183 strikeouts, and a 1.32 ERA! Clemente spent most of 1957-58 resting, due to his ailing back, but was activated on January 12, 1958; and played nine regular season games. He went nine-for-17, a .529 AVG, in the Criollos four-game Final Series sweep over Santurce, regular season winners (36-28). Samford’s .281 AVG (70-for-249) was his highest in five Puerto Rico seasons.

In Game One of the finals, Samford’s two-run HR off Rubén Gómez propelled Caguas-Rio Piedras to a 9-2 win on January 30, 1958, 62 years prior to this blog. It felt strange for Samford to homer off his fishing buddy. Clemente cracked a double and two singles off  his friend and ex-Santurce teammate, Bill Greason, the next night, in a 5-0 Caguas win. The series moved to Sixto Escobar, February 1-2. Pizarro fanned 15 Crabbers in Game Three, a 7-4 Caguas win. Jerry Nelson—with a 1.50 ERA,  second to teammate Pizarro—clinched it with a 10-3 win on February 2. Caguas chose Valmy Thomas and Crabbers RHP Marion Fricano as Caribbean Series reinforcements.

Cuba’s Marianao Tigers won their second straight Caribbean Series, with Marianao (4-2 W-L) winning the final game, 2-0, versus Caguas (3-3). The Carta Vieja Yankees (3-3) tied Caguas for second place. Venezuela’s Valencia Industrialists (2-4) were fourth. Samford played LF in this series, with Clemente in CF, and Luis “Canena” Márquez in RF. Vic Power (1B), Mike Goliat (2B), Juan Guzmán (3B), and Félix Mantilla manned the IF. Valmy Thomas did most of the catching; Frank Reveira got one AB, as his back-up. Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, Solly Drake, and Casey Wise starred for Marianao. Clemente (.391 AVG) hit Caguas’s only HR. He and 1B Power (.458 AVG and series-best eight RBI) were named to the Series All-Star Team. Pizarro pitched a gem versus Panamá’s Carta Vieja entry—17 strikeouts in his two-hit SHO on February 8, 1958. Samford had a double among his five hits; scored four times; with a .200 AVG.

1960-61 San Juan Senators and 1961 Inter American Series

Samford was in the Baltimore Orioles organization by 1960, and played 2B for the Class AAA Miami Marlins, International League. His double-play partner was SS Jerry Adair. (George “Sparky” Anderson, with the Toronto Maple Leafs, was that league’s All-Star 2B.) Circling back to Puerto Rico, Bob Leith was the new San Juan Senators owner. Mr. Leith had established a friendship with Lee MacPhail Jr., when MacPhail was Farm Director for the New York Yankees. By December 1958, MacPhail became an executive with the Baltimore Orioles. Note: The author’s mother (Paula S. Van Hyning) was a high school classmate of Lee MacPhail Jr., in New York City; she and Mr. MacPhail attended and graduated from Swarthmore College (Pennsylvania), Class of 1939.

Leith sat down with MacPhail (summer of 1960) and secured the services of Luman Harris, Baltimore’s 3B coach, to manage San Juan. Jack Fisher, Wes Stock, and Jerry Adair were other Orioles prospects signed by San Juan for 1960-61. Samford, no longer a prospect, signed with San Juan, for the 64-game campaign.

During 1960-61, Fisher was nearly sent packing after some sub-par performances. Luman Harris phoned MacPhail from the Normandie Hotel—located across from Sixto Escobar Stadium—about this, and shared this blunt statement from MacPhail to Fisher: “If I have to bring you back from Puerto Rico, it’s not going to look good on your record.” Leith indicated, to the author: “Jack [Fisher] did OK after that. He pitched a hell of a game against [Bob] Gibson in the [1961] Interamerican Series.”

San Juan was 16-16 the first-half, and 23-9, in the second-half, to qualify for the league finals, against Caguas. The Senators counted on Clemente’s services during the second-half. Carlos Bernier (LF), Nino Escalera (CF-1B), and Marcial “Canenita” Allen (RF) did their best, until Clemente, who had played in the 1960 World Series against the Yankees, suited up. Leith forgot to send out player contracts by the June 1, 1960 deadline, but Clemente came through like a true pro. “Forget about it,” said Clemente. “I’ll sign for the same amount I made last year [1959-60], $1,500 per month.”

Ronnie Samford with Washington

Samford (.266 AVG, two HR, 21 RBI) provided steady defense and clutch hitting. Then 30 years old, he would be 31 for his 1961 season with AAA Rochester, in the Orioles system. His [and Adair’s] San Juan back-up was U.S. Virgin Islander Horace Clarke. “That was my first winter season in Puerto Rico,” said Clarke. “Samford was a friendly guy, who had big-league experience with a few [1954 New York Giants, 1955 and 1957 Detroit Tigers, and 1959 Washington Senators] teams. He knew the ropes and was someone I could approach and converse with.” Samford played at 5’11” and 156 pounds.

Jim Archer, San Juan LHP with more innings pitched [122] than Fisher [105] Stock [107], or Tite Arroyo [71], posted a 2-1 mark in the finals, versus Caguas, with Fisher and Stock each going 1-1. RHP William de Jesús (1-0) got San Juan’s other win in this best-of-nine series. LHP Arroyo, the League MVP, was 10-2, 1.64 ERA, regular season, in relief. Archer rented a Volkswagen in Puerto Rico. Benny Agosto, who did public relations work for the Senators, alerted the author of “some scary trips with Archer, to away games in Caguas, Mayagüez, and Ponce.” Archer was 7-6, with a 2.37 ERA for San Juan.

Samford mentioned Carlos Bernier, his [1960-61] San Juan, and 1963 Hawaii Islanders teammate, to the author. “Carlos had the ability to have a 10-to-15 year major league career,” stated Samford. “His temper got the best of him.” Samford may not have known that Bernier suffered constant headaches after being beaned in a 1948 Colonial League minor-league game, without a batting helmet. Bernier started using a helmet in 1953, when the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first MLB team to require them. Coincidentally, Samford’s first minor-league season was in 1948, when he was age 18. Samford, in Puerto Rico’s Winter League, posted a .261 career AVG, with 41 doubles, nine triples, 17 HR, 116 RBI, 143 runs,  and 309 hits in 1,185 AB.

Prior blogs by the author mentioned Frank Howard’s 536-foot HR off Jack Fisher, in the Caguas-San Juan finals. José “Palillo” Santiago was 20 at the time. Sixty years later (January 2021), he recalled this blast during a phone conversation with the author, one which covered “a lot of territory,” just like Frank Howard’s home run. Howard himself, early October 1991, complimented Puerto Rico’s baseball fans, and expressed his appreciation for the tough competition, including facing San Juan’s Tite Arroyo and Santurce’s Bob Gibson.

Gibson pitched to Howard (in Puerto Rico), 1961-62, the winter after he [Gibson] pitched brilliantly for the Valencia Industrialists, 1961 Inter American Series, hosted by Caracas. This February 10-15, 1961 series was extended an extra night, when both Venezuelan clubs (Rapiños and Valencia) were tied. San Juan reinforced itself with Orlando Cepeda and Terín Pizarro. Team owner Leith picked up Pizarro at his Santurce home en route to the airport.

San Juan had a tough time, losing their February 10, 1961 opener to Rapiños (Venezuela’s Occidental League), 4-3, on RBI singles by Luis Aparicio and Camilo Carreón. Four days later, on Valentine’s Day, Clemente and Cepeda had three hits apiece in San Juan’s 7-6 win over Panamá’s Cervecería Balboa Brewers. Tite Arroyo preserved this win.

Samford and company had a tough time deciphering Bob Gibson, February 15, 1961. Clemente commented, pre-game, that “Gibson was throwing ‘aspirin tablets,’”. Gibson proceeded to blank San Juan, 1-0, in his duel with Jack Fisher. The following night, Valencia’s José “Carrao” Bracho defeated Rapiños, 2-1, to give the Industrialists the title.

Rest in peace, Ronnie Samford, one “tough Texan” deeply appreciated in Puerto Rico.

With special thanks and appreciation to Ronnie Samford, and to Benny Agosto, Jim Archer, Pete Burnside, Orlando Cepeda, Horace Clarke, Nick Diunte, Herman Franks, Rubén Gómez, Kevin Hagen, Frank Howard, Bob Leith Sr., Lee MacPhail Jr., José “Palillo” Santiago, Bert Thiel, and Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Puerto Rico Professional Baseball League.

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