Ten American League Rookies of the Year played in Puerto Rico’s Winter League

Carlos Correa

Ten AL Rookies of the Year once played in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, formerly the Puerto Rico Winter League, from LHP Gary Peters (1963 recipient) to shortstop Carlos Correa, 2015 AL Rookie of the Year. These 10 players comprised 17.7 percent of 57 AL Rookie of the Year honorees, 1963-to-2019.

Gary Peters pitched well for last-place Ponce (26-44) in 1962-63, when he was released in a cost-cutting move. Peters was 2-5 with a 3.39 ERA in 108.2 innings, with 83 strikeouts. But Cal Ermer, skipper of first-place Mayagüez, appreciated Gary Peters, and felt Peters could help Mayagüez win the league title. “I got Peters to use nothing but sinking fastballs,” said Ermer. “It took him [Peters] to the White Sox, the 1963 American League Rookie of the Year—he won 19 games, and a good big league career.” Peters led the AL with a 2.33 ERA in 1963; won 20 games in 1964; followed by an excellent 1966 campaign showing a league-leading 1.98 ERA for the White Sox. Peters went from a worst-to-first team after he signed with Mayagüez, which finished 42-28, and represented Puerto Rico in the February 1963 Inter-American Series in Panamá.

Tony Oliva was a coveted OF prospect with the Minnesota Twins when he joined the 1963-64 Arecibo Wolves, a team which finished last (31-39) in the six-team Puerto Rico League. Oliva was the league’s best hitter and batting champ at .365, with 76 hits in 208 AB. He led the loop with nine triples, one more than teammate Art López, and outpaced Ponce’s Walter Bond (.349) and San Juan’s Roberto Clemente (.345) in the batting chase. Art López was fourth at .337, followed by San Juan’s Gerry McNertney’s .333.

Oliva, post-Puerto Rico, signed a short-term contract with the 1963-64 Licey Tigers in the Dominican Republic, and helped them win a best-of-nine finals versus the Aguilas Cibaeñas. Vern Benson, Licey’s manager, recalled Oliva scoring the winning run in game four of this series, after Licey lost the first three games. Oliva ran through Benson’s stop sign at third in Licey’s 7-6 win. Two nights later, he tripled twice in a 2-1 victory. This was a strange series due to Licey signing Oliva, Santurce’s Miguel de la Hoz, Arecibo’s Ray Barker, plus a trio of pitchers from Puerto Rico’s League—John Boozer (Arecibo), Alan Koch (Mayagüez) and Fred Talbot (Caguas). Two of the Aguilas’ best players were RHP Steve Blass and Willie Stargell.

Oliva won back-to-back AL batting crowns in 1964 (.323) and 1965 (.321), plus one in 1971 (.337). His 1964 AL Rookie of the Year season included All-Star honors, first of eight straight All-Star selections. He won a 1966 Gold Glove (GG) with Minnesota and played in one [1965] World Series.  Oliva ended his MLB career with a .304/.353/.476 slash line.

Tommie Agee, 1966 AL Rookie of the Year, with the Chicago White Sox, hit .273 with 22 HR and RBIs; stole 44 bases; scored 98 runs; was an All-Star; and won a GG! Many baseball aficionados on the mainland may not know Agee was a teammate of Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, Steve Hargan, Walt Bond, Danny Cater and Horace Clarke, with Ponce, 1964-65. Agee was a Cleveland prospect when Cleveland and Ponce had a working agreement. In limited action with Ponce in 1963-64, Agee hit .333 (18-for-54). He played in 52 games for Johnny Lipon’s Lions

in 1964-65, with a .231 BA, three HR and 17 RBIs, and six SB. Ponce finished last at 28-42, but officials with the Chicago White Sox were impressed with Agee’s hustle and potential.

Agee became part of a three-team trade on January 20, 1965, where he, LHP Tommy John and catcher John Romano went from Cleveland to the White Sox. Catcher Camilo Carreón was sent to Cleveland by the White Sox, who, in turn, sent Mike Hershberger, Jim Landis and a player to be named later to Kansas City. The A’s sent Rocky Colavito to Cleveland. Three weeks later (February 10, 1965), the White Sox sent Fred Talbot to Kansas City to complete this trade.

Agee’s legacy was cemented by three solid seasons with the 1969-1971 New York Mets, including 1969 with 100 regular season wins; the first-ever NLCS crown; plus 1969 World Series title over the Baltimore Orioles. Agee hit better in the NLCS (.357 BA) than World Series (.167 BA), but made an outstanding defensive play against Baltimore. He then won his second GG (one-AL and one-NL) with the 1970 Mets. I saw Agee in person in Daytona Beach, Florida, prior to, and during, a March 1974 spring training game between the Los Angeles Dodgers (Agee’s club) and Montreal Expos. Agee was released by the Dodgers on March 26, 1974.

Thurman Munson was a 22-year catcher with the 1969-70 Senators prior to becoming the 1970 AL Rookie of the Year with the New York Yankees. (Munson earned three straight AL GG, 1973-to-1975; 1976 AL MVP honors; and back-to-back World Series titles in 1977 and 1978.) He hit .333, three homers, 34 RBIs with San Juan, finishing second to Félix Millán’s .345 BA for Caguas. Munson impressed teammates, opponents and scouts with this performance. Ellis “Cot” Deal, San Juan’s 1969-70 manager, opined Munson would make it with the Yankees and earn 1970 AL Rookie of the Year honors [which he did]. Deal felt that Munson’s development was helped by a tough league, and playing with teammates such as Roberto Clemente, José Cardenal, José “Palillo” Santiago, Miguel Cuellar, Lee May and 3B José “Coco” Laboy. Cot Deal respected Munson for his awards and honors with the New York Yankees throughout the 1970s.  

Chris Chambliss

Chris Chambliss was appreciative of Puerto Rico when we conversed prior to a 1992 minor league baseball game in Moosic, Pennsylvania. Chambliss was managing the Richmond Braves. He earned 1971 AL Rookie of the Year honors as Cleveland’s first baseman. Two years later, he joined the 1973-74 San Juan Senators, a club with other Cleveland prospects. “I knew Rusty Torres, Tom Hilgendorf and Charlie Spikes from Cleveland,” noted Chambliss. “I got married at the end of the 1973 [AL] season, so Puerto Rico was a honeymoon.”

Chambliss played exceptionally well for Jim “Junior” Gilliam, San Juan’s manager. He battled Santurce’s George Hendrick for the league batting title, where Hendrick hit .3632 (81-for-223) and Chambliss hit .3627 (74-for-204). San Juan (36-34) finished third of six teams, but lost its semi-final series to the Caguas Criollos, four games to two. Caguas went on to win the league title and February 1974 Caribbean Series in Hermosillo, Mexico, with Mike Schmidt, Jay Johnstone, Gary  Carter, Félix Millán, Jerry Morales, Guillermo Montañez, Otto Vélez, Eduardo Figueroa, Craig Swan, among others. Chambliss’s performance in Puerto Rico was one reason why the New York Yankees acquired him from Cleveland in an April 1974 multi-player trade. Chambliss’s walk-off, series-ending HR in Game five of the 1976 ALCS—versus the Kansas City Royals—gave the Yankees their first AL pennant in 12 years.

Eddie Murray was in Puerto Rico when the 1976 Fall Classic rolled around. Murray went from class AA Charlotte and AAA Rochester to Puerto Rico for the 1976-77 winter season, and performed so well for Caguas that Earl Weaver put Murray’s name in the line-up for 160 games at DH/1B in Baltimore’s 1977 season. José “Ronquito” García, scouted for Baltimore, and was Caguas’s GM. “The Orioles felt comfortable sending Dennis Martínez to Caguas [in 1976-77] and Eddie Murray…and later, Cal Ripken, to Caguas, because of my efforts,” said García. “When I scouted for Montreal, the Expos sent Steve Rogers, Gary Carter and others to Caguas.”

The 1976-77 Criollos had a .307 team BA, in posting a league-best 40-20 record. Paul Hartzell, Santurce’s best starter in 1976-77, recalled he shut out the Criollos early that season. “They had a big league line-up,” recalled Hartzell. “Murray was the youngest player [age 20] in that line-up…he carried us with the 1980 Orioles.”  Murray posted a .313/.421./.497 slash line, in 54 games, with 51 hits in 163 AB, six doubles, eight HR and 33 RBIs, the equivalent of 24 HR and 99 RBIs in 162 games. Murray scored 35 runs and had a 32-to-21 walk to strikeout ratio. His teammates included Sixto Lezcano, league batting champ with a .366 BA; José “Cheo” Cruz–.338 BA, 14 HR, 40 RBIs; DH José Morales (43 RBIs); double play combo of Félix Millán (.322 BA) and Julio C. González (.337 BA); Tony Scott (CF) league-best 25 SB; 3B Kurt Bevacqua…

Murray played three seasons with Caguas, including their 1978-79 championship campaign. His career regular season stats for Caguas included 102 games, 359 AB, 79 runs, 110 hits 16 doubles, 18 HR, 78 RBIs, 54 strikeouts, 60 walks, a .315/.411/.516 slash line, and .927 OPS. He was inducted in Cooperstown in 2003 after accumulating 3,283 hits, 504 HR, 1,917 RBIs and a .287/.359/.476 MLB slash line. Murray, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Alex Rodríguez and Rafael Palmeiro are the only five players in MLB history with 3,000+ hits and 500+ HR.

Cal Ripken Jr.

Cal Ripken Jr. was the next (1982) AL Rookie of the Year who plied his trade in Puerto Rico—with the 1980-81 and 1981-82 Caguas Criollos. Ripken did an interview with the author in spring training, March 1992, in St. Petersburg, Florida. He had completed a AA season with Charlotte when he first came to Puerto Rico in October 1980.

“We had a lot of big league players in Puerto Rico,” recalled Ripken. “Our Caguas team—God, [it] had at least six to seven good big league players [José Cruz, Ed Figueroa, Jerry Morales, Willie Montañez, Dennis Martínez, Héctor Cruz, Ozzie Virgil Jr.]. A lot of the pitching was AAA, so the level was between AAA and the big leagues. So coming out of AA, I had to compete at a higher level and learned quite a few things playing all those games.”

Caguas teammates from Puerto Rico and league officials called Cal by the name Carl Ripken. The word “cal” in Spanish is translated to chalk. Carl Ripken is the name listed in official league stats courtesy of Jorge Colón Delgado, Historian of the Roberto Clemente Professional League, the official league name adopted in 2012. When I interviewed Ripken in March 1992, little did I know he would be the recipient of the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award later that year.

Ripken played in 54 games, 1980-81 season, hitting .284 for Caguas, with six HR and 35 RBIs. He helped Caguas win the league title. After Caguas won the title, Ray Miller—their manager—had some kind words for team MVP Cal Ripken: “I’ve known Cal since he was 10 years old and I’m a good friend of his father. I held off from saying anything to Cal all season long. But tonight when we won, I went over to him and said, ‘You’re a heck of a ballplayer.’”

Ripken had a better season for Caguas in 1981-82, playing all 60 regular season games for the 37-23 Criollos. He was fourth in the league batting race (.314) with 66 hits in 210 AB, behind Dickie Thon’s .333 BA for Bayamón; Brett Butler’s .327 mark for Mayagüez; and teammate Héctor Cruz’s .324 BA. Ripken led the loop with 50 RBIs; was fourth in runs (42) and hits (66). His two-year totals in Puerto Rico were: 114 regular season games, 411 AB, 74 runs, 123 hits, 25 doubles, three triples, 16 HR, 88 RBIs, 66 strikeouts, 65 walks, two SF, three HBP and four SB. The slash line was .299/.397/.467 with a .864 OPS.

Ripken concluded our March 1992 interview by stating: “It [Puerto Rico] allowed me to get to the big leagues before I was 21, and part of my goal in baseball was to reach the big leagues early and be able to play a long, long time and I don’t think I’d be able to do it without Puerto Rico.” The 2007 Cooperstown inductee played in 2,632 consecutive MLB games for Baltimore, surpassing Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 straight games—the old standard which stood for 56 years from 1939-to-1995.

Santos (Sandy) Alomar Jr. won 1990 AL Rookie of the Year honors and GG catching for the 1990 Cleveland Indians. He was Puerto Rico Winter League’s 1989-90 All-Star catcher, playing for Ponce, a team managed by his father, Santos (Sandy) Alomar Sr. “That was a key winter for me,” stated Alomar Jr. “I had just been traded to Cleveland and had come into spring training with all my weapons in place. And thanks to my father’s support, I played well for [1989-90] Ponce and was ready to go.”

Alomar Jr. started for the 1984-85 Santurce Crabbers, at age 18. Frank Verdi, then-Santurce manager, stated: “Alomar had a good arm, catching ability, and was a big, hungry kid.” Alomar Jr. was behind the plate when San Juan’s Benito Santiago hit his walk-off homer in game six of the 1984-85 finals, a series won by arch-rival San Juan in seven games. Scout Luis Rosa signed Alomar Jr. for San Diego. One highlight of Alomar Jr.’s MLB career was his walk-off homer off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the 1997 post-season. Another was his seventh inning, game-winning HR in the 1997 MLB All-Star contest in Cleveland, won by the AL, 3-1. It came off Shawn Estes after Jim Thome’s groundout, a walk to Bernie Williams and a fly out by Joey Cora. ALL runs in that All-Star Game came on HR by Puerto Rico players: Edgar Martínez off Greg Maddux in the second; Javy López off José Rosado (from Puerto Rico), in the visitor’s seventh. Sandy Alomar Jr. made all Puerto Rico proud when he was named MVP of this All-Star game.

Carlos Beltrán (1999) and Carlos Correa (2015) impressed the voters in winning AL Rookie of the Year trophies. The switch-hitting Beltrán—a native of Manatí, Puerto Rico—benefited from being back-up CF to switch-hitting Bernie Williams for the 1995-96 Arecibo Wolves, who won the league post-season title after finishing second by one game. The 27-22 Wolves bested 28-21 Mayagüez in the best-of-nine finals, after defeating third-place Santurce in the semi-finals. Pat Kelly, Beltrán’s manager with Arecibo, knew this 18-year old outfielder had special qualities.

Beltrán performed superbly for the Caguas Criollos—managed by Sandy Alomar Sr.—in the February 1-6, 2001 Caribbean Series hosted by Culiacán, Mexico. He had nine hits in 22 AB for a .409 BA; a .773 SLG PCT; and voted as CF on the series All-Star squad. Caguas, however, finished last at 2-4, behind the 4-2 Aguilas Cibaeñas of the Dominican Republic; the 3-3 Naranjeros de Hermosillo (Mexico); and 3-3 Cardenales de Lara, representing Venezuela.

Beltrán’s 20-year MLB playing career (1998-to-2017) preceded his being selected to manage the 2020 New York Mets. He won three GG with the 2006-08 Mets; was a nine-time All-Star—

Houston Astros (2004), Mets (2005-07, 2009, 2011), St. Louis Cardinals (2012-13) and 2016 New York Yankees. He won a World Series ring with Houston in 2017; had a .279/.350/.486 MLB slash line. His 435 HR and 1,587 RBIs are impressive MLB career totals. Ditto for 312 SB to 49 caught stealing, an 86.4 percent success rate. His post-season slash line was .307/.412/.609, in 65 games. His 16 HR-42 RBIs in 215 post-season AB, equal 41 HR-105 RBIs in 550 AB. Beltrán also received the 2013 Roberto Clemente Award, one which he cherishes.

Carlos Correa now has five MLB seasons under his belt, including his 2015 rookie season with Houston featuring a .279/.345/.512 slash line, with 22 HR and 68 RBIs in 99 games. Correa was the #1 overall pick in the June 2012 MLB player draft. “I feel excited to be the No. 1 pick,” said Correa to members of the media. “I’ve worked so hard to be here.” This was Houston’s first top pick in 20 years; they chose Phil Nevin in June 1992, passing on Derek Jeter, the #6 overall pick.

Correa’s only Puerto Rico winter season was with the 2012-13 Carolina Giants, at age 18. He played in 23 games, with 10 hits in 49 AB, for a modest .204 BA. He stole one base; fanned 15 times; and drew two walks. Correa did play his home games in the Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium. (Roberto Clemente Walker was born and raised in Barrio San Antón, Carolina.) Correa was a teammate of Carlos Beltrán in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where Puerto Rico earned a Silver Medal. They were also teammates with the 2017 Houston Astros, World Series winners.

These ten outstanding baseball players, including three from Puerto Rico, owe a debt of gratitude to the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, currently a five-team league in the 2019-20 winter season. Special thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado, this league’s Historian, and to Sandy Alomar Jr., Vern Benson, Chris Chambliss, Cot Deal, Carl Ermer, Pat Kelly, Ray Miller, Cal Ripken Jr., and Frank Verdi for their time and insights during my research on this winter league.

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