Tetelo Vargas: among the greatest latino players of all time (part 1)

His full name was Juan Esteban “Tetelo” Vargas Marcano, affectionately called Tetelo. He was born on April 11, 1906, in Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Dominican Republic, to Isaías Vargas, a shoemaker, and Baudilla Marcano. Tetelo’s SABR bio by Joseph Gerard is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bd033c14. Readers should appreciate that his playing career spanned three decades, from 1923, at age 17, with the Escogido Lions—an amateur team —and concluded with the 1955-56 Estrellas Orientales, a pro team, in the first official Winter League season in the Dominican Republic, at age 49. In between, Tetelo played in Puerto Rico, the States, Cuba, Venezuela, his native island and Colombia. Perhaps the most thorough overview of his entire playing career is a 2014 article titled Forgotten Heroes: Juan “Tetelo” Vargas, via the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, by Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Muñoz. The best source for Tetelo’s Puerto Rico Semi-Pro League and professional Winter League records are found at https://beisbol101.com/juan-e-tetelo-vargas/, thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado.

Before we get immersed in Tetelo’s stats, it should be noted that Guayama, Puerto Rico, seemed to be his favorite municipality, not Santo Domingo, nor New York City. Guayama was where he lived when he played for the Guayama Stars, 1926-28; and the 1938-39 to 1941-42 Guayama Brujos (Witches), when Puerto Rico’s Semi-Pro League was first organized. And he lived in Guayama, post-playing career, and passed away there, at age 65, on December 30, 1971. Tetelo began his career as a middle infielder, and greatly admired Pedro Miguel Caratini, known as the “Father of Dominican Baseball.” Caratini first played in the Dominican Republic in 1916, on the visiting Ponce club. Per Dr. Rob Ruck, author of The Tropic of Baseball, Caratini returned to the Dominican Republic during the 1916-1924 U.S. Marine Corps invasion of this island. Caratini, an accountant and able administrator, was an employee of the occupation government who founded the first institute for accountants in the Dominican Republic. (He was honored by Dominican President Joaquín Balaguer, in 1975, for his pioneering accounting work.)

 Tetelo’s Early Years, Batboy (1921-22) and Player, 1923-1930

Tetelo was the batboy and team mascot for the 1921 Licey Tigers, whose player-manager was Caratini. Licey bested arch-rival Escogido, three games-to-two, helped by Caratini’s two HR in Game Two, in a 2-1, 10-inning win. Licey has always been known as the “Blue Team;” while Escogido is the “Red Team.” So, if Licey was the Tigers, then Escogido would be the Lions. After Tetelo joined his brothers, Guaguá and Juan, as an active player with Escogido in 1923, many Licey fans later compared this to the Boston Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Tetelo had a .309 AVG for the 1923 Lions. He befriended pitchers Pedro Alejandro San and Fellito Guerra with Escogido.

From 1923-27, Tetelo played in Puerto Rico for the Humacao Stars (1923-24), Ribosch de Cayey (1924), Arecibo Wolves (1925) and Guayama Stars (1926-28). Research done by Ponce natives Rafael Costas (Enciclopedia Béisbol Ponce Leones) and Raúl Ramos (Francisco Coímbre—Los Grandes Bates se Respetan) indicate the Lincoln Giants visited Puerto Rico in late October 1926 for a series against the Ponce team, featuring the veteran Caratini (playing RF), and a 17-year old phenom, Francisco “Pancho” Coímbre, who played LF and pitched. George Scales—who later became a teammate of Tetelo with the 1929-30 Havana Lions, aka Reds—played 2B for the Lincoln Giants. Friendships made by Tetelo with Coímbre, and Emilio “Millito” Navarro, were other reasons why Tetelo opted to reside in Puerto Rico, most of his adult life. The author’s research, including conversations with Rubén Gómez—an avid fan of the 1938-42 Guayama Brujos, age 11-to-14—and Víctor Pellot Power, Tetelo’s teammate with the Caguas Criollos, 1947-48 through 1954-55, affirmed that Tetelo enjoyed the way of life in Puerto Rico, including its “stability” as a U.S. territory, contrasted with the instability of the Dominican Republic.

Tetelo was age 21 when he debuted in the U.S. for Ramiro Ramírez’s 1927 Havana Red Sox, an independent team with 14 players. Batting lead-off and playing shortstop, he was Havana’s best hitter, with 16 hits in 37 AB (.432 AVG), with four doubles, one triple, two HR and six SB. He was called “Babe” Vargas, due to his terrific hitting. He joined Alex Pompez’s Cuban Stars in the East (Eastern Colored League), later that year. In 15 league games, he went 15-for-51, .294 AVG, with one HR. These Newark Cuban Stars had Martín Dihigo, Isidro Fabré, Bernardo Baró and Alejandro Oms. In 1928 and 1929, Tetelo returned to the Cuban Stars. He was 28-for-73 in 1929 league games, for a .384 AVG.

In 1928, Tetelo played 3B for Venezuela’s Santa Marta Tigers, and hit the first HR at the new San Agustín Stadium. He made this league’s All-Star Team; and played for San Marta against the Crisfield Crabbers, Class D, Eastern Shore League, a six-team circuit which disbanded on July 10, 1928. Somehow, he found time to play for the 1929 Escogido Lions, recording a published .405 AVG, 15 hits in 37 AB.

Tetelo’s 1929-30 winter season was with the Havana Lions (Reds) in the tough four-team league.

He had 59 hits in 187 AB, a .316 AVG, for his 20-30 club. Jud Wilson (.363 AVG) led the team with five HR; Scales, playing 3B, had a .290 AVG. LHP Adolfo Luque was one starter. But Cienfuegos (32-19) won the title, with a middle defense of Frank Duncan, catching; Pelayo Chacón (2B), Willie Wills (SS); and CF James “Cool Papa” Bell. Second-place Santa Clara (21-21) featured three top-of-the-line starters: Satchel Paige (6-5), Basilio Rosell (6-7) and Ramón Bragaña (5-3). Mule Suttles’s seven HR for Santa Clara led the league. Santa Clara’s Alejandro Oms (.380 AVG) won the batting title. Dihigo, with 23-26 Almendares (third-place), had an off-season: .283 AVG, 1-2 W-L mark.

In the summer of 1930, Tetelo barnstormed with the Statewide Havana Red Sox, owned by Syd Pollock. A strike-shortened October 25-30, 1930 Cuban Winter League season was followed by a special three-week season, November 1930. Tetelo was four-for-16 (.250 AVG) with one HR, in late October; seven-for-22 (.318 AVG) with one SB, in November 1930, both with Havana.

1931 Cuban House of David and Cuban Stars

Tetelo played SS for the Cuban House of David, formerly the Havana Red Sox; then, 2B for the Cuban Stars. His exploits for the House of David were legendary—seven consecutive HR in a tournament at Sioux City, Iowa, in late July: a then-world record of 13.25 seconds for circling the bases, also in Sioux City. Per John Holway, Tetelo had a .313 AVG with the Cuban House of David. His teammate, Lefty Tiant (Luis Tiant Sr.), also grabbed headlines with his pitching. Tetelo went 21-for-70, an even .300 AVG, for the 1931 Cuban Stars, which played 21 league games, fewer than the 60 played by the 44-16 Philadelphia Hilldale Daisies and 65 by the Homestead Grays (46-19), a club with Josh Gibson, Ted Page, Oscar Charleston, Jud Wilson, Scales, and a pitching trifecta of Lefty Williams, Joe Williams and Big Bill Foster. The Cuban Stars had several non-Cuban players, including Frank Duncan and Barney Brown, a future (1941-42) teammate of Tetelo with Guayama.

A Legend in Venezuela, 1931-1940, including 1932-34 Concordia Eagles

Tetelo is still adored by rabid Venezuelan baseball fans. He played SS for Santa Marta in 1931, including their exhibition series versus the York White Roses, Class B New York-Penn League. From 1932-to-1934, Colonel Gonzalo Gómez, the team owner, signed Tetelo to play for the Concordia Eagles, one of the most storied teams in Caribbean/Latin American baseball history. Martín Dihigo was “el caballete” (the guy) with 1932 Concordia, but they had Millito Navarro (2B), Tetelo (SS), “El Pollo” Malpica catching, Silvino Ruiz pitching, among other stars. When Luis Aparicio, Sr. “El Grande” joined Concordia in 1933, he played 3B (and some SS), with Tetelo moving to the OF. Concordia dominated the 1933 regular season (Campeonato de Baseball) and played some exhibition games against Stateside teams’ Camden and White Star.

There was a saying in Venezuela, circa 1931: “Tetelo corre igual que la pelota, pero ésta no corre tanto como él y entra a primera.” Translation: “Tetelo runs as fast as the ball, but it (ball) is not as fast as Tetelo going to first.”

Miguel Dupouy Gómez’s September 17, 2016 blog on the history of Concordia, through a lengthy conversation between Gonzalo Gómez and Venezuela’s first big-leaguer, pitcher Alejandro Patón Carrasquel, is at http://beisbolinmortal.blogspot.com/2016/09/gonzalo-gomez-cuenta-la-historia-del.html. Gonzalo Gómez recalled the moment when a fox ran on the field, and an alert Tetelo, from his OF position, chased after the fox and caught him by the tail! Gómez and Carrasquel met at the Hotel Tamanaco, the same one where members of the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers, including Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, stayed at, during the February 1955 Caribbean Series. Mention was made of Josh Gibson, who joined Concordia in 1934; Johnny Mize; catcher Julio Rojo (from Cuba), a fervent practitioner of voodoo; Marcelino “Moncho El Brujo” Blondet, another voodoo adherent (from Guayama, Puerto Rico); Manuel “Cocaína” García, legendary hurler from Cuba; Aparicio, Sr. and others.

Colonel Gómez was a graduate of St. John’s University in New York City and owned a stable of horses, including “Papagayo,” son of legendary Man o’ War, and “Figral” (one purchased in Puerto Rico). Gómez affirmed Concordia’s talent “elevated the play” of baseball in Venezuela. Moreover, he paid the salaries of some top players on other teams. In 1935, the Colonel allowed Tetelo to “jump to” the rival Royal Criollos, knowing that Tetelo’s enthusiasm and fine play would be missed. “Patón” Carrasquel weighed in on the time he won a $50 bet, when Tetelo, wearing his baseball uniform with cleats, narrowly defeated Puerto Rico’s top sprinter (Ortiz) in a 100-meter dash. Carrasquel, prior to his debut with the 1939 Washington Senators, knew that Tetelo was the fastest baseball player in Venezuela throughout the 1930s. Per Carrasquel, Tetelo was faster than Sam “The Jet” Jethroe, who played in a November 24-December 23, 1945 barnstorming series in Venezuela, and with the Sabios de Vargas professional team.

Tetelo Vargas with Concordia (courtesy of Germán J. Rivas)

Concordia won most of their games with Tetelo in the line-up, but lost a February 1934 twin-bill to Escogido, in Santo Domingo. Blanquito Espino won the opener, 2-0. José Lanauze drove in both runs, as Pedro Alejandro San took the loss. In the second game, Abejita Ruiz won it, 6-2, as Perucho Cepeda got two hits for Escogido, and Millito Navarro, batting clean-up, played LF. Tetelo hit third for Concordia and played CF, in front of LF Rap Dixon and RF Balbino

Inojosa. (By this time, Mize had departed Concordia, and was replaced by Rap Dixon and Josh Gibson.) Gibson went two-for-two in the second game, after pinch-hitting for Silvino Ruiz. Concordia finished with a 6-3 overall W-L record in “La Copa Trujillo.”

The 1934 Concordia team was undefeated (12-0), in Venezuela, easily dominating Santa Marta, Deportivo, Senadores and last-place Royal Criollos. Concordia (11-3) won their round-robin tournament in Puerto Rico with Ponce, Licey, Norfolk, Guayama and Lucky Strike. Dr. Revel and Muñoz found box scores for 16 games played by Tetelo, with 1934 Concordia. He went 20-for-63, a .317 AVG; scored 19 runs; and stole eight bases. Concordia’s published overall W-L record in 1934 was 29-6, .829 PCT.

Tetelo split the 1935 season between Concordia and the Royal Criollos. He helped the 8-4 Criollos win the National Series crown over the 7-5 Senadores, Deportivo Caracas (5-7) and Paraíso (4-8). With 1935 Concordia, he had 14 hits in 36 AB versus the San Juan Giants, in Puerto Rico. From 1936-38, he was with Gavilanes, eventually helping them win the 1938 “Estadio Zulia” championship with an 11-3 mark. In 1939, he led 14-8 Vargas to the Primera División (First Division) title, by one game over Valdés (13-9), followed by Venezuela (9-13) and Centauros (8-14). Tetelo joined Vargas after his 1938-39 season with the Guayama Witches.

The 1940 Vargas squad went 16-5, to win their second straight crown. Tetelo, in 20 games, batted .329 (28-for-85). Ray Dandridge had a .379 AVG and Leon Day was 13-2 with a 1.69 ERA, and a .323 AVG for Vargas. Josh Gibson (.380), runner-up to Perucho Cepeda (.383) in the 1939-40 Puerto Rico League, joined Centauros of Caracas. Juan Vené, veteran baseball writer and commentator from Venezuela, got first-hand looks at Gibson (and Tetelo), April 1940. Vené’s godfather was Miguel Antonio Rivas, owner of San Agustín Stadium in southern Caracas where Centauros played their home games. “I was 11 at the time and we would see Gibson and other American players (Billy Byrd, Dandridge, Day, etc.) at a hotel in Caracas,” said Vené. 

Back to the Negro Leagues (1935, 1938-39)

Tetelo played a handful of games for the 1935 and 1938 Cuban Stars. In 1939, he joined the New York Cubans, who played 27 Negro National League (East) contests, with a 5-22 record, last among six teams. The Washington Homestead Grays were 33-14; Newark Eagles, 29-20; Baltimore Elite Giants, 25-21; Philadelphia Stars, 31-32, and New York Black Yankees, 15-21. John Holway listed Tetelo with a .342 AVG for the 1939 Cubans; Revel and Muñoz published a .321 AVG; 17-for-53, with one HR.

1937 Dominican League Championship

Three teams competed in a special 1937 tournament to determine the champion of the Dominican Republic. Licey and Escogido merged to form the Ciudad Trujillo Dragons, the club bankrolled by Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the country’s President. The Aguilas Cibaeñas represented Santiago, in the interior. Tetelo played for the Estrellas Orientales, the “Green Team,” from San Pedro de Macoris, who were the 1936 Dominican champions. A best-of-seven finals would be played between the top two finishers in 1937. Dr. José Enrique Aybar, a Trujillo confidante, and dean of the University of Santo Domingo, was dispatched to New Orleans, to recruit Satchel Paige and other members of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, then in spring training.

Cool Papa Bell, from Starkville, Mississippi, told Rob Ruck—at Three Rivers Stadium, September 1988— “Trujillo! That man took Gus Greenlee’s ball club and put it in Santo Domingo. He just took them right off Gus. But he got himself a ball club. Nobody could touch us.” Bell would later find out that ballplayers in the Dominican Republic could be put in jail.

Satchel Paige kept $15,000 of the $30,000 in cash handed to him by Dr. Aybar. The 16-player roster of the Ciudad Trujillo Dragons also included Sam Bankhead, Cool Papa Bell, Perucho Cepeda, Rodolfo Fernández, Silvio García, Leroy Matlock, Cy Perkins, Lázaro Salazar and Harry Williams. Some of the Aguilas Cibaeñas  players were: Santos Amaro, Chet Brewer, Martín Dihigo, Bertrum Hunter, Horacio “Rabbit” Martínez, Clarence Palm and Luis Tiant Sr. Tetelo’s teammates (“Green Team”) included: Ramón Bragaña, Cocaína García, Alejandro Oms, Julio Rojo, Pedro Alejandro San and George Scales. Tetelo and Rabbit Martínez were the best Dominican players then; Tetelo, followed by Rabbit Martínez.

The 18-13 Dragones bested the 13-15 Aguilas Cibaeñas in the regular season, with the Estrellas Orientales eliminated, at 11-14. Ciudad Trujillo won the exciting best-of-seven match-up with the Aguilas, four games-to-three, when Paige saved the deciding contest, an 8-6 win. Earlier that season, one which began March 28, and ended July 11, 1937, Chet Brewer no-hit the Dragones. When Brewer stopped by the capital city hotel to visit with some of the Dragones, before the seventh and deciding game, their suite was empty. A kid, per John Holway, told Brewer: “They are in la carcel (the jail). Trujillo and his deputies locked up his baseball team, to keep them from partying and other distractions!

Tetelo had the third-highest AVG on Estrellas Orientales, .283, with 30 hits in 106 AB. He scored 22 runs—most on the club His six doubles tied him with teammate Radamés López, whose real name was Fulgencio Fajardo. (The 5’5” López, who played 3B, would be Tetelo’s teammate with the Guayama Brujos, 1938-1942.)

Part II will continue with Tetelo joining the 1938-39 Guayama Witches, champions of the 1938-39 Puerto Rico Semi-Pro League.

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