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

Tetelo was in his prime, at 32, when he joined the 1938-39 Guayama Brujos (Witches), in Puerto Rico’s Semi-Pro League, one designated as a professional one, 1941-42. The 1938-39 and 1939-40 Brujos won back-to-back league titles, thanks to the hitting of Tetelo and Perucho Cepeda, along with the pitching of Cefo Conde, Rafaelito Ortiz and Satchel Paige (not on the 1938-39 club, but outstanding in 1939-40). Tetelo was a Guayama “import” those four seasons (1938-42), even though his wife was from Puerto Rico and he resided on the island, when not playing baseball elsewhere. Teams were allowed three imports; Guayama’s imports, 1938-39, included OF Alejandro Oms from Cuba, pitcher Bertrum Hunter (for the post-season) and Tetelo.

Millito Navarro, mentioned in Part I, was Tetelo’s contemporary. Millito played 2B for the 1938-39 Ponce Kofresí (rum brand) Pirates, but played with and against Tetelo throughout Latin America, and marveled at Tetelo’s career. “Tetelo was reliable and produced in the clutch,” said Millito. “I saw him score from first on a single. Another time, he made it home from second on a long fly ball to right field (RF). He was one of my idols in baseball—very complete ballplayer.”

Guayama Witches (1938-42)

The 1938-39 season was divided into two halves. Guayama (16-3) outdistanced Ponce (14-6) and the Humacao Oriental Grays (11-9) in the first-half to clinch a final series slot. San Juan (12-8) tied Humacao for first in the second-half but won their two second-half games versus Humacao. Guayama (11-9, second-half) finished 27-12, .692 PCT overall. Tetelo led the league with 59 runs scored and nine triples. He went 68-for-164, for a .415 AVG, second to teammate Perucho Cepeda’s .465 AVG, but outslugged Perucho, .677 to .594. Tetelo had 13 doubles, four HR and 14 SB. Tetelo (CF), Perucho (SS), Radamés López (3B) and RF Oms were part of Guayama’s line-up. Rafaelito Ortiz (11-3) and Cefo Conde (7-4) were solid starters. The addition of Bertrum Hunter (7-6 with Ponce) was crucial in the finals, won by Guayama, three games-to-two, over San Juan, whose imports were Raymond Brown (7-0—regular season, 1-2—finals), Jimmie Crutchfield and Clarence “Spoony” Palm. Hunter pitched for the 1937 Aguilas Cibaeñas in the Dominican Republic, against Tetelo’s Estrellas Orientales, and the Ciudad Trujillo Dragons. He was not intimidated by Raymond Brown (23-for-57, .404 AVG, regular season), nor Palm (.325 AVG), or Crutchfield, San Juan’s first CF, compared to Tetelo by Puerto Rico’s fans.

The author interviewed Crutchfield in New York City (1991). “If you were nice to the nice people, the sun would shine in your face all the time,” said Crutchfield. “It was a fun time. Tetelo, Perucho and [Francisco] Coímbre were fine people and great players. Ray Brown and I were teammates with the Indianapolis ABCs, so I knew him well by the time we played with San Juan. He was a winner.”

Guayama’s batboy in 1938-39 and 1939-40 was Desiderio de León, who later pitched in Puerto Rico’s Winter League. Desiderio was 94 when he conversed with Raúl Ramos in 2018, via Con Las Bases Llenas. Desiderio’s dad (a foreman in the sugar cane industry) spoke with Tofito Iraola, Guayama co-owner and 2B, about letting his teenage son be the team’s batboy. https://conlasbasesllenas.com/desiderio-de-leon-80-anos-de-experiencia-en-el-beisbol-puertorriqueno-2/. Desiderio noted Guayama won the 1939 Semi-Pro World Series.

Puerto Rico’s Semi-Pro League was under the auspices of the National Baseball Congress (NBC), headed by Raymond J. Dumont. In September 1939, the Duncan Cementers, from western Oklahoma, and winners of the 1939 NBC Tournament, traveled to San Juan, to face Guayama, reinforced by players from Ponce and other teams, e.g., Pancho Coímbre, Millito, Griffin Tirado, Sammy Céspedes and Juan Guilbe. A reinforced Guayama squad bested the Cementers, four games-to-three, at Sixto Escobar Stadium, Puerta de Tierra sector of San Juan.

Tetelo’s SABR bio by Joseph Gerard is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bd033c14. 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.

Guayama’s fans were excited going into 1939-40. Satchel Paige made his debut, October 29, 1939, four weeks into the season. His first start was rained out versus Mayagüez after one inning. Paige warmed up by hurling the ball over a matchbox placed in front of his catcher. Cefo Conde, who spoke English well, enjoyed hanging out with Paige during the week. (Games were usually Sunday twin-bills or Saturday make-up contests.) “One day, I asked Satchel to show me how he worked on his pitches and control,” said Conde. “We went up to the roof of a Guayama building. Satchel made a circular gadget shaped like an arc and put it in front of an imaginary home plate. Then he had me place five sponges in my glove before he began throwing hard. After a few of these practices, I was pitching better. I caught Satchel against Aguadilla when William Perkins was unable to play and used the five sponges. Those sponges came in handy.”

Paige (19-3, 1.93 ERA), Conde (12-8, 2.54) and Rafaelito Ortiz (6-4, 2.53) pitched most of the innings for the 39-17 Witches, winners of the second-half (22-6) after posting a 17-11 mark, the first-half, one game behind 18-10 San Juan. Paige fanned 208 (single-season record) in 205 innings; Conde, 75 in 181 frames; and Ortiz, 38 in 103 innings. It was a strong Semi-Pro League, with Leon Day’s 186 strikeouts for Aguadilla; Billy Byrd, 158 for Santurce; Roy Partlow, 139 for San Juan; and José A. Figueroa’s 137 strikeouts for Mayagüez. Byrd (15), Figueroa (14) and Day were 2-3-4 in wins. Ponce’s Cocaína García had the best ERA: 1.32; then, Partlow’s 1.49.

Bill Perkins and Satchel Paige

William Perkins, Mr. “Thou Shall Not Steal,” reinforced Guayama, too. He was Paige’s favorite catcher in the Negro Leagues and anywhere else. Perkins was highly regarded in the Caribbean, having caught Raymond Brown, with Santa Clara, in Cuba, including Brown’s 21-4 season, in 1936-37. Oms returned to Guayama in 1939-40. Ditto for Perucho Cepeda and Tetelo.

Tetelo’s .363 AVG was fourth-best behind Perucho’s .383-mark, Josh Gibson’s .380 AVG for Santurce and Partlow’s .366 AVG with San Juan. Among Tetelo’s 78 hits were 17 doubles; six triples, plus four HR, for a .553 SLG. He scored 69 times to (again) lead the League. His 33 SB also led the League; it tied Dick Seay’s 1938-39 standard of 33 SB. Only Rickey Henderson—44 SB, 1980-81, with Ponce; Carlos Bernier’s 41 SB for Mayagüez, 1949-50; and Ron LeFlore’s 34 SB for Mayagüez, 1977-78, had more single-season SB in Puerto Rico than Tetelo (or Seay). Guayama swept San Juan, in four final series contests, to win their second straight crown. Paige won two of those four games, April 1940. Desiderio de León recalled that Paige, Perucho Cepeda and Tetelo were carried off the field on the shoulders of Guayama’s fans. Guayama, circa September 1940, played in their Second World Series; this time against Enid (Oklahoma) Refiners, aka Champlin Refiners, named after Herbert Hiram Champlin, owner, Champlin Refining Company. It once was the nation’s largest fully integrated oil company under private ownership, per this link: https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CH001.

Tetelo drilled 16 hits in 24 AB against the Refiners—at Sixto Escobar Stadium—but Enid (or Champlin) won this series, four games-to-three. Tetelo’s .667 AVG was the “talk of the town.”

In 1940-41, Tetelo scored 44 runs for the 24-18 Witches (18-10 W-L, first-half; 6-8, second-half), third-best, behind Buster Clarkson’s 49, and Buck Leonard’s 45 (both with Mayagüez). Tetelo outscored teammate Perucho Cepeda (41 runs) and Ponce’s Pancho Coímbre (40 runs). And Tetelo’s 21 SB topped all others. His .331 AVG was above-average, but well shy of five .400 + hitters that season: Partlow, .441 for San Juan; Ted Young, .426 for Guayama; Perucho’s .421 for Guayama; Palm’s .409 with Santurce; and Coímbre’s .401 for Ponce. The Caguas Criollos, helped by a Roy Campanella grand slam in Game Six of the finals, bested the Santurce Crabbers, four games-to-three, to win the 1940-41 Semi-Pro League crown.

Puerto Rico was a Pro Winter League, starting in 1941-42. Tetelo’s .346 AVG and .472 SLG helped Guayama post a 29-15 record. But the Brujos narrowly lost both halves to 30-13 Ponce, ably managed by George Scales, one of Tetelo’s closest friends from the Negro Leagues, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Santurce’s Josh Gibson (.480 AVG) won the batting crown, followed by Willard Brown’s .409 AVG for Humacao-Arecibo, Perucho’s .377 AVG with Guayama; Coímbre’s .372 AVG for Ponce; and Céspedes’s .364 AVG with Caguas. Quincy Trouppe, Guayama’s catcher, had a league-leading 57 RBIs, to top Gibson’s 43. Trouppe and Tetelo were 3-4 in runs scored: 42-41; Coímbre had 46 and Howard Easterling, 43, with Ponce. RHP Raymond Brown (12-4, 1.82 ERA) and Juan Guilbe (11-2) were Ponce’s one-two starters.

LHP Barney “Brinquitos” Brown (16-6 for Guayama) was the 1941-42 League MVP. Rubén Gómez, age 14 at the time and a Freshman at Guayama’s George Washington High School, closely followed the Guayama Witches, particularly the screwball-throwing Brown. “I was fascinated by Barney Brown retiring all those strong right-handed batters [Josh Gibson, San Juan’s Monte Irvin, Willard Brown, Coímbre…] with his screwball,” stated Gómez. “Later, in my [1947-48] rookie season with Santurce, I hit against Barney—when he pitched for Ponce—and saw what a screwball could do. Barney, and Trouppe catching him, were something else. Tetelo’s CF play and base-running inspired me to become an all-around player at the University of Puerto Rico and with Santurce, where I sometimes played the OF, pinch-ran and pinch-hit.”

Havana Lions (1942-43)

Tetelo played once more in Cuba after the Puerto Rico Winter League cut the teams from eight-to-four, with Guayama eliminated. (Some ex-Guayama players played for Caguas, now called Caguas-Guayama.) Tetelo’s 1942-43 winter season was with the Havana Lions (Reds) in the tough three-team league, normally a four-team circuit. His .257 AVG (49 hits/191 AB) was respectable for a league featuring strong pitching: Tomás de la Cruz, Agapito Mayor and Ramón Bragaña with Almendares; Cocaína García, Martín Dihigo and Gilberto Torres with Habana; and Adrián Zabala, Cienfuegos’ ace. Dihigo, when not pitching, patrolled the OF with Tetelo. Alberto Hernández was Havana’s other primary OF. The Almendares OF was also top-notch with Roberto Ortiz, Santos Amaro and Jacinto Roque. Almendares (28-20), Havana (24-24) and Cienfuegos (20-28) were one-two-three.

Back to the New York Cubans (1941-44)

Tetelo with the Havana Lions

In 1941, Tetelo rejoined the New York Cubans, who played 40 Negro National League (East) contests, with a 19-21 record, fourth among six teams. The Baltimore Elite Giants (36-21) and Washington Homestead Grays (34-25) were the top two clubs. Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Muñoz published a .290 AVG for Tetelo, 38-for-131 with one HR. John Holway published a .313 AVG for Tetelo and a .353 AVG for Coímbre, Tetelo’s teammate with the 1941. Dave “Impo” Barnhill (13-8) was the Cubans’ best pitcher.

Tetelo, the Cubans’ best hitter in 1942, started in CF for the East All-Star Team, at Comiskey Park, August 16, 1942, paid attendance: 44,897. Their starting line-up was: Dan Wilson (LF), Sam Bankhead (2B), Willie Wells (SS), Josh Gibson (catcher), Bill Wright (RF), Jim West (1B), Andy Patterson (3B), Tetelo (CF) and Jonas Gaines (pitcher). Their six subs were: Vic Harris, Lenny Pearson, Herberto Blanco, Impo Barnhill, Barney Brown and Leon Day (the winner, in relief). For the West, Cool Papa Bell (CF), followed by Parnell Woods (3B), Ted Strong (RF), Willard Brown (LF), Joe Greene (catcher), Buck O’Neil (1B), Tommy Sampson (2B), T.J. Brown (SS) and Hilton Smith (pitcher). Subs included Sam Jethroe and Satchel Paige (the loser, in relief), among others. The East won it, 5-2. A second All-Star Game was played two days later at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, but only 10,791 aficionados watched the East prevail, 9-2. Keep in mind that Tetelo was 36 at the time, but a well-conditioned athlete. He went two-for-five with two RBIs and one SB, in these two All-Star Games. Holway had Tetelo with a .310 league AVG in 1942, with Heberto Blanco second on the New York Cubans, .284 AVG.

The 1943 New York Cubans (23-16 league record) featured Tetelo’s .484 AVG and Coímbre’s .440 AVG (per Holway). Revel and Muñoz listed a .453 AVG for Tetelo. Blue Pérez was a fine 2B, and Showboat Thomas, a valuable 1B, for the Cubans. Charlie Rivero (SS) and Roosevelt Cox (3B) rounded out the infield. LF Ameal Brooks was solid. Holway’s list of Top Five AVG for 1943, East Negro National League, were: Tetelo (.484), Sammy Bankhead (.483), Josh Gibson (.449), Coímbre (.440) and Howard Easterling (.399). The seamheads.com Negro Leagues database reflects a .463 AVG for Tetelo in 1943—with 57 hits/123 AB, 31 league games, at: http://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/player.php?playerID=varga01tet. (Tetelo also went 0-for-two in the 1943 East-West All-Star Game.)

Tetelo’s final season with the New York Cubans (16-14 league record) was in 1944. He “slumped” to a .259 AVG, but continued his fine all-around play. Tetelo was flanked in the OF by Coímbre (.357 AVG) and Claro Duany (.300 AVG).  Impo Barnhill and Luis Tiant Sr. were two pitchers. Rabbit Martínez (SS) and Blue Pérez (2B) worked well together. Table I compares Tetelo’s Negro Leagues career stats with Coimbre’s data, using “apples-to-apples” comparisons via seamheads, whose database is preferable for this purpose. Coímbre’s stats are at http://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/player.php?playerID=coimb01pan. A separate comparison is mentioned via Revel and Muñoz’s stats for Tetelo; and Raúl Ramos, for Coímbre.

Table I: Tetelo Vargas and Pancho Coímbre’s Negro Leagues Hitting Stats (basic information)

PlayerGABRH2B3BHRRBIsAVG
Tetelo^1465601131902910486.3392857
Coímbre#133513841742766100.3391813

^ Revel and Muñoz published 162 G, 678 AB, 130 R, 228 H, 37 doubles, 10 triples, six HR, 82 RBIs; and, a .336 AVG.

# Ramos published 134 G, 517 AB, 85 R, 175 H, 27 doubles, six triples, six HR, 100 RBIs; and a .338 AVG.

Table II: Tetelo Vargas and Pancho Coímbre’s Negro Leagues Hitting Stats (other information)

PlayerSBBBHBP/SHOBP SLGOPSOPS+wOBA#LG wOBA
Tetelo10563 and 7.402.448.850135.394.333
Coímbre7491 and 4.398.450.848135.388.335

# wOBA is weighted on-base AVG. The final column is the league’s weighted on-base AVG.

1943-44 Santurce Crabbers and 1944-45 Mayagüez Superbas

Tetelo and Coímbre continued a “friendly hitting rivalry in Puerto Rico, 1943-44. Tetelo’s 55 hits in 141 AB produced a league-leading .410 AVG. Coímbre’s 59 hits/157 AB, was .376. Both scored 41 runs; Tetelo with Santurce; Coímbre for Ponce, winners of their third-straight title. These Ponce Lions were 37-7, .840 PCT, and winners of both halves. Santurce (22-22), Mayagüez (18-26) and San Juan (11-33) were no match for Ponce, managed by George Scales. Rafaelito Ortiz was an unbelievable 15-0 for Ponce!

Ponce continued their domination in 1944-45, going 28-11 (18-10, first-half; 10-1, second-half), to easily win their fourth-straight title. San Juan (22-20), Santurce (19-22) and Mayagüez (11-27) could only daydream about a pennant. Tetelo’s .358 AVG, with his new Mayagüez team, was fourth-best. Coímbre (.425 AVG) won his second league batting title. Marvin Williams, his Ponce teammate, had a .378 AVG. Luis A. “Canena” Márquez, co-Rookie of the Year (ROY), hit .361 for Mayagüez. Santurce’s Alfonso Gerard, also co-ROY, was fifth (.348). Félix “Fellé” Delgado, a San Juan OF and future scout for the Kansas City A’s and Milwaukee Brewers, held Tetelo in high regard. “Tetelo was so genuine and down-to-earth,” said Fellé. “He had a special humility about him…but no one could outrun the ‘Dominican Deer’ (gamo dominicano).”

The corporate sponsor for Mayagüez, in 1944-45, was Ron Superior (Superior Rum Company). Mayagüez was emblazoned on the front of the team uniforms; Superior Puerto Rico, on the back, per Jorge Colón Delgado’s 2019 book on this storied franchise. Perucho Cepeda, at 38, played for the 1944-45 Mayagüez Superbas. (He was the only native player with a .400 plus AVG at two different positions—SS and 1B.) Tetelo, the club’s leadoff hitter at 38, played as an import this season, after being granted native status the prior (1943-44) season. Tetelo’s spouse was from Puerto Rico, but the league denied Mayagüez’s petition for his native status. The Superbas other two imports were SS Tommy Butts and pitcher John Markham, a veteran of the Negro Leagues, with the Kansas City Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons, among other clubs.

Part III begins with Tetelo rejoining the 1945-46 Santurce Crabbers. With special thanks and appreciation to Jorge Colón Delgado, Ceferino Conde y Farías, Jimmie Crutchfield, Félix “Fellé” Delgado, Rubén Gómez, Emilio “Millito” Navarro and Raúl Ramos.  

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