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

When World War II ended in 1945, Tetelo was 39, with “many miles traveled” from his native Santo Domingo, to Puerto Rico, New York, towns throughout the U.S., and Havana, Cuba. As a 19-year old—thanks to research done by Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Muñoz—Tetelo and fellow Dominican ballplayer Enrique Lantigua, played for 1925 Atlas, in Colombia. A decade later, Tetelo played for the Concordia Eagles and Royal Criollos, in Venezuela. Tetelo was approaching age 40 when he, Perucho Cepeda, Rafaelito Ortiz and Josh Gibson joined Santurce.

Santurce Crabbers (1945-46)

On paper, the 1945-46 Crabbers, under player-manager Dick Seay, looked OK, with Tetelo in CF, Perucho at 2B-OF, the legendary Gibson behind the plate. Gibson did not hit his weight and had zero HR. One day, per the author’s conversation with Freddie Thon Jr., Freddie’s aunt saw Gibson go berserk in the Rio Piedras section of San Juan. “Gibson ran in front of the tuberculosis center near the ‘Oso Blanco’ penitentiary,” said Freddie Thon Jr. “It took seven or eight men to hold him down…this was very sad.” By the end of the first-half (Primera Vuelta), Santurce was dead-last at 8-20, behind arch-rival San Juan (18-10), Ponce (15-12) and Mayagüez (14-13). The Crabbers were 5-7 in the second-half, just ahead of 5-8 San Juan, and percentage points below 6-8 Ponce, but Mayagüez (10-3) earned the right to face San Juan in the league finals.

Santurce’s pitching, beyond Luis Raúl Cabrera (6-6 W-L, 3.49 ERA), was suspect. Rafaelito Ortiz’s acquisition [he was “El Mago de las Magas” due to the barrio he was from], was not enough to stem the tide. Ortiz—Tetelo’s teammate with the 1938-39 and 1939-40 Guayama teams—was with Mayagüez early in 1945-46, but unhappy there. He had his worst season ever (1-7, 3.47 ERA, overall). Tetelo led the league with 40 runs scored for 13-27 Santurce. He went 53-for-155, a .342 AVG, third to Ponce’s Fernando Díaz Pedroso (.3684) and San Juan’s Monte Irvin (.3677). Pancho Coímbre was fourth (.333); then, Santurce’s Alfonso Gerard (.331). San Juan’s Luis Rodríguez Olmo (32 RBIs) and Irvin (31 RBIs) were one-two. Irvin (24 walks) edged Tetelo (22 walks) in this category. Ponce’s Sammy Bankhead had the most SB (12). Tetelo stole two, but Santurce played from behind in most games, with the league’s worst offense-defense. Perucho Cepeda slumped to a .265 AVG, 0 HR, 18 RBIs. Here are 1945-46 hitting comparisons for Tetelo (age 39), Irvin (age 26), Coímbre (age 36) and Perucho (age 39).

 Table I: 1945-46 Hitting Stats in Puerto Rico for Tetelo, Irvin, Coímbre and Perucho

PlayerABRH2B3BHRRBIsAVGOBPSLGOPS
Tetelo155405334115.342.424.432.856
Irvin 1553457124331.3677.453.5551.008
Coímbre1142838122228.333.437.526.963
Perucho155124161018.265.278.316.594

Tetelo, at 5’10 and 160 pounds, was in excellent physical condition, as he approached his 40th birthday. Irvin was destined for Cooperstown, Class of 1973 (with Roberto Clemente). Coímbre was considered by many, including Clemente himself, of being a “better hitter than Roberto.” Perucho did not age well, with health and other issues, but was the best shortstop in the Caribbean throughout the 1930s, and a “Calvin Ripken-type player” in terms of size and talent. We will see—in Part IV—that Tetelo’s numbers, in Puerto Rico, began to decline in 1950.

Orlando Cepeda, Perucho’s son, was his dad’s biggest booster. Orlando also recalled seeing Tetelo play for Santurce. “I went to Escobar to see dad’s first game with Santurce…it was against Mayagüez and went into extra innings…’El Tigre’ [Cabrera] pitched very well that day and Tetelo always gave 100 percent on the field,” said Orlando. “My formative years were spent in the Tras Talleres section of Santurce…Cerra and Hoare streets which had many Santurce fans…the San Juan fans lived in Puerta de Tierra and Old San Juan.” Coincidentally, Santurce won five of 14 games versus San Juan, in 1945-46, during their “City Championship” Series.

Freddie Thon Jr. affirmed that Irvin “was the real inspiration on the 1945-46 San Juan club,” adding, “he hit a pinch-hit double with a fractured wrist…nothing can top that.” Thon Jr. was San Juan’s batboy, and traveled with the team to Ponce and Mayagüez. His dad (Freddie Thon Sr.) manned the OF with Irvin and Fellé Delgado. “Two of our funniest players were Fellé Delgado and pitcher Francisco Sostre,” said Thon Jr. “They were always joking and telling funny things.” San Juan bested Mayagüez, four games-to-two, in the league finals.

Tetelo’s first seven seasons in Puerto Rico, 1938-39 through 1945-46, discounting 1942-43 in Cuba, compare favorably with the first eight seasons of Coímbre and Perucho, per Table II. The seven Tetelo seasons included four with Guayama; two with Santurce; and, one with Mayagüez. Tetelo would have a remarkable seven-year wins above replacement (WAR), through 1945-46.

Table II: Puerto Rico 1938-46 Hitting Stats for Tetelo, Coímbre and Perucho

PlayerABRH2B3BHRRBIsSBAVGSLG
Tetelo#1,1333134144731118181.365.491
Coímbre1,20625442297121719628.350.493
Perucho1,30321644857301226018.344.461

# Tetelo’s doubles and triples not available for 1943-44 and 1944-45, nor his

1938-39 RBIs. Coímbre’s RBIs not available, 1938-39. SB are incomplete for all three.

Caguas Criollos (1946-47)

Tetelo transitioned to the Caguas Criollos, for 1946-47, and beyond. The league expanded from four-to-six teams in 1946-47, adding Caguas and the Aguadilla Sharks, with a 60-game schedule. The 1946-47 Criollos featured a starting duo of Dan Bankhead (12-8) and Rafaelito Ortiz (12-6). Buster Clarkson (.320 AVG, 13 HR, 48 RBIs) was a shortstop with power and speed. Clarkson tied San Juan’s Larry Doby for the second-most HR, behind Canena Márquez’s 14 for Aguadilla. Monte Irvin returned with San Juan, posting a .387 AVG, .003 behind Willard Brown’s .390 AVG for Santurce. Tetelo had the league’s third-best (.382) AVG, 96-for-251, plus seven HR and 37 RBIs. Robert Harvey (.367) and Canena (.364) were four-five in AVG, for Aguadilla.  In runs scored, it was Canena (69), Tetelo (60), Clarkson (52), Aguadilla’s Juan Sánchez (49) and Ponce’s Howard Easterling (48). Canena’s 27 doubles topped the league, as did Tetelo’s eight triples. Willard Brown (99), Tetelo (96) and Canena (91) were one-two-three in hits.

Caguas (21-9) edged 20-10 Ponce for first-half honors. Ponce responded with an 18-12 second-half to earn a final series berth versus the Criollos. All contests were day games, primarily on Saturdays and Sundays. Jorge Colón Delgado, in his 2019 book on the Mayagüez Indios, relates that Caguas visited Mayagüez, for a February 1-2, 1947 weekend series—single-game, Saturday, and a Sunday twin-bill. Mayagüez Mayor Manuel A. Barreto donated a trophy to the winning team, due to his city’s Fiestas de la Candelaria (Candelaria Patron Saint Festivities). See  https://lacallerevista.com/portada/mayaguez-celebra-sus-tradicionales-fiestas-patronales-en-honor-a-la-virgen-de-la-candelaria/29570, an annual event in various Puerto Rico municipalities and other localities in the Caribbean and South America. After Caguas won two of three weekend games, a Caguas official accepted a trophy at Mayagüez radio station WECW. More significantly, a group of Mayagüez fans chipped in for a separate trophy given to Tetelo, for connecting 11 hits in 15 AB, that February 1-2, 1947 weekend. This showed a lot of class.

Prior to the March 2-16, 1947 Caguas-Ponce finals, a series of exhibition games were played between Puerto Rico teams and the 1947 New York Yankees, who arrived in San Juan, on February 15. More details are at https://sabr.org/research/1947-yankees-spring-training-florida

In July 1946, Yankees president Larry MacPhail, father of Lee MacPhail, announced his team would start begin spring training in San Juan. Thirty-three players, including rookies Yogi Berra and Bobby Brown traveled to Puerto Rico. This was the Yankees second visit to Latin America or the Caribbean; in 1946, they spent a few days in Panamá. Don Q distilleries, based in Ponce, sponsored this trip. All five Bronx Bombers games were played at Sixto Escobar Stadium, February 22-26. The February 27, 1947 contest versus Santurce was rained out.

On February 22, the Yankees trounced the San Juan Senators, 16-3, per Walter LeConte and Bill Nowlin. The Sunday, February 23 game against Caguas had a 10:30 a.m. start. New York won it, 6-4. Caguas was a team which the New York Times said was composed entirely of “Negro stars.” Ponce defeated the Yankees on February 25, by a 12-8 score, behind the pitching of coach Raymond Brown and rookie hurler José “Pantalones” Santiago, who saved it. “That was a special game and a special year,” said Pantalones. The Yanks lost the next day, the 25th, this time in twelve innings to a team of Island All-Stars, including Tetelo, 7–6. In the Yankees final game at Escobar, they rallied for four runs in the ninth, to take an 8-6 win. Tetelo showed his mettle with seven hits in 14 AB, a .500 AVG, in his three games versus the 1947 Yankees.

La Serie de los Lechones (Roasted Pigs Series)

Tetelo and his Caguas teammates, including Perucho, Sammy Céspedes and Radamés López, looked forward to their match-up with Ponce. William Perkins, Caguas’s catcher, and Jorge “Griffin” Tirado, Ponce’s backstop, were excellent receivers. Ponce’s four regular season starters were Pantalones Santiago (8-2, 3.09 ERA), Tomás “Planchardón” Quiñones (9-4, 2.43), Juan Guilbe (8-4, 2.58) and Johnny Wright (8-5, 1.50). But Wright was not available for the finals, having left the island. (The four Ponce starters won the equivalent of 20+ games each, over a 162-game season.) Fernando Díaz Pedroso (.348 AVG, 12 HR, 35 RBIs) hit the game-winning HR for Ponce against the Yankees Joe Page. Howard Easterling, Ponce’s switch-hitting 3B (.343 AVG, 9, 30) was a replacement for Jackie Robinson, supposed to play for Ponce, but Brooklyn vetoed this, once Robinson was in their 1947 plans.

Caguas won the first two games at Ponce’s Charles H. Terry Park, by 7-2 and 11-5 scores, Sunday, March 2. Dan Bankhead took the opener, over Juan Guilbe; Rafaelito Ortiz won the second contest; Pantalones was the loser. Game Three was at Caguas, March 8, 1947. Per Raúl Ramos, 5,355 fans saw the Criollos take it, 5-2. Perucho drove in Perkins and Céspedes with key runs and Clarkson blasted a two-run HR, to give Bankhead his second win, and Pantalones, his second series loss. “I was disappointed in my pitching versus Caguas,” Pantalones told the author. “But Planchardón and Juan Guilbe won two games apiece…”

A number of “lechoneras” (pig roasting businesses) in the Caguas area started to “get busy” Saturday night, March 8, 1947, anticipating a Criollos Game Four or Game Five win, Sunday, March 9. But it was not to be. Guilbe pitched the “game of his life” in blanking Caguas, 2-0, in 10 innings. Rafaelito Ortiz matched Guilbe throughout the contest until the tenth frame. Tetelo got two of Caguas’s six hits off Guilbe. A disappointed Ortiz had predicted a Criollos victory. Then, Planchardón Quiñones bested Bin Torres, 5-2, in Game Five. Two costly (and unusual) errors by Perkins helped the Ponce cause. The roasted pigs had to wait another week…

And Ponce took Games Six-Seven in Ponce, Sunday, March 16, by 8-2 and 11-2 scores, to win this series, four games-to-three! Tetelo and Clarkson scored for Caguas, in the first game of a doubleheader (Game Six), to give the Criollos a 2-1 lead, heading into the home sixth. But Ponce rallied, as Guilbe (2-1) won over Bankhead (2-1). Then, Planchardón went the route in the afternoon contest (Game Seven). Juan Guilbe earned the $200 Series MVP cash prize. George Scales had led the Ponce Lions to five league championships: 1942-45 seasons, plus 1946-47.

 1947-48 Caguas Criollos, League Champions

Tetelo was 41 when he began his second season with Caguas, his ninth in Puerto Rico. Fans loved his hustle and humility. Quincy Trouppe, Caguas’s player-manager, told the author: “I could communicate with the ballplayers. I could speak Spanish, talk to them, ‘cause other than that, if I couldn’t speak the language, it would have been difficult…[I] learned Spanish by playing in Mexico.” Trouppe juggled his Caguas line-up to get the most out of his players. Perucho Cepeda and rookie Víctor Pellot Power took turns at first. Various players covered LF and RF. The middle was left alone, with Piper Davis at 2B and SS Sammy Bankhead. Radamés López played 3B, and Tetelo still covered a lot of real estate in CF. Trouppe’s best pitchers were Chet Brewer and Rafaelio Ortiz. Rookie LHP Roberto Vargas was a valuable addition.

Three contenders were Mayagüez (39-21), Caguas (33-26) and San Juan (33-27). San Juan (26-34), Aguadilla (24-35) and Ponce (24-36) were three pretenders. Mayagüez and Santurce were tied at 20-10 in the first-half, but Mayagüez got the nod by defeating the Crabbers, four out of six games. Historian Jorge Colón Delgado wrote that a tie-breaker would have made more sense, but “that’s how things were in our baseball back then.” Caguas qualified for the finals with an 19-11 record in the second-half. They were one out from elimination, when they rallied for seven runs in the top of the ninth to defeat Santurce, 7-2, in the season’s final game. Luis Raúl Cabrera lost his SHO and the game. League officials determined that a final series would take place, due to Caguas (19-11) and Mayagüez (19-11) being tied for first-place, when the second-half ended.

Tetelo finished fifth in the batting chase with a .362 AVG. Santurce’s Willard Brown won the Triple Crown: .432 AVG, 27 HR, 86 RBIs. Bob Thurman, also with Santurce, had a .411 AVG, followed by Mayagüez’s Artie Wilson (.405 AVG) and San Juan’s Vicente Villafañe’s .364. Tetelo tied Thurman with 19 doubles, good for fourth, behind Aguadilla’s Ken Sears (21), Willard Brown (20) and Trouppe (20).  Rafaelito Ortiz (7-5, 2.97 ERA) was second in ERA; Chet Brewer (5-2, 3.42 ERA) ranked fifth in ERA.

Per Jorge Colón Delgado, the Criollos rested at a farm in Caguas’s San Salvador barrio, prior to traveling to Mayagüez’s Liga Paris for a February 22, 1948, morning-afternoon twin-bill. The Criollos’s Game One line-up, with their AVG, was: Francisco Angleró-LF (.236), Sam Bankhead-SS (.316), Tetelo-CF (.362), Piper Davis-2B (.328), Trouppe-C (.307), Radamés López-3B (.298), Bienvenido Rodríguez-RF (.278), Ortiz-P (.268) and Vic Power-1B (.228). Conversely the “Gentlemen of Terror” (Mayagüez) had: Carlos Bernier-LF (.289), Artie Wilson-SS (.405), Alonzo Perry-1B (.327), Johnny “El Gaucho” Davis-P (.327), Luis “King Kong” Villodas-C (.276), Joe Atkins-3B (.313), Jorge “Múcaro” Rosas-CF (.272), Carlos Manuel Santiago-2B (.281) and William “El Gacho” Morales-RF (.300).

Caguas won the opener, 7-1, as Ortis scattered six hits. But Cefo Conde evened the score with a 4-1 triumph over Chet Brewer, in Game Two. The series shifted to Caguas for a Saturday game (February 28) and a Sunday twin-bill (February 29). Gaucho Davis, the league MVP, with a 12-7 W-L record and league-leading 100 strikeouts, won the Saturday contest, 5-2, over Ortiz. But Caguas took both games on Sunday, 6-5 (a.m. one), behind LHP Adolfo “Bin Torres; then, a 1-0 SHO by Chet Brewer, versus Mayagüez’s rookie hurler, Ratón Pérez, 9-2 in the regular season.

A March 7, 1948 doubleheader in Mayagüez decided this series. Bin Torres, a surprise starter, was removed in the second inning, in Mayagüez’s easy 12-3 (a.m.) win. Gaucho Davis won it.

Game Seven featured Brewer for Caguas and Ratón Pérez for Mayagüez. The game went back-and-forth, with Mayagüez taking a 6-5 lead, in the home eighth, on a two-run double by Atkins. But the switch-hitting Trouppe opted to bat left-handed in the top of the ninth, against lefty reliever Tite Figueroa. His HR tied the contest. In the tenth, Vic Power doubled, and Víctor Haddock ran for him. Tetelo advanced Haddock to third, grounding out, 4-3. Perucho pinch-hit for Angleró, and drove in the game-winner with an infield hit. It was nice to see Tetelo and Perucho play “small ball” to help Caguas win. Bin Torres fanned Alonzo Perry to end the game. Table III summarizes Tetelo’s first 10 seasons in Puerto Rico; Table IV is Caguas All-Star Team.

Table III: Tetelo’s Hitting Stats, by team, First 10 Seasons (Puerto Rico)

Team-seasonsABRHHRRBIsSBAVG
Guayama (4)71021325895268.363
Santurce (2)2898110821513.374
Mayagüez (1)1341948NA14NA.358
Caguas (3)781160269108421.344
10 seasons1,91447368321165102.357


Tetelo’s HR, RBIs and SB are incomplete. Guayama stats: 1938-42;

Santurce: 1943-44, 1945-46; Mayagüez, 1944-45; Caguas, 1946-49.

Table IV: Caguas Criollos All-Star Team, 1938-39 through 1948-49

PlayerSeasonPositionHighlights
Dan Bankhead1946-47Pitcher12-8 W-L, l79 strikeouts (#1)
Billy Byrd1940-41Pitcher15-5 W-L, 200 IP, 2.38 ERA
Rafaelito Ortiz1946-47Pitcher12-6 W-L, 151.2 IP, 2.91 ERA
Roy Campanella1940-41CatcherEight HR tied Buck Leonard
Quincy Trouppe1947-48CatcherPlayer-manager, .307 AVG
Sammy Céspedes1941-421B.364 AVG, good fielder
Piper Davis1948-492B66 RBIs (fourth-best)
Radamés López1947-483B.298 AVG, great fielder
Buster Clarkson1946-47SS.320 AVG, 13 HR
Leonard Pearson1940-41SS.360 AVG, great fielder
Luis R. Olmo1938-39OF.335 AVG as a rookie
Tetelo Vargas1946-47OF.382 AVG, 60 runs
Manolo García1940-41OF.281 AVG, sparkplug
Sammy Bankhead1947-48Utility.316 AVG, solid team player

Source: Héctor Barea. He listed Pepe Seda, 1940-41, as manager. Quincy Trouppe

should also be considered. Sammy Bankhead was added to this All-Star Team.

Part IV will cover Tetelo’s 1948-55 seasons with Caguas; four summers in the Dominican Republic (1951-54); his 1955-56 finale in the Dominican Republic; and post-baseball career honors. With special thanks and appreciation to Orlando Cepeda, Jorge Colón Delgado, Rubén Gómez, Víctor Pellot Power, José “Pantalones” Santiago, Freddie Thon Jr. and Quincy Trouppe.

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