The Pepelucazo: Shot Heard Around the Caribbean, February 17, 1951

Pepe Lucas

On February 15, 1951, the Caguas Criollos tied their final series with Santurce at three games each, via a 3-1 win by Bin Torres over Crabbers’ ace Rubén Gómez. Santurce’s management including owner Pedrín Zorrilla, top aide Guigo Otero Suro and others stayed up late at the team’s Stop 16 Santurce office. Guigo recalled a knock on the door at midnight—it was RHP Luis Rafael Cabrera, a Ponce native, aka “Cabrerita,”  He needed to find Doña Lala in Ponce, to put a voodoo hex on Caguas.

Guigo phoned 1950-51 Ponce Lions player-coach Pancho Coímbre, with instructions to have Doña Lala put in a taxi cab the next day for the Ponce-Sixto Escobar trip. Per Guigo, “Our equipment manager believed in black magic and he reserved two seats near the clubhouse. Game seven started…got word that the cab from Ponce was in Rio Piedras…she arrived in the third inning and placed some objects inside the clubhouse. Cabrera went in there in the home third and after that, he pitched very well.”

Caguas went ahead, 1-0, in the top of the third, with a Gene Markland homer. Santurce tied it in their half on a Jim Gilliam triple and Buster Clarkson’s fielder choice. Clarkson’s sixth-inning homer gave Santurce a 2-1 lead, a blast dedicated to the recently deceased brother of Santurce’s team doctor, José Carlos Ferrer Otero. Caguas tied the game at 2 in the eighth on Pedro Alomar’s pinch-hit, later followed by a Jim Rivera fielder’s choice. Mike Clark relieved Roberto Vargas, the Caguas starter, and pitched a scoreless eighth. Cabrerita pitched a scoreless ninth.

So how good were the 1950-51 Caguas Criollos and the 48-30 Santurce Cangrejeros? Caguas finished the regular season at 57-20, .740, for the most regular season wins in Puerto Rico Semi-Pro or professional history, equivalent to a 114-40 MLB season pre-1961 (AL) or 1962 (NL) expansion. The 1927 New York Yankees were 110-44, .714. The 1998 New York Yankees at 114-48 had a .704 PCT. The 1993-94 San Juan Senators were 35-13, .729, in Puerto Rico.  

Caguas had George Crowe, the league’s batting champ, hitting .375. Crowe’s .600 SLG came with 17 doubles, 7 triples, 11 homers, 69 RBIs—second to 76 by Santurce’s Willard Brown. Crowe’s 74 runs were second-most to league leader Jim Rivera’s 76, also for Caguas. Víctor Pellot and Luis R. Olmo each hit 20 doubles for Caguas, tied for second behind 22 hit by Santurce’s Bob “El Múcaro” Thurman. RHP Mike Clark’s 14 wins for Caguas led the league. His 77 strikeouts were fourth in the league. Caguas’s Manolo Cáceres had the best ERA, 2.24, and Caguas LHP Roberto Vargas showed a 2.55 ERA, third-best.

Clark (14-6), Cáceres (12-1) and Vargas (10-1) were a combined 36-8, .818 for Caguas! Bin Torres (3-2) and Royce Lint (4-0) rounded out the rotation. Santurce’s starters were Gómez (13-6), Bill Powell (9-4), Bob Thurman (6-5), Rafaelito Ortíz (5-1) and Cabrerita (2-3). John Ford Smith (5-3) was not with the post-season Crabbers. Neither was Caguas’s Cecil Kaiser (5-5).

Santurce’s most dangerous hitters were Bob Thurman, .362, 13 homers, 66 RBIs, .605 SLG, 11 SB and Willard Brown, .325, 14 homers, 76 RBIs, .544 SLG, 10 SB. OF Alfonso Gerard (.339), rookie catcher Valmy Thomas (.302), 2B Jim Gilliam (74 runs, 18 SB) and 3B Buster Clarkson, .299 BA, league-leading 18 HR, 61 RBIs, 16 SB, complemented Brown and Thurman. Rubén Gómez could hit as evidenced by his .295 BA, one homer, 17 RBIs, 95 AB.

Where does Santurce 1B Pepe Lucas (real name José St. Claire), come in? Pepe Lucas was ten days shy of his 35th birthday when batted with two outs in the home ninth, February 17, 1951, at Sixto Escobar. He was completing his third season with the Crabbers, as a league native from the Dominican Republic. Rubén Gómez first met Pepe Lucas at a Santo Domingo baseball tournament, late 1940s. Rubén recommended that Pedrín Zorrilla sign Lucas, an excellent fielder, but below average hitter—.202 for Santurce, 15 HR, 87 RBIs, 1949-50 through 1954-55.

Pepe Lucas greeted after one of his four home runs in the 1950-51 season.

Lucas hit .243, two doubles, four homers, 19 RBIs, in 111 AB, 369 SLG, with the 1950-51 Crabbers. He spent some of his free time fishing with Rubén Gómez. Lucas was a slender 5’10,” 160-lb. player who played in Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela, and managed in Colombia, but would not play or manage in the Dominican Republic professional league until later in 1951.

Willard Brown led off for Santurce in the home ninth, on February 17, 1951, and grounded out. Bob Thurman struck out. George Scales, legendary Santurce manager for this one season, had managed the Ponce Lions to five Puerto Rico titles in the 1940s, including a 37-7, .840 winning PCT, 1943-44. He started right-hand hitting Pepe Lucas in game seven since because LHP Roberto Vargas was the Caguas starter. Santurce’s home field advantage was justified by league officials on the grounds that Escobar’s seating capacity (13,135) was double that of Caguas’ Ildefonso Solá Morales Stadium at 6,744 capacity.

Lucas took ball one and then  drilled a Mike Clark fastball to deep left center field as Tetelo Vargas and Luis R. Olmo watched the ball sail over the fence. The standing-room only crowd of 16,713 went wild. Mike Clark later told me (phone interview) “It was noisy, Pepe Lucas became a hero. And I threw my glove into the stands,” remembered Clark. Charles Ferrer, son of Santurce’s team medic, was on the stadium roof-ecstatic. “Cabrerita’s submarine ball was working,” said Ferrer. “Buster Clarkson hit one [homer] for my uncle and [then] Pepe Lucas hit it out. Olmo just looked up—he didn’t move.”

Future Santurce team owner Reinaldo “Poto” Paniagua was there. “Pepe Lucas hit a line drive that did not rise four or five feet,” said Paniagua. The post-game partying was incredible—as if it was election night.”  Caguas scorer Héctor Barea noted that his team fought until the bitter end. George Scales told sportswriter Rafael Pont Flores that he was the happiest person around and looking forward to playing [February 1951 Caribbean Series] against Mike González’s Havana Reds (aka Lions), since he (Scales) played for González in the Cuban Winter League circa 1929. Scales said it best: “Those who wait patiently have their moments of happiness. This is mine.”

Pepe Lucas traveled to Caracas, Venezuela, but did not play in the 1951 Caribbean Series, won by Santurce (5-1 W-L) over Havana (4-2). Reinforcement George Crowe got the 1B action. Five other Criollos reinforced Santurce: Caribbean Series MVP Olmo, C GuiGui Lucas (Pepe’s brother), SS Stan Breard, Mike Clark and Roberto Vargas. Ponce’s José “Pantalones” Santiago got two wins for Santurce, as did Rubén Gómez. This was Puerto Rico’s first Caribbean Series title. Lucas played for winning Santurce teams in the February 1953 and 1955 Caribbean Series.

The famous February 17, 1951 home run—which preceded Bobby Thomson’s October 3, 1951 NL pennant-winning homer for the New York Giants versus the Brooklyn Dodgers—gave Pepe Lucas momentum going into his pro career in the Dominican Republic, with the Escogido Lions, 1951-to-1954 Summer League; a full season with Escogido, 1955-56 Dominican Winter League; and one game for 1956-57 Escogido.  He led the 1951 league as a player/manager with 38 RBIs. His Dominican regular season career stats: .265 BA, .341 OBP, .373 SLG, .714 OPS.  He had 17 homers in 911 AB, for one home run every 53.59 AB in regular season play.

A second (post-Pepelucazo) highlight of Pepe Lucas’ winter league career was managing the 1960-61 Escogido Lions to a Dominican League title—29-19 regular season, in the four-team league—followed by a five games-to-two final series win over the Aguilas Cibaeñas. Escogido, since, the mid-1950s, had a working agreement with the New York/San Francisco Giants. Juan Marichal (7-3, 1.41 ERA, 1960-61 regular season) came through for Pepe Lucas in the seven-game final series: 2-0 W-L, 1.64 ERA, 22 innings, 17 strikeouts, two walks.

Rubén Gómez joined the 1963-64 Escogido Lions, managed by Pepe Lucas, and pitched a shutout toward the end of the regular season (after finishing his Santurce season). Rubén also pitched in three final series games for his close friend, against Vern Benson’s Licey Tigers. Licey rebounded from a three games-to-nothing deficit, to win five straight games. Rubén was proud when Pepe Lucas was inducted in the Dominican Sports Hall of Fame, 1974.

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