Three Negro Leaguers to Join the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame—February 6, 2020

Roberto Vargas

Jorge Colón Delgado confirmed, via his January 16, 2020 beisbol101.com blog, that three of the 12 newest inductees in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame Class of 2020 include: LHP Roberto Vargas, infielder James “Buster Clarkson, and pitcher-OF Bob “El Múcaro” (The Owl) Thurman. All three, now deceased, once played in the Negro Leagues. They and nine other players or executives from Puerto Rico and Venezuela will be inducted in a special ceremony in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, February 6, 2020, as part of the February 1-7, 2020 Caribbean Series.

The 2020 six-team Caribbean Series will be hosted by San Juan, Puerto Rico. It includes six participants: Colombia (for the first-time), Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panamá, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. This is a round-robin event followed by two semi-final contests, and the final game, set for Friday, February 7, 2020. Normal protocol allows for the host country or island to hold an Induction Ceremony honoring former participants—who represented them—in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame. When Puerto Rico hosted the 2015 Caribbean Series, four of their legends were inducted on February 4, 2015, including Roberto Clemente, Juan “Igor” González, Héctor Villanueva, and Bernie Williams. Two prior participants from Cuba were also inducted—pitcher Conrado “Connie” Marrero and manager Napoleón Reyes. Induction criteria stipulates that the player/manager participated in at least three (3) Caribbean Series, but several exceptions include Roberto Clemente (two series) and Willie Mays (one series).

Roberto Vargas

Roberto Vargas, born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, May 29, 1929, was 19 when he posted a 6-8 record and 3.09 ERA for the 1948 Chicago American Giants. Quincy Trouppe was player-manager for the 27-48 American Giants, in the West (Division) of the Negro American League. It appears Vargas got this opportunity because Trouppe was player-manager of the 1947-48 Caguas Criollos in Puerto Rico, where Vargas pitched his rookie season.

Vargas was with Caguas for 14 seasons, through 1960-61, with an 83-77 record, including four seasons with 10+ wins, featuring a 10-1 mark in 1950-51. His final winter season was 1961-62 with the expansion Arecibo Wolves, a club managed by his good friend, Luis Rodríguez Olmo. Vargas went 1-0 with Arecibo, to finish 84-77 lifetime, in the Puerto Rico Winter League.  

Phase I of the Caribbean lasted from February 1949-February 1960, with Cuba, Panamá, Puerto Rico and Venezuela as four competitors in a six-game round-robin format. Vargas reinforced the Santurce Crabbers, who won the 1951 and 1953 Caribbean Series; and pitched for Caguas in the 1950, 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1960 events. Only Cuba’s Camilo Pascual (1.89) had a lower ERA than did Vargas (2.01), in Phase I history. Vargas allowed ten earned runs in 44.2 innings. He sparkled in relief for Santurce, with a 1.35 ERA in the 1951 Caribbean Series, in Venezuela.

Vargas was 63-50 in seven minor-league seasons between 1951 and 1959, plus 13-13 for the 1960 Poza Rica Petroleros, Class AA Mexican League. His best campaign was in 1951, an 18-8 record and 2.69 ERA for Lakeland, Class B International League. He pitched 24.2 innings for the 1955 Milwaukee Braves, without a decision. Vargas was with the Montreal Royals, Dodgers system, 1957 and 1959, He last pitched for Poza Rica in 1961, and 1961-62 Arecibo.

James “Buster” Clarkson

According to historian James Riley, Clarkson, born in Hopkins, South Carolina (1915), chose to begin his Negro Leagues career with the 1937 Pittsburgh Crawfords because he knew and liked Oscar Charleston, their manager. His three seasons with that franchise included relocations to Toledo and Indianapolis. He starred for the 1940 Newark Eagles, with a .376 AVG, before a 1941 season with Tampico in Mexico, with 19 HR—second to Josh Gibson—and .334 AVG. Clarkson was well known in Puerto Rico by this time. On November 10, 1940, in his Mayagüez debut, he etched his name in Island lore by clouting two homers in the home eighth, against the Ponce Lions. His first shot was off Max Manning; the second homer, inside-the-park, came off Raúl Acosta, per Jorge Colón Delgado’s excellent 2019 book—Los Indios de Mayagüez (The Mayaüez Indians). Clarkson hit .350 for Mayagüez, with 41 RBIs in 35-36 games.   

After three years serving his country (1943-45) in World War II, Clarkson played for the Philadelphia Stars; with Veracruz (Mexico); Caguas in 1946-47; 1947-48 in Cuba; 1948 with St. Jean in the Canadian Provincial League–.399 AVG, 28 HR in 80 games. He had solid back-to-back winter seasons with Ponce, 1948-49 and 1949-50, before playing his final six winter campaigns with Santurce, 1950-56, which included three Caribbean Series titles.

Santurce was the first Winter League team to win three Caribbean Series events—1951, 1953 and 1955. Clarkson (and Bob Thurman) will be the most recent Crabbers from these teams added to those already in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame, such as: Willard Brown-class of 1996; Rubén Gómez-class of 1999; Willie Mays-class of 2005; and Roberto Clemente-class of 2015.

Santurce player-manager Buster Clarkson led the Crabbers to a February 20-25, 1953 Caribbean Series sweep in Havana, Cuba, winning all six contests. The champions had a .367 BA and .575 team SLG, and scored 50 runs! Bob Thurman went nine for 19 for an outstanding .474 BA! But Willard Brown stole the headlines with four HR and an amazing 13 RBIs, in going 10-for-24, a .417 BA. Brown was named series MVP.  Junior Gilliam batted .545 (12-for-22) and scored seven times.

Clarkson hit a robust .467 (seven-for-15), and scored six times. Vic Power (Caguas reinforcement) scored six and batted .385. Bobo Holloman and San Juan reinforcement Ellis “Cot” Deal both went 2-0 on the mound. Havana (3-3), Panamá’s Chesterfield Smokers (2-4) and the Caracas Lions (1-5) were outclassed by Santurce. Martín Dihigo, legendary Cuban player, managed Caracas. Santurce placed five on the 10-player All-Star squad: catcher Joe Montalvo, 2B Junior Gilliam, SS Buster Clarkson, LF Willard Brown and RHP Bobo Holloman.

Clarkson’s 61 RBIs for the 1954-55 Crabbers led the Puerto Rico League, in a 72-game season. His 11 Puerto Rico seasons featured a .301 career AVG, 109 doubles, 15 triples, 98 HR, 461 RBIs, and .514 SLG. He was a shortstop who transitioned to third base. Clarkson was the first player-manager in Caribbean Series history to lead his team to the title. He was inducted in the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996, the fourth and last ceremony of its kind. (There are efforts now underway to revive this Hall of Fame.)

Bob Thurman

Thurman, who batted and threw left, played right field and pitched in Puerto Rico, posting a 39-32 won-lost career mark for Santurce. He wore Crabber flannels for 11 winter seasons—1947-48 through 1957-58—before playing for the 1959-60 Ponce Lions. Most of his Puerto Rico Winter League career coincided with Phase I of the Caribbean Series, 1949-to-1960. Thurman,

per historian John Holway, had a .345 AVG for the 1948 Homestead Grays, winners of the last (East winners versus West winners) 1948 Negro Leagues World Series. The Grays bested the Birmingham Black Barons—featuring a 17-year old Willie Mays and other stars, including hurler Bill Greason. Mays and Greason would later become Thurman’s Santurce teammates.

In 1950-51, the 48-30 Santurce Crabbers—managed by George Scales—defeated 57-20 Caguas, four games to three, in a memorable Puerto Rico Winter League Finals, thanks to Pepe Lucas’ walk-off HR off Mike Clark, February 17, 1951. Santurce’s 22-player roster for the 1951 Caribbean Series, played February 22-25, 1951, included Mike Clark, five Caguas teammates—Luis Rodríguez Olmo, Roberto Vargas, George Crowe, Stan Breard and Luis St. Clair aka Güigüí Lucas, plus Ponce RHP José “Pantalones” Santiago. Key Crabbers were Willard Brown, Buster Clarkson, Junior Gilliam, Rubén Gómez and Thurman. Cuba’s Havana Lions (aka Reds) were favored to win it with Hoyt Wilhelm on the mound and the hitting of Pedro Formental. Spur Cola from Panamá and Venezuela’s host Magallanes were the other two teams.  

Thurman delivered eight hits in 22 AB for a .364 BA, with two HR and seven RBIs. He had a double and a triple; drew five walks; and scored seven runs, but was overshadowed by Luis R. Olmo’s .417 BA, three HR and nine RBIs. Olmo was named series MVP. Santurce went 5-1, ignited by a 13-1 win over Havana, in their February 22, 1951 series opener. Their only loss was to Havana three days later, by a 4-3 score. Havana (4-2), Magallanes (2-4) and Spur Cola (1-5) finished second-third-fourth behind Santurce. The Crabbers led all teams in BA (.276), runs (46), doubles (12), triples (two), and HR (eight). Rubén Gómez (2-0) and Pantalones Santiago (2-0) were the top pitchers in this series. George Scales did a masterful job as Santurce’s manager.

Four years later, the 1954-55 Crabbers, managed by Herman Franks, were considered the “best Winter League baseball team ever assembled,” per Don Zimmer, their shortstop, named MVP of the February 10-15, 1955 Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela. They won without reinforcements, unlike other Caribbean Series winners. Bob Thurman went seven for 22 in this series, .318 BA, with three RBIs. Zimmer (.385, three HR, four RBIs); Willie Mays (.440, two HR, nine RBIs); Roberto Clemente (.269, one HR, three RBIs); Buster Clarkson (.375, one RBI) starred for a “Perfect Machine,” the title of Jorge Colón Delgado’s book on this club. Series standings were Santurce (5-1), Magallanes (4-2), Cuba’s Almendares Scorpions (2-4), and Panamá’s Carta Vieja Yankees (1-5). Santurce was 16-2, .889 in Thurman’s three Series events.

Thurman’s 24 hits in 63 Caribbean Series AB is a .381 AVG, best for Phase I, Caribbean Series, 1949-to-1960. Top 10 are Thurman (.381), Wilmer Fields (.375), Héctor Rodríguez (.357), Pedro Formental (.350), Willard Brown (.343), Sandy Amorós (.338), Roberto Clemente (.327), Angel Scull (.306), Luis Rodríguez Olmo (.303) and Joe Tuminelli (.298). Thurman had three doubles, two triples, two HR and 15 RBIs. His .587 SLG is fourth-best all-time, Phase I, after Fields (.679), Willard Brown (.627) and Clemente’s .592 SLG. Thurman is now in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame, 28 plus years after being inducted in the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, October 20, 1991, at the first-ever ceremony of its kind in Ponce, with Willard Brown and eight others: Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Perucho Cepeda, Francisco Coímbre, Rubén Gómez, Canena Márquez, Terín Pizarro and Vic Power. The author coordinated efforts to get Thurman to Puerto Rico; had dinner with him in Ponce; and appeared on a radio sports show. Thurman told the author (in 1991) that “the most important item is that Santurce won it all in 1951, 1953 and 1955,” adding “I represented Puerto Rico baseball fans with a strong work ethic, honor and dignity.”

It is special for Bob Thurman, born in Kellyville, Oklahoma (1917), to be inducted in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame, February 6, 2020, along with Buster Clarkson, Roberto Vargas, and others. Thurman joins ex- Santurce teammates Willard Brown, Rubén Gómez, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, in this illustrious “family.” It would be even more special since Mays (CF) and Clemente (LF) played the OF with Thurman (RF) on Santurce’s 1954-55 team. Let us not forget Thurman’s .313 lifetime AVG in Puerto Rico regular season play is augmented by 120 HR and 566 RBIs, both all-time league records! His 149 doubles are seventh-best all-time while his 61 triples are fourth all-time. Thurman’s .525 career SLG in Puerto Rico is superb. He scored 527 runs, seventh all-time, and connected 931 hits in 2,978 Puerto Rico regular season AB. 

With deep appreciation to Bob Thurman for his friendship, humility and kindness.  Santurce, who won the 1993 and 2000 Caribbean Series, have five titles, as do the Caguas Criollos and Aguilas Cibaeñas (Dominican Republic). The Licey Tigers of the Dominican Republic have the most Caribbean Series crowns with 10.

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