The Caguas Criollos (46-34) won the 1953-54 Puerto Rico (PR) Winter League (PRWL) regular season title and playoffs before winning the February 18-23, 1954 Caribbean Series (CS) at San Juan’s Sixto Escobar Stadium, named after Puerto Rico’s first World Boxing Champion, a bantamweight. Caguas player-manager Mickey Owen was concerned when several of his pitchers—Bob Buhl (14-3) and Ray Crone (6-1)—had to miss the CS due to instructions from the Milwaukee Braves to “rest for a few days” before spring training for pitchers and catchers began the third week of February at Lecom Park, Bradenton, Florida. For similar reasons, Hank Aaron, Criollos’ star right-fielder, left the Island after Caguas defeated Mayagüez in the finals—Milwaukee wanted a “rested Aaron” for 1954 spring training. Aaron turned 20 in PR and was expected to compete for a starting job in their outfield. Caguas management team and Owen struck gold when Santurce’s Rubén Gómez replaced Buhl on Caguas’s roster for the 1954 CS. Jack Sanford (Ponce) and Tite Arroyo (Ponce), Gómez (Santurce), and Corky Valentine (Mayagüez) pitched well for their respective teams and reinforced Caguas in the 1954 CS. San Juan’s Bob Turley declined this chance. “When Caguas needed a starter, three years earlier (1950-51), they did not come through with my airfare and other arrangements,“ recalled Turley. Caguas’s thirteen-game winner Brooks Lawrence (13-7) and Dominican hurler Federico “Chichí“ Olivo remained in Puerto Rico and pitched in the CS. Mayaguez’s Bill Howerton was chosen to replace Aaron as Caguas’s right fielder. Carlos Bernier and Canena Márquez also reinforced Caguas via Mayagüez. Per Mickey Owen, Cagaus executives decided Bernier over Santurce’s Roberto Clemente to replace 47-year-old Tetelo Vargas as the Criollos’s CS left-fielder. “Tetelo could still run like a deer,“ recalled Owen. “I wanted Clemente to play left but was overruled by our owner and general manager (GM).“ Caguas added San Juan second baseman Jack Cassini to replace the departed Charley Neal.
February 19, 1954: Caguas vs. Pastora Milkers
Caguas had an 0-1 record, having lost to Panamá’s Carta Vieja Yankees, 4-1, on February 18. The Criollos needed a win against the Pastora Milkers, from Venezuela. Pastora shocked Almendares, 7-5, in the February 18 opener, for Venezuela’s first CS win over Cuba. Almendares led 4-0 early on a two-run homer by starter Joe Hatten, but Pastora scored six in the eighth for the upset. Camaleón García had a key two-run single in a rally capped by Vern Benson’s sacrifice fly. Benson was Pastora’s shortstop; his backup was Luis Aparicio. However, Aparicio started his CS debut in the February 19 contest vs. Santurce. (Benson started the remaining four games, February 21-23). Gómez won his start against Pastora to help Caguas regain momentum and win this CS with a 4-2 record. Owen, Gómez’s catcher, said, “He was a pleasure to catch. I think he had ten strikeouts.“ Gómez fanned 10, walked four, and allowed five hits. His only “mistake” was permitting Camaleón García’s two-run homer in the fourth. Caguas’s winning run came in via Jim Rivera’s hustle in the eighth inning, with the score tied, 2-2, due to two runs in the sixth, when Jack Cassini and Vic Power had run-scoring singles. Rivera singled, and Cassini bunted him to second. Canena flew out to right before Vic Power’s slow grounder to Aparicio was bobbled, and he [Aparicio] threw the ball to a confused Camaleón at third base, hoping to catch Rivera off-base. Camaleón, strangely, looked for the ball in the webbing of his glove. This allowed Rivera to scamper home with the winning run. Starter Thornton Kipper was the losing pitcher for Pastora.
Games were postponed by rain on February 20. Ramón Monzant pitched Pastora to a 9-3 win over Carta Vieja, preceding Caguas’s 3-1 victory over Almendares on February 21, as Brooks Lawrence went the route. Sam Chapman’s homer accounted for the Scorpions’ second-inning tally. With one out, top of the seventh, Howerton clouted a game-tying HR. “I had been released by Cuba’s Marianao team early that season, but I could always hit. Caguas added me for the  CS as Hank Aaron’s replacement.” Rafael Pont Flores described it: “Angel Scull put on wings going after Howerton’s blast. The fans put their hands to their eyes like a sentry on the top of a post. Noise erupted from the stands, which never, never stopped. When the import [Howerton] crossed the plate, he was received like a famous native who has been absent from the country a long time.” Pless followed this blast with a homer of his own. Pont Flores noted: “Hankies, coats, and ties were waved in the air by these happy lunatics. Pless took his time rounding the bases. A priest was waving his hankie—if that wasn’t a blessing.” Billy Howerton Jr., aged eight then, attended this game with his mother. He never forgot this lunacy. “The fans began to torch newspapers and anything they could lay their hands on. It was like a huge bonfire. After the game, I remember my father being interviewed for several radio stations. He received gift certificates.” This 3-1 win over Almendares was followed by two straight Caguas victories, clinching this CS.
Chichí Olivo started Caguas’s final CS contest, allowing four unearned runs in the first, as Almendares prevailed, 4-2. Olivo and batterymate Güigüí Lucas made history as the first Dominican pitcher-catcher duo to start a CS game. Spook Jacobs started Almendares’ rally with a base hit. Cassini drove in Caguas’s runs with run-scoring hits off winner Jim Walsh. Caguas (4-2) outdistanced Almendares (3-3), Carta Vieja (3-3), and Pastora (2-4). The Criollos six-man pitching staff had a 1.61 ERA and 1.11 walks and hits allowed per innings pitched (WHIP). They allowed 15 total runs, 10 earned. Nine homers were hit by four teams, led by Almendares’ four. Caguas and Almendares committed five errors apiece, with Caguas holding the fielding PCT edge, .979 to .976. Local sportswriters, when selecting the CS All-Star Team, chose one starting pitcher per team, e.g., Thornton Kipper (Pastora), Connie Marrero (Almendares), Victor Stryska (Carta Vieja), plus Rubén Gómez (Santurce) Position players included Angel Scull (Almendares right-fielder), Camaleón García (Pastora third baseman), Carta Vieja shortstop Ziggy Jasinski and left-fielder Bobby Prescott. Jim Rivera was CS MVP and one of Caguas’s four position players to make the All-Star Team, along with Owen, Vic Power (first base), and second baseman Jack Cassini. Rivera’s series-leading .450 BA made him the first non-Cuban to win a CS batting crown. Pless recalled parades and serenades lasting all night. He gave a speech at Caguas’s town plaza and received a portable television and other gifts. Tables I-A and I-B highlight Caguas’s hitting and pitching statistics.
Table I-A: Caguas 1954 Hitting Statistics
Table I-B: Caguas 1954 Pitching Statistics
|Luis “Tite” Arroyo||3||1-0||7.1||2||0||4||3||0.00||0.82|
Source: Josge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961, 388-89.
Rubén Gómez (July 13, 1927-July 26, 2004) became the first PR-born and black latino pitcher to start and win a World Series game—on October 1, 1954. The New York Giants defeated Cleveland Indians, 6-2, at Municipal Stadium. Paid attendance was 71,555. Gómez, in 7.1 innings, allowed four hits and both runs. Hoyt Wilhelm retired the last five hitters for a save. (Wilhelm pitched for Havana in the 1951 CS.)
Special thanks to Bill Howerton Jr. and Sr., Mickey Owen, Rance Pless, and Bob Turley. Jorge Colón Delgado did the editing and photo placements.