Wilmer Fields, Two Decades of Baseball Brilliance (Negro Leagues and Caribbean) Part I

The Wilmer Fields quote which resonates is “If you didn’t produce, your butt was coming across that creek and somebody else was on the way.” This referred to the reality of winter baseball in the Caribbean—you either produced, or were sent home. Fields invited the author into his Manassas, Virginia home (about a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C.) in 1991, the year before his autobiography My Life in the Negro Leagues was published by Meckler. He never played in what is now called MLB, but played with and against big leaguers in exhibition games, winter ball, and Negro Leagues games. His eight seasons with the Homestead Grays were 1940-to-1942 and 1946-to-1950, except for World War II service, 1943 through his honorable discharge, May 1946. Fields was born in rural Manassas, on August 2, 1922. The SABR bio of Fields by Frederick C. Bush, is at  https://sabr.org/node/40254.  He was the fourth of five children born to Albert and Mabel Fields. There were three older brothers and a younger sister.

Fields played football in high school and college, at Virginia State, starring at quarterback. He was a talented pitcher who learned how to play other positions including third base, shortstop and the OF with the Homestead Grays. “If we arrived at a ballpark early, the could would take extra hitting and fielding practice,” said Fields. “We took advantage of any time we’d get. It gave us the opportunity to play other positions, and it gave the pitchers the chance to show our ability as hitters.” Vic Harris and Sammy Bankhead, the two managers Fields had with the Grays, encouraged him to play different positions. This made Fields a valuable commodity when he played winter ball from 1947-48 through the mid-1950s. The Fields’ quotes in this blog come from his book or via past conversations with the author. Fields was listed as 6’3,” 215 lbs.

Fields with the Homestead Grays

The 1940-42 Homestead Grays dominated play in league play and exhibition games. Fields had overall W-L records of 2-1, 13-5, and 15-3 for these Grays, dominant, except for a 1942 post-season series with the Kansas City Monarchs, led by Satchel Paige and Willard Brown. Fields recalled the Grays pitching staff included Raymond Brown, Roy Welmaker, Johnny Wright, and Roy Partlow. Josh Gibson was the catcher; Buck Leonard (1B)—compared to Lou Gehrig—and Howard Easterling, the switch-hitting 3B from Mount Olive, Mississippi, were remarkable players, as was shortstop Sammy Bankhead. One of Fields’ best performances came in 1946, a 1-0 loss to Johnny Vander Meer and big-league players in an exhibition game. Vander Meer fanned 12 and Fields struck out 11. Sportswriters of that era knew that the Negro Leaguers played the game with a lot of zest and enthusiasm. And they were good.

Fields mostly pitched in 1946, but played 3B and the OF, 1947-to-1950. The Grays traveled more than any other club in the Negro National League. Their 1946 team was a veteran one with Josh Gibson catching, Buck Leonard still at 1B, Sammy Bankhead and Howard Easterling on the left side of the IF, Cool Papa Bell in CF, plus talented Bob Thurman and Luis “Canena” Márquez. The 1946 Grays lost the East Division for the first time after nine straight Division (1937-to-1945) titles, to the Newark Eagles, with Leon Day, Monte Irvin, and Larry Doby. Fields (14-3) was the Grays best pitcher in 1946, and the ace of their staff the next four seasons, with W-L ledgers of 14-7, 13-5, 17-2, and 12-2. Fields was 30-9 from 1940-42, followed by 70-19, 1946-to-1950, for an overall record of 100-28! The Grays were all about winning, and Fields gave credit to Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, for their important part in the career of many ballplayers, “mine included.” Fields might pitch a complete game at Griffith Stadium in D.C., on a Sunday; pitch three innings in relief against the Baltimore Elite Giants on a Monday; then, pitch again on a Wednesday. Vic Harris was Fields’ first manager with the Grays.

Perhaps his most special memory was Game Four of the 1948 Negro Leagues World Series, played in New Orleans, October 3, where his wife Audrey, was from. (Wilmer met Audrey toward the end of his military service, stationed in Louisiana.) Fields drove at least 24 hours from D.C. to New Orleans, and defeated the Birmingham Black Barons, 14-1, a team with 17-year old Willie Mays, Piper Davis, Artie Wilson, Bill Greason, and Bill Powell. The Grays won Game Five to win the last Negro Leagues World Series. Sammy Bankhead was the Grays player-manager (shortstop); Leonard played 1B his last season; and, Thurman (RF-P), Canena Márquez (CF), and Easter (LF) formed a superb OF. Fields (7-1, league play and 13-5 overall) played 3B, when not pitching, and Thurman (6-4), R.T. Walker (7-3), and Tom Parker (7-4) were other contributors. The Grays had three of the league’s top five hitters: Leonard #1, .395 AVG; Easter #3, .363 AVG; and, Thurman #5, .345 AVG. “I played in three Caribbean Series events,” said Fields, “but this was my only World Series. Easter, Márquez and Thurman were wonderful teammates…played with Luke on that great 1948-49 Mayagüez ballclub…”

1947-48 San Juan Senators and the Indios de Mayagüez, 1948-Nov. 1950, Puerto Rico

Wilmer Fields with San Juan

Monte Irvin recommended that San Juan sign Fields for 1947-48. Irvin played four seasons with San Juan (1940-42 and 1945-47), but would play in Cuba, 1947-48 and 1948-49. San Juan’s owner met Fields in Trenton, New Jersey, prior to a Grays-Newark Eagles game. Fields noted segregation was not an issue in Puerto Rico for the black players. He and Audrey—light-skinned African-Americans—received the best treatment from team owners and the fans, as did Luke Easter, Alonzo Perry, and other black players. “Puerto Rico was very good for black ballplayers. If you got the opportunity to go to a Latin American country, you would go.” Word-of-mouth communication and trust was so important in the Caribbean, per Fields. Owners advanced money to Fields because they trusted him. Fields played so well in the Caribbean, he could make more money there than he would playing in the majors between the late 1940s and mid-1950s. In some case cases, there were bonuses for winning an important game, or hitting a HR off Satchel Paige!

Paige, a few months away from getting his first big league shot at age 42, was on the mound for Santurce in a late-season game when Fields stepped into the plate at Sixto Escobar Stadium. Fields, who had homered earlier in the game, grabbed the lightest bat he could find, knowing Paige could still throw hard. After Fields swung and missed a fast one, Paige jokingly told him he couldn’t hit. Paige threw another hummer, which Fields hit over the wall. The fans went wild. Fields recalled $125 was handed to him by the San Juan faithful through the wire mesh. Fields told the author he received an extra $50 for each of his six wins. He also hit .315 with five HR and 44 RBIs for San Juan. One weekend he shut out Mayagüez in 11 innings, and defeated them in relief. No wonder Alfonso Valdés, the Mayagüez owner, told him: “I need a pitcher who can play third.” There were incentives in Mayagüez for winning games on the mound/at the plate.

Wilmer Fields

Jorge Colón Delgado’s 2019 book, Los Indios de Mayagüez, chronicles their epic 1948-49 season, with 51 wins and 29 losses; winning the league’s final series; and, representing Puerto Rico in the first Caribbean Series, February 20-25, 1949, in Havana, Cuba. Fields led the five-team Puerto Rico League with 88 RBIs in the 80-game season, subsequently broken by Willard Brown’s 97 RBIs for Santurce, 1949-50. Fields’ 108 hits (in 325 AB) included 17 doubles, two triples, and 11 HR. His 56 runs, .332 AVG and .498 SLG were impressive. So was his 9-6 mound record, the equivalent of an 18-win season over 162 games. Alonzo Perry played 1B and pitched for Mayagüez; Johnny Davis pitched and played the OF. Easter’s .402 AVG led all league hitters. Easter (81), Perry (76), player-manager Artie Wilson (69), Márquez (65), and Carlos Bernier (64) were 1-2-3-4-5 in runs scored. Márquez, with Aguadilla, was the only non-Mayagüez player on this list. Willard Brown-Bob Thurman, who hit 18 HR for Santurce, were one-two. Easter was second in RBIs to Fields (80-to-88), and third in HR, with 14.

Mayagüez won four of six games versus Santurce (47-33), to punch their ticket to Havana for the Caribbean Series. They split a twin-bill at Sixto Escobar Stadium, February 13, 1949, before the Indios won two of three at home, Liga Paris, February 14-15-16. Fields outpitched Thurman in Game Three, 5-4, while Perry went the route in a 6-2 win before a near-capacity crowd of 13,133 paid fans at Sixto Escobar Stadium, February 18, 1949. A joyous caravan ensued from San Juan to Mayagüez, via Aguadilla, town 18 miles north of Mayagüez on the Island’s West Coast.

Fields went nine for 21, .429 AVG and .667 SLG, with a series-leading eight runs scored, and hit the first Grand Slam in Caribbean Series history, February 23, 1949, in Mayagüez’s only win, 11-9 over Spur Cola, Panamá, three days after losing the series opener to them. He was the team’s best hitter. Easter went 10-for-25 in Havana (.400), and .560 SLG, but Mayagüez (1-5) finished last to Almendares, Cuba (6-0), Cervecería Caracas, Venezuela (3-3) and Spur Cola (2-4), despite a series-leading .307 AVG. Their pitching was weak, and they added the wrong reinforcements, catcher Quincy Trouppe and IF Piper Davis, instead of two pitchers: Santurce’s John Ford Smith and Ponce’s Japhet “Red” Lynn, who both won 13 regular season games in Puerto Rico, the equivalent of 26 in a 162-game season. Cuba was the strongest team, led by Monte Irvin. Fields was not surprised that Irvin had two HR, 11 RBIs, and three SB, nor that Chuck Connors, Almendares 1B and future actor, eventually left baseball for greener pastures.

Fields preferred that Mayagüez have an OF with Luke Easter (LF), Canena Márquez (CF), and Bob Thurman (RF) for this series. He (Fields) had a good point, since Johnny Davis was hurt (leg abscess), and Carlos Bernier (two-for-20) did not hit. Thurman and the author would agree with Jorge Colón Delgado that Red Lynn and Ford Smith reinforce Mayagüez, and probably get two starts apiece (Games One-Two, Five-Six). Under this scenario, Fields and Perry get one start each, Games Three-Four, and there is no need to activate Bill Powell for this series. Carlos Manuel Santiago plays 2B instead of Piper Davis, and Mayagüez’s three native catchers, King Kong Villodas, Chago Muratti, and Humberto “Pita” Martí—who went a combined eight-for-20—play in the several games which Quincy Trouppe participated in. On a positive note, Fields re-connected with Sammy Bankhead, who played shortstop for Spur Cola, and Sam Jethroe, the Almendares CF, and ex-Cleveland Buckeyes player. Allegations emerged of team members partying in Havana, but this did not apply to Fields, a family man who never drank nor smoked. The bottom line—Mayagüez scored 36 runs, but allowed 60 runs, for a four-run deficit, per game.

In 1949-50, Fields batted .323 (90-for-279), with six HR and 41 RBIs; was 8-7 on the mound for Mayagüez; and, reinforced the Caguas Criollos in the February 21-27, 1950 Caribbean Series, at Sixto Escobar. Fields’ walk-off two-run HR off Terris McDuffie, Magallanes (Venezuela) Navigators, gave Caguas a 2-1 win, February 23. On February 24 he bested Almendares (Cuba), 6-1, on a five-hit complete game. Caguas finished second to Carta Vieja (Panamá), losing a tie-breaker, 9-3, on February 27. Final standings were: Carta Vieja (5-2), Caguas (4-3), defending champion Almendares (3-3), and Magallanes (1-5). Fields went three-for-11 at the plate, one HR, and two RBIs. The following winter, Wilmer and Audrey left Puerto Rico in early November 1950 due to a tense political situation involving the Island’s independence movement. Fields was hitting ,217 and sporting a 0-2 mound mark, when he caught a flight to Miami, Florida. In four Puerto Rico seasons, he had a .317 batting AVG, 22 HR, 176 RBIs, plus a 23-21 pitching record.

Venezuela (1950-53)

Fields wintered in Venezuela, 1950-53. He played in 20 games with Cervecería Caracas, 1950-51, with 28 hits/72 AB, .389 AVG and .639 SLG; then, a complete 1951-52 season, 56 games for 40-15 Cervecería Caracas in winning League MVP honors. His .348 AVG and .575 SLG were a result of 78 hits/207 AB. His eight HR and 45 RBIs led his club to the February 1952 Caribbean Series in Panamá. Fields had one relief appearance, a four-inning one, no-decision, and 4.50 ERA. The Cervecería five-man rotation featured LHP William Samson (8-4, 2.81 ERA), Donald Otten (8-2, 3.22 ERA), José de la Trinidad “El Carrao” Bracho (7-4, 2.48 ERA), LHP Leon Griffith (7-5, 3.44 ERA), and LHP Earl Mossor (7-0, 2.71 ERA). LHP Luis Zuloaga (3-0, 3.94 ERA) was a spot starter.  Fields played 17 games for the 1952-53 Patriotas de Venezuela, .258 AVG (16-for-62). His Venezuelan regular season career record was 11 HR, 68 RBIs, .340 AVG, and .545 SLG.

The February 20-26, 1952 Caribbean Series in Panamá featured HR by Fields versus Havana Reds (February 24) and San Juan Senators (February 26). Fields’ third and last Caribbean Series was as a RF for 3-3 Cervecería Caracas, tied for second with host Carta Vieja. Havana (5-0-1) won it; San Juan (0-5-1) was last. Fields went nine-for-25 with two HR and eight RBIs for a .360 AVG and .720 SLG. Spook Jacobs, Carta Vieja 2B, was impressed: “Fields was a gentleman who could really hit,” said Jacobs. “And he was a star in the Negro Leagues…excellent all-around player.” Fields made the Caribbean Series All-Star Team in RF. His eight RBIs were tops; his nine hits tied Jacobs and Sandy Amorós, the series batting champ (.450 AVG).

In three Caribbean Series, Fields, in 15 games, had 21 hits in 57 AB, a .368 AVG; five doubles, four HR, 16 RBIs, 13 runs, and a .667 SLG! The .667 SLG is the BEST in Phase I, 1949-1960, Caribbean Series, eclipsing Willard Brown’s .627 SLG. It tops Armando Ríos’s .649 SLG, in five Phase II Caribbean Series events, 1970-to-2020. Bob Thurman (24 hits/63 AB, .381 AVG) and Sandy Amorós (24 hits/64 AB, .375 AVG) had a higher AVG than Fields, Phase I, Caribbean Series. Tony “Tany” Pérez’s .400 AVG and Ríos’s .381 AVG are one-two, Phase II, Caribbean Series, 1970-to-2020. Fields was inducted in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame, Class of 2001. https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Caribbean_Baseball_Hall_of_Fame

Table I. Top 10 Caribbean Series SLG AVG,

50+ Plate Appearances, Phase I and Phase II

Player Country SLG
Wilmer Fields Puerto Rico/Venezuela .667
Armando Ríos Puerto Rico/Mexico .649
Willard Brown Puerto Rico .627
Roberto Clemente Puerto Rico .592
Carmelo Martínez Puerto Rico .589
Bob Thurman Puerto Rico .587
Héctor Rodríguez Cuba .583
David Ortíz Dominican Republic .579
Atanasio “Tany” Pérez Puerto Rico .576
Candy Maldonado Puerto Rico .573

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