Wito Conde: Legendary Baseball Lifer from Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico

Jim Fregosi was the 28-year old manager of the 1969-70 Ponce Lions, a team which won Puerto Rico’s Winter League crown with a hard-fought Final Series win over the Santurce Crabbers, managed by Frank Robinson. Fregosi’s pinch-hitter (PH) deluxe was Ramón Luis “Wito” Conde, with a .386 AVG in the regular season (22-for-57), in 27 of Ponce’s 69 games. “Wito was my go-to-guy off the bench,” said Fregosi, during our interview in Philadelphia, September 15, 1991. “He was a team leader who commanded the respect of our native and imported players.”

The 44-25 first-place Ponce club defeated fourth-place Caguas, four games-to-one, in their Semi-Finals. Third-place Santurce prevailed over second-place Mayagüez, four games-to-two, prior to facing off with the Lions in the Finals. Wito had come through for Fregosi with a two-run, PH single to win a Semi-Finals game versus Caguas. Fregosi again summoned him in Game Six of the Finals against Santurce at the Lions Den—Paquito Montaner Stadium—before a record crowd of 12,008. The score was tied, 2-2, with the bases loaded, when Wito faced Santurce starter Fred Beene, still pitching in the 12th. His hit drove in the winning run. Ponce sports commentator Pedro Carlos Lugo later told the author that “Wito came through for us in the twilight of his career. He was there when we needed him and set an example for everyone.”

Fred Beene’s pitching that February 2, 1970 evening earned him the adulation of Ponce’s fans and mayor. He trudged off the Paquito Montaner mound with his head held high. After Beene had showered and gotten on Santurce’s bus, Ponce’s mayor made it on that bus to personally invite him to reinforce Ponce for the 1970 Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela. But Beene politely declined. “I had a bad finger and was tired,” said Beene.  I really didn’t want to go [to the Caribbean Series], but appreciated being asked.” He gave credit to Wito Conde for his clutch hit—»Ponce also had Bernie Carbo, Sandy Alomar Sr., Pat Corrales and other fine players…”

Wito was age 35 when he delivered the series-winning base hit off Beene. When Conde and I conversed in Ponce, Puerto Rico (October 1991), he stated “Ponce owner Yuyo González told me Caguas was after Carbo and Wayne Simpson. I was on the 1969 Indianapolis roster at the time and talked with Bernie and Wayne about playing for Ponce. They decided to join Ponce after the minor league season.” It turned out well; Simpson won the league’s pitching Triple Crown—11-5, 1.55 ERA and 114 strikeouts; Carbo batted .278 with 10 HR and 48 RBIs!

So, what else can be said about Wito Conde, born in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico, about 14 miles northeast of Ponce, December 29, 1934? His excellent SABR bio by Rory Costello is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/5d104377. Wito turned five when his father, Ceferino (Cefo) Conde y Faría, was a teammate of Satchel Paige and Perucho Cepeda with the 1939-40 Guayama Witches, the league champions. Nine years later, Wito was the batboy for the Mayagüez Indians (51-29), also league winners. (Cefo was a star pitcher on this team.) Wito traveled with them to Havana, Cuba, for the first (February 20-25, 1949) Caribbean Series, but these “Indios” disappointed with a last-place 1-5 record, behind 6-0 Almendares (Cuba); 3-3 Cervecería Caracas (Venezuela) and 2-4 Spur Cola (Panamá). In his April 4, 2017 interview with Jorge Colón Delgado, Wito stated: “El Patrón’s (Mayagüez owner Alfonso Valdés) reaction was justified—Don Alfonso was right about being angry with his club’s performance. He treated his players well and invited them to functions at his ‘Castle.’” Wilmer Fields (.429 AVG, 8 runs) and Luke Easter (.400 AVG, 7 RBIs played well for the Indios, but Valdés was disappointed in the off-the-field behavior of some imports and natives.

Wito was six weeks shy of his 17th birthday when he celebrated Puerto Rico’s Gold Medal after a win over Cuba on November 18, 1951, in the Amateur World Series held in Mexico City. Eleven countries competed in this event. The final four teams—Puerto Rico (3-0, Venezuela (2-1), Cuba (1-2) and Dominican Republic (0-3)—played a round-robin to decide the medal standings. Had Puerto Rico lost to Cuba, there would have been a three-way tie (two wins, one loss). Round one standings were: Cuba (9-1), Venezuela (9-1), Dominican Republic (7-3), Puerto Rico (7-3), Nicaragua (6-4), Costa Rica (5-5), Panamá (5-5), Colombia (4-6), Mexico (2-8), Guatemala (1-9) and El Salvador (0-10).

Raúl Ramos, in his November 18, 2018 blog on the 1951 Amateur World Series, at conlasbasesllenas.com, published this Wito Conde quote:

“I recall a number of Puerto Rican fans were medical students in Mexico. We nearly had a fight with the Venezuelan team. Davalillo applied a tag on me quite hard at second base. Pepe Seda (Puerto Rico manager) had stated: ‘No one here throws a punch except me.’ I vividly remember the final out which won it; I was playing second; the Cuban hitter hit one to Papi Figueroa (shortstop) and he stepped on the bag for a force play. Being part of this team and winning the world title was marvelous. That experience propelled me to become a professional player.”

Wito Conde with Chicago

Wito embarked on a 20-year Puerto Rico Winter League playing career, 1952-53 to 1971-72; a 17-year minor league playing career, from 1954-to-1970; and a brief MLB stint—14 games with the 1962 Chicago White Sox. He scouted for MLB teams; coached in Puerto Rico; managed two teams in the Mexican (Class AAA) League, 1981 and 1986; and was a successful GM in Puerto Rico with Ponce and Mayagüez. Wito is the ONLY person to have won a title with the Mayagüez Indians as a batboy (1948-49); player (1962-63 and 1965-66); coach (1977-78); and GM (2011-12)!  For good measure, he managed the 1976 Juana Díaz Poets to Puerto Rico’s Class AA Amateur Championship. http://www.ballcharts.com/teams/custom.php?team=PoetasJuanaDiaz&custom_number=7273

Wito Conde with Spokane

Wito’s minor league career included four seasons (1954-57) in the New York Giants system; part of 1958 with Tulsa in the Phillies system; 1958-1961 with Los Angeles Dodgers clubs (Victoria and Spokane); 1962-70 mostly with Indianapolis, a Chicago White Sox Class AAA team through 1967, but

Cincinnati Reds farm team, when he played for them, 1968-1970. The 1968 Indianapolis Indians were managed by Don Zimmer, who remembered Wito as a “blue collar guy who really knew the game.” (Zimmer and Wito were teammates with Mayagüez the first-half of the 1954-55 winter season.) Wito played in 21 games for the 1970 Saltillo Salaperos in Mexico, and concluded his minor league career with the 1970 Class AA Asheville Tourists, Cincinnati’s affiliate in the Southern League.

His minor league totals, excluding Mexico, included a .307 AVG, 111 HR and 651 RBIs, with a fabulous season with the 1962 Indianapolis Indians–.353 AVG, 12 HR and 76 RBIs.  He batted over .300 in eight minor league seasons, including .325 with the 1960 Spokane Indians, a team with Willie Davis, Ron Fairly and Frank Howard, destined to be stars with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Wito played against Frank Howard in Puerto Rico, 1960-61 and 1961-62, when Howard’s Caguas Criollos faced Mayagüez.

Wito earned MVP laurels in 1959-60. He played in 62 of his team’s 63 games; was second in AVG at .336 to Vic Power’s .347 for Caguas; ended first in hits (79); outpaced San Juan’s Roberto Clemente in RBIs, 58-to-42, to lead the league in that category; and finished second in doubles with 15, five fewer than Mayagüez teammate Ray Barker’s 20 two-baggers.

The 1961-62 Mayagüez club finished first (45-35) in the regular season before being swept in the Finals by Santurce. Both teams participated in the February 6-14, 1962 Interamerican Series hosted by Sixto Escobar Stadium in Santurce, in the last pro baseball event hosted by this venue. (Hiram Bithorn Stadium was being built and would be used as the home field for San Juan and Santurce, starting in 1962-63.) The Interamerican Series also included the Caracas Lions from Venezuela and the Marlboro Smokers, representing Panamá and Nicaragua.

Wito cracked two homers in this nine-game series and drove in 10 runs, second to Santurce’s Miguel de la Hoz’s 13 RBIs. Wito’s two HR came versus Marlboro, a 6-2 win, and against Santurce, a 12-8 victory. Luis Tiant, who pitched for Caguas in the 1961-62 regular season, won these contests as a Mayagüez reinforcement. Santurce (8-1) had excellent pitching, except for this (12-8) loss. Bob Gibson, Juan Pizarro, Orlando Peña and Craig Anderson pitched effectively for Santurce. When the Series All-Star Team was chosen, five of the 10 players were from Santurce: 3B de la Hoz, RF Orlando Cepeda, CF Tony González, RHP Peña and LHP Pizarro. César Tovar (2B) of Caracas was chosen over Wito and Santurce’s Cookie Rojas. Mayagüez placed catcher Charlie Lau on this select team. Others were 1B Jim Frey, Caracas; SS Ted Obregón, Caracas; and LF Al Pinkston, Marlboro. Caracas (5-4), Mayagüez (4-5) and Marlboro (1-8) trailed the 8-1 Crabbers by series end. Wito’s series AVG was .265 — 9 for 34.

Wito Conde with Mayagüez

Mayagüez rebounded to capture the 1962-63 Puerto Rico crown after a 42-28 first-place finish in the regular season. Cal Ermer did a splendid job as their skipper. Wito batted .292 with three HR and 32 RBIs and had 32 walks-to-13 strikeouts in 233 AB. Boog Powell hit a team-best 10 HR. Joe Christopher led the team and league with 20 SB. Canena Márquez, the legendary OF, came through for Mayagüez in the finals against Caguas. Julio Gotay a solid shortstop and Wito’s double play partner, practiced voodoo then. Wito once put some chicken bones near second base and Gotay refused to play until they were removed. (Gotay once broke up a double play when a sandwich he kept in his back pocket fell out during a slide; this caused the opposing shortstop to slip on it.) Perhaps the key contributor for 1962-63 Mayagüez was reliever Bob “PraPra” Dustal—who appeared in 40 regular season games and led the league with a 1.92 ERA in 92 innings. Wito recalled the three hardest-throwing pitchers that winter were lefties—Bob Veale (Ponce), Juan Pizarro (Santurce) and Sam McDowell (Santurce).

Wito helped Pizarro throw a no-hitter in the opening game of the February 1963 Interamerican Series in Panamá.  Elio Chacón was trying to steal second on a hit-and-run play. Wito mentioned this to Jorge Colón Delgado in their April 4, 2017 interview: “I went to cover second and Angel Scull lined one (up the middle) which I caught on the edge of my glove.” Wito then threw the ball to Boog Powell at first to complete the twin-killing and preserve the (eventual) no-hitter by Pizarro, who fanned 10 and walked four. But Panamá (5-2 record) got the last laugh after defeating Nicaragua (4-3 mark) in a sudden death extra game. Mayagüez (3-3) and Venezuela (1-5) finished third and fourth, respectively. However, Wito, Boog Powell and RF Jim Koranda were the trio of Mayagüez players selected to the Series All-Star Team. Cal Ermer spoke very highly of Wito— “he was (like) a manager on the field; very focused and helpful.”

Wayne Blackburn managed Wito with Mayagüez, 1965-66, another banner season. The 42-28 Indians outmatched Ponce (38-33), Caguas (37-34) and Arecibo (34-36). San Juan (31-39) and Santurce (29-41) failed to qualify for the playoffs. “Wito was 30 when that season began and 31 when it ended,” said Blackburn. “We had a working agreement with Detroit…Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley, Ray Oyler…were prospects…set up 10 a.m. practices throughout the season and Wito was there for all of them…a leader and a gentleman. His attitude helped us win it.”

Wito’s .311 AVG (39-for-135) included clutch hits. He played first base due to some shoulder maladies, but continued to produce. Ozzie Virgil mostly played third base, with Gotay at second and Oyler at short. Héctor Valle caught after his only MLB appearances with the 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers. Jim Northrup (RF)—league batting champion (.353 AVG), Mickey Stanley (CF) and Junior Rodríguez (LF) were a formidable outfield. Billy Graham was their best starter; LHP John Hiller led the bullpen corps. Mayagüez bested Ponce, four games-to-two, in the finals, despite Ponce’s pitching depth led by John Boozer and Steve Carlton.

Jumping to 1969-70, Ellis “Cot” Deal, who managed the 1969-70 San Juan Senators, managed Oklahoma City in 1969, when Wito played for Indianapolis. Deal pitched parts of four MLB seasons with Boston (AL) and St. Louis (NL). He played with San Juan, early-to-mid 1950s. “Wito was a role model to the younger players,” said Deal. “He concentrated on every at-bat and play on the field…won Silver Gloves as best-fielding third baseman in minor league seasons.”

Wito went one-for-three (.333 AVG) as a PH in the February 5-10, 1970 Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela. The host Magallanes Navigators won seven of eight games, compared to Ponce’s 4-4 mark and Licey’s 1-7 record, in the first Caribbean Series in a decade; beginning of Phase II—1970-to-the-present. Phase I was 1949-to-1960. Tony Pérez, a Ponce reinforcement, also had a .333 AVG (10-for-30); he made the Series All-Star Team at 3B. The seven wins by Magallanes are still an all-time Caribbean Series record. (Santurce’s eight wins in the February 1962 Interamerican Series are an all-time Interamerican Series standard.) Paul Doyle, a LHP with Ponce, remembered the (Ponce) Lions were protected by a bodyguard who “looked a lot like singer Tom Jones.” Manager Jim Fregosi did not make excuses about coming in second— “They (Magallanes) were the better team…and we finished second.” Magallanes’s only defeat was to Ponce, 5-4, on February 7, 1970.

Puerto Rico career regular season stats for Wito included 3,636 AB (seventh, all-time), 347 runs, 960 hits (eighth all-time), 141 doubles, 16 triples, 21 HR, 400 RBIs and .264 AVG. His 141 doubles are tied with José Cruz Sr. and Guillermo “Willie” Montañez for 10th place all-time. https://beisbol101.com/ramon-l-wito-conde/

Wito coached under manager Rene Lachemann, with 1977-78 Mayagüez. Those Indians came out of nowhere to finish fourth in the regular season (29-31); defeated first-place Caguas in the semis (four games-to-one) and Bayamón in the finals (four games-to-two). Mayagüez then won the February 1978 Caribbean Series in Mexico, with a 5-1 record.

As a scout, Wito worked with Cincinnati in the 1970s, covering Puerto Rico, per his SABR bio. Wito also scouted for the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers between the late 1980s and late 1990s. He managed Tabasco (1981) and Unión Laguna (1986) in Mexico, and Wytheville (1985) for the Chicago Cubs organization, rookie-ball, Appalachian League. He was Ponce’s GM from 1997-2007, and team president in 2008. Ponce won league titles in 2003-04 and 2008-09. He won another league title as Mayagüez’s GM in 2011-12. The Mayagüez Indians dedicated their 2019-20 season to Wito.

Wito Conde passed away of a heart attack, February 23, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was 85. The viewing took place at the Fermín Rivera Funeral Home in Juana Díaz, with burial done at Juana Díaz’s new Municipal Cemetery, Saturday, February 29, 2020.

With deep appreciation to Wito Conde for his time and goodwill. Ditto for Fred Beene, Wayne Blackburn, Cot Deal, Bob Dustal, Cal Ermer, Jim Fregosi, Pedro Carlos Lugo, Wayne Simpson and Don Zimmer. Jorge Colón Delgado’s 2019 book, “Los Indios de Mayagüez, was helpful. Raúl Ramos’s piece on the 1951 Amateur World Series shed light on this phase of Wito’s life. Rory Costello’s SABR bio of Wito paid tribute to a special human being, who will be missed.

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