A 1991 Sentimental Journey with Bob Thurman

Bob Thurman in 1947-48 season.

The author received a phone call from Rafael Costas, a resident of Ponce, Puerto Rico, summer of 1991. Costas had written Enciclopedia Ponce Leones, published in 1989, chronicling the history of this storied professional baseball franchise. Ponce’s (municipality) colors are red and black; and the author told Rafael “red and black were special, since they are the colors of the University of Georgia,” where he (the author) graduated from. The essence of the phone call was 1) Robert (Bob) Thurman was to be one of 10 inductees in Puerto Rico’s first Professional Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony; 2) Could the author contact Mr. Thurman; 3) Help coordinate Thurman’s travel to Puerto Rico; and 3) Attend the Sunday, October 20, 1991 induction ceremony, in Ponce?

Puerto Rico’s Winter League

In 1990, the author became a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). By the summer of 1991, he had started research on his first book (titled Puerto Rico’s Winter League), published in 1995. At the time, he lived in northeast Pennsylvania, a two hour-and-30 minute drive from Cooperstown, New York, and their fine library, with The Sporting News, among other publications. So, how cool was this to get involved in a project involving Puerto Rico, where his family had relocated to in September 1956. Furthermore, Thurman starred for the author’s beloved Santurce Crabbers, 1947-1958; ending his Winter League career in Ponce, 1959-60 season, the city hosting the upcoming induction ceremony.

Simply put, the author—who never studied journalism, and was working at a small, private college, then—became “U.S. Correspondent for the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball of Fame,” a non-paid, voluntary, “for the love of the game” position, one he held, 1991-1996. He had grown up in Puerto Rico; knew about baseball’s importance to the Island; and was bilingual (English-Spanish). So, the author alerted Rafael Costas that he would contact Bob Thurman and travel to Ponce.

Bob “El Múcaro” Thurman’s Puerto Rico Winter League Career

For this blog, it is Bob. The author felt a bond with him, and it deepened when they spent a good portion of the October 18-20, 1991 weekend, together, and returned home, Monday, October 21, 1991. When the author first contacted Bob (phone), Dorothy—his wife—answered. She recalled traveling with Bob to Puerto Rico, several months after their August 1947 wedding, for Bob’s first season with Santurce. Dorothy noted they lived in Miramar [a sector of Santurce], on Refugio Street. Miramar featured huge Spanish-style homes; a former co-worker of the author lived in Miramar in the 1960s. She recalled Miramar was a neighborhood with character, where extended families lived from generation to generation.

“It was a big house,” said Dorothy. “A lady by the name of Albertina did the cooking…went down with Bob a number of seasons…have a lot of fond memories…enjoyed it.”

Willard Brown (left) and Bob Thurman in 1948-49 season.

The first part of Bob’s career with Santurce, 1947-48 to 1952-53, was overshadowed by teammate Willard Brown, with 27 HR for the 1947-48 Crabbers, a 60-game season. Sportswriters noted Brown-Thurman were to Santurce, what Ruth-Gehrig were to the 1926-1934 New York Yankees. Perhaps, it should be the other way around? Bob posted a 39-32 regular season W-L record; and, 117 of his 120 league HR were hit with the Crabbers. Bob’s final three HR came with Ponce, 1959-60, the city where he was formally inducted into the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame.

Those three HR propelled and kept Bob as the league’s #1 career HR hitter, one ahead of José “Cheo” Cruz, whose 119 HR came with Ponce (49) and the Caguas Criollos (70). He recalled one that didn’t count, 1985-86 season. “It was a January 1, 1986 game in Mayagüez and I hit one over the right-field fence. It rained, but then the sun came out. The game was postponed, but if they had wanted, they could have continued play.”

The interest generated by the Brown-Thurman duo in 1947-48 was the main reason a new league attendance record of 710,164 was set. Bob’s Puerto Rico nickname “El Múcaro” (the owl) was given to him after sterling performances in 1947-48 night contests at Sixto Escobar Stadium, home of the Crabbers and San Juan Senators. Bob’s complete Puerto Rico stats are at https://negroleaguerspuertorico.com/bob-thurman-11/. There are links to his Negro Leagues, minor-league, and National League stats, too.

Bob and the Author Touch Base in Puerto Rico (October 18-21, 1991)

Perhaps it was Pedro Carlos Lugo, a Ponce radio broadcaster/commentator who arranged transportation to-and-from Ponce, to the Luis Muñoz International Airport, in Carolina, Puerto Rico. In any case, the author’s flight to Puerto Rico arrived before Bob’s connecting flight. (Bob was a long-time resident of Wichita, Kansas, even though his May 14, 1917 birthplace was Kellyville, Oklahoma.) In hindsight, it would have been nice for Bob to see Sixto Escobar Stadium and his former house on Refugio Street.

Bob stayed at Ponce’s Hotel Meliá. The author recalls spending his first night at the Ponce home of Héctor Díaz Salichs, before transitioning to the Meliá, for Saturday and Sunday night. Friday night (October 18, 2021), Bob and the author were invited to take part in a radio sports talk and call-in show, “Foro Deportivo,” in Ponce. One caller asked Bob about his throwing arm, noting that [Roberto] Clemente played LF for Santurce in 1954-55, and Bob was in RF. Bob responded: “strong and accurate.” The people in the radio station roared in appreciation.

On Saturday, Bob and the author spent time watching the Ponce Lions practice. Orlando Gómez, who managed the 1991-92 Lions, and was their coach for a time, greeted Bob, saying: “Hello, Mr. Thurman,” with reverence. (Gómez landed his first major league coaching job as the 1992 Texas Rangers bench coach, under Bobby Valentine.) Earlier that morning, the author spent some time at the Ponce home of Luis “King Kong” Villodas, who played against Bob in Puerto Rico. (Villodas is Puerto Rico’s first big league catcher, with 1946 Baltimore Elite Giants.)

Bob Thurman with Cincinnati in 1957

Saturday afternoon and evening, we (Bob-and-author) conversed a variety of topics—Bob’s World War II service; how/why Cincinnati was willing to sign a 37-year old rookie OF; facing Sandy Koufax in Puerto Rico; scouting for Cincinnati and Minnesota; and playing with the 1946-48 Homestead Grays.

  • Bob served in the First Cavalry unit in World War II, seeing combat duty in the bloody New Guinea campaign, 1943-1944. General Douglas MacArthur was in charge of Allied Forces in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Per his SABR bio, he played semi-pro baseball, pre-World War II, in Wichita; and, some baseball in the Philippines (1945). https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bob-thurman/ Bob was active duty, U.S. Army, 1942-45.
  • Gabe Paul and Birdie Tebbetts (Cincinnati Reds MGR) were down in Puerto Rico (1954) scouting prospects, including Frank Robinson of Ponce and others, when they saw Bob hit a long HR against a top Stateside pitching prospect.
  • Bob impressed Paul (Cincinnati executive) and Tebbetts, with talent and desire. “They gave me $10,000 to play with Cincinnati,” said Thurman, to the author. “I knew I could play in the majors. They could sign me for nothing and I would play. When I told the old skipper [Tebbetts] ‘I’ll play for Cincinnati,’ they wrote me a check for $10,000.”
  • On Sandy Koufax with Brooklyn/Los Angeles and October-December 1956 Caguas-Rio Piedras Criollos: “I teased Koufax about his velocity; he could throw that ball. I felt he might have elbow problems by the way his follow-through went and the elbow staying up—pushing that elbow out would cause a terrible strain. I had a loosey-goosey delivery; otherwise, I’d have arm problems.”
  • Bob was the key Reds scout in recommending and signing Johnny Bench, out of Binger, Oklahoma (state where Bob was born). Some other Reds scouted and signed due to Bob’s efforts were Hal McRae, Gary Nolan and Wayne Simpson. Bench caught for San Juan, 1967-68; Simpson won the pitching Triple Crown for Ponce, 1969-70; and McCrae was injured, early season, with 1968-69 San Juan.
  • When the author mentioned watching Rudy May pitch for the 1974 California Angels, versus the Yankees, in Anaheim, Bob mentioned he signed May for the Twins.
  • Bob, based on Rob Manfred’s December 16, 2020 announcement on 1920-to-1948 Negro Leaguers now classified as major leaguers, began his big league career in 1946 with the Homestead Grays. He recalled a trio of veteran teammates—C Josh Gibson, 1B Buck Leonard and OF Cool Papa Bell—as well as younger teammates such as Wilmer Fields and Luis “Canena” Márquez. Bob remembered Howard Easterling, the switch-hitting 3B.
  • Bob’s fondest memory, with Homestead, was winning the 1948 World Series—last one played in the Negro Leagues—against the Birmingham Black Barons, “a fine team.” Bob was 3-4 as a LHP for the Grays, in a tough major league, with a .312 AVG at the plate. He particularly enjoyed playing in “an OF with Luke Easter and Canena Márquez.” (Easter played LF due to Buck Leonard at 1B.) Bob liked Sammy Bankhead’s style and demeanor as the Grays 1948 player-manager. Wilmer Fields recalled being Bob’s teammate with the Grays, and his opponent in Puerto Rico, 1947-48 with San Juan; and 1948-1950, with the Mayagüez Indios.

Bob and the author dined at a nice Ponce restaurant near the Hotel Meliá, Saturday evening. The waiter recognized Bob from his playing days with Santurce and Ponce. This was a special moment. So was the Induction Ceremony, the next day.

The author met Luis R. Mayoral, a Ponce native, prior to the Sunday, October 20, 1991 ceremony. (Mayoral coordinated MLB’s Latin American Baseball Players Day, 1970-to-1995, under five different Commissioners.) He introduced the author to Doña Vera viuda (widow) de Clemente. Doña Vera gave the author a special cap and shared a story about her husband and Bob, dating back to the 1952-53 Puerto Rico winter season.

Bob Thurman and Roberto Clemente in the 1954-55 season.

“Roberto admired and respected [Bob] Thurman, from the time he was an 18-year old rookie. Roberto once told me that [player-manager] Buster Clarkson called upon him (Roberto) to pinch-hit for Thurman. This meant a lot to Roberto.”

Doña Vera was referring an early 1952-53 season game in Caguas, with the score tied, when Bob was about to face LHP Roberto Vargas, of the Criollos. When Clarkson signaled to Clemente to grab a bat and replace Thurman, this meant a lot to an 18-year rookie, wearing #39 for the Crabbers. (Thurman wore #36 for Santurce.)

When the author touched on this subject with Bob, he was most gracious and unassuming. “We were a family with those Crabbers teams in the late 1940s and 1950s. I went out there every day and night, to help Santurce win, and had no problem with encouraging the rookies and younger players, like Roberto, Orlando (Cepeda) and Juan (Terín) Pizarro.” The 10 inductees in the Puerto Rico Pro Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 1991, were:

  • Willard Brown
  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Perucho Cepeda
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Francisco “Pancho” Coímbre
  • Rubén Gómez
  • Luis “Canena” Márquez
  • Juan “Terín” Pizarro
  • Vic Power (Víctor Pellot)
  • Bob Thurman.

Our Monday, October 21, 1991 trip to the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, from Ponce, was uneventful. Bob and the author had a bite to eat, before catching our respective flights home. The author mentioned his two-and-a-half hour car trips from Factoryville, Pennsylvania to Cooperstown, New York. Bob smiled and said: “Earlier this year (1991), I made my first trip to Cooperstown.” It was an honor and a privilege to meet and share time with Bob.

Caribbean Series Hall of Fame

More than 28 years later, on February 6, 2020, Bob and four other ex-players, including Buster Clarkson and Roberto Vargas, were inducted in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame, in a Guaynabo, Puerto Rico Ceremony. The author and Jorge Colón Delgado were present for this event. (They were both at the October 20, 1991 ceremony in Ponce, but did not meet each other until eight years later, at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, then-home of Santurce and San Juan.)

In Bob’s first Caribbean Series, February 22-26, 1951, in Venezuela, he delivered eight hits in 22 AB for a .364 AVG, 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 the opener. George Scales was Bob’s manager in this event. Coincidentally, Scales managed Bob, 1959-60 at Ponce, until he (Scales) resigned, November 14, 1959.

Two years later, player-manager Buster Clarkson led the Crabbers to a sweep in Havana, winning all six contests. The champions had a .367 AVG and .575 team SLG, and scored 50 runs! Bob 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 AVG, to be named its MVP.  Junior Gilliam batted .545 (12-for-22) and scored seven times. Clarkson hit .467 (six-for-15), and Vic Power—a Caguas reinforcement—scored six and batted .385. Bobo Holloman (2-0) and San Juan reinforcement Ellis “Cot” Deal both went 2-0. Havana (3-3), Chesterfield Smokers from Panamá (2-4) and the Caracas Lions (1-5) were overwhelmed by Santurce. Martín Dihigo, the legendary player from Cuba, managed Caracas.

Cot Deal remembered the great Santurce-San Juan rivalry, early-to-mid-1950s. “San Juan fans called me Mr. Refuerzo—Mr. Reinforcement; I played the OF and pitched. But Santurce had Bob Thurman, who won plenty of games (39) for them and could really hit. Wichita (Kansas) is a three-hour drive from Oklahoma City (Deal’s hometown). It was a real treat reinforcing Santurce in Havana, and being Bob’s teammate.”

Bob was deprived of a spot on the series All-Star Team when the writers cast their votes for Havana’s RF Pedro Formental, whose 14 hits in 25 AB resulted in a series-leading .560 AVG. Those 14 hits were (and remain) a series record. Only Randy Ready—Mayagüez, 1986 Caribbean Series—and San Juan’s Roberto Alomar, for the Puerto Rico Dream Team, 1995 Caribbean Series, had 14 hits in a single Caribbean Series.

Bob opined: “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.”

The Perfect Machine (La Maquinaria Perfecta).

The 1954-55 Crabbers, managed by Herman Franks, were outstanding and (at least) the best Winter League baseball team between the 1949-1960 Caribbean Series (Phase I). Don Zimmer, MVP, 1955 Caribbean Series, told the author “this was the best Winter League team ever assembled.” They won that series without reinforcements, unlike other Caribbean Series winners. Bob went seven for 22 in the February 1955 series, .318 BA, with three RBIs. Zimmer (.385, three HR, four RBIs); Willie Mays (.440, two HR, nine RBIs); Clemente (.269, one HR, three RBIs); 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, a .381 AVG, was the top figure, Phase I (1949-to-1960). Top 10 include: 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.

Bob joined ex-Santurce teammates Willard Brown, Buster Clarkson, Rubén Gómez, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame. His .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; 61 triples are fourth. Bob had a .525 career SLG; scored 527 runs, seventh all-time; and connected 931 hits in 2,978 regular season AB. 

Bob was in “tip-top” shape when the author spent time with him, October 1991, seven years before he passed away in Wichita, on October 31, 1998, at 81. In his playing days, he was listed at 6’1” and 205 lbs. His posture was quite good at 74; he appeared to be closer to 6’2.” Most remarkable is that Bob was a 30-year old rookie with Santurce, 1947-48 season; 31 when he helped the 1948 Homestead Grays win the final (1948) Negro Leagues World Series; and, 38 a month into his 1955 Cincinnati season.

Bob was a mentor to Cincinnati Reds teammates, including 20-year old Frank Robinson, who turned 21 during the 1956 season. Robinson, in 1992, sat down with the author, at Camden Yards, when he was Baltimore’s Assistant General Manager. “I knew that Willard Brown got the headlines with 27 HR for Santurce (1947-48),” said Robinson. “Bob produced, too, for over a decade (with Santurce). He really helped me adjust to the environment in Cincinnati and other cities, in 1956…he was gentle and strong; someone I could trust.”

The author dedicated his 1995 Puerto Rico Winter League book to Rafael Costas (1938-1992), founder and first president, Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame. His 1999 book—The Santurce Crabbers—was dedicated to Pedrín Zorrilla (1905-1981), founder and owner of the Santurce Crabbers (1939-1956), known as “Mr. Baseball” and “El Cangrejo Mayor.” It was Mr. Zorrilla who made it possible for Bob to showcase his hitting and pitching talent in front of appreciative crowds at Sixto Escobar Stadium, plus ballparks in Caguas, Mayagüez, Aguadilla, and Ponce.

With deep appreciation to Bob Thurman for his friendship, humility, and kindness; to Dorothy Thurman, for her observations on their winter home in Santurce. Special thanks to ponceños Rafael Costas, Héctor Díaz Salichs and Luis R. Mayoral. Thanks to Doña Vera viuda de Clemente, José “Cheo” Cruz, Ellis “Cot” Deal, Wilmer Fields, Orlando Gómez, Frank Robinson and Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame.

4 thoughts on “A 1991 Sentimental Journey with Bob Thurman”

  1. In the 50s, i lived in Reading, Ohio and discovered baseball. The Reds were an amazing team. My 2 favorite players were BobThurman and George Crowe. Thank you for writing this article…

  2. Fine article about Bob Thurman! Thanks.

    Bob Reising

    P.S. Please let me know if this response reaches you. Send me you best email address; a bunch of my responses, Tom, are coming back to me.

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