Josh Gibson, on Wednesday, January 1, 1947, penned a brief note to Pedrín Zorrilla, on a small card. He wrote: “Siempre mi Hermano” (Always my Brother), and signed it Joshua Gibson. The catcher’s note appeared below Season’s Greetings and Best Wishes for the New Year. And 1/1/47 was inserted in the upper right-hand corner. Gibson’s card was postmarked January 2, 1947, and mailed to Pedrín Zorrilla, PO 2032, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
So, why did Josh Gibson—less than three weeks before his passing—send a poignant message to Mr. Zorrilla, who will be “Pedrín” in the remainder of this post? Who was Pedrín? What was his focus with Negro Leaguers? Where did Pedrín interact with Black players from the States, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela? When did Pedrín make an “imprint” on Negro Leaguers, and why did he do so?
Pedrín was the first owner of the Santurce Crabbers Baseball Club in Puerto Rico’s Professional Baseball League, aka as Puerto Rico’s Winter League. He created this 1939-40 team from scratch, with the help of colleagues. Pedrín overcome obstacles, including a one-year probationary status imposed on his team for 1939-40, plus a $350 payment to the visiting team, for each game the Crabbers hosted at Sixto Escobar Stadium, located near the Atlantic Ocean. (Santurce shared this stadium with their arch-rivals: San Juan Senators.)
There was a scarcity of talented Native players on the Island circa 1939-40. Pedrín and the league’s seven other owners could sign three “Imports” apiece. Josh Gibson, RHP Billy Byrd and Dick Seay were the Crabbers first three 1939-40 imports. Pedrín named Gibson player-manager. Gibson, born in 1911, was a younger brother to Pedrín, born in 1905. They were “family,” not just “team owner-player-manager” baseball associates.
Who was Pedrín?
He was nearly 34 when Santurce opened the 1939-40 season versus the Aguadilla Sharks, an “expansion team,” like Santurce. Pedrín’s father was a poet, not a sports aficionado. Pedrín began his professional career as an executive with Shell Oil Company, circa 1927. He played amateur baseball in Puerto Rico, after graduating from Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Military Academy and Baltimore’s Rock Hill College.
What was his focus with Negro Leaguers?
Pedrín, per his son, Dr. Enrique Zorrilla, cared deeply about fellow human beings in his beloved Puerto Rico, in the States, and elsewhere. Pedrín had an altruistic nature about life—he was “NOT about making money, taking advantage of others, and using them for his personal gain.” Pedrín viewed Josh Gibson, Byrd, Seay, and many others he signed to play for Santurce, e.g., Willard Brown, Bob Thurman, John Ford Smith, Jim Lamarque, et al, as individuals to always be treated with dignity and respect.
Enrique Zorrilla alerted the author (via a January 30, 2021 phone conversation) about the time his dad, attorney Guigo Otero Suro, and Dick Seay stopped to eat at a restaurant in the Deep South. They waited for quite a while, before Pedrín was told “he and his tall friend [Guigo] could be served, but not the Black fellow.” Pedrín nearly came to blows with the restaurant employee, until Guigo gave him some good advice: “We can handle that fellow, but the police will have a roadblock set up down the road…”
Pedrín was LOYAL to his ex-players. Seay was employed by Pedrín, for years, as a Santurce coach. This included the 1954-55 Crabbers, featuring ex-Negro Leaguers Willie Mays, Bob Thurman, George Crowe, Buster Clarkson, Sam Jones, and Bill Greason.
Where did Pedrin interact with Negro Leaguers?
In many places, including team buses, restaurants, ballparks, etc. Shortly after Pedrín married Diana D. Zorrilla, May 9, 1948, they honeymooned, for two weeks, in New York City. Pedrín spent much of this honeymoon watching Negro Leagues baseball games, conversing with players, reconnecting with Negro Leagues officials, to improve Santurce’s team, for 1948-49. Enrique Zorrilla recalled his dad telling stories on traveling with Negro Leagues teams, via the team bus, and “getting to know the players off the field.” Diana married Pedrín when “Pedrín was married to Santurce,” per their son, Enrique.
When did Pedrín make an “imprint” on Negro Leaguers?
As soon as he interacted with them. Players on opposing teams in Puerto Rico, such as Alonzo Perry and Wilmer Fields, deeply respected Pedrín. The “word got out” that Pedrín was honest, a baseball fanatic, and sincere. There was NO phony bone in Pedrín’s body.
Why did he [Pedrín] do so much for Negro Leaguers?
Willard Brown never received proper recognition in St. Louis, Missouri, for being the first African-American to play in a 1947 American League contest. When some of Pedrín’s relatives asked him to introduce the slugger to them, in Santurce, they were overjoyed with emotion upon meeting Willard Brown. Pedrín’s relatives hugged their Santurce hero, who routinely received awards in Puerto Rico, accompanied by cash and clothing gifts.
Pedrín’s friendship with Satchel Paige was one reason why Paige agreed to fly to Puerto Rico, and pitch for the Crabbers in the latter part of 1947-48. This benefited Paige, who signed a contract to pitch for the 1948 Cleveland Indians, while he was with Santurce.
Willard Brown set the Puerto Rico Winter League single-season HR record with 27, in 1947-48, a 60-game season! Bob Thurman joined Santurce in 1947-48 and formed a dynamic one-two punch with Brown, one compared to Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig. As a matter of fact, Thurman is the all-time leader in homeruns.
Circling back to Josh Gibson, he played pick-up basketball games with Guigo Otero Suro and others on off-days, early 1940s. Gibson was comfortable in Puerto Rico; he could dine at the best restaurants, enter the top night clubs…and in many instances, did not have to pay. Years later (1975) Pedrín and Ted Page sought out Josh Gibson’s unmarked grave in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery, and raised funds for a proper marker.
Pedrín’s kindness and love extended to Native players, too, such as ex-Negro Leaguer Luis Rafael Cabrera. We honor and cherish Pedrín’s memory and legacy.
Thomas E. Van Hyning,
Author/Caribbean Baseball Historian