Puerto Rico’s contribution to the Negro Leagues

Fans show gratitude to San Juan´s pitcher Roy Partlow after one of his wins.

A conversation with Jorge Colón Delgado—Official Historian, Puerto Rico Professional Baseball League, and long-time Negro Leagues researcher—sheds some light on why he developed a website titled negroleaguerspr.com focusing on more or less 217 Negro Leaguers who played professionally in Puerto Rico. “There is a lack of awareness of what these players accomplished in Puerto Rico,” stated Jorge. “Now is the opportune time to share this website with researchers.”

A short-term goal is to be “proactive” in having Puerto Rico baseball stats in place, so that the Stateside and global public, including researchers and Negro Leagues historians, have access to player summaries and stats for their Puerto Rico seasons with teams, including Aguadilla Sharks, Caguas Criollos, Guayama Witches, Humacao Oriental Grays, Mayagüez Indians, Ponce Lions, San Juan Senators and Santurce Crabbers. “Let’s uncover this mystery,” noted Jorge.

Simply put, much more is known about Negro Leaguers playing in Cuba and Mexico, than in Puerto Rico. This reality will be rectified in 2021 (short-term) and beyond (long-term). Future plans include blogs—in English—by Jorge Colón Delgado, Raúl Ramos and Thomas E. Van Hyning, which highlight special accomplishments on the field by legends such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, plus another 12 Negro Leaguers inducted in Cooperstown.

These blogs will also highlight and emphasize the positive “comfort level” of these players in Puerto Rico, in terms of [Stateside] Negro Leaguers enjoying the Island’s hospitality. They overnighted at the best hotels and dined at the finest restaurants. Players had time for fishing, socializing in town plazas and having dinner at homes of teammates, fans and team officials.

A show of affection for Willard Brown. Negro players where heroes in Puerto Rico.

Future (longer-term) blogs may cover “what if” scenarios—what if Josh Gibson had been able to play integrated MLB. 1930-1946? What if Babe Ruth had played integrated MLB, 1914-1935? Circling back to Puerto Rico, Willard Brown got to visit La Fortaleza (Governor’s Mansion) in Old San Juan, and be honored and recognized for his baseball prowess in Puerto Rico and Caribbean Series events. Mr. Brown never received proper recognition in St. Louis, Missouri, for being the first African-American to play in a 1947 American League contest. Yet, he was an idol in Puerto Rico, receiving multiple Player of the Week Awards with cash and clothing gifts.

Jackie Robinson played a 1948 exhibition game (spring training period) in Puerto Rico, with Brooklyn, but not in Puerto Rico’s Winter League. However, he nearly managed the 1950-51 Mayagüez Indians. His signed contract with the Mayagüez baseball club was voided by MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler on a technicality: Commissioner Chandler did not review the agreement “before Jackie Robinson signed it.”  Conversely, Frank Robinson did not encounter the same obstacle as Jackie Robinson when he got his first opportunity as the Santurce Crabbers 1968-69 manager.  He was still managing Santurce, in 1974-75, when the Cleveland Indians signed him to be their 1975 manager, in a dual role of player-manager.

Another reason for creating this web site pertains to the June 28-July 2, 2017 Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Convention at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City. A record attendance of 806 SABR members and friends enjoyed SABR 47. Jorge conversed with attendees, versed in the Negro Leagues, who were not aware that Josh Gibson was Santurce’s first manager in the Crabbers 1939-40 maiden season, and that Jackie Robinson had signed a contract to manage the 1950-51 Mayagüez Indians. Jorge was saddened at this lack of awareness, and  knew that he had to do something about this.

The Golden Era of Puerto Rico Professional Baseball (1947-48 to 1952-53)

Island fans enjoyed high-caliber baseball starring Negro Leaguers including, but not limited to: Willard Brown, Bob Thurman, Johnny “El Gaucho” Davis, Luke Easter, Alonzo Perry, Artie Wilson, Wilmer Fields, Dan Bankhead, among other Negro Leaguers. By 1953, AL and National League (NL) teams had signed most of the best Negro Leaguers, including Willie Mays (Giants) and Hank Aaron (Braves). When 19-year old Aaron played for the 1953-54 Caguas Criollos, most ex-Negro Leaguers in Puerto Rico were aging ballplayers. Twenty-three year old Willie Mays starred for the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers, a team with veteran Negro Leaguers such as Buster Clarkson, George Crowe, Bob Thurman, Bill Greason and a “younger” Sam Jones.

Santurce’s 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. Luke Easter, first player to homer over the CF wall at the Polo Grounds (1948), was League MVP with 1948-49 Mayagüez.

Fifteen Negro Leaguers plus Oscar Charleston: Puerto Rico to Cooperstown

Jorge’s beisbol101.com web site already lists 16 ex-Negro Leaguers, including Charleston, who umpired in Puerto Rico’s Professional Baseball League, 1946-47.  Fifteen Negro Leaguers who played pro baseball in Puerto Rico include Cooperstown Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Leon Day, Larry Doby, Ray Dandridge, Buck Leonard, Raymond Brown, Willard Brown, Willie Wells, Hilton Smith, Jud Wilson, Monte Irvin, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. “This story needs to be told and shared with global researchers,” affirmed Jorge. “It is not limited to 15 Cooperstown inductees who were Negro Leaguers, plus Charleston.

Some of these 220 Negro Leaguers were from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.” The 220 Negro Leaguers who played professionally in Puerto Rico do not include pitcher Slim Jones nor catcher Frank Duncan, among others, who barnstormed in Puerto Rico during the 1920s and 1930s but never played pro ball on the Island from 1938-39 through the late 1960s.

Setting the Record Straight

Puerto Rico’s first MLB catcher is now Luis “King Kong” Villodas, who played two seasons with the 1946/1947 Baltimore Elite Giants. He preceded Valmy Thomas—born in Santurce, Puerto Rico—but a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) native. Héctor Valle is the Island’s first NL catcher, 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers; Eliseo Rodríguez, its first AL catcher, 1968 New York Yankees. Villodas, with Mayagüez, played in the first [February 20-25, 1949] Caribbean Series, hosted by Havana, Cuba. These stories, and many others, need to be told and will be shared with an appreciative Stateside and global audience, thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado.

4 thoughts on “Puerto Rico’s contribution to the Negro Leagues”

  1. Thank you for sharing your amazing work and contribution… Wow, I knew there was more to Puerto Rico and baseball.. Super excited to know how they embraced Negroes/African americans.

  2. Jonathan Asencio

    Thanks Tom Van Hyning for writing this article.This is great to know and to share the extensive baseball history we Puerto Ricans have and all of our Latino and African American brothers who contributed to the sport and our league in the island.A great addition to sports history.

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