Bill Sarno CTLatinoNews.com
So far, the 21st century is emerging as the Golden Age for Latino players in Major League Baseball.
The depth and quality of the current Hispanic talent is so extensive that baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York might need a separate wing to enshrine standouts such as David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Mo Rivera, Pedro Martinez. Miguel Cabrera and others, but probably not for Sammie Sosa and Alex Rodriquez.
Sixty years ago there was another impressive array of Latino players in the major leagues. These players might not have posted the glittery statistics of today’s notables, but these pioneers, many setting “firsts” for Latinos in the big leagues, contributed much to the game.
For a young Yankee fan growing up in New Jersey, only a 30-minute ride from The Stadium, the late 1950s and early 1960s was a period of peak baseball interest.
These were the glory days of Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Al Kaline, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Whitey Ford and Ernie Banks.
Generally, national origin was irrelevant to young fans at the time, it was home runs and wins and losses that really mattered unless the player was Elmer Valo whose was a native of a country that was then Czechoslovakia.
Looking back there were numerous players with links to Latin America, Cuba and Puerto Rico who left indelible marks on a Yankee fan’s memory, primarily because they were among the primary tormentors of the beloved Bronx Bombers.
Not to be ignored in the 1950s, especially when he got on base, was Saturnino Orestes Armas (Arrieta) Minoso, better known as Minnie Minoso.
The Cuban-born Monoso mostly played for the Chicago White Sox, an American League rival that tested the Yankee juggernaut annually, even having the audacity in 1959 to be the only team to deny the Yankees an American League pennant in 1955 through 1964.
Minoso played the outfield well, could hit home runs, but more notably he ran the bases with blazing speed and panache. He was usually among the league leaders in stolen bases and triples.
Minoso’s game also possessed a special dimension that was unforgettable. He had a penchant for getting hit by pitches, leading the league in this bruising category most years.
In the early 1970s, the White Sox staged an Old Timers Night at their home on the South Side, ancient Comiskey Park. The crowd reserved its largest cheer that night for Minoso who had turned in his uniform during the previous decade.
Little did the fans know that Minoso was far from through. He came back to the White Sox for three games in 1976 and two in 1984 to earn the unique distinction of having played in five decades.
Minoso was hardly the only White Sox player with Latin roots to haunt the Yankees during this era. The Pale Hose featured a Venezuelan-born shortstop destined for the Hall of Fame .
Luis Aparicio was one of the best to ever play his position and was a scourge on the bases, stealing more than 50 bases in several seasons.
Teamed with the clever second baseman Nellie Fox, Aparicio gave Chicago a dynamic hit-and-run duo and solid double play combination.
Aparicio and the countryman he succeeded at shortstop for the White Sox , Chico Carrasquel, set a standard of excellence for their position that Venezuela became synonymous with good shortstops.
The Hispanic connection on the White Sox went beyond the playing field. For much of this period, the manager was Al Lopez, a future Hall of Famer whose roots ran from Spain, to Cuba and onto Tampa, Florida.
Known as El Senor, Lopez was one of the few American League managers who knew how to vex the Yankees. He led the Cleveland Indians to the pennant in 1954 and repeated this conquest five years later in Chicago.
The 1954 Indians, featuring a second baseman Bobbie Avila and a burly pitcher Mike Garcia, had one of the best regular seasons ever, winning 111 games.
Avila, who came from Mexico, had a career season, leading the league in hitting with a .341 average. The son of a Mexican, Garcia posted 19 victories and had the league’s lowest earned run average.
The Indians parade of wins came to a screeching halt in the World Series, where they ran into a four-game sweep by the New York Giants.
This was the Series where Mays made his immortal catch and throw in the deep outfield of the Polo Grounds, Dusty Rhodes got his 15 minutes of fame for two pinch-hit home runs and one of the winning pitchers was Ruben Gomez; Gomez was the first Puerto Rican to pitch in the Series.
A native of Cuba was a key figure in what had to be the darkest days in Yankee history, at least for one 9-year-old fan, and one of the most dramatic plays in Series history.
It was a sunny October afternoon when the youngsters getting out of school, (games started at 1 p.m. then) learned that the Brooklyn Dodgers had beaten the Yankees in the decisive game of the 1955 World Series. This was cause for a funk that lasted for weeks.
For the first time the Dodgers had won a World Series and the coup de grace was administered in the sixth inning by Havana-born Sandy Amoros whose stretched-out grab of a Yogi Berra drive deep in the left field corner seemed to deflate any hopes of a Yankee comeback.
In fairness, the Latino players of the era did a lot more than plague the Yankees. Moreover, the Bronx Bombers did have their share of standouts of Hispanic descent, including the versatile Hector Lopez, the second Panamanian in the Majors, and, for a couple of seasons, a Cuban shortstop named Willy Miranda.
But the player whose Hispanic roots was most obvious to Yankee fans was a stocky 5-foot, 8-inch relief pitcher, Luis Arroyo.The legendary Mel Allen would remind the audience that “little Luis from Puerto Rico” was entering the game almost every time he took the mound.
For many baseball followers of the time, Arroyo became known as the reliever who finished many of the games that future Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford started. In 1961, Arroyo recorded a league-leading 29 saves, often as a closer for Ford who won 25 games that season.
Another Latino giant who came out of this era, Roberto Clemente, played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and thereby the future Hall of Famer was less visible to Yankee fans.
The Pirates and Yankees hooked up in the 1960 Series, and the Puerto Rico-born Clemente did some damage with nine hits and three runs batted in. But it is Bill Mazeroski’s Series-deciding home run that is etched in most fans’ memories.
Another player of Puerto Rican descent, Arnie Portocarrero, is best remembered by Yankee fans for having a name that was more distinguished than his won-loss record.
The New York-born Portocarrero posted only two winning seasons among his seven in the majors. The tall right-hander had the misfortune to toil on some of the worst teams of the 1950s, or any era as a matter of fact. He pitched for the doomed Philadelphia Athletics, their subsequent reincarnation as the Kansas City Athletics and the Baltimore Orioles who succeeded the hapless St. Louis Browns.
No doubt, Aparicio and Clemente earned their Hall of Fame honors for their playing skills and Lopez for his managerial expertise, but there also were many other Latinos who provided great memories for baseball fans of that bygone era.
The writer is a New Jersey native who had a long career as a newspaper editor in the Garden State and Connecticut. He still occasionally checks the baseball results to see how the Yankees are doing.