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When Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente played together
The Caribbean series is near. Formerly called the “Caribbean World Series”, the tournament has lost its old shine. For those who does not know it, it faces the champions from winter leagues in Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela, but since a decade (more or less) until now, the renown players have decided not to play in the competition, which has caused that some fans lost interest about it. Last year, in an attempt to revive the event, Cuba accepted an invitation to play in it.
This edition of 2015 will be played in San Juan and the participant teams are: Culiacán Tomatoes Growers (México), Cibao Giants (Dominican Republic), Anzoategui Caribes (Venezuela), Pinar del Rio (Cuba) and Santurce Crabbers (Puerto Rico). Santurce will play the series for the first time since 2000 and with Caribes’ intend to play the tournament without any reinforcement player, it reminds me that Santurce Crabbers has been the only team to the day that has played and won the series without any reinforcement player (for the competition, the champion teams may take players from the other teams of the league as addition to their roster).
The Santurce Crabbers 1954-55
It happened in 1955 and Santurce was known as “El Escuadrón del Pánico” (The Panic Squad) for their portentous offensive. They included in their roster two wonderful players who went on to be immortalized as the best outfielders in baseball history, they were native player Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays (that’s right, they both played together once). Besides Mays and Clemente, the Crabbers also had Don Zimmer, Bob Thurman and native legends Luis Rodríguez Olmo and Rubén Gómez. When they arrived to Caracas for the series, they carried the title of “Heavy Favorites” to win the competition. As noted above, they did not have any reinforcement players.
On October 16th 1954, Willie Mays arrived to Puerto Rico. New York Giants’ management and journalists were worried due to the possibility of an injury that the Rookie of the Year could surfer in Borinquen, however a thousand fans went to welcome him at the airport. His first game as a crabber took place the next day and he hit two hits in his team’s loss 8-7 against their fiercest rivals, the San Juan Senators. On November 7th, he hit his first home run against the Mayaguez Indians.
Between November and December, as regular in the winter leagues, the rosters in Puerto Rico suffered a lot of changes. Santurce released many foreign players and brought others, especially from New York Giants. The Mayaguez Indians released due to low performance, shortstop Don Zimmer, who was hired by Pedrin Zorrilla for Santurce. He was different since then.
At December 15th, 1954, Crabbers were already at first place, 1 game and a half over Caguas Criollos and 4 over the Senators, they had won 15 of their last 18. At the end of the regular season, the league suffered a decline in attendance of 33%, many point out Santurce’s supremacy as the cause.
Willie Mays won the batting tittle and the MVP award. Santurce ended in first place and qualified for the finals. The final series would be against the Criollos, the crab against the little mare, as Puerto Ricans called the teams.
The Crabbers won game one 10 runs for 3 with a great game for Roberto Clemente, who went 4 for 5 with 4 RBIs. However they lost game 2, 3 to 7. In game three Santurce massacred Caguas, they did not only shutout their rivals but also hit 17 hits and scored 14 runs, Don Zimmer hit 4 hits and drove 4 runs. The formula was repeated on next game, they won 13 to 1, including four home runs, one by Mays.
Santurce won the Championship on game 5, February 7th 1955. Sam Jones pitched a complete game and allowed 2 runs while his offensive, led by Zimmer who hit his 3rd homer of the series.
Caribbean Series 1955
With such a constellation of stars, Santurce arrived in Venezuela as the main favorites. That series established a record attendance, 110,000 people went to the twelve games of the series.
Their first game was against the Almendares Spiders from Cuba. The arachnids sent Red Munger to the mound, Santurce won with a homer by Zimmer in the 7th inning. In the second game, the boricuas defeated Panama 2-1 with Zimmer hitting his second home run.
One of the most memorable moments in the history of the tournament came on the third day of action of ’55 edition. The “Estadio Universitario” was the stage of that game on February 12th. Magallanes of Venezuela sent leftie Ramón Monzant, who was teammate of Willie Mays in the Giants the last season, while for Santurce, former Negro league veteran and major league pitcher Sam Jones took the ball. Both pitchers threw a complete game.
Santurce Manager Herman Franks had managed Magallanes last year and knew Monzant’s quality and the passion of Caracas fans. After ninth inning, the game was tied at two. At inning eleventh the score remained unchanged. Magallanes had score two runs with only three hits while Santurce scored the same amount with 8 hits, including a solo home run by Roberto Clemente, who led the inning 11th with a single. Willie Mays, who by the point had gone 0-13 went at the plate to face his teammate in United States. Then he proceed to hit a walk off home run, the ball traveled fast and lost in the middle of the center fielder, giving the win for the boricuas. That is the most memorable moment in the history of the series.
On game 4th Rubén Gómez, another pitcher from the Giants, left the ganme at 5th inning due to injury, when he left the Cuban Scorpionsled the game 5-0, on 6th inning they scored one more run.
The little soldier Don Zimmer opened the sixth for the Crabbers with one single, Roberto Clemente emulated him and Willie Mays hit a triple that batted his teammates in, Clarkson hit a single and Mays scored.
On the eighth inning, Mays hit a single and Bob Thurman hit a double that drove Mays in. At the 9th inning, Almendares led 6-4 over the Crabbers, Red Munger, the starting pitcher for the Cubans retired the first two outs. One out away from loss, Alfonso Gerard came on to bat as a pinch hitter and hit a single, he left the stage for Don Zimmer who hit a long home run to left-center and tied the game. Roberto Clemente then came at bat and got on base with a walk and Munger got relieved by Al Lyons. At bat, Willie Mays, and a wild line drive is hit to rightfield, the rightfielder had troubles to catch the ball while Clemente ran through the base path like a comet, the second baseman made the cut off and threw home but the throw was wide open and allowed Clemente to score the walk off run. With Santurce win, they stayed one game away from the pennant, only Magallanes (winning the remaining two and Santurce losing their last game) could take them away the championship.
On February 14th, the Panic Squad won the Caribbean Series, the third for the team and fourth for the country. In the crowning game, they beat the Carta Vieja Yankees (Panama) 11 runs to 3, some highlights: Harry Chiti hit a 3-run home run, Willie Mays got three hits and Roberto Clemente hit two triples. With such a demonstration of power, the Panic Squad confirmed their favoritism and the reason of their moniker. In the last game of the series Magallanes beat Santurce in an irrelevant game.
Although the subject of this hub is the fact that Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, probably the best players of their generation, played once for the same team and together they massacrated the opposition, it is important to point out that neither of them was the best player for their team, as that recognition went for Don Zimmer, the Serie’s MVP.
Before the puertorrican team left Venezuela, workers of the airport painted on the plain: “Cangrejeros de Santurce, Campeones de la Séptima Serie del Caribe” (Santurce Crabbers, Champions of the seventh Caribbean Series). When they arrived homeland, 50,000 fans welcomed the most powerful, lethal and memorable team that has played in the 65 years of history in the Caribbean Series.