“The Crabbers had some of the most talented teams ever to take the field,” Delgado says. He recalls something Clemente once said. When his Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series, he was asked if he had ever played for a better ball team than Pittsburgh.
“ Si,” Clemente replied, “ los Cangrejeros de Santurce.”
SOURCE OF TALENT
The Crabbers play a day game in Juncos, an hour’s drive south of San Juan. The drive takes me past several small towns, some high in the rain clouds, and in nearly every one there’s a ballpark with stands, lights, a scoreboard, the works.
Baseball was introduced here in the late 19th century, when the island became a U.S. possession after the Spanish-American War. It was played as an amateur sport up to 1938, the year the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League began with six teams: the San Juan Senators, the Mayaguez Indians, the Caguas Criollos, the Ponce Lions, the Humacao Oriental Grays and the Guayama Witch Doctors.
During the first year, rosters were made up mainly of Puerto Rican and Cuban players. That changed in the 1939-40 season when the Auguadilla Sharks and the Santurce Crabbers were formed, and several teams signed players from the American Negro League, among them Hall of Fame greats Josh Gibson, who played for Santurce, and Leroy “Satchel” Paige, who played for Guayama.
Paige, one of the craftiest pitchers in the game, compiled a 1.93 ERA with 208 strikeouts in his only season in Puerto Rico. Despite his success, the legendary hurler was never that comfortable playing for the Witch Doctors. In Guayama, Santeria and voodoo are practiced, and Paige, it’s said, once walked off the mound in the middle of a Witch Doctors’ game, claiming he had seen a ghost standing next to him.
In those days major league baseball was segregated. It stayed that way until 1947, when Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers. In the postwar years, Puerto Rican teams continued to attract Negro League players, drawn by the island’s relaxed racial customs, but increasingly white and black big leaguers played winter ball in Puerto Rico.
Scouts soon began to see the Caribbean as a place to find new talent. The Dodgers, Pirates and Washington Senators took a particular interest in Cuban players. In what could be one of the great what-if scenarios in the annals of the game, the story goes that a young Cuban pitching prospect named Fidel Castro was courted by several teams, and in 1951 was offered $5,000 to sign with the New York Giants. Another version of events has it that Castro got a tryout with the Senators. Washington coaches apparently weren’t impressed with the future dictator, and he eventually turned his attention to politics.
With Cuba out of the baseball business, the Puerto Rican league flourished. By the mid-1960s, Santurce practically became an off-season extension of the Baltimore Orioles. Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and retiring Nationals manager Davey Johnson played for the Crabbers.
Faced with financial setbacks, the Crabbers have had trouble finding a place to play this season. When Santurce’s ballpark, just outside San Juan, was closed for repairs, the team made a deal to play its home games 25 miles away.
By the time I get to Juncos, the stadium parking lot is almost full. Carlos Baerga, Santurce’s manager, is in the clubhouse getting ready for today’s game with the first-place Caguas Criollos. A win over Ponce last night has everyone in a good mood. Baerga began his major league career playing third base for the Cleveland Indians in 1990; his last season was 15 years later with Washington.