Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Shortages and rationing shaped American life and culture during the World War II era, and no shortage was more acute than that of bona fide professional baseball players. Baseball’s manpower crisis increased progressively as it moved down the minor league farm chain of organizations. Rather than suspend the national pastime, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his famous “green light letter” to Judge Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis, Commissioner of Baseball, and encouraged the playing of baseball to boost morale on the home front. FDR commended America’s game as a vital part of the wartime effort.

To address baseball’s manpower shortage, major league club owners adopted novel solutions to leverage the player pool. None was more resourceful, or penurious, than the Washington (D.C.) Senators’ legendary owner Clark Griffith. Once a proud franchise and heir to the legacy of Hall of Fame pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson, the Senators had fallen on hard times in the late 1930s and early 1940s. As one astute sports journalist noted, Washington was “First in War, First in Peace, Last in the American League.” To solve his organization’s player shortage at all levels, Griffith cast a covetous eye on the Caribbean Basin – specifically to Cuba. However, much of this Cuban baseball talent lay beyond the reach of major league clubs owing to the great racial barrier and organized baseball’s adherence to segregation. Although black Cuban baseball players remained off­limits, there were still promising white Cuban amateur and professional prospects to be signed on the cheap. Griffith placed a priority in securing a firm scouting foothold on the island. By no means an integrationist, he was a shrewd baseball businessman who hedged whichever way the racial winds were blowing before major league baseball embarked on integration in 1947. In Griffith’s mind, signing Cuban players of lighter and mixed-skin color was preferable to the employment of Negro League stars in Washington Senators uniforms. Washington was, after all, a southern city.

The crucial link between Washington and Cuba, and by extension Washington and Williamsport, was a minor league impresario and self-styled “super scout,” Joe Cambria.

An Italian immigrant, Cambria operated a lucrative commercial laundry business in Baltimore, Maryland, during the 1920s, earning the monikers “Laun­dryman Joe,” and “Wet Wash Joe.” He and his brother John invested in the ownership of the National Negro League’s Baltimore Black Sox in 1933. Presumably, his players had relayed their experiences playing in Cuba against seasoned professional ball players-both black and white. Leaving his brother to manage their minor league interests, Joe Cambria ingratiated himself to Clark Griffith and moonlight­ed as a roving scout for the Senators. Cuba became Cam­bria’s primary beat, and he established a “bird dog” scouting network to tap into the rich baseball talent from the Cuban Amateur and Professional Leagues. Over twenty-five years, beginning in the 1930s, Cambria would single-handedly establish the “Cuban Pipeline” that eventually led to the signing of seventy-eight players to the Washington farm system.

Cambria’s legacy has been subject to scrutiny. Even though largely responsible for the “Cuban Baseball Inva­sion,” his wholesale approach in signing the youngest Cuban prospects gutted the Cuban Amateur League. For every bona fide prospect that he signed­ – Conrado “Connie” Marrero, Sandalio Consuegra, Pedro “Pistol Pete” Ramos, and Camilo Pascual – other less-talented players languished in the lower echelons of the minors. Younger and marginal Cuban baseball players faced overwhelming odds as they progressed up the Wash­ington Senators’ farm chain.

Cuban baseball historian Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria noted that Cam­bria’s “profit Jay in quantity, not quality.” Columnist Robert Considine, writing for Collier’s, accused Cambria of “going ivory hunting in Cuba” – a not-so-veiled reference to his search for white Cuban baseball talent. “Papa Joe Cambria hadn’t done so bad, and would do even better if he would get over his predilections for signing Cubanolas,” observed baseball historian Morris A. Beale. The hardships of these young Cuban ball players were overwhelming. Many were unfamiliar with the English language and American customs and lived on paltry salaries. Cuban players also endured the wrath of opposing fans on the road and were easy targets for racial taunts and ethnic slurs. To add insult to injury, they were often isolated and ostracized by their own American teammates.

The more advanced and polished Cuban professionals were ticketed for the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Class AA Southern Association; but the team had not yet inked a working agreement with a lower-level Class A franchise and city to place the younger Cuban prospects, many of whom were fresh from the Cuban Amateur League. Where the younger Cuban prospects would be assigned was critical not only for their development as professional baseball players, but also for their acculturation and adjustment to American life. Once again, Joe Cambria devised a solution to the Senators’ dilemma.

The Cambria brothers owned controlling interest in the Springfield, Massachusetts, team of the Class A Eastern League (EL). A dismal financial season in 1943 led them to the decision to relocate the troubled franchise to another city. In early January 1944, they laid the groundwork by approaching the EL’s president, Tommy Richardson, to discuss new locations. Richardson, owner of a Williamsport Buick dealership and a celebrity baseball humorist, had long been a prominent baseball booster in his hometown. Before assuming the presidency of the EL, Richardson had long served as a business manager and publicist for the Williamsport Grays. Prior to suspending operations for the 1943 season, the Grays hnd enjoyed n long affiliation with the Philadelphia Athletics, but the astute Richardson perceived a potential marketing opportu­nity in promoting the Cubans league-wide. No doubt he was intrigued by the novelty of promoting the Williamsport club as the best road attraction on the circuit.

On April 7, 1944 – after nearly a month of negotiations involving the Cambrias, Richardson, Griffith, and activist Williamsport fans-the Senators signed a working agreement with the Williamsport Grays. Williamsport became the primary haven for Griffith’s Cuban baseball experiment. Bealle summed it up best, “Clark Griffith had signed so many Cubans that he had to establish a special farm for them in Williamsport.”

Not long after the working agreement was signed, the Williamsport Grays assembled a squad of twenty-three players-sixteen of them Cuban – for spring training in College Park, Mary­land. With less then three weeks to prepare for opening day, the Grays’ new manager, Ray Kolp, undertook a “crash course” in Spanish, and went about the task of meshing the Cuban and Ameri­can players. His patience would be acutely tested during his two-year tenure as manager of Williamsport’s Cuban teams, from 1944 to 1945.

Arriving in Williamsport in early May, the Cuban players had only a brief period to adjust to the colder spring climate of north-central Pennsylvania. This disadvantage was mitigated, somewhat, by the fact that the players enjoyed an early season advantage by virtue of having played winter league baseball in their native Cuba. Over the course of two seasons the pattern became clear. The Cuban Grays jumped out to a quick start but faded in the “Dog Days of Summer” when the rest of the EL caught up. The greatest challenges the Cubans faced were off the field – adjusting to a new language, a foreign culture, and the reaction of fans, both at home and away. The Cuban prospects signed by Washing­ton and assigned to Williamsport were relatively isolated from the community. They had the advantage of comprising a majority of the team’s members, but were billeted as a group five miles north of the city at Haleeka campgrounds, Cogan Station. It remains unclear, however, if management’s decision to house the team at Haleeka was to prevent the isolation of individual Cuban players, or to sequester the team as a whole from contact with the public. An interpreter-­trainer was assigned to help the players with their English and ease their transition to life in Williamsport.

By all accounts, both written and oral, the Cuban players were generally well­-received by Williamsport residents and, in turn, conducted themselves appropriately in public. During the two seasons in Williamsport, the Cubans often gathered at the Lycoming Hotel or one of its many Italian restaurants to celebrate victory with drinks and dinner. One resident remembers that the Cubans often walked from Williamsport to Haleeka following a game and night on the town, fondly recalling their spirited singing and boisterous laughter as they walked north along Route 15 near his old family home by Lycoming Creek.

Dorothy Parsons, long an avid Grays fan and one of the few women to sit in on the Williamsport baseball management sessions, remembered the players as young and well-behaved. Their hustling and energetic spirit endeared them to local fans, especially Williamsport’s female spectators. Parsons recalled that the players were “young and cute,” and elicited both maternal instincts and mild flirtations from “bobby soxers.” They impressed her with their curiosity about American culture and attempts to learn a few English phrases in order to communicate with Williamsport residents. Parsons also remembered that the Cubans were subject to prejudice outside the ballpark. She recalled one specific incident involving EL President Tommy Richardson and a Cuban player.

Well, you know us girls used to like to get together…socialize, and go downtown for …a drink now and then. There was this one young Cuban ball player who used to walk downtown with an open English dictionary in his hand. And he would stop to talk to us girls and try to learn a few words of English, just to get by. We admired him for that because he didn’t just want to live here and not communicate with the people. Well, one day Tommy came up to us as we were talking to the Cuban player and he yelled at him “You stay away from these girls you are …not supposed to associate with these girls …leave these girls alone. You girls stay away from these players…they are no good.” Now that is what I learned to hate about Tommy Richardson. Oh my, of all the stupid things for him to say. These kids were so cute and tried so hard. Can you imagine that…to be that prejudice.

On the field, Williamsport’s and other EL fans had never seen anything like the Cubans before. Eastern League beat writers dubbed them “The Rumba Rascals,” “The Laughing Latins,” and simply “the Williamsport Canebrakes,” indicative of the stereotyping of Latin Americans prevalent among sportswrit­ers of the era and by the public at large. Al Decker, former sports editor of the Grit, remembered their “constant chatter, blazing speed, and defensive athleticism set them apart from the other Eastern League teams.” He recalled that the teams of 1944-1945 lacked a legitimate power hitter. The Cubans played what baseball purists labeled the “inside game,” winning by bunting, advancing runners one out at a time, stealing bases, and using their hustle and speed on base paths to force defensive errors by the opposition. Decker recalled that the Cubans erratic play and daring on the base paths often exasperated Kolp to the point of “hitting the bottle.” Following a defensive or base running blunder by the Cubans, he witnessed Kolp retiring to the back of the clubhouse between innings and imbibing from a flask concealed in his warm-up jacket.

The 1944 Williamsport Grays broke out of the EL starting gate early, and played above .500 ball the first half of the season. The team was anchored by its speedy and athletic center-fielder, Jose Antonio “Tony” Zardon, dubbed “Speed Zardon,” “The Canebrake Comet,” and “The Havana Fleet Fly Hawk.” Zardon possessed modest power but led the league in doubles and triples well into the season until injuries and “bean balls” forced him to miss many games. A gap ball hitter, stretching singles into doubles, and doubles into triples, he caused major problems for opposing outfielders. In one double header Zardon stole five bases, including two of home plate. Zardon’s volatile temper often ignited by ethnic barbs and nativist bigotry from EL “bench jockeys” and knock-down pitches hurled by opposing pitchers. In one incident, Zardon, after failing to steal home, attacked a Wilkes­-Barre pitcher with a bat. He would have been suspended for the remainder of the year but for the intervention of teammate Juan Hernandez who tackled him before he reached the pitcher. The Grays remained in playoff contention until Zardon sustained an ankle injury and concussion that forced him out of the lineup for much of August. Nevertheless, he finished with a respectable .294 batting average and stole thirty-three bases. Four consecutive double-header losses in late August dropped the Grays out of the first division and they eventually grounded to a fifth-place finish with a record of 64-75.

In addition to Zardon, outstanding Cubans of the 1944 season included Francisco “Frankie” Gallardo, sure­-handed second baseman, who epitomized the dashing, entertaining Cuban style. One of the most popular players, he was noted for quick, acrobatic turning of double plays. However, in early August, Gallardo needed to return to his wife and child in Cuba, and Kolp acknowledged the team’s inability to turn double plays after Gallar­do departed. Gallardo finished second in batting, at .283, and even slugged a few homeruns despite his bantam size.

Two other Cuban Grays made their mark in 1944. Daniel Parra, a slightly-­built left-hander with a nasty curveball and deceptive change-up, led in pitching with a 14-9 record. He played a key part in the tumultuous 1945 season and infamous bean ball wars with Williamsport’s hated rival, the Utica Blue Sox. Catcher Rogelio Valdes played solid defense and provided some power to complement the Grays’ speed. But he also departed to Cuba with Gallardo in early August, ostensibly to avoid the United States Selective Service. With Zardon, he enjoyed a brief taste of the major leagues with the Washington Senators in 1945.

Especially in hardscrabble cities like Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Utica, New York, the Cubans were the target of ethnic taunts, brawls, and a steady barrage of “brush-back pitches.” This reign of terror was not a myth concocted by the hometown press. Samuel “Chic” Feldman (1924-1972), dean of the EL sportswriters and sports editor of the Scranton Tribune, summarized the contention. “It grieves me to report that some Eastern League players and even some managers went out of their way to abuse the Cuban kids,” Feldman opined. “This blind hate may have been responsible for Williamsport’s failure to crash the first division in 1944. It would be a hard allegation to prove, yet there was talk in reliable circles that the other clubs ‘ganged up’ on Williamsport. Yes, even saving their best pitchers to toss at the once-laughing Latins.”

The 1944 season was only a prelude to the “Summer of Fisticuffs,” as the following season came to be known. The Grays entered 1945 with much of their former roster intact except for Zardon and Valdes who were assigned to Chattanooga.. A big bonus for the team was the return of Gallardo, and pitching ace Parra. Cambria had also signed additional Cuban players who later became key members of “Kelp’s Kiddy Corps”: pitcher Leonardo Goicochea, a fierce competitor with an intimidating fastball, and a slick-­fielding shortstop, Manuel “Chino” Hidalgo. Hidalgo’s nickname was attributed to his forbears, Chinese immigrants who had labored in Cuba’s sugar industry. Hidalgo and Gallardo were by far the best double-play combination in the Eastern League in 1945, and arguably the best in Williamsport’s baseball history. At the end of the season, Hidalgo returned to Cuba and starred for several teams into the 1950s. A new first baseman, Hector Arago, and a catcher, Mario Diaz, provided some offensive support to compensate for the loss of Jose Zardon.

Despite new talent, the 1945 Grays again sank to the bottom of the stand­ings. The frequency of double-headers because of rain outs and a rigorous schedule compacted to lessen travel costs, played havoc with the Grays’ threadbare pitching staff. The team’s lack of focus, evident in defensive errors and base running blunders, did not escape the press. Williamsport baseball writers derisively chided the Grays for their performance on the ball diamond and especially took aim at the Cubans. “The way the Williamsport Grays are playing ball a lot of them will be cutting sugar cane next summer instead of going through the pretenses of being ball players,” predicted one loca1 sports scribe.

The Grays’ precipitous downward slide coincided with increased hostility and bigotry they encountered in EL cities. From early July until the close of the 1945 season, the Grays became embroiled in several brawls with opposing teams and their fans, described as “near riots” by newspaper correspondents. The most serious of these escalating incidents involved the team’s rivalry with the Utica Blue Sox, a farm club of the Philadelphia Phillies that produced several members of the 1950s National League pennant-winning “Whiz Kids,” including Richie Ashburn and Granny Brunner. The Blue Sox team included a tobacco-spewing bigot and racist, Cecil “Turkey” Tyson, whose specialty was race-baiting and shouting hate provocations. Throughout the long season he hurled barbs and epithets at the Williamsport Cubans. Things came to a head on Sunday, July 8, at Williamsport’s Bowman Field. Grays’ pitcher Leonardo Goicochea sent Tyson sprawling to the ground with a brush­-back pitch. Whipped into frenzy, Williamsport fans serenaded Tyson with the “Turkey Call,” a derisive cacophony of gobbling that reverberated from the stands, goading Tyson to take menacing steps toward the mound with a bat in hand before the plate umpire intervened. Surprisingly, neither combatant was immediately ejected. Play resumed with Goicochea striking out Tyson to end the inning. Tyson, however, went directly for the Cuban pitcher, setting off a bench­-clearing donnybrook that spurred Williamsport fans to pour out of the stands before city police quelled the “riot.” Eastern League President Tommy Richardson levied fifty-dollar fines and three-day suspensions on Tyson and Goicochea, and lesser punishments to their teammates.

A disturbing footnote to the brawl was a fight that erupted between Williamsport teammates, reserve infielder Hector Arag6 and first baseman Bill Schaedler, in full view near the Grays’ dugout. Although an under-card to the main bout, the fight had a more deleterious impact on team morale. Described as a “private scrap,” the incident signaled that the Grays had come unglued, and that ethnic tension divided the Williamsport clubhouse into two distinct camps-the Cubans and the Americans. Four days after their fight, on Thursday, July 12, Arago and Schaedler mixed it up again before a game with the Binghamton Triplets. The fight was precipitated by Arago’s criticism of Schaedler’s work ethic and his frequent attempts to cut back on practice owing to alleged injuries. Arago received a bloody nose and had to be restrained by his Cuban teammates when he attempted to grab a bat to hit his assailant. The fight brought immediate reprisal as the Grays’ management released Schaedler outright. Louis Pickelner, sports editor for the Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin, aptly summed up the fight. “Arago told Schaedler he was saffron-hued because he disdained a practice session … the net results … one sore nose, one gone first baseman, and a bunch of lost games.” Pickelner also warned that the recent outbreak of fights was a serious matter, and not the standard “showing off for the bobby soxers.” Schaedler’s dismissal was a forgone conclusion because “nothing can be done by segregating the players into two groups,” a direct reference to the ethnic tension existing within the Grays’ clubhouse.

Fines and suspensions did not quell the desire for retribution as the rivalry between the Utica and the Williamsport teams played out to its ugly conclusion later in the 1945 season. The Blue Sox were among the league leaders and enjoyed the luxury of goading the Cubans to the point of breaking their concentration on the playing field. The final straw snapped on Monday, July 16, 1945, at a game in Utica, during which, once again, “Turkey” Tyson went after another Grays pitcher, Daniel Parra. By all accounts, Parra held his own, verbally and physically, before a Utica constabulary restored order. After the customary round of fines and suspen­sions, things settled down for the Grays. However, the constant abuse on the road by fans and internal fighting had worn down the Cubans. They finished out the season with the dismal record of 52-85, a record fifty-two games behind the Utica Blue Sox. How.ever, there were a few bright spots for the 1945 Grays. Chino Hidalgo batted .307 and Hector Arago – when he wasn’t scrapping with Bill Schaedler – hit .298. The cagy Parra led the Grays’ pitching staff with a respectable record of 16-14.

The tumultuous “Cuban Seasons” came to an end in 1945. Clark Griffith and Joe and John Cambria had grown weary of the hostility directed against Williamsport’s Cuban players through­out the EL circuit. More importantly, they resented league officials for failing to discipline team owners and curb fan abuse. As a result, they decided not to renew the Senators’ affiliation agreement with the Williamsport Grays. But the “Cuban Experiment” would continue in other minor league outposts, chiefly in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In early 1946, Williamsport signed a new working agreement with the Detroit Tigers and embarked on a new era. The colorful cast of Cuban Grays faded from the field and lapsed into memory. Within five years, the Senators’ farm chain began churning out many new Cuban players – Pedro Ramos, Conrado Marrero, Sandalio Consuegra, and Camilo Pascual – who later became recognizable names for Washington Senators fans. Williamsport could at least boast that three players associated with its own Cuban teams – Jose Zardon, Rogelio Valdes, and Hector Arago – made it to the big league club, if only briefly. Other Cuban players returned home and carved out successful careers in the Cuban Professional Leagues and played for the Havana Cubans in the Florida International League from 1946 to 1947.

Although their stay in Williamsport and their stint in minor league baseball proved brief, the Cuban ball players left an indelible impression upon local fans. Their experiences and hardships in adjusting to a foreign culture, and encountering prejudice and attitudes approaching racism, reveal how formidable and entrenched intolerance was in American society. Moreover, the Williamsport community’s interaction with the Cubans was a microcosm of America’s complex ethnic struggles, and a commentary on its racial attitudes, on the eve of organized baseball’s grand integration initiative. Williamsport can rightfully assert that it played a part in the pre-integration wave of baseball, providing a portal for multiculturalism and the eventual integration of Latin American players into the mainstream of American baseball culture.

 

For Further Reading

Bealle, Morris A. The Washington Sena­tors: An 87-Year History of the World’s Oldest Baseball Club and Most Incurable Fandom. Washington, D.C.: Colum­bia Publishing Co., 1947.

Figuerda, S. Jorge. Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1878-1961. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2003.

Gonzalez Echevarrfa, Roberto. The Pride of Havana: The History of Cuban Baseball. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Quigel, James P., and Louis E. Hunsinger. Gateway to the Majors: Williamsport and Minor League Baseball. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

____. Williamsport’s Baseball Heritage. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publications, 1998.

Rucker, Mark, and Peter C. Bjarkman. Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball. New York: Total Sports Publishing, 1999.

 

James P Quigel Jr., grew up in Williamsport, Lycoming County, and is a devoted Jan of Williamsport minor league baseball and Little League baseball. He earned n Ph.D. in history from The Pennsylvania State University and was the labor archivist at Rutgers University’s Special Collections and University Archives, Archibald Alexander Library, from 1992 to 1999. He currently is head of Historical Collections and Labor Archives for the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, The Pennsylvania State University Libraries. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles on labor archives and labor history and has co-­authored two books on the social history of minor league baseball in the community of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He also holds the post of publications chairperson for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference and is a member of the Labor Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists.