HOT TAMALE CIRCUITIn Mexico City Mickey Owen was on second base when the next hitter drove a fly into right field. Mickey tagged up and set sail for third as soon as the ball was caught. He made it safely by one of the famous belly-buster slides specialized in by Pepper Martin of the St. Louis Cardinals.
By Kyle Crichton
Copyright @1946, Kyle Crichton
In 1946 the American baseball player was still in serfdom to the reserve clause and all the attendant evils that a standard baseball contract offered. Playing ball in Mexico during the off season was an attractive moonlight occupation which American owners resented and fought. The author comes to grips with the whole issue of the relationship between management and employees that even today is besmirching the sport of baseball. Originally this piece was two different articles, but they are here combined.
This was Mr. Owen's first game in Mexico City and he had been on Mexican soil only a week. The altitude in Mexico City is 7,325 feet and most visitors not only refrain from belly-busting but take to their beds immediately on arrival. Mickey is obviously a brave man, but as he lay on the ground at Delta Parque there were varying thoughts about him in the capacity crowd. Had it not been for the stern and challenging eye of Senor Jorge Pasquel, president of the American League, it is quite possible that sporting bloods among the spectators would willingly have ventured a few centavos on the proposition that Senor Owen would never get up alive. Mr. Owen arose, dusted particles of sacred Aztec soil from his uniform, and was left there on third when Chili Gomez hit into a double play and killed the rally.
We mention this excruciatingly unimportant detail because it represents one of the minor hazards to be faced by American players crossing the border. Now that the original tumult and shouting have died, it is possible to estimate Mexican baseball and see what it means to the blacklisted American players who have temporarily departed the homeland for a sample of Senor Pasquel's gold.
It may seem farfetched to say it, but that arrival of Mickey Owen in Mexico City was an event of considerable international importance. It followed close on the departure of Vernon Stephens, who had fled to the States across the border at Laredo as if he were escaping from a concentration camp. This was bad enough, but subsequent interviews with Stephens produced varying reflections about Mexico which were considered insults by the Mexicans. When a spokesman for the State Department in Washington hinted that it might be well for the American leagues and the Mexican League to get together, he was obviously speaking from information not available to the public.
In the interests of mutual amity, we shall not recount the entire Stephens story, but it can be said that Jack Fournier, of the St. Louis Browns, met Stephens at Monterrey, and other mysterious Americans went over the border with the intent of facilitating Stephens's release. An explosion could easily have occurred there which would have had tragic consequences for our relations with Mexico. We can get an idea of how the Mexicans felt by envisioning a situation in which Mexican agents filtered into Chicago by nightfall and spirited away a Mexican player on the ground that he was in danger from gangsters.
Owen and his wife had reached San Antonio on their way to Mexico when the Stephens incident occurred. It gave them pause, and they were further harassed by pressure from the American side. The general tenor of the remarks was that the Mexican League would blow up and Owen wouldn't get his money; also he would be mixed up with a gambling racket, would sacrifice a good career in the States, and might even end up shot by tough Mexican hombres who didn't like his style of catching. The phone in the Owen hotel room rang all night long, and after a few days it was plain that they either had to get away or collapse.
A phone call with Branch Rickey had brought merely the suggestion that Mickey come back and be a good boy and Brooklyn would look into his case. Rickey promised further that in fifteen days he would dig up the money so Owen could repay the $20,000 already received from Pasquel. The Owens then got in their car and started to roam. When they reached Vicksburg, Mississippi, they read a newspaper story saying that Rickey was adamant in his determination that Owen would never again play for Brooklyn but would be traded. That was the finisher. Mickey got in touch with Alfonso Pasquel in Houston and later joined him in Laredo. What Mickey wanted was proof that his five-year contract would be carried out.
"Name any proposition you want and you'll get it," said Alfonso.
Jorge Pasquel has stated privately that Owen was paid $50,000 in advance on his contract; Mickey says he was paid a bonus of $12,500 and was given his fifth year's salary of $15,000 in advance. In all, he got $27,500, says Mickey, and is being paid for this year's work as he goes along. He explains the difference between his own and Pasquel's figures by the amount that Pasquel will pay out for Owen's living expenses. It seems impossible that Mickey could live that sumptuously but the point need not be stressed; it is certain that Owen has $27,500 at least and ample assurance for the rest.
What is most immediately apparent in interviewing the ball players in Mexico is that Pasquel would have had no luck whatever in his recruiting if the players had not been dissatisfied with conditions in the States.
The landscape of Mexico is dotted, for example, with ex-New York Giant players. Down at Puebla you will see a familiar figure waddle his way out of the coaching box and will recognize him immediately as Dolf Luque, former pitcher and coach of the Giants. With him at Puebla are Napoleon Reyes, Adrian Zabala, and Salvatore Maglie. Up at Laredo are Roy Zimmerman and Tommy German; Danny Gardella and Charley Mead are with the Vera Cruz team in Mexico City. George Hausmann is up at Torreon with Red Hayworth, former St. Louis Browns catcher Ace Adams and Harry Feldman are new arrivals.
“I did good with Cincinnati and Brooklyn,” said Luque, “but those Giants ...” He stopped and waved a hand. “They don't want to pay nobody no money.”
“Don't forget those two autographed balls they sent us as a bonus last winter,” laughed Maglie.
It is difficult to reconcile the opinion the public has of Mel Ott and the resentment the Mexican ex-Giant contingent has against him. Quite aside from the salary differences, they maintain that there is no team spirit on the Giants because Ott suppresses it. At least half a dozen of the men said to us: “Ott never even looked at us away from the ball park. He doesn't mean to do it but he beats you down until you haven't any spirit left as a player.”
The players particularly resented the treatment given to Nap Reyes, Danny Gardella, and Ace Adams.
“Maybe Reyes isn't a great player, but he worked his head off for the Giants last year. He played third base and first base and kept going even when he had a leg injury that would have put anybody else on the bench. Then when he couldn't get what he wanted with New York and signed with the Mexican League, the newspapers said it was good riddance and he was a bum anyhow. You can say what you want, but Gardella was the only drawing card the Giants had last year. Ace Adams pitched in over 60 games for two years in a row, and when he left New York one paper said it was the best break the Giants ever had. The Giants broke their record for home attendance last year, with a low-salaried team-and that's what they say about the players that helped them make a fortune.”
But the financial details are less important than the human element. How are the Americans going to get along in Mexico? What chance has the Mexican League to last? What sort of a man is Jorge Pasquel (pronounced “Pass-kell”)? How will the Americans be affected by the living conditions, the food, the water, the necessity of learning a foreign tongue? To get the answers, we visited the homes of as many American players as we could reach and talked also with Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Mexican players. We have found out a great deal about Mexican baseball and almost as much about American baseball.
Take the case of Tommy De La Cruz, formerly a very good pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. Tommy was setting the league on fire last year for the Mexico City team (working on a five-year contract at a salary almost twice that of Cincinnati) when he tore a muscle in his leg. He collected his salary for the remaining two months of the year and then Pasquel paid all expenses for a major operation last winter in Havana. When De La Cruz returned to Mexico City this spring, Pasquel refused to let him pitch until it was certain he was in shape. He still wasn't pitching a month after the season opened.
“Jorge said it didn't matter if I ever pitched again,” said De La Cruz. “He said I was with him for life and could be a manager or coach if I couldn't pitch.”
The De La Cruzes were established in an expensive apartment in the Washington Apartments with their rent paid and their living expenses assured by the club. The Owens were around the corner in another nice apartment, and down the block were the Frank Scalzis. Scalzi, the former New York Giant player, is known in Mexico as Rizzuti because he played in Mexico under that assumed name in 1940. A short distance away are the Bobby Estalellas in the Latino-Americano apartments. Danny Gardella, late of the New York Giants, is set up in style in an apartment near Hamburgo Street, where Jorge Pasquel lives. Luis Olmo, the former Brooklyn star, is also living in Mexico City, and Charley Mead of the Giants is a new arrival.
The apartments are rent-free and last year the players were given six hundred pesos a month for living expenses (approximately $120 at the current rate of exchange). But this means nothing under the Pasquel system. If groceries come higher, the players let Pasquel know and he puts up the difference. Without doubt, it is the most amazing thing ever known in the history of sports. The players practically get their salaries clear.
George Hausmann has his wife and children at Torreon, where they enjoy the privileges of the country club and have a swimming pool for the children. Red Hayworth is also at Torreon and likes it so well that he has sent for his family. Mickey Owen reports that Roy Zimmerman is happy at Nuevo Laredo, and we can testify that the Mexico City contingent feel they are sitting on top of the world. They were worried about Murray Franklin, the ex-Detroit player, at Tampico, where it is hot and not too attractive, but Franklin has stated that he is quite content there. He feels he got a raw deal from Detroit in being dropped after a month of spring training, and is one of the greatest boosters for Mexican baseball.
Pasquel treats the players with such prodigality that they go about with their eyes popping. In addition to the salaries, bonuses, free apartments, and allowances for living expenses, he pays all doctor and dentist bills and is so free with his largesse that all the players' wives have gold bracelets as gifts from him and many of the players have clothes, watches, and rings as presents. Ramon Bragana, Cuban Negro pitcher and manager of the Vera Cruz team, is wearing a diamond ring presented by Jorge and said to be worth $6,000. Dolf Luque down at Puebla has a new car as a gift from the club.
Thinking that this might only be true for the higher-priced athletes, we talked with Raymond Dandridge, American Negro second baseman for Mexico City. He assured us that conditions are exactly alike for all players. Since he has been coming to Mexico for many years, he knows the situation well and other players told us with envy that Dandridge was installed in one of the finest houses in town. At forty-two, Dandridge is a wonder as a fielder and hitter. He plays baseball 11 months a year (Panama, Cuba, and Mexico), and there is general agreement that he would be a star on any big-league club in America.
However, Mexico is not the United States and there are handicaps that are inclined to irk the visitor. It is a country without water, and Mexico City, modem as it may be, is no exception. In some apartments the water is turned off at noon and unless the housewife learns to keep a reserve supply in the bathtub, the family may have a tough time during the day. However, the 6,000 other Americans who make Mexico City their permanent home get used to such difficulties and also accustom themselves to the differences in food.
The Mexico City ball park looks like a run-down minor league plant in this country. It seats around 20,000 but is a rickety job with no lavatory conveniences, no clubhouse, and no showers for the players. They dress at home and go back home to change. Even President Pasquel's box has no chairs; you sit on the flat boards with no backrest. There is a line of boxes in front holding four patrons sitting on small wire chairs such as we see in drugstores. The Puebla ball park holds around 10,000 and the boxes there consist of one row of grandstand seats protected by a railing.
However, the league will spend $6,000,000 next year for new parks. Pasquel now has two architects in the States inspecting our plants, and ground will be broken in January for a $2,000,000 Baseball City in Mexico City, with an apartment house for the ball players, space under the stadium for 2,000 cars, and theater seats for the paying guests. Puebla is even now extending its grandstand to care for this season's crowds and will have a new park next year. At Tampico a spur of railroad track runs through right field but that also will soon be corrected. Night ball is played only in Torreon and Laredo. Formerly the league played three games a week, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday morning at 11:30. A fourth game was added, starting in May, and this met with the players' approval because they complain about getting out of shape from too much lying around. But they are frankly relieved at getting away from the seven-day grind in the States.
“Hell!” said one of the Americans disgustedly. “If we ever had an off day, they'd book an exhibition game. On this system down here a guy should be good to fifty.”
Pasquel owns two clubs in Mexico City (Mexico and Vera Cruz), controls every park in the league, and is said also to own San Luis Potosi and Torreon. The Tampico is owned by the American Coca-Cola representative, Fleischmann, who is said to net $100,000 a month from the franchise. Laredo is backed by men worth $40,000,000. Monterrey is a rich city and is completely nuts about baseball, and this is true of the whole country. Monterrey, with no American players on its roster, was leading the league in early May. Pasquel's own pet team, Vera Cruz (he was born there and still keeps a residence there), was in last place, and Jorge was suffering audibly. He acts for the good of the league, but when Vera Cruz loses goes into mourning. If he is a dictator, he is having little luck with his dictating.
Pasquel's personality is all-important in any discussion of Mexican baseball, and it can be said immediately that he is an amazing man. He conducts an importing and exporting business with his brothers (Alfonso, Bernardo, Gerardo, and Mario) but his fingers are in dozens of pies. He owns a ranch near San Luis Obispo and his brother Gerardo owns another near Torreon. Bernardo and Alfonso are installed at Laredo, and Mario, the youngest, is a lawyer in Mexico City. Nobody in Mexico City has any idea what Jorge is worth; it is a matter of as much heated discussion there as it is in some circles here. The first surmise is that Pasquel is confusing pesos and dollars when he speaks of a $60,000,000 fortune, but Pasquel replies that he is well aware of the difference, and it is dollars he is mentioning.
All we know is that Pasquel seems to be connected with almost every line of activity in Mexico. It is rather well established that he controls a Mexico City bank, although this is not publicly known. His mother owns a cigar factory in Vera Cruz.
Whether Pasquel has 18 pesos or $60,000,000, he is a red-hot baseball fan and he is also a proud Mexican and there is no possibility whatever that he will give up the fight against American baseball (the baseball monopoly, he calls it) or that he will renege on his contracts. When Branch Rickey followed Luis Olmo's defection with harsh words against Mexican baseball, the die was cast.
“That hurt me, that hurt my pride,” says Jorge, with his hand on his heart. "It hurts the pride of all Mexicans. If American baseball wants peace with us, I will not go to them. They will get peace only when Commissioner Chandler comes here to this office and sits in this chair and explains what he has meant by his words about Mexico.”
His feelings were not assuaged in the slightest by the injunction taken by Colonel Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey in American courts to prevent Pasquel's agents from tampering with their players. This would certainly be accounted another provocation by Jorge.
Pasquel's acquaintance with the Americans came in a rough way. As a boy of six, he cowered in a cellar in Vera Cruz while American warships blasted the town and killed hundreds of citizens of the little port town. Relations with Mexico were so bad in the First World War it was estimated that the country was almost unanimous in desiring a German victory.
The episode has been forgotten now, and Jorge Pasquel forgot it to the point where he began making yearly trips to this country in 1931. He knows more about the United States, its roads, its industries, its farms, than most Americans. He thinks the United States is the greatest country ever created by God and destined to rule the world for the next thousand years.
On the personal side, Pasquel is a fanatic on good health and sports. He neither smokes nor drinks, and when Danny Gardella arrived in Mexico, they rigged up a gymnasium in the patio of Pasquel's Mexico City house (a lavish affair on all counts) where they have daily workouts with Jorge's American trainer, Robert Janis. On Sunday afternoons after the ball game, they go out to Chapultepec Heights and play a variety of squash tennis on a jai alai court. During the week Jorge sneaks away from his work and turns up at Delta Parque to throw a few with the ball players. He was an amateur player and got deeply interested in the sport in 1940, when he managed Vera Cruz into the pennant. He may not be an expert, but he knows the game thoroughly.
What is not generally understood in the States is that Mexico is baseball mad. On the train coming down from Laredo, we saw dozens of games going on in backlots; in Puebla the grocery boys wore baseball caps with the peaks turned up, like kids all over America; the waiters in the Ritz Hotel were more concerned about how the game came out than in getting the soup on the table hot. Bobby Estalella and Tommy De La Cruz tell us that Cuba is even wilder about the sport.
Lefty Gomez is managing a team in Venezuela and it seems only a short time till baseball captures all Latin America.
Which is to say that Jorge Pasquel is no fool. He likes baseball, but he is also a businessman. We saw seven games in Mexico and all but one ( Easter Sunday ) was a complete sellout, with the gates closed at game time and crowds around the outfield and sitting in front of the stands ( at Puebla ).
Jorge Pasquel expects the league to gross between $2,000,000 and $2,250,000 this year, which will allow it to break even, despite the high salaries being paid. Fifty-five percent of all receipts are turned into the league treasury and divided among the teams at the end of the year. This means that Mexico City ( and Pasquel) carries the league; that is why other owners are quite content to let him run things.
Next year, with the new parks built, Mexican baseball is going to be a gold mine. The prices range from two and a half pesos (50 cents) to 10 pesos (two dollars) for box seats. Pasquel figures that next year his games at the new Mexico City Park will bring average daily receipts of $30,000. This is money in any language, but the enthusiasm of the Mexicans for baseball seems to warrant Pasquel's expectations. In view of this, his three- and five-year contracts to American players appear less startling. The man knows exactly what he is doing, and things that strike outsiders as fantastic may turn out to be sound business deals. Mickey Owen would probably have brought Brooklyn $75,000 in a trade; Pasquel gets him for a $12,500 bonus. Mickey makes a good deal for himself, Pasquel gets a valuable player; everybody's happy except Brooklyn.
The Mexico and Vera Cruz teams travel either by air or by Pullman on their trips. Tampico, Laredo, and Torreon also travel by air and train. Monterrey has its own bus; San Luis Potosi uses bus, train, and plane on other trips. We mention this because of reports in the States that Mexican players travel like a class-C American outfit, taking their chances in rickety charabancs with paisanos, chickens, goats, and odors.
The players feel that the American baseball contract is inequitable and harsh in its terms. It contains a clause whereby a player may be discharged with ten days' notice and an even more famous clause (the reserve clause) which permits the club to retain possession of the player from one season to the next. Because of this he is always the property of some club in organized baseball and is prevented from making a deal for his services.
It is plain from speaking to players on both sides of the border that the Pasquel threat is the finest thing that ever happened to them. Even if they don't jump to the Mexican League, their salaries are being hiked here. Instead of being at the mercy of the American club owners, they now have a leverage that makes life infinitely sweeter for them. It seems inevitable that if Pasquel persists in his campaign, changes will be made in the American system that will greatly better the status of the players.
All reports to the contrary, the players down below consider it a Mexican hay ride. If they are eating their hearts out with regret, they are dissembling in a most amiable manner. It doesn't show.
The Hot Tamale Circuit, PART II
Mexican baseball is exactly like American baseball, except for the extraneous embellishments. They work the hit-and-run and make the double play. but they don't sell the hot dog. The Mexico City ballpark (Delta Parque) looks like something discarded in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1915, but the bleacher fans are a spitting image of the horny-handed sons of toil from downstate Missouri who crowd the stands in St. Louis for a Sunday doubleheader. In spirit, however, they are much like a New York crowd. Which is to say, they are impartial and often on the side of the visiting team.
Games in Mexico are really a spectacle for the gods. The bleacher aficionados (fans) are rattling the gates for admittance long before the ball players arrive. Outside the concessionaires are lining up their wares. A young man stands on a table busily mixing huge bowls of what seem to be soft drinks. In little booths outside the park, frijoles, tamales, and tortillas are steaming on the stoves. In the grandstand early arrivals are having their shoes shined by bootblacks.
After the game starts, the vendors begin selling oyster cocktails, tall glasses in which the oysters are embedded in tomato sauce. Another delicacy is chicken, of which you buy a very full plate with a mixture of white and dark meat. Despite what the young man is selling outside, the vendors inside are getting rid of vast quantities of soft drinks.
It's an American game, right down to the nomenclature. On the scoreboard are places for Strikes, Bolas, Runs. Out on the field the players are proving that beisbol has an excellent chance of becoming an international sport. The teams are made up of Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, South Americans, and recruits from the States. They handle themselves with every mannerism known to American players. And don't let anybody fool you with the theory that Mexican baseball is amateurish. They play fast, hard, and very good ball. The Americans playing down there feel it ranks up with AA baseball in the States. If the seven we watched were a fair test, the Mexican League has major-league class in defensive play, at least.
In the Vera Cruz-Monterrey game, Colas for Vera Cruz made a sensational catch of a screaming low drive into center field with the bases full and two out. In the San Luis Potosi-Puebla game, the Puebla third baseman made a fantastic play on a ball over the bag, converting it into a double play in the ninth with the bases full and none out.
What will be harder to believe is that the best ball we saw played in Mexico was by Danny Gardella, who was noted in New York for his awkwardness as an outfielder. Gardella happens to be a physical-culture fanatic who can do flying splits and tie himself into a knot with ease. Vera Cruz had him on first base, which is where he perhaps should always have been. He made three unbelievable plays in a game with Monterrey, on the last play throwing himself full length on the ground to the left, keeping his foot on the bag and making a backhanded pickup of a wild throw. Hal Chase in his palmiest days never did better.
But what about the pistol-toting Mexicans from whom Vernon Stephens of the St. Louis Browns fled in terror? Stephens signed a Mexican League contract with Jorge Pasquel, played two games to the frantic approbation of the Mexican fans, and then decamped. Do the Mexicans carry guns? Ladies and gentlemen, they most certainly do! Sitting in a box with Pasquel, you will discern the glint of something at his feet and there the revolver will be. The gentleman next to him may have taken his out of his holster in the hot weather and have it resting easily under his seat cushion.
We offer no explanation of this. but can report no instances where ball players were pinked in the anatomy for ineptitude. The revolution may still be in action in Mexico or it may merely be a frontier country, but the gentry wear their gats at social events and there is no denying it. And how about gambling? There are persistent reports in the States that baseball in Mexico is merely an excuse for gambling and that games are run accordingly. This suggests that gambling coups are possible with games being thrown, which naturally is repugnant to all loyal Americans. From what we could see - and we looked with gimlet eye and made every investigation possible - this is a lot of nonsense. There is absolutely no open gambling at the ball parks and certainly no animated group of swindlers such as are seen behind third base in every ball park in this country.
There is the further charge that baseball in Mexico is a syndicate affair because Jorge Pasquel owns or is interested in every club in the league, but this also blows up on interviewing the owners of the various teams. They are fanatically proud of their organizations and determined to win the pennant. Pasquel takes the greatest care not to overload his favorite team, Vera Cruz, with the best players. The Mexicans look with horror at the very thought of anything irregular in their sports.
“You've never heard of bullfight or soccer or prizefighting scandal down here, have you?” they ask, with flashing eyes. They take this inquiry about syndicate ball very hard, as if it were a reflection on their integrity, we can only surmise that Pasquel would be in grave danger if any hint of manipulation ever arose.
The crux of the whole situation is Jorge Pasquel, who is an amazing character. At thirty-eight he is a well-set-up, vigorous man with very definite ideas on the future of baseball in Mexico. At his elaborate home on Hamburgo Street there is a statuette of Napoleon prominently placed in the reception hall. Pasquel admits to having read 25 books on Napoleon and being an authority on his life. This may account for a lot in his career.
Although he is not the oldest, he is the head of the Pasquel family. Living at home with him are his mother, his brother Mario and sister Rosarie, his married sister and her husband and two children. Another sister is married and lives in Puebla in another fabulous Pasquel mansion. The old family home is kept up in Vera Cruz, and there is another Pasquel establishment in Nuevo Laredo, where brothers Bernardo and Alfonso live. Gerardo runs a huge ranch near Torreon.
The Vernon Stephens affair was particularly painful to Jorge (pronounced “Hor-gay” in Spanish but now “George” by common consent) because Stephens had been taken into the Pasquel home as a guest, a distinctive honor. This accounts for Pasquel's determination to sue Stephens for breach of contract. “I will sue him as long as he lives,” Jorge kept saying over the phone to New York, when reporters called him during the excitement about Mickey Owen's arrival.
This suit could easily be a disaster for American baseball, and it ties in with much of the resentment among American players against American club owners. The baseball contract is admittedly a one-sided affair. The player is tied to organized baseball for life, but he can be discharged at will. The player either works for what the club owner offers or he doesn't work at all, for no club is allowed to tamper with the players of any other club.
It must be admitted at once that without this type of contract, baseball might be impossible. If the players were free after each season to make new deals for themselves, the best players would naturally gravitate to the best-heeled clubs and no team would know from year to year where it stood.
However, there is a possibility that the courts would find the present contract a form of peonage, since the player has no legal rights whatever. This has been known to the owners for a long time and accounts for their reluctance to tangle with the law. It is most ironically possible that Pasquel could lose the suit against Stephens for damages (even though Pasquel reported in the middle of May that Stephens had not returned any of the money advanced to him by Pasquel) and yet blow up the whole structure of baseball by getting the present standard contract held invalid.
Since Pasquel's raids on our leagues, facts about American salaries have become public and shocked the fans. Luis Olmo knocked in 110 runs for Brooklyn last year and was offered a contract this season for $7,500. Hal Gregg won 18 games for the same team and was given $8,000 after a hard fight. We were told by American players in Mexico that the St. Louis Cardinals pay their new men $400 a month, raising the ante to $600 after May 15, if they stick. The season is five and a half months.
There was a report in New York that Ralph Branca of the Dodgers had signed a three-year contract calling for a total salary of $4,900. It is alleged that men on the Philadelphia Nationals have played for as little as $1,750 a year. The newspapers reported that Branch Rickey had offered Joe Hatten, the spectacular southpaw, a salary of $500 a month this spring. Hatten held out and got more.
“If a player is good enough to make a big-league team,” said Sal Maglie when he left the Giants, “he should be worth at least $10,000 a year.”
We talked with Maglie in Puebla, where he and his wife are installed in a suite in the best hotel in town and very contented with their fate.
'I'm twenty-nine years old and had a hard time making the big leagues. I won five straight games for them when I came in late last year, but that didn't seem to mean anything to them this spring. They didn't answer my letters when I wrote them about a new contract and then finally offered me one with a small raise. When they heard I had been approached by the Mexican League, they boosted it to $8,000. I'm working on a three-year contract down here and even if I'm no good and am dropped after the first season, I'll still be better off than if I'd stayed three or four years with the Giants.”
Pasquel has been swamped with letters from players in this country since starting his raiding campaign. Many of them are from amateurs and minor-leaguers with no chance in Mexico, but we can testify to .being startled by some of the big names involved. The players seem to feel that they play baseball for a living and are entitled to make the best deal for their services. If an engineer can run off to Egypt or Russia or India to build a bridge, they don't see the disloyalty in making the best of their talents in Mexico.
The Mexicans are unable to understand our psychology in the battle between Pasquel and the big leagues. Baseball is our national sport and it seems to the Mexicans we should be the proudest people in the world at the thought that others are taking it up. With the war over and big-league rosters crammed with players, the Mexicans think it would have been a smart thing for us to offer Pasquel some of our overflow talent. Instead, we have practically waged a vendetta against them, they claim, replete with insults, recriminations, and boycotts.
“The manufacturers took our order for 2,000 dozen baseballs,” says Pasquel, “and then refused to fill it. We have to get baseballs and bats from retail stores in the States, just as if we were bootlegging them. Every foul ball that goes over the fence costs us fourteen pesos [approximately $2.80].”
That pettiness was not lost on the Mexican fans, who are aware of everything going on over here. The big Mexico City dailies (Excelsior, Universal) carry more baseball news than any paper in this country. La Aficion is said to be the only daily sports paper in the world.
The madness for baseball in Mexico will probably soon produce many fine Mexican players. At the present time the core of the league are the Negro players from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United States. There are some great players in this group, but the Mexicans are coming fast with such talented young fellows as Vecino and Magallon of San Luis Potosi and Bache, a fine shortstop, and Torres, a great outfielder of Monterrey. Torres is a natural hitter and is said to have the best arm in the league.
When we asked if Mexicans might not resent the influx of American players, the Mexicans answered with astonishment: “The Mexican players are entirely satisfied because the success of baseball here has raised their salaries about 400 percent. Hockey is a popular game in your country and yet all players are Canadians. Do you resent that?”
The raiding has not all been on one side. For years Joe Cambria, scout for Washington, has been luring prospects north. The Mexicans feel that Commissioner Chandler is slightly less than logical when he objects to Mexico seeking our players and yet welcomed Vernon Stephens back with open arms, although he had repudiated a Mexican contract; but their chief resentment is against Clark Griffith of Washington, who for years has had almost a monopoly on Latin-American players.
When Griffith welcomed the flurry of injunctions against Mexican tampering with American players by saying that the Mexican officials “can be prosecuted for trying to persuade American players to jump their contracts, since this is clearly outside the law,” the Mexican laughter rose to hysterical heights. They pointed out that Griffith, Connie Mack, and Ban Johnson formed the American League by raiding the National League, a battle in which contracts were repudiated right and left. They also recalled how contracts were flouted in the famous Federal League war of 20 years ago and noted that in the present conflict between American professional football leagues many strange things are happening to the sanctity of the contracts.
The cardinal point in the discussion is that baseball is in Mexico to stay. They call their home runs jonrons or cuadralangulares, but the crowd gets into hysterics over them just as they do at the Yankee Stadium, and the happy team rushes out en masse to meet the hitter when he arrives at home plate. We observed the umpiring down there and were convinced that it was honest.
Two of the best umpires are Atan, a Chinese Cuban, and Maestri of Cuba. Maestri made his reputation years ago by ignoring insults on the field but meeting the offender after the game under the stands and fighting it out.
From a ball player’s point of view, Mexico is not all peaches and cream. The altitude at Mexico City and Puebla has had a bad effect on some players and this is especially felt among the wives.
Most visitors to Mexico get a touch (sometimes a serious touch) of dysentery from being careless about eating fresh vegetables and drinking impure water. The ball parks are primitive and the playing fields rough specimens compared with our big-league layouts. The pitchers find that their curve ball doesn’t break at high altitudes (Tampico, at sea level and with a muggy climate, is said to be a pitcher’s idea of heaven), but the hitters admire the way a ball travels at 7,000 feet.
The players we interviewed in Mexico all felt they had landed in the middle of a gold mine and could easily put up with the hardships.
Mickey Owen is considering offers from Cuba and South America for the winter months. He has paid off his farm at Springfield, Missouri and is dickering for another one.
“The way I was going in the big leagues, I couldn’t have done that in ten years if ever,” he says.
According to J.K. Lasser’s authoritative book, Your Income Tax (1946 edition), American players will not have to pay an income tax here if they get their “compensation for services outside the country for the entire year.” In that period they can make business and vacation trips to this country without changing their status. This is not to say that any of the players looks down his nose at American baseball and certainly none will risk his American citizenship, no matter how much pelf is involved. They read the daily box scores and recall the exciting days in the States, but then they scan their bankbooks and relax.
“I liked it fine at Washington,” says Roberto Ortiz, the big outfielder, “but by the time I paid my living expenses and the taxes, I got back to Cuba every winter broke. This is different here.”
The procession of American players keeps wending its way south and the trail may grow deeper next year when the new parks are built in Mexico.
“Then maybe you won’t be surprised at seeing Ted Williams down here,” says Senor Pasquel proudly.
With Pasquel, nothing would surprise me. It is not true that the Mexican government is backing him now, although he is a friend of President Avilo Camacho, but if Miguel Aleman becomes the next president (and it seems a cinch for him now), the league will definitely be a favored sport. Aleman and Pasquel grew up together in Vera Cruz and are fast friends.
“Maybe even Bobby Feller next year, eh?” said Senor Pasquel when we last saw him.
If that happens, the battle royal will really be on, and we will probably see contracts breaking in all directions. At least one American scout was lately run out of the Mexican ball park, just as we have been fighting off Mexican agents here. The happy gentry you will note on the sidelines will be the ball players, experiencing the millennium at last.