Jungle Jim Rivera, a Rough Beginning
Manuel Joseph Rivera
Manuel Joseph Rivera, later known as Jim, was born to Puerto Rican immigrants in Brooklyn on July 22, 1922. Growing up in a New York ghetto, Rivera spent over ten years in an orphanage.
After World War II kicked off, he joined the Army. Rivera ran into trouble when an officer’s daughter accused him of rape. A medical exam showed that the young lady was still a virgin, so charges were amended to attempted rape. Rivera was tried, convicted and court marshaled at Barksdale Field, Louisiana. He served over four years in an Atlanta penitentiary.
Gainesville (Class-D Florida State League) owner Earl Mann negotiated Rivera’s release from jail so he could join the club in 1949; at age 26, Rivera became a professional baseball player. The rookie outfielder did well, leading the league in runs with 142 and making the All-Star team.
Rivera opened 1950 with the Class-AA Atlanta Crackers of the Southern League. Over the winter, he met Rogers Hornsby while both were in Puerto Rico for winter ball. Hornsby copped Rivera for $2,500. Hornsby and Rivera would later declare a strong bond for each other. The orphan would be quoted as saying Hornsby “adopted” him and was like a step-father.
In 1951 he stepped up to the Triple-A Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. He had a breakout year for manager Hornsby and the club won the league’s championship by six games and via the playoff system.
Rivera’s strong season attracted the Chicago White Sox who purchased his contract on July 23, 1951 for $65,000, though they allowed him to remain with Seattle through the season. Winning the league’s MVP award, Rivera lead the league in batting average (.352), runs scored (135) and hits (231). He also posted 20 homers and 120 RBI.
Bill Veeck hired Hornsby at season’s end to manage his American League St. Louis Browns. Hornsby talked Veeck into trading for Rivera. On November 28 a deal was completed. The Browns gave up catcher Sherm Lollar, pitcher Al Widmar and shortstop Tom Upton (quickly traded to Washington for Sam Dente). In exchange they picked up Rivera, first baseman Gordon Goldsberry, pitcher Dick Littlefield, catcher Gus Niarhos and infielder Joe DeMaestri from Chicago.
The key to the trade for the White Sox’s general manager Trader Lane was Lollar, who provided a potent bat for a backstop. Hornsby, on the other hand, was delighted to have his Seattle protégés Goldsberry and Rivera. He strongly believed that Rivera was one of the game’s foremost budding stars and a top-candidate for Rookie of the Year in 1952.
The following quotes describe Hornsby’s delight in Rivera:
I’d rather watch him play than anybody else. He does everything to beat you. He’ll beat you with his bat. He’ll bunt, drag or knock the ball out of the park. He’ll beat you with his outfielding and throwing, and he’ll steal any base most any time.In a reversal Rivera was shipped back to Chicago on July 28, 1952.They tried to brush him back in the coast league and the more they threw at him, the tougher he got. He can take care of himself, too. Don’t forget, he’s 192 pounds and was a professional prize fighter. An infielder named Pavolic got rough with Rivera in Seattle last summer and only two punches were landed. He knocked Pavolic half way to third base and won that argument.
Rivera was arrested in the White Sox clubhouse on September 29, just after the club’s final game of the season. Mrs. Janet Gater, the 22-year-old wife of an Army statistician stationed at the Fifth Army headquarters in Chicago. She alleged that Rivera raped her in her apartment the night before. Rivera had just approached her after she dropped some books while walking her dog.
Rivera admitted to having relations with Gater but insisted it was consensual after she invited him into her apartment. Rivera was released on $3,000 but booked in Felony Court the following day. Rivera then insisted on taking a lie detector test and was released again with a $5,000 bond.
On October 14 the grand jury voted against indicting Rivera. On October 20 Rivera was called into commissioner Ford Frick’s office to account for himself in the incident and his entire history.
Despite the grand jury ruling, baseball commissioner Ford Frick, in a rare move, sanctioned Rivera for the incident. In Frick’s words:
With that the commissioner placed Rivera on probation for one year with the requirement that the White Sox report all incidents concerning the center fielder to his office immediately. Chicago was also prohibited from trading or releasing (through waivers) Rivera for that period.To the best of my knowledge, after making a check of the records, this is the first time a commissioner ever had to make a decision on a morals charge.
As concerns criminal charges, he has been completely exonerated by the courts, and the commissioner cannot place himself in the position of going over the heads of an American grand jury. At the same time, the commissioner recognizes, as does the Chicago American League club, that they have an obligation to the public to maintain the highest standards of morality among all men who are connected with the game.