Editor’s note: This week’s edition of “Any player/Any era” will be published Thursday afternoon.
Baseball fans are righteously shocked and disgusted at the ludicrous contract offered by the Anaheim Angels and accepted by Albert Pujols. But I recall another winter transaction even more stunning although it took place on a smaller stage.
During the 1956-1957 season, the Puerto Rican League Santurce Cangrejeros sold Roberto Clemente, the team’s superstar, local hero and the island’s most beloved figure to its rival Caguas Criollos.
Baseball, as owners constantly remind us, is a business. The Clemente sale is an outstanding example of how money can be the overriding factor in front office decisions.
Here’s how it happened. The Crabbers’ owner, Pedrin Zorrilla had sustained heavy losses in running his club and could no longer afford to to carry on. So although Zorrilla loved his Crabbers, he reluctantly sold the ball club to Ramon Cuevas, a business potentate. Cuevas’s first move was to liquidate the Crabbers debts by selling Clemente, Juan Pizarro and Ronnie Samford to Caguas for $30,000. The move, which Zorrilla would never have considered, horrified the former owner and shocked all of Puerto Rico.
The transaction so enraged Ruben Gomez that when he heard the news in the clubhouse, he tore off his uniform and swore he would never play another game.
But the deal backfired on Caguas. Even though Clemente was hitting a torrid .400 and was in the middle of an 18-game hitting streak, Caguas ended up tied for third place with the San Juan Senators. In a single elimination game for the final playoff spot against the Ralph Houk-led Senators, Caguas lost 4-1. Entering the game, Clemente needed to go 2-4 to secure .400 but fell one hit short and ended the year at .396 to win the batting crown with the decade’s highest average.
The Senators’ winning pitcher was Luis “Tite” Arroyo who won 111 games in his 19-year Caribbean League career, an astonishing total given that the seasons lasted a mere three months and games were played only on the weekend.
In an interesting footnote, when Clemente went to Caguas he took Sandy Koufax’s roster spot. Caguas was forced to release Koufax because of a new regulation that limited “imports” (American-born players) to three. In Koufax’s final appearance, he pitched a two-hit shut out against Santurce with Clemente getting both hits.
During his fifteen seasons with the Santurce, Caguas, and San Juan, Clemente compiled a .323 batting average. He competed in five championships: two with Santurce, two with San Juan and one with Caguas. Clemente played for Puerto Rican teams that twice won the Caribbean Series on two occasions, and as manager, he directed the San Juan team to two playoff appearances in two seasons.