Monday, May 16, 2011

When Cuba invaded the Mountain States League

Uncommon commons. Contemporary accounts of tidbits that as a collector of baseball and football cards I found interesting because they helped bring to life the faces on the cards I collected. I figure that if I found these items of interest, so would other vintage card collectors.

I wonder who was more culturally shocked when Cuban ballplayers invaded the Mountain States League in the spring of 1953? Was it the Cuban ballplayers, generally teenagers (or at least trying to pass as teenagers) fresh out of the cane fields and sandlots, or the rural folk of the tiny Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky hill country that comprised the Class D league?

With the U.S. military gobbling up young men to fill the ranks during the Korean War, ballplayers were hard to come by for the lower-level professional leagues in 1953.

Dr. Hobart Ford, who owned the Morristown Red Sox of the Mountain States League, decided upon a radical strategy to fill his uniforms.

Through an arrangement with Joe Cambria, business manager of the Havana Cubans of the Class B Florida International League -- a team owned by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith -- Ford imported an entire team of young Cubans; 16 players including veteran manager Napoleon Reyes. The Morristown Red Sox would serve as a farm club for Havana, which in turn fed Cuban prospects to the Senators for may years.

Things looked dicey as late as four days before the season opener as visa problems delayed the arrival of many of the Cuban players.

Ford explained his player procurement by saying, "Baseball talent is getting more difficult to find all the time. Most young American boys are going into the army and their future in Class D ball is a lot more indefinite than it used to be. Therefore our Cuban connection will supply us with good players and assure us of a top-flight team."

According to the owner, all of the Cuban imports had played winter ball in the Caribbean in recent months. The roster limit in the league was 20 players, required to me pared down to 17 a month into the season.

A look at the roster for the 1953 Morristown Red Sox shows very few Anglo names. There were only two major leaguers on the team. Manager Nap Reyes had played three seasons with the N.Y. Giants during World War II. At the age of (at least) 33, he played 96 games at first base and shortstop for Morristown in 1953, batting .370.

Future big league pitcher Pedro Ramos, at age 18, won seven and lost six on a 6.26 ERA. He went go on to pitch for 15 years (1955-1970) in the majors, for the Senators, Twins, Indians, Yankees, Phillies, Pirates, Reds and the "new" Senators. Pitching for the "old" Senators in 1958-1960, and the expansion Minnesota Twins in 1961, Ramos tied or led the American League in losses in each of those seasons, dropping between 18-20 games each year. His career big league record was a hard-luck 117-160 with an ERA of 4.08.

With their late-arriving squad, the Morristown Red Sox started the season 0-4. They finished the year in 4th place, 15 games out. Both Ramos and Reyes remained with the team in 1954, after which the league folded, as did so many lower-level minor league circuits in the early-1950s.

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