Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in
sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the
players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball
and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as
I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the
1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those
cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.
Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Venezuela are
chilly these days, but they have been worse in the past.
One ugly instance in 1950 is an example.
An article by Beaumont sportswriter Bill Spurlock in the
Dec. 13, 1950 issue of The Sporting News reported that 15 American
ballplayers who were playing winter ball in the four-team Venezuela League
during the 1950-51 season, “took a severe punching and shoving around from
native police following the assassination of Provisional President Colonel
Carlos Delgado Chalbaud in the Venezuelan capital city on November 13.”
Spurlock reported, “the players were first given a good
going-over at their hotel and later caught more licks at police headquarters.
None were seriously hurt during the frightening incident, though three suffered
cuts, one was slugged with a pistol butt and all received numerous bumps and
The players who were involved, with two exceptions, had just
finished their seasons in the Texas League two weeks earlier. They were
identified as: Ford Garrison, Clarence Beers, Harry Schaeffer, Charlie Glock,
Zeke Melignano, (Beaumont), Jimmie Dyck, Frank Mancusco, Danny Baich (San
Antonio), Eddie Knoblauch (Tulsa), Charles Haag (St. Petersburg), Clem Labine
(St. Paul), Wally Fiala (Montreal), Mike Lemish, Bob Bundy, Bill McCahan (Ft.
All were staying at the Hotel Savoy in Caracas.
Zeke Melignano, whom The Sporting News described as a
“bespectacled righthander” with the Vargas club, provided a first-hand account.
The president of Venezuela was
assassinated about 10 o’clock in the morning of November 13, and immediately
the government declared a 5 p.m. curfew, when everyone had to be off the
streets. There were to be no public gatherings or group talking.
About 4:45 p.m. that afternoon the
majority of the players were in their rooms, though there were one or two
eating the hotel café. Garrison and Dyck were nearing the hotel with some
vegetables and groceries in their arms which they were taking to the café ro
I was shaving in my room when I
heard someone banging on the door and trying to get in. I kept quiet and
motioned to my wife to keep quiet. They left and in a few minutes I opened the
door and saw Schaeffer. We placed our wives in a room and told them to lock the
door and started to walk down the stairway from the third floor. We met a
policeman near the stairway and he motioned us on with his machete. We went on
down to the lobby and found the police had rounded up all the players. The cops
pushed us into the group and we were all piled into three big trucks as we were
punched, shoved and hurried along with the flat-side of ugly-looking machetes.
I got some terrific whacks as I scrambled aboard the truck. Brother, I was
We were raced at breakneck speed to
the police station, where we had to run a gauntlet of police with more pushing,
punching, threatening and machete swinging. We were lined up in a big room and
it was here that Bundy saw a police captain that he had met at the ball park.
Bundy acted as spokesman with the police official and with signs and the few
Spanish words he knew identified us as ball players.
There was a
short conference and after we were searched and signed our names to a sheet of
paper, we herded into a truck and taken back to the hotel, where we found our
wives nearly hysterical.
Melignano said that 11 of the players’ wives were wintering
in Venezuela with their husbands and that Haag’s nine-year-old son and Fiala’s
infant daughter were also there. “The women were not molested in the least,
though they were frightened,” Melignano said.
Melignano reported that several of the players showed the police
their passports and said “Me Americano,” but that only brought another whack
and did not good. “None of us could talk Spanish,” he continued, “and there we
were being pushed around and there was nothing we could do about it, and we
didn’t know what for. In fact it would
probably have been dangerous to protest too strenuously. We did not strike a
What precipitated the police brutality? According to
Spurlock, it was a rumor.
Spurlock wrote, “A story reached Caracas police that some
foreigners were in the Hotel Savoy celebrating the slaying of their president.
Shouts of ‘Down with the tyrant’ and ‘Let’s have a drink to the death of the
tyrant’ were said to have been heard in front of the hotel.. Three trucks
loaded with police swept down on the hotel without the slightest warning.”
As an afterthought, Spurlock mentioned in his article,
“Three or four other Americans who lived at the hotel and several natives were
also manhandled by the coppers, who wielded the flat side of machetes like
home-run sluggers at bat.”
According to Melignano, the most serious injuries to the
players included Baich (cuts to his back and left arm), Glock (slash on the
arm), Haag (badly bruised right arm) and Bundy (hit in the face with a gun
The day after their release, the battered ballplayers
appeared at the American Embassy to protest their treatment. Attaches there
were already aware of the incident and said they were making an investigation.
Apologies came from the police, who admitted they had been acting on rumors.
On Nov. 15, Venezuela League officials came to the hotel
with apologies. The following day, as the players were preparing to leave the
country, the presidents of the teams met with the players and offered them $500
apiece to stay on and forget the incident.
With the country under martial law, league play did not
resume until Nov. 23.
“I don’t know who remained in Caracas,” Melignano said upon
his return on Nov. 18. “I understand some of the fellows did.” A week later,
Melignano went to work for a Beaumont haberdashery. “No sir, no more winter
ball for me where the cops swing sticks and knives and then ask questions,”
Among the brutalized players who remained in Venezuela were
Frank Mancuso, who was leading the league in batting at about .414 when the
death of his brother and illness of his mother caused him to return to the U.S.
late in the season. Clem Labine and Mike Lemish hung in with the Magallanes
club that won the pennant. Also mentioned in game accounts after the incident
was Ford Garrison.
Apparently the incident didn’t prevent other American minor
league players from going to Venezuela to replace those who left and to join
the Cerveceria Caracas team, which for the first time in its history began to
use non-Venezuelan players in a futile chase for the flag.
Not mentioned in the accounts of the police riot were the
black Americans who were playing in the country. Absent specific mention, I
draw the conclusion that the Negro League players and a few black minor
leaguers performing in the Venezuela League were, as in the U.S. at the time,
precluded from staying in the same hotel as white players.