Sunday, January 17, 2016

How Luis Arroyo gave one baseball fan an experience of a lifetime

Luis Arroyo, the great Puerto Rican left-handed reliever for the 1961 New York Yankees World Series championship team, passed away at the age of 88 on Wednesday January 13, 2016 in Puerto Rico after a bout with cancer. As the closer for their team, Arroyo preserved many of their victories, but one of his greatest assists came well after his playing days ended to a complete stranger.

In 2011, while milling around the hotel where the Yankees Old Timers were stationed for the weekend, I encountered Arroyo sitting in an almost regal manner in a chair in the corner of the lobby, free from the rush of the crowds that swarmed the other alumni making their way through the hotel en route to explore New York City. While the droves of fans and collectors flocked to the younger retired Yankees, I sensed an opportunity to talk with Arroyo about his vast treasure of experiences as a ballplayer in Puerto Rico in the late 1940s with all of the legendary Negro League and Puerto Rican stars who passed through the famed winter league.

Luis Arroyo (r.) with the author in 2011 / N. Diunte
As I approached Arroyo and inquired about his desire to discuss his early baseball career, he seemed a bit surprised and guarded. As we started to talk, I told him that I was a friend of a former teammate and after putting them in touch on the phone as we sat there in the lobby, Arroyo relaxed and opened up his tremendous wealth of knowledge of baseball’s unheralded superstars. For thirty minutes, he brought up the names of such greats as Willard Brown, Bus Clarkson, Perucho Cepeda, Ruben Gomez, and Satchel Paige. The more he spoke, the more he beamed with pride sharing his recollections of being amongst all of these superstars before he hit the major leagues.

Photo of Arroyo with Ponce in Puerto Rico / N. Diunte
One fellow Puerto Rican that he made sure to emphasize was Francisco “Pancho” Coimbre. An early standout with Ponce’s team in Liga de BĂ©isbol Profesional de Puerto Rico, as well as in the Negro Leagues with the New York Cubans, Arroyo insisted that Coimbre was the finest hitter on the island.

“I could name you the best hitter ever to come out of winter ball — Frank Coimbre,” Arroyo said in 2011. “He didn’t get a chance to play because he was colored. He was the best hitter in Puerto Rico and I could bet you anything that he could hit in the big leagues. He could run, throw, and hit. He was a hell of a ballplayer.”

As our conversation progressed, the then 84-year-old Arroyo said that he was tired from the travel and wouldn’t be attending the team’s evening festivities at a local restaurant. He then proceeded to show me his tickets and offer them to me as he didn’t want them to go to waste. I surely couldn’t turn down an opportunity to have a good meal and meet some more of the Yankees alumni.

Old Timers Day Reception Pass / N. Diunte
Before retiring to his room, Arroyo asked me to meet him in the lobby at 9AM the next morning, as he said that he would have something good for me. I thanked him for his generosity and assured him that I would be there.
David Wells (l.) and the author at Yankees alumni party / N. Diunte
After waking up from an enjoyable evening of mingling with the players at a Times Square restaurant, I sat on the train to the hotel with a child-like excitement for my morning encounter with Mr. Arroyo. When I arrived in the hotel lobby, Arroyo was sitting alone reading the newspaper while the slight bustle of the early risers passed him by. After a friendly greeting, we picked up where we left off yesterday’s conversation, as he started running off stories about his time in the National League with St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. Whether it was colorful anecdotes of seeing Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, and Sandy Koufax toil in Puerto Rico before hitting superstardom in the majors, or playing with Stan Musial and a young Frank Robinson, Arroyo had seen it all — even the time in Havana when he was playing with the Sugar Kings and shortstop Leo Cardenas was shot by wayward gunfire.

Arroyo (l.) with Fidel Castro (r.) in 1959 as a member of the Havana team / N. Diunte
As the early sunlight penetrated the glass doors of the lobby, Arroyo perked up even more, speaking with wonderful candor about his time with the Yankees. Like an assembly line, the vaunted names of the Yankees championship team rolled off his tongue: Berra, Ford, Howard, Mantle, and Maris. For each of them he had his own colorful bit, each told with a laugh and a smile. We finally got down to his stellar 1961 season, when he appeared in 65 games for the Yankees, saving 29 of them en route to a 15-5 record, an All-Star appearance, and a sixth place finish in the American League MVP voting.

“When I had that good year, [finishing] 15-5, and we won the World Series, I used to pitch all year around,” he said. “When I finished the World Series in 1961, the GM Roy Hamey said to stop pitching all year around. I told him that I pitch winter ball because I wasn’t making any money. He took care of me. He gave me $10,000.”
Photo of Arroyo pitching that is outside of the Yankees suites / N. Diunte
Arroyo’s decision to take the money from the Yankees was one that he regretted later in life. Instead of keeping in shape during the time he would have normally been playing winter baseball, he went far away from his training routine; a decision that he felt ultimately shortened his career.

“I made a mistake,” he lamented. “When I wasn’t pitching, instead of going to the ballpark and keep running and doing some throwing, I went out with all the friends, drank, and ate, and when I came to spring training, I was 20 pounds overweight; it was the biggest mistake of my life. I don’t blame him, he did me a favor. When I gained all those pounds, I couldn’t throw at all. In 1963, I hurt my arm. … I went to bed and I felt something to my elbow and that was the end of my career. I had an operation. I tried to play winter ball and I couldn’t do it.”

While his arm injury spelled the end of Arroyo’s playing career with the Yankees, he remained with them as a scout for 20 years. He was instrumental in getting them to sign Ricky Ledee, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams, the latter for which he told me how he had to work hard on George Steinbrenner to convince him to go after a skinny 16-year-old outfielder from Puerto Rico.

As he prepared to move on with the rest of his day, he called down his grandson Gustavo from his hotel room. As he emerged from the elevator, he was holding an envelope. Arroyo introduced me to his grandson and proceeded to take a ticket and special pass from the envelope. He wanted me to be their guest at Old Timers Day. He said that he thought it was something that I would enjoy as a baseball fan and instructed me to meet them at the hotel at 9AM for breakfast the next morning.

2011 Old Timers Day Suite Ticket / N. Diunte
I went home elated with my ticket and called a few friends with the news. I wasn’t sure what was in store for the next day, but I was excited about the opportunity. I met Gustavo for breakfast at the hotel in the morning and watched at the Old Timers left on the first bus to the stadium. We went on the next bus for the players’ guests, which took us directly into the private entrance to the stadium. We were escorted through the inside of the stadium up to a series of specially connected luxury suites.

A small sampling of the decor in the suites / N. Diunte
What an experience watching the ceremonies and the games from the suites. The food was top notch and as you start to mingle with the players families, you realize that the event is not only an annual highlight for the retired players, but also their families who can experience the cheers of their loved ones once again from the sold out crowd.
Arroyo's entrance on the big screen at Yankee Stadium / N. Diunte
In the sweltering heat, the elder alumni, including Arroyo made their way back up to the suites before those who played in the game. He was accompanied by the likes of Don Larsen, Hector Lopez, and Moose Skowron, as well as Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. As the aforementioned battery entered the room, they were closely guarded by security and escorted to a private area of the suites. Arroyo managed to get over to the private area to say a few words to both Berra and Ford and emerged with a photo in his hands. He handed it to me and it was signed by both Ford and himself. It was another act of generosity by the former Yankee that deepened my appreciation for his time and effort.

Autographed photo of Ford and Arroyo / N. Diunte
After watching the game and returning to the hotel on the bus sitting next to Skowron, (who was telling jokes all along the way) I met with Arroyo and his grandson and once again thanked them for bringing me behind the curtain for Old Timers Day. They extended the baseball opportunity of a lifetime to a total stranger and for that I am eternally grateful.

Moose Skowron (r.) with the author in 2011 / N. Diunte
I met with both of them in subsequent years during their return trips to Old Timers Day, last seeing Arroyo in 2013. Despite being limited by weakened knees, he made his priority to attend.

“Even though I have arthritis in my knees, I can’t miss it.”

1 comment:

  1. Great story!!! He was a former Red as well as he played in Cincinnati in 1959. I actually got his autograph on a baseball!!!

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