Saturday, January 15, 2022

Cholly Naranjo | A Tribute To My Best Friend 1933-2022



It was a call I knew was coming, but I didn’t want to take. A week ago, one of Cholly Naranjo’s family members called to tell me he was hospitalized with COVID and was on a ventilator. I somehow hoped he could summon his mighty curveball to foil the toughest hitter he ever faced; however, at 9PM on January 13, 2022, they came and took Cholly from the mound for the final time.

I often write these memorials for other players I’ve met in my baseball travels, but this one is different. Cholly Naranjo was my best friend. How does someone who is almost 50 years your senior become that close?

It was an innocent meeting at a 2009 Cuban baseball reunion in Philadelphia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the Cuban Winter League, but I was very familiar with Minnie Miñoso. I decided to make the two hour drive from New York to interview the Cuban Comet and meet the others as well.

Sitting quietly at a table with not much fanfare was Cholly Naranjo. I did some scant research about his lone 1956 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but didn’t know the depths of his career. While the line was quite long for Miñoso, I decided to talk with Cholly. He was so vibrant and excited to share. He told me he lived in South Florida and to visit him the next time I go to see my mother, who also lived there.

First trip to Paul Casanova's home in 2009 / N. Diunte

A few months later, I took him up on his offer, and that’s how our friendship began. At the time, I was still playing competitive baseball. Knowing that, he took me right away to Paul Casanova’s home. Waiting there was Casanova, Jackie Hernandez and Mike Cuellar. Cholly introduced me as his friend and they immediately welcomed me. We spent an hour talking baseball (actually I just mostly listened) and Casanova invited me back for hitting lessons.
 
Soon the wheels started turning. I found there was this corner of baseball I didn’t know; the rich history of the Cuban Winter League. Cholly was the key. He knew everybody and had a story for seemingly everyone that played in the 1950s, as well as the decade before, as his uncle Ramón Couto, was a star catcher in Cuban winter league, Negro Leagues and minor leagues in the 1930s and 1940s.
 
Ramón Couto and Luis Tiant Sr. / Couto Family

I leaned into Cholly for his encyclopedic knowledge. On almost a dime he could recall exact instances of players, games, and hilarious stories surrounding them. At the same time, he knew I was good with technology, so he would ask me to retrieve artifacts from his career. I was something I later discovered that kept him energized.

Cholly in high school with Chico Fernandez (r.)

We would talk weekly, sometimes about baseball, sometimes about life, relationships and everything else in between. As our trust increased, Cholly reached out to me to handle many of his other personal dealings, as he said I had the, “American style of communication.”

Some reading this might think with Cholly being a former major league baseball player, he was swimming in financial riches; however, this was far from the truth. Because of the fact he played in the majors when baseball players needed four full seasons to earn a pension (now it is 43 days), he didn’t receive one. He figured out how to live his best life on a small social security check with help from some baseball organizations. I was often tasked with the correspondence to make sure everything was running smoothly.

In 2010, I had him at my home in New York for a few days. He was invited his cousin‘s wedding, who was Daniel Boggs' son, the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. It was the first time Cholly visited New York since he returned from Cuba. We took the subway to the MLB offices to visit and personally thank the B.A.T. staff for their help. The trip to the MLB offices gave him so much validation behind his big league career.

2010 Wedding / N. Diunte

The day before the wedding, he told me he wanted to go to the park to have a catch. I thought it was going to be a short session, but he just kept telling me to move back the longer we threw. Eventually, we were throwing from at least 120 feet apart. Mind you, Cholly was 77 at the time and he made the throws with ease! He finally said his arm was loose and as he shortened the distance, he showed me how to throw his famous curveball, the one Branch Rickey courted him for.

Branch Rickey's 1956 Scouting Report

After that trip to New York, I made it a point to visit 2-3 times per year. It was easy to visit my mother and then also spend a day or two with Cholly. I would meet him in Hialeah, and he would drive. It was on these winding card rides through Miami’s back streets where we bonded. He had story after story and told them with such clarity. He would take me to different Cuban restaurants, one’s that he thought I would enjoy. Every meal was “outstanding” in his words, and he was often right.

He had this little black book filled with telephone numbers. He would ask me who I wanted to see, and we would go. Every player he called said yes. They knew Cholly was genuine and took me in as the same. Everyone was relaxed because as they all said, “it was family.” As I started to look around, I was slowly not only being accepted as part of that family, but his family as well.

Cholly with Almendares 

Cholly’s major league stats don’t tell the whole story. It was deeper than that single season in Pittsburgh. He was a star pitcher in the Cuban Winter League from 1952 until 1961, primarily with Almendares. It’s hard to sit here and write down all the legends he encountered either as teammates or opponents. He loved discussing the 1954-55 Carribbean Series where his team had to face the Puerto Rican Santurce team that had Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente in the same outfield (and the fight between Roger Bowman and Earl Rapp after Rapp misplayed a ball)! 

He lit up talking about Jim Bunning who he faced in Cuba and then later welcomed Cholly into his office in Washington D.C., or a young Brooks Robinson who played second base his one year in Cuba. Then there was the hijinks Tommy Lasorda got into after they won the championship in 1959. He told stories about Martin Dihigo, Satchel Paige, and his good friend Minnie Miñoso, who was also another tremendous gentleman.

He almost made the majors in 1954 with the Washington Senators. He got through all of spring training and they took him up north for Opening Day; Cholly even made the official team photo. A few hours before the first pitch, manager Bucky Harris informed Cholly they would be sending him to the minors on a 24-hour recall. He was disappointed, but he still stayed with the team for that day.

1954 Washington Senators

President Eisenhower threw out the first pitch, and his throw was launched into the crowd of ballplayers. Cholly ended up with the ball and had a historic catch with the President for a photo-op that was chronicled in Time magazine and earned him a spot on the TV show, “I’ve Got A Secret” the next morning.

He played with the Hollywood Stars in 1955 and 1956, when his team was the city’s main sports attraction (this was before the Dodgers and Giants moved). Famous entertainers would come to watch them play. Cholly regaled me with stories of his dinners and even dates with these luminaries. I wish I could remember them all, but the names have evaded my memory too.

He finally made the majors in 1956, coming up from Hollywood with his roommate and future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. Cholly saved his best performance for his final game, pitching 8 2/3 innings in relief for his first and only MLB victory. He told me how that win also kept Robin Roberts (whom he faced that day) from winning his 20th game of the season.

Cholly Naranjo with Roberto Clemente 1956 Pirates 

In 2017, Paul Casanova called me, as MLB wanted to honor the Cuban players at the All-Star Game in Miami. He asked me to work as a liason for a group of players to help with the paperwork, negotiations and communications. Cholly was one of the players in the group selected to be a part of the festivities, and without hesitation, he took me along for the ride.

Cholly (r.) with Dr. Adrian Burgos (l.), Jose Tartabull (center) 2017 All-Star FanFest / N. Diunte

For three days, Cholly was in heaven. MLB rolled out first class treatment, as did his peers. On the day he appeared at the FanFest to sign autographs and speak on a panel, MLB gave us a private SUV ride back and forth from the hotel to the convention center. They provided us both (yes me!) private security detail that followed us through the FanFest. He was so excited to interact with the fans, as well as tell his stories on stage with José Tartabull and Dr. Adrian Burgos.

We spent the extended weekend with Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris and Orlando Cepeda. It didn’t matter that Cholly wasn’t an All-Star or a Hall of Famer; not only was he readily accepted into the group, I found out they all looked up to him, as he was the senior member. Cepeda remarked how tough his curveball was on the rookie in winter ball. Tiant said he was a veteran influence on him as a rookie in the Cuban Winter League, and Oliva went out of his way to talk to B.A.T. to make sure Cholly was taken care of.

Tony Oliva, Cholly Naranjo, Juan Marichal / N. Diunte

We stayed up each night until 2AM talking about the game. The brotherhood was evident. Not only were they all there in the majors, they all faced the same challenges playing through the segregation in the United States. Every night, Cholly insisted at 84, to drive us back to my apartment in Fort Lauderdale. I was amazed how easily he navigated driving that late at night.

Things slowly started to change for Cholly after that wonderful weekend, and unfortunately, not in a good way. Paul Casanova died shortly after the Fan Fest (it was his last public appearance). Cholly worked with Casanova at the batting facility at Casanova’s home. He no longer had a place to go and interact. The young baseball players kept Cholly alive and the money Casanova paid him kept a little something extra in his pocket to enjoy life.

Paul Casanova, myself, Cholly / N. Diunte

Around 2019, Cholly stopped driving. He got into three accidents in a year and as he said, it was God’s way of letting him know he needed to get away from the wheel. I started noticing Cholly's once sharp mind started to show some cracks. He would lose his phone, or start to miss details in our conversations. Despite all of that, when we sat down for a formal interview in 2019, he was amazed at how good he felt. 

“I’ve got my health at my age,” he said. “I got this far, and I’m better than when I was playing ball. Can you believe that? Sometimes I think, well, give me the ball; I’m going to get somebody out. 

“It makes me feel well that I can be a normal person and do all the things necessary to live in the United States and travel. … To me, it’s like a prize that I have proven that it can happen to anybody. ... I’ve lived over there and over here, and I’m clean in both of them. I have lived long enough to show everybody what is what. I feel proud of that inside. … I say Cholly, how old are you? Well, I’ve got more miles than Pan American Airlines!"

I saw Cholly early in 2020, right before the pandemic. We met for dinner, and he told me he walked for over 18 hours in a day just to prove to himself he could do it. I was amazed, but also feared for his safety, as the area in Miami where he lived wasn’t a walking city.

Our last meeting July 2021 / N. Diunte

Last year, he moved in with his nephew to be closer to the little family he had. I visited him in July 2021, as the pandemic put a huge wedge in my ability to travel. I could see the early stages of dementia from the time we spent together. A few months ago, Cholly had to be put into a nursing home, as he just couldn’t take care of himself any longer. Physically, he was in good shape, but he needed the care that comes with a nursing facility.

We would still talk on the phone a few times a week. When I called, it was always, “Coño! Nick! I am better than expected!” even as he struggled with recall. We kept the conversations short, but he always asked when I was coming down. I was aiming for the Christmas holiday to visit for a few days, but I came down with COVID on Christmas Eve. By the time I found a possible window to travel, his family let me know he also contracted COVID and wasn’t doing well in the hospital. I thought Cholly would miraculously find a way to pull through, but when the big man comes to get you off the mound, as Cholly would say, “You have to give up the ball.”

I am going to miss my friend. Cholly said he looked at me as a son, as he never had any children. I feel honored I was able to be a part of his life for so long and learn so much about his history, his culture and life story. I hope I can continue to elevate Cholly’s memory, as it was much greater than those 17 games he pitched with Pittsburgh in 1956.

QDEP Lazaro Ramón Gonzalo Naranjo Couto - November 25, 1933 - January 13, 2022.

Books Featuring Cholly Naranjo -

Last Seasons in Havana by Cesar Brioso

Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer

Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History by Jorge Figueredo

 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

What Are The Top Questions For The Sports Card Market Heading Into 2022?


There is an ominous feeling within the sports card industry for 2022. Collectors are likely looking at the last full year of Topps branded major league baseball cards, as its MLBPA license expires at year's end. With the window potentially closing on Topps' MLB legacy (unless there is a Fanatics merger), we looked at three pressing questions for my Forbes Sports Money column that fans and collectors are looking for answers to in 2022.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

2021 Topps Chrome Black | Box Break and Review


After opening a box of 2021 Topps Chrome Black Baseball, it appears Topps has saved its best design for this late-season release. The black matte finish gives these cards a sleek look and feel that is markedly different from Topps' traditional releases. The deep black background isolates the players and cuts out much of the noise that comes with other Topps issues. With just four cards in each box, one is left with the feeling of wanting more cards from the base set before getting to the encased autographed card. 

2021 Topps Chrome Black Baseball Base Set and Checklist

The 100-card base set checklist is awash with rookies including Alec Bohm, Ke'Bryan Hayes and Joey Bart. Each card is also minted in Topps' standard parallel rainbow (Refractor #/199, Purple #/150, Green #/99, Green Atomic #/99, Blue #/75, Gold #/50, Orange #/25, Magenta #/10, Red #/5, Superfractor 1/1), giving collectors even more opportunities to chase down their favorite players from this set. 

2021 Topps Chrome Black Fernando Tatis Jr. / Topps

2021 Topps Chrome Black Baseball Autographs

The encased autographs, which come one per box, feature a mix of past, present and future stars. The signer list includes Hall of Famers Derek Jeter, Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson, as well as Mike Trout, Luis Robert and all of the rookies included in the base set. These autographs also have serial-numbered parallels (Refractor #/150, Green #/99, Gold #/50, Orange #/25, Red #/5, Superfractor 1/1) that add excitement to the chase in each box. 

Topps sweetens the deal by adding a highly curated 21-player Super Futures autograph set that is numbered to 99 or less of top rookies and young stars such as Randy Arozarena, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto. 

2021 Topps Chrome Black Baseball Box Break

Watch our box break video below of 2021 Topps Chrome Black Baseball to see which autograph we pulled, as well as to get an up close look at the tremendous design that we think make this set one of Topps' best this year.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

2021 Topps Tier One Baseball | Box Break and Review


Topps rolled out one of its high-end products earlier this year with 2021 Topps Tier One Baseball. The three-card boxed product is a high-risk, high-reward proposition, as collectors hope to hit one or more autographs that justify the $250 price tag

Each box offers two autographed cards and one relic with a dizzying level of signature variations. A look at the checklist reveals nine different autographed card categories and an additional eight types of autographed relics. Major starts past and present are included in this set, with Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuña Jr. alongside the recently deceased Hank Aaron and the Hall of Fame's newest member, Gil Hodges. 

Baseball's next wave is also heavily represented, as Topps highlights the game's emerging stars. Fans will find on-card autographs of coveted young talents such as Ke'Bryan Hayes, Jo Adell and Luis Robert in 2021 Topps Tier One Baseball. 

The set's design is crisp, with the photo and signature getting an even split on the front, giving the signature room to breathe without disrupting the card's flow. The thick card stock has a premium feel in one's hand, which should be expected at this price point.  

In the box Topps provided for this review, we scored a major hit that sure made 2021 Topps Tier One Baseball a fruitful dive. Watch the video below from our YouTube channel to see which superstar's autograph we pulled from the box.


Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Gil Hodges Finally Makes His Way To Cooperstown


No more debates about whether Gil Hodges belongs in the Hall of Fame. The 2021 Golden Days Committee voted Hodges in the Hall of Fame during its December vote, giving Hodges the 12 votes necessary for election. 

Leading up to the vote, I debated in my Forbes Sports column whether the Hall of Fame had a financial interest in electing Hodges, as past committees haven't been favorable to deceased candidates from his era. Apparently, the committee went all in on four candidates—Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva and Hodges (with Dick Allen narrowly missing), focusing on widening the Hall's reach, instead of focusing on the living candidates who could promote the museum. 

The three-time World Series champion (two as a player, one as a manager) died of a heart attack on April 2, 1972 during spring training with the New York Mets. Prior to his election, Hodges was the only Hall of Fame candidate eligible for the Veterans and Eras Committees that received at least 50% of the BBWAA vote and didn't get enshrined.