Showing posts with label Almendares. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Almendares. Show all posts

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

 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Why Tommy Lasorda Once Used A Rifle To Protect His Cuban Teammates

Tommy Lasorda celebrating the 1958-59 Almendares championship

Tommy Lasorda’s mighty curveball took him many places during his 14-year playing career, including Canada, Panama, Puerto Rico and Cuba. The tenacious southpaw’s fiery personality played right into the spirit of the Caribbean Winter League, making him a popular choice among the fans. 

During the 1958-59 Cuban Winter League season, Lasorda’s 8-3 record helped propel Almendares to the championship. They dominated in the Caribbean Series, going 5-1 with their pitching staff completing five of the six games. Lasorda was the lone starter not to go the distance, throwing 3.1 scoreless innings against Panama. 

While Almendares’ near-flawless championship would have been the highlight of any baseball season, another event during the 1958-59 campaign dominated anything that happened on the baseball field. 


On New Year’s Eve in 1958, one American baseball player noticed there was an uncomfortable quiet during the day. As John Goryl rode to the ballpark with Cienfuegos teammate Bob Will, there was an eerie silence on the road. 

“We were driving into Havana,” Goryl said during a 2011 interview. “We lived eight or nine miles outside of the city. We were driving down this main thoroughfare, and it was New Year’s Day. We were driving down the highway and not a soul in site. No traffic. All the windows when we got close to town were boarded up, curtains were down, and shutters were down.” 

When they arrived at the stadium, his Cuban teammates quickly updated Goryl on what was happening. There was a drastic change coming. 

“When we got to the ballpark, all of the Cuban ballplayers were gathered in one corner in the ballpark,” he said. “I took Pedro [Ramos] aside and he told me, ‘They think Batista left the country, and Castro will be coming in.’ I asked, ‘Are we gonna play?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t look like it, but they haven’t made that announcement.’ About 30 minutes later, an announcement was made, and we would be told when we would be able to play again.” 

With the inevitable change of power from Fulgencio Batista to Fidel Castro, chaos ensued. It was a long ride back to their protected beach compound at Club Náutico where the foreign players stayed. 

“All hell broke loose when we left that ballpark,” he said. “People tore down parking meters to get money, looting, and everything else.” 

Goryl thought his family was safe at the compound; however, one American player thought otherwise. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he looked out his window and saw Tommy Lasorda out front armed with a rifle. 

“We were living in a compound that was completely surrounded by water with guards,” he said. “I had a wife who had a small baby and was pregnant. I looked out the window one morning down to the street and there was Tommy walking around with a .22 rifle trying to protect everybody. It was the damndest thing I'd ever seen.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Why Martin Dihigo is remembered as a 'God' by one Cuban ballplayer

Martín Dihigo is widely regarded as one of the most talented and versatile players in the Hall of Fame. Whether he was on the mound, in the field, or at the plate, Dihigo stood out among the mere mortals that played alongside him.


Cholly Naranjo, a star pitcher for Cuba's Alemendares ball club in the 1950s who later made the major leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956, had a special connection with Dihigo. Naranjo is the nephew of Ramon Couto, Dihigo's catcher both in Cuba and with the Cuban Stars of the Negro Leagues.

The now 82-year-old Naranjo is one of a handful of players alive that saw Dihigo up close and personal. Speaking with Naranjo in May 2017, he explained what it was like to have contact with "El Inmortal," at an early age.

"Man you should have seen that guy, he looked like a God!" Naranjo said.

In the rest of the interview, which is linked below, Naranjo discusses watching Dihigo play as a youngster and how he was a top line player as both a pitcher and a batter. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jose 'Tony' Zardón, eldest living Cuban major leaguer passes away at 94

Jose Zardón, a native Cuban who was the last living member of the 1945 Washington Senators, passed away March 21, 2017 in Tamarac, Florida. He was 94.

Affectionately nicknamed "Guineo" for his blazing speed that was akin to the local hen in Cuba, he first played in the United States in 1944 when the legendary scout Joe Cambria signed him to the Washington franchise. After playing one season in the minor leagues, the Senators minted the fleet-footed outfielder as a major leaguer in 1945, seeking to take advantage of his ability to cover the vast depths of Griffith Stadium. 

Jose Zardon at his home in 2012 / N. Diunte
With major league rosters depleted due to World War II enlistments, Zardón and his Cuban teammates with the Senators became pioneers of sorts, giving the club in the nation's capitol an integrated team a year prior to the Brooklyn Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson. While there were other Cubans who preceded Zardón in the major leagues, their solid performance further opened the pipeline for his countrymen to follow.

In his only major league season, Zardón batted .290 in 131 at-bats, while making some tremendous catches in the outfield. Throughout the remainder of the 1940s and early 1950s, he spent his winters playing for the Almendares and Havana clubs in Cuba, as well as two seasons in Venezuela. He remained active in the minor leagues, spending another ten seasons as both a player and a manager before retiring in 1955.

Great detail of Zardón's career is profiled in the SABR book, "Who's on First: Replacement Players in World War II." In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Zardon at his Florida home to discuss his career, where in his jovial fashion, he shared a story about how he stole first base after a famous Cuban sportswriter doubted his hitting abilities. The video, which is linked below, is a taste of Zardon's warm character which was appreciated by all who met him. 

* Ed Note - In the above SABR interview, Zardon admitted that his birth year was 1922, not 1923 as listed in the official baseball database.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Vicente Lopez, Cuban pitcher for Almendares dead at 83

Former Cuban League star and Brooklyn Dodger farmhand Vicente Lopez passed away Wednesday at the age of 83 in Miami. Lopez was signed by the Dodgers after an outstanding Cuban amateur league career in 1948. He won 18 and 20 games in 1949 and 1950 for their Class B Miami Sun Sox team.

Vicente Lopez
All signs pointed towards Lopez quickly advancing towards the major league level. During the winter league season of 1950-51, Lopez was the target of scrutiny by the Dodgers scouts. During a winter league game against another Dodger prospect Joe Black, Lopez battled for 10-innings during a 2-2 ballgame. After his brilliant display in front of the Dodgers brass, Lopez realized that he threw his arm out in the process. He would never regain the life on his fastball to supplement his knee buckling curve to become a major league prospect.

Lopez pitched for 13 seasons in the minor leagues, Mexico, and Cuba before settling in Miami. After his baseball career, he worked as a clerk in a food warehouse while operating Los Cubanos Libres, a baseball academy alongside fellow Cubans Julio Moreno and Sandy Consuegra.

* Ed Note - Lopez founded Los Cubanos Libres and operated the baseball academy with Julio Moreno amongst other former players. He did not work at Carlos Pascual's Academy as previously reported.

More Info -
El Lanzador - Vicente Lopez was almost the Cuban Koufax - Miami New Times
Muere en Miami el ex lanzador cubano Vicente López - Diario Las Americas



Saturday, April 3, 2010

Orioles pitching ace Mike Cuellar dies at age 72 (1937-2010)

The sad news of Mike Cuellar's death from stomach cancer on Friday caused me to reminisce about our meeting in Florida last August which was captured in the above photo. Cuellar, standing proudly in the center in his red shirt and fancy hat was in a joyous mood surrounded by his fellow teammates and countrymen.

The native of Santa Clara, Cuba began pitching for Almendares in 1957, and would later help lead them to the Carribean Series championship in 1959. That would be the same year that Cuellar would make his Major League debut with the Cincinnati Reds. He made his debut in April, and was quickly sent back down to Havana after pitching just 4 innings.

Cuellar's career didn't end there, and it is a story of perseverance. He would not return to the big leagues for five seasons. After bouncing around AA, AAA and Mexico, the screwball tossing lefty resurfaced with the Cardinals in 1964 and would spend the next 14 season playing with the Astros, Orioles and Angels. It is with the Orioles where at the age of 32, Cuellar had his resurrection.

In 1969, Cuellar won 23 games en route to winning the Cy Young award and leading the Orioles to a World Series appearance. Cuellar would help to drive the Orioles to the World Series the next two years, winning 24 and 20 games during each of those seasons. At the age of 37 in 1974, Cuellar won 22 games, making him a four-time 20 game winner.

Cuellar most recently lived in Orlando, and spent the last few months of his life hospitalized after suffering a brain aneurism, followed by the removal of his gall bladder, all of which preceded his stomach cancer. Adorned by many, I choose to remember the strong man I met during a warm summer day surrounded by members of his Cuban baseball family. Rest in peace Mike Cuellar.

More Articles on Mike Cuellar -

El béisbol cubano está de luto: Murió Mike Cuellar - Terreno de Pelota
Baseball Legend Struggling in Orlando Hospital - Orlando Sentinel
Steady Cuellar, A Master of the Screwball - ESPN.com
Cuban Pitcher Mike Cuellar passes away - Orlando Sentinel
Former Baltimore Orioles Ace Mike Cuellar dead at age 72 - ESPN.com

Monday, March 8, 2010

Tommy Lasorda inducted into Cuban Sports Hall of Fame

MLB Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda was inducted into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday in Miami. This makes for the 16th Hall of Fame of which Lasorda has been enshrined. To read the details on Lasorda's induction, click here.