Showing posts with label Joe Cambria. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joe Cambria. Show all posts

Sunday, March 26, 2017

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

Jose Zardon, 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, Zardon 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 Zardon in the major leagues, their solid performance further opened the pipeline for his countrymen to follow.

In his only major league season, Zardon batted .290 in 131 at-bats, while making some tremendous catches in the outfield. Throughout the remainder of the 1940s and early 1950s, Zardon 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 Zardon'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.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hector Maestri, Cuban pitcher for both Washington Senators teams, dies at 78

Hector Maestri, one of only nine major leaguers to ever play for both versions of the Washington Senators, passed away Friday February 21, 2014 in Miami according to his former teammate Jose Padilla. He was 78.

Born April 19, 1935 in La Habana, Cuba, Maestri was originally signed as a shortstop to the Senators organization in 1956 by the legendary scout Joe Cambria. Excited with the opportunity to follow in the Senators pipeline of rich Cuban talent, Maestri’s world was turned upside down only a few weeks into his professional baseball career.

“I played three [sic] games in Fort Walton Beach and they released me,” said Maestri in a 2012 interview with the author.
Hector Maestri Card / N. Diunte

Even though Maestri was deeply disappointed by the lack of a time the Senators gave him, he did not want to return to Cuba. Instead, he went to Houston to live with his uncle and work. It was there that he had a second chance at his baseball career.

“My uncle introduced me to a Mexican-American who had a baseball team out there,” he said. “The guy wanted me to play with him, so they gave me a job and I played baseball.”

While he was playing on the semi-pro circuit in Houston, he was approached by Senators scout Joe Pastor who offered him another shot with Washington. Maestri had his reservations about re-signing with the organization.

“I told him I was very angry because they didn’t give me a chance,” he said. “Fifteen days wasn’t enough.”

After Pastor reassured him that he would get a longer look, Cambria signed Maestri during the off-season in Cuba. Blessed with an exceptional arm, Maestri still fancied himself as a shortstop, but the Senators had other plans. Maestri split time between pitching and the infield in 1957 with Class D Elmira, N.Y., but when he was asked to pitch an impromptu bullpen session for Senators Vice President Joe Haynes during spring training in 1958, management made it very clear what his permanent role would be.

“The bullpen was near the clubhouse,” he recalled. “Anytime you threw the ball, there was a big echo. When I threw the ball, I looked [over] at him and he was smiling.

“The people in the clubhouse came out and said, ‘Dammit, who was throwing that ball?’ I was throwing very, very hard. We didn’t have radar guns, but they told me I was around 95. Mr. Joe Haynes came to me and said, ‘If I see you in the infield, I will throw you out. You are a pitcher.’”

Maestri spent another season at Elmira honing his craft on the mound, and it paid off. He finished with a 16-11 record, broke the league record for strikeouts and earned MVP honors for the team.

“I broke the strikeout record of Sal Maglie,” Maestri said. “He had 198 and I put [up] 210 in 156 innings.”

In 1959, he inched his way closer to the majors, playing at Class B Fox Cities where he was pared up with player-manager Jack McKeon. His 11-7 record earned him a AAA contract with Washington’s affiliate in Charleston.

He went home that winter and pitched for Cienfuegos in the Cuban Winter League, leading them to not only the league championships, but a sweep of the 1960 Caribbean Series.

It was the beginning of a year filled with highlights for the hard-throwing Cuban pitcher; however, it wasn't a straight rise to the top. Coming off of his championships in winter ball, he hit a bump in the road at the end of spring training in 1960. Just as the season was about to start, Charleston sent him down to Charlotte in the Class A Sally League. He wasn’t pleased with the decision and set out to prove to management that they made a mistake demoting him.

“I go to Charlotte, and on the first day our manager Gene Verble, told me I was going to be in short relief,” he recalled.

Verble summoned Maestri to close the game, and he delivered the goods.

“I threw nine pitches and struck out all three guys,” he said.

Nineteen-sixty was a banner year for Maestri. He was cited in the August 28, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated for pitching a perfect game in relief during the course of the season.

“Hector Maestri, Charlotte (N.C.) South Atlantic League relief pitcher, did not give up a walk, a hit or a run in hurling nine consecutive innings of perfect baseball over a five-game span, went 16 consecutive innings before yielding his first hit.”

Cut from the organization only a few years earlier, Maestri made good on his second calling, earning a promotion to the major league club when rosters expanded in September. Biding his time in the bullpen, he finally was put into action on September 24, 1960 in relief against the Baltimore Orioles.

“I pitched two innings and didn’t allow any runs,” he said.

Maestri carried that momentum into winter ball, winning another championship with Cienfuegos. Along with his second championship came another career altering event, the 1961 Expansion Draft.

The original Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins and Washington created a new team to represent the nation’s capital. The new Senators paid Clark Griffith $75,000 for the rights to Maestri. He saw this as an opportunity to negotiate for a higher salary.

“At that time the big league contract was $6,000,” he said. “I was so fresh, I said, ‘If you don’t give me $15,000, I don’t go.’”

To further complicate matters, relations between Fidel Castro and the United States went sour, leaving the future of all of the Cuban players, including Maestri in doubt. Luckily for Maestri, tensions eased up and he was able to negotiate a raise to $11,000.

Unfortunately, all of his negotiations didn’t account to much because Maestri couldn’t curry enough favor with manager Mickey Vernon to make his way up north with the team to start the season. Vernon thought Maestri needed more seasoning and sent him back to the minors for most of 1961.

Once again, determined to show he belonged, he burned up the Sally League with a 10-1 record for Columbia. This impressive performance forced the Senators and manager Vernon to take another look at the Cuban fireballer.

“I was a relief pitcher all my baseball career,” he said. “Mickey Vernon came to me and said, ‘You are pitching tomorrow, starting against Kansas City.”

Not used to starting, Maestri soldiered on anyways. He took the ball and went six strong innings against the Athletics.

“I lost 2-1 and that was it,” he said.

He wouldn’t get back to the major leagues for the remainder of his baseball career, and almost didn’t get back to the United States. After the 1962 season, he returned to Cuba to see his newborn son. At the time, Castro wasn’t letting anymore players freely leave the country.

“When I got in Cuba, they didn’t let me get out," he said. "That ruined my career.”

Maestri was done at 27, or so he thought. A call from a Mexican League team gave him a new lease on his baseball career.

“I had taken a few years off when I got a call from the Mexican League to play ball,” Maestri said. “Veracruz called me. They asked what I wanted. I told them I wanted a visa for my wife and my two sons. They told me, no problem. That’s how I got out of Cuba, [through] Mexico, in 1965.

“When I finished the league in Mexico, I went to the United States embassy in Veracruz and I asked for asylum. They didn’t give it to me, but they gave me a chance to talk to a wonderful guy, Phil Howser. (The general manager of the Charlotte minor league team.) I told him that I didn’t want to go back to Cuba anymore. He said, ‘Stay right there in the embassy, let me talk to the ambassador.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. The guy came to me and told me to go back to my apartment and come back tomorrow morning. I got my visa and jumped.”

Charlotte signed him for the 1965 season. He played one more year in the United States for the Wilson Tobs in 1966. Citing the lack of pay and burdensome travel schedule, he moved on from professional baseball.

“If you have a family, you have to do something because you can’t travel with your family,” he said. “My two sons had to go to school, so I said to my wife let’s go. I bought a car up there and came to Miami.”

Maestri had his own business career in Miami and his wife worked for the telephone company. Both of his sons grew up to be engineers, something he was very proud of.

“I owned my house and my kids got their education," he said. "It was wonderful.”