By Ismael Nunez
PUERTO RICO – Here’s a little trivia. Besides holding the Major League Baseball record for lifetime steals, he also holds the record for lifetime stolen bases in the Puerto Rican Winter League. And, he is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Who is he? Ricky Henderson!
What do these other Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken and Tony Gywnn have in common? They all played in the Puerto Rican Winter League!
Two books of which this reporter recommends (two favorites of my baseball book collection) Puerto Rico’s Winter League: A History of Major League Baseball’s Launching Pad And the other The Santurce Crabbers: Sixty Seasons of Puerto Rican Winter League Baseball. Two books which give a proud history of the island/nation’s contribution to baseball. Here’s more Monte Irvin (who was idolized by Roberto Clemente), Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, all major stars in the Negro Leagues played in PR. Hall of Fame Manager got his first gig managing there. The two books (published by McFarland, 1-800-253-2187; available from Amazon) don’t just focus on the players; there are chapters on umpires, beat reporters, fans.
Recently the Puerto Rican Sun had the honor to interview this proud writer online. Van Hyning was getting ready to attend for a trip to Cooperstown.
Q: A lot of people likely say: “How did you, an Anglo or Gringo, born and raised in the United States end up in Puerto Rico?
A: My family moved to Puerto Rico in September 1956, when I was two on a cargo ship from Baltimore, Maryland to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Q: So growing up there you had not problem with no one, no problem with the language, culture, did you enjoy the food? Were you ever bullied coming from a different country?
A: I grew up during the 1960s in Santurce; later, Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. I Developed good friendships with buddies – played little league and high school ball. I loved the local fruits; the arroz con pollo (rice and chicken). At the time, there was no cable TV – just a few local TV stations with Spanish programming. I spoke English at home; and Spanish on the streets. My last name – Van Hyning – was kind of strange for some so my friends called me Tommy.
Q: Can you dance to the music beat of Bomba/Plena or Salsa? Any favorite musicians from Puerto Rico you admire?
A: I can dance to the Salsa. I admired Ruth Fernández who is from Ponce. She is a fine Plena singer and was a Ponce Lions fan in the Puerto Rico Winter League! I liked Jose Feliciano’s (from Lares, originally) music; the old romantic music from the Island through trios – Los Panchos, Danny Rivera and some 1960s rock & roll stars like Lucecita Benitez, Chucho Avellanet, Julio Angel. I also liked Herman Santiago, who sang with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, was a New Yorker of Puerto Rico descent, with a lot of doo wop talent.
Q: Focusing on the books: Do you have a background in journalism, literature or sports writing? Did you conduct the interviews in Spanish or English?
A: I did two years of sports writing at a small college in Pennsylvania (1991-93); but developed writing skills as a Grants Writer in Puerto Rico and Southern Illinois, from 1977 to 1987. Was able to conduct the interviews in both Languages–fluent in Spanish. Roberto Alomar was impressed with my Spanish, when I interviewed him before a March 1992 Spring Training game in Florida.
Q: There is a Puerto Rican Community here in New York City, and in other cities across this country. Most are not aware of these names, Perucho Cepeda and Francisco Coimbre. Should they be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, like several Negro League Players?
A: Yes. Francisco “Pancho” Coimbre–definitely, with his years as a star with the New York Cubans. Coimbre played for five Ponce championship teams in Puerto Rico, during the 1940s – and did not strike out in three straight seasons! Perucho Cepeda never played in the U.S. Negro Leagues, but outperformed many of the U.S. Negro Leaguers in Puerto Rico. Perucho was a terrific short stop – later a star at first base, like his son. Perucho played for the Guayama Witches in the Puerto Rico Winter League, when it was called a “Semi-Pro” League. Satchel Paige was a teammate of Perucho in 1939-40 Guayama team which won the Puerto Rico title, plus the U.S. Semi-Pro Baseball Championship, as well.
Q: Almost every ballplayer interviewed had a good experience did any of them had a bad experience? Like the language or racial problems.
A: The U.S. Negro Leaguers were treated like “kings” in Puerto Rico – ate at the best restaurants; got “Player of the Week” gifts like nice suits, ties, shoes. They all appreciated Puerto Rico. Perhaps a few players from the 1950s on did not get used to the environment, and if they “did not produce” – they were sent home and replaced by “another Import”. One imported player told me his wife asked for a divorce after his season in Puerto Rico, plus the kids got sick, the few months they were there. Definitely a bad experience!
Q: Several Negro League players from Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, along with several other Latin ballplayers from other countries Tetelo Vargas(Dominican Republic) and Tony Perez(Cuba) played there. What was their experience like?
A: Satchel Paige had a bit of a sore arm in the late 1930s – but his 1939-40 season in Puerto Rico–was great with a 19-3 record, and 208 strikeouts in 205 innings pitched. Both the wins (19) and K’s (208) are still Puerto Rico Winter League single season records. Paige only had to pitch on weekends (Saturdays-Sundays) during the 1939-40 season ( 28-week season) which consisted of 56 games per team. So he could “take it easy” during the week – stay loose with some mid-week throwing to his Puerto Rico buddy, Cefo Conde. Plus, William Perkins, an outstanding Negro Leagues catcher, was Satchel Paige’s catcher with Guayama (1939-40).
Monte Irvin told me how much he appreciated Puerto Rico’s fans– they were a pleasure to play for. The quality of play on the Island helped Monte Irvin refine his skills from 1940 to 1947. San Juan’s bat boy Freddie Thon (the dad of ex-big leaguer, Dickie, a shortstop with Houston, San Diego, Philadelphia, Texas and Milwaukee) told me, “I was told that Monte Irvin and Larry Doby [who were San Juan Senators teammates in 1946-47], were actually the ones selected to break the color line (not Jackie Robinson), but Irvin got hurt and as we all know, and Robinson and Doby ended up being the ones (to break the color barrier, in the National League and American League, respectively).
Irvin and Doby both played second base in Puerto Rico. And Irvin got a game-winning pinch hit for San Juan, once, with his left wrist in a cast! Juan E. “Tetelo” Vargas–The “Dominican Deer”–hit .320 (or .321, depending on the source) during 16 Puerto Rico winter seasons. Was a teammate of Perucho Cepeda and Satchel Paige on that great 1939-40 Guayama team. Later played in the same outfield with Henry (Hank) Aaron and Jim Rivera with the 1953-54 Caguas Criollos, champions of the Puerto Rico League; and the Caribbean Series, hosted by Puerto Rico.
I saw Tony Pérez – called Tany in Puerto Rico – hit a game-winning home run in the 1964-65 Puerto Rico season against the Arecibo Wolves. This was at Hiram Bithorn Municipal Stadium. Tony hit .303 in his 10 seasons with Santurce including an MVP season in 1966-67. I’ve had several conversations with Tony who is a very nice person. He last played in Puerto Rico in 1982-83 when he was 40.
Q: You have chapters in both books dedicated to Roberto Clemente. Currently there is a movement to have his number 21 to be retired. Agree or disagree?
A: I Agree. I saw Roberto Clemente at a baseball clinic in 1966. A very fine person – a real humanitarian. I had the honor of watching him play for and manage the San Juan Senators, 1967-68 (player); and 1970-71 (manager). Clemente activated himself for the 1970-71 semi-final series against the Santurce Crabbers. I recall that Reggie Jackson, playing RF for Santurce, threw Clemente out at home in a close play. A huge amount of fan excitement at that time. Later, in the 1971 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Jackson and Clemente hit home runs. Clemente hit .323 lifetime in 15 Puerto Rico seasons.
Q: Thank you very much for your time.
A: You are welcome