By Marty Appel
If Alex Rodriguez’s season-long ban holds up in 2014, he will be the first Major Leaguer to miss a full season for disciplinary reasons since Commissioner Happy Chandler banned the Mexican League “jumpers” for five years following their 1946 defections.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn indefinitely banned Ferguson Jenkins and Commissioner Fay Vincent sought to sit Steve Howe down “for life” following drug infractions, but both attempts were reversed in arbitration.
The Mexican League was not affiliated in any way with Organized Baseball in the U.S. at the time. It was not a startup league however; it had been around since 1925, with available records and a greater organization behind it since 1937. It was a familiar port of call for a vast number of Negro League players who tended to shop around for the best offer year after year, with Organized Baseball unavailable to them until Jackie Robinson played in the International League in 1946.
Coincidentally, 1946 was the year that 39-year old Jorge Pasquel, who with his four brothers owned the league and its eight teams, decided to go after major league players by offering them much more money than they were making back home. It was an enormous story at the time, particularly after overtures were made to Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Kurowski, Enos Slaughter, Terry Moore, and other top tier players back from World War II.
Because the American press generally followed baseball with unapologetic support, and because the American public would likely have overwhelmingly voted “keep it!” to the reserve clause, Pasquel and his project suffered the scorn of the U.S. at almost every turn. “Outlaw league” was its noun, and “raided” and “jumped” were the action verbs. It was hard to win in the court of public opinion with those terms out there everyday.
But for players who were paid little, and who had no free agency system to work with, this was The Grand Temptation.
The story really begins with Jorge Pasquel, who had the swagger of Donald Trump and, like George Steinbrenner, the money behind it. He and his brothers set about recruiting players by meeting them in person in the U.S. The effort knew few bounds. Pasquel flew to St. Louis to meet with Cardinal pitchers Max Lanier and Fred Martin and infielder Lou Klein, on May 23, 1946, only to discover that the Cardinals were in New York. No problem. They accepted his offer and left immediately for Mexico. Pasquel was a persuasive man.
Joe Garagiola was just a 20-year old rookie catcher on the Cardinals in 1946, but today he recalls, “We were kind of shocked and disappointed because they left without saying anything — they were just gone. We came in and their lockers were empty. We lost a pretty good second baseman in Klein, and a real good pitcher in Lanier. Nobody really knew much about it. We knew what we read in the newspaper. Guys started saying there’d be a big raid on the big leagues. We knew our guys were gone and we saw that the Giants lost Danny Gardella, so we wondered ‘Who else was going to go?’ ”
Lanier turned out to be the biggest catch. The 30-year old lefthander was in his ninth year with the Cardinals and was 6-0 with a 1.93 ERA at the time he jumped. He had pitched for three championship Cardinals teams in the ‘40s and had been the N.L. ERA champ in 1943 with a 1.90 mark.
Monte Irvin, a star in the Negro Leagues, played for Pasquel in 1942, four years before the “raids.” For Negro League players, it wasn’t considered “jumping,” – they went from team to team and country to country almost annually for the right deal. “Oh, Jorge was dynamic,” recalled Monte, 95 and still on top of his game, in a recent phone conversation from his home in Houston. “He was movie-star handsome, and he was rich. A big ladies man. He was in politics, he was in the oil business, owned a newspaper, was a customs broker, and he exported goods to everyone during the war – the Allies and the Germans. Didn’t matter. He made a fortune.”
(By the early 1950s, Pasquel was granted a monopoly on Mexican oil distribution).
“He built a ballpark in Mexico City for maybe $10 million,” said Irvin. “It was on the outskirts of town. But the farm population was moving in and the outskirts became the inskirts. He sold the park for $51 million.
“I remember going to his chateau at 39 Hamburgo Street in Mexico City to get paid. Still remember the address. He had this huge home with fifteen-foot walls around it, and these three enormous Great Danes with him. He also had homes in Laredo, Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Africa, where he hunted big game. On his desk were machine guns. At one point he tossed a .45 caliber handgun to me, just to show it off. I’d never held a gun before! I made other arrangements to get paid in the future. Those Great Danes were big.”
It all sounds a bit like Al Pacino in Scarface.
In ’42, Monte came within two RBI of winning the league’s Triple Crown, (batting .397), and he received $700 a month plus an apartment and a maid. But he had given his word to Effa Manley that he would play for her Newark Eagles following his Army discharge, and he kept his word. But he never forgot his experience there as a black player. “We felt so free; no Jim Crow laws….we could live anywhere, dine anywhere, go to movies anywhere, sit anywhere, it was wonderful. The fans loved us and Mexico had the prettiest girls I’d ever seen. Ray Dandridge managed for the Pasquels and loved it. He stayed there for many years. Josh Gibson played there; Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Quincy Troupe. Pasquel treated us just great.
“Sundays, we would play at 10 a.m. so that everyone could go to the bullfights in the afternoon. It was quite a life.”
Irvin really loved his time in Mexico and loved Pasquel. He still keeps in touch with Jorge Jr., all these years later.
With the Pasquels throwing around suitcases of money, one would think that his quest produced more than it did. In the end he signed some relatively high profile names like Sal Maglie of the Giants, and Mickey Owen and Luis Olmo of the Dodgers, in addition to Lanier, Klein and Martin. Maglie doubled his $6,000 US salary. Lanier went from about $10,000 to about $25,000. Owen got $15,000 plus a home, (other players lived in nice apartments), plus had all his taxes paid in both countries. He was to be a playing manager for Veracruz. (Pasquel sometimes wore a uniform and coached third).
But the rest was not an exceptional bunch. Whatever the Pasquels had in money and persuasion, scouting was not their strong suit. Also “snatched” from the Giants were a Canadian, Roland Gladu, Adrian Zanala, Roy Zimmerman, George Hausman, a Cuban, Nap Reyes, Gardella , Ace Adams (who had pitched the most games in the Majors during the war years), and Harry Feldman, one of the few Jewish players in the Majors. They lost nine players in all.
The Phillies lost a Cuban, Rene Monteagudo, the Athletics lost a Cuban, Bobby Estalella, (whose grandson played in the Majors from 1996-2004), the Tigers lost Murray Franklin, the Browns lost Red Hayworth, and the White Sox lost the Major’s first Venezuelan player, Alex Carrasquel, (uncle of Chico Carrasquel). The Reds lost the Cuban, Tommy de la Cruz and the Senators lost Cuban Roberto Ortiz. (de la Cruz and Ortiz actually jumped in 1945). Many of these players were prospects or marginal Major Leaguers; clearly, Pasquel fell short of snaring any big fish, although he was prepared to spend huge dollars on Musial, Williams, Feller, Rizzuto and Musial. He reportedly offered Feller $500,000 for five years, and Williams $360,000 for three. Babe Ruth was said to be offered the league presidency. Pasquel even reportedly offered Chandler $50,000 to become commissioner.
“If Gallagher had stayed,” said Irvin, “the league might have continued to grow and prosper. He was very good.”
Vern “Junior” Stephens of the Browns, the defending A.L. home run champion, who had been holding out, jumped too. He supposedly got $250,000 for five years. But after two games, he returned his first check and went home. He said the inability of the league to get American equipment – for fear of reprisal by the manufacturers – was the first danger sign he saw. And he sure didn’t like the descriptions of over-the-mountain, harrowing bus rides to Tampico and Laredo.
Not everyone knew what they were in for.
The Mexican League began playing the American imports in May, 1946, while continuing to pursue the big names. Those they had signed were spread among the eight teams – Mexico City, Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo, Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Tampico, Torreon and Veracruz. Musial was tempted. He was making $13,500. Alfonso Pasquel, one of Jorge’s brothers, (the others were Bernardo, Mario, and twins Gerardo and Alfonso), visited Stan in June, 1946 with Mickey Owen in toe and Max Lanier on the phone. He said they offered a $50,000 signing bonus and $125,000 on top of that to sign for five years. Others, including Irvin, heard he got a blank check. He was making $13,500.
“Stan, you’ve got two children,” said his manager, Eddie Dyer. “Do you want them to hear someone say, ‘There are the kids of a guy who broke his contract?’”
Stan stayed put. Lanier would quit two months into the ’47 season.
All the jumpers except Stephens, who was unsigned, received five-year suspensions from Chandler, in office less than a year. Predictably, the punishment had wide support.
The Cardinals owner, Sam Breadon, took a trip to Mexico City on his own to meet with Pasquel , and perhaps halt the raids and set in motion a working relationship. He not only failed, but he was fined $5,000 for acting without approval by Chandler.
Historically, the key defector was Danny Gardella. In 1947, he sued Major League baseball, essentially challenging the reserve system. It was not a decision baseball could afford to lose. In June of 1949, Chandler offered amnesty to the Mexican League jumpers, and Gardella accepted a settlement and dropped his suit. (Lanier and Martin also sued for reinstatement, but the amnesty halted that).
“Now that the Pasquels had abandoned their foolish raiding,” wrote Chandler, “I could afford to be forgiving. The suspensions had been in effect three years. That was a stiff enough penalty. I was tempering justice with mercy.”
The Mexican League, as constructed by the Pasquels, ended in 1954. By then, they were out of the game, following what the New York Times called “internal squabbles and various law suits charging breach of contract.” The league continued to operate without a connection to Organized Baseball until 1954, and the following year became classified as a Double-A circuit, with a more sound connection to the U.S. governing bodies. In 1966 it became Triple-A, as it is today.
Owen quit the Mexican League in August of 1946 and returned home to plead for the lifting of his suspension. Chandler would have none of it. Pasquel and Owen sued each other in U.S. Federal Court. Owen won, but the award was vacated.
Mickey Owen was a good citizen of the game. While best remembered for his passed ball in the 1941 World Series that gave the Yankees life – and an eventual championship – he had a good “afterlife” in baseball too. He ran a highly successful baseball school and he served as sheriff for 17 years Greene County, Missouri. At the most recent Baseball Writers Association Dinner in New York, where Hank Aaron was honored, Hank said, “You probably don’t remember Mickey Owen, but I owe him so much. When I was a kid, I played winter ball in Puerto Rico. And everyday, for 14 days in a row, Mickey would pitch to me for one hour – for 20 minutes I had to hit to right, for 20 minutes back at him, and for 20 minutes to left. He made me a hitter. And in that heat, at his age, that was really hard work.”
Sal “The Barber” Maglie returned to the Giants in 1950 and promptly went 18-4 to lead the league in percentage, ERA and shutouts, and then went 23-6 in the pennant-winning season of 1951. As a Brooklyn Dodger, he was Don Larsen’s opponent in the World Series perfect game of 1956 (after pitching a no-hitter himself late in the season), and pitched until 1958 with a lifetime .657 W-L percentage. He was the last of only 14 players to have played for all three New York teams – Dodgers, Giants and Yankees.
Lanier came back in 1949 but was never again the pitcher who went 32-19 in 1943-44. He retired in 1953 and his son Hal was a 10-year infielder and later Houston manager in the big leagues.
Martin pitched for the Cardinals in 1949-50 before pitching in the minors until 1960 and managing in the minors for five seasons.
Klein returned in 1949, and did not see much playing time, but did emerge as part of the Chicago Cubs rotating head coach brigade in the early ‘60s.
The well-liked Olmo played for Brooklyn and the Braves from 1949-51 before retiring.
Of the other players, only Reyes, Estrella, Carrasquel and Ortiz saw major league action, however briefly, after the ban was lifted. For the others, their big league careers or aspirations were over. The only surviving player is Olmo, who turned 94 in Puerto Rico last August.
Pasquel died at 47 in a crash of a private plane over San Luis Potosi, Mexico in 1955, which was followed weeks later by the reported suicide of his mistress, movie star Miroslava. She was a glamorous Czechoslovakian-born Jew who achieved stardom in Mexico.
Pasquel’s security man survived the crash, and was later suspected in a possible murder of Miroslava.
But perhaps we will save all of that for a Miroslava column one day.