One day in 1951, Julio Villegas Becquer was expecting to take his seat on the bench for a sandlot game in Santa Clara, Cuba. Unexpectedly, however, the team's first baseman did not show up. Manager Dolf Luque, one of the most respected men in Cuba who won 193 major league games between 1914 and 1935, called Becquer's name. Becquer, a reserve player only because there was so much talent available, received a rare opportunity to start. He had no idea what an opportunity it would be.
A left-handed first baseman, Becquer had a quick and level swing -- much to the liking of a man in the stands named Joe Cambria. Long before Major League Baseball became the world game it is today, Cambria had opened a pipeline to the Caribbean in general and Cuba in particular. Baseball's first great influx of foreign players came from Cuba beginning in the 1930s, and grew significantly in the '40s and '50s. As a scout for Clark Griffith, Cambria delivered the majority of Cuban players to Griffith's Washington Senators.
"When I was coming up in the minor leagues, sometimes I felt like I was home in Cuba because we had so many Cuban players," said Becquer, 71 and living in Minneapolis, where he finished his career in 1963 with the Twins, the transplanted Senators. "Joe Cambria -- we called him 'Papa Joe' -- was like a father to us. He took care of so many Cuban players. It's impossible to tell how many, there were so many."
Best estimates suggest that Cambria brought more than 400 players to the States, the majority to the Senators organization. (Cambria sometimes found himself in trouble with Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis for keeping few records.) Griffith Stadium in Washington was the one baseball park north of Havana where a fan almost certainly could find Cuban baseball heroes.
Given the few foreign players in the major leagues at the time, Washington by the 1940s was seen as the international melting pot of baseball.
Conrado (Connie) Marrero was one of the best pitchers Cambria discovered, a 5-foot-7 right-hander with an assortment of off-speed stuff. When Marrero took the hill, Senators fans had a source of hope, knowing their team actually had a chance to win. In five seasons playing for a second-division club, Marrero compiled a 39-40 record before heading home.
In 1999, as a white-haired octogenarian, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch for an exhibition game in Havana between the Baltimore Orioles and a Cuban all-star team -- then kept throwing "first" pitches until being tenderly escorted away.
Cambria's best pitching finds were Camilo Pascual, who won 174 games primarily with the original Senators, the Twins and the expansion Senators, and Pedro Ramos. Pascual and Ramos were two of the most popular Senators; numbered among their fans was none other than Richard Nixon, who as president rooted for the expansion Senators and spoke affectionately of the two Cuban right-handers.
Cambria's best recruit probably was Tony Oliva, who broke into the majors in 1962, after Calvin Griffith, Clark's nephew, had moved the team. The old Senators in Twins' uniforms climbed the American League standings to win the pennant in 1965 with the likes of Oliva, Pascual and shortstop Zoilo Versalles helping lead the way.
"I'm so disappointed that Tony is not in the Hall of Fame," Becquer said of his friend who won American League batting titles in 1964 and 1965 and finished an injury-shortened 15-year career with a .304 batting average.
Becquer was a .244 lifetime hitter. "I didn't have much power," he said, "so I didn't have to worry about how far the fences were at Griffith Stadium."
But he did hit a ninth-inning grand slam as a pinch hitter for the Twins in 1961 and broke up a no-hit bid by the New York Yankees' Bob Turley in 1959 with a ninth-inning pinch-hit single for the Senators. Whitey Herzog, playing for the Kansas City A's in 1960, hit into an all-Cuban triple play against the Senators: Ramos to Becquer to shortstop Jose Valdivielso.
Retired Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard said that the three names he liked most to roll off his tongue were Salome Barojas, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Jose Valdivielso.
"My biggest thrill in baseball was the first time I went to bat in the big leagues," Becquer said. "I can't even describe it. I still think about it and reminisce about it. In Cuba, boxing and baseball were the two sports. They were opportunities for us. Baseball was a passion, a way of life, life itself. To us, the major leagues were far away. You could hear the games on the radio and dream about playing there. Then to be there. . . . Nothing could top it. You'd made it. You could die the next day."
Clark Griffith made the Cuban connection, leading to discovery of the fertile fields all across Latin America that eventually would produce major league players in abundance.
As manager of Cincinnati in 1911, Griffith first realized the possibilities after signing two Cuban players, outfielders Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans. In Washington, Griffith occasionally signed a Cuban player. But it was not until 1933 that he got serious about scouting in Cuba. It happened after Luque, pitching for the New York Giants, closed out the Senators in the World Series, gaining the Game 5 victory with 41/3 innings of scoreless relief. With Luque's performance in mind, Griffith turned to a new acquaintance in Cambria.
Born in Italy, Cambria had been brought to the States by his parents. Taken with baseball, he played semi-pro but a broken leg finished his modest efforts. He got into the laundry business in Baltimore, then began acquiring a number of area minor league teams.
Buying and selling players and franchises, he made some money and had dealings with Griffith. At the time, Griffith and Connie Mack with his Philadelphia A's and the St. Louis Browns were just beginning an era of penny-pinching. Suspecting where he could find inexpensive labor, Griffith made Cambria a scout, suggested he avoid the beaten paths to talent and head for Cuba.
It was said, lightly but accurately, that Cambria could not sing a note even though he signed players for a song. Over the next decades, he delivered hundreds of Cubans to the Griffiths, from Roberto (Bobby) Estalella to Oliva. Estalella played nine seasons for the low-budget teams -- the Senators, A's and Browns. And while he had to be switched from third base to the outfield for his own protection, he hit enough -- .282 -- to suggest that Griffith and Cambria had discovered what Becquer called a "gold mine."
In the American League, Estalella came to understand the intolerance of the time from beanball pitches he often had to duck. It was not strategy alone that often caused him to hit the dirt, a situation that he rectified when he let his bat slip all the way back toward a Browns pitcher. The Washington Post's Shirley Povich reported that Estalella did it "deliberately by accident."
Cambria moved around Cuba, and also from country to country. He found pitcher Alex Carrasquel in Venezuela, and the big right-hander went 50-39 for Washington from 1939 through 1945. Not every player Cambria found turned into a major leaguer. Hardly. For one, the Cuban Oliviero (Baby) Ortiz failed to win a game for Washington. But when reminded of this, Cambria pointed to Baby's older brother, Roberto, who also pitched in Cuba but was known for driving in the runs he needed to win a game. The Senators made him an outfielder and he hit .255, mostly for them during the early '40s war years.
Julio Moreno, Raul Sanchez, Sandy Consuegra, Mike Fornieles, Francisco Campos, Mike Guerra, Gil Torres, Carlos Paula -- Cambria's discoveries prompted other teams to begin scouting Latin America.
One of the last owners to sign black players, Griffith passed on a number of Cambria's discoveries.
A notable one was picked up by Bill Veeck, then operating the Cleveland Indians: Minnie Minoso, out of Havana. He rose to stardom with the Chicago White Sox, and the sight of him playing left field for the Sox at Griffith Stadium brought heartache to Senators fans.
Martin Dihigo never had the chance to play in the big leagues because of his race, but, still, he and Tony Perez are the two Cubans in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Bobby Avila, from Mexico, won the American League batting title in 1954, for the Indians. Puerto Rico's Roberto Clemente broke in with Pittsburgh in 1955.
From all over Latin America, baseball players rose to the big leagues. Even Cubans continued to make it, one way or another, after Fidel Castro in 1961 began making it next to impossible -- the latest arrival being the new Yankee Jose Contreras.
Griffith Stadium, though, was the Cuban hopeful's original destination. The likes of Walter Johnson, Lou Gehrig, Josh Gibson and Mickey Mantle made history in the green park near the intersection of Georgia and Florida avenues, and as much as any place it's where major league baseball began to grow into an international game.