A familiar baseball stereotype of the mid-twentieth century was the “good field, no hit” Latino shortstop.1 The prototype was captured by Willy Miranda – who many contend was the slickest Cuban glove man ever born but who ended his near-decade-long sojourn in the majors with a mere 70 extra base hits and a lightweight .221 batting average. Other Cuban imports like José Valdivielso, Humberto “Chico” Fernández, Juan Delis and Ossie Alvarez also fit the popular pattern perfectly.
Havana-born Zoilo Versalles ( ZOY-lo vair-SY-yez) contributed heavily to overturning this image in the early 1960s by three times pacing the junior circuit in triples and reaching double figures for home runs on four consecutive occasions.2 Then he obliterated the image altogether in 1965 with a breakout offensive campaign for the surprising American League champion Minnesota Twins. The wiry, at times bespectacled Cuban was the very first Latin American import – actually the first-ever non-USA-born athlete – to capture a big-league MVP award. That distinction, albeit much debated in later years, will always overshadow all the other peaks and valleys of an admittedly imbalanced and inconsistent career.
Some across the years have dismissed Versalles as one of baseball’s true all-time flops. Analyst Steve Treder stated the case most forcefully in an article examining 20 of the game’s most dramatic individual slides (“the Fades” in Treder’s terminology) and 30 of the biggest overnight disappointments (Treder dubs them “the Flops”). Rubén Sierra is Treder’s choice for all-time “Fade,” defined as a player who slowly and gradually recedes from earlier career glory. Zoilo Versalles tops his longer list of “Flops” – the more dramatic type of slide where a one-time star “plummets with sudden alacrity.” Treder interprets the Cuban’s extraordinary 1965 summer as a lofty perch from which “Versalles’ fall was immediate and sickening.”3
Versalles has also been frequently dismissed simply as a one-year wonder, but this too is something of a misconception. Although the Cuban’s rise was indeed striking, he had already enjoyed some notable successes before the Twins’ championship summer. The two previous years he had already paced the junior circuit with double figures in triples; he slugged 20 homers in 1964 (one better than the total from his MVP season and also two better than another slugging shortstop named Felix Mantilla reached a year later in Boston). He also made the AL All-Star team in 1963, and as early as his rookie summer of 1961, he had demonstrated considerable offensive talent with a .280 batting average and 25 doubles. The cascade off the mountaintop may have been rapid after 1965, but the build-up was more gradual than rocket-like. And if the new Cuban Comet (a designation he may have better deserved than the highly consistent Minnie Miñoso) failed to sustain his peak performance, he nonetheless left a strong legacy.
Zoilo Versalles shared more than a single limited stereotype with his Cuban compatriots and other Latinos breaking into the big leagues in the 1950s and ’60s. One commonality was the name by which he became known during his major league sojourn.4 Just as Roberto Clemente became “Bob” on many U.S. sports pages of the era – while Orestes Miñoso became Minnie, Víctor Pove became Vic Power, and Octavio Rojas became Cookie – Zoilo would be colorfully known as Zorro (part mispronunciation and part clubhouse prank) to many big-league followers. Like Clemente, Cepeda and Felipe Alou, he was tagged with labels such as “moody” and “un-coachable” – largely because he was slow to grasp English and found it difficult to adjust to the cultural norms of a foreign land.
His career was also both shortened and robbed of its true potential by devastating injury – a fate shared with Cuban teammate Tony Oliva. Oliva was sabotaged at his peak by an inherited pair of bad knees; Versalles was stripped of continuing glory by a freak back injury that never properly healed – and also continued to plague him long after his retirement.
If Zoilo’s MVP selection in 1965 was controversial at the time it seems hardly unreasonable in retrospect. Versalles was the first Latin recruit widely acknowledged by sportswriters (as reflected with their MVP ballots) to have spurred his club into a World Series. Cincinnati’s Dolf Luque had been the first Cuban to star in the Fall Classic back in 1919, yet Luque was then still several years short of his peak seasons and was not at all a major factor in getting his team there.5 Mexico’s Roberto Ávila finished third in the AL MVP race in 1954 even though his Cleveland Indians captured the pennant. Clemente never wore his 1960 Series ring, “upset by his embarrassingly low [eighth-place] finish in the MVP tally” behind Pirates teammates Dick Groat and Don Hoak.6 Felipe Alou and (to a lesser degree) Orlando Cepeda were important cogs for San Francisco in 1962, yet they placed just 13th and 15th, respectively, in the MVP lottery, behind teammates Willie Mays (#2) and Jack Sanford (#7). Some might argue that Tony Oliva was as much a factor in the Twins’ success of 1965 as Versalles, but Oliva got just one first-place vote that year – Zoilo got the other 19.
Zoilo Casanova Versalles y Rodríguez was born on December 18, 1939 in the run-down Marianao section of Cuba’s capital city, Havana. His father, also named Zoilo, struggled as an itinerant laborer seeking whatever manual tasks might be available to support a small and anything but prosperous family. Zoilo’s mother, Ámparo, had three years earlier given birth to another son, Lázaro – Zoilo’s constant childhood companion and the one family member who joined his successful ball-playing brother years later in Minneapolis. Writer James Terzian mistakenly gave Versalles’ year of birth as 1940 in his 1967 young adult biography. The slight discrepancy seems to have arisen from a frequent practice by Latino ballplayers of that era – claiming somewhat later birthdates in order to appear younger and thus improve chances of making the grade.7
A childhood fan of the Almendares Scorpions club in Cuba’s professional winter league, the scrawny teenager broke into organized league play as a raw 16-year-old with the Fortuna Sports Club team in the highly popular Cuban Amateur Athletic Union league. His dream, like that of so many of his playmates, was to pattern his game after that of flashy Almendares star shortstop and active major leaguer Willy Miranda (who epitomized the “good field, no hit” breed). Further encouragement and inspiration came from another neighborhood big-leaguer, Carlos Paula, who gave the young hopeful one of his tattered and discarded fielder’s mitts.
A year after joining Fortuna, Versalles was already one of the club’s top hitters during the winter 1957 season. Despite the attention later paid by baseball scholars to Havana’s professional winter league of pre-revolution years, it was in truth the weekend amateur circuit of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that provided the most popular form of baseball across the island. Future big leaguer and ’40s-era amateur national team pitching hero Conrado “Connie” Marrero – a true island icon during Zoilo’s youth – had earlier launched his career in that league. Most of the better white-skinned Cuban players also performed on those amateur teams because the money was actually better than that offered by the professionals.8
After finally turning professional, Versalles also logged brief stints with two of the four clubs in the Havana-based and MLB-affiliated Cuban Winter League. The first two of those winter seasons involved only token appearances – six at-bats with Cienfuegos in 1957-58 and seven plate appearances for Marianao a year later. It was only in his fourth and final year, 1960-1961 (again with the Marianao Tigers), that he played regularly. That was also the swan song for Havana’s pro league because Fidel Castro shut down professional sports of all types late in 1961. Marianao finished in the basement, though only four games behind champion Cienfuegos in one of the tightest races in league history. Zoilo’s .214 batting mark in the pitcher-dominated competition might not have been quite as weak as it seems, since his 14 homers (almost 40 percent of his 37 total base hits) ranked second best on both his own club and in the entire league (Marianao teammate Julio Bécquer had 15).
The talented Cuban prospect was signed to a free agent contract by celebrated Washington Senators bird dog “Papa Joe” Cambria in the spring of 1958. He soon headed north to try his fortunes as a pro. It proved to be an exceedingly difficult trial; Versalles struggled with not only an obvious language barrier but also a host of additional adjustment issues away from the diamond. Over the next several summers the youngster would battle deep bouts of depression spawned largely by homesickness. As a result he repeatedly threatened to abandon the game in order to rejoin his sorely missed family – especially his teenaged girlfriend María Josefa Fransillo. The youngsters had become emotionally attached several years earlier while Zoilo was still playing for Fortuna.
The first spring camp with the Senators in Orlando proved particularly unsettling. The transition from his native island was eased somewhat only by the presence of a handful of other scared Cuban prospects and seasoned Cuban veterans (including Julio Bécquer) with whom he could at least communicate in a familiar tongue. One of those few companions was Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino, an eventual Twins teammate, who three years later also smoothed the same transition for another struggling rookie named Tony Oliva.
That initial spring in Florida also produced a novel nickname. As was so often the case with Latinos, it came via a rather commonplace linguistic misunderstanding. English-speaking ballplayers at the camp quickly dubbed Versalles “Zorro,” referring to the then-popular western TV character. Apparently they first misheard his difficult-to-pronounce Spanish given name and then assumed he must have the same handle as the dashing Mexican bandit-hero.9
The first minor league assignment for the still-raw 18-year-old prospect was with the Elmira Pioneers in the Class D New York-Penn League for a meager paycheck of $175 a month. The timid rookie may have still struggled emotionally, but nevertheless his progress and performance on the field was solid enough at the start and his batting average soared to .340 by the end of the first month. But tragedy struck quickly: Zoilo’s mother Ámparo had fallen ill and died unexpectedly back in Havana. This crushing blow almost scuttled a promising career before it ever got started. After a week-long furlough to attend his mother’s funeral, Zoilo returned to Elmira seemingly stripped of all enthusiasm for baseball and more depressed than ever by separation from family and friends back in Cuba. Some timely pep-talks and emotional coaching from co-managers Packy Rogers and Mel Kerestes helped the distraught youngster to gradually regain both form and composure and finish the season on a notable upswing. Overall Versalles hit .292 (tenth best in the circuit) in 124 games, smacked 18 doubles and 7 triples, and walked off with league rookie-of-the-year honors.
After only a single summer of rookie league seasoning, the young Cuban enjoyed spring training the following year with the parent club. Calvin Griffith’s Senators were talent-thin and in a continuous rebuilding mode, especially in the middle infield, where trial shortstops Rocky Bridges, Billy Consolo and José Valdivielso had all recently failed to impress. Spring training nonetheless ended in another mid-level minor league summer assignment, since neither the Cuban’s bat nor glove seemed yet ready for the big league wars. A brief trial was soon in the offing, however, and Versalles made his American League debut on August 1, 1959 as the 79th Cuban-born athlete ever to reach the majors. In his first game in Chicago’s Comiskey Park he struck out three times against White Sox hurler Ray Moore. Zoilo appeared in 29 late-season contests but was clearly overmatched, collecting only nine hits and a lone extra-base smash (a homer) in 59 chances at the plate (a .153 average).10
Versalles actually spent most of the 1959 summer season with the Fox City Foxes of the Class B Three-I (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa) League, where he batted a respectable .278 and even slugged 19 doubles, a pair of triples and nine homers – a pleasant offensive surprise for a shortstop and perhaps a strong signal of things to come. But another less-promising signal was the Cuban’s league-high 34 errors. The hefty offense apparently seemed to outweigh defensive lapses and Zoilo was named a starting shortstop for the Three-I League’s mid-season All-Star Game. He had also impressed Senators brass enough to merit the late-season call-up.
Zoilo’s third pro season in the United States was divided between AAA Charleston (American Association) and another “cup of coffee” with the American League parent club. In Charleston Versalles continued to struggle with ongoing homesickness and an emerging image as a moody, overconfident player who repeatedly refused constructive coaching. He battled even more with his continued defensive shortcomings. The offensive side of his game continued its slow but notable progress: a solid .278 BA, 50 RBIs, 24 stolen bases, eight homers. But as a defender he struggled mightily and committed a whopping 42 errors, posting one of the league’s worst fielding percentages.
Things did take a turn for the better on the personal side, despite a disquieting political upheaval on his native island that had unfolded in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s government takeover in January 1959. Zoilo was finally married to his longtime sweetheart María Josefa in Havana on February 2, 1961. While he had just turned 21 and she was only 18, Zoilo had been impatient for the union for several years; María Josefa had insisted on waiting, however, until she had completed her high school education. Their first six years of marriage produced four young daughters named Amparito, Ester, Angela and Luz María. Two of those daughters eventually enjoyed their own small celebrity. The elder, Ampy Versalles-Curtis, is currently pursuing a career as head chef at a prestigious Minneapolis restaurant, while Luz María sang the national anthem (April 2011, along with Tony Oliva’s son Rick) at the second Opening Day Ceremonies in the Twins’ new showcase ballpark, Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.
Baseball’s big league map was reshaped from 1952 to 1962, and Washington was part of the shift. The Griffith family, longtime owners, moved the Senators franchise to Minneapolis-St. Paul for the 1961 season, remolding it as the Minnesota Twins. Several budding stars quickly blossomed in the new environment, especially pitcher Camilo Pascual (a consistent loser with basement-bound Washington but a two-time 20-game winner in the early ’60s) and sluggers Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison. Another star on the horizon was Versalles. He finally solidified himself as a big leaguer, getting a shot at regular duty as a replacement for fellow Cuban José Valdivielso.11 He hit a solid .280 over 129 games – a mark he did not top in nine subsequent seasons. Zoilo’s 1961 Topps “rookie” bubble gum card also featured his name as “Zorro” – further engraining a moniker that stuck for the rest of his big-league days.
During a second Minnesota season, Versalles exhibited signs that he might become a greater force in the offensive lineup as well as an infield anchor. Although his batting average dipped nearly 40 points, Zoilo smacked 17 homers, behind only fellow Cuban Chico Fernández of Detroit, Woodie Held of Cleveland, and Tom Tresh of the Yankees among AL shortstops. The slide in batting average may have disappointed, but the upside was a slight drop in errors, a 20-point surge in fielding percentage, and a top spot among the league’s shortstops in assists. One reward for such progress was a smattering of American League MVP votes.
Improvement was even more dramatic during 1963. The batting average rose back to .261, he led the league in triples for the first of three straight years, and the glove work even showed improvement Versalles was voted to his first All-Star Game that year and earned a Gold Glove for his solid if not spectacular defense. The latter award broke the five-season streak of Venezuela’s Luis Aparicio (then playing for the White Sox). During the Midsummer Classic in Cleveland, Zoilo relished six successful innings – singling, walking, and reaching as a hit batsman in his three plate appearances – before Aparicio replaced him in the seventh.
The rapid progress continued in 1964 – 20 homers, a stable batting average, and again more than 30 doubles. Zoilo’s healthy home run total was surpassed by only one other shortstop – Detroit’s Dick McAuliffe. The productive infielder once more led the league in triples, tying with teammate Rich Rollins at 10. In one single four-day stretch in September he twice spoiled no-hitters, first against Milt Pappas (September 2) and then Bill Monbouquette (September 6). On the second occasion, that lone hit was a game-winning two-run homer that cost Boston’s Monbouquette not only his second no-no but also the victory. Playing only his fourth full season, Versalles might have been an even bigger Minneapolis hero that summer if Tony Oliva had not also remained on the local scene for his first full big-league season. The fellow Cuban was voted AL Rookie of the Year and won his first of three batting crowns.
The stage had now been set for true stardom. The MVP performance by Zoilo Versalles at the decade’s midpoint ranked at the time as one of the best offensive years ever enjoyed by a major league shortstop. Tutored perhaps even more by third base coach Billy Martin than by manager Sam Mele, Versalles that summer made a hefty contribution to revolutionizing not only the popular view of Latino middle infielders but also of shortstops universally. Coach Martin’s new protégé topped the American League in seven categories: plate appearances (728), at-bats (666), runs scored (126), doubles (45), triples (12), extra-base hits (76), and total bases (308). He also appeared (as a sixth-inning sub for starter Dick McAuliffe) in his second All-Star Game alongside five fellow Twins, on their home turf in Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium.
On top of his offensive production, Versalles also claimed his second Gold Glove, even though he posted a career-high and league-leading 39 errors. Good offense apparently masks questionable defense, though more modern fielding metrics cast a better light on his play in the field.12 Overall, Zoilo easily walked off with nearly unanimous MVP honors. There was one further catch to the award; in addition to the league lead in errors, Zoilo also produced a league and career high for strikeouts. It was a fine season, but featured some nagging negatives.
There has been much subsequent debate that Oliva (or perhaps others like Brooks Robinson or Rocco Colavito) and not Minnesota teammate Versalles was the more legitimate league MVP during the Twins’ 1965 pennant run.13 Bill James eventually gave the matter a sabermetric spin by pointing out that during that peak season Versalles amassed the fewest “win shares” of any previous or subsequent league MVP.14 Tony Oliva’s supporters would argue that he earned a second hitting title, becoming the first player ever to capture a batting crown in each of his first two full years. But a flip side to this argument is rarely stressed by revisionist historians. Tony Oliva’s performance had been just as strong – in fact arguably even stronger – a year earlier (when his BA and totals for runs, hits and doubles were all higher). Yet the contribution of Versalles was both tangible, as seen in his offensive totals, and intangible – an aggressive style in the vein of Pepper Martin and Pete Rose. That, according to the voting writers, seemed more than anything to shift the ball club from a contender into a surprising league champion.
None other than Mickey Mantle agreed. So did Billy Martin, who said, “He does it all now. Fields, hits, thinks – and most important, runs. He’s got to be the most fearsome runner in our league, regardless of the stolen base column.” Martin pointed out how Versalles had scored from first base on singles several times that summer. Teammate Bob Allison added, “I don’t think any one man carried this club this year. But if I had to pick one key man I’d pick Versalles.”15
Minnesota’s heralded MVP graced the cover of Sports Illustrated ahead of the 1965 Fall Classic, and that honor was only yet another example of the often discussed (if largely mythical) “Sports Illustrated cover curse.”16 The Series matched Minnesota’s vaunted offense (led by a quintet of Oliva, Versalles, Killebrew, Allison and catcher Earl Battey) against the remarkable pitching of Los Angeles (headlined by Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen). As is so often the case, the pitching won out in the end. The Twins did take the first game; Versalles smacked his only homer as part of a six-run third-inning uprising that drove starter Drysdale to the showers. The success continued in Game 2 with Jim Kaat beating Koufax 5-1 behind a triple and two runs from Versalles. But the upstart Twins couldn’t generate any further offense once the series moved on to spacious Dodger Stadium – the very park where the American League club had struggled against the Los Angeles Angels during regular season outings.17 On the coast the Twins were blanked twice (by Osteen and Koufax) and generated a mere 14 hits over the three-game set. The Series did stretch to a seventh and deciding contest, but then Sandy Koufax – on only two days of rest – slammed the door with a three-hit 2-0 shutout in the finale.
Versalles was part of an overall collapse of Minnesota offense during the Series – explained perhaps by the link between Dodger mound mastery and Chavez Ravine. Zoilo did hit a respectable .286 (tied with Killebrew for the club’s best mark) but his only homer and all four of his runs batted in came as a single bunch during the opening contest. Batting champ Tony Oliva suffered an even worse slump (two extra-base hits and a hollow .192 BA), while Allison (.125), Battey (.120), and slugging outfielder Jimmie Hall (.143) all struggled mightily at the plate. The team that had paced the AL in both total average (.254) and base hits managed only an aggregate .195 mark with the world championship on the line.
The MVP season earned Versalles a substantial pay raise of $40,000 – nearly double his 1965 paycheck and a hefty amount for an era long before multi-million dollar contracts became a big-league norm. But the monetary reward seemed to bring with it mixed blessings – Zoilo’s performance slipped immediately afterward. Indeed, that pay boost and corresponding performance dip launched his reputation as flop. The raw statistics seemed to tell the surface story: the star shortstop’s batting average dropped 24 points, and his other numbers sagged even more (only 7 homers and less than half the number of doubles).
There were nonetheless a couple of memorable moments in 1966, including an entry into the record books on June 9, when the Twins slugged five homers off Kansas City pitching in a single inning (Harmon Killebrew, Don Mincher, Tony Oliva, Rich Rollins and Versalles). But the season on the whole was a letdown for both the Minnesota club and especially for the former MVP. The club spent the first half of the summer buried in the second division while the Baltimore Orioles raced to an early lead that would never be surmounted. The Twins did eventually catch fire after Zoilo’s return from a midseason stint on the disabled list. Down the stretch, they overhauled Detroit and Chicago for a disappointing second-place finish (a distant nine games behind Baltimore).
But statistics alone won’t ever unlock the full story of Versalles’s post-MVP comedown. An abnormally slow start in April and May resulted mainly from an extended bout with a severe case of the flu which kept the infielder in subpar condition – hovered around the Mendoza Line (sub-.200) for the first eight full weeks of the season. There was more bad news in early late June and early July in the form of a heel injury that also caused a painful hematoma (blood leakage and consequent tissue swelling) in the ballplayer’s lower back. The immediate result was a brief stint on the disabled list. The long-term consequence was constant recurring back pain that not only sabotaged the remainder of Zoilo’s playing career but also hampered his post-baseball life severely.
Versalles eventually logged 543 ABs (123 behind his previous total), scored 73 runs (down 53), and his extra-base hits were sliced by more than half. Things didn’t get much better the next summer – both the constant back pain and resulting poor bat work continued across 1967. Playing 160 games (but at far less than full speed), Zoilo again produced embarrassingly little for a Minnesota club that – sparked by Rookie of the Year Rod Carew and the continued slugging of Tony Oliva – managed to hang in the pennant race until the final day of the season. Despite nearly 600 at-bats, the shortstop’s batting average slid to an embarrassing .200 level and his doubles fell to a mere 16. Versalles also stole only five bases, 22 fewer than two seasons earlier.
To make matters worse still, a lead glove and poor mobility produced league-leading error totals at shortstop in both 1966 and 1967, continuing a three-year defensive lapse that had begun during the stellar 1965 season. Weak defense could be overlooked perhaps with a star bolstering the team’s offense (as in 1965) – but not with a lineup liability who was now anticipating Mario Mendoza at the plate. Using such modern-era sabermetric measures as Win Shares and Isolated Power, Steve Treder argued in his 2004 article that if Zoilo’s 1967 outing “wasn’t the worst a full-time player has ever had, it was certainly one of the top contenders.”18
The combination of injury and poor performance both offensively and in the field – along with the arrival of Rod Carew to shore up the Twins infield – meant that Versalles was no longer a valued commodity in the Twin Cities. Zoilo’s Minnesota career came to an abrupt end when he was shipped off to the Los Angeles Dodgers on November 27, 1967. The headline deal also included Jim “Mudcat” Grant and brought catcher John Roseboro and relievers Bob Miller and Ron Perranoski to the Twins. The three Dodgers had all played major roles in the Los Angeles World Series triumph only two years earlier.
For the rapidly fading ex-star Versalles, a single summer on the West Coast brought only a further dip in performance. After committing the most errors in the AL in each of his last three campaigns, he finished only fourth in that department in the NL (as much as anything because he played in only 122 games), yet he also hit an anemic career-low .196. Washed up rapidly in L.A., Zoilo was left exposed by the Dodgers in the 1968 NL expansion lottery. The newborn and talent-desperate San Diego Padres took a chance on drafting Versalles, but he never played for them. They quickly traded him to Cleveland on December 2.
Worse yet, during the temporary stop in Los Angeles, Versalles once again severely aggravated his earlier back problems. The spinal hematoma first suffered in July 1966 flared up once again after he suffered further trauma while running out a routine ground ball during a midseason game. His only true Dodger highlight came on May 28, 1968, when a fifth-inning single proved to be the only hit against Cincinnati’s Jim Maloney.
Back on friendly American League soil, Zippy Zee (as he was familiarly known by teammates during his glory years in Minnesota) enjoyed a slight revival. He boosted his hitting to .226 in 72 early and midseason games with the Indians. He also saw more duty at second base and third base than at shortstop in Cleveland. By now an obvious journeyman, Zoilo was soon purchased by another 1961 expansion club – the new version of the Washington Senators – on July 26, 1969. The second trade in seven months landed Versalles on a trivia list as one of only nine players to appear for both incarnations of the Senators AL team.19 Back in the nation’s capital, he held his own for the rest of 1969, hitting .267 in 31 games as an infield fill-in and earning a training camp invitation for the following spring. But this was only a brief reprieve: the former All-Star was released by Washington in April 1970, only four-plus years after his MVP honors.
Once the debilitating back problems arose in July 1966, Versalles was only a shadow of what he had once been. He never again hit as many as 20 doubles or reached above seven triples or homers in a single season; only once did he log as many as 160 games in a season. The injuries had more to do with the career collapse than any possible side effect from a bigger contract or any possible dip in motivation. It might well be debatable whether Versalles was actually one of the least legitimate MVPs ever selected, yet it is hard to deny that no other such honoree ever enjoyed so little success after winning the award. Other big names in the game (Greg Luzinski, Pete Incaviglia, Johnny Callison and Rubén Sierra come first to mind) may have fallen further, but few fell from their perch in quite so brief a span.
Pro baseball was not quite over for Versalles after his final departure from the AL. He latched on with Unión Laguna in the Mexican League for 1970. At what amounted to Class AAA baseball in Mexico, the 31 year-old veteran posted his career-best batting mark of .326 over a 103-game season. He had one final shot at the big time when the Atlanta Braves picked him up on May 31, 1971. During this last trial, he appeared in 66 games and again failed to climb above the Mendoza Line, hitting .191. Versalles returned briefly to Unión Laguna in both 1971 and 1972, logging 120 total games over two partial seasons. One final crack at rejuvenation came during a brief tour with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Japanese Central League during the 1972 summer season. With that final Asian stopover, Zoilo joined countryman and ex-big-leaguer Tony González as the first pair of non-Japanese imports to play for the Hiroshima ball club.
Zoilo Versalles spent his post-baseball years in the Minneapolis area. It was not a very pretty picture. An inability to find consistent employment was in large part related to a lack of both English fluency and any practical non-baseball skills. Repeated economic failure was also attributable to deteriorating health, notably the lingering back injuries. The quarter-century following his active baseball days represented little more than a continuation of the downward spiral that had defined his athletic career. Several spells of unemployment resulted in the loss of his house to foreclosure and forced him to sell such valuable mementos as his cherished MVP trophy, Gold Glove awards, and All-Star Game rings. He eventually suffered two heart attacks and also underwent painful stomach surgery. Zoilo finally separated from his wife María Josefa and their six daughters and barely subsisted on meager disability and Social Security payments plus the modest big-league pension that he’d begun drawing in 1984.20
The ongoing tragedy finally ended when Versalles was found dead in his rented home on June 11, 1995. Coroner’s tests showed that he had apparently died two days earlier. The cause of death was not revealed at first but was eventually determined to be arteriosclerotic heart disease.
More than a decade after his death, Versalles was posthumously honored by induction into the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame. Seven of the 10 previous honorees attended the ceremony on June 25, 2006, in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. It was a belated tribute that, despite its distinction, paled beside the numerous honors eventually bestowed on teammate Tony Oliva. In 2011, Oliva (to some, the more deserving 1965 league MVP) received a larger-than-life bronze statute outside Target Field in his honor. Yet when Versalles was (however briefly) in command of his physical powers and had mastered the mental demands of the game on and off the field, he was indeed a remarkable player – one of the better all-around shortstops of his era. Zoilo aptly described his own style, full of pent-up energy, in 1963: “Like a tiger in a cage.”21
Peter C. Bjarkman, A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Publishers, 2007.
Peter C. Bjarkman, Baseball with a Latin Beat: A History of the Latin American Game. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Publishers, 1994.
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Abstract. New York: The Free Press, 2003.
Tony Oliva (with Bob Fowler), Tony O! The Trials and Triumphs of Tony Oliva (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973).
James Terzian, Zoilo Versalles – The Kid from Cuba. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1967.
Jim Thielman, Cool of the Evening: The 1965 Minnesota Twins. Minneapolis: Kirk House Publishers, 2005.
Robert McG. Thomas, “Zoilo Versalles, 55, Shortstop Who Was Mr. Baseball in 1965,” The New York Times, June 12, 1995 (http://www.nytimes.com/1995/06/12/obituaries/)
Zeke Fuhrman, “Zoilo Versalles: The Forgotten MVP,” Bleacher Report, Match 15, 2010 (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/362919-zoilo-versalles-the-forgotten-...)
Carl Kolchak, “Zoilo Versalles—an MVP that Wasn’t,” Yahoo! Voices, August 10, 2006 (http://voices.yahoo.com/zoilo-versalles-mvp-wasnt-60728.html/)
Steve Treder, “Of Fades, and Flops, and Zoilo,” The Hardball Times, November 23, 2004 (http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/of-fades-and-flops-and-zoilo/)
I am indebted to Rory Costello, whose considerable editorial skills both tightened and redirected this essay in several key areas and thus definitely improved upon the original version.
1 It is one of baseball’s great small ironies that this label held a double connection to Cuban ballplayers. It not only applied to the players themselves but also is widely attributed to a pioneering Cuban big leaguer of some note: Miguel Ángel (Mike) González, the journeyman big league catcher of the 1910s and 1920s, the third base coach who waved Enos Slaughter home in that famous wild 1946 World Series winning dash from first, and the first Latino native ever to manage a game in the big leagues. González reputedly used the term in a St. Louis Cardinals scouting report on another famous journeyman catcher, Moe Berg (whom others described as speaking a dozen languages and yet unable to hit in any of them).
2 Another factor in upsetting the stereotype was countryman Leo Cárdenas, who had a strong season with the bat for the Cincinnati Reds in 1962,
3 Treder’s analysis is actually somewhat self-contradictory. He begins with the caveat that there are cases (he cites Chuck Klein, Hal Trosky and Don Mattingly) of “flops” or fast “faders” that don’t actually fit the definition of the prototype, since debilitating injury or illness can be cited to explain and excuse why tremendous early careers petered out almost overnight. But Versalles would also seem to qualify for such exemption in view of his mid-career back injury.
4 The misnaming of Miñoso, Oliva, the Alous, Tany Perez and Vic Power among others is explained in some detail in the notes to my recent SABR Bio Project essay on Tony Oliva. Sometimes (as in the case of Oliva and Miñoso) the ballplayer himself was implicated, since Oliva himself used his brother’s name and passport and Miñoso early-on went along in Cuba with the practice of using the last name of his stepbrothers. But in most cases the problems were linguistic and cultural and often tied to the stereotypes that always plagued Latino ballplayers. The name confusion with Versalles comes with the mispronunciation of his last name, which is not ver-SIGH, like the French city. It is ver-SIGH-yeas. The LL (single letter in Spanish) is not silent but carries a Y sound; the first syllable rhymes with fair, the second syllable rhymes with pie, and the last rhymes with yes. Stress falls on the middle syllable. Also in rapid native Cuban speech the final s is sometimes dropped (thus ver-SIGH-yea). The first name is pronounced ZOY-low (the stressed first syllable rhyming with toy).
5 Facts about Adolfo Luque as a pioneering big league pitcher are provided in my SABR Bio Project essay on that near Hall of Famer. The Cuban was the first Latino pitcher both to appear in (1919) and win (1933) a World Series game. But the future star was still only a mop-up hurler in 1919 (10 wins) on a staff that featured Slim Sallee (21-7), Hod Eller (19-9), and Dutch Ruether (19-6).
6 Bruce Markusen, Roberto Clemente: The Great One, Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2001, 102.
7 The issue of Versalles’s birthdate change is not as clearly documented as that for Oliva. But there is no evidence for the December 1940 date that is given for Versalles in Terzian’s young adult biography. The 1959 Washington Senators yearbook (I have one in my collection) gave Versalles’ birth year as 1940, as did his baseball cards.
8 Chapter 7 (“Havana as the Amateur Baseball Capital of the World”) of my volume A History of Cuban Baseball (2007) details the role and the stature of the pre-revolution Cuban amateur league. Amateur Athletic Union clubs were sponsored by enterprises like the telephone and electric companies or by long-established social clubs like the Havana Yacht Club or Víbora Tennis Club. In order to retain their athletic skills, sponsoring firms offered ballplayers lucrative (and cushy) employment; players on these teams would perform on weekends only. But these preferred roster spots in the segregated amateur league were closed to blacks, who were left with no alternative but to join the lower-paying pros.
9 The tale of the colorful nickname is related by James Terzian in his young adult biography and presumably comes from Terzian’s interview with the ballplayer himself. The Topps Company (in an era devoid of political correctness) had earlier labeled Roberto Clemente as “Bob” Clemente on their 1958 cardboard image – an Anglicization that the proud Puerto Rican always despised. American League 1954 batting champ and Mexico native Roberto Avila, whose nickname was “Beto” at home, was also redubbed as “Bob” or “Bobby” Avila on his Topps cardboard images.
10 Versalles got his first big league hit in his second game (August 2, 1959), off Chicago hurler Billy Pierce in Comiskey Park. His first and only rookie year homer came four days later in Griffith Stadium (August 5, 1959) off future Twins teammate Jim “Mudcat” Grant (at the time hurling for Cleveland).
11 Willy Miranda, the childhood hero of Versalles, also played his final pro season with the Twins’ top farm club, Syracuse.
12 Versalles was 17 Total Fielding Runs above average in 1965, vs. a mere 1 run during his other Gold Glove season, 1963. His range factor was largely in line with the AL averages, suggesting that his higher error total was not at all a function of getting to more balls, as was true of Willy Miranda.
13 The argument is most concisely summarized by Carl Kolchak, who pointed out numerous negatives. Oliva hit almost 50 points higher and struck only half as much (Versalles led the league in Ks). Oliva was also tabbed by the seemingly more astute editors of The Sporting News as baseball’s “Player of the Year.” Zoilo ranked only fourth on his own club in batting average,and runs batted in and was fifth in homers. Teammate Mudcat Grant posted 21 wins on the mound, six more than he had ever had previously, and thus could boast his own breakout season. 1964 MVP Brooks Robinson also enjoyed another good year with the bat, plus earned another Gold Glove at third base. Cleveland’s Rocco Colavito and Detroit’s Willie Horton both knocked in better than 100 runs; etc.
14 Bill James first described his notion of “Win Shares” in a 2002 book of the same name co-authored with Jim Henzler. The exceedingly complicated formula (the explanation takes almost 80 pages of James’ 2002 volume) attempts to assign single numbers to individual players as a measure of their contribution for that season. A given team is assigned a “win shares” total (3 times the team’s actual number of victories), which is then divided between that club’s offense and defense. The pitching, hitting and defensive contributions (in terms of statistics) are all considered and the figures are adjusted for ballpark, league and era. There have been numerous criticisms of the value of using such a metric, one of the main ones being that the metric rewards players whose teams win more games than expected and heavily penalizes those who don’t have that same advantage.
15 Francis Stann, “Erstwhile Moody Versalles Finally Wins Acceptance,” Baseball Digest, October 1965, 30.
16 It was the cover of the October 4, 1965 issue, and only Versalles’ hands, arms and bat appear in the cover image.
17 In his own autobiography Tony Oliva commented on the Twins’ difficulties while playing at Chavez Ravine, as the park was alternately known when the Angels played there. “It was a big park, a pitcher’s park, and we had always had trouble in it. The Angels played there that season, and we won only four of nine games although they didn’t have a very good team. We just couldn’t get our offense going in that park. Teams, for some unknown reasons, don’t play well in certain stadiums. Chavez Ravine was that way for us.” Oliva and Fowler, 89.
18 Treder, 2004.
19 The others were position players Roy Sievers, Don Mincher, Johnny Schaive, and pitchers Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Hal Woodeshick, Hector Maestri, and Rudy Hernández.
20 Sparse details concerning Zoilo’s pension are provided by Jim Thielman. Disabled to the degree that he could not find work after 1982 (when he was only 43) Versalles petitioned MLB for access to his earned pension – but was informed that a new collective bargaining agreement prevented a player from drawing on those funds before reaching the minimum age of 45. In 1984, after reaching the set qualification age, Zoilo began drawing the sum of $13,500 annually.
21 Francis Stann, “The New Mark of Zorro,” Baseball Digest, June 1963, 42.