SABR

Chi-Chi Olivo

This article was written by Rory Costello.

The Olivo brothers, Diómedes and Federico, had very similar careers. Diómedes was a big-league “rookie” at the age of 41 in 1960, though rumors persisted that he was older. Federico – better known as “Chi-Chi” – reached the majors in 1961, at the age of 33. Or was that 34? Maybe 35? Diómedes spent just one full season and parts of two others in “The Show.” Chi-Chi tasted scraps of just four big-league seasons, including a stint with the 1966 Braves in Atlanta, where he had his best year in the majors. The two brothers won just 12 games at that level; Diómedes earned five wins and Chi-Chi earned seven.

Although they enjoyed relatively brief major-league careers, both men pitched for many years in summer and winter ball leagues throughout the Caribbean. They each played in several nations, but attained their greatest stature in their homeland, the Dominican Republic. As of 2014 the Olivos ranked first and second in career wins in Dominican professional baseball, with 86 for Diómedes and 79 for Chi-Chi. They died less than two weeks apart in February 1977, but more than three decades later their names remained prominent in the Dominican sporting press.

According to most baseball references – even Dominican ones – Federico Emilio Olivo Maldonado was born on March 18, 1928. His true age was a matter of speculation. His death certificate states he was born in 1926,1 but 1927 also has been mentioned by other sources. Olivo’s parents were Arcadio Emilio Olivo Báez, a cattle rancher, and Juana Ramona Maldonado Mejía. “Mamá Juana,” as she was known, died in 1983 at the remarkable age of 103. She had four other children besides Diómedes and Federico: sons Arcadio and César Blas; daughters Zena and Lucrecia (Arcadio also had another son, named Óscar). The family came from Guayubín, the second largest city in Monte Cristi Province, in the northwestern corner of the Dominican Republic. Federico’s nickname in Spanish is one word with the accent on the second syllable: Chichí. It means “baby” in Dominican slang – often “baby of the family,” which Federico was.

In 1937, when Chi-Chi Olivo was still a young boy, it was a remarkable year for Dominican baseball. The nation’s professional league dedicated its season to the re-election of dictator Rafael Trujillo, and Ciudad Trujillo (as Santo Domingo was known from 1936 to 1961) assembled a powerhouse team. The best Negro Leaguers of the day were lured to the island to play, at relatively high expense to team owners. The excesses of that year caused a 14-year absence of official pro baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Nonetheless, even without a pro league, baseball remained the sport of choice for Dominicans. Two of the nation’s best clubs – Manzanillo and Batey Madre – were associated with the Grenada Company, the Dominican subsidiary of the United Fruit Company. Manzanillo, in Monte Cristi, was a company town; Batey Madre was one of five 1,000-acre plots where bananas were grown. Chi-Chi Olivo got his start in higher-level baseball with the Grenada teams.2

Existing stories of Chi-Chi’s early baseball life, confirmed by his nephew Emilio Olivo, claim Emilio’s father, Arcadio, introduced his younger brothers to baseball. Diómedes was a nationally known star pitcher by the mid-1940s, and Chi-Chi learned to play in his shadow with Manzanillo. Though certainly talented, he was described as “crafty,” whereas Diómedes had more imposing stuff.3

Professional baseball resumed in the Dominican Republic in 1951. During its first four seasons, the Dominican league played during the summer rather than the winter. Both the Olivo brothers joined Licey, one of the two longest-running teams in the country. The Tigres won the first championship of the new era; Chi-Chi eventually was part of four more championship teams in the Dominican League.

Chi-Chi got to pitch more often for Licey in 1952. In one game that August, he picked up a save in relief of Diómedes, with the help of a great catch by Puerto Rican outfielder Luis Olmo.4 The Tigres made it to the league finals again, and Chi-Chi showed his durability by pitching five innings of relief in Game Two (taking the loss) and, later the same day, starting Game Three and throwing a five-hit shutout.5 However, Águilas Cibaeñas won the series in seven games.

In the winter of 1952-53, Chi-Chi went to the Puerto Rican league, joining the Caguas Criollos, which were managed by Luis Olmo. Diómedes was an opponent with San Juan. Chi-Chi then followed up with a strong summer for Licey back in the Dominican League. He won 10 games in 1953, tying his brother and others for the Dominican single-season record, against just four losses. The Tigres got revenge for 1952 in the league finals, beating Águilas in five games.

The Olivo brothers opposed each other again in Puerto Rico during the winter of 1953-54. Chi-Chi was still with Caguas, which won the league title. The Criollos won the Caribbean Series over Cuba, Panama, and Venezuela, going 4-2. Olivo suffered one of the Puerto Rican squad’s two losses. (The Dominican Republic did not take part in the tournament during its first era, which ran through 1960.)

After a last summer with Licey, and another winter with Caguas in 1954-55, Olivo came to the US in 1955. The Braves, then based in Milwaukee, signed him. It’s likely that Olmo had a hand in the recommendation; he officially joined the Braves’ scouting staff at the end of 1953 to cover Latin America. The scout of record, however, was Ben Geraghty. Geraghty was then a minor-league manager for Milwaukee, and he also managed Caguas for several seasons starting in 1954-55.

Olivo remained stuck in the Braves’ minor-league system for six-plus years. He served as a swingman, appearing in 219 games from 1955 through 1960, including 91 starts. Chi-Chi attracted just occasional notice in the US sporting press as he labored in the minors, even though he had some solid years, especially at Class A Jacksonville in 1957 and 1958. While with Atlanta in 1966, he said that he and his brother might have made it to the majors sooner if Latino players had gained earlier acceptance in the United States.6 In his 2011 memoir, the great Dominican hurler Juan Marichal said the same thing. “Who knows what they could have been? Maybe they could have been in the Hall of Fame.”7

With the Dominican league’s switch to winter play for the 1955-56 season, Chi-Chi chose to stay at home rather than go to Puerto Rico. One of his best games came at Estadio Trujillo on December 18, 1955. He threw just 76 pitches – 64 strikes and a mere 12 balls – as he led Licey to a 3-2 win over arch-rival Escogido.8 The ballpark, just a few months old, also bore the dictator’s name. It was later renamed Estadio Quisqueya.

After the Dominican season was over, Caguas brought Olivo back as a playoff reinforcement. The Criollos won another Puerto Rican title and advanced to the 1956 Caribbean Series. They tied for second at 3-3, and Chi-Chi was 1-1 with an 11.33 ERA.9

The Olivo brothers remained together with Licey through 1958-59, when the Tigres won the league championship under manager Joe Schultz. Chi-Chi pitched only 16 innings that winter, though, and he was traded to Estrellas Orientales before the 1959-60 season.

Back in the US, Milwaukee summoned the younger Olivo to the majors at last in June 1961. As The Sporting News put it, “Olivo [was] called up to bolster the Braves’ beleaguered bullpen.”10 In his debut, on June 5 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, after taking over for Lew Burdette in the eighth inning, Olivo served up a homer to the first batter he faced, Jerry Lynch. He then walked two men before retiring the side without further damage. Olivo stayed just a few more days, making two more brief appearances. He stood to get a win at Wrigley Field on June 9 when the Braves rallied for four runs in the top of the ninth to go ahead, 10-9, but Warren Spahn and Carl Willey couldn’t hold the lead. Milwaukee sent Chi-Chi back to Triple-A, and there he remained for another three years, appearing in a total of 113 games for Louisville, Denver, and Toronto from 1962-1964.

Trujillo was assassinated on May 30, 1961. Thereafter, the atmosphere in the Dominican Republic remained extremely tense. A nationwide strike and street fighting crippled attendance, and the Dominican League halted the 1961-62 season after the games of December 3.11 As a result, Olivo – who had won the 1961 ERA title in the American Association – also pitched briefly in Venezuela in early 1962 with Indios de Oriente. He relieved in two regular-season games plus one more in the postseason, but was then sidelined with a sore arm, something rare for him.12

Dominican League play remained suspended altogether in 1962-63. Ponce in the Puerto Rican league brought Chi-Chi aboard after he had come off another solid Triple-A season with Louisville. Olivo led the International League in strikeouts in 1962 and made a big contribution as the Colonels won the Little World Series.

The following October, after an absence of nearly two years, Estadio Quisqueya hosted professional baseball once more. And who better to square off in the Dominican season opener in 1963-64 than the Olivo brothers? Diómedes, pitching for Licey, beat Chi-Chi and Estrellas 2-0. He even drove in both runs with a single off his younger brother.13

In both 1962 and 1963, the Braves organization had used Chi-Chi extensively as a starter again. He shifted back to the bullpen in 1964, though – and was dazzling. With Toronto in the International League, he went 9-0 with a 1.75 ERA in 29 outings (starting just once). Milwaukee recalled Olivo in late June, and though the Dodgers shelled him for six earned runs in 2⅓ innings in his first outing, Braves manager Bobby Bragan stayed with him. “When he got here,” said Bragan that July, “I told him he didn’t have to be good his first couple of times out. I told him we felt he could do the job and now I’m convinced of it. With the screwball he’s got, left-handed hitters don’t even faze him.”14

Olivo’s long-awaited first big-league win came on July 26, 1964, in the first game of a doubleheader at Shea Stadium in New York. His other win that year came in the nightcap. The following month, Braves beat writer Bob Wolf quoted Chi-Chi: “Bobby Bragan stuck with me and now I’ve got more confidence. The hitters up here are tougher, of course. You throw the wrong pitch twice and you get hurt. When you’re behind, you’ve got to throw your best pitch.”15

Wolf also observed, “His powerful build (6-2, 220 pounds) and effortless motion convey the impression that he could pitch every day if necessary.”16 Indeed, Olivo stayed busy for the rest of the summer in the majors, appearing in 38 games. He was 2-1 with a 3.75 ERA in 60 innings pitched, posting five saves as well. He could still strike batters out at a pretty fair rate – 45, or 6.8 per nine innings pitched – while walking just 21.

Wolf’s article also addressed another topic close to Chi-Chi’s heart – his hitting. “When I pitch regularly, I always get my base hits,” Olivo said.17 Both Olivo brothers were robust men who prided themselves on this aspect of their game. Chi-Chi batted .215 during his minor-league career but, being a reliever, he got fewer opportunities in the majors, where he was 2-for-13 overall.

During the offseason, Bob Wolf wrote that even though Olivo “didn’t do a bad job,” neither he nor Billy Hoeft “was quite the answer” behind Bobby Tiefenauer in the Braves bullpen – “both were lopped off the roster at season’s end to make room for youth.”18 Nonetheless, as a minor-league invitee to spring training in 1965, Chi-Chi made the Milwaukee roster to start the season. However, he appeared in just two games during April and was sent down in early May. He returned in September and made six more appearances over the rest of the season. Overall, he was 0-1 with a 1.35 ERA.

The Dominican political situation flared up in 1965, and the nation’s established league did not operate once again in the winter of 1965-66. Instead, there was a three-team circuit formed by the Federation of Dominican Players. The teams represented colors rather than cities: the Blues, Yellows, and Reds. Olivo pitched for the Yellows.19 He then departed for Puerto Rico, rejoining Caguas once more and pitching shutouts in his first two starts.20

The Braves moved to Atlanta for the 1966 season. That March, longtime local columnist Furman Bisher wrote, “Olivo has shown flashes of brilliance at times. Two seasons ago, he gave the Braves a big lift after he was called in from Toronto. But consistency has never become Olivo, and now, after 11 seasons of tramping about to such points as Toledo, Evansville, Austin, etc., and repeating the trip several times, Olivo approaches the age of 39 (March 18) still dealing in hope, not record.”21 Even though he was a borderline candidate for a job, Chi-Chi made the Opening Day roster again. It proved to be his most active year in the majors; he made 47 appearances, posting a record of 5-4, a 4.23 ERA, and seven saves.

Early that season, Chi-Chi gave an entertaining interview to Dave Burgin of the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate. The pitcher’s age was then listed as 39, and so the headline called him “A Latin Jack Benny” (the comedian’s running gag was that his age was forever 39). “I am 39,” Olivo said, “– er – 40 – no, 39. Look in the book. It tells there. Yes, 39.” Olivo was also listed at 208 pounds, but by that time he was packing a fair bit of extra weight, especially about the middle. “I cannot lose the weight like I used to,” he said in his deep, gravel voice. “Maybe I am getting old.” But he added, “It makes no difference in baseball how old you are when you are a pitcher. You must only get the ball across the plate. That is the difference … a pitcher worries only about what is in his arm and head. That’s all.” His insight continued, “But if you talk too much about your age, you will begin to believe that you are old. People will tell you that you are old, and then your head goes dead and so does your arm. … Maybe Warren Spahn should not tell his age … he could play longer.”22

Olivo concluded, “My stuff is O.K. – I pitch clever. Sometimes I surprise hitters with my fastball. When I lose my control, that’s when I am through. You cannot pitch forever.”23

The veteran did still have pretty good control – he walked less than three batters per nine innings pitched in 1966. He went back to Triple-A, however, from late July through mid-September. During a ten-day stretch, Atlanta sent down five players, including two other pitchers, Wade Blasingame and Arnold Umbach. Among the five men they called up from Triple-A Richmond were pitchers Dick Kelley, Phil Niekro, and Jay Ritchie.24 Olivo stayed busy in Richmond. “The indestructible right hander relieved on seven consecutive days before taking a night off on August 6. In his longest outing, August 3, he throttled Rochester on one hit for five innings to win, 9-8, in 11 frames.”25

After his final recall, Olivo’s big-league career ended on a high note. The second game of a doubleheader at Crosley Field on October 1 went to extra innings. Neither team scored in the 10th or the 11th, but Atlanta rallied for three in the top of the 12th. Chi-Chi got into hot water in the bottom of the inning as the Reds loaded the bases with one out on two infield singles and an infield error. But he struck out Leo Cárdenas and got pinch-hitter Tony Perez to ground into a force play to end the game.

On November 29, 1966, the Braves traded Olivo and outfielder Bill Robinson to the New York Yankees for third baseman Clete Boyer and a player to be named later. Boyer, a superb fielder, had a career year with the bat for Atlanta in 1967. He gave the Braves three more seasons but was released in May 1971 after a row with general manager Paul Richards. He then played several more years in Japan. Robinson eventually blossomed as a major-leaguer, though not with the Yankees.

Meanwhile, Olivo went to spring training in 1967 with the Yankees, again as a nonroster invitee. When he got the news that he hadn’t made the cut, he said, “They got no room for Daddy. Two lousy months of spring training and it’s all for nothing.”26 He pitched just nine games that year for Triple-A Syracuse. Although Chi-Chi remained effective, his season – indeed, his career in the US – came to an end on May 23 when he was struck in the face by a line drive while shagging return throws behind the batting practice pitcher. He suffered a broken cheekbone and nose, plus damage to his left eye.27

Yet despite the scary injury, Olivo was by no means through pitching. The Braves organization was still interested enough to have Richmond select him in the minor-league draft in December 1967. Nothing came of it, but Chi-Chi stayed active at home. Estrellas Orientales won the Dominican league championship in the 1967-68 season, the club’s last pennant as of 2014.

Well into his forties, Olivo remained effective. He rejoined Licey for the winter of 1970-71 and was 4-1, 1.40 in 25⅔ innings. The Tigres became champions and advanced to the Caribbean Series, which had started up again the previous year. Chi-Chi enjoyed one last flourish on a big stage. On February 11, 1971, Licey was leading the Santurce Crabbers of Puerto Rico, 6-2 in the ninth inning, but Santurce drew to within 6-4. Dominican manager Manny Mota called on Olivo to close it out, which he did by fanning Reggie Jackson and Elrod Hendricks, then getting an easy flyout. It was his second save out of six wins for the Dominicans, who went undefeated.28

Olivo played in a different country in the summer of 1971: Mexico. He joined the Sabinas Piratas, relieving in 25 games and starting one. He went 5-4 with a 1.76 ERA.

On January 27, 1972, Olivo made his last of 335 appearances in the Dominican League, pitching an inning in relief for Licey.29 He finished with a career record of 79-69 in his homeland, with an ERA of 2.62. He set the league’s lifetime records for innings pitched (1,335⅔) as well as losses.30 He made the top ten in many important categories, ranking behind only his brother in strikeouts (669) and complete games (58).

Chi-Chi closed out his pitching career with Sabinas in 1972, going 1-1, with a 5.88 ERA in 21 relief appearances. He then returned to Manzanillo, also known as Pepillo Salcedo, in the very northwest corner of Monte Cristi on the border with Haiti. There he was placed in charge of a brigade maintaining a banana plantation called La Cruz de Manzanillo. In his leisure time, he enjoyed going to the cockfights, fishing, and dove hunting. Olivo and his second wife, Miledys Pacheco, welcomed a son – also named Federico Emilio – in 1973. They had gotten married sometime around 1961 or 1962, but the baseball life kept him from being with her full-time until he retired. (A previous marriage, to Lidia Gonell, had ended without children.)

The family returned to Guayubín in 1975, but Miledys died in May 1976. Less than a year later, on February 3, 1977, Chi-Chi Olivo followed her. The cause was cardiovascular cirrhosis with hepatic collapse.31 Cardiac cirrhosis is a rare form of liver disease associated with prolonged and severe heart failure. Olivo was interred in the family’s burial place in Guayubín’s cemetery. The little orphan boy Federico found a home with members of his mother’s family until he began medical studies at the age of 16.

On February 15, just 12 days after Chi-Chi died, Diómedes Olivo – aged 57, and still looking young and strong – went to play softball. Early in the evening, after reading some comments about the death of his brother, Olivo suffered a sudden heart attack and died a few minutes later.32

Federico “Chi-Chi” Olivo became a member of the Hall of Fame of Dominican Sports in 1981. He joined his brother Diómedes, who had been inducted eight years earlier.

 

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Dr. Federico Emilio Olivo Pacheco, son of Chi-Chi Olivo, for his assistance with various questions. Continued thanks to Eddy Olivo Cruz. In 2011 he provided the family tree compiled by his second cousin, Emilio Olivo (nephew of Chi-Chi and Diómedes Olivo). In 2013 he introduced the author to Dr. Federico Olivo. Thanks also to SABR member Frank Russo, who obtained the transcription of Chi-Chi Olivo’s death certificate as part of his ongoing effort with his website, thedeadballera.com.

 

Sources

Treto Cisneros, Pedro, ed., Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano (Mexico City: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V., 11th edition, 2011).

Marichal, Juan, with Lew Freedman, Juan Marichal: My Journey from the Dominican Republic to Cooperstown (Minneapolis: MVP Books).

Olivo Ponce de León, Emilio Armando. Reflexiones sobre el Desarrollo Dominicano: Tomo V (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Editora El Nuevo Diario, 1999).

Ruck, Rob, The Tropic of Baseball (Westport, Connecticut: Meckler Publishing, 1991).

Burgin, Dave, “Braves’ Chi Chi Olivo: A Latin Jack Benny,” Newspaper Enterprise Association, April 25, 1966.

De Jiménez, José, “The Great Dominican, Diómedes Olivo,” SABR Baseball Research Journal #20 (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1990).

“El relevo de Chichí Olivo,” Diario Libre (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic), January 26, 2012.

Rodríguez, Gustavo, “Hace 28 años murió Chichí Olivo,” Hoy (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic), February 3, 2005.

The Sporting News (1952-1967)

English-language transcription of death certificate for Federico Emilio Olivo Maldonado. Provided by Frank Russo and confirmed by his son.

Personal Interviews/Correspondence:

Dr. Federico Emilio Olivo Pacheco, (Chi-Chi Olivo’s son), 2013.

Eddy Olivo Cruz, 2011.

Internet resources

baseball-reference.com

retrosheet.org

licey.com

lasemanadeportiva.com (Dominican statistics)

purapelota.com (Venezuelan statistics)

 

Notes

1 English-language transcription of death certificate for Federico Emilio Olivo Maldonado, from his file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. Olivo’s only Topps baseball card, from the 1966 set, is one of the places that showed 1927. Olivo’s tombstone indicates that he died at the age of 50, which tallies with the knowledge of his nephew, Emilio Olivo.

2 Rob Ruck, The Tropic of Baseball (Westport, Connecticut: Meckler Publishing, 1991), chapter 4.

3 Emilio Armando Olivo Ponce de León, Reflexiones sobre el Desarrollo Dominicano: Tomo V (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Editora El Nuevo Diario, 1999), 44-45.

4 Alejandro Martínez, “Bankhead Fired as Manager in Dominican Loop,” The Sporting News, September 3, 1952, 32.

5 Alejandro Martínez, “Licey Takes Early Lead in Dominican League Playoffs,” The Sporting News, September 17, 1952, 38.

6 Dave Burgin, “Braves’ Chi Chi Olivo: A Latin Jack Benny,” Newspaper Enterprise Association, April 25, 1966.

7 Juan Marichal with Lew Freedman, Juan Marichal: My Journey From the Dominican Republic to Cooperstown (Minneapolis: MVP Books, 2011), 18, 211. Marichal hated the Olivos when he was a boy because he was an Águilas fan, but they later became good friends and laughed together about those days.

8 “Momentos Inolvidables del Licey,” http://licey.galeon.com/enlaces845747.html. The Sporting News (January 4, 1956) also mentioned this game, though not the low pitch count.

9 “El relevo de Chichí Olivo,” Diario Libre (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic), January 26, 2012.

10 Bob Wolf, “Braves Battle Quick Sand – Find It’s Only Gopher Dust,” The Sporting News, June 14, 1961, 6.

11 “Political Turmoil Forces Dominican League to Fold,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1961, 34.

12 Federico Rodolfo, “Skipper Otero Nabs 4th flag in 5 Years,” The Sporting News, February 7, 1962, 35.

13 Fernando A. Vicioso, “Brothers’ Slab Duel Delights Full House,” The Sporting News, November 2, 1963, 22.

14 Bob Wolf, “Chi-Chi’s Chucking Chases Braves’ Old Bull-Pen Blues,” The Sporting News, July 25, 1964, 8.

15 Bob Wolf, “Braves Do Cha-Cha over Chic Hurling by Ancient Chi-Chi,” The Sporting News, August 29, 1964, 21.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Bob Wolf, “Braves Asking St. Nick to Fill Bull-Pen Niche, Size Up Niekro,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1964, 35.

19 Fernando A. Vicioso, “Return of Javier, Other Stars Makes Turnstiles Spin Faster,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1965, 27.

20 Miguel J. Frau, “Reds’ Ears Pick Up Sound of Heavy Bat Barrage by Simpson,” The Sporting News, January 22, 1966, 25.

21 Furman Bisher, “Braves to Test Eight Pitchers on ‘Borderline,’ ” The Sporting News, March 12, 1966, 6.

22 Burgin, “Braves’ Chi Chi Olivo: A Latin Jack Benny.”

23 Ibid.

24 “Fans Need Scorecard,” The Sporting News, August 13, 1966, 34.

25 “Olivo Answers Fire Bell Seven Consecutive Days,” The Sporting News, August 20, 1966, 29.

26 Jim Ogle, “Ferraro, Olivo Provide Contrast in Emotions,” The Sporting News, April 22, 1967, 21.

27 “Chiefs Lose Olivo,” The Sporting News, June 10, 1967, 41.

28 “El relevo de Chichí Olivo.”

29 Dominican League Press Bulletin No. 30, November 16, 2012.

30 Gustavo Rodríguez, “Hace 28 años murió Chichí Olivo,” Hoy (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic), February 3, 2005.

31 English-language transcription of death certificate for Federico Emilio Olivo Maldonado. Confirmed by his son.

32 de Jiménez, “The Great Dominican, Diómedes Olivo.”

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