SABR

Chico Salmon

This article was written by Russell Wolinsky.

When Ruthford Eduardo “Chico” Salmon stepped up as a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning of Game Two of the 1970 World Series, Baltimore was trailing Cincinnati, 4-1. Salmon was batting for Tom Phoebus, already the second pitcher used by Earl Weaver. “I got the greatest thrill of my life just walking up to the plate,” Chico told the Baltimore Sun’s Jim Elliot. But just moments later, the man dubbed Supersub, often to his distaste, was to receive an even greater thrill. Taking advantage of Riverfront Stadium’s artificial turf, Salmon ripped a sharp grounder up the middle beyond the outstretched glove of shortstop Woody Woodward. “When I got the hit and [was] standing on first base, I thought I was the king of the world,” he recalled.1 Don Buford and Paul Blair quickly followed with base hits of their own, the latter scoring Salmon. By the time the O’s were done batting in their half of the frame, they led, 6–4. It ended 6–5. For Salmon, that hit represented his lone World Series at-bat. He retired with a 1.000 batting average in fall classic play.

And that was often the way it would be for the colorful, quotable, versatile Salmon--particularly in 1970, his second season with the Birds. After sharing the utility infielder role with Bobby Floyd in 1969--Weaver figuring his regular shortstop, Mark Belanger, would often be pinch-hit for--Chico served as the lone spare in 1970. Kansas City Royals outfielder Lou Piniella needled Salmon one evening: “I’ve been in this league only two years, but I’ve never seen you play, Chico. What do you do for a living?”2 Such was the life of a utility infielder on a great team.

Born in Colon, Panama, on December 2, 1940, Salmon graduated from Abel Bravo High School, where he lettered in baseball, basketball, and track. He later attended Abel Bravo College, where he also played baseball. It was as a college student that Salmon played for the Panamanian baseball team during the 1959 Pan-American Games in Venezuela. Shortly after playing in that tournament, Chico was signed by the Pacific Coast League’s Denver club of the Milwaukee Braves organization. As far as bonus was concerned, “Not even a penny,” he later complained. “Not even a steak. But I think I would have got one if I waited longer. Right after I signed, a scout from Kansas City [Athletics] talked to my mother, but it was too late.”3

Salmon had some fine years in the minor leagues. In 1960, at age 19, he hit .345 for Pocatello in the Pioneer League, then hit .292 with the Durham Bulls (Carolina) league the next year. He played third base his first two seasons in the minors, then played both outfield and first base in 1962 for Knoxville (Sally League), for whom he hit .330 for 16 home runs before earning a late season recall to Denver of the American Association. He stayed with Denver the next season, and won the PCL (Denver had switched leagues) batting crown with a .325 average.

Salmon did not make the Indians out of spring training in 1964, reporting instead to Portland, Oregon, which had become the Indians’ PCL affiliate. Although slumping to a career-low .234 with the Portland in 71 games, he was recalled on June 27 when Cleveland third baseman Max Alvis was stricken with spinal meningitis. In his first start, at first base on June 29, he got his first two big-league hits—both singles off Gary Peters. On August 5, he got his first home run, off Washington’s Alan Koch. He hit well all season, finishing at .307 (leading the team) with 23 extra base hits in the rest of the season. He played 86 games, including 70 starts at second base, first base and right field.

Salmon played seven of the nine fielding positions in his nine-year major-league career with Baltimore and the Cleveland Indians, but never more than 164 games at any one spot (second base). Opinion varied widely as to Salmon’s ability in the field. “They said I had bad hands,” Chico said of his time at shortstop with the Pioneer League’s Pocatello Giants in 1960, his first professional season. “They changed me to second base, then third base, then the outfield, then first base. I guess they thought my hands were real bad.”4 Late in Salmon’s career, an Orioles teammate quipped, “If Chico’s hands get any worse, we’ll have to amputate.”5

Any defensive deficiencies on Salmon’s part were not for a lack of effort or hustle. Regis McAuley of the Cleveland Press recalled a defensive gem of Chico’s from spring training of 1964. In pursuit of a Red Sox batter’s foul fly at Tucson’s Hi Corbett Field, Salmon ran toward a low barrier in left field and “somersaulted head over heels into the crowd. All you could see of Chico was his long arm sticking up out of the crowd with the baseball clutched tightly in the center of his glove.” An impressed manager Tebbetts, seated beside McAuley, announced, “That kid just made this ballclub.”6 He did not, but returned in June.

If Chico Salmon is in any way remembered by baseball fans, it is more likely than not to be for his fear of ghosts and, later, snakes. Early in his career, Salmon slept with the lights on, and stuffed towels under doors and chewing gum in keyholes. “When I was young,” he said, “I heard talk about evil spirits and I started to believe it. I still do believe it, but I’ve never seen one.” A six-month stint in the US Army Reserve during the winter of 1964 somewhat cured Chico of his fear of ghosts, but substituted a fear of snakes. “I tell them when I get in that I afraid of ghosts all my life and they tell me, ‘KP or guard duty.’ … The Army scare me more than any old ghost. But now I’m scared of snakes. They everywhere down here [Company B, 4th Battalion, 3rd Training Regiment, Fort Polk, Louisiana]. Before you put your foot down someplace, you got to look to see if there’s anything under it. We go in the woods and sleep at night. … I don’t sleep. …. There are snakes down here that crawl in the water.”7

Salmon did not play baseball on the post team because he was not a permanent member of the post. He kept in shape by playing pickup ball with the men in his barracks and “sawing potatoes every other day.” He served six months, and did not return to the Indians until May of 1965.

During the remainder of his career with the Indians, his versatility seemed to keep him from gaining a regular starting spot. “(Salmon) was our leading hitter last year,” manager Birdie Tebbetts noted. However, “I can’t get him in our lineup regularly,” He played little for the Tribe that year though (parts of 79 games). Chico began the season 0-for-12, and never saw his batting average rise above .250, ending 1965 at .242.

After raving about Salmon’s talents a couple of years later, Cleveland coach George Strickland was asked why he thought Chico was not a regular in the Indians’ lineup. “He just can’t seem to keep up at his top-level ability for any extended time,” the coach replied. “Chico seems to run out of gas if you play him every day.”8

In May 1966 regular Indians second baseman Larry Brown was inured in a harrowing collision with left fielder Leon Wagner, suffering a fractured skull, broken cheekbone, and broken nose. He was knocked unconscious and was taken off the field on a stretcher, bleeding profusely. There was considerable doubt he would play again that season and his baseball future appeared grim.

Salmon took over the position on May 22, and from then until July 5 Chico hit at a .313 clip (60-for-192). Indians beat writer Russell Schneider called the utilityman’s performance “positively amazing.” Tebbetts nominated his man as the AL All-Star shortstop. “Are you kidding me?” the ebullient Panamanian wanted to know. “Man, what a thrill that would be. Why, I’d be the biggest man in Panama. Everyone would want to talk to me. The first boy from Panama to make the All-Star team. My mother would be amazed. … I mean, happy.” 9 Alas, Boston’s Rico Petrocelli and Jim Fregosi of the Angels were selected to represent the American League in the game. Salmon slumped in the second half of the season, finishing at just .256.

Defying his defensive reputation, Salmon’s fielding gem helped preserve Sonny Siebert’s June 10 no-hitter against Washington. With two out in the Senators’ sixth, Salmon raced in on Don Blasingame’s chopper up the middle. The shortstop “made a quick grab and caught the runner by a full step,” keeping the Cleveland right-hander’s no-no intact.10 (As a rookie playing first base, Chico helped preserve a Siebert shutout against Minnesota when his backhanded stab of Don Mincher’s bases-loaded drive robbed the Twins’ slugger of a potential extra-base hit.)

But when Salmon was asked what he thought was his best position, he answered without hesitation, “At-bat.”11 Standing around the hitting cage watching Tony Oliva take batting practice before an Indians-Twins series in Cleveland during the 1966 season, Salmon remarked, “Man, he’s a great hitter, just great.” “Better than you?” the man dubbed Supersub was
asked. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” he replied.12 Positioning himself deep in the batter’s box, so deep that his back foot rested outside the box – “It takes the ball longer to get to me,” he reasoned, “[b]ut umpires make me move up”13 – Salmon hit out of a crouch, chin extended out nearly to the strike zone, bat held high, wrapped behind his head. He was an aggressive hitter who seldom walked (.290 career OBP) and was often pitched inside. Jack Hamilton, the pitcher who beaned the Red Sox’s Tony Conigliaro in 1967, caught Chico in the jaw with a pitch in 1964, briefly knocking him out. Nevertheless, Salmon was back in the starting lineup for that afternoon’s nightcap and maintained the same batting stance throughout his big-league career.

Even after rising to the major-league level, Salmon still returned home annually to play ball in the Panama winter league. Salmon was the lead-off hitter for the Marlboro Smokers (at one time managed by longtime minor-league pitcher Winston Brown). During the winter of 1966-67, Chico ran off an 18-game hitting streak for the Smokers, including a run of five consecutive singles. Salmon played winter ball in Panama in every season the country could field enough teams for a league until knee surgery in 1968 forced him to remain idle.

The following March, in an exhibition game played in Mexico City, Salmon “twisted his left knee in [an] aborted steal attempt.”14 The knee continued to bother him, but not enough to keep him out of the lineup. He was ready for the regular season, but totaled just 203 at bats on the season, batting a career-low .227. Stationed in left field in the 11th inning of a June 13, 1968, contest against Oakland, played at Cleveland Stadium, Salmon reinjured the knee, this time more seriously. In pursuit of “a lollipop to left” hit by the A’s Sal Bando, “Chico’s left knee collapsed under him just as he thought he was about to catch [it].” The runner on first, Danny Cater, was off with the crack of the bat and scored the game’s only run as the ball fell untouched. “I musta stepped in a hole or something,” Salmon said, sitting on the trainer’s table, his knee packed in ice. “All I know is I stepped and it just twisted over. Then I couldn’t get up. My kneecap was out and [Cleveland trainer] Wally [Bock] pushed it back in place.” 15 Chico was immediately placed on the disabled list, and was lost to the Indians for at least three weeks. Dr. Vic Ippolito described the injury as a “derangement of the internal left knee.”

He returned to the Cleveland lineup on July 6, limping his way to a meager .185 batting average with only three extra-base hits the rest of the way. Chico underwent surgery on the balky knee immediately after the season and began his rehabilitation program less than two weeks later. Despite the operation, he was still much in demand by rival American League clubs, primarily for his versatility. The thought was that Cleveland would now be more willing to deal Salmon, figuring that he’d be selected in the coming expansion draft. But as recently as the 1968 World Series, “the Indians appeared reluctant to trade Salmon.”16

As it happened, Salmon was selected by the brand new Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft in November 1968. Salmon saw it as an opportunity to become a starting player again. It was not to be. Tommy Harper established himself as the Pilots’ starting second baseman, Chico became expendable, and on March 31, 1969, Seattle dealt him to Baltimore for pitcher Gene Brabender and utilityman Gordie Lund. “[Salmon will] give [manager Earl] Weaver more mobility and flexibility,” said Orioles Player Personnel Director Harry Dalton. “[A]nd give the club better balance. Chico is not just a body. We can use him, and we will use him.”17

Arguably his finest major-league offensive performance came as a member of the Orioles on August 16, 1969, at Seattle’s Sicks Stadium. In a 15–3 romp Baltimore romp over the Pilots, Salmon went 4-for-4 at the plate with a pair of home runs and six RBIs. The following afternoon, the Orioles team bus pulled up at Sicks to find a queue waiting to purchase tickets for the game. “They coming out to catch my act again,” Chico explained to his teammates.18 Nonetheless, the Orioles were set at every position and Salmon had no chance of breaking in. He hit .297 for the season, but in just 91 at bats spread over 52 games.

In 1970 he held the same role, and he excelled in the early going. At the end of May he was hitting .483, highlighted by a four-hit game against the Indians on May 26. He struggled the rest of the way, dropping below .300 for the first time on July 27 and ending at .250, but with 7 home runs. In late June Chico reinjured his left knee and missed nearly three weeks of action. He finished the year with his big hit in the World Series, and his first and only championship team.

And still, like any utilityman, despite his heroics of the previous season and a .385 spring batting average, Salmon worried about making the club in 1971. Challenges from young infielders Bobby Grich and Jerry DaVanon in training camp worried him. “I decided to go to a movie, instead of the park,” the personable sub said after finding out that 21-year-old Don Baylor had already been sent down to Triple-A Rochester. “Maybe they got something to tell me.”19

Beginning the year in a 1-for-17 slump, through the Orioles’ first 67 games played, Chico appeared in but 14, with four singles in 25 at-bats (.160). Through 112 games, the former Supersub had a mere 59 at bats. His speed almost totally gone after the knee surgery, Chico did not attempt a single steal. His three RBIs on September 28 helped spur Baltimore to a 5–4 decision over Boston, a victory that marked the third consecutive 100-win campaign for the Birds. Salmon did not make a single appearance in either the ALCS or World Series that year.

Chico accompanied the Birds on a postseason exhibition junket to Japan, but immediately expressed concern regarding his future with Baltimore. “With [Bobby] Grich around now, there may be no place for me. I just hope if I’m not in Baltimore this year, I’m playing somewhere.”20

Despite a team-leading .360 batting average in spring training, Chico played even less in 1972. Into mid-August he had one hit in 16 at bats. On August 18 Baltimore acquired Tommy Davis to shore up its slumping offensive attack. Salmon was placed on waivers for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release.21 There were no takers for the 31-year-old gimpy utilityman. He signed with the Triple-A Charleston Charlies, but retired from the game shortly after.

Returning to Cleveland, Salmon went to work for the Lincoln Recreation Center. For years while still with the Tribe, Chico had worked with troubled youngsters during the off-season. He also was involved in the center’s drug abuse program. But no more baseball: “I leave it for the young kids, except for the Sunday Morning Softball League.” The former Indian now piloted East Cleveland’s El Patio Lounge softball team.22 In 1979 Chico briefly managed the Panama Bangueros of the Triple-A Inter-American League (piloting them to a league-worst 15-36 mark before being replaced by Willie Miranda). He also scouted and managed the Panama entry of the World Amateur Baseball Series. Salmon continued working with youth teams in and around his native Bocas del Toro until his death in 2000.

Eventually, Salmon made it back to Bocas del Toro, Panama, where he worked with youth teams for several years. Although he had married Easterlene Jackson in 1967, the couple eventually divorced. He was living with his mother on September 20, 2000, when he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 59 years old.

In looking back at his former Baltimore teammates, catcher Elrod Hendricks listed Salmon as one of the three funniest (along with Frank Robinson and Boog Powell). “Chico Salmon,” the receiver reminisced, “just some of the phrases he used made him funny.”23 Chico Salmon’s gift to baseball consisted of more than just his performance on the field.

 

Notes

1 Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1970, np.

2 New York Times, July 26, 1970, 5-2.

3 The Sporting News, July 15, 1967, 30.

4 The Sporting News, June 11, 1966, 9.

5
The Sporting News, April 17, 1971.

6 Baseball Digest, February 1969, 63.

7 The Sporting News, April 10, 1969, 19

8 Baseball Digest, June 1968, 6-7.

9 The Sporting News, May 20, 1967, 18.

10 The Sporting News, June 18, 1966, 8.

11 The Sporting News, May 22, 1966, 6.

12 The Sporting News, July 23, 1966, 19.

13 The Sporting News, July 16, 1966, 45.

14 Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 9, 1967, 66.

15 Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 14, 1968, 56.

16 St. Petersburg Times, October 16, 1968, C-1.

17 The Sporting News, April 12, 1969, np.

18 Baltimore Sun, August 18, 1969, C1.

19 The Sporting News, April 17, 1971.

20 The Sporting News, March 25, 1972.

21 Baltimore Sun, August 23, 1972, C5.

22 Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 7, 1973.

23 Baltimore Sun, May 24, 1994.

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