Rubén Gómez was the second pitcher from Puerto Rico to reach the majors – and the first to start and win a World Series Game. He led the New York Giants to a 6-2 win in Game Three at Cleveland on October 1, 1954. A limber 6 feet even and 170-175 pounds, Gómez was amazingly durable. He pitched in just 10 big-league seasons – but no one is even close to his 29-year career in the Puerto Rican Winter League (PRWL).[fn]Four players are tied with 22: Juan Beníquez, Julio Navarro, Juan Pizarro, and Héctor Valle. Gómez played more PRWL seasons (29) than Roberto Clemente (15) and Orlando Cepeda (13) combined.[/fn] From 1947 through 1977, he amassed 174 regular-season wins and 27 postseason wins in the PRWL, all but one with the Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers). These are marks that will never be broken. All told, “El Divino Loco” – the Divine Crazy – won over 400 games as a pro.[fn]The Santurce portion only (regular and post-season): 200-128, .610. Puerto Rico totals: 201-129, .609. Known non-Puerto Rico record: 207-153, .575. Overall pro career: 408-282, .591. Note also that Gómez won at least one Puerto Rican all-star game and possibly more.[/fn]
Rubén Gómez: Career Won-Lost Snapshot
|Major Leagues||1953-60; 1962; 1967||76-86[fn]1,454 innings in 289 games (205 starts), 677 strikeouts, 574 walks, 15 shutouts, 4.09 ERA.[/fn]||1-0|
|Puerto Rican Winter League||1947-1977||174-119[fn]173-118 in 28 seasons with Santurce, 1-1 in one season with Bayamón. 2,486 innings in 417 games (breakdown between starts and relief appearances is not available), 1,390 strikeouts, 756 walks, 32 shutouts, 2.97 ERA.[/fn]||27-10[fn]10-5 in semifinals; 11-3 in finals; 6-2 in seven (7) Caribbean Series. Excludes all-star games.[/fn]|
|U.S./Canadian minor lgs||1949-52; 1960-63||69-36||N/A|
|Dominican Republic||1952; 1961; 1964||7-3[fn]Licey Tigres, 1952 (the Dominican League played in the summer during the first four years of its modern era).[/fn]||6-1[fn]Subject to full confirmation. In addition to the 1952 summer playoffs with Licey, Gómez was a playoff reinforcement for Escogido Leones (1961) and Licey (1964).[/fn]|
|Semi-pro (Canada)||1968-70||27-5[fn]Two seasons are documented, 1968 and 1969. Years ago, the author was told that Gomez won as many semi-pro baseball games in Canada as post-season games in/for Puerto Rico (27). After going back to some work papers, a 6-4 semi-pro record in 1970 appears to be a solid estimate.[/fn]|
N/A: not available. See endnotes for further clarifications.
Despite his World Series win, Gómez’s biggest pro baseball thrill came in Havana, Cuba. On February 22, 1953, his game-winning hit lifted Santurce to a Caribbean Series title for Puerto Rico over Cuba. His six career victories in this tournament (a matter of great regional pride) are tied for the most ever with Cuba’s Camilo Pascual and Venezuela’s José “Carrao” Bracho.
Rubén Gómez Colón was born in the Aguirre community of Arroyo, Puerto Rico, on July 13, 1927. He was the fifth child of Luis Gómez and Dolores Colón (aka Doña Lola). Rubén’s siblings were Luis (“Wiso”), Lillian, Rafaelina and Baby. Rubén was influenced by his stepfather, Don José Jacinto Barclay, who was of English descent. Barclay was an educated fellow who ran a few departments within the sugar cane industry of Aguirre, according to his grandson, Rafael Gómez.[fn]Arroyo (founded on December 25, 1855) is in southeastern Puerto Rico, east of Guayama. Arroyo means “small creek” – travelers used to stop there to freshen up before continuing their journey. Sugar cane was its major economic driver. Samuel Morse, the telegraph inventor, introduced wired communication to Latin America with the Puerto Rico Telegraph system in the late 1850s. Morse’s oldest daughter (Susan) married a Danish merchant (Edward Lind) who worked at and later owned the Sugar Cane Hacienda La Enriqueta in Arroyo. Samuel Morse wintered in Arroyo. His first Caribbean telegraph was transmitted in Arroyo on March 1, 1859. The father of Arroyo native José Cruz – who played many years of winter ball and with the Houston Astros – worked with Mr. Barclay in Arroyo’s Sugar cane industry.[/fn]
The Guayama Brujos (Witches) were Rubén’s favorite PRWL team, winning back-to-back titles in the league’s initial seasons: 1938-39 and 1939-40. Rubén – who loved to play and watch baseball, and to fish – studied the warm-up tosses of Guayama’s Satchel Paige before the Sunday twin-bills in 1939-40. Paige “warmed up using cigarette packets as a home plate, and threw strike after strike over that tiny object,” said Rafael Gómez.[fn]Guayama, where Gómez is buried, has sentimental value to the Gómez family. Satchel Paige set the league’s all-time single-season records of 19 wins and 208 strikeouts – both still standing – with Guayama in 1939-40, when he was league MVP. The 39-17 Witches swept San Juan in the playoff finals. Barney Brown, the 1941-42 League MVP according to league historian Jorge Colón Delgado (other sources list Josh Gibson), had a 16-6 record in 1941-42 for the 29-15 Witches. His catcher was Quincy Trouppe. Gómez saw Santurce’s Josh Gibson pulverize the ball (.480, with 13 homers) that winter. Teams were allowed three (3) imports—stateside or Cuban players. That limit increased to five (5) by the late 1940s; six (6) by 1952-53 and 10 in the 1960s and 1970s.[/fn] Rubén’s other favorite Brujo hurler was lefty Barney “Brinquito” Brown, who was with Guayama in 1941-42.
Rubén graduated from George Washington High School in Guayama in 1945 after starring in volleyball, track & field, and baseball – mainly as a center fielder. His mentor was coach Candido Fortier, who first taught the young man the fine art of pitching. Gómez enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) on an athletic scholarship. He earned it by his success in the 300-meter run, the 4 x 100 meter relay, the high jump and the pole vault.
UPR played the island’s top amateur (AA) baseball teams – Juncos and Humacao. Pepe Seda, the UPR baseball coach, was also the San Juan Senators’ GM and a Caribbean scout for the New York Yankees. San Juan and the Santurce Crabbers were after Gómez’s services in 1947. Luis “Maquenco” Soler, a Crabbers scout, and Monchile Concepción, their third base coach, loved Rubén’s talent. After many visits to the Gómez household, Santurce owner Pedrín Zorrilla convinced Doña Lola to let Rubén sign with his Crabbers. Pedrín became a guide, mentor and father figure to Rubén.
The 1947-48 Santurce Crabbers featured outstanding imports from the Negro Leagues: Willard Brown, Bob Thurman, Earl “Mickey” Taborn, John Ford Smith and Satchel Paige. They gave advice to the younger Puerto Rican players, and took them under their wings. Gómez was particularly impressed with Willard Brown: “Brown still holds the all-time record of 27 homers in 60 games [set that season],” Gómez reminisced. “It was our era…we had a great time together.” Ruben married his first wife, María Teresa Carlo, early in his Santurce career.
Gómez got his nickname of “El Divino Loco” from friends and Santurce teammates for two reasons: his highway speeding habits and crazy (yet safe) driving off the field; and, he could not be intimidated on the mound. His best friend on the club was Luis Raul Cabrera, aka “Cabrerita.” Cabrera understood that his mantle as the team’s “bread and butter” pitcher and nemesis of arch-rival San Juan would be passed on to Gómez. Cabrera’s sidearm deliveries were like those of Kent Tekulve, the reliever who emerged with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970s.
Vic Harris, Santurce’s manager in Gómez’s first three winter seasons, appreciated his versatility – #22 could start, relieve, play the outfield, pinch-hit or pinch-run. Gómez’s first post-season game for Harris was a win at Ponce in Game Three of the 1948-49 semi-finals. Cabrera won Games One and Five as Santurce advanced to the finals against Mayag?ez. Gómez hung on for an 8-7 win in Game Two and pitched well in long relief in Game Five. “Those Mayag?ez hitters (Wilmer Fields, Johnny Davis, Alonzo Perry, Luke Easter, Artie Wilson) were so good,” said Gómez. “I had to pitch with my heart as well as my talent.”
Gómez added a screwball to his repertoire of fastballs, curves, sliders and a change-up (drop), after hitting against Barney Brown (by then with Ponce) in 1947-48. Brown’s pitches tailed away from the right-handed hitting Gómez. Not only could he handle the bat, Gómez made heads turn with his terrific fielding ability. Island sportswriters called him a 10th player on the field due to his speed covering first on a 3-to-1 play and ability to field bunts. Rafael Bracero, an island sportscaster, marveled at Rubén’s ability in both the infield and outfield. “Rubén made basket catches in the outfield look easy,” said Bracero. “He was as good a fielder on the mound – or even better – than Greg Maddux.”[fn]Rubén Gómez lived in the Barrio Obrero section of Santurce from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s; on the same street where Rafael Bracero was born. Barrio Obrero was a “hotbed” of rabid Santurce Crabbers followers at that time of high PRWL attendance levels. Bracero, who stood out as a San Juan fan in that part of Santurce, played sandlot ball with Rubén’s brother-in-law, Nano.[/fn]
Gómez finished degree requirements at UPR in the spring of 1949 before playing in the U.S. minor leagues for the first time. Gómez (5-1) and Cabrera (11-1) pitched superbly for the 1949 Bristol (Connecticut) Owls, an unaffiliated team in the Class B Colonial League. Puerto Rican star Carlos Bernier told them about the opportunity. The Owls bested Waterbury in the semis and Bridgeport in the finals. Rubén pitched four more games with Bristol in 1950, but he didn’t get along with the business manager there and asked to be traded. He landed with the St. Jean (Quebec) Braves in the Class C Provincial League. The Havana Cubans, a Washington Senators farm club which had many prominent Cuban pitchers, drafted Gómez from St. Jean in December 1950. He got into four games for Havana, managed by Adolfo Luque, in 1951. However, he spent most of the 1950 and 1951 seasons with St. Jean, going 14-4 and 13-8. During this time, Rubén became fluent in French.
Gómez averaged 12 wins per PRWL season from 1949-50 through 1954-55, and won the 1951-52 League MVP Award. Frank Thomas, who played with San Juan in 1951-52, said that Gómez was the “league’s best pitcher.” Santurce dethroned Caguas in 1950-51 to win their first league title and Caribbean Series. They won the former on a walk-off homer by Jose “Pepe” Lucas. Rubén recruited Lucas, a Dominican, to play for Santurce in the late 1940s, during a baseball tournament in Santo Domingo. They became close friends and fishing buddies. Lucas’s February 16, 1951 homer became known as the “Pepelucazo” – comparable in island lore to Bobby Thomson’s homer off Ralph Branca on October 3, 1951. Gómez won two February 1951 Caribbean Series games, both over Panama’s Spur Cola Colonites; he saved one versus the host Magallanes (Venezuela) Navigators. Santurce won the four-team round robin at 5-1, to edge the Havana Reds (with Hoyt Wilhelm) by one game.[fn]George Scales was Santurce’s manager in 1950-51, at a time when MLB teams began sending top prospects and managers to Cuba and Puerto Rico. To name just a few, Hoyt Wilhelm, Bill Virdon, Jackie Brandt played in Cuba. American imports who played in Puerto Rico in the 1950s included Bill Skowron, Lew Burdette, Harvey Haddix, Ray Jablonski, Hank Aaron, Bob Buhl, Sandy Koufax, Elston Howard, Bob Cerv, Don Zimmer, Tom Lasorda, Bill White, Al Worthington, Pete Burnside, Ronnie Samford, Jim Landis, Maury Wills. Harry Craft (1953-54, 1954-55) and Ralph Houk (1956-57) managed San Juan. Santurce later (1966-71) had a formal working agreement with the Baltimore Orioles; Mayag?ez with Detroit; San Juan with Pittsburgh (due to the Roberto Clemente connection), and so on.[/fn] Gómez earned a spot on the Series All-Star team.
The Yankees had kept their eye on Gómez – their Triple-A club in Kansas City drafted him in December 1951. Casey Stengel, the Yankees’ manager, took time off from a February 1952 vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands to watch Gómez shut out San Juan, 1-0, in Game Two of the 1951-52 finals. That helped assure the pitcher’s assignment to Kansas City – but he wasn’t happy there. Rubén remembered, “I pitched a win for Kansas City; they didn’t use me for a month [even after he’d recovered from a broken little finger on his pitching hand]. So I went to play [summer] ball with Licey in the Dominican Republic and the Yankees suspended me. At the end of that season, I bought out my contract for $3,000 by giving money to another person who gave the cash to them.”[fn]Rubén Gómez was not comfortable with George Selkirk, manager of the 1952 Kansas City Blues. Víctor Pellot, aka Vic Power, and Bill Skowron were two Blues stars who later had fine MLB careers. Pellot/Power told me the Yankees groomed Elston Howard to be their first African-American player and that he (Power) was used as trade bait during an 11-player deal between the Yankees and A’s. Skowron mentioned (to me) that Gómez was one of the PRWL’s top pitchers during his (Skowron’s) 1950-51 season with Ponce.[/fn]
Yet despite such infrequent action with Kansas City, Gómez still attracted the attention of the New York Giants. Chick Genovese, the manager of the Giants’ Triple-A club in Minneapolis, filed a positive report on the pitcher. But over and above that, Pedrín Zorrilla – a good friend of Giants owner Horace Stoneham – was a Caribbean bird dog for the club.
Gómez’s 1952-53 season in the PRWL featured duels with San Juan righty Cot Deal and two lefties – Harvey Haddix and Don Liddle – in City Championship match-ups. Deal reinforced Santurce for the 1953 Caribbean Series, and Liddle became Rubén’s teammate with the 1954 New York Giants.[fn]San Juan and Santurce shared Sixto Escobar Stadium from 1939-40 to 1961-62. Their head-to-head games were part of the “City Championship” Series, conceived in 1939-40. Gómez had a 33-14 won-loss record versus San Juan during his first eight PRWL seasons. A lot of money was bet on the outcomes of these contests. Don Liddle recalled that he received $300 in cash shortly after beating Santurce and Rubén in 1952-53. Some gambler made his way on the field and deposited the money in his back uniform pocket before moving on. Bob Turley, San Juan’s ace pitcher (1953-54) also had fond memories of pitching duels versus Gómez at Escobar Stadium. Gómez’s career totals versus San Juan in the regular season were 51-24, with 17 shutouts.[/fn]One duel on October 21, 1952 – ended with a 4-0 shutout by Haddix – was the first pro game by Roberto Clemente, the 18-year old Santurce outfielder, who played a few innings in left field.
Gómez got permission to travel to away games in his own car, instead of the team bus, due to motor coach car sickness. Billy Hunter, a Santurce teammate in 1952-53, recalled a harrowing experience seated next to Rubén in his sports car going to Mayag?ez. Gómez’s mountain turns at 90 miles per hour were scary. Even scarier were crosses at the roadside marking the site of fatal accidents. Hunter was relieved upon arriving in Mayag?ez. Hunter, 40 years later, noted that Puerto Rico was the only place he played where fans exploded firecrackers during a game.
Pedrín Zorrilla helped Rubén sign a $10,000 contract with the 1953 Giants, plus a $5,000 signing bonus, in Santurce’s team office, on February 5, 1953. Gómez then shut out Ponce, 1-0, with an 11-inning gem to open the best-of-five semifinals. The Crabbers swept Ponce, and bested San Juan, four games to two, to win the PRWL title. Santurce, with players from other teams – Cot Deal, Vic Power, José Santiago, Luis Márquez, Joe Montalvo – swept the Caribbean Series, with a key Game Three win over Havana. Cot Deal recalled, “They led us by two runs (5-3). I had been the relief pitcher in the seventh and when Buster Clarkson, our manager, left me in to hit, the Havana fans really let the Puerto Rican fans have it. They let up a bit when I doubled. Márquez followed with a single. Junior Gilliam singled. The Cuban fans were not so vociferous at this point. Pellot [Power] singled, putting the tying and winning runs on second and third. Rubén Gómez, who had run for Willard Brown, was left in to hit. The scorecard had him as a pitcher, which brought the hooters and hecklers back to life. They didn’t know what manager Clarkson and those of us from Puerto Rico knew…Gómez singled sharply in the ninth to score the tying and winning runs. Grand Stadium became awfully quiet.[fn]Ellis “Cot” Deal’s e-mail of February 12, 2011 included an account of his week-long Caribbean Series experience in Havana, Cuba, February 1953. His brother flew to Puerto Rico from Oklahoma to pick up Cot’s two children, so Cot Deal and his wife could travel to Havana. Cot received a 1953 DeSoto sedan from the San Juan franchise and its fans.[/fn]
Gómez, who homered in Santurce’s opening game win over Chesterfield of Panama, called the game-winning hit versus Cuba the highlight of his pro career: “Nothing can top that one,” said Gómez. “It’s the only time a [professional] team from Puerto Rico won the Caribbean Series in Cuba.”
This momentum continued into spring training in Arizona in 1953. In a game against Cleveland early that camp, Gómez fanned three straight hitters: Larry Doby, Luke Easter and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. Gómez remembered, “I called my wife, María Teresa, and told her ‘We’re in the big leagues! They’re going to give me a new number (28) to replace 72.’” Their only child at the time was Rubén, Jr. Rafael was born shortly after the 1954 World Series. Nilka was their third and last child. Ruben’s wife preferred to be called Teresa when she introduced herself to the author in 1965.
In August 1953, The Sporting News ran a full-page feature about Gómez headlined, “Giants Plucked a Peach in Puerto Rico.” It was a streaky year, but he got help from pitching coach Freddie Fitzsimmons, especially with the slider. He won the confidence of manager Leo Durocher, who tended not to be fond of rookies. Cincinnati manager Rogers Hornsby, who’d watched the Caribbean Series, told Durocher that Gómez was the best pitcher he’d seen from the region. Casey Stengel told the Yankees brass that they’d made a mistake.
By season’s end, Gómez had gone 13-11, 3.40 with three shutouts. He earned 1953 major-league All-Rookie team honors. Underscoring how strong the PRWL was then, that squad also included ex-Santurce teammates Jim Gilliam and Billy Bruton; San Juan’s Ray Jablonski and Harvey Haddix; and Caguas (1953-54) hurler Bob Buhl.
Santurce finished last in 1953-54 when Gómez and Tom Lasorda were the team’s best starters. Mickey Owen, 1953-54 Caguas player-manager, struck gold when Gómez replaced Buhl on Caguas’s roster for the 1954 Caribbean Series. Gómez won his start against Venezuela to help Caguas win it. Owen, the catcher, said, “He was a pleasure to catch. I think he had 10 strikeouts.”
Leo Durocher’s 1954 New York Giants won the NL pennant by five games over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gómez’s best season in the majors helped: a 17-9 record and 2.88 ERA, fueled by four shutouts. “I was in a groove most of that season,” said Gómez. “I established a friendship with Willie Mays and knew Don Liddle and Monte Irvin from winter ball. I was 13 when Irvin first came to Puerto Rico (with San Juan) so it was a joy being Monte’s teammate in New York.” Durocher and his team became the talk of the town after sweeping the favored 111-43 Cleveland Indians in four straight Series games.
Game Three of the 1954 World Series had a paid attendance of 71,555, the most fans Rubén ever pitched in front of. The Sporting News wrote, “Game 3 started with a distinct Latin-American flavor as far as the starting pitchers were concerned. [Mike] Garcia, the California-Mexican, opened against Gómez, Durocher’s Puerto Rican.” It was a first for both World Series starters to be of Hispanic descent – Gómez and Garcia had a pre-game chat in Spanish. Garcia asked Rubén how his wife was doing and whether Rubén signed his [1954-55] winter contract.
Tris Speaker threw out the first pitch; Danny Kaye sang the national anthem; Cleveland manager Al Lopez had his photo taken with Speaker (player-manager of the World Series champion 1920 Indians) and Lou Boudreau (player-manager of the 1948 champs). Dusty Rhodes’s two-run pinch-hit single gave him a pinch-hit in his third straight Series game, tying Bobby Brown’s 1947 record with the Yankees. Gómez allowed two runs on four hits, one a solo homer by Vic Wertz, on a hanging screwball. Hoyt Wilhelm got the last five outs to preserve it. Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, ex-Yankee pitcher with a 6-0 World Series mark, was there, saying, “I rooted for the Giants; a Gómez has never lost a World Series game.”[fn]The Sporting News, October 13, 1954. Total paid attendance at the 1954 World Series was 251,507. The winning player’s share: $11,118. Losing player’s share: $6,713. [/fn]
Rubén received a hero’s welcome when his Pan Am flight arrived in San Juan on October 11, 1954. He went to a reception hosted by Doña Felisa Rincón de Gautier, San Juan’s mayor. Willie Mays arrived five days later to play for the 1954-55 Crabbers, considered by Don Zimmer – who became their star shortstop after his release from Mayag?ez – to be “the best winter league team ever assembled.”[fn]Don Zimmer was visibly moved when we conversed about the 1954-55 winter season, prior to a Boston – Kansas City spring training game in Florida, March 1992. Zimmer had vivid memories of his Santurce teammate Rubén Gómez, whom he faced in the National League, when Brooklyn played the New York Giants. Zimmer managed the 1967-68 San Juan Senators in Earl Weaver’s second season at the Santurce helm. Johnny Bench was San Juan’s catcher.[/fn] Herman Franks, Leo Durocher’s third base coach, wrote the foreword for the history of the Santurce franchise 45 years later. Franks recalled, “The 1954-55 Santurce club with a little more pitching depth could have won it all in the major leagues. Rubén Gómez, Sam Jones and Bill Greason were three terrific starters. Can you imagine the power on that Santurce club with George Crowe, Buster Clarkson, Bob Thurman, Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays? The old Sixto Escobar Stadium had some distant fences, but it wasn’t anything for that gang…don’t think the new stadiums had or will ever have the feeling of Sixto Escobar Stadium.”
Gómez went 13-4 for Santurce in the regular season. He also won the All-Star game; two final series games versus Caguas; and Game One of the Caribbean Series over Cuba’s Almendares Blues, 6-2, with 34,000 onlookers at Caracas’s University Stadium, on February 10, 1955. Gómez retired Almendares’ last 10 hitters and fanned seven in his complete game. Cuban shortstop Willy Miranda said, “Santurce hitters are a threat but the real deal is Rubén Gómez…chico, what a pitcher, that Rubén Gómez!” Santurce won the Caribbean Series for the third time in five years and Crabbers’ shortstop Zimmer was voted Series MVP. Gómez had a no-decision in Game Four on February 13 against Cuba, a Santurce win.
From April 13, 1954 through February 13, 1955, Gómez pitched 418 total innings: 230 major-league innings (including the World Series) plus 188 winter ball frames (including the All-Star Game and post-season). Gómez went 35-13 overall in that span 18-9 for the Giants and 17-4 for Santurce!
That workload may well have taken something out of him, though. Gómez got off to a slow start in 1955, and in June, The Sporting News reported that the Giants were considering banning or curtailing his winter-ball play. The article recognized the pitcher’s hero status in his homeland, and how he put out all the time, believing that Puerto Rican competition was on a level with the game in the States.
Gómez loved playing year-round and never did stop. He may have paid a price – the rest of his major-league career was sub-par except for a 15-13 record with the 1957 Giants. He disagreed, however, that the lack of vacation had taken a toll. “The more I throw, the better I like it,” he said in 1959. He admitted to not liking cool early-season weather up north, but attributed his up-and-down performance to not staying in the rotation on a steady basis.
The best-remembered outing from this time is probably the game in Milwaukee on July 17, 1956, when Joe Adcock of the Braves chased Gómez off the field after getting nicked on the wrist by an inside pitch. Adcock had a history of serious injuries after being hit by pitches, and he also claimed that Gómez had yelled at him on his way to first base. Gómez could be wild, and he was not averse to knocking batters down – as he evidenced with Carl Furillo of Brooklyn in 1953. He insisted in 1958 that he was no headhunter, though (this after a bench-clearing episode with the Pittsburgh Pirates).
Gómez did pitch the first big-league shutout west of St. Louis when he blanked the Los Angeles Dodgers, 8-0, on April 15, 1958. Valmy Thomas – his Santurce catcher for 13 seasons – caught that gem. The U.S. press noted that he found himself in manager Bill Rigney’s doghouse with some frequency, though – and he got the stereotyped Latino labels “moody” and “temperamental.”
On the plus side, Gómez won his sixth Caribbean Series game (2-1 over Almendares) in February 1959. Orlando Cepeda and Jackie Brandt were Santurce’s top hitters that season. On the way to the league championship, however, Mayag?ez fans vandalized Gómez’s beloved red Corvette after a dispute broke out during a semi-final game.[fn]According to pitcher Bob Bruce, this 1958 Corvette Classic was torn apart and its tires were cut after Gómez hit Mayag?ez outfielder Joe Christopher with a pitch and Orlando Cepeda went to the first base to catch a foul fly and got pelted with oranges. A furious Cepeda threw the ball into the stands and hit a kid in the mouth, who bled profusely. Santurce’s Jackie Brandt was ejected. The police barricaded the visiting clubhouse.[/fn]Gómez, an avid race car driver and mechanic, spent many hours at the Caguas Speedway doing practice laps, working with pit crews, etc.[fn]Rafael Gómez recalled the time Juan Manuel Fangio, the Formula One driver from Argentina, visited the Caguas Speedway in 1958. Fangio had won the 1957 German Grand Prix and was doing promo work in Puerto Rico. Rubén challenged Fangio to a “race” and – according to Rafael—won![/fn]
By then, Gómez was a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. He had been traded– along with Valmy Thomas – for Jack Sanford in December 1958. Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer said about Gómez, “With the kind of stuff he has, he ought to win 20 games…maybe the change of scenery will make a big difference.” Gómez’s big-league career nosedived after the deal, though. He hurt his knee early in the 1959 season and could make only sporadic starts. After mid-July he was sent to the bullpen, and he became just a spot starter in the majors.
Gómez pitched for Luis Olmo – one of his best friends in Puerto Rico – who managed the 1959-60 and 1960-61 Crabbers. He also enjoyed the hospitality of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo – the Dominican dictator – when he pitched in the postseason for the 1960-61 Escogido Lions. That team, managed by Pepe Lucas, had ties to the Trujillo regime. Back in Puerto Rico, Rubén bet Santurce teammate Bob Gibson (1961-62) that Gibson couldn’t lift a 1953 Pontiac off the ground. But he lost that bet and gave Gibson a case of beer.
The Phillies sent Rubén down to Buffalo in June 1960, and he pitched part of that season on loan to Baltimore’s Triple-A club, Miami. Buffalo sold Gómez to Cleveland’s farm club, the Jacksonville Suns, after the 1961 season. “When we bought Gomez, the Buffalo management said he wouldn’t win eight games,” said Suns owner Bobby Maduro. On the contrary, the veteran went 8-0, 2.28 in the early part of 1962. Cleveland recalled him in June, but later traded him to Minnesota.
Sam McDowell, the Indians’ fireballer, was Rubén’s Santurce teammate in 1962-63. He recalled that manager Ray Katt – an ex-teammate of Gómez with the 1954 Giants – tore his heel during a team fight with the opposition (Caguas) and lost his (managing) job with the 1963 Cleveland Indians “because Katt was on crutches for six months.”
The Twins released Gómez in January 1963, and soon thereafter the Cleveland organization re-signed him. At Jacksonville that year, he taught Mike Cuéllar to throw a screwball. Years before, he had taught the pitch to his fellow Puerto Rican, Luis “Tite” Arroyo, and it became Arroyo’s bread and butter. Juan Marichal also added the scroogie to his repertoire with the help of Gómez. Bill James and Rob Neyer ranked Gómez tenth on their list of the best screwballs.
Gómez earned extra cash reinforcing the 1963-64 Licey Tigers – managed by Vern Benson, who was Santurce’s skipper in 1961-62 – in the post-season. Rubén pitched six-plus innings in a Licey win over Águilas Cibaeñas, a team featuring Felipe Alou, Willie Stargell and Cookie Rojas.
Gómez then pitched in Mexico for the first time. He was with Monterrey for one game in 1964, which appears to be the only one he pitched that summer, though The Sporting News indicated that Jalisco had obtained him. He pitched well for Preston Gómez in Santurce’s 1964-65 title season, with a semi-final win over San Juan.
Back in Mexico, Gómez joined Puebla in 1965 (4-2, 2.84 in 16 games). After a good season for Santurce (7-3, 1.92), Rubén traveled to Venezuela as a postseason reinforcement in 1965-66. First, he was 0-1 in two games with Magallanes; then he joined La Guaira, going 2-0 with a save to help the Sharks become league champions.
Gómez enjoyed his best Mexican season with Veracruz in 1966, when he was 10-4 with a sparkling 1.24 ERA in 16 games (13 starts). Rubén and his son, Rafael, spent summers in Mexico. Rafael recalled that Vinicio Garcia, the Veracruz skipper, was nice and helpful to him and his dad. Gómez – always fit and with a smile – came to the Robinson School in Santurce (1965-66) to pick up Rafael. He (Rubén) played baseball games with the children, and pitched for both teams. One of the students, a girl named Terrie Epstein, idolized Gómez. She remembers his aqua and white Corvette, like the one in the TV show Route 66, and a maroon one that looked like something out of the movie Bonnie and Clyde. “Wherever Rubén was, people seemed to gravitate toward him,” said Terrie.
Earl Weaver became the Crabbers’ manager in October 1966. Rubén had 15 quality starts for Weaver before blanking the Arecibo Wolves, 5-0, to open the semis. Tito Stevens, San Juan Star Sportswriter (another Robinson School alumnus) noted that Gómez had not walked a batter in his last three regular season games plus this playoff win. Gómez turned the final series against Ponce around with a 7-0 win in Game Three, after Santurce lost the first two. Rubén fanned seven Lions and walked only one. Ponce’s Roy White, a switch-hitter, opted to hit right-handed that evening due to Gómez’s tantalizing screwball. Santurce, whose line-up included Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez, won the finals on a three-run homer by Paul Blair in Game Six.[fn]Paul Blair’s three-run homer came off a spitball thrown by Ponce’s John Boozer. Blair told me that he “hit the dry side of that Boozer pitch, and Boozer cheated by throwing it.” That ninth-inning homer quieted the Ponce home fans. According to Blair, Santurce was confident they would win Game Six, and did not pack for a Game Seven in Ponce. Santurce players boarded the team bus and it made the rounds through various sections of Santurce to cheering multitudes. I wrote this on February 1, 2013, exactly 46 years after hearing the radio broadcast of this game. Rubén Gómez’s screwball is considered the 10th best of all-time per Rob Neyer and Bill James.[/fn] Weaver said, “It was just like winning any other championship including the World Series.” He complimented the island’s baseball fans: “outstanding – similar to those who follow the Yankees or Mets.”
The 1967 season featured a last return to the majors with Philadelphia. Phillies manager Gene Mauch had seen him pitch in Puerto Rico and was impressed enough to offer the 39-year-old an invitation to camp as a situational reliever. Mauch said, “You wouldn’t believe what great physical condition this man is in. If Chi Chi Olivo at his age can get people out, then Gomez certainly can.” Gómez won a job and got into seven games (without a decision) in April and early May. When the Phillies acquired Dick “Turk” Farrell, however, they returned Gómez to Veracruz.
Wherever else Gómez went, though, playing winter ball for Santurce remained a constant. Rafael Gómez enjoyed arriving at Hiram Bithorn Stadium with his dad by 5 p.m. before a night game and the great view from the Santurce bullpen. He met his dad’s teammates and opponents; in 1967-68 they included San Juan’s Johnny Bench, the catcher with the rifle arm. Another was Santurce’s Reggie Jackson, the loop’s top home run hitter (20) in 1970-71. “I was (like) a team mascot,” remembered Rafael. “Went (with dad) to the 10th Inning Lounge in Santurce where he and others relaxed.”
Frank Robinson succeeded Weaver as Santurce’s skipper. Rubén (9-1, 2.05) and Jim Palmer (5-0) were two of his best pitchers for the 1968-69 Crabbers, a 47-22 first-place team that lost in the semis to fourth-place San Juan, managed by Sparky Anderson. Anderson said, “Santurce was loaded. They had the best club with Scott, Gotay, Cardenas, Foy, Hendricks, Blair, Palmer, Pizarro, Gómez. Puerto Rico helped me be around that many big leaguers at that time. All the clubs had at least six or seven big leaguers. We had Tony Taylor, Cardenal, Beauchamp, Kekich, Cuellar, Orlando Peña.”
From 1968 through 1970, Gómez pitched summer ball in the Saguenay Senior League of Quebec with the Chicoutimi Bombardiers. He was the star pitcher, 12-0 in 1968 and 9-1 in 1969. Rubén played golf from the late 1960s on (with Luis Olmo) and returned to Quebec as a golf pro. He sold insurance – as did Olmo. Gómez returned to Mexico in 1971, going 1-7, 4.50 for Poza Rica and Sabinas.
Gómez pitched for Santurce through the mid-1970s, making a final Caribbean Series (in relief) appearance in February 1971, against Mexico’s Hermosillo Orange Growers, at Bithorn. Maury Wills managed Hermosillo; Frank Robinson led Santurce; and Manny Mota was Licey’s player-manager. Roberto Clemente, San Juan’s 1970-71 manager, used Rubén for two innings in the 4-1 win by the local stars over the imports.
Frank Robinson was unable to manage Santurce in 1971-72 and Gómez stepped in to manage the team to a third-place finish – it was the only winter in 30 years in which he did not play a game. He appreciated the fine play of the Crabbers’ Don Baylor, league batting champ, and Dusty Baker. Gómez exhorted Rogelio (Roger) Moret – the Guayama native – to have a good season. Moret pitched his heart out, with a 14-1 ledger, five shutouts and 1.81 E.R.A. Ponce ousted Santurce in the semi-finals.
Gómez pitched in relief for the 1972-73 champion Crabbers; Ron Cey played third base. Rubén’s final shutout in PRWL play – an 8-0 blanking of San Juan – came on December 20, 1973 at Bithorn Stadium. That night, Gómez’s screwballs got the best of a Senators line-up with Chris Chambliss, José Pagán and Rusty Torres. Mickey Rivers gave Rubén the only run he needed with a lead-off homer in the first. All the 4,135 fans gave #22 a standing ovation. Frank Robinson gave Rubén one start in 1974-75;[fn]Frank Robinson enjoyed managing Gómez in Puerto Rico. They became friends even though Gómez had hit him with a pitch during the 1956 NL season. Robinson was a minor-league roommate of Bob Thurman. When Baltimore promoted Earl Weaver from first base coach to manager in the summer of 1968, Robinson met (in Baltimore) with Santurce owner Hiram Cuevas, to express interest in the Santurce managing job. They agreed to a contract during lunch for a $2,000 monthly salary. Doug Davis, who threw some batting practice (BP) for Santurce in the mid-1970s, recalled the time that Santurce coach Pochy Oliver threw BP to Frank. Rubén relieved Pochy. Frank dropped his bat and moved away. Davis said, “Rubén was old – (but) still had a hell of a breaking ball and a two-seam fastball that moved in on you. Guys were looking for a fastball…he could junkball you to death!”[/fn] ditto for Jack McKeon in 1975-76.[fn]McKeon’s 1975-76 Crabbers took Caguas to a seventh game in their semi-final series. McKeon loved Puerto Rico and gave the team’s younger players a chance to play more. Gómez pitched just four games for McKeon, with six-and-two/thirds innings, and a 2.90 ERA. Jack McKeon was the last Santurce manager in Gómez’s 28 years as a Crabbers player.[/fn]
Rubén signed a 1976-77 contract with the Bayamón Cowboys (formerly San Juan). Dickie Thon – on Bayamón’s practice squad at 18 – recalled: “Gómez did not appear too happy at this stage of his career.”[fn]Dickie Thon’s grandfather, Freddie Thon, pitched and played the outfield for San Juan in the 1940s, including Gómez’s first two years in the PRWL. Freddie managed San Juan to the 1951-52 league title. Dickie won PRWL batting crowns for Bayamón in 1980-81 and 1981-82, when Gómez coached and managed Santurce. Gómez’s career managing record with Santurce was 50-49. Dickie hit the Caribbean Series-winning homer for Santurce in February 1993. Frankie Thon, Dickie’s brother, is a longtime general manager in the PRWL. Freddie Thon, Jr. was San Juan’s batboy in the 1940s, when Monte Irvin and Larry Doby starred for them.[/fn] The 49-year-old closed out his PRWL career with the last eight of his league-record 417 appearances.
Gómez coached the 1980-81 Crabbers, along with Orlando Cepeda and Juan Pizarro. Cookie Rojas managed Santurce to a fifth-place finish. Catcher Gary Allenson recalled team meetings – with the first 45 minutes in Spanish, and the final five minutes an English translation. The 1981-82 Crabbers got off to a 14-6 start, but Rubén resigned after Santurce suffered 10 losses in their next 12 games. Iván de Jesús, Ed Figueroa and Pat Tabler were on this team. By this time, Gomez was married to his second wife (from the U.S. mainland), and they adopted a Dominican child (Gabriela) with the help of Pepe Lucas, in Santo Domingo.
In the summer of 1985 the author visited a longtime family friend who was very ill. Hu Barton recalled the night he had car problems on a highway in Puerto Rico’s mountains. Out of nowhere, an athletic-looking young man – Rubén Gómez – in an expensive sports car came to the rescue. Hu bought a case of beer and they had a few laughs.
Rubén threw out the first pitch to open the 1990-91 PRWL season – “First time in 18 years Santurce won the title,” Gómez said, with a smile. He was inducted into the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, as part of its first class. In 1997, he entered the Guayama and Sons of Santurce Halls of Fame. Rafael Gómez gave the plaque to his dad at the latter one. “The committee paid for my trip expenses,” he recalled. “Dad was moved by the local people; always had time to teach a child, sign an autograph, share a soda – he belonged to the world.” Rubén and Ricky Ledée each received the 1998 Pedrín Zorrilla Award from Pedrín’s widow, Diana.
Gómez was hospitalized in 2001 after a battle with cancer. A doctor from Mexico requested permission to attend his operation. When Gómez asked why, the doctor replied, “I was the boy who sold you the winning lottery ticket.” While pitching in Veracruz, Rubén had won a $35,000 prize. When he tried to share the winnings with the kid’s family, they refused. So Gómez went to a local bank and set up a trust fund for him.
In 2002, Rafael Gómez played catch with his 75-year old dad one last time. They were in Rafael’s home in a Philadelphia suburb, as he recalled. “I bought two new gloves and a ball and jokingly said, ‘Is there anything left in your rusty arm? C’mon – let’s throw for old times’ sake.’ My neighbors are watching an old man and his son playing catch – ridiculous for them, heavenly for us. As soon as the glove entered Dad’s hand, his demeanor changed…and he asked me to hunker down and catch some strikes – what a way to throw consecutive strikes.”
Rubén Gómez passed away at San Juan’s Oncological Hospital of Centro Medico, on July 26, 2004. He was 77. He was interred at the Guayama Municipal Cemetery.
The Veterans Committee voted Gómez into the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame on February 9, 2011, in a ceremony at Altos de Chavón, Dominican Republic.[fn]Others inducted in 2011 by the Veterans Committee: Héctor López (Panama), Vidal Lopez (Venezuela), Adolfo Luque (Cuba), Horacio Martinez (Dominican Republic), Jose Luis Chile Gómez (Mexico), Oscar Negro Prieto (ex-owner, Caracas Lions). Younger ex-MLB players inducted: Rico Carty (Dominican Republic), Andres Galarraga (Venezuela), Dennis Martinez (Nicaragua), Edgar Martinez (Puerto Rico), Manny Sanguillen (Panama), Luis Tiant (Cuba), and Fernando Valenzuela (Mexico). Cookie Rojas and Pedrín Zorrilla were inducted in 2013.[/fn] His Crabbers number, 22, is on permanent display on Hiram Bithorn Stadium’s outfield fence along with 21 (Roberto Clemente) and 30 (Orlando Cepeda).
With thanks to Rafael Gómez, a former classmate of the author’s, and to Rory Costello for additional research.
Interviews and correspondence
E-mails, text messages and phone conversations with Rafael Gómez, January–February 2013.
E-mails to and from Terrie Epstein O’Regan, ex-school classmate in Santurce, January 2013.
Phone conversation with Doug Davis, ex-batting practice pitcher for Santurce, February 7, 2012.
Phone conversations and e-mail correspondence with Ellis “Cot” Deal, 2011 and 2012.
Personal interview with Gary Allenson, Smith Wills Stadium, Jackson, Mississippi, July 1998.
Conversation with Rafael Bracero, WAPA TV Sportscaster, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, November 18, 1997.
Conversation with Paul Blair, Smith Wills Stadium, Jackson, Mississippi, July 1997.
Personal interview with Sparky Anderson, prior to Detroit spring training game, Lakeland, Florida, March 1993.
Personal interview with Tom Lasorda, before a Los Angeles Dodgers spring training game, Vero Beach, Florida, March 1993.
Conversations/interviews with Rubén Gómez, San Juan, Puerto Rico, January 1992 and 1993.
Personal interview with Frank Robinson, Camden Yards, Baltimore, Maryland, August 19, 1992.
Personal interviews with Víctor Pellot Power and Bob Thurman, Ponce, Puerto Rico (October 20, 1991).
Personal interview with Dickie Thon, Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia, September 15, 1991.
Mail correspondence /phone conversations with Bob Bruce, Mike Clark and Harvey Haddix (January 1992); Billy Hunter and Don Liddle (February 1992), Mickey Owen and Bob Turley (January 1992), Vern Benson and Roger Freed (January 1993), Jack McKeon (February 1993). Mail correspondence with Bill Skowron (February 1992), Sam McDowell (July 1997) and Earl Weaver (July 1997), and Herman Franks – October 1998 – October 1999.
Though not used as a source for this biography, El Béisbol by John Krich (1989) includes a delightful chapter entitled “El Divino Loco,” a firsthand account of Krich’s travels in Puerto Rico with Gómez.
Jorge Colón Delgado, La Maquinaria Perfecta. Colombia, S.A.: Panamericana Formas e Impresos S.A., 2007.
Jorge Colón Delgado, Pedrín Zorrilla: El Cangrejo Mayor. Colombia, S.A.: O.P. Graficas, 2011.
Rafael Costas, Enciclopedia Beisbol Ponce Leones, 1938-1987. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: Editora Corripio, 1989.
Rob Neyer and Bill James, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers and Pitchers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Thomas E. Van Hyning, Puerto Rico’s Winter League: A History of Major League Baseball’s Launching Pad. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1995.
Thomas E. Van Hyning, The Santurce Crabbers: Sixty Seasons of Puerto Rican Winter League Baseball. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1999.
Gary Gillette and Pete Palmer (editors), The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2008.
Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff (editors), Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Third Edition, Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, 2007.
Pedro Treto Cisneros (editor), Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano, 11th edition, Mexico City: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V., 2011.
Puerto Rico Enciclopedia Manual, Sixth Edition, Hato Rey, Puerto Rico: Publicaciones Puertorriquenas, Inc., 2007.
Paloviejo en los Deportes. Statistical Summary of the 1966-67 Puerto Rico Baseball Season, Camuy, Puerto Rico: Barcelo Marques & Co., October 1967.
Magazine and newspaper articles
Antonio R. Concepción Velásquez, “Rubén Gómez.” El Vocero Revista del Sabado (San Juan, Puerto Rico), January 16, 1999.
Jaime Córdova, “Rubén ‘El Divino Loco’ Gómez.” Claridad, October 1-7, 1999.
“Dodgers Arrange Pact with Venezuelan Club,” The Sporting News, March 7, 1951.
Joe King, “Giants Plucked a Peach in Puerto Rico,” The Sporting News, August 5, 1953, 3.
Bill Ladson, “Robinson remembers San Juan,” MLB.com, April 11, 2003.
“Mr. Rhodes Does It Again, Backing Gómez’ 4-Hitter. The Sporting News, October 13, 1954.
Allen Lewis, “Phils’ Four Starters Best in Baseball, Mauch Boasts,” The Sporting News, March 4, 1967: 9.
Allen Lewis, “Phils Given Scare over Gomez Deal,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1958, 17.
Allen Lewis, “Gomez Billed to Boost Phil Spring Sprint,” The Sporting News, March 18, 1959, 21.
Gabrielle Paese, “Rubén Gómez, Puerto Rico’s Legendary Pitcher, dies at 77. Puerto Rico Herald (San Juan, Puerto Rico), July 30, 2004.
“Giants May Ban Winter Ball for Pitcher Gomez,” The Sporting News, June 22, 1955, 21.
“Novatos Estrellas de las Mayores,” El Mundo (San Juan, Puerto Rico), October 27, 1953.
The Sporting News, February 20 and 27, 1952; October 13, 1954; February 23, 1955; February 25, 1959.
The San Juan Star, January 30, 1967.
Medina Studios, Santurce, Puerto Rico.