SABR

Juan "Tetelo" Vargas

This article was written by Joseph Gerard.

Tetelo Vargas was a player with exceptional skills in nearly all aspects of the game. He hit for average, had good power for his physique, and was a superb defender. He possessed a strong throwing arm and superior speed – which won him the nickname El Gamo Dominicano, or “The Dominican Deer.” He was an excellent base-stealer as well. His complexion kept him on the wrong side of the major leagues’ color barrier – he was 41 when Jackie Robinson arrived. Yet Vargas accomplished much in more than three decades of professional baseball (1923-1956), a career that took him from his homeland to Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Cuba, Canada and the U.S. Negro Leagues.i He is unequivocally recognized as the greatest Dominican player of his era. As Peter Bjarkman, historian of Latin American baseball, wrote, “The slender, wiry outfielder and shortstop. . . is without doubt the most accomplished Dominican native never to spend a single day in the majors.”

Juan Esteban Vargas Marcano was born on April 11, 1906. His father was a shoemaker named Isaías Vargas, who resided in Santo Domingo de Guzmán (as the Dominican capital is known in full) with his wife, Baudilia Marcano. Like many young boys on the island at that time, Juan learned the game on the local backyards and empty lots, playing in many sandlot pickup games with his friends. A maternal uncle who was known as Tetelo began to call the young boy Tete, and from there everyone called him Tetelo too.

During this time, many of the older children formed club teams and battled for local bragging rights. Two of the better known club teams Tetelo played for were Gimnasio Escobar and Capotillo. But the most renowned of these club teams was created one night in November 1907 by a group of boys in the home of Vicente Maria Vallejo on La Calle El Conde in Santo Domingo. El Club Licey, as they called themselves, soon settled on blue and white striped flannel uniforms that led to their becoming known as Los Azules, and later, Los Tigres. In 1921, young Vargas would have his first involvement in organized baseball as a mascot for Licey; the team went on to become one of the two most famous in the history of Dominican baseball.

Unfortunately for fanatics of Los Azules, their team missed out on Vargas’s services when he joined the rival Escogido Leones (team color: red) as their mascot the following year. The Leones recognized his ability, and in 1923 he joined his brothers Eduardo “Guagua” and Juan Rafael as players for the team – a loss for Licey that author Rob Ruck, in his book The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic, compared to the Red Sox’ sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

In addition to playing for Escogido in 1923, Vargas also made his professional debut for the Humacao club in Puerto Rico that season. He continued to play ball in Puerto Rico for Ribosch de Cayey in 1924, the Arecibo Lobos in 1925 and the Guayama Stars in 1926. During this same period in the Dominican Republic, he played for Escogido in 1923-24, Atlas in 1925 and Central Romana in 1926.

The year 1927 was a seminal one in the development of Vargas’s career, as he played in both the United States and Venezuela for the first time. Being dark-skinned, Vargas was excluded from consideration for organized white baseball in the States at the time. But, having been recruited by Alex Pómpez, one of the most significant figures in the history of organized black baseball, Vargas played that summer for the New York Cuban Stars in what turned out to be the final full season of the Eastern Colored League. He also got married that year to a Puerto Rican woman named Celia Amaro.

Due to his relationship with powerful booking agent Nat Strong, and bankrolled by his lottery empire, Pómpez had procured a lease at the Dyckman Oval outside Harlem, securing a permanent home for his team. With this advantage, he was able to avoid the instabilities that faced many owners of Negro League teams, who were totally dependent on the magnates of organized white baseball who controlled the access to stadiums. Pómpez scoured Latin America and the United States for the best Latin players, and he spent lavishly to secure their services. In addition to Vargas, players on the 1927 Cuban Stars roster included Martín Dihigo, Alejandro Oms, Manuel “Cocaína” Garcia and Bernardo Baro.

After the season, Vargas barnstormed throughout the United States and Canada for the Havana Red Sox of Ramiro Ramírez. That same winter, Vargas made his debut in Venezuela for the Santa Marta club; he went on to become one of the most enduring players in that country, competing for various clubs for 13 consecutive seasons.

Vargas did not return to the United States in 1928, but instead played for the Guayama Brujos in Puerto Rico. During the winter he returned to the Dominican Republic to play for Escogido, and subsequently returned to the United States to once again play for the Cuban Stars, as the traveling team joined with four fellow clubs from the defunct Eastern Colored League to form the American Negro League, which folded after only one season.

In the winter of 1929 Vargas made his first trip to Cuba, where he hit .316 for the Habana Leones. In the summer of 1930 he returned to play for the Havana Red Sox, which by this time had been purchased by Syd Pollock, one of the most legendary owners and promoters of black barnstorming teams. Pollock went on to achieve fame with the Indianapolis Clowns in the 1940s and ’50s, for whom he signed Hank Aaron to his first professional contract in 1952.

In the winter of 1930, Vargas returned to Cuba for a second term with Habana, but the season was shortened due to a dispute over rent between the league and the owners of La Tropical Stadium. Perhaps disillusioned by this turn of events, Vargas did not return to play in Cuba again until 1942.

In 1931, Pollock changed the name of the Havana Red Sox to the Cuban House of David, one of many impersonators of the original Israelite commune’s barnstorming team from Benton Harbor, Michigan. After a brief appearance with Abel Linares’ Western version of the Cuban Stars, Vargas hooked up with Pollock’s team for the remainder of the 1931 season. In September in Sioux City, Iowa, Vargas was credited with breaking the world record by running the bases in 13.25 seconds, apparently unencumbered by the full set of whiskers he and his teammates donned to mimic their forebears. Pollock also made the claim that during this season Vargas hit seven home runs in as many plate appearances against a semi-pro team in Omaha, Nebraska.

In the winter of 1931 Vargas returned to the Santa Marta club, beginning a period of relative stability in which he played the better part of six seasons in Venezuela. From 1932-34, he played for the Concordia Eagles, a traveling team sponsored by Gonzalo Gómez, the son of President Juan Vicente Gómez. The 1934 roster included Martín Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Rap Dixon and Luis Aparicio, Sr., and is considered to be one of the greatest clubs in the history of baseball in Venezuela. Vargas moved on to play for the Royal Criollos in 1935 and Gavilanes in 1936-37. At home in 1936, he played for Estrellas Orientales.

As has often been recounted, the summer of 1937 was a remarkable chapter in Dominican baseball. Both Santo Domingo and a combined Licey/Escogido club had been renamed Ciudad Trujillo, after dictator Rafael Trujillo. The best Negro Leaguers of the day, plus many Cuban stars, were attracted by high salaries. They displaced many native stars after coming down late in the season, but Vargas (with Ciudad Trujillo) was one of the few who kept a spot. After the excesses of 1937, however, a Dominican pro league would not resurface until 1951. The best Dominican players continued to fit in some amateur and semi-pro ball in their homeland.

The following year, 1938, was another pivotal one for Tetelo. He returned to the United States to play for Pómpez’s New York Cubans, who barnstormed that summer before joining the Negro National League the following year. In addition, Vargas joined the Guayama club in the fledgling Liga de Béisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico (LBPPR), which became one of the most prominent winter leagues for decades to come. Vargas hit .415 for the Witches, second on the team to Perucho Cepeda’s .465 average, and slugged a league-leading .677 as Guayama won the championship with a 27-12 record.

Tetelo went on to play the next three winters for Guayama. In the 1939-40 season, he led the team in runs scored with 69 and stolen bases with 33. The latter still is still the league’s fourth best single-season total. To put the mark in perspective, only top-rank base stealers surpassed Vargas, and their schedules were somewhat longer. The record holder is Rickey Henderson, who swiped 44 in 1980-81. Number two is Carlos Bernier, the all-time leader in the LBPPR, with 41 in 1949-50. Number three is Ron LeFlore, with 34 in 1977-78. Guayama won its second consecutive championship, compiling a record of 39-17 – Satchel Paige contributed 19 of those wins.

The 1940 census shows Vargas and Celia living in Guayama, with two children named Carmen (aged 11) and Juan Esteban Jr. (nine). Tetelo did not play for the New York Cubans that year, returning to play his last season in Venezuela for the Vargas club, but returned in 1941 where he shared the outfield with the great Puerto Rican player Francisco “Pancho” Coimbre. The Cubans won the second-half title that season but lost the championship series to the Homestead Grays. The following spring, the Cubans played an exhibition series against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Havana, winning three out of the five games.

Vargas played the balance of his Negro League career, through 1944, for the Cubans, including a remarkable performance in the 1943 season, when he batted .447 and slugged .579 in league play. He received occasional attention in the U.S. press, which focused on his speed, calling him “the fastest man in colored baseball today” – or simply “the fastest man in baseball,” without qualification.

Vargas returned to Cuba for the last time to play for the Habana Leones in the 1942-43 winter season. Beginning in the winter of 1943, at the age of 37, Tetelo embarked on an extraordinary string of 12 consecutive seasons in the LBPPR, the last nine of which he spent with his old Guayama club, which now shared their team with the town of Caguas to the north. The Caguas/Guayama Criollos won three LBPPR championships during this period: 1947-48, 1949-50, and 1953-54. As a result, Vargas went to two Caribbean Series (the tournament was established in 1949).

When the Dominican Summer League was established in 1951, Vargas joined the Estrellas Orientales and played for four seasons. He beat out Negro League great Ray Dandridge for the batting title in 1953 at the age of 47, and led his team to the league championship in 1954. After the league switched to a winter schedule, Tetelo played the 1955-56 season at the age of nearly 50. His playing career then concluded at last.

Vargas, who weighed only 160 pounds despite standing 5-feet-10-inches tall, played shortstop and second base early in his career. His move to the outfield can be estimated to have occurred around the age of 33, when the New York Cubans moved him to center field in 1939. In large part because of his exceptional speed, Vargas won plaudits from many of his peers. Millito Navarro, a friend and rival during the 1930s and ’40s, said, “He was reliable and produced in the clutch. I saw him score from first on a single. Another time he made it home from second on a long fly ball to right field. He was one of my idols in baseball, a very complete ballplayer.” Charlie Dressen, who visited Puerto Rico in 1936 while serving as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, said, “He could fly. He’s just a very good ballplayer.” Mickey Owen managed Vargas at Caguas in 1953-54; even though Vargas was then in his late forties, Owen said, “He ran like a deer and could outrun Jim Rivera and Hank Aaron.”

In Puerto Rico, Vargas won the LBPPR batting title three times, led the league in runs scored on four occasions and in triples twice, and, in perhaps his most notable achievement, led the league in slugging percentage twice – eight years apart – the second coming at the age of 40. He finished with a career batting average of .321, which was sixth best in league history, despite playing for a total of 16 seasons, until he reached the age of 49.

After the 1947-48 season, when he was 41 years old, his performance in Puerto Rico tailed off considerably. A better view of Vargas’s true batting skills comes from the first nine seasons of his career in the LBPPR – through the age of 41 – when he hit for a combined average of .357, better than the .350 average achieved by the all-time LBPPR batting champion, legendary Negro League star Willard Brown, who was posthumously elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

During his career in the Negro Leagues, Vargas compiled a batting average of .332 and slugging percentage of .447, and was selected to play in two East-West All Star games. In limited opportunities against major league pitching, he batted .409, including a 7-for-14 performance in exhibition games against the New York Yankees that were played in San Juan in 1947.

Vargas played much less frequently in the Dominican Republic, as there was no professional league between the years of 1937 and 1951. His only consistent period of play occurred with the creation of the Dominican Summer League in 1951, when he was 45 years old. Vargas finished play in his native country with a batting average of .325 and slugging percentage of .401.

Unfortunately, detailed records are not available for much of the time that Vargas spent playing in Venezuela, during what should have been his peak years. The records that do exist are consistent with his performance elsewhere, including a lifetime batting average of .310.

Perhaps the greatest testament to his talent, and the regard in which he is held in his home country, took place in 1961. The two-year old baseball stadium in San Pedro de Macorís – home of the Estrellas Orientales, Vargas’s former team in the Liga del Béisbol Profesional Dominicana – was renamed Estadio Tetelo Vargas in his honor. Subsequently, the Estrellas retired his uniform number.

After he retired from baseball, Vargas worked for some time as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was credited with signing future All-Star Julián Javier. A widower after the death of his first wife, Vargas was married in Puerto Rico to Violeta Incháustegui in 1954. Despite being revered in the Dominican Republic as well as Venezuela, Vargas settled in Guayama after his retirement from baseball. Vargas had two more children, daughters Ana and Iris (Celia may have been the mother of one, but sources differ).

Juan Esteban Vargas died on December 30, 1971 at the age of 65, after a battle with lung cancer (though Dominican author Héctor Cruz cited prostate cancer). He is buried next to his wife in El Cementerio Municipal de Guayama. The Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Vargas in 1992 as part of its second class; the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame (in exile) followed suit in 1998. In 2010, he was honored in his native country with selection to El Salón de la Fama del Béisbol Latino in La Romana.

 

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Jorge Colón Delgado, SABR-Puerto Rico

Sources

Books

Peter C. Bjarkman, Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005)

Cuqui Córdova, Tetelo Vargas: El Gamo (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: Revista Histórica del Béisbol, 2004)

José A. Crescioni Benítez, El Béisbol Profesional Boricua (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Aurora Comunicación Integral, 1997)

John Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Winter Park, Florida: Hastings House, 2001)

Alan M. Klein, Sugarball: The American Game, the Dominican Dream (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993)

Mark Kurlansky, The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris (New York: The Penguin Group, Inc., 2010)

William F. McNeill, Black Baseball Out of Season: Pay for Play Outside of the Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2007)

Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Muñoz, Forgotten Heroes; Juan “Tetelo” Vargas (Carrollton, Texas: Center for Negro League Baseball Research, 2008)

James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994)

Rob Ruck, The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1998)

Thomas E. Van Hyning, Puerto Rico’s Winter League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2004)

Magazines and newspaper articles

Heriberto Morrison, “Tetelo Vargas: fue superastro sin jugar en las grandes ligas,” Rumbo (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic), May 2, 1994, 54.

Juan E. Vargas Jr. obituary, Connecticut Post, September 12, 2011.

Internet sources

Héctor J. Cruz, El Béisbol Dominicano (http://www.scribd.com/doc/25085233/EL-BEISBOL-DOMINICANO-2)

Brian McKenna, “Tetelo Vargas, The Dominican Deer,” Baseballhistoryblog.com, May 8, 2010

Ancestry.com

Baseballthinkfactory.org

Fultonhistory.com

 

Notes

i By some accounts, Vargas played in Colombia and Panama. These appear to refer to another Dominican player, Ramón “Tetelito” Vargas. There is also no visible historical support for accounts stating that Vargas played in Mexico. La Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano shows no evidence that he played there in the summer, and his winters are all accounted for elsewhere.

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