“Baseball is in the heart of all Latin people. They feel in baseball. They think in baseball.” — Pancho Coimbre
Baseball in Puerto Rico has a long and storied history; many fans of the game on the island are willing to regale one another at the drop of a hat about the careers and exploits of such well-known stars as Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga and Juan González. But less is spoken about the early years of professional baseball on the island, and the many greats of the game who paved the way for their successors.
One of the most important figures in the early history of professional baseball in Puerto Rico was Francisco Luis “Pancho” Coimbre, who was born on January 29, 1909, to Guillermo Coimbre and Zoila Atiles in Coamo, a city in the south-central region of Puerto Rico. Coamo is approximately 42 kilometers east of Ponce, where Coimbre eventually settled and became a local legend for his exploits as a member of the Leones de Ponce, a founding team of the Liga de Béisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico (LBPPR).
The LBPPR was founded as a semi-professional league in the winter of 1938-1939, and became an official professional league in 1941. Coimbre played 13 seasons in the LBPPR, and his team won five championships during that period. He also had a relatively brief but distinguished career in the American Negro Leagues, excelling for the New York Cubans in the 1940s, and for various clubs in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.
Like many young boys growing up in Puerto Rico in the early 1900s, Coimbre played local sandlot ball, with his first exposure to organized baseball coming when he joined his high school team in Ponce. There he was tutored in the ways of the game by a seminal figure in the development of Latin American baseball, Pedro Miguel Caratini, a player and manager on the island who went on to fame as “the father of Dominican baseball” as manager of the Tigres del Licey.
Coimbre excelled in both baseball and track in high school, but his ability to compete in school athletics was interrupted by a bureaucratic entanglement when he transferred from his school in Ponce to one in Caguas. When he attempted to participate in an athletic competition there, the Puerto Rico Instruction Department withheld its permission, asserting that Coimbre was registered in a different region of the island. Apparently the Coimbre family took legal action, as a court case commenced, the first ever involving public school athletics in the island’s history.
Perhaps deterred by these difficulties and his resulting ineligibility, Coimbre returned with his family to Ponce, but his attempt to participate in athletics was derailed once again when the Instruction Department accused Coimbre of having accepted remuneration while a student-athlete. Once again the matter ended up in court, with Judge Roberto Tood Jr. deciding in Coimbre’s favor as a result of limited evidence.
While playing ball in high school, Coimbre came to the attention of Felipe “Pipo” Maldonado, the owner of the Leones de Ponce, a team in the amateur Liga Insular. While he excelled as a second baseman and pitcher in high school, Coimbre became the Leones’ right fielder when he wasn’t pitching; in his first game with the team, he got four hits. He played for the Leones through the 1928 season, when they won the island championship against the club from Guayama.
Coimbre’s first baseball experience outside of his native country occurred in 1927, when he played ball in the Dominican Republic for the amateur Sandino team in Santiago de los Caballeros. Coimbre came to the attention of Emilio “Millito” Navarro, a ballplayer and Ponce native, who recommended him to the Magallanes squad in the Asociación del Béisbol Venezolano. Coimbre played in Venezuela for Magallanes in 1929.
In 1930-31, Coimbre played for the Tigres del Licey in Santo Domingo, as well as for the Leones, but in 1932, at the age of 23, he went to work as a security guard in a penal institution, where he played on a local semi-pro team. His need for reliable employment apparently gave way to his desire to play baseball, as he accepted an offer to play once again in Venezuela, this time for the Santa Marta club located in La Guaira. He returned to the Dominican Republic and played for Licey in 1933 and 1934 before returning to Venezuela in 1935 to play for the Pastora team in Maracaibo.
Coimbre’s previous experience playing for Licey led to his participation on one of the most storied, if infamous, teams in the history of baseball. At the time, President and dictator-in-training Rafael Trujillo still had to concern himself with annoying matters such as ostensibly democratic elections. The Generalissimo had a relative lack of interest in baseball, but those around him decided to enhance his status by combining the two perennial rival powerhouse clubs, the Leones del Escogido and the Tigres del Licey, into one team, Ciudad Trujillo (as he had humbly allowed the Dominican Congress to rename the capital city of Santo Domingo). In the manner of that era, the club convinced many American Negro League stars, as well as the top players from Cuba and Puerto Rico, to join his club by offering exorbitant salaries that dwarfed what those players could earn at home. Coimbre joined a roster that included Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Sam Bankhead, Perucho Cepeda, Tetelo Vargas (one of the few homegrown stars who was not displaced), and Lázaro Salazar.
Playing in a very tense atmosphere, with Trujillo’s soldiers a ubiquitous presence, the Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo did manage to win the championship by defeating the Águilas Cibaeñas, a team owned by Trujillo’s political rivals that featured Martín Dihigo, Chet Brewer and Luis Tiant, Sr., in a seven game series. Taking no chances that his players would avail themselves of the Santo Domingo nightlife prior to the decisive game, Trujillo locked them in prison overnight.
The LBPPR was formed the following year and quickly established itself as a prominent winter ball venue featuring the talents of many exceptional Major League, Negro League and Latin American players. Coimbre played the inaugural winter league season for his native Ponce before traveling to New York City, where he was recruited to play for the Puerto Rican Stars, a barnstorming team that played throughout the Northeast. There he was noticed by Alejandro Pómpez, the legendary owner of the New York Cubans, who signed Coimbre to join the Cubans for the 1940 season.
Coimbre had immediate success with the Cubans, and Pompez brought him back for the 1941 season. Coimbre established himself as one of the finest players in the Negro National League, representing the East as the starting right fielder in the annual Negro League All-Star game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, and finishing the season with a batting average of .353. The Cubans won the second half of the season but fell to the Homestead Grays in the championship series.
Coimbre returned to Ponce to play for the Leones in the 1941-42 season, leading his team to a record of 30-13 and the league championship. The Leones featured several veterans of the Negro Leagues, including Howard Easterling, Barney Morris, Max Manning and the team’s manager, George Scales. They repeated as champions in 1942-43, and Coimbre won the batting title with a .342 mark. He was named co-MVP of the league along with Luis Olmo.
Coimbre did not play in North America in 1942 – the year when light-skinned, European-looking Hiram Bithorn became the first Puerto Rican in the majors – but returned to the Cubans for the 1943 season. He hit for an average of .428 and was once again selected as the starting right fielder for the East in the annual All-Star game.
The 1943-44 Ponce Leones were one of the finest teams in the history of Latin-American baseball, compiling a record of 37-7 and winning the LBPPR championship by 15 games. Once again managed by George Scales, the roster included Sam Bankhead, Millito Navarro, and pitcher Tomás Quiñones. Coimbre batted .376 for the year, and went on to hit .318 for the Cubans in 1944, with a .421 slugging percentage.
Afterwards, he returned to Ponce and led the LBPPR in hitting with a .425 average (45 for 106), the seventh-best mark in league history for batters who had at least 100 at-bats. The Leones won their fourth straight league title. In those days, the league had four teams and divided its season into two halves. Ponce was very consistent, winning both halves in three of four years. Thus, there was only one playoff series during this run, in 1942-43 against Santurce.
The summer of 1945 brought several changes for Coimbre. Instead of playing in North America, he began the year playing in Barranquilla, Colombia for the El Torices club, but an injury reduced him to a coaching role. He went on to play for Puebla of the Liga Mexicana del Béisbol; on a basic batting line of 5 homers, 85 RBIs, and a .346 average in 89 games, he finished fourth in total bases, seventh in hits, and eighth in batting average. It was his only season in Mexico.
Coimbre returned to the New York Cubans in 1946, and recorded a batting average of .357 and a slugging percentage of .510, in what turned out to be his final season in the Negro Leagues.
The Ponce Leones won their fifth and final championship with Coimbre on their roster in the winter of 1946-47. However, an injury to his knee as a result of an errant pitch resulted in hospitalization and subsequent physical therapy for Coimbre, and limited his play in 1947. The following year, he went to New York City to visit family and friends, with intentions to sign on with either the Baltimore Elite Giants or the New York Black Yankees. Instead, he was contacted by the Sherbrooke Athlétiques of the independent Canadian Provincial League, and subsequently joined Cuban players Claro Duany, Adrián Zabala and fellow former New York Cuban Rodolfo Fernández on the Sherbrooke roster. The Athlétiques won the league championship that season, finishing with a record of 61-37; Coimbre, still hobbled by injury, managed to appear in both infield and outfield positions. He even won two games as a pitcher.
Coimbre continued to play for Ponce in the LBPPR through the 1950-1951 season, when he finished with just 19 at-bats. He often acted as a designated hitter due to his injuries. He retired as a player after being hit by a pitch during a game against the Santurce Cangrejeros. Coimbre was prepared for the next phase of his career; he had already managed the Puerto Rican national team in 1947 and 1948, when they participated in the Amateur World Series in Colombia and Nicaragua. He formed his own barnstorming team in 1949, which included Dick Seay and Rubén Gómez, and toured Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
After his retirement as an active player, Coimbre managed the Criollos de Caguas/Guayama in the LBPPR, and worked in an administrative role for the Indios de Mayagüez during their tours of Cuba. During this period, he coached amateur baseball in Puerto Rico, leading the Juana Díaz team to the island championship. He also taught baseball in Ecuador, and managed the juvenile team of Bolivia in 1966.
Coimbre was employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a scout for a period of 25 years, and recommended that the Pirates claim Roberto Clemente from the Dodger organization. Clemente was very aware of Coimbre as well, and aspired to achieve greatness as a means of respecting the great Puerto Rican player who helped blaze the trail for him.
There was a last spooky connection between Coimbre and Clemente, as author Steve Wulf wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1992. Wulf quoted Puerto Rican baseball man Luis Mayoral: “There was a pregame ceremony on the day after his 3,000th hit, on October 1, 1972. We gave him two awards, the Governor’s Cup and a clod of earth from the field in Puerto Rico where he used to play. A picture went out over the wires, and when you looked at it, Roberto had such a sadness to his face. He looked almost gray in the black-and-white picture. I remember showing the picture to Pancho Coimbre. . . Pancho took one look at the picture and said, ‘Este hombre está muerto.’ This man is dead. Three months later Pancho’s premonition came true.”
How great a player was Coimbre? Certainly his best-known – and unparalleled – accomplishment was his record of not striking out over a period of three seasons, covering 550 at-bats, in the LPBBR, from the 1939-40 season through the 1941-42 season. In three other seasons, 1943-44, 1944-45 and 1948-49, Coimbre struck out only once each year. Over the course of his career in the LPBBR, he struck out only 20 times in 1,915 at bats, while drawing 187 walks. (The data are patchy, however; Coimbre’s strikeout totals – though probably minimal – are not available for the 1938-39 season. Walk totals are probably a good deal higher, because data are missing for five seasons.)
Coimbre’s career batting average at home was .337, second only to Hall of Famer Willard Brown and ahead of Perucho Cepeda, Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda. He recorded a slugging percentage of .463, with 24 home runs.
John Holway credits Coimbre with a Negro League career batting average of .377 in 616 at-bats, which places him fifth on the all-time list (again, availability of data is a caveat). He hit for a .453 average in 1943, his finest year. It is likely that Coimbre benefited somewhat from playing against weaker competition in the NNL during the war years. But when considering Coimbre’s performance, it is important to realize that he was already 29 years-old when the LPBBR came into existence, and that he played in the Negro National League from age 31 through age 34. Clearly, many of Coimbre’s peak years were spent playing for various amateur and semi-professional teams in the Caribbean and South America, and it is quite reasonable to presume that his totals would have been far greater had his professional career begun earlier, and had he played those seasons in the LPBBR and the NNL instead.
Coimbre’s batting averages indicate the type of hitter he was; he did not possess above-average power, but he was a supremely talented contact hitter. He has been compared to Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew in that regard; perhaps only Joe Sewell is comparable with regard to striking out so rarely. Millito Navarro said, “He was the type of player that when you needed a hit, he didn’t let you down.” Coimbre had an excellent stolen base record in his career (though unfortunately the Puerto Rican data are incomplete here too). Given his history as a track star in his youth, it is certain that he had good speed, which certainly contributed to his high batting average and his excellent defensive reputation.
It is clear that Coimbre was widely respected by his peers and those who saw him play. In 2008, his close friend Millito Navarro – then 102 years old – called him “my favorite player” and “an extraordinary player.” Satchel Paige stated “Coimbre could not be pitched to. No one gave me more trouble than anyone I ever faced, including Josh Gibson and Ted Williams.” Roberto Clemente said “It’s a shame [Coimbre] couldn’t play in the major leagues due to the color barrier. I’ve always insisted he would have been one of the best ever.”
Pancho Coimbre was married to Antonia Napoleonis. They had at least three children, as the 1940 census shows: two sons named Rafael and Francisco Luis Jr., plus a daughter named María. Francisco Jr., who was also an outfielder, played three seasons (1958; 1960-61) in the lower levels of the Pirates chain. He had a promising first year in the U.S., batting .316, but sat out the summer of 1959 with a leg injury. The younger Coimbre followed the family tradition by playing for the Ponce Leones, starting in the 1957-58 season. His father was then manager – though he resigned after the Leones were shut out in both ends of a doubleheader in December 1957 – and later a member of the coaching staff.
Francisco Coimbre Sr. passed away tragically on November 4, 1989, at the age of 80, when he was trapped in his home in Ponce after a fire broke out in his kitchen. Many homes in Puerto Rico have bars across the windows, and this, combined with a padlocked front door, prevented his escape. (He was living alone, according to coverage in Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, suggesting that he was a widower.) Coimbre was buried in Ponce, and a national day of mourning was held in Puerto Rico to mark his passing. Subsequently, a small museum honoring his memory, as well as those of other local sports figures, was opened in Ponce.
Coimbre was one of 94 initial candidates under consideration by the 2006 Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, but failed to make the final ballot of 39 players, 17 of whom were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
He was elected to the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame in its inaugural year of 1991, as well as the Latin American Baseball Hall of Fame on its first ballot in 2010.
John Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Winter Park, Florida: Hastings House, 2001)
William F. McNeill, Black Baseball Out of Season: Pay for Play Outside of the Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2012)
Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Muñóz, Forgotten Heroes: Francisco “Pancho” Coimbre (Carrollton, Texas: Center for Negro League Baseball Research, 2009)
James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York, New York: Carroll & Graf, 2012)
Cruz Roque-Vicens, Francisco Coimbre: Una Estrella del Béisbol de Todos los Tiempos (Puerto Rico)
Thomas E. Van Hyning, Puerto Rico’s Winter League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2004)
José A. Crescioni Benítez. El Béisbol Profesional Boricua (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Aurora Comunicación Integral, Inc., 1997)
Pedro Treto Cisneros, editor, Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano (Mexico City: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V.: 11th edition, 2011)
Steve Wulf, “Arriba Roberto,” Sports Illustrated, December 28, 1992.
Danny Torres, “Navarro an ageless ambassador,” MLB.com, June 5, 2008.
Paperofrecord.com (small items from The Sporting News)