This article was written by Jose Ramirez
Lázaro Ramón Gonzalo Naranjo Couto – known in the U.S. as Cholly Naranjo – played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956. He got called up right before the All-Star Game, aged just 21, and remained with the team until the season ended. Though his major-league experience was limited, he considers it “a dream come true.”
Naranjo was born in La Habana (Havana), Cuba, on November 25, 1934. His father, Claudio, was a bank cashier for over 60 years with the Bank of Nova Scotia. His mother, Isabel Couto, was a housewife, as were many married women in those days. His family lived in the neighborhood of La Víbora, on Porvenir Avenue in a single home built by a family member. Cholly was an only child, but there were 12 members of his extended family living in the home, including uncles, aunts, grandmother and grandfather.1
Naranjo originally got his nickname from his grandmother. She called him “Cholito”, a diminutive form of the slang term choly, in reference to his head and its shape as a young child. It did not follow him during his early years – he went by his third given name, Gonzalo. In the minors, however, a reporter approached Naranjo, indicating that the U.S. press corps had a tough time pronouncing his name. So they asked him if he had a nickname; he responded with “Cholly” – and it stuck.
“I got interested in baseball simply because most of the kids in Havana play it,” Naranjo recalled in 1955. “And I had an uncle, Raymond Couto, who led the Southern League [Association] in batting back in 1933 when he played for Memphis.”2 Ramón Couto did play for Memphis in 1933 and 1934, batting .273 and .314 in those years. Those weren’t league-leading marks, but the catcher did win a batting title with Mayodan of the Bi-State League (Class D) in 1937.3 He hit .307 in 12 minor-league seasons spanning 1931 to 1945.
Naranjo attended HH Maristas de La Víbora, a private Catholic school run by the Marist Brothers order. He reached the fourth year there (high school in Cuba was five years long in those days). One of his proudest memories came in 1955, when he was one of the school’s representatives who traveled to Europe, including the Vatican, during the beatification of Marcellin Champagnat, the French-born clergyman who founded the Marist Order. While he was still a student, in 1951, Naranjo was selected to the team that represented Cuba during the Amateur World Series in Mexico. That was the only time he played baseball outside of Cuba and the United States.
Naranjo’s professional pitching baseball career began in 1952, when he was signed by the Washington Senators as an amateur free agent. Given the history of Cuban ballplayers signed by the Senators – specifically, scout Joe Cambria – it was not an unusual occurrence, although he never played for the big team.
Hitting is the only thing Naranjo does with his left hand. He remembered that when given a bat he simply caught it with his left hand and used it thereafter. As a pitcher, Naranjo was not especially fast – he relied heavily on his curveball. Early in his career, he developed an approach to pitching that began with a meeting in the clubhouse before each game to review the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. He considered his own repertoire (the curve being his best pitch) and how it could work with the batters, depending first on how his control was on a particular day. His view was that if he could control the curve, the rest would follow easily. Otherwise he had to rely on his memory of what could work, and how to keep the batter off his game. As he recalled, this was a particularly enjoyable and satisfying part of being a true pitcher.
At the age of 17 Naranjo played for two of Washington’s farm teams: the Chattanooga Lookouts (Southern Association, Class AA) and the Richmond Colts (Piedmont League, Class B). During that season, he appeared in 19 games (16 of them with Richmond) and ended with a record of 6 wins, 6 losses, and a 3.26 ERA.
Naranjo’s early experience playing in the United States was helped a great deal because of his schooling, which included English. His English skills were helpful in other ways – he assisted other Cuban players who did not speak the language. He still laughs at the memory of the time he saw Conrado Marrero, a teammate in the Senators organization, being given a handkerchief after asking for a “ham and cheese” sandwich. Marrero was obviously misunderstood since the pronunciation of the words is similar. In Naranjo’s opinion, Marrero – who was 23 years older – reinvented himself as a player. He learned to throw a knuckleball and spent considerable time getting and keeping in shape.
Naranjo made his debut in the Cuban Winter League during the 1952-1953 season, at the age of 18. He joined Alacranes del Almendares (Almendares Scorpions), which had once been his Uncle Ramón’s team – Couto hit .400 for the Alacranes in 1931-32, leading the league. Cholly considers the first game he ever played in that very competitive, talent-filled league as his best experience ever. He appeared in six games as a rookie in Cuba, pitching a total of nine innings and ending with a record of one win and no losses. He played for Almendares his entire time in that circuit, except for a short time during his and the league’s last season (1960-61).
During the spring of 1953, the Pirates, whose general manager was then Branch Rickey, played a number of games in Cuba. In one such game, Naranjo beat Pittsburgh by a score of 4 to 1. Rickey went on to say at that time to reporters in Cuba that if Cholly played in the U.S., he could earn $30,000. The press at that time, however, felt that Rickey was simply exaggerating and did not give Naranjo (as he reflects upon it) the credit he deserved.
In the summer of 1953, Naranjo played for both Chattanooga and the Havana Cubans, a team in the Florida International League (Class B). His total appearances increased to 33 games, 29 of them with Havana, including 17 starts. He won 8 games but lost 7, posting an ERA of 3.67. Playing for Almendares during the 1953-54 season, Naranjo did not win a game and lost 3 in 8 outings. Almendares became champions of the Cuban League, and so they played in the Caribbean Series. Cholly appeared in two games in relief.
Naranjo was actually with the Senators at the beginning of the 1954 season. “I was with the Senators all spring and won a couple of exhibition games, beating the Yankees in one of them, so they took me back to Washington.”4 He had a very special memory of Opening Day. As was the custom since the days of William Howard Taft, the President of the United States – then Dwight D. Eisenhower – threw out the first ball for the Senators. It went high over the photographers and landed among a pack of Senators and New York Yankees. The photographers asked Ike to try again. He spotted young Cholly near the dugout, threw a perfect strike to him, and then called out “Throw it back.” The Chief Executive gloved the return toss neatly.5
Naranjo was then assigned to sit in front of the Presidential box at Griffith Stadium and protect Eisenhower and his party from foul balls. “The President kept up a conversation with me,” Naranjo related, “and asked me my name, age, where I lived and all about my family. I addressed him as ‘sir’ and he impressed me as a man who was really interested in me, not merely asking questions to be nice. This is surely a wonderful country where the President chats with a ballplayer, and a sub, at that. I had him autograph a ball for me before he left the park that day.”6
The day after that, Washington sent Naranjo down to the minors. But before reporting to the Charlotte Hornets (South Atlantic League, Class A), he appeared on the national TV program I’ve Got a Secret. “They guessed who I was, though,” he said the following year.7
In 1954, Naranjo was with both Charlotte and, once again, Chattanooga. He appeared in 23 games overall, with a 1-1 record. “I had a sore arm and didn’t know what was causing it,” he said. “I didn’t pitch after June, but have since had my tonsils out and now my arm is okay again.”8 (For many years, there was a school of thought in baseball that arm problems could be helped by tonsillectomies.)
That winter in Cuba, Naranjo pitched more innings there than he ever had before: 49, striking out 14 and walking 22 while posting a 1-1 record and 4.09 ERA. Almendares won its second league championship in a row, so he got another chance to pitch in the Caribbean Series. He got one of Cuba’s two wins with a complete game against Panama.
Meanwhile, in November Pittsburgh had obtained Naranjo’s contract from Washington in the 1954 minor league draft. That came on the recommendation of his manager with Almendares, Bobby Bragan, who was then managing the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League.9 The Stars had an agreement with the Pirates.
The famous crooner and movie star Bing Crosby was a part-owner of the Stars. As a result, Naranjo and Crosby got to spend time together. Naranjo remembers that one time when he was playing in Cuba, Crosby was visiting. From a distance, he saw Cholly, got his attention, and greeted him as a long-lost friend. Naranjo’s fellow players were most impressed that such a big star knew him.
During the 1955 season, the 20-year-old Naranjo struggled, winning 7 games while losing 14 and recording a 4.40 ERA. He was sent down to the Lincoln Chiefs (Western League, Class A) in July. His workload increased, though: 177 1/3 innings in 34 games. With Almendares again in the winter of 1955-56, he struck out 41 batters in 49 innings and gave up only 19 walks while going 1-1 with a 3.14 ERA.
Naranjo returned to Hollywood in 1956, showing clearly improved performance. In 118 innings across 19 games, he struck out 90 and walked only 39. Among his 16 starts were three shutouts. His efforts were rewarded with a call-up to the “Big Show” that July.
It was after a doubleheader on a Sunday afternoon that Naranjo was called into manager Clay Hopper’s office, along with teammates Bill Mazeroski and Fred Waters. Cholly had been experiencing some pain in his shoulder, but the trainer took him aside and told him not to say anything because he might be called up. At the meeting, Hopper – requesting total secrecy – told them that after the game on the following Tuesday, they would be called up. However, the press would not be notified until then and so they were to say nothing.
That night, Naranjo called his father in Cuba – Claudio was understandably proud. His father was also told not to say anything, but he went on and told some of his friends, who were not quite sure whether to believe him. When the press release announced Cholly’s promotion, the friends went to his father and told him he must be a prophet to know something ahead of time that not even the American press knew. It turned out that the Tuesday game was rained out. The three newly promoted players flew to New York, and a taxi waited that drove them directly to the Polo Grounds. Mazeroski and Naranjo became roommates and friends. Cholly remembers Maz as a shy and decent fellow whose family he visited at different times.
Naranjo made his debut with Pittsburgh on July 8 at the Polo Grounds. In the second game of that day’s doubleheader, he pitched the last inning of an 11-1 loss to the Giants. He retired the first man to face him but allowed two runs on back-to-back solo homers by Daryl Spencer and Wes Westrum. Cholly got three chances to start in the majors, all that month, but made it past the third inning in only one of them. His finest day as a Pirate came against the Philadelphia Phillies at Forbes Field on September 2. Bobby Bragan, who had become the Bucs’ manager, gave Fred Waters the hook with one out and two men on in the bottom of the first inning. Naranjo got Stan Lopata to hit into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play, and he went all the rest of the way, allowing just one run on three hits. The Pirates scored five runs for him and he got his only win in the majors.
During his time with the Pirates, Naranjo appeared in 17 games, pitching in 34 1/3 innings. He lost two games and posted a 4.46 ERA. He struck out 26 and walked 17 (one being intentional). He had a total of eight plate appearances, with one hit, a double. He remembers correctly that it came against Sam “Toothpick” Jones. Naranjo came around to score his only run after that hit. He got his only RBI on a sacrifice fly in his win over the Phillies.
Naranjo’s final game in the majors came on September 12, 1956. When asked to think who may have been the most difficult hitter he ever faced, he acknowledged that in the majors, people are there for a reason – their talent. So it is hard for him to say who may have been more difficult than others. They were all solid baseball players.
Looking back, he is rightfully proud that he was able to play baseball in the Major Leagues, something most players are unable to attain. He regards it as his greatest achievement. He felt that he would return to The Show – returning to the Cuban League for the 1956-57 season, Cholly was received, as he puts it, as someone who had made it and was at a different level from other players who were still trying to prove themselves.
However, Naranjo hurt his arm that winter season. He was 3-7 in 26 games for Almendares, though his ERA was 2.78, his best ever in Cuba. He went to spring training with arm troubles and so was unable to retain a spot on the Pittsburgh roster. He pitched instead for the Columbus Jets, a Triple-A team in the International League. He viewed his salary package as less than fair and feels that it impaired his performance. During the 1957 season, Naranjo pitched in 180 innings but posted an 8-12 record and 3.95 ERA. Nonetheless, he never complained.
With Almendares in 1957-58, he pitched in 16 games with undistinguished marks of 2-4, 4.17. He returned to Columbus in 1958, going 5-6, 2.92 in 17 appearances.
His performance for Almendares improved in 1958-59: 1-0, 3.05 in 19 games. One of his notable teammates that year was Tom Lasorda, then a pitcher. As Naranjo recalled, Lasorda threw a curve ball unlike any other pitcher, rotating the ball with a downward motion rather than a right to left turn. Years later, while living in Cuba, he found a young boy who pitched using that same motion. He wondered what Lasorda would have thought.
January 1959 brought the triumph of the Castro Revolution. Following that enormous change in his homeland, Naranjo found himself back in Triple A with Columbus. Soon after, though, his contract was purchased by the Cincinnati Reds organization, which needed to bolster the staff of its Double-A affiliate, the Nashville Volunteers of the Southern Association. He ended up with a 13-10 record while pitching 166 innings.
In 20 games for Almendares in 1959-60, Naranjo went 3-5, 3.48. It was his last full season with the Alacranes. He returned to the Volunteers and had another respectable season, posting a 13-11 record in 48 games. Though he had just 10 starts, he pitched 180 innings, putting up a 4.35 ERA.
The 1960-61 Cuban League season was its last – the Castro Revolution ended professional sports on the island. It was Naranjo’s worst experience in the league – it was obvious that the political situation would change things as he knew them. Only native-born players participated that winter, and many of them who were affiliated with major league teams left soon after that season ended.
Naranjo played for both Almendares and the Habana Lions that year. In 20 appearances, he won four games – the most he had in any one Cuban season – and lost four, with a 4.66 ERA. During his nine seasons in his homeland, Cholly appeared in 152 games and had a 16-25 record and a 3.60 ERA. He pitched 430 innings, striking out 234 batters and walking 196.
While pitching for Habana, one of Naranjo’s teammates was Luis Tiant, later a star in the majors, notably with the Boston Red Sox. Tiant earned the Rookie of the Year Award in his only year in the Cuban League. He recalled Naranjo as someone who was rather quiet, but also remembered that in those days they were in different circles, pursuing their own personal interests after games. Tiant, who was almost exactly six years younger, had just finished his first summer season (in Mexico). Naranjo was the veteran, a former major-league player.
Looking back, Naranjo considers José Tartabull and Hilario Valdespino, both of whom also played in the majors, the most challenging hitters he ever faced in the Cuban League. “It seems like they read my mind and knew ahead of time what I was going to throw.”
Naranjo’s last playing season came in 1961, at the age of 26. He joined the Chicago Cubs organization and pitched for two farm teams: the Houston Buffs of the American Association (Triple-A) and the Jacksonville Jets of the South Atlantic League (Single A). He had a combined record of 3-5, 1.80 in 90 innings. But he concluded that the time had come to retire. His pitching arm, which had been a source of nagging problems, made it difficult to continue in a meaningful way – yet he had attained the dream of becoming a major league pitcher.
Following his baseball career, Naranjo spent some time going between the U.S. and Cuba. In 1961, he returned to Cuba after leaving for a short time. He stayed there for 30 years, working for a time in Havana’s Sports City as an athletics teacher. He came to the U.S. in 1991 (until 1993) and returned to the U.S. in 1995 to stay permanently. It has been reported that Naranjo spent time as a scout for both the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos, but he does not remember having done so. With a smile on his face, he says “If I did it, nobody told me.”
Among Naranjo’s many memories, he shared with great pride his visit to the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. as a guest of Jim Bunning (then a Congressman), whom he had befriended when they both played in the Cuban League.
At a personal level, Naranjo (now single) was married a number of times but did not have any children. In the U.S., he worked in the security field, retiring after a few years. He now spends time along with former Senators catcher Paulino Casanova, José Tartabull, and others, assisting and teaching baseball skills to young would-be players at “Paul’s Backyard” (as Casanova’s baseball academy in Miami is known). At nearly 80, Cholly remains an upright, strong man with a friendly personality. In the course of interviewing him, there were many breaks as young men came by where he sat to greet and pay their respects to their teacher and mentor.
Published on June 23, 2014
Special thanks to Rory Costello who performed additional research and edited the manuscript.
Cholly Naranjo: March 4, March 5, May 17, and June 3, 2014.
Luis Tiant: May 23, 2014.
Jorge S. Figueredo, Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1878-1961, Jefferson, North Carolina; McFarland & Company, Inc.: 2003.
Jorge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History 1878-1961, Jefferson, North Carolina and London; McFarland & Company, Inc.: 2003.
Roberto González Echevarría, The Pride of Havana, New York, NY; Oxford University Press: 1999.
Ángel Torres, La Leyenda del Béisbol Cubano, 1878-1997, Miami, Florida; Review Printers: 1996.
1 Jack Hernon, “The Kid with a Secret,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 15, 1955, 19.
2 Hernon, “The Kid with a Secret”
3 The Bee (Danville, Virginia), April 29, 1938, 12.
4 Hernon, “The Kid with a Secret”
5 Bob Considine, “President Plays Catch with Senators’ Rookie,” Independent News Service, April 14, 1954.
6 Les Biederman, “Brand New Rookies,” Pittsburgh Press, July 8, 1956, Section 3, 3.
7 Hernon, “The Kid with a Secret”
8 Hernon, “The Kid with a Secret”
9 Hernon, “The Kid with a Secret”