Enrique "Hank" Izquierdo (TRADING CARD DB)

Enrique “Hank” Izquierdo

This article was written by Joel Rippel

Enrique "Hank" Izquierdo (TRADING CARD DB)In 1965, at the age of 34 and in his 15th season in professional baseball, Enrique “Hank” Izquierdo was still two years away from his major-league debut.

“As a catcher and a thrower,” said Charlotte Hornets manager Al Evans, “there is no league Hank can’t play in. He’s as smart as you’ll find behind the plate, and you just don’t run on him.”1

Izquierdo offered a candid, and characteristically modest, explanation for what had kept him in the minor leagues for virtually his entire pro career.

“All of my life, I would have given one of my fingers to be in the major leagues,” Izquierdo said, “but I don’t hit well enough. You’re either born a hitter or you are not. I was not born to hit.”2

Two years later, Izquierdo was hitting .300 — the second-best batting average of his career — for the Triple-A Denver Bears. This earned him a promotion to the Minnesota Twins. Izquierdo spent the final two months of the 1967 season with the Twins — the only time he spent in the big leagues as a player during his nearly 40 years in professional baseball as a player, manager, and scout.

Izquierdo was born Enrique Roberto Izquierdo Valdés on March 20, 1931, in Matanzas, Cuba. Matanzas is located about 60 miles east of Havana on the northern shore of Cuba.. While information about Izquierdo’s parents and their occupations has yet to surface, it is known that he had two brothers, Roberto and Rubén, as well as a sister.

While growing up in Matanzas, Izquierdo (then aged 12) played for the team fielded by the José Tomás Rodríguez Public School of the Fundación Cubana de Buen Vecino. This league was composed of public school squads. Izquierdo played alongside future World Series hero Edmundo “Sandy” Amorós.

Izquierdo started out as a second baseman in the Pedro Betancourt (amateur youth) League. He was not the only future major-leaguer playing on the sandlots of Matanzas. Among the younger players Izquierdo saw as he matured as a player in Matanzas were Jackie Hernandez, Jose Cardenal, Bert Campaneris and Paul Casanova.3

In 1949, Izquierdo was the regular catcher for the Pueblo Nuevo team, which won the national championship at the Juvenil (Youth) level (for players up to 18 years of age). After the Juveniles, Izquierdo played for the Hershey team of the Union Atlética amateur league and with a team in La Liga de Sabuita, another amateur circuit.

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Izquierdo began his career in Organized Baseball as a 20-year-old in 1951 when he signed to play for Galveston, an independent minor-league team in the Class B Gulf Coast League. Izquierdo, who batted and threw right-handed, would spend his first three professional seasons with Galveston.

In his inaugural season, he batted .199 in 92 games. But he showed dramatic improvement at the plate in 1952, hitting .267 in 139 games. In his third season with Galveston, he batted .279 in 137 games.

In 1954, he joined Winston-Salem, an independent team in the Class B Carolina League. He had a solid season, hitting .268 in 139 games.

Following the 1954 season, he spent the winter playing with Cienfuegos of the Cuban League. It was the first of seven winters he spent playing in his homeland.

For the 1955 season, he was signed by the Cleveland Indian organization, which assigned him to Keokuk (Iowa) of the Class B Three-I League. Izquierdo and the Kernels flourished in 1955. Izquierdo, who had played in the outfield and several infield positions in addition to catching in his first four professional seasons, put his versatility on display for all to see, appearing at all nine positions for the Kernels. He also enjoyed a solid offensive season — hitting a career-high .302 in 119 games. Following the season, he was named to the league’s All-Star team as a utility player.

The Kernels, managed by former major-leaguer Merrill (Pinky) May — the father of future major-league catcher Milt May — put together the best season in the 50-year history of the Three-I League. The roster had future major-leaguers Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Bill Dailey, Russ Nixon, and Gordy Coleman. The team finished with a 92-34 record, 22 games ahead of runner-up Waterloo (70-56). Their 92 victories and .730 winning percentage were both league records. Minor-league baseball historians Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright named that team as one of the top 100 — No. 30 — in the history of minor-league baseball.4

Izquierdo split the 1956 summer with three teams. He began the season with Indianapolis of the Triple-A American Association, batting .250 in 19 games. In late May he was sent to Mobile Bears of the Double-A Southern Association. With the Bears, he batted .208 in 56 games before being traded to San Antonio. With the Missions, a Baltimore farm team, he batted .252 in 42 games.

Following the 1956 season, Izquierdo was released by Baltimore and picked up by the Cincinnati organization. Then on November 30, one month into the 1956-57 Cuban winter season, he suffered a fractured leg. The Reds assigned him to their Havana farm team in the International League and put him on the disabled list. He began the 1957 U.S. season on the disabled list and was activated in June. Over the rest of the season, in 115 games, he batted .153.

In 1958, in his second season with the Sugar Kings, Izquierdo batted .196 in 121 games. One highlight for him was catching a seven-inning no-hitter by Rodolfo Arias in the Sugar Kings’ 7-0 victory over Rochester in Havana on August 17.

That winter, Izquierdo played for Alacranes de Almendares, which won the Cuban league title with a 46-26 record. Almendares then represented Cuba in the Caribbean Series, which took place in Caracas, Venezuela. Playing two games each against teams from Panama, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, Almendares won five of six games to win the series. The winning share for each player for the series, played in the 30,000-seat University Stadium, was $1,300.

Izquierdo returned to the Sugar Kings for a third season in 1959. The Sugar Kings, who were 65-88 in 1958, showed improvement under manager Preston Gomez. They went 80-73 to finish in third place — nine games behind regular-season champion Buffalo (89-64) and 3½ games behind second-place Columbus (84-70) — to qualify for the IL playoffs.

The Sugar Kings swept Columbus, 4-0, in the first round. Then they defeated fourth-place Richmond, which had knocked out Buffalo, in six games to advance to the Junior World Series. Izquierdo’s RBI single led the Sugar Kings to a 1-0 victory over Richmond in the decisive game of the six-game series.

In the Junior World Series, the Sugar Kings faced the American Association champion and defending Junior World Series champion Minneapolis Millers. The first two games were played at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, with each team winning a game. After the third game was postponed because of cold weather and a poor forecast, the remainder of the series was moved to Havana.

The Sugar Kings won the first two games in their home park — each in extra innings and with Fidel Castro in attendance — to take a 3-1 lead. But the Millers, managed by Gene Mauch, won the next two games to tie the series. After a rainout, the Sugar Kings won Game Seven, 3-2. Izquierdo, who hit .218 in the regular season, went 4-for-18 with an RBI in six games.

Izquierdo’s fourth season with the Sugar Kings would be memorable as well. In early July, while the Sugar Kings were on a road trip, the International League announced that the franchise would relocate to Jersey City. International League President Frank Shaughnessy announced the move because of the political situation in Cuba and out of concern for the welfare and safety of baseball personnel there. The team played its first game in Jersey City on July 15. Izquierdo batted .186 in 57 games in 1960.

The winter of 1960-61 was the last for professional baseball in Cuba; after that the Castro regime abolished the league. Almendares finished one game behind Cienfuegos in the 1960-61 standings. According to author José Ignacio Ramirez, Izquierdo made the final out in the February 1961 game that gave Cienfuegos the championship. Cienfuegos finished with a 35-31 record; Almendares was 34-32. Indeed, Izquierdo’s out was the last out in professional Cuban Baseball League’s history.

During his seven seasons in the Cuban winter league, Izquierdo was primarily used as a backup catcher. His most at-bats in any of those seasons were 126 in 1960-61, when — for the first time — no Americans played in the league. His best winter offensively came in 1956-57, when he batted .317 in 41 at-bats. In his seven winter seasons, he compiled a .186 average with 27 RBIs.

As did many other countrymen, including fellow ballplayers, Izquierdo faced a life-changing choice about whether to emigrate. He chose to do so, entering the U.S. via Mexico (a common route). He joined the large community of Cuban expatriates in the Miami area.

Izquierdo spent the summer of 1961 — his sixth consecutive season at Triple-A — as a player-coach for Jersey City, hitting .256 in 32 games. Following the season, he paused his playing career and accepted a position as a batting practice/bullpen catcher for the Cleveland Indians for the 1962 season. During the final weekend of the season, the Indians informed manager Mel McGaha, along with Ray Katt, Salty Parker, and Izquierdo that they would not be asked back for the 1963 season.

Izquierdo returned to the field as an active player in 1963. He was looking to play in Mexico, when Minnesota Twins scout Carlos Pascual (brother of Twins pitcher Camilo Pascual), called in April. The Twins organization needed a catcher for its Orlando farm team in the Class A Florida State League. Izquierdo chose Orlando over Mexico.

“I still think I can play Double-A or Triple-A ball,” said Izquierdo, who had just turned 32 years old. “Here I’m in an organization again and there are plenty scouts — more than in Mexico. If I do well, I’ll have a better chance to move up. I feel I can do some good, maybe help the young players a little bit.”5

Izquierdo had a good season for Orlando. After hitting a combined .190 the previous five seasons in Triple-A, he batted .297 in 115 games. Izquierdo was named to the Florida State League’s 1963 “Dream” team.6

The Twins promoted Izquierdo to Charlotte of the Double-A Southern League for the 1964 season. In 92 games with Charlotte, he batted .250. He returned to Charlotte in 1965 and hit .271 in 102 games. He led Southern League catchers with a .991 fielding percentage in 1964 and .993 percentage in 1965.

Izquierdo started the 1966 season at Charlotte. He was only batting .196 when the Twins promoted him to Triple-A Denver. With the Bears, he hit .244 in 56 games.

The big club invited Izquierdo to spring training camp in 1967. He appeared in one exhibition game before being sent to the Twins’ minor-league camp in late March. He opened the 1967 season with Denver, sharing catching duties with 18-year-old Franklyn Sands. But he quickly became the Bears’ regular catcher. He got off to a good start offensively, batting .409 in the Bears’ first 18 games. In his first 51 games, he was still hitting .336 — good for third in the PCL. He said it was his “best start since Keokuk.”7

Izquierdo was hitting .300 when he was called up by the Twins in early August, after catcher Earl Battey went on the disabled list with a dislocated right thumb. The 36-year-old arrived in Minnesota on August 9 and made his major-league debut in the Twins’ game that night against the Washington Senators.

Izquierdo entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 16th inning. Batting for pitcher Al Worthington, he bunted into a force out. He remained in the game as catcher and popped out in the 18th inning. The Senators scored twice in the top of the 20th to win the five-hour, 40-minute marathon, 9-7.

“I’m the oldest rookie in baseball,” said Izquierdo.“I always thought if I kept playing, I might make it to the majors someday. You never know.”8

The next day he made his first start, catching Jim Perry’s five-hit shutout in the Twins’ 5-0 victory over the Senators. In the fifth inning, in his second at-bat of the game, he singled to right off Senators starter Barry Moore for his first major-league hit after more than 1,600 professional games.

“Hank caught a good game for me,” said Perry, who walked two and struck out eight. “He worked with me as bullpen catcher in Cleveland in 1962. Funny, before the game, Izquierdo told me I’d pitch a shutout. Then, each inning, we’d go out, he’d remind me, ‘C’mon, we’ve got to get that shutout now.”9

Four days later, Izquierdo and Jackie Hernández, who had also grown up in Matanzas province, helped the Twins defeat the Angels, 2-1, in Anaheim. With one out in the eighth inning and George Brunet shutting out the Twins, 1-0, Izquierdo reached second on a two-base error by Jim Fregosi and scored the tying run on a single by Hernandez, who then scored the go-ahead run on a double by Ted Uhlaender.

Izquierdo made 16 appearances — nine starts — for the Twins. He batted .269 (7-for-26) with two doubles and two RBIs, and he threw out three of six baserunners.

Following the season, the Twins optioned Izquierdo to their Charlotte farm team. Then, in late November, he was taken by the Houston Astros in the minor-league draft. The Astros assigned him to Oklahoma City, for whom he batted .255 in 96 games in 1968.

Following the 1968 season, Izquierdo returned to his home in Miami and worked as a taxi driver. Several days before Christmas, he picked up two men at Miami International Airport and was asked to take them to an address in Northwest Miami, where they tried to rob him at gunpoint.

Izquierdo ducked down in the driver’s seat and one of the men fired two shots. One bullet struck Izquierdo in the abdomen. He underwent surgery and spent a week in the hospital recovering.

“They didn’t get the money,” Izquierdo told a newspaper reporter. “They got me, but no money.”10

Izquierdo, who played winter ball in Venezuela for four seasons following the 1964-67 seasons in the U.S., recovered from his injuries in time to return to Oklahoma City as a player-coach for the 1969 season. (He also became a U.S. citizen in 1969. Carlos Pascual was one of the witnesses.) However, his season came to an abrupt end on July 16 as the 89ers were playing host to Tulsa. In the eighth inning of Tulsa’s 12-5 victory, Izquierdo and opposing catcher Ted Simmons exchanged words after Izquierdo scored on a single.

According to an account of the game, “Simmons and Izquierdo were involved in a melee which saw both benches erupt, mainly to separate the two combatants. Words were passed between Simmons and Izquierdo with the latter hitting the Oiler catcher with the bat.”11

Izquierdo explained, “The Tulsa catcher (Simmons) shoved the bat in front of the plate, maybe trying to trip me. I asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ And he used a dirty word on me. So, I said the same word back and he said, ‘You wanna fight?’ We had trouble before, arguments and pushing sometimes. So, I said yeah. I fight. And he jerked off his catcher’s mask.”12

In the ensuing confrontation, Izquierdo picked up a bat and swung it at Simmons. Simmons suffered a bruised thumb trying to take the bat away.

The next day, Izquierdo was fined $750 by the American Association and suspended for the rest of the season. “It’s the hardest chore I’ve had since I became the president of the league,” said American Association president Allie Reynolds. “It’s a harsh ruling, I know, but we can’t allow such an incident to become a precedent.”13

Izquierdo’s playing career in American professional baseball was over. Beginning in 1970, however, he spent six seasons — five as a player/manager — in Mexico and managing winter ball.

His final season as a player/manager was in 1974 at the age of 43. In 23 professional seasons — five as a player in Mexico — he appeared in more than 2,000 games. His career batting average was .253.

At some point after his playing career ended, Izquierdo operated a youth baseball academy in the Miami area for five or six years. In 1978, he became a scout for the Twins. Among the players he scouted and recommended to the Twins were pitchers Jack O’Connor and Les Straker. After 10 seasons as a Twins scout, he joined the Chicago Cubs as a scout in 1988.

Following his retirement, Izquierdo lived in West Palm Beach, Florida, with his wife Rosa (who had been a teacher in Cuba). They had three children — sons Enrique Jr. and Roberto, and a daughter, Irene.

Enrique Izquierdo was inducted into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. He died on August 1, 2015, at the age of 84.

 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to SABR member José Ramirez for his input. In addition to providing his own knowledge, José conducted interviews on May 9, 2021, with Juan Ramón Marcote (a personal friend of Izquierdo who also grew up in the city of Matanzas) and Pedro José Betancourt (a friend of the family in Miami).

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Joe DeSantis and factchecked by Evan Katz.

 

Sources

Books

Figueredo, Jorge S., Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History 1878-1961 (McFarland & Co. Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, N.C., 2011).

Ramirez, Jose Ignacio, Cuba and the ‘Last’ Baseball Season (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018).

Internet

The author also consulted Baseball-Almanac.com, Baseball-Reference.com, milb.com, Newspapers.com, and Retrosheet.org.

 

Notes

1 Ronald Green, “I Wasn’t Born to Hit,” Charlotte (North Carolina) News, June 8, 1965: 16.

2 Green, “I wasn’t born to hit.”

3 Max Nichols, “Cubans Izquierdo, Hernandez Add New Zip to Twins’ Bench,” The Sporting News, September 9, 1967.

4 Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright, “Top 100 Teams,” www.milb.com.

5 “Back To Where It Started,” Orlando Sentinel, May 12, 1963: 4.

6 Lonnie Burt, “Times Picks FSL’s 1963 ‘Dream’ Team,” St. Petersburg Times, June 30, 1963: 35.

7 Frank Haraway, “Izquierdo Stops Fretting, Erases Plate-Patsy Tag,” The Sporting News, June 24, 1967: 33.

8 “Two Denver Rookies Starting for Twins,” Minneapolis Star, August 10, 1967: 39.

9 Tom Briere, “Perry, Allison Pace Twins,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 11, 1967: 23.

10 Fred Seely, “Costly Bat Swing, $750 and Suspension,” Miami Herald, July 30, 1969: 70.

11 Henry Hawkins, “6-run 2nd Fires Tulsa Past 89ers,” The Daily Oklahoman, July 17, 1969: 27.

12 Fred Seely, “Costly Bat Swing, $750 and Suspension,” Miami Herald, July 30, 1969: 70.

13 “Izquierdo Banned for Rest of Year,” The Daily Oklahoman, July 19, 1969: 41.

Full Name

Enrique Roberto Izquierdo Valdes

Born

March 20, 1931 at Matanzas, Matanzas (Cuba)

Died

August 1, 2015 at West Palm Beach, FL (USA)

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Tags

Scouts · Cuba ·

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