Curly Onis’s major-league career batting line read: “1 game. 1 at-bat. 1 hit.” A perfect batting average. A total of 22 major-league players have stroked a hit in their sole plate appearance, and Onis, a catcher, is one of that elite group. Further, according to Baseball-Reference.com, 127 catchers had a single hit in their careers in the majors.1 Seven of them (including Onis) had just a single plate appearance in the big leagues, giving each of them a 1.000 career batting average.
Onis’s story, though, has a few unique twists to go with his perfect batting line. He was born Manuel Dominguez Onis in Tampa, Florida, on October 24, 1908. His parents, Manuel and Manuela, were both born in Asturias, Spain, and came to the United States in 1900 and 1905, respectively. Manuel Sr. worked as a tobacco wetter in a cigar factory in Tampa. The younger Manuel once explained that process, saying, “The tobacco came in dry, and he wetted it and fixed it so you could handle it.”2
Tragedy struck the family while both children were of school age; their father died. By 1920 Manuela was a widow, raising her son, Manuel, and daughter, Josephine.3 After the death of her husband, Manuela went to work in the same cigar factory to earn money to support her family.
Onis always wanted to be a baseball player. At 5-feet-9 and weighing 180 pounds, he became a catcher. He attended George Washington High School in Tampa, but the school didn’t have a baseball team, so the young catcher played sandlot ball in pickup games. That’s when he earned the nickname Curly.4 According to Onis, “I had a thick, black, curly head of hair, and you know how it is. We all had nicknames. One kid started calling me that and then another one and soon everybody was calling me Curly.”5
When not playing baseball, Onis had various jobs to help the family. He dropped out of high school to work for the Tampa Electric Company. The catcher was told that if he played for one of the four teams in the company’s league, he could get a job driving a streetcar. “Since jobs were scarce, I took it and played ball for them. We won 24 out of 25 games.”6
Onis was born the same year as future Hall of Famer Al Lopez, another Tampa native whose father worked in the cigar factory. Curly and Al became fast friends and played in many of those pickup games (both were catchers). Onis credited Lopez with getting him into professional baseball. By 1928 Lopez was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1931 Lopez told Wilbur Good, an 11-year veteran of the major leagues and the manager of the Johnstown Johnnies of the Middle Atlantic League, about Onis, and persuaded Good to sign his friend to a contract. As a 22-year-old, Onis played in 42 games for the Johnnies. He caught in 30 of those games and was used as a pinch-hitter in the others. In his first season in professional baseball, Onis batted .212 with three home runs.
Onis was released at the end of the season. He played for the Cuban Stars in 1933, and then in 1934 with Jacksonville in the Florida-Georgia League. (No stats are recorded for the league.) While with Jacksonville, Lopez called his boyhood friend again, asking him to come to Brooklyn. Onis didn’t have any money, so Lopez sent him a train ticket. Onis spent two months in Brooklyn, warming up pitchers. At the end of the season, he rode back to Tampa with Lopez.
Once back in Florida, Onis received a letter from the Dodgers, offering him a contract for the next season. According to Onis, “I think it was for $400 a month.”7 The 1935 Tampa City Directory listed his occupation as “ballplayer,”8 living with his mother. The 26-year-old catcher was both excited and nervous as he reported to Brooklyn’s spring-training camp. The Dodgers gave him a true opportunity, and he played in many of their spring-training games.
Onis’s major-league debut took place on April 27, 1935. The Boston Braves visited Ebbets Field to play the Dodgers in a Saturday afternoon contest. Brooklyn had a five-game winning streak heading into the game. A crowd of 28,000 went through the turnstiles, with many of them hoping to get a glance at the Braves’ left fielder, Babe Ruth.9 In his final season, Ruth had started the 1935 campaign hot, going 6-for-15 (.400) in his first five games. This included a home run in four games against the Brooklyn Dodgers, played at Braves Field. Six days later (April 27), Ruth and the Braves were in Brooklyn, once again playing the Dodgers.
The game was a pitchers’ duel for five innings, matching Boston’s Ed Brandt against Brooklyn’s Ray Benge. Brandt was making his third start of the season, while Benge was making start number two. The crowd saw just three singles through the first five innings.
In the sixth inning, the Braves’ Billy Urbanski and Buck Jordan hit back-to-back singles to start the inning. Ruth walked to load the bases. Wally Berger blasted a double to left, driving in two runs and sending Ruth to third, and “the dust he raised hook-sliding to the bag did not settle for half an inning.”10 Randy Moore bounced a ball to second baseman Tony Cuccinello, who fired home to catch Ruth at the plate. (Different accounts had Ruth out by as much as 10 feet when Dodgers catcher Babe Phelps received Cuccinello’s throw.) Les Mallon then doubled, plating two more runners, and the Braves had a 4-0 lead. Brooklyn answered with two runs in its half of the sixth, on a walk to Len Koenecke, a double by Sam Leslie, and a two-run single by Cuccinello, who was thrown out at second trying to advance. That was all the scoring in the game.
Bobby Reis pinch-hit for Phelps to start the Dodgers’ seventh inning. Phelps had caught a pop fly off the bat of Berger to end Boston’s half of the seventh. There was no mention of an injury in the newspapers, and Phelps had gone 1-for-2 off Brandt. Perhaps Dodgers manager Casey Stengel was looking for an offensive spark. Reis grounded out, short to first. This forced Stengel to insert Onis as his new catcher with Boston coming to bat. Years later, Onis recalled, “I was sitting on the bench with two guys between me and Stengel. I remember Casey leaned forward and turned to me and said, ‘Hey, kid. Wanna play?’ I said, ‘That’s what I’m here for.’ So he says, ‘Okay, get yourself ready and go on in there.’”11
A strange event took place with Onis behind the plate in the top of the eighth. He “lost” a ball down his shirt front with Shanty Hogan batting. Hogan swung and foul-tipped an offering from Bob Logan. Onis appeared to have caught the ball, but then it disappeared. The New York Daily News told its readers that home-plate umpire Bill Stewart “produced a new baseball and the game was about to continue when Hogan made strange motions in the direction of Onis’s bosom. Onis blushed, fumbled and produced the missing baseball from beneath his chest protector.”12
In the ninth, Jordan bunted a ball into the frozen ground in front of home plate. Onis ran out to pick it up and slipped while throwing to first base. The ball sailed into right field and Jordan scampered to second on the error. Logan then struck out Hal Lee, giving Onis the sole putout of his career. In the home half, with one out, Joe Stripp hit a grounder to short and, according to the Daily News, “Stripp beat out Urbanski’s throw to Jordan but Umpire Ziggy Sears saw it differently. At least 25,000 boos and a cannon cracker tossed at his heels from the upper tier couldn’t change his mind.”13 Stripp argued vehemently, causing the first-base umpire to eject him from the game.
With the Dodgers down to their last out, Onis took his turn in the batter’s box, making his big-league batting debut. “I couldn’t stand up, I was so nervous,” he recalled. “The first pitch was a strike and I took it. I stepped out of the box and walked away from the plate about five feet and stooped down and picked up some dirt and rubbed it on my hands. The umpire sort of walked by me and said, ‘Get up there, kid, and hit that ball.’ Well, that sort of pepped me up and I went back. The next pitch was a curveball and I hit it right over third for a single. Oh, man! I can’t tell you how great I felt.”14 He reached first and stayed there, afraid to be picked off, but he was stranded when Jimmy Jordan, pinch-hitting for Logan, flied out to left to end the game. In his sole plate appearance, Onis had delivered a hit.
Of interest is the fact that Onis owned a career fielding percentage lower than his career batting average. His fielding record line was two innings, one putout, one error, for a fielding percentage of .500.
A few weeks after the game in Brooklyn, Onis was optioned to the minors. Phelps returned to the Brooklyn lineup in the next game; he ended the 1935 season batting .364 in 47 games. Lopez did the majority of the catching duties for the Dodgers, appearing in 128 games. Meanwhile, Onis played 16 games as a catcher (27 overall) with the Class-A Reading/Allentown Brooks of the New York-Pennsylvania League. On July 13 he was sent to the Dayton Ducks of the Class-C Middle Atlantic League. According to the Tampa Tribune, Onis got into a fight with an umpire in one of the Dayton games. Onis was behind the plate and the umpire called a ball that Onis thought was clearly strike three. “We got into an argument and finally he says to me, ‘You get back down there and catch or I’ll throw you outta here,’ and I said, ‘If you throw me outta here, I’ll hit you in the head with my mask.’ So he threw me out and I hit him with my mask.”15 The umpire was Bill Grieve.16 Onis found himself subsequently suspended without pay for 30 days. When the suspension was served and Onis “was ready to play again, teams stayed away from [him] fearing retribution from the umpires.”17 He was recalled to Brooklyn again, where he was immediately released, giving him the one career at-bat in the majors. For his two teams in the minors in 1935, Onis batted a combined .254, but he also made 11 errors in 51 games behind the plate.
Onis started the next season (1936) with the Double-A Toledo Mudhens (still in the Dodgers farm system), but he played only one game (going 0-for-3) before being shipped back to the Class-A Allentown Brooks. He put up better offensive numbers (.293 with 11 doubles and 11 triples), but he also had 15 defensive miscues.
For five seasons, from 1935 through 1939, Onis played for two different teams in the minors. He started the 1937 season catching for the Sioux City Cowboys (Class-A Western League). The Cowboys were affiliated with the Detroit Tigers. After 76 games, he was sent to the Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League.
Onis started the 1938 season in Fort Worth, but he did not make any appearances. Instead, he was sent down (the Cats were a Class-A1 team) to the Class-D Leesburg Gondoliers, part of the Florida League. This brought Onis closer to his home in Tampa, and in 116 games he batted .255 with four home runs. He also made 28 errors.
In 1939 Onis began the season with the Hartford Bees (Class-A Eastern League, an affiliate of the Boston Braves). He did not make much of an impact, collecting seven hits in 14 games. But then an opportunity came up. Onis was offered a chance to manage in the minors, and at the age of 30, he became the skipper in Leesburg (with the team now called the Anglers). Leesburg was not affiliated with any major-league franchise but was part of the eight-team Florida State League. Onis played in 80 games while managing, batting .274. Nelson Leach also managed for part of the season.
A year later, Onis was player-manager for the Orlando Senators (still in the Florida State League, but now part of the Washington Senators farm system). He hit .284 in 139 games and was named the league’s all-star team catcher.18 There was a pretty good right-handed pitcher on that all-star team. His name was Stan Musial, and he was becoming a star in St. Louis’s minor-league franchises. The 1940 season was the last for Onis in professional baseball. Another player in the St. Louis farm system, Lou Klein, slid into Onis and broke his knee. After two surgeries, he still couldn’t squat and, at the age of 31, announced his retirement. He kept a slight limp for the rest of his life. In eight minor-league seasons, Onis had appeared in 671 games. His official batting record is incomplete, but the only defensive position he played was catcher.
Onis returned to Tampa and got his old job as a streetcar motorman with Tampa Electric. Two years later, he became a fireman for the City of Tampa. Curly Onis married Zoraida Diaz on November 27, 1942, in Tampa. The couple had met as youngsters, when Zoraida had played softball. A week later on December 4, he enlisted in the US Coast Guard. He did not deploy overseas and was released from service on August 8, 1944.
In 1950 Onis worked as a station fireman at the Gulf Beaches in St. Petersburg, Florida, across the Tampa Bay from Tampa. He worked for the City of Tampa Fire Department until his retirement. Onis stayed active in his community, as a member of Masonic Lodge 240, the Tampa Consistory Scottish Rite, the Retired Firefighters Organization, the Kentucky Colonels and the Seminole American Legion Post 111.19
In his later years, Onis battled diabetes and suffered from a heart condition. He was diagnosed with cancer in August 1994 and entered the hospital shortly before Christmas with an infection. He died on January 4, 1995, at the age of 86 and was buried in Centro Asturiano Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa. Curly and Zoraida had been married for 52 years. They had one daughter, Sandra Onis Mims.
In 1963 Onis completed a series of surveys for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Dodger Alumni Association. Under the position played for the Dodgers, he wrote “third string catcher.”20 He couldn’t remember which number he wore on his jersey, and he listed that his hobbies were “golf, fishing, and watching the Dodgers on TV.”21 Despite appearing in only one game for the Brooklyn Dodgers and getting only one at-bat in that one game, Curly Onis, the third-string catcher, retired with a perfect batting average in the majors.
In addition to the sources mentioned in the Notes, the author consulted Curly Onis’s file from the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum; baseball-reference.com; and retrosheet.org.
1 This figure is current as of the beginning of the 2020 regular season.
2 Richard Tellis, Once Around the Bases (Chicago: Triumph Books, 1998), 21-28.
3 1920 United States Federal Census, Tampa Ward 7, Hillsborough County, Florida (Enumeration District 55), T625_223: page 13A, found on ancestry.com. Accessed April 2019.
4 Both retrosheet.org and baseball-reference.com list his playing name as Ralph. Later references, to include several obituaries, list his nickname as Curly.
8 “1935 Tampa City Directory,” found on ancestry.com. Accessed April 2019.
9 Several sources incorrectly state that Babe Ruth made his National League debut on April 27, in this game against the Dodgers. The truth is that Ruth debuted on April 16 in a game against the New York Giants at Braves Field. He singled in his first plate appearance. See retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1935/B04160BSN1935.htm. The game played on April 27, 1935, was Ruth’s eighth of the season.
10 Stuart Rogers, “Brandt Hurls as Braves Top Dodgers, 4-3,” Daily News (New York), April 28, 1935: 414. Interestingly, the final score was 4-2, not 4-3.
12 “The Ball Disappears,” Daily News, April 28, 1935: 34C.
17 “Ex-Brooklyn Dodgers Pitcher Onis Dies,” Tampa Tribune, January 6, 1995: 110. Unfortunately, the Tampa Tribune informed its readers that Onis had been a pitcher, not a catcher.
19 Onis obituary, Tampa Tribune, January 6, 1995: 25.
20 Dodger Alumni Association Update, part of Onis’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Accessed May 2019.
21 Dodger Alumni Association Update.