This article was written by Alan Cohen
“Great catches are a lot like pretty girls. The last one you see is always the best one.”
— Bob Sudyk of the Cleveland Press, after seeing a spectacular catch by Sandy Valdespino on June 18, 1967
In 1967 Sandy Valdespino was a bench player for the Minnesota Twins. On June 18 the Twins were playing at Cleveland.
Valdespino was struggling that season, but on June 18, he most definitely was in the right place at the right time. In the bottom of the eighth inning the Indians had scored two runs, trailed the Twins 4-2 and had the bases loaded with two outs. Manager Cal Ermer replaced pitcher Jim Kaat with Ronnie Kline and moved left fielder Cesar Tovar to third base, in place of Rich Rollins, to shore up the infield defense. He inserted Valdespino into Kaat’s place in the batting order, playing left field. The outfield switch paid a big dividend. Cleveland’s Larry Brown banged a Kline delivery to deepest left field and it appeared that it was going to be a grand slam. Sandy Valdespino had other ideas.
Among those in Cleveland for the Old-Timers festivities that day was Joe DiMaggio. As Sandy said, “I wanted to bring back memories for Joe DiMaggio. I saw the DiMaggio catch in movies.” Valdespino was referring to the catch made on DiMaggio by the Dodgers’ Al Gionfriddo in the 1947 World Series.
Pitcher Kline thought it was a home run. Batter Brown thought it was a home run. But Sandy just ran. “When the ball was hit, I thought I could catch it,” he said after the game. “I turned to my left and chased it. But when I got closer to the fence, I knew it was out of the park, over the screen. But I stayed with the ball, because the wind was bringing it back. When I got near the fence, I had the ball in range. I was watching it over my right shoulder. I took a couple of steps up the screen fence and caught (the ball) with my glove over the fence.”[fn]Winona Daily News, June 19, 1967, 13.[/fn]
It was the third out of the inning and preserved the Twins lead. The ninth inning was scoreless, and the Twins had a 4-2 win.
Ten years earlier, on May 23, 1957, 18-year-old Sandy Valdespino, in his first year in Organized Baseball, slammed a two-run-homer that got him a mention in The Sporting News. He was with Midland (Texas) in the Class B Southwestern League that season, and was en route to a .295 batting average with 11 homers, 62 RBIs, and a team-leading 12 triples.
Hilario (Borroto) Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas, Cuba, on January 24, 1939, and was signed by Joe Cambria of the Washington Senators before the 1957 season. Because he looked like Sandy Amoros of the Dodgers, his first minor-league manager, Johnny Welaj, rechristened him Sandy. Valdespino’s everpresent smile was in contrast to a life that was at times hard. His father died when he was 9 years old, and Sandy went to work in an iron pipe factory.
“My brother worked as a shoemaker. My mother did washing. I went to school in the morning, worked in the afternoon, and played baseball after work,” Valdespino said. “But I never felt bad about having to work. And my mother was always happy. So it is natural for me. I think I am so big in the shoulders [his 5-foot-5 body carried 170 pounds], because of that hard work. It was a good thing for me.”[fn]Max Nichols, The Sporting News, July 10, 1965, 11.[/fn]
In 1958 with the Fox Cities Foxes (Appleton, Wisconsin) in the Three-I League, Valdespino was batting just .143 when he was optioned to Missoula (Montana) in the Class C Pioneer League on June 4.[fn]Appleton (Wisconsin) Post-Crescent, June 5, 1958, 30.[/fn] He caught fire and slugged 15 homers while posting a batting average of .312 in 87 games.
By 1959 Valdespino was with Charlotte in the Class A Sally League. The speedster led his team with 10 triples en route to a .270 batting average for the secondplace Hornets. Batting leadoff, he knocked in 61 runs, including five in a game on June 10. He was chosen to play in the league’s All-Star Game.
Valdespino’s next stop, in 1960, was with the Charleston (West Virginia) Senators of the Triple-A American Association in 1960. Though he got off to a great start (seven hits in a four-game stretch from April 20 through April 24, including two doubles, a triple and a home run), his batting average for the season was .267, with 31 doubles, 10 triples, and 11 homers. Teammates Zoilo Versalles and Don Mincher were promoted to the Twins, but Valdespino remained in the minors.
He played in Cuba during the offseason, leading the Cuban league in batting with a .345 average while playing for Havana.[fn]Appleton (Wisconsin) Post Crescent, January 5, 1961, 13.[/fn] By this point Fidel Castro was in control and it was getting more difficult to leave the country. Valdespino along with other Cubans in the organization — Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Versailles, Dave Sanchez, and Marty Martinez — received clearances and made it back to the United States by way of Mexico.
In the spring of 1961 Valdespino was in spring training with the brand-new Minnesota Twins, but was sent down to Syracuse Chiefs of the International League. After breaking a bone in his left hand on April 23 and batting .237 in 51 games with Syracuse, he was sent to Indianapolis in the American Association on August 8. With Indianapolis, he returned to form, batting .302 in 28 games, as his team won the American Association pennant.
After the season Valdespino played in the Panama-Nicaragua league for Cinco Estrellas. His best performance came on January 11 when his two singles, a triple, and a homer propelled his team to a 7-0 win over Cerveza Balboa.
In the spring of 1962 Valdespino was again with the Twins during spring training. Despite a productive spring that included a game winning homer, he was optioned to Vancouver of the Pacific Coast League on March 28. He got off to the worst start of his career and was batting only .179 in 21 games when the Twins sent him to Dallas-Fort Worth of the American Association on May 25.
In Texas Valdespino’s productivity improved immediately. He batted .278 in 81 games, but was sidelined when he injured his ankle on August 18. For the balance of the season, he was restricted to pinch-hitting.
During the offseason, he was married on February 19, 1963. In 1963 at Dallas-Fort Worth, he was reunited with Jack McKeon. Healthy for the first time in three years, he got into 114 games with the Rangers and batted .284.
Another year, making it eight in all, would elapse from the time Valdespino was signed until he made his major-league debut. In 1964 at Atlanta, he led the International League in batting with a .337 average and led his team in virtually every offensive category.
At Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta, Valdespino came under the tutelage of veteran third baseman Ray Jablonski, whom he credited with showing him how to handle pitches and hit to all fields.[fn]Lee Walburn, The Sporting News, September 5, 1964.[/fn] However, the Twins had an outfield of Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, and Tony Oliva. How would Sandy fit in at Minnesota in 1965?
As the season began, Valdespino was most often used as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. In his debut, on Opening Day against the New York Yankees at Minnesota, he was walked intentionally to load the bases with the scored tied at 4-4 in the bottom of the 11th inning. Cesar Tovar drove in the winning run later that inning.
After 13 pinch-hit appearances, in which he went 3-for-11 with a walk and a sacrifice fly, Valdespino got his first start on May 19 in a road game against the California Angels, playing left field in place of Allison. He went 3-for-6 with a double and his infield single in the 12th helped as the Twins won 3-1.
Valdespino went 9-for-20 in his May starts to bring his batting average up to .364. He saw even more action in June, starting 11 games, and on June 23 he hit his first of seven major-league homers as the Twins defeated Cleveland, 6-3. The win took the first place Twins’ record to 39-24.
In July, Allison missed eight games after being hit by a pitch. Valdespino was inserted into the lineup against right-handed pitchers, starting six games and going 9-for-23 to bring his average to .281. Once Allison returned, Valdespino resumed his role as the team’s premier pinch-hitter. On August 19 and 20, his pinch-singles helped win two games against the Tigers, and Minnesota’s lead over its closest rivals stood at 8 games.
Valdespino’s batting average fell off to .261 by the end of the season, but he led all Twins rookies in games played and at-bats.
Yet, for Valdespino and the other Cubans on the Twins, there was a certain sense of isolation. Versalles noted that, while the team celebrated its victory, “I stand in front of my locker with Tony (Oliva), Camilo (Pascual), and Sandy (Valdespino), and we don’t say nothing. Tony cries. I think this is the biggest moment I ever have in my life and I can’t go home and tell about it. I have nothing to do with politics. The trouble between Castro and the United States should not cause things like this.”[fn]Samuel O. Regolado, The Special Hunger: Latin Americans in American Professional Baseball, 1871-1970, 174.[/fn]
In the World Series the Twins faced the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were appearing in their second Series in three years. In the opener, Valdespino got the start in left field against the tough righty Don Drysdale and went 1-for-4. In the bottom of the third inning, his double was one of six hits as the Twins scored six times in the inning and went on to win 8-2. His next start came against Drysdale in Game Four. He again went 1-for-4 as the Dodgers won, 7-2. Valdespino’s third hit of the Series came in Game Five, a pinch-single off Sandy Koufax in the ninth inning, but the Dodgers won to take a 3-2 edge in the Series. His last chance, again against Koufax, was in Game Seven when he fouled out in the eighth inning as the Twins lost 2-0.
At the beginning of the 1966 season, it appeared that Valdespino had beaten out Allison for the starting position in left field. He started each of the first seven games. On Opening Day he drove in both Twins runs with a pair of singles as they defeated Kansas City, 2-1, getting the winning blow off Catfish Hunter in the bottom of the ninth.[fn]Lew Ferguson, “Sandy Valdespino Paces Twins Win: Singles Home Both Runs in 2-1 Win Over Athletics,” Appleton (Wisconsin) Post Crescent, April 13, 1966, 27.[/fn] The Twins swept the opening series against the A’s, and Sandy’s average stood at .364, including a home run. But then he went 1-for-16 in the next four games, and Allison was back in left field. Over the rest of the season, Valdespino spent most of his time on the bench. His slump was so bad that he was sent to Denver on June 23. In 72 games there he batted .321 and was recalled in September, but for the season he played in only 52 games for the Twins and batted .176.
The following season, Valdespino was with the Twins for the entire season and was one of their first players off the bench. He appeared in 99 games but only started nine times. Early on, in limited opportunities, he produced. As a pinch-hitter, he doubled and homered, going 3-for-11 with two walks in 13 attempts through June 2. The homer helped win a game against the Yankees on May 3.
Valdespino got his first start at Anaheim on June 3. Playing in right field in place of the injured Tony Oliva, he came up big in the sixth inning. With the Twins’ leading 6-5, Bobby Knoop tried to score from second with the tying run, but Valdespino gunned him down at home plate. The Twins went on to win 8-6.
Overall, though, the season was a disappointment and frustration for Valdespino. His batting average, which stood at .300 at the end of May, severely plummeted during the last four months of the season. In August, as the Twins made a charge and took the league lead, Sandy appeared in nine games between August 10 and August 19, but in each game he was just a lateinning defensive replacement. He finally got a few starts when Allison pulled his hamstring on August 24. With Valdespino in the lineup, the Twins won four of five games.
Valdespino was back on the bench during the September stretch drive, but got into 19 games, mostly as a defensive replacement. The Twins won 16 of the 19 games in which he played, but it wasn’t enough, as the Boston Red Sox defeated the Twins in a two-game series on the season’s final weekend to win the pennant by one game. For the season, Valdespino batted only .165.
In the offseason, Valdespino was sold to the Twins’ Triple-A Denver affiliate and was subsequently drafted by the Atlanta Braves. For Sandy, it was a coming home. He had last played in Atlanta in 1964 as a minor leaguer, and it was hoped that he would show the flair that he had exhibited when he led the international League in batting. He had a good spring and figured to be a key player for the Braves when Rico Carty was sidelined with tuberculosis. Valdespino started the season well and was batting .333 as April came to a close.
On April 19 at Cincinnati, Valdespino had his best day in a Braves uniform. He homered in the third inning as the Braves went on to win, 3-0. In the field, he excelled. In the bottom of the third inning, with a runner on first base and none out, Valdespino robbed John Tsitouris of an extra-base hit. On the very next play, he snatched a foul fly hit by Pete Rose just as it was about to disappear into the stands.[fn]Wayne Minshew, The Sporting News, May 11, 1968, 16.[/fn] By day’s end, Valdespino’s average stood at .364.
In April Valdespino played in 14 of his team’s 17 games, but the Braves were in sixth place in the 10-team National League. After April Sandy’s average began to slide and he provided no power. His playing time decreased. In all, he played in 36 games with the Braves, batting .233 before being sent to Triple-A Richmond at the end of June.
After the 1968 season, Atlanta traded the 29-year-old Valdespino to the Houston Astros for pitcher Paul Doyle. He began the season at Oklahoma City in the American Association and was brought up to the Astros on June 11. He batted .244 in 41 games with Houston. On August 17 he stole home against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Astros were at that point tied for third place, two games out of the division lead. At the end of August, the Astros, looking for help in the stretch run, traded Valdespino and Danny Walton to the Seattle Pilots for outfielder Tommy Davis. With the expansion Seattle team, Valdespino batted .211 in 20 games.
The Pilots moved to Milwaukee during the offseason and Valdespino began the 1970 season on the bench with the Brewers. After going hitless in nine at-bats he was farmed out to Portland of the Pacific Coast League, where he batted .280 in 59 games. On July 14 he was traded to Omaha, the Kansas City Royals affiliate in the American Association, where he was again reunited with manager Jack McKeon. With the Omaha Royals, Valdespino batted .300 in 54 games as they won the American Association pennant.
Valdespino was back with Omaha in 1971, batting .311 before getting a late-season call-up to Kansas City. In his major-league swan song, Valdespino batted .317 in 18 games with the Royals, hitting the last two of his seven major-league homers. On September 10 Sandy had his best day with the Royals as he singled, doubled, homered, and batted in four runs as Kansas City defeated Chicago 6-1. He was on the Royals’ major-league roster from September 1 through September 29, leaving him just days short of eligibility for a pension. In 765 major-league at-bats (839 plate appearances), Valdespino batted .230 and had 67 RBIs.
Valdespino returned to Omaha in 1972. He finished his playing career in the Mexican League in 1974. He worked as a minor league coach in the New York Yankees organization, and as of 2014, he was living in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Last revised: October 1, 2015
This biography originally appeared in “A Pennant for the Twin Cities: The 1965 Minnesota Twins” (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.
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