Lindbergh: The past, present, and future of baseball’s most daring defense

From SABR member Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer on March 9, 2018:

From the late 1940s through the early 1960s, Nino Escalera never went long between baseball games. The Santurce native played for minor league teams in seven states before making the majors with the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1954. He stuck with the Redlegs all season but batted .159, less than his listed weight. For the next eight years, he toiled in Triple-A; with the Havana Sugar Kings, Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate, he played outfield and first base in front of Fidel Castro. Each winter, he went home and started his second season, becoming a Puerto Rican winter league legend and eventually earning induction to the Puerto Rico Baseball Hall of Fame. After retiring, he scouted for the Mets and the Giants for almost three more decades. But for most who know his name, Escalera’s baseball life boils down to two plate appearances: one he made, and one he watched from the field.

Escalera is primarily remembered for a first. When he made his major league debut, pinch hitting and singling for Cincinnati in the seventh inning on April 17, 1954, the then-24-year-old became the first black player in the franchise’s history. (The next batter, pinch hitter Chuck Harmon, became the franchise’s first African American player.) At 88, Escalera is the most senior of three surviving ex-players to have integrated an MLB club.

Escalera’s MLB career was limited to 73 games and 77 plate appearances for that 1954 team, getting most of his meager playing time as a pinch hitter, pinch runner, or defensive replacement. But before being demoted, he made more history, this time as the last to have done something. On May 22 in St. Louis, Escalera, a left-handed thrower, played shortstop, or so the box score said. No left-handed thrower has done so since.

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Originally published: March 15, 2018. Last Updated: March 15, 2018.