A few weeks ago, writing about the Eastern Colored League’s failed 1926 entry, the Newark Stars, I commented that their main claim to fame was hiring Sol White for what would be his last job in organized baseball. As it turns out, the Stars, who played only 11 league games before folding, earned another footnote in baseball history. This gives them an awfully high ratio of historical significance to games played.
It was originally thought that the Harrisburg Giants would leave the league in 1926, and that the Newark Stars would either take over their franchise completely, or would at least sign several of their players. When Colonel Strothers changed his mind and decided to keep Harrisburg in the ECL, Newark was left scrambling for players. It was claimed that they sent scouts to Cuba and Puerto Rico. One player they came up with was a young Dominican pitcher named Pedro Alejandro San. However, Alejandro Pompez, owner of the eastern Cuban Stars, claimed San’s services as well. The Dominican wrote a letter to the ECL commissioners to clear up the issue, but the only person at the league meeting who could read Spanish was…Alejandro Pompez. So they tabled the matter for another month. But Pompez would not be denied, and by mid-March it was announced that San had been awarded to the Cuban Stars. He became the first Dominican player to appear in the Negro leagues.
In the meantime the Newark Stars had to find players somewhere. They had scouts active in both Puerto Rico and Cuba, it was claimed, and several Puerto Rican players were mentioned in lists of Newark players before the season started, including Ramón Guilfucci, Ramón “Monchile” Concepcion, a shortstop called only “Mellio,” Joseph Burrcino, and Jace Nestor. The first two are well-known Puerto Rican players, and “Mellio” might be Emilio “Millito” Navarro; I’ve had trouble identifying the last two. At any rate, as far as I know, none of these appeared in any Newark Stars games in 1926.
The Stars were not the only team in the United States in 1926 hot on the trail of Puerto Rican (and Dominican) players. A strong independent professional club, the Allentown Dukes, which starred several former major leaguers, had beaten Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees in an exhibition game in 1923. As a result the team scored an invitation to tour Puerto Rico. This was reported at the time as the first visit to the island by an American professional team (although the Brooklyn Royal Giants had played in Puerto Rico in 1917). They travelled to Puerto Rico in both the 1923/24 and 1924/25 off-seasons. After the second trip, the Dukes returned to Pennsylvania having signed two players they had faced during their tour: Agustín “Tingu” Daviu, a Puerto Rican infielder, and Baldomero “Mero” Ureña, a Dominican pitcher. Ureña thus became, as far as we know, the first Dominican to play professional baseball in the United States, preceding Pedro San by one year.
And later that summer, the Dukes added another Puerto Rican player:
Gacho’s stay with the Dukes in 1925 was relatively brief, only a little more than a month:
(Mount Carmel Item, August 20, 1925, p. 5)
In 1926 the Dukes joined the Interstate League, a new circuit that featured three white teams (Allentown, Reading, and Camden) and three black teams (Harrisburg Giants, Bacharach Giants, and Hilldale). Games between the black teams counted in both Interstate League and Eastern Colored League standings. In preparation for the season, the Dukes’ owner, Ernest “Duke” Landgraf (the team was named for him—see this account of his career) brought in four Puerto Rican players:
(Mount Carmel Daily News, April 10, 1926, p. 3)
Although I haven’t so far identified “Claudio,” the other three are a catcher/outfielder named Manuel Enrique Net, the aforementioned Tingu Daviu, and “Joe Gacho”—whose name was really José Torres (“Gacho” being a nickname). Torres was, it turns out, more than a footnote in Puerto Rican baseball history. Along with the Faberllé brothers and Cosme Beitía Sálamo, Gacho Torres was one of los cuatro jinetes del beisbol (the four leaders of baseball) in the late 1910s and early 1920s. They served in the 65th Infantry, the Puerto Rican Regiment, during World War I, and after the war they were (according to the historian Solsiree del Moral) “recruited into the physical education training program at the University of Puerto Rico.” As teachers, they presumably played a role in spreading baseball through the island.
Courtesy of Jorge Colón Delgado, here’s a photo of Gacho Torres:
By 1926, El Gacho was a 29-year-old veteran. A left-handed pitcher and outfielder, he was still considered a remarkable player, both for his curveball and his speed on the base paths:
(Mount Carmel Daily News, May 3, 1926, p. 6)
(Mount Carmel Daily News, May 25, 1926, p. 6)
He played right field and pitched for the Allentown Dukes. Here he is getting a couple of hits for the Dukes against the Harrisburg Giants in an Interstate League game on May 1:
On May 7 he took the mound and beat the defending ECL champs Hilldale 6 to 3 in another Interstate League game.
(Chester Times, May 8, 1926, p. 14)
On May 25 Gacho was reported to be in Brooklyn recovering from an arm injury (see above). But on May 23 he was in the Bronx, playing for the ECL’s Newark Stars in a doubleheader against the Lincoln Giants:
Emilio “Millito” Navarro is commonly thought to have been the first Puerto Rican player to appear in the U.S. Negro leagues, in 1928 (or 1929, depending on how you define “Negro league”). But here’s Gacho Torres, one of the most important figures in the early history of Puerto Rican baseball, in an ECL game in 1926.
He didn’t last with the Newark Stars—these are the only two Stars games I’ve found him in. But he may have caught on with another black team—Syd Pollock’s Boston Black Sox, a travelling team that was the predecessor of the Havana Red Sox, Cuban House of David, and Pollock’s Cuban Stars. The Black Sox featured Manuel Net, Ramón Guilfucci, Monchile Concepcion, and one “Torrez,” a supposedly Cuban slugger whom I suspect might have really been Gacho Torres.
So we appear to have pinpointed the first Puerto Rican to play Negro league baseball, even before Millito Navarro. But the story doesn’t end there. For one thing, I’ve seen at least one remark in 1926 that Monchile Concepcion had already played for the Boston Black Sox in 1925, though I haven’t confirmed it.
For another, Jorge Colón Delgado tells me that one Rafael Cruz López played in the U.S. for the Cuban Stars in 1920, and before that, Jesús “El Tigre” Velazquez played for a team called the South City Giants in 1917. I know nothing about the South City Giants (anyone?), and the only López I know of with either Cuban Stars team in 1920 was the Cuban outfielder José “Lopito” López of the western Cuban Stars.
However, there was a pitcher named Cruz who appeared for Pompez’s eastern Cuban Stars in 1918:
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 21, 1918, p. 31)
I can’t link Cruz to anybody on passenger lists for sure (yet), but this seems to be a very strong candidate for the earliest Puerto Rican player in U.S. black professional baseball. Until that can be confirmed, Gacho Torres is the man.
Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado and also Tito Rondon for help with this post.