Good ol’ Boy Gone South to Play Beisból

They were shooting stars from different galaxies, the two men in this photo. Johnny Mize and Juan ‘Tetelo’ Vargas, teammates on the 1934 Concordia Eagles, Trujillo Cup champions.

In October 1933, following a baseball season that began with the Greensboro (N.C.) Patriots and ended with the Rochester (NY) Red Wings, 20-year-old Johnny Mize of Demorest, Georgia, joined a ragtag group of barnstormers on a trip to Puerto Rico to play some winter baseball. They called themselves the Richmond Colts, but they were players from several teams in several different leagues, all of them white.

Johnny immediately caught the attention of fans and other players. That included Martin Dihigo, perhaps the greatest player ever from Cuba, a man who could play outfield like Clemente and hit like Hornsby, then pitch like Feller the next day.

“I’d say he was the best ballplayer of all time, black or white,” Buck Leonard (below, left) said. “If he’s not the greatest I don’t know who is. You take your Ruths, Bobbs, and DiMaggios.” Leonard, the best first baseman in the Negro Leagues said he’d take Dihigo (below, right), and, “I would beat you almost every time.”

He was no slouch as a manager, either. Dihigo built a juggernaut for Concordia, a team owned by the son of Venezuela’s dictator, Vicent Gómez. He recruited two players from the Richmond Colts: Mize and his pal Jimmy Jordan.

Concordia was stocked with superstars. In addition to Mize and Jordan (a slick fielding infielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers), there was of course Dihigo, and his great catcher, Manuel “El Pollo” Malpica, and Venezuelan shortstop Luis Aparicio Ortega (father of Baseball Hall of homer Luis Aparicio). And there was Tetelo Vargas, known as El Gamo Dominican – The Dominican Deer.

A line drive hitter and an outfielder with a strong, accurate arm, and blazing speed (he would score from second on a sacrifice fly), Vargas was 27 at the time and in his prime as the greatest Dominican ballplayer of the era.

Then, after Mize left the team in late February 1934 to get back to the States for spring training, Concordia brought in a fellow named Josh Gibson … yes, the Eagles were that good, and everyone wanted to play for Dihigo, whose nickname was El Inmortal — The Immortal.

Johnny Mize had grown up in rural Northeast Georgia and spent his first few seasons away from home on the bush league backroads. So, imagine his experience that winter, a young dude on the adventure of his life, a minority on his ball club, in a foreign country where people spoke a different language, where armed soldatos and rabid, well-informed fans cheered the “American blonde” who hit “beastly” home runs onto the shores of sandy beaches.

This photo at top of the Big Cat and the Domincan Deer is from an excellent biography of Vargas by Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research.

The images of Buck Leonard and Martin Dihigo are borrowed from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Anyway, if you’d like to know more about Johnny Mize’s adventures in the Caribbean — which was an advanced course in how to play professional baseball — stay tuned for my book, “Big Cat: The Life of Baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Mize,” coming next year from University of Nebraska Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: