Memo Luna: The Story Behind Card 222

 

One can almost hear the voices of 10 year-old boys repeating the name “MEMO LUNA!” as they expectantly thumbed through a freshly opened pack of the new 1954 Bowman bubble gum cards. While coming across a Ray Katt, Gil Coan or Mel Hoderlein would have merited merely a grunt or groan, even the most jaded 10 year old boy had to admit that “Memo Luna” had an alluring ring to it.

The card itself was unique – instead of the facsimile signature printed on the colored block located on the bottom of all the other cards, Luna’s had his name printed in severe all-caps. Even the photograph on the front was somewhat odd. When one looked closely, it became apparent that the photo had been heavily retouched and an awkward St. Louis Cardinals jersey and cap airbrushed over whatever minor league team he had been with last year. And that too, would be a mystery to kids in 1954 – see, the back of his card was completely devoid of stats. They weren’t just not present, but the box where other players had their statistics listed, almost a quarter of the card, was left completely blank, only “NO MAJOR LEAGUE RECORD” stamped in the void.

Any kid who ventured past all these intriguing facets of card 222 would learn that Memo Luna came from the equally exotically named “Tacubaya, Mexico,” and his real name was Guillermo Romero Luna. The card further elaborates, “In high school he played football, soccer and golf.”

Golf? What high school kid plays golf? – and what the heck is soccer?” the 10 year-olds must have asked themselves. “Who is this guy?

Unfortunately, by the time most kids came across card 222 in their packs of Bowman bubble gum cards, Memo Luna’s big league career had both begun and ended.

Guillermo Luna Romero was born on June 25, 1930 in the Tacubaya section of Mexico City. The nickname “Memo” is the short version of Guillermo. In Memo’s words, “In Mexico all Guillermo’s are called Memo.” While his 1954 Bowman card makes his high school years playing soccer and golf sound more like a Kennedy’s Massachusetts upbringing, Memo Luna actually quit school at the age of 12 to take a job making schmaltzy jewelry for the Americano tourist trade. He attempted a return to high school, but working 8 hours a day, 6 days a week plus school at night was too tough to swing. Plus, the seven pesos a day (about a buck twenty-five in 1954 U.S. currency) went a long way towards helping his family out. While education was out of the picture for Memo, life in Tacubaya was not without its pleasant distractions – for there was always baseball.

By the age of 14, Memo was the manager of the amateur Tacubaya Estrellas, a local nine that played sans uniforms or spikes. Memo managed, he later told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, because he owned the baseballs. The Estrellas won 25 of 25 games, with Memo hurling 22 or 23 of the victories. The teen’s undefeated record attracted regional attention. When a team in the city of Santiago de Querétaro offered him 9 or 10 pesos a day to pitch for them, Memo quit the tourist jewelry business and began a career as a baseball player.

The war had just ended and Mexican baseball was at its greatest height. Wealthy customs broker Jorge Pasqual and his four brothers had made it their mission to give the country a professional baseball league to rival the Americans. The Pasqual’s pumped cash into an 8-team league whose high salaries attracted the best Negro league and Latin players. In 1946, the Pasqual’s went one step further by signing disillusioned white major leaguers, and for a hot minute caused a panic the likes of which the major league owners hadn’t felt since the Federal League threat of 1914-15.

The great revitalization of the Mexican League gave the young Memo plenty of pitching inspiration to base his career on. Talking to Johnny McReynolds via telephone from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico in 2006, Memo listed Theolic “Fireball” Smith, Lonnie Summers, Josh Gibson, Fred Martin and Max Lanier – all of whom were playing in Mexico in the mid-1940’s – as particular boyhood heroes.

By 1947 Memo’s left arm was earning him 20 pesos a day. He had grown up to be a lanky 170 pound 6-footer with good speed coupled with equally impressive control. His sidearm curve gave right handers fits and it wasn’t long before he got the call from the professional ranks. In 1947 the Mexican Pacific League, which played its games in the winter months, placed a franchise in Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa. The young lefty joined the team the second year of the league’s operation, his first step in professional baseball.

Among the players Memo faced in his first year of pro ball was future Hall of Famer and fellow teenager, Whitey Ford. Ford was down in Mexico playing winter ball in between seasons in the Yankees farm system. According to Memo, the first time the two lefties met was during a Mazatlan-Los Mochis Sunday double header. Los Mochis knocked Ford out of the first game after three innings, but demanded vengeance by volunteering to pitch the second game. Ford and Memo faced off in a classic pitchers duel, with Ford prevailing 1-0. The next time the pair met, Memo bested the future Yankee 1-0, then followed that by winning their final two matchups.

The logical progression of Memo’s emerging career would have been to Pasqual’s Liga Mexicana, and that’s exactly what happened. However, by 1948 the huge salaries, low attendance and infighting amongst the owners had all but gutted the one-time major league rival. Memo played the 1948 Liga Mexicana season with the Tampico Alijadores. The ace of the Tampico staff was future Hall of Famer and Negro League legend Ray Brown, and the starting catcher was veteran Lonnie Summers. Memo was credited with a 5-0 record that year, but the Liga Mexicana was well into its decline as the once well-paid stars jumped ship for the recently integrated U.S. minor leagues or returned to the Cuban, Puerto Rican or Negro leagues from where they came.

Fortunately for a young player like Memo, major league baseball had answered the Pasqual threat by placing several low-level minor league teams on Mexican soil. This counter-measure opened a direct pipeline of Mexican talent to the majors.

Memo joined the Juarez Indios of the Arizona-Texas League in 1949 and posted a 12-6 record. The next year the 20 year-old went 14-10 and was picked up by the Tijuana Potros of the Southwest International League. In TJ, Memo really broke out as a pitcher, winning 26 games for the Potros. Right across the border, the San Diego Padres were watching, and five grand bought them the 19 year-old lefty.

The news of his signing immediately triggered contractual controversy. The St. Louis Browns thought that they had been sold Memo’s contract by Tijuana. In fact, half the team’s owners sold Memo to St. Louis, and the other half sold him to San Diego. After some legal wrangling, the Padres front office produced a document that gave them first dibs on signing any Tijuana products.

The Padres played in the Pacific Coast League, which had recently been granted an unprecedented “open classification” by the major leagues. This meant that the PCL was rated as being between the AAA level and the majors. In addition to its lofty status, most PCL clubs were independent and not owned by a major league club. This left them free to develop their own talent as well as the right to sell them to whatever major league team paid their price.

The San Diego Padres team Memo joined in 1952 was a hodge-podge of major league cast-offs and Negro league veterans trying to follow in Jackie Robinson’s footsteps. At 21, Memo was one of the youngest players on the club, but a few things worked to the young lefty’s advantage. The first was the Padres’ skipper, Lefty O’Doul. Lefty was a PCL legend who had mentored a whole slew of future big league stars such as the DiMaggio Brothers, Ferris Fain and Larry Jensen. He was also something of an internationalist, credited as the grandfather of professional baseball in Japan due to his frequent tours of the Asian nation. Working with non-native, non-English speaking players was no obstacle to O’Doul.

Among the older players on the Padres was Memo’s boyhood hero, Fireball Smith and several other Liga Mexicana veterans including Moe Franklin, Lou Klein and his old catcher on the Tampico club, Lonnie Summers. Summers, a big catcher who had played with the Baltimore Elite Giants and Chicago American Giants in addition to his time in Mexico, proved to be a huge asset to Memo because of his ability to speak Spanish.

1952 was a tremendous summer for Memo. Playing under the tutelage of Lefty O’Doul and the other Padres veterans, Memo developed from a “thrower” into a pitcher. Up until this point, the slim lefty had a great fastball and sidearm curve, both delivered with pin-point control. This was enough in the low minors, but to survive in the PCL and beyond he would need to augment his array of pitches. Memo learned a slider and screwball along with a change of pace and knuckleball. He threw from an exaggerated high leg kick that was later compared to Hall of Famer Juan Marichal’s windup.

With a wide variety of mastered pitches from which to choose from, the 21 year-old clocked 15 wins for O’Doul’s club. Considering the Padres finished 21 games out of first place and second to last in team batting, Memo’s 15 wins with a 2.94 ERA looked all the more impressive.

Up to his point, Memo had been pitching year-round in his native Mexico. Before the war, Negro league and Latin players commonly played summer and winter ball, but in the white leagues this was actively discouraged for several reasons. Salaries in white organized baseball were higher on a whole than the Negro and Latin leagues, so a player did not feel the financial need to play year-round. Besides, Major League baseball had a rule prohibiting major leaguers from playing exhibition ball past a certain date (usually two weeks after the completion of the World Series). And on top of all those reasons, organized baseball wanted to protect their investments from hurting themselves, especially playing games for a team other than themselves. While this policy wasn’t a problem for most players to adhere to, Memo found himself at odds with the Padres following his first season in San Diego.

Besides earning him much needed extra money, Memo was proud to play for his hometown Los Mochis club every winter, and in turn, the local community took great pride in his success. In addition to the national pride, Memo believed that playing year-round kept his arm in great shape. He customarily pitched as often as possible, sometimes two days in a row. In the world of outsider baseball, heavy pitching loads were the norm – in organized baseball, it was not.

When Memo started the 1952-53 season with Los Mochis, the Padres were alarmed. Memo had appeared in 38 games for the Padres, 19 of them being compete games. By organized baseball standards, this was a workload necessitating a few months of winter rest.

Remember, the Padres were an independent team and survived by developing and then selling talent to the majors. As the team’s ace, it was a sure bet that Memo would be sold to a major league team in the near future. Seeing his investment at risk, Padres owner Bill Starr immediately instructed Memo to cease and desist. When asking didn’t get him anywhere, Starr played hardball by threatening to suspend his star. Newspapers in the PCL cities carried stories reporting on the Memo Luna controversy. Mexican players were still a novelty in the PCL, and some of the coverage would be perceived as kind of racially insensitive today. One story in particular rankled Memo, claiming he was in Los Mochis pitching for “taco and tortillas.” His rebuttal to the offending phrase was reported in an equally insensitive way: “This is my country. I happen to like tacos and tortillas.”

Eventually Bill Starr came to an agreement with his wayward ace, extracting an agreement that he would pitch just once a week for Los Mochis.

Back in San Diego, Memo followed up his breakout year with another fine season. He lowered his ERA to a league-leading 2.67. That, and his 17 wins for another weak-hitting Padres club got the major leagues salivating. Jack Bliss, a former catcher with the 1908-12 Cardinals, tipped off his old club about the young Mexican lefthander with “exceptional control and a good curve.” The Cards scouting corps dispatched to San Diego agreed with Bliss, adding that Memo’s arsenal also possessed a good slider and knuckleball. Chief scout Joe Mathes’ final report read “His knuckleball and curve are very good, he has tremendous poise on the mound and is outstanding in fielding his position and holding runners on base.”

As an independent club owner, Bill Starr held all the cards, as his $100,000 price tag on Memo demonstrated. After some negotiating, the Cardinals exchanged $75,000 and three players for the rights to the first Mexican-born lefthander in MLB history.

Memo’s post-season work was evidently known by the Cardinals as his contract reportedly gave him the permission to play ball until December 1 when he was to quit and rest up for spring training. Memo’s notoriety as a “$100,000 bonus baby” earned him an invitation to play in the top-notch Cuban Winter League. Pitching with the Almendares Alacranes, Memo quickly won four of his first five games. Then, as the December 1 deadline neared, Memo dropped his next two starts. He flew to St. Louis and passed a physical by Cardinals doctors before returning to Los Mochis to rest up before the start of spring training in February.

But the pull of national pride and a desire to do what he did best lured Memo back to the mound. He suited up for Los Mochis and suffered a 4-0 loss, his performance described as “not impressive.” He took the mound again on February 19. While recording a strikeout in the second inning, Memo grabbed his left elbow in pain. The workhorse stayed in the game, throwing half-speed fastballs and off-speed junk, hanging on for a 8-5 victory. After the game he told a reporter that although he had injured his arm, it was “not important.” The Cardinals, in particular their feisty and abrasive manager Eddie Stanky, would beg to differ on his assessment.

For his part, Memo reported to spring training fully admitting to his injury. Although Memo had a varied arsenal of pitches, it was his fastball and curve that he used as his accurate pitches. Now relying solely on his unpredictable knuckleball and slider, Memo lost the edge his pinpoint control gave him over batters.

The one highpoint of Memo’s 1954’s spring training was when he got the chance to face off with his old Mexican Pacific league rival, Whitey Ford. Both pitchers threw the final three innings of the game, knotted at 0-0. Memo got the win when the Cards scored a run off Ford in the ninth. According to Memo’s 2006 conversation with Johnny McReynolds, after the game Ford told his rival “You come all the way over here to beat me.”

Cardinals’ manager, Eddie Stanky, who was in a perpetual bad mood, took Memo’s injured left arm as a personal affront, and several unimpressive outings only ratcheted up his skipper’s ire. Had he been an ordinary prospect, Memo would have been relegated to the low minors before spring training ended. However, his high price tag had made Memo Luna one of the most anticipated rookies of 1954. The Cardinals risked ridicule if their bonus baby went bust before he even appeared in the majors, so Memo was placed on St. Louis’ opening day roster.

The stage had been set for a spectacular failure.

Memo made his big league debut in the April 20 game against the Redlegs in St. Louis. 11,000 Cardinals fans turned out for the Tuesday afternoon game, and any one arriving late would lose their one and only chance to see the first Mexican-born left hander play ball.

Memo started off the ballgame by walking Bobby Adams. Roy McMillan followed with a double, scoring Adams. McMillan took third on Rip Repulski’s fielding error. Gus Bell hit a long fly ball to right that Stan Musial put away for the first out. Jim Greenglass hit another fly out to Musial, but this time McMillan tagged up at third to make it 2-0 Cincinnati. With the bases empty, Ted Kluszewski hit a double then Memo walked Johnny Temple.

By this time Eddie Stanky was in the Cardinals dugout beside himself. By the time Memo had walked Temple, Stanky had Mel Wright warming up in the bullpen and was on his way to the mound. According to Memo Luna’s 2006 conversation with Johnny McReynolds, Stanky told his pitcher “I don’t want @#$&% Mexicans” before removing him from the game. Memo claims that when he replied in kind, the manager demoted him the following day.

In actuality, it wasn’t until a week and a half later, May 1 that the Cards sent Memo to their top farm club in Rochester.

When Memo arrived in Rochester, he admitted that his fastball and curve had gone, and both those pitches were painful to throw. He tried to get by on his knuckler, slider and luck, but was met with limited results. A great outing, such as the 11 inning 3-hitter he hurled against Toronto, was followed up by an equally disastrous loss. He finished the season with a 9-11 record. 1955 saw Memo play for the Omaha Cardinals in the American association, where he mustered only 4 wins and 4 losses in 30 games. He slid down the minor league ladder with stops in Nueva Laredo and San Antonio before spending his final two seasons, 1960 and 1961, with the Mexico City Tigers.

With baseball behind him, Memo returned to the place where his career both began and ended, Los Mochis. The tall lefthander embarked on a successful career in sales, with his spare time spent teaching the children of Los Mochis the game he loved. His career and place in baseball history has been recognized by his enshrinement in both the Salón de la Fama del Beisbol Profesional de México and the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame.

More than a quarter century after Memo Luna made headlines as the $100,000 Mexican import and became the first Mexican-born lefty to pitch in the majors, another south of the border southpaw burst onto the Big League stage. This time, the Mexican lefthander not only found success in the majors, but also became a media sensation. 1981 became the year of “Fernandomania” as Fernando Valenzuela became the first player to win both the Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year in the same season. Fernando played 17 seasons in the majors, winning 173 games including a no-hitter and a World Series game. One can only wonder if 1954 would have been the year of Memomania had Memo Luna taken the previous winter off.

Then again, that just wasn’t Memo’s style.

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