Adolfo Arguijo: The General

 

THE YANKEES training camp in the spring of 1924 was a busy place. That fall the team had won its first World Championship when they beat their bitter rivals, the New York Giants. Yet, despite having copped three straight AL pennants and a World Series, the Yankees were in need of a major rebuilding. Most of their starting lineup were aging veterans who had already reached their big league sell-by dates. To continue as an American League powerhouse, the Yanks would need new blood. So, the Yankees spring training camp in New Orleans was a hive of activity as young hopefuls from across the country descended on Heinemann Park to try to earn their pinstripes.

Looking over the new flesh, manager Miller Huggins could see that the outlook was pretty good. Out in centerfield he had a sleek line drive hitter outta Kentucky named Earle Combs, and over at first base there was that husky kid from the Ivy League, “Columbia Lou” Gehrig. As for pitching, four of his five starters were thirty-somethings and, as every baseball man worth his ball cap knew, Huggins was cognizant that to continue winning pennants he would need new arms. Thus, the majority of newcomers in the Yankees camp were young hurlers looking to make good.

THEY CAME FROM ALL OVER America – a kid from the New Jersey semi-pros named Milt Gaston who’d beat the Yankees in an exhibition game last year and minor leaguers Swede Olsen and George Dumont, who’d won big for Des Moines and Atlanta respectively. Huggins also had a large compliment of college boys looking to turn pro, including Georgia Tech alum Ben Thompson, Bill Mahoney from Catholic University and Ben Shields out of North Carolina’s Ridge College. But of all the pitching prospects, the one with the most interesting backstory was a slim 6 foot 8 inch tall Mexican named Adolfo Arguijo.

Whereas the rest of the aspiring Yankees had followed the usual paths to the majors, Arguijo’s was radically different, and hungry sports writers angling for a scoop tied their typing fingers in knots banging out copy about the dark right-hander. First of all, he was older – the press box handouts said 28 – and he carried himself with a markedly disciplined demeanor. Tall and serious looking, Arguijo wore his cap with the right side of the bill pitched up at a jaunty angle, giving him a subtle touch of flair that his younger colleagues lacked. And there was a mysterious air about him, which was eagerly explained by the sports writers once the unique circumstances surrounding his background became known.

Instead of learning baseball early like American boys, young Adolfo Arguijo had no time for such frivolities. Growing up in Mexico, Arguijo’s country was ransacked by decades of endless revolutions. He, like most boys of his generation, joined one of the warring armies and spent his teens and early twenties battling across Northern Mexico. As he made his way up through the ranks, he found himself in command of a unit that included many American mercenaries, and it was during the down time between battles that Arguijo learned the basics of baseball from his Gringo mercs.

In early 1920’s Arguijo was wearing the stars of a general in the Mexican Army, but he had tired of soldiering. Turning in his uniform, Arguijo crossed the border at Brownsville and joined the ranks of professional baseball. Arguijo played the 1922 and ‘23 seasons with Corsicana of the Class D Texas Association, at which point the Yankees signed him and took him to New Orleans for spring training.

Arguijo’s story seemed to have it all – revolution, Latin mystery and fashion flair – all tailor made for the Roarin’ Twenties. One could easily imagine this guy in New York, a city with millions of hopeful immigrants with backstories of war and turmoil just like his. Once he’d gotten a few turns on the mound in Yankee Stadium there would be hordes of kid’s turning up the brims of their own caps to emulate the Yanks new ace, and you could clearly envision Babe Ruth palling around with “The General,” hitting up the speakeasies and sporting dens along Broadway; you couldn’t make that stuff up. Except, it was made up.

ABOUT THE ONLY THING true about Adolfo Arguijo’s story was that his name was Adolfo Arguijo. The reality was he was a Texan of Mexican heritage, born to Merced and Francisca Arguijo on November 24, 1895 in San Diego, Texas. His father had been a well-known semi-pro ballplayer in his youth, and it was Arguijo’s pop who taught him the game, not mysterious American mercenaries. According to René Torres, a retired University of Texas at Brownsville professor who had researched the ballplayer’s career, Arguijo moved to Brownsville around 1915. It was in this border town that he began playing baseball seriously, hurling for a club called Novena de Brownsville or Brownsville Nine.

While he was in fact a former soldier, he had been simply Private Arguijo of the U.S. Army. He joined up at the start of World War I and went overseas with the 144th Infantry Regiment in time to take part in the great battles of 1918. After fighting in France, Arguijo served with the occupation forces in Germany where he was in charge of starting up a recreational baseball league to keep the troops occupied. When he came home in 1919, Arguijo played semi-pro around Brownsville, forming a top-flight team called the Tigers. Arguijo developed a flaming fastball paired with a sharp breaking curve that generated a lot of ink in Rio Grande Valley sports pages. In 1920 he caused a stir when he shutout the rival San Benito team twice in a row. Local Brownsville bigwigs Judge Davenport and Major Galbraith contacted Branch Rickey, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and sang the young war veteran’s praises. Arguijo was invited to take spring training with the Cards, but he didn’t stick. Instead, Arguijo spent the next couple summers in the Texas Association pitching for the Corsicana Oilers. After going 16-16 in the summer of ’23, the Yankees grabbed him in the annual Rule V draft for $1,000. That’s when the wild stories began.

IN REALITY, Arguijo’s signing was a huge story in and of itself. Up this point, there had only been two Mexican-Americans to make it to the majors – Vincent “Sandy” Nava, who caught for the old Providence Grays and Baltimore Orioles from 1882 to 1886 and Frank Arellanes, a pitcher for the Red Sox from 1908 to 1910. But that was a generation ago; to have a Mexican-American make the Yankees in 1924 would have been a big deal. America was brimming with immigrants from all over the world, and the National Pastime was finally beginning to show the results of this cornucopia of nationalities. Where once the ranks of professional baseball had been primarily stocked with players of Irish and German backgrounds, you were now seeing players with last names like Coveleski, Luque, Gazella and Solomon appearing in big league box scores. Arguijo, representing our neighbors to the south, would be a perfectly natural addition – but it wasn’t meant to be.

The fact was Adolfo Arguijo just wasn’t good enough. Though scout Bob Connery, on whose recommendation the Yanks signed him, thought Arguijo had “burning speed and a sharp-breaking curve,” it was his knuckle ball that initially attracted attention in camp that spring. Thrown with a side arm motion, the knuckle ball was still a curious pitch in 1924, and one newspaper reported, “every time he uses it every Yank in practice stops work and looks to see the effect of the hurl.” But as spring training wore on, Arguijo’s advanced age of 28 combined with his inexperience and lapses of control began to catch up with him. Arguijo couldn’t compete with the youngsters, let alone hope to crack a starting rotation consisting of future Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, backed by veterans Bob Shawkey and Bullet Joe Bush. Arguijo managed to last the entire spring, though sports writers noted that he had become homesick and one paper described him as “alone he sits in the dining room, alone he stalks in the corridors and in solitude walks the streets adjacent to the hotel.” As expected, when the Yanks broke camp to head north, “The General” went west, returning to Brownsville.

Back in the Lone Star State, Arguijo resumed his position as one of the best hurlers on the border. He alternated between pro ball with Corsicana and semi-pro with the Brownsville Tigers, a team he himself founded and managed. Old- timers used to tell the tale of Arguijo pulling the famous Satchel Paige trick of having his outfielders sit down while he proceeded to strikeout the side. He eventually made his way to Arizona and the outlaw Copper league, playing against baseball renegades Hal Chase, Jimmy O’Connell and half of the disgraced Chicago Black Sox. In the doubleheader to decide the 1926 Copper League pennant, Arguijo pitched a complete game for the Juarez Indians to beat Black Sox Lefty Williams and his Ft. Bayard Veterans in the first game, then came back to pitch the nightcap. Arguijo’s team was down 3-2 when the game was suddenly and controversially called due to darkness in the 8th, giving the pennant to Ft. Bayard.

Arguijo eventually wound up back in Brownsville where he became a well-known baseball elder, often donning the old Yankees cap issued to him at spring training back in 1924. He managed the Tigers, schooling whole generations of Brownsville teens how to play ball, and occasionally took the mound himself to show ‘em how it was done. He tried in vain to lure a minor league team to town, going so far as to arrange exhibition games against pro teams to prove it could be sustainable. The old ballplayer spent the 40’s and 50’s working at a popular downtown Brownsville spot called the Monterrey Café where he would regale his customers with tales of baseball back in the old days. He also dabbled in boxing promotions and local politics.

EVEN TODAY, many regard Adolfo Arguijo as the finest ballplayer to come out of the Rio Grande Valley – better than even Mexican Baseball Hall of Famer Leo Najo. A gifted outfielder, Najo was once thought to be on the way to becoming the first Mexican-born player in the majors. Najo was under contract with the Chicago White Sox and supposedly tabbed for a late season call up in 1926 when his leg was broken in an outfield collision. It wasn’t until 1933 that Mel Almada became the first Mexican-born (though raised in Los Angeles) player in the majors.

According to René Torres’ research, Arguijo spent his later years drinking heavily and had become estranged from his only son. It could be that it was Arguijo’s taste for the sauce that stood in the way of his going further in pro ball or even sticking with the Cardinals or Yankees. A January 16, 1944 article in the Brownsville Herald reported, “the big Texan, some say, was just too easy-going when it came to keeping hard-and-fast to training rules.” To “break training rules” was the old-school baseball term for staying out late and hitting the bottle too much.

Arguijo returned to San Diego, Texas in the late 1950’s where he operated a bar, passing away in 1984. I have been unable to find any obituary or newspaper report of his death, and that’s a real shame. Luckily, baseball scholars like René Torres and the occasional “remember when” articles in one of the Rio Grande Valley newspapers help preserve Arguijo’s brush with history as the one who almost became one of the first Mexican-Americans to play in the majors.

It’s fun to opine about how baseball history would have been different had things turned out better for Arguijo in the spring of ’24. Think about it, that 1924 spring training was the point at which Miller Huggins assembled the team that would become the most famous ball club of all – the 1927 Yankees. Lou Gehrig and Earle Combs, two future Hall of Famers and key members of the ’27 team, both had their tryouts at the same spring camp alongside Adolfo Arguijo. How much more interesting would the storied 1927 Yankees team had been if one of their pitchers was none other than General Arguijo?

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NOTE: For my illustration, I wanted to depict Arguijo in his Yankees pinstripes. Although he didn’t make the team, it appears from newspaper photos that all recruits in the spring of ’24 were issued a complete home pinstripe uniform set. Another small detail that I couldn’t leave out of my illustration was Arguijo’s “flair.” In the few photographs I found of Arguijo taken in his prime, the bill of his cap was flipped up at a jaunty angle over his right eye. This fashion seems to have been a local affectation, as several photos of Brownsville ball clubs of the era show that other players adapted this look as well. Had Arguijo made the Yankees and been a part of the ’27 team, you might have seen legions of young kids across America flipping up the right side of their bill to emulate their hero, just as boys in later decades chopped off their sleeves like Ted Williams or tossed away their stirrups and pulled their cuffs over their cleats to look like Manny Ramirez.

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