Hi Bithorn: The life and odd death of Hurricane Hi

 

ON DECEMBER 28, 1951 an El Mante, Mexico police officer was escorting a suspected car thief. The officer had apprehended the man when the paperwork he produced for the 1947 Buick he was driving wasn’t adequate enough to prove ownership. The officers suspicions were further aroused when the man offered to sell him his car for a few hundred dollars, far below what it was actually worth. At the police station, the El Mante police chief instructed his officer to drive the suspect 230 miles south to Mexico City where he claimed he could retrieve the proper documents for his Buick.

As the pair prepared to leave El Mante, the prisoner slugged the officer with one of his two suitcases, knocking him to the ground. The officer pulled his .45 and blasted the suspect before he could hit him again. As the suspect lie bleeding out in the street, the man used his dying words to utter, “I am a member of a communist cell on an important mission.”

It was an odd story but one that possibly would have run under the radar had this suspected car thief and Commie agent not been Hi Bithorn, former Major League baseball player and nothing short of a hero in his native Puerto Rico.

HIRAM GABRIEL BITHORN-SOSA was born in Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 18, 1916. His father, Waldemar, was an insurance agent, and his mother, María Sosa, taught school. He was the youngest of three brothers, Waldemar, Fernando and Rafael. A sister named María Angelica would later complete the Bithorn clan. Historian Jorge Colon Delgado in Jane Allen Quevedo’s well-researched SABR biography of Bithorn reports that the family traveled frequently to the United States and that María taught her children English. In addition, all the Bithorn boys were natural athletes, meeting with considerable success in a wide variety of sports and games.

6-1 and a strapping 200lbs, Bithorn made a name for himself on the island as a star basketball player, playing for the national team in the 1935 Central American and Caribbean Games. Unfortunately, there was no future for even the greatest basketball players back then–the sport was still an amateur and collegiate novelty. Besides, Hi loved baseball, and there was indeed a future in that.

PUERTO RICO had produced a number of good homegrown talent, but unfortunately their avenue of advancement was severely hampered by their skin tone. It was tough enough already for a lily-white Latino to make it in organized baseball in America, but the darker the skin pigment, the fewer opportunities there were. Unfortunately, guys like Pancho Coimbre, Millito Navarro and Perucho Cepeda (Orlando Cepeda’s pop) would be known only to fans of outsider baseball, simply because they were judged too dark.

But not so with Hi Bithorn. By his late teens the sturdy pitcher had made enough waves with his semi-pro Leones de Ponce team that people began to take notice. In the spring of 1936, the Brooklyn Eagles Negro League team came to Puerto Rico for a series of exhibition games against the Cincinnati Reds. The Eagles featured future Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Ray Dandridge, but their star pitcher, Leon Day, was out of commission with an emergency case of appendicitis. Light on pitching, the visitors tapped 20 year-old Hi Bithorn to start their game against the Cincinnati Reds. For seven innings the young Puerto Rican held the big leaguers to a single run before yielding 3 that tied the game up. Brooklyn brought in a relief pitcher and eventually won the game while their native fill-in pitcher became something of a national hero.

Along with his local fame, his credible performance brought Major League interest. Career minor leaguer Ted Norbert played against Bithorn in the winter of 1933 and, upon returning to the islands in 1936, kept close watch on the young pitcher. His game against the Reds convinced Norbert the kid had what it took to be a professional ballplayer. Besides a blazing fastball, Bithorn spoke fluent English. Moreover, his pigment was working in his favor as well: as a light skinned Puerto Rican with European heritage, Bithorn would be deemed racially safe enough to be signed by Norbert’s bosses–the New York Yankees.

IN THE STATES, Bithorn posted winning records of 16-9 with Norfolk in 1936 and 17-9 split between Norfolk and Binghamton the next year. However, no matter how many games he won or how high he climbed in the Yankees chain, he was stuck behind one of the best pitching staffs in the majors; no matter how good he was, there was simply had no room for him in the Bronx.

In the winter, Bithorn returned home to Puerto Rico where the Liga de Béisbol Semiprofesional de Puerto Rico (LBSPR) was formed in 1938. In addition to established homegrown stars Coimbre, Navarro and Cepeda, the LBSPR attracted Negro League superstars such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Leon Day. Bithorn signed with the San Juan Senadores, but because his pitching skills were deemed far more advanced than any of the other Puerto Rican-born pitchers, Hi was prohibited from taking the mound during the inaugural 1938-39 season. Showing he was a well-rounded player, Bithorn played first base and did well at the plate, starting with a double in the LBSPR’s first league game. After San Juan began the season with a losing record, their manager Billo Torruella resigned in frustration. Bithorn was named the new skipper, and to this day his age of 22 is the record for youngest manager in the Puerto Rico Winter League. Later in the season he recorded the league’s first triple play and was a member of the first All-Star team. Bithorn managed his Senadores to a first place finish, but did not figure in the team’s postseason loss to Guayama because minor league spring training had begun in America.

THE 1939 YANKEES still did not have a spot for Bithorn in their star-studded rotation, so he was parceled off to the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, one of the three highest minor leagues in operation at the time. The Blues were stacked with pitchers so he was sent to Newark of the International League, the second of the three highest minor leagues, who claimed the same surplus of arms. Luckily, the Yankees had another farm team in the Pacific Coast League, the third of the three highest minor leagues. Pitching for the Oakland Oaks, the Puerto Rican was known as “Hurricane Hi” and “The Tropical Hurricane” for the speed of his fastball and the exoticness of his heritage.

In 1940 he was sent to the Hollywood Stars when the Yankees working relationship with Oakland was terminated. Bithorn’s good looks and record on the mound made him a favorite of the movie star set who filled the box seats at Gilmore Field. Among the Hollywood notables he palled around with was actress Ida Lupino. Jane Allen Quevedo’s SABR biography of Bithorn reveals that in the 1943 Lupino film The Hard Way, the ballplayer’s name makes an appearance in a shot of a prop newspaper when Lupino’s character’s name “Laura Britton” is misprinted as “Laura Bithorn.”

Bithorn’s success with Hollywood was achieved despite various health issues that would surface throughout his career. The major obstacle was bone spurs in his elbow. Though Hi was only 24 in 1940, he had pitched year-round since he was a boy in Puerto Rico. Bone spurs occur when the protective cartilage in a joint is worn down through over use, causing the bones to rub together. Boney bumps form, some of which break loose and cause pain with movement. Bithorn had been a workhorse in the minor leagues and the extra-long 180 game Coast League seasons accelerated the wear on his arm. He finished up his 1940 season with an operation to remove the painful spurs from his elbow. As the operation did nothing to replace the cartilage, the procedure was only a temporary fix and the pitcher would be troubled by bone spurs for the rest of his career. In order to recover in time for the ’41 season, Bithorn had to forego playing in Puerto Rico over the winter. Though he couldn’t play, the native son took his place in the dugout as San Juan’s manager. The operation appeared to be a success as Hurricane Hi’s fastball was judged to be the strongest and fastest in the Coast League in 1941.

On June 26 he defied the odds by pitching a shutout against Sacramento while running a temperature of 104 degrees. Clearly nothing was going to stop Hi Bithorn from becoming the first Puerto Rican to play in the majors, and when he wrapped up the season with 17 wins for a disappointing 85-91 Hollywood Stars team, he was eagerly drafted by the Chicago Cubs.

AFTER THE CUBS dramatic come-from-behind victory in the National League pennant race in 1938, the team never recovered from their 4-game sweep by the Yankees in the World Series. Their pitching staff was a mess and in need of a serious miracle, so in the spring of 1942 all eyes were on their new Puerto Rican import.

Carrying the honor and responsibility of being the very first from his island to make it to the majors, Bithorn put up a 9-14 record for the year. As is so often the story, numbers don’t tell the whole story–the Cubbies were miserable in ’42, and when you take Bithorn’s 3.68 ERA into account, his ledger looks a little more promising. In addition to being the first Puerto Rican to play in the Majors, Bithorn recorded another first when he became the first from his country to win and lose games on the same day. This occurred when Bithorn was brought in as a reliever in the first game of a doubleheader against Cincinnati. A Cubs rally won the game for Hi, but he wasn’t so lucky when he started the second game, giving up two earned runs in the Reds 2-1 win.

Though teammates found him to be rather quiet and reserved, Bithorn showed his fiery side during that season in a July 15 game against Brooklyn. In the third inning the Dodgers knocked Cubs starter Claude Passeau out of the box and Bithorn was brought in. Brooklyn skipper Leo Durocher immediately began bombarding Bithorn with racial slurs and insults. For two innings, Cubs first baseman Phil Cavaretta tried to keep the Puerto Rican calm in the face of Durocher’s continuous invective assault, but by the fifth Bithorn had heard enough. Turning towards the Brooklyn dugout, Hurricane Hi fired a fastball straight at Durocher’s head, sending the Dodgers manager diving for cover. National League President Ford Frick fined the pitcher $25, and the Moline Dispatch reported that several of his teammates, glad to see someone take a swipe at the hated Durocher, offered to help pay it. Durocher was quoted as saying “That Bithorn got pretty hot. Maybe he just can’t take it.” The next afternoon Bithorn took infield practice standing right in front of the Dodgers dugout, all but daring someone to start something. Durocher kept his mouth shut.

Another notable game during the ’42 season was his April 28 7-hit shutout against St. Louis. Bithorn’s catcher that afternoon was “Chico” Hernandez, a Cuban born rookie, and the pair became the first all-Latin American battery in major league history. The duo would sometimes forego signs and call pitches in their native language when they were sure there were no other Spanish-speakers present.

1943 proved to be Hi Bithorn’s breakout year. His success on the mound was no doubt aided by his feeling more comfortable around his teammates. He acquired a reputation in the locker room as a prankster and was able to give as much ribbing as he took from the rest of the club.

To the joy of the rest of the National League teams, the Puerto Rican was particularly effective against the defending World Champion Cardinals. St. Louis was on their way to the second of three consecutive pennants, yet Bithorn beat them 4 out of 6 times, allowing just two earned runs in 32 innings.

He met with success off the field as well. When he walked into the Uptown National Bank to deposit his Cubs paycheck one afternoon, Hi was helped by 18 year-old cashier Virginia Arford. Bithorn’s bi-monthly deposits blossomed into a romance, and Virginia became a fixture at Cubs home games.

Bithorn finished his sophomore season by going 18-12 with a nice 2.60 ERA. His seven shutouts topped the National League, and the future seemed bright for Chicago’s newest star.

Unfortunately, World War II was raging, and as Puerto Rico was an American possession, Bithorn was eligible for the draft. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, after which the Cubs ace was quoted in newspapers as saying, “after being with a losing team many years, I am now joining an outfit that can’t lose.”

Stationed at the San Juan Naval Air Station, the Navy put Bithorn’s star status in Puerto Rico to good use as manager of a service team that entertained troops and raised money for war relief. Crowds of as many as 8,000 fans were recorded when Bithorn played. He is credited with 7 wins and 1 loss in 60 innings during 1945. While he met with success on the mound during his Navy service, it also likely contributed to the end of his effectiveness as a big league pitcher.

There were some reports that the pitcher hurt his already injury-prone arm, and at one point he was transferred to a Naval hospital in the States for an undisclosed treatment. All this was compounded by his packing on over 25 pounds (some reports stated as much as 45lbs) from solid Navy chow.

DISCHARGED IN SEPTEMBER of 1945, Bithorn missed out on the Cubs pennant and World Series, but was expected to be an integral part of their post-war plans. In January 1946 he and Virginia married in Mexico, then Mr. and Mrs. Bithorn continued on to Puerto Rico. As he did before the war, Hi joined the San Juan Senadores and helped lead the team to the championship against Mayaguez. During that series Bithorn suffered another injury to his arm during a play at the plate. The wing was still unhealed when he joined the Cubs in the spring of 1946 and seemed to worsen as the summer wore on. By the end of the season he was relegated to the bullpen, managing to compile a weak 6-5 record. It was clear he no longer had his stuff, and the Cubs sold their former ace to the Pirates who quickly sold him to the White Sox.

Bithorn returned to Chicago in 1947 but pitched just 2 innings in as many games before he was released to the Hollywood Stars, who cut him loose after 4 games. Realizing he needed help, Bithorn underwent surgery on his arm and sat out the 1948 season in the hopes his arm would recover. His comeback fizzled out after he gave up 65 hits in 46 innings during a season split between Oklahoma City and Nashville. Still wanting to stay in the game, Bithorn changed uniforms and learned to be an umpire. He completed his training and was hired by the Pioneer League for the 1951 season, the first Puerto Rican umpire in organized baseball.

In May 1951 Virginia gave birth to Hiram, Jr. Hi Sr. doted on his son and declared his intentions to make him into a great ballplayer. The Bithorn’s enjoyed a summer and fall of familial bliss, but in December Hi learned that his mother’s health had declined. María Sosa was living with Hi’s sister María Angelica in Mexico City and Bithorn made plans to visit after Christmas. Virginia was reluctant to take their newborn on such a long trip and was adamantly against Hi making the road trip from Chicago alone. However, Hi was devoted to his mother and the day after Christmas he loaded up his ’47 Buick and began the long lonely drive to Mexico City.

He made it as far as the dusty little town of El Mante.

In his book Sobre la Vida de Hiram Garbiel Bithorn Sosa, historian Jorge Fidel López Vélez provides the most detailed description of what probably played out in El Mante. Vélez’s research shows Bithorn checking into the Hotel El Mante at 3am on December 28 for a brief rest. Later questioning discovered that El Monte’s police chief Fidel Garza had instructed the hotel’s owner to inform him when any foreigner driving a fancy car checked in, as he “wanted to buy a car at a good price.” When Bithorn checked out later that afternoon to begin the last stretch to his sister’s house, Officer Ambrosio Castillo-Cano showed up and demanded the Buick’s documents. Whatever Bithorn produced, it wasn’t enough for Castillo-Cano, and Hi was brought to the police station for interrogation. There, Police Chief Garza supposedly ordered Castillo-Cano to drive Bithorn all the way to Mexico City where Hi insisted the rest of the car’s documentation was stored. When the pair was preparing to leave, Hi made his desperate break for freedom.

A doctor by the name of Virgilio Hinojosa quickly appeared on the scene. Dr. Hinojosa decided it was a good idea to take the dying man on a road trip to the town of Ciudad Victoria, 85 miles and 2-hours away. It was Dr. Hinojosa who reported the “I am a Communist spy” declaration. Maria del Carmen Pino, owner of the local newspaper, claimed to have also heard this, but went on to say that the dying man also said he was running away from them.

Bithorn survived the trip to Ciudad Victoria but expired shortly after arriving. Less than 24 hours after he died and clearly having no idea who the dead man was, Bithorn’s body was unceremoniously tossed facedown in a common grave, still wearing the clothes he was assassinated in.

WHEN THE PRESS got wind of Puerto Rico’s first big leaguer’s death and questions began to be asked, Officer Castillo-Cano’s story started coming apart. For starters, why the hell would Hi Bithorn be selling his Buick, his only means of transportation, in the middle of nowhere? Plus, the former Cub had left home with over a thousand U.S. dollars, negating the theory he needed some quick cash. Why was Chief Garza spotted cruising around in the big Buick sans license plates before Bithorn was reported shot? And that whole Commie confession? Everyone from Bithorn’s wife to his sister María Angelica swore up and down the ballplayer was no Red. In the paranoid Cold War atmosphere of 1951, Officer Castillo-Cano probably figured he’d be looked on as a hero for gunning down a real Red spy. Probably thought he’d get a medal. No, it became pretty obvious Officer Castillo-Cano was an inept shakedown artist with a badge, and he had murdered an unarmed Hi Bithorn after he tried to escape from the clutches of a corrupt police department.

The Mexican justice system agreed and Castillo-Cano was found guilty, albeit to a reduced charge of “simple homicide” and sentenced to a paltry 8 years for the ballplayer’s execution. Dr. Hinojosa’s refusal to treat the dying man in El Mante and his 85-mile detour to Ciudad Victoria was later determined to be the cause of Bithorn’s death.

The Bithorn family began a long battle to bring Hi home to Puerto Rico for burial. The Mexican government responded only after the United States State Department got involved. As a final insult to Hi and his family, the body arrived in Puerto Rico on January 12, caked in mud and showing evidence of being carelessly exhumed. Nevertheless, the next day Hiram Bithorn’s casket was placed on the field of San Juan’s Sixto Escobar Stadium where 6,000 fans filed passed to pay their last respects to Puerto Rico’s first major leaguer. His body was later taken to Buxeda Cemetery, not far from where he grew up as a boy in Santurce.

And still, the disrespect shown the Bithorn family by the Mexican authorities continued. When María Angelica tracked down the two suitcases her brother had with him, she found they contained not the Christmas gifts and clean clothes he left Chicago with, but dirty laundry. After a long legal fight, his sister was able to reclaim the ’47 Buick, but with the condition she immediately take it out of Mexico.

Sadly, relations between Virginia and the Bithorn family deteriorated. María Angelica claimed that Hi intended to begin divorce proceedings against Virginia, and later in 1952 sued her and Hiram, Jr. for the cost of bringing Hi’s body back to Puerto Rico. A Puerto Rican court also seized the couple’s vacation house on the island and awarded it to the Bithorn family.

IT WAS A SAD AND POINTLESS end to a promising life. While in America his role as the very first of a long line of fine Puerto Rican ballplayers is a footnote at best, back in Puerto Rico, Hi Bithorn is far from forgotten. When it came time to name the island’s biggest and most modern baseball stadium in 1962, it was a given that it would bear the name “Estadio Hiram Bithorn” in his honor.

* * *

ANOTHER FIRST FOR HI BITHORN?

Since the beginning of professional baseball, players from Latin countries were scrutinized for traces of African blood. Unlike North America, mixed-race families were fairly common in places like Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Because of this, any ballplayer imported from a Latin country was closely scrutinized before and during their tenure in the major leagues. For instance, when the Cincinnati Reds signed Cubans Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida in 1911, the team released a statement calling the pair, “two of the purest bars of Castilian soap ever floated to these shores.”

When World War II brought a wave of draft-exempt Cuban players into the majors, some feared that a racially mixed player would slip through. Although he was fair-skinned with a non-Spanish surname, Hi Bithorn’s racial purity was often questioned during his time in the majors. Legendary baseball writer Fred Lieb included an interesting story about Bithorn in his 1977 memoirs, Baseball as I Have Known It:

“Late in the winter of 1946–7, when I was working in St. Louis, I was invited to see a performance of Katherine Dunham’s all-black dance troupe. I did not know the man who had arranged for me to sit in the wings throughout the performance. During the intermission he brought over one of the women dancers and introduced her to me. “She is a first cousin to Hi Bithorn, the pitcher,” he explained to make conversation. “Yes,” the girl volunteered immediately. “My mother and Hi’s mother are sisters.”

Lieb goes on to opine that the incident was orchestrated “to tell me something” and that “it had been rumored among baseball writers and in the clubhouses when Bithorn came up in 1942 that he was part black.” He wraps up the passage with, “I have been assured by a Puerto Rican baseball authority that Bithorn was not black, despite my curious experience.”

According to Puerto Rican genealogist Luis Rivera’s website, Genealogy Under Construction, Bithorn’s parents had a varied heritage. Waldemar’s family all traced back to Denmark and Spain by way of St. Croix. María Sosa’s father’s family arrived in Puerto Rico from Spain after stops in the Canary Islands and Dominican Republic. However, Rivera was unable to trace María’s mother’s family farther back than turn-of-the-century Puerto Rico.

The 1910s-1940s Puerto Rican census rolls I consulted list both the Bithorn and Sosa family’s race as “blanco.” So what can we make of the rumors and Lieb’s “curious experience?” I really don’t know.

* * *

Besides the contemporary newspaper articles used to create this story, two other sources were invaluable in bringing the ballplayer to life: Sobre la Vida de Hiram Garbiel Bithorn Sosa by Jorge Fidel López Vélez and Jane Allen Quevedo’s biography of Bithorn in SABR’s Puerto Rico and Baseball: 60 Biographies.

* * *

This week’s story is Number 22 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 2 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 018 and will be active through October of 2020. Booklets 1-17 can be purchased as a group, too.

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