Luis Olmo: Kidnapping, safe houses, and other minor league hijinx

 

In the Spring of 2017, a 97-year-old ball player passed away. This just wasn’t any ball player, but a guy whose 1943 debut marked him as only the second Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues. While that’s something, Luis Olmo’s story encompasses so much more than race or an ethnicity first (or, in his case, a “second”). It’s the age-old story of a kid, born in a faraway place, who had a dream of making the major leagues. It’s a story of big shot baseball executives pulling out all the dirty tricks to get their grimy hands on the talented and unsuspecting young man. And it’s a story of how a former big leaguer lived out the final chapters of his life graciously sharing the story of his modest part in the history of the game he loved so much. Because much has already been written about his major league career, I’ll recount the early part of Luis Olmo’s journey, which, if you ask me, is much more fascinating than coughing up a list of firsts, dates, and hard statistics.

LUIS FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ OLMO was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico in 1919, the third of four sons born to carpenter José Rodríguez and his wife Ana Olmo. Of the four boys, Luis was the only athlete, encouraged by his oldest brother José. Luis would later relate that he had been playing baseball since he was born, but he also excelled in several other sports such as basketball, soccer, and track. At first, Olmo aspired to become a major league pitcher, but an injury suffered throwing a javelin ended his mound hopes at age 15. Luis’ older brother José was a subscriber to The Sporting News, and through its pages the younger Olmo idolized Cubs second baseman Billy Herman, so he made the switch to the keystone sack. Continuing his schooling, Olmo moved to the city of Caguas to attend high school. Because the school offered no other sport except baseball, Olmo perfected his game without distraction. Playing second base, outfield and occasionally catching, Olmo evolved into a promising ballplayer, but Caguas was a long way away from the big leagues.

With the Great Depression in full swing, the road to the minor leagues in America was choked with thousands of American-born hopefuls trying to gain a foothold in organized baseball. Caguas, and Puerto Rico for that matter, was as far away from the minor leagues as the moon. Catching an American scout’s eye playing amateur ball in Caguas seemed impossible – but fortunately, Luis Olmo came of age at the perfect time in Puerto Rican baseball history.

THOUGH PUERTO RICO had a rich amateur baseball circuit, the island did not have the professional league that neighboring Cuba did. That changed in 1938 when the Puerto Rican Winter League was formed. For the first time, Puerto Rican players could showcase their talent at home as a group instead of scattering to other countries around the Caribbean and North America. The undisputed attraction in that inaugural season was Millito Navarro, the first Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues and a bonafide star. But that inaugural year also introduced the baseball world to a few young up and comers, among them pitcher Hi Bithorn of the San Juan Senators and Luis Olmo of the Caguas Creoles.

The teenage Olmo was recruited by his hometown team for the princely sum of $7 a week. Although he was young, the Creoles player-manager, Pito Álvarez de la Vega, knew in Olmo he had something special. The older man carefully mentored Olmo throughout the season, correctly assessing that this kid had what it took to make the major leagues one day. Olmo responded by hitting .335 his rookie season, generating much praise as the guy to watch in the near future.
Among those impressed with Olmo that first season was José Seda, a Puerto Rican baseball lifer who also scouted on the side for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers had just begun a resurgence under the leadership of new general manager Larry McPhail. Flush with money and grandiose plans, McPhail hired Cardinals GM Branch Rickey’s son, Branch Jr., to create and oversee a Dodgers farm system modeled on what his father had built for St. Louis. Seda had kept an eye on Olmo throughout the season, evaluating him as a prospective Dodger. However, Seda wasn’t the only one with connections who was taking an interest in Olmo; Miguel Lloreda had met Eddie Mooers, owner of the minor league Richmond Colts, on a business trip to the States, and had already sent word about this kid named Olmo.

The Colts were the only unaffiliated club in the Class B Piedmont League, and while the other teams relied on their parent club to provide players, independent owners relied on freelance tips such as Lloreda’s to score talent. Whatever Lloreda wrote, it was impressive enough that Mooers decided to take a chance on the 19-year-old. At the conclusion of the 1938-39 season, the Colts wired Olmo money to take the steamship Barranquilla to New York where a team representative would meet him and accompany him to Richmond where he would sign a contract.

Now things began to get a little cloak and dagger. Just as Luis was getting on the ship to America, José Seda wired Branch Rickey Jr.:

Good ballplayer named Luis Olmo arriving on Barranquilla. Stop. Get him. Stop. – José.

When the Barranquilla arrived, Branch Jr. rushed down to the docks and waded through the disembarking passengers until he identified a guy who looked like a ballplayer. Using his high school Spanish, Branch Jr. was able to convince Olmo to accompany him back to the Dodgers offices in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, Rickey’s español wasn’t good enough to convince the young Puerto Rican to put his name on a Dodgers contract. Temporarily foiled by the language barrier, Branch Jr. stashed Olmo at a Dodgers safe house up in Harlem while he desperately tried to locate Alberto Flores, a Puerto Rican infielder in the Brooklyn organization. Olmo was familiar with Flores from the Puerto Rican Winter League, but when he and Rickey arrived at the safe house, the third baseman was gone.

At the same time, Rickey was driving all over Manhattan trying to find the Rosetta Stone that would convince Olmo to sign with the Dodgers, the Richmond’s representative was desperately trying to track down the missing star import. With some pro sleuthing, Richmond’s man was able to deduce that Olmo was Shanghaied by Branch Jr., and then correctly figured he’d hide him in one of New York’s Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. Before morning, Olmo was located, his signature inked on a Richmond Colts contract, and safely on his way south to Virginia. Luis Olmo had slipped through the Dodgers fingers – for now…

RICHMOND PLACED their young import with the Tarboro Goobers of the lower-level Coastal Plain League. The Goobers had no place for him, so he was released and then optioned to the Wilson Tobs of the same league. Olmo got into 56 games and batted a credible .329. He returned to Caguas after the season fully expecting a contract for the next year – only it never arrived. The reason he did not hear from the Colts was that the contract was sent to the wrong name and address: Roberto Olmo of Cuba. How the Richmond front office made that mistake is unknown, but by the time the 1939-40 Puerto Rican Winter Season began, Luis Olmo figured he was now a free agent.

In the meantime, Olmo once again manned the outfield for the Creoles. Word of the league’s successful inaugural 1938-39 season had spread, and its sophomore year saw an influx of first-rate Negro League talent including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Leon Day, and Bill Byrd. Even when thrown into the mix with seasoned outsider baseball giants, Olmo continued to impress. Another Dodgers scout, Ted McGrew, approached the budding star about signing with Brooklyn, and, with no word from Richmond by March, Olmo signed a Dodgers minor league contract. Branch Jr.’s reaction is unrecorded, but one can imagine the younger Rickey sinking into his leather chair behind his desk and lighting a celebratory cigar, just like his old man.

Olmo traveled to Macon, Georgia for spring training with the Elmira Pioneers, one of the Dodgers farm teams. In one of his first exhibition games, Olmo’s career almost ended when he tried breaking up a double play by coming into second base standing. He broke up the play, but at the expense of being beaned in the right ear by the throw. After being out for a half hour, Olmo recovered his senses, vowing to slide in the future. Meanwhile, Richmond finally noticed that their foreign import not only was absent from spring training, but his contract and all correspondence had gone unanswered. Then, word reached Eddie Mooers in Richmond that Olmo was camped out in Macon, touted to the press as the Dodgers newest acquisition. Confronted with the second attempt by Brooklyn to poach his property, Mooers filed a protest with Minor League Baseball president William G. Bramham.

The Colts owner was able to convince Bramham that he did tender a contract in good faith before the contract deadline, even though it was mis-addressed. Olmo was awarded to Richmond for the 1940 season and the Dodgers contract voided. The Puerto Rican outfielder has slipped through Brooklyn’s fingers – for the second time.

THE NAME AND NATIONALITY confusion prompted José Olmo to write The Sporting News, correcting the misinformation printed about his kid brother. In a small piece printed in the April 18th edition, José penned: “His correct name is Luis Rodríguez Olmo, but he is known as Luis Olmo, and he is a Puerto Rican, a proud American citizen. No doubt the contract was not received by my brother because it was incorrectly addressed. So far, his name has been given out correctly only once, when you published the reserve lists. Later he was called Lewis Elmo and now as Roberto Olmo. Some confusion with Spanish names.”

Richmond sent Olmo back to the Wilson Tobs. At once it was clear he was well beyond the Class D level; by July he was batting just below the .350 mark with 18 homers. His superior play and potent bat had pushed the Tobs to a comfortable 18 game lead and locked in for the Coastal Plains pennant. He was called up to Richmond where he hit .271 to help the Colts take the Piedmont League pennant. Olmo returned to Caguas where he continued hitting, leading the Creoles to the Puerto Rican Winter League Championship. Olmo had turned a hat trick of pennant winners. 1940 was capped off with his marriage to Emma Paradis, a union that was still going strong when the old outfielder passed away seven decades later.

1941 saw Olmo return to Richmond. Despite interest from major league organizations, Eddie Mooers held onto his prized foreigner, figuring another season or two of good stats would drive up his selling price. Olmo benefited from the extra seasons in Richmond, mostly due to his manager, Ben Chapman. Today, Chapman is known solely for his warped racism and the sick invectives hurled against Jackie Robinson when he was the Phillies manager in 1947. But before all that, Chapman was a truly outstanding ballplayer with several major league clubs. He was the Yankees leadoff hitter in the early 1930’s, and his bat and base running skills earned him a starting spot in the very first All-Star Game in 1933. He also had a fiery temper that got him into numerous on-field fights and led to his frequent change of clubs throughout his career. By the early 1940’s, Chapman’s time as a big leaguer was through, but he still had enough talent to hang on as a player-manager in the minors. Whatever Chapman’s feelings were towards Latinos, he actually became a huge influence on Luis Olmo, and the ball player later credited his Richmond skipper with teaching him more about the game than any other manager, coach, or scout. The two men apparently were friendly away from the field as well. Olmo was a very talented pool player, and he played his manager almost every day before lunch, loser buying the other man’s meal.

I’LL PAUSE HERE to address the ever-present issue of race. Although Latinos had played in the majors since the early 1900’s, they were still few and far between. Part of the reason was the language barrier, which could only be overcome by a player learning English. No team was going to spring for a translator when you could just reach into the minors and get a comparable English-speaking replacement. Therefore, a Latino trying to make it to the majors had to possess extraordinary talent. This was still a time of accepted ethnic stereotypes – heck, even Life Magazine ran a feature on Joe DiMaggio in 1939 that read: “Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent and is otherwise well adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he keeps his hair slicked with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mien to spaghetti.”

Imagine what the perception of Puerto Ricans were to a public unfamiliar with the people or the culture of the island. Indeed, several of the profiles written about Olmo before or just after he made the majors made sure to remark how his mild manner was quite different from the stereotypical perception of the “fiery Latin.” This line from the April 8, 1943, edition of The Sporting News serves as an example: “Although of Latin lineage, Olmo is not hot-tempered.”

Besides the perceived temper issues Latinos had to contend with, there was also the added problem of skin color. In the U.S. as well as Puerto Rico, a whole rigid system of skin tones dictated what was and what was not acceptable to be labeled “white.” Fortunately, for Luis Olmo, his skin tone fell within the acceptable range. He was further fortunate in that his face was said to resemble Tony Lazzeri, the Yankees star second baseman of “acceptable” Italian heritage.

Despite a mug that resembled a Yankees All-Star, Olmo still had to deal with the occasional racial taunt and bean ball at the plate. These he took in stride – he had to. The game was a whole lot rougher in the days before million-dollar salaries and union reps. Gaining an edge in a game often came down to getting into the opposing player’s heads; name calling and bean balls were two acceptable ways to achieve that. As early as 1940, he was regularly called “Señor Olmo” by fans and in the sports pages, and he would be called “Chico” later with the Dodgers. To be sure, it wasn’t as bad as every Native American being called “Chief,” but innocent or not, it did single his Latin heritage out. However, Olmo knew that to make the majors he had to accept and deal with these obstacles, and this he did, matter-of-factly telling The Sporting News, “But that is baseball. So I get up and hit again.”

OLMO FINISHED the 1941 season first in home runs and triples, second in hits and slugging percentage and fifth in batting average. In September he was given additional reason to celebrate when he and Emma welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Ana Lucy. In the winter he returned to the Winter League where he augmented Chapman’s teachings by playing with and against Negro League superstars such as Josh Gibson, Lenny Pearson, Roy Campanella and Bill Byrd, the later pair his teammates on the Caguas Creoles.

Olmo had developed a batting stance that he later said was based on Joe DiMaggio’s. He stood back in the box, feet spread and firmly planted, the bat gripped at the end and cocked way back. Olmo favored a Louisville Slugger of the Joe Medwick or Babe Ruth model, 35 inches in length and weighting 32 ounces. And like Joe Medwick, Olmo was renowned as a “bad ball” hitter, connecting with pitches that other batter let go by.

Olmo’s bad ball hitting style caused some major league scouts to lose interest, as did his base sliding skills, which one scout called “amateurish.” And oddly enough, a third mark against Olmo being a number one pick was what one scout called his “lack of fire.” This is all the more head-scratching for, as we saw earlier, Latin players were often stereotyped as being TOO fiery! In Olmo’s case, his laid-back style of play was due to his quiet nature and natural skills which may have caused him appear complacent at times. In fact, the Richmond fans came to love the speedy outfielder’s fast play. He was best known for running out from under his cap several times each game, the occurrence so frequent that the local newspaper ran a contest asking fans to come up with a solution to Olmo’s cap problem. The winning entry was from a female admirer who gifted Olmo a child’s bonnet that tied under the chin along with a sonnet titled “Senor Olmo’s Cap.” Believe me, it wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was heartfelt and showed how much the Richmond fans admired their outfielder who came from so far away to play for their team.

Olmo further endeared himself to the fans by his flashy outfielding. His aforementioned speed helped him make tremendous running catches, but it was the basket catch that fans came to love. The basket catch later became a Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente staple, but Olmo had adapted this a decade before. There was a difference in styles, however: Mays caught his at waist level while Olmo positioned his glove chest high. Clemente later credited his fellow countryman Luis Olmo with teaching him the basket catch when he was in the minor leagues. Olmo was also blessed with a strong arm that, while not accurate 100% of the time, still made many runners think twice about taking an extra base.

THE NEXT YEAR, Olmo again dominated the Piedmont League, this time leading in home runs, hits, triples, and slugging, and coming in second in batting average and doubles. He was voted the most popular player in the league but was edged out of the MVP Award by his manager Ben Chapman. Olmo’s stock could get no higher in Richmond and Eddie Mooers knew this. The Luis Olmo bidding began, and in the thick of it was Branch Rickey Jr.

Rickey had never forgotten the Puerto Rican outfielder that twice slipped from his grasp. Now that he was available, Branch Jr. made sure the Dodgers were in there with an offer. There was one big problem: his father and St. Louis Cardinals general manager, Branch Rickey Sr. The elder Rickey had by now heard of Luis Olmo. The elder recognized the hustle and spark shown by Olmo were just the things he favored for his Cardinals. Branch Jr. knew this, and began maneuvering to keep his father out of the negotiations with Mooers. This covert operation was hampered by the fact that both men were staying under the same roof at the Rickey estate outside St. Louis. Branch Sr. had an idea of what was transpiring, but his son successfully kept the old man out of the estate’s telephone room while he hammered out a deal with Richmond. Branch Jr’s. evasive action worked, and Luis Olmo finally became property of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

While the phone lines were burning up between Richmond and St. Louis, Luis Olmo was traveling the long route back home for the winter. The war had made long distance travel a nightmare, and it took more than a week of waiting in Miami for Olmo to get a seat on a flight to Puerto Rico.

Waiting for him when he landed was his older brother José, bursting with news that he would be joining his childhood idol Billy Herman on the Brooklyn Dodgers – he was going to the majors!

THIS STORY is just the very beginning of Luis Olmo’s baseball odyssey. When he took the field as a Dodger rookie on July 18, 1943*, he was only the second Puerto Rican-born player in the majors (Hi Bithorn was the first, debuting with the Cubs the previous summer).

Because of his 1943 debut, Luis Olmo is sometimes lumped in with the many substandard wartime replacement players who would not have gotten a chance had it not been for the manpower shortage. However, at the time, the Dodgers new centerfielder was heralded as the real deal. As Tim Cohane of The Sporting News wrote, Olmo is “a strongly built youngster who can run like a Western Conference halfback, throw like a DiMaggio and meet the ball solidly and with extra-base power.” His combination of speed and power fit right in with the style of play favored by Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, and the Puerto Rican was expected to be key component of the post-war Brooklyn franchise. The fact that New York City and Northern New Jersey had become home to a fast growing Puerto Rican population didn’t hurt, either.

Despite the auspicious beginning of his career, Olmo would join the outlaw Mexican League in 1946 when the Dodgers, who had stooped to kidnapping in order to obtain his services, refused to pay him what he believed he was worth. After several seasons playing for Mexico City and Veracruz, Olmo returned to the Dodgers midway through 1949. He batted .305 and likely was the difference in Brooklyn edging out St. Louis for the pennant. In the World Series against the Yankees, Olmo hit .273 and made history as the first Puerto Rican to play in as well as homer in the Fall Classic.

Even though he hit .290 with 24 homers in his four years in Brooklyn, the Dodgers released Olmo after the Series. The Dodgers new management favored a more power-oriented outfield lineup typified by Carl Furillo and Duke Snider, making Olmo’s hit and run style obsolete.

BEFORE HE ENDED his career in the mid-1950s, Luis Olmo had played ball in not only the United States and his native Puerto Rico, but also Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Venezuela – an odyssey that earned him the nickname “America’s Baseball Player.” In retirement he became the elder statesman of Puerto Rican baseball, active in his local SABR chapter and being a living link to the island’s first season of the professional winter baseball that endures to this very day. Luis Olmo passed away on April 28, 2017, aged ninety-seven.

*Luis Olmo’s debut game on July 18, 1943, was the second game of a doubleheader against the Boston Braves. The game was halted in the 6th inning, tied 4-4. The game was continued on September 13, 1943, resulting in a 7-6 Boston victory. Purists may therefore say that Luis Olmo’s true debut was on July 23 against the Cincinnati Reds…

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While Luis Olmo’s major league career has been well-documented by modern historians, his early seasons in the minors are usually only mentioned in passing. Fortunately, Olmo was extremely popular when he played in Richmond and the archives of the Richmond Times-Dispatch are chock-full of contemporary stories and anecdotes about the man the fans voted the Piedmont Leagues’ “Most Popular Player” of 1942. And special thanks to my friend Angel Colon, the great Puerto Rican Winter League historian whose work first piqued my interest in Luis Olmo’s story.

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This week’s story is Number 34 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 3 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 030 and will be active through December of 2021. Booklets 1-29 can be purchased as a group, too.

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