If Alex Rodriguez’s season-long ban holds up in 2014, he will be the first Major Leaguer to miss a full season for disciplinary reasons since Commissioner Happy Chandler banned the Mexican League “jumpers” for five years following their 1946 defections.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned Ferguson Jenkins indefinitely, and Commissioner Fay Vincent sought to sit Steve Howe down “for life” following drug infractions, but both attempts were reversed in arbitration.
The Mexican League was not affiliated in any way with organized baseball in the U.S. at the time. It was not a startup league, however; it had been around since 1925, with available records and a greater organization behind it since 1937. It was a familiar port of call for a vast number of Negro League players who tended to shop around for the best offer year after year, with organized baseball unavailable to them until Jackie Robinson played in the International League in 1946.
Coincidentally, 1946 was the year that 39-year-old Jorge Pasquel, who with his four brothers owned the league and its eight teams, decided to go after Major League players by offering them much more money than they were making back home.
It was an enormous story at the time, particularly after overtures were made to Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Kurowski, Enos Slaughter, Terry Moore, and other top-tier players back from World War II.
Because the American press generally followed baseball with unapologetic support, and because the American public would likely have overwhelmingly voted “keep it!” to the reserve clause, Pasquel and his project suffered the scorn of the U.S. at almost every turn. “Outlaw league” was its noun, and “raided” and “jumped” were the action verbs. It was hard to win in the court of public opinion with those terms out there every day. But for players who were paid little, and who had no free agency system to work with, this was The Grand Temptation.
The story begins with Jorge Pasquel, who had the swagger of Donald Trump and, like George Steinbrenner, the money behind it. He and his brothers set about recruiting players by meeting them in person in the U.S. Their efforts knew few bounds. Pasquel flew to St. Louis to meet with Cardinal pitchers Max Lanier and Fred Martin and infielder Lou Klein, on May 23, 1946, only to discover that the Cardinals were in New York. No problem. They accepted his offer and left immediately for Mexico. Pasquel was a persuasive man.
Joe Garagiola was just a 20-year-old rookie catcher on the Cardinals in 1946, but today he recalls, “We were kind of shocked and disappointed because they left without saying anything—they were just gone. We came in and their lockers were empty. We lost a pretty good second baseman in Klein, and a real good pitcher in Lanier. Nobody really knew much about it. We knew what we read in the newspaper. Guys started saying there’d be a big raid on the big leagues. We knew our guys were gone and we saw that the Giants lost Danny Gardella, so we wondered ‘Who else was going to go?’”
Lanier turned out to be the biggest catch. The 30-year-old left-hander was in his ninth year with the Cardinals and was 6–0 with a 1.93 ERA at the time he jumped. He had pitched for three championship Cardinals teams in the 1940s and had been the NL ERA champ in 1943 with a 1.90 mark.
Monte Irvin, a star in the Negro Leagues, played for Pasquel in 1942, four years before the “raids.” For Negro League players, it wasn’t considered “jumping,” — they went from team to team and country to country almost annually for the right deal. “Oh, Jorge was dynamic,” recalled Monte, 95 and still on top of his game, in a recent phone conversation from his home in Houston. “He was movie-star handsome, and he was rich. A big ladies man. He was in politics, he was in the oil business, owned a newspaper, was a customs broker, and he exported goods to everyone during the war — the Allies and the Germans. Didn’t matter. He made a fortune.” By the early 1950s, Pasquel was granted a monopoly on Mexican oil distribution.
“He built a ballpark in Mexico City for maybe $10 million,” said Irvin. “It was on the outskirts of town. But the farm population was moving in and the outskirts became the inskirts. He sold the park for $51 million.
“I remember going to his chateau at 39 Hamburgo Street in Mexico City to get paid. Still remember the address. He had this huge home with fifteen-foot walls around it, and these three enormous Great Danes with him. He also had homes in Laredo, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, and Africa, where he hunted big game. On his desk were machine guns. At one point he tossed a .45 caliber handgun to me, just to show it off. I’d never held a gun before! I made other arrangements to get paid in the future. Those Great Danes were big.”
It all sounds a bit like Al Pacino in Scarface.
In 1942, Monte came within two RBIs of winning the league’s Triple Crown (batting .397), and he received $700 a month plus an apartment and a maid. But he had given his word to Effa Manley that he would play for her Newark Eagles following his Army discharge, and he kept his word. But he never forgot his experience in Mexico as a black player. “We felt so free; no Jim Crow laws. . . . We could live anywhere, dine anywhere, go to movies anywhere, sit anywhere; it was wonderful. The fans loved us, and Mexico had the prettiest girls I’d ever seen. Ray Dandridge managed for the Pasquels and loved it. He stayed there for many years. Josh Gibson played there; Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Quincy Troupe. Pasquel treated us just great.”
“Sundays, we would play at 10 a.m. so that everyone could go to the bullfights in the afternoon. It was quite a life.”
Irvin really loved his time in Mexico and loved Pasquel. He still keeps in touch with Jorge Jr., all these years later.
With Pasquel throwing around suitcases of money, one would think that his quest produced more than it did. In the end he signed some relatively high-profile names like Sal Maglie of the Giants and Mickey Owen and Luis Olmo of the Dodgers, in addition to Lanier, Klein, and Martin. Maglie doubled his $6,000 U.S. salary. Lanier went from about $10,000 to about $25,000. Owen got $15,000 plus a home (other players lived in nice apartments), plus had all his taxes paid in both countries. He was a playing manager for Veracruz. (Pasquel sometimes wore a uniform and coached third.)
But the rest was not an exceptional bunch. Whatever the Pasquels had in money and persuasion, scouting was not their strong suit. Also “snatched” from the Giants were Canadian-born Roland Gladu, Adrian Zabala, Roy Zimmerman, George Hausman, Cuban-born Nap Reyes, Gardella, Ace Adams (who had pitched the most games in the Majors during the war years), and Harry Feldman, one of the few Jewish players in the Majors. They lost nine players in all.
The Phillies lost Cuban-born Rene Monteagudo, the Athletics lost Cuban-born Bobby Estalella (whose grandson played in the Majors from 1996 to 2004), the Tigers lost Murray Franklin, the Browns lost Red Hayworth, and the White Sox lost the Majors’ first Venezuelan player, Alex Carrasquel (uncle of Chico Carrasquel). The Reds lost Cuban Tommy de la Cruz, and the Senators lost Cuban Roberto Ortiz, both of whom actually jumped in 1945. Many of these players were prospects or marginal Major Leaguers; clearly, Pasquel fell short of snaring any big fish, although he was prepared to spend huge dollars on Musial, Williams, Feller, Rizzuto, and DiMaggio. He reportedly offered Feller $500,000 for five years, and Williams $360,000 for three. Babe Ruth was said to be offered the league presidency. Pasquel even reportedly offered Chandler $50,000 to become commissioner.
Vern “Junior” Stephens of the Browns, the defending AL home run champion who had been holding out, jumped too. He supposedly got $250,000 for five years. But after two games, he returned his first check and went home. He said the inability of the league to get American equipment — for fear of reprisal by the manufacturers — was the first danger sign he saw. And he sure didn’t like the descriptions of over-the-mountain, harrowing bus rides to Tampico and Laredo.
Not everyone knew what they were in for.