There were three former Major League baseball players who died in 2017 that I would like to mention. None of them had their beginning in Negro League baseball. One is the first of many Major League players that would come from San Pedro de Marcois, Dominican Republic. The other two are Caucasians who were on one of the last Major League franchises that fielded African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players.
Why mention them? They played during the time when baseball consumed my life, my youth. I collected their baseball cards and remembered the events in their careers. Even though I will always retain good memories of that time, the death of these players still gives me a sense of lost.
Manny Jimenez – December 12, 2017
There had been no players of color on the roster of my hometown team Kansas City Athletics in 1960. However, Charlie Finley purchased the A’s in 1961 and the next season a group of African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players were added to the roster: Ed Charles, John Wyatt, Jose Tartabull, Diego Segui, Orlando Pena, and Manny Jimenez. A contact left-handed hitting outfielder, Jimenez came from San Pedro de Marcois in the Dominican Republic; the first of many Major League players that would come from that city. The list of players that would follow includes former Major Leaguers Sammy Sosa, Joaquin Andujar, Rico Carty, Alfonso Soriano, Pedro Guerrero, Tony Fernandez, and George Bell in addition to current active players Johnny Cueto and Robinson Cano.
Jimenez started the 1962 season with a hot bat, hitting .351 by the All-Star break. But Finley believed due to his physical stature, 6’1” and 185 pounds, Jimenez should hit with more home run power. Saying he did not pay him to hit singles, Finley ordered Jimenez to swing harder to hit more home runs. Altering his swing, the outfielder experienced a batting slump the remainder of the season. Although he finished with a .301 batting average, Jimenez never again consistently regained the swing he had earlier that season. He had three injury-prone more seasons with the A’s and three as a pinch hitter in the National League before retiring in 1969.
Jim Bunning and Frank Lary
Teammates with the Detroit Tigers from 1955 – 1963, Bunning, who died May 26, and Lary, who died on December 13, were both All-Star pitchers. The Tigers were the next to last franchise to add African-American and dark-skinned Hispanic players; the team’s first being Ozzie Virgil in 1958. The Boston Red Sox, the last team to integrate, added Elijah “Pumpsie” Green the next year.
From 1949 – 1964 the New York Yankees won the American League pennant every year but two; 1954 and 1959. With me being a young baseball fan in Kansas City, an American League city, you can understand how I became a “Yankee hater”. I rooted for any team who had the potential to beat the Yankees and surprisingly the Tigers in 1961 came close to doing it.
Detroit finished the 1960 season in 6th place (71 – 83), with the high point acquiring 1959 American League home run co-champion Rocky Colavito from the Cleveland Indians in a trade. He would be a factor in the team’s dramatic turn around in 1961. Colavito with 45, first baseman Norm Cash with 41, and future Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline with 19 combined for 105 home runs. The Tigers added more color to the line-up that season. Billy Bruton, a trade acquisition from the Milwaukee Braves, played centerfield. Starting shortstop Chico Fernandez had come over from the Philadelphia Phillies the previous year. Jake Wood, the first African-American to work through the Tigers’ farm system and earn a starting position on the team, played second base.
The pitching staff, led by Jim Bunning and Frank Lary, had a huge role in the team’s success in 1961. At that time, both had been mainstays of the starting rotation for years: Bunning winning 62 games since 1957 and Lary 94 since 1955. In the midst of what would be a 28 – 13 lifetime record against New York, Lary had been given the moniker “Yankee Killer” by the sports media. The number three spot in the Tiger’s pitching rotation went to Don Mossi, a seven-year veteran of American League campaigns. Combined the three won 53 games that season; Lary 23, Bunning 17, and Mossi 15.
The defending American League champion Yankees had a powerful hitting line-up in 1961 led by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. They pursued the single season home run record of 60 held by Babe Ruth. Maris broke it with 61, while Mantle finished with 54. However, on July 24 the Tigers were in first place by one game ahead of the Yankees. Detroit certainly had my hopes raised high.
On September 1, the Tigers went to Yankee Stadium for a three game weekend series in second place trailing New York by only 1.5 games. However, Detroit lost all three games and ended the in season in a tailspin. They lost 14 of their last 29 games, finishing in second place with a 101 – 61, 8 games behind the Yankees.
Never again having his 1961 form due to shoulder problems, Frank Lary won only nine more games the final years (1962 – 65) of his career. The Tigers traded him to the New York Mets after the 1963 season.
Around the same time, the team traded Jim Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies. He won 106 games the final years of his career (1964 – 71) in the National League. After baseball, he became a six-term US Congressman and two-term US Senator from his home state of Kentucky. In 1991, Bunning was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies on June 21, 1964, Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game against the New York Mets. His former Detroit Tiger teammate Frank Lary looked on from the Mets’ bullpen that day. Lary may not have been surprised at the pitching mastery shown by Bunning. He had seen it numerous times in their nine years together with the Tigers.