#GoingDeep: Carlos Paula, the man who integrated the Washington Senators

Written by: Larry Brunt

When the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum began its Digital Archive Project, one of the first collections digitized was the photographs of Osvaldo Salas – one of the most striking-yet-rarely-seen collections of baseball images known.

Salas was born in Cuba in 1914 and immigrated with his family to New York when he was 14 years old. He held a number of jobs before becoming a press photographer, whose images were published in Life and the New York Times. Salas loved baseball, and was especially interested in the Black and Latino players were who becoming the new face of baseball in the 1950s. Many of his photographs are currently on exhibit on the third floor of the Museum, including a rare portrait of a player named Carlos Paula.

Paula’s story, however, remains largely untold.

Heading into the 1954 Spring Training, Washington Senators' scout Joe Cambria touted Paula as “a player who can do everything well enough to be in the majors.” He will have “the best throwing arm in the outfield, is a terror on the bases, and can hit big league pitching.” Manager Bucky Harris, to whom Paula was nothing more than a rumor, responded, “If this fellow is such a great hitter, then how come he hit only .309 in the Big State League?”

The Washington Post called it “a reasonable question." Several days later the Post said Cambria can’t be believed when he says a player is “can’t miss,” then adds a quote from Cambria on Paula: “Big, fast, plenty of power. He can’t miss.” The reporters had never seen him play, either.

Cambria scouted in Cuba under orders from the Senators' front office to recruit light-skinned Cubans. The year before, Senators Farm Director Ossie Bluege gave the written edict, “If he’s white all go and well, if not, he stays home.” Another time, Cambria was asked to confirm if a prospect was "snow white."

Carlos Paula was not snow white. He was Black, with the body of a prizefighter: 6-foot-2, with broad shoulders, and sculpted chest and arms.

In 1954, the Senators had not yet integrated. The press anticipated the Senators’ color line would be broken in 1954, but not by Paula; Cuban Angel Scull, the Sporting News reported, was “assured of an outfield berth and will be the first Negro ever to play for the Nats.” Topps even included a baseball card of Scull in its 1954 set in anticipation of his Major League debut.

But in camp, Paula began to turn heads. Sportswriter Shirley Povich, who sent daily dispatches to the Post from camp, wrote that Paula “fingers the bat like a toothpick” and that he played center field “as if he belonged.” Even Bucky Harris warmed up to the prospect, saying, “He can whack that ball. He has that size, and he gets some beautiful extra leverage into his swing. And he isn’t simply fast for a big man. He’s fast for a man of any size.”

Teammates told the Post that Paula was the most exciting new player in camp, and Clark Griffith’s nephew and assistant farm director said “I saw him in Cuba this winter . . . Six-two, 200 pounds and runs like a rabbit. . . I saw him hit a line drive . . . [that] almost tore the glove off the outfielder.” But Harris tempered the enthusiasm: Paula had a hitch in his swing, he said. Paula chased too many balls low and away, he said. Paula wasn’t ready, he decided, and he sent the Cuban down to the Senators’ Charlotte Hornets farm team of the Class A Sally League.

The Post assured readers that Paula would be called up if any of the Nats’ outfielders faltered. But starting right fielder Tom Umphlett hit .219 in 1954 (with a .255 on-base percentage) and left fielder Roy Sievers wasn’t much better at .232, and Paula was nowhere to be seen. He stayed in Charlotte, leading the team in hits, doubles, triples and total bases, batting .309 and, if one local newspaper is to be believed, once launched a 559-foot home run.

When Charlotte’s season ended, Paula was among the Nats' September call-ups along with Charlotte teammate Jim Lemon, who told reporters, “If that Paula ever gets hot, Washington fans are going to love him. He’s big, fast and strong. He has a wonderful arm, too.” Manager Bucky Harris penciled him in the lineup for a doubleheader. So on Sept. 6, 1954, more than seven years after Jackie Robinson debuted, the Washington Senators became the 12th of 16 teams to integrate its roster.

But it was not front-page news, nor even worthy of a headline. Instead, the Post buried the news in the last paragraph of the game story: “Carlos Paula, Cuban outfielder, became the first Negro player to break into action in a regular game with the Senators. He had a double and a single in the first game, but went hitless in the second game.” He started four more games for Washington in 1954.

Harris was fired at the end of the season, replaced as manager by Chuck Dressen. As the 1955 season approached, Dressen said of Paula (described by the Post as the team’s “spear-carrier”), “That fellow’s got tremendous power . . . I’m not sure he isn’t the fastest guy on the team.”

Even so, Paula played in only 12 of the Senators’ first 28 games in 1955, 11 times as a pinch hitter. In his one start, he banged out three hits, then went back to pinch hitting.

By the end of May, Paula was hitting .333 and earned regular playing time. And he began doing some notable things. In one game, while being intentionally walked, he reached out his long arms and drove a ball to deep right field for a sacrifice fly. On July 4, he smashed a towering, pinch-hit, 2-run homer off the right foul pole in Baltimore. On July 10, he hit a home run and a run-scoring double – in the same inning. On Aug. 13, he had four hits, including three doubles, and drove in four. On Sept. 2, Paula got the only hit off Whitey Ford; it was the closest Ford ever came to a no-hitter. During one 22-game stretch from mid-August into September, Paula hit .450, with 36 hits, 14 for extra bases (10 doubles, 3 triples, 1 home run), and struck out only 4 times. By then he was hitting .326. Paula seemed a star in the making.

The average newspaper reader, however, might not have noticed. Even the weekly Baltimore Afro-American gave Paula short notice. In a regular featured called "Tabbing the Stars," the paper updated statistics on Black ball players, from stars like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Monte Irvin, to players like Bob Thurman (who hit .217 in ‘55), Milton Smith (who'd hit .196 in 36 games then never play again), and Paula's fellow countryman Ramon Mejias (who finished 1955 hitting .216). But Carlos Paula’s name and numbers were never listed.

If the Afro-American ignored Paula, the Washington Post did something else. On July 20, after Paula had gone 3-for-5, the paper found fault with Paula's base running on squeeze plays. The next day, Paula homered, but the headline read "Paula's Lapse Allows Smith to Score from First Base on Single." On Sept. 20, a syndicated game recap opened with, "Washington’s rookie right fielder, Carlos Paula, was the Yankees’ best weapon in the night game, playing a foul-line line drive into a double in the three-run third and kicking a bases-loaded single allowing three runs to score, and misjudging a hard wallop into a triple in the six-run seventh."

Post sportswriter Bob Addie wrote a profile on Paula in August, in the middle of his torrid hitting streak. After calling Paula “a character,” Addie tells of Paula’s life in Cuba, where he quit school after seventh grade to help support his family by waiting tables, digging ditches, and prizefighting. When Paula says he was a good fighter, Addie notes that “modesty is not one of Paula’s virtues.” He writes that Paula didn’t take up baseball until he was 13 years old. After describing his muscular build, Addie says Paula’s “muscle appears to dominate because he has pulled many a boner this year,” and Addie recalls some of Paula’s base running and fielding miscues.

When Addie quotes Paula directly, he uses misspelled words to emphasize his accent (“Cooba”) and a Tarzan-like sentence structure: “Me happy. Me no show. Me smile inside but face no pretty. Me just ugly.” (The Afro-American, when quoting Paula, used conventional, grammatically correct English.) Nevertheless, Addie concludes by saying Paula “may be the most exciting ballplayer to come along in Washington in many years.”

Paula had only one hit in his last nine at bats in 1955, dropping his average from .305 to .299, finishing second on the Senators to Mickey Vernon’s .301. Still, he was named to the All-Rookie team, joining the likes of Elston Howard, Herb Score, and Ken Boyer. Then Paula was off to Cuba to play for Almendares, one of the most distinguished teams in Cuban winter ball, where he would hit .293 and be named an All-Star.

Carlos Paula's 1956 Topps baseball card. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Meanwhile, in October, Bob Addie wrote another profile, this time for the Sporting News, though with some differences. Before Paula was described as a poor child in Cuba digging ditches and waiting tables; now Addie writes that “Paula’s boldest boast is that he has never had to work a day of his 26 years and isn’t about to get into such an enervating habit now.” Before he didn’t play baseball until 13; now Addie has Paula boasting that “when leetle keed, me great player” who admired “Baby Root and Lou Garage" and the "Yonkkiss" (Paula was seven when Ruth and Gehrig played their final season together). Addie again has a long section on Paula’s misplays, mentioning four occasions when Paula stood on third base, “fascinated” by a squeeze bunt, before finally deciding to run and being thrown out. (Game logs at Baseball-Reference.com don’t seem to bear this out.) The feature concludes with a quote from Dressen: “. . . he can throw, he can run, and he can hit. If I can only get him to think, he’ll be a star.”

Paula’s fortune turned during Spring Training in 1956. Though Paula reported to camp on time, he soon received word that his mother was “seriously ill." He flew back to Cuba where he discovered she had suffered a heart attack. But Paula didn't return when the Senators expected, and Dressen threatened to fine him. Paula made it back to camp, but he was optioned to the Denver Bears two days before Opening Day.

The pitching in the American Association was no match for Carlos Paula. In 22 games, he hit over .375, with 16 extra base hits, including six home runs. In mid-May, the Senators told him to re-join the team in Chicago, where the Senators were playing the White Sox. It took him several days to arrive, and Dressen was furious at the delay.

When Paula returned to the lineup, the Post continued to focus on his miscues. On May 25, he went 2-for-4 with a home run and three walks, but the Post wrote, “Paula looked silly on White’s pop fly which fell for a double in the fourth. Carlos overran the ball . . . . Then he almost missed Goodman’s fly and dribbled the ball to second base. . . . Fortunately there was no score.” No errors were charged, and Washington won 10-5.

The highlight of Paula’s season would come on June 11, when his 3-run, pinch-hit homer in the bottom of the eighth inning gave the Nats a 4-3 victory over Kansas City. But the highlights were few, he played less and less, and his name began appearing in trade rumors. On June 24, he was optioned to Louisville (the Senators also optioned Harmon Killebrew on that day). Paula was hitting .171, though seven of his eight hits were for extra bases.

The Afro-American saw race as a factor in his demotion, and pointed out that Paula had crushed all minor league pitching. Indeed, Paula drove this point home with three homers in his first three games in Louisville. Between Denver and Louisville in 1956, Paula hit .342/.409/.598, with 16 home runs and more walks (30) than strikeouts (24). But his big league career was going nowhere.

The next spring, on March 14, 1957, the Washington Post reported, “Carlos Paula, the Nats’ wandering Cuban outfielder, finally reported to camp . . . . He gave no reason for his tardiness. The Nats have been acting as if they never knew he existed.” Dressen told the press, “Paula has the physical potential, but he’s not very smart. Aside from rocks on the field, he doesn’t pay attention,” and Dressen alluded to rumors that Paula was often out late.

Where Dressen stopped, the Post picked up: “It seems the reason Paula gets shuttled back to the minors is because he believes baseball is a sport and not a serious business.” As an example, it brings up Paula’s two-day delay in returning from Cuba when his mother was ill. Instead of being contrite, Paula is said to have blamed the delay on the two-hour time “deeference." He was said to have returned only due to the threat of a “beeg fine.” Probably Addie is conflating Paula’s delay from Denver to Chicago, which, unlike Cuba and Florida, does have a two-hour time difference. Either way, the Post added explicitly that Paula’s English was poor.

Once again, before the season started, Paula was optioned, this time to Minneapolis, where Paula would remain invisible, his hitting feats mentioned only in single-sentence updates in the Post: .400 batting average in May; .355 in June; .335 in July. By the end of the year, Paula had dropped to .288.

In the spring of 1958, Paula arrived to camp 15 days late, 30 years old, and out of options (having been optioned to the minors three times, the Senators would have to keep him on the roster, trade him, or waive him). Even at 30, Paula was the fastest man in the camp. With Paula's career fading, the Post’s Addie seemed almost sympathetic: “Paula is big and strong, has a great arm and a potent bat.. . . He isn’t exactly a gazelle in the field but you can’t have everything. . . .In spite of his many assets, Paula has never been a good ballplayer . . . It’s a puzzle." When the Senators broke camp, Paula remained in Florida for reassignment. A few weeks later, he was traded to the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League.

At Sacramento, Paula led the team in batting average (.315) and slugging percentage and was second in total bases and home runs. When the season ended, as always, he returned to Cuba to play with Almendares. That winter, however, would be different. The winter of 1958-1959 brought revolution to Cuba, and on Jan. 1, Fidel Castro’s forces overtook the capital, and baseball was suspended.

Commissioner Ford Frick and Senators’ owner Calvin Griffith urged American ballplayers in Cuba to return to the United States, but the players refused after Castro promised the games would continue. And on Jan. 5, they did, in a doubleheader with Cuba’s four teams at El Gran Stadium del Cerro in the heart of Havana, a celebration of baseball and the new regime. Revolutionary soldiers were given free entry. In the second game, Carlos Paula hit a home run into the ecstatic crowd, and at least one soldier rushed onto the field to hug him. Almendares would finish in first place, and Paula was again named to the All-Star team.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Paula was a memory. Bob Addie, bemoaning a boring Spring Training, wrote “One could even wish for Carlos Paula who, while he had brains he never even used, was truly a colorful character.”

Paula played that season with the Habana Sun Kings of the International League, where he again led his team in batting (.312). He played one more season in the minor leagues, 1960 in the Mexican League, where he hit .336 for first-place Mexico City. Then he returned to his homeland, where he played for Almendares for the remainder of his career and where he more or less disappeared.

On March 12, 1961, the Post ran an update on Paula under the headline “Paula May Face Death.” The two-sentence item reads, “There’s a report that Carlos Paula, Washington outfielder of a few years ago, is under a death sentence in Cuba . . . Paula, who had a brother who was executed by Castro when the latter first took office, allegedly was jailed for beating up several of Castro’s men.” No updates followed.

Another time, Addie, again, was nostalgic for the days of Carlos Paula, and he recalled the time Paula was being intentionally walked and reached out and stroked a sacrifice fly, only with the passing of time, Addie remembered it as a run-scoring double. For Addie, at least, Paula seemed to get better in hindsight.

For others, though, something else happened. Over time, Paula became a cartoon. Though Paula certainly struggled in the field (in 1955, he led all American League outfielders in errors), his defense became a running joke for more than two decades.

In 1963, the Boston Globe defended Red Sox first baseman Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart against the charge of being the worst defensive player in recent memory by comparing him to Paula. “Carlos was an outfielder who was tried at first base,” it informed its readers. “He was as bad one place as the other.” Carlos Paula never appeared at first base.

In 1964, the Sporting News reminisced, “Paula was among the most homesick of the lot [the Cuban players]. He was always inventing stories about having to go back home. He must have had a half-dozen grandmothers die suddenly.” Other than the occasion when his mother suffered a heart attack, there are no contemporary reports of Paula leaving a team to go to Cuba.

In 1966, the Boston Globe reported that “for several awful moments it looked as though the Dodgers had Carlos Paula – Washington’s old catch-nothing outfielder – playing center field.”

Occasionally, Paula’s name appeared in other places. After Cuban shortstop Zoilo Versalles won the American League MVP award in 1965 with the Twins (as the Senators had been re-christened when they relocated to Minnesota), Sport magazine ran a profile where Versalles credited “his stepfather’s brother, a journeyman ballplayer named Carlos Paula” with giving him his first baseball glove and encouraging him to play.

In 1970, Shirley Povich mentioned in the Washington Post that “Carlos Paula, former Senators’ outfielder who recently made his escape from Cuba, is resplendent in his new white teeth. He reports that he sold his solid gold caps to stay alive in Havana.” What had happened to Paula in Cuba or since he had left was not mentioned; and what Paula did after that was never reported. Reports on Carlos Paula disappeared.

The jokes did not: in 1975, the Boston Globe described an error-filled game as “a chapter from Carlos Paula’s autobiography.” In 1976, the Globe mocked the Angels’ outfielders by saying “Carlos Paula could have played center on this team.” In 1978, a poor fielder was called a “reborn Carlos Paula.” In 1979, the Washington Post said a game that featured poor base running should be “dedicated to the memory of Carlos Paula.”

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In 1982, the Globe trotted out two Paula jokes, the last being that a game seemed to be played by “eight guys named Carlos Paula.” By this time, Carlos Paula had been out of the Major Leagues for 26 years; the sportswriter of the article had been 11 years old when Paula had last played.

Carlos Paula had gone from rumor, to character, to cartoon. Yet the person remained invisible, reduced to Black and white numbers in box scores and mentions in brittle, Black and white newspapers.

But then there is this: the photograph, taken by Osvaldo Salas, who, like Paula, was born in Havana, and who documented the lives of players who were pioneering the integration of baseball.

His rare portrait of Carlos Paula is Black and white, but with all the rich gradations of gray. Paula wears Washington's road gray uniform, with a zipper-front jersey and two-tone, felt lettering. He stands, framed by the façade of Yankee Stadium, gripping a bat. His forearms are rippled with muscles. He looks down at his hands. His face is strong and somber.

Cuban-born photographer Osvaldo Salas took this rare portrait of Carlos Paula in 1955. This image, and more by Salas, are now available in the Hall of Fame Digital Archive Project. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)

On June 15, 1983, the Washington Post's sports ticker included, at the very end, this note: “Carlos Paula, who in a short span as a Washington Senator achieved inordinate notoriety for his adventurous outfielding (while batting .299 in 1955), died recently in Miami. He was 54.”

The item raises more questions than it answers. Paula's death certificate is equally incomplete; there is no cause of death. It lists his marriage status as "unobtainable." Parents' names, "unobtainable." Occupation, "unobtainable."

Two days later the Washington Post included an addendum: “P.S. on Carlos Paula, who died recently in Florida: he was the Senators’ first Black [player].”

Larry Brunt was a digital strategy intern in the Hall of Fame's Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development

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