Cangrejeros beached opposition in 1954-55 Puerto Rican winter league

Written by: Isabelle Minasian

Willie Mays’ 1954 season may be one of the greatest single seasons in the game’s history.

Coming off of two years of service in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, the New York Giants outfielder led all of Major League Baseball in batting average and slugging percentage. He capped off the year with “The Catch” in Game 1 of the World Series, a Fall Classic title and his first MVP award.

It would have been easy for Mays to rest on his laurels, but instead he took his talents south to the Santurce Cangrejeros of the Puerto Rican Winter League.

“I don’t think I’ll have any trouble making a decent showing in the Puerto Rican League,” Mays told United Press International in October of 1954. “I don’t care what league it is, I live to play ball. I was never in Puerto Rico before but that doesn’t matter. There were a lot of places I played in that I’d never seen before either.”

Mays may have been new to Puerto Rico, but there were some familiar faces on the field in Santurce. Rubén Gómez, a pitcher for the Giants and the first Puerto Rican to pitch in a World Series game, also played for the Cangrejeros, and Herman Franks, New York’s third base coach, was the club’s manager.

Santurce was coming off a last-place finish the season before, but the 1954-55 team came out swinging. In addition to Mays and Gómez, the Cangrejeros – which translates into “crabs” in English – featured shortstop Don Zimmer, outfielder Bob Thurman and a 19-year-old Brooklyn Dodgers farmhand named Roberto Clemente.

Though still a teenager at the time, Clemente was a Cangrejeros veteran, having played for Santurce during the 1952-53 and 1953-54 seasons. Among the artifacts in the Hall of Fame’s archives is the contract that Clemente signed to play for the Cangrejeros de Santurce for the 1952 season. It’s dated Oct. 9, 1952, with a listed salary of $40.00 (not noted if this refers to a weekly or monthly sum) and signatures from Clemente and Pedrin Zorilla, the club’s president.

Two months prior to signing that contract, Zorilla had organized a Brooklyn Dodgers tryout to be held at Sixto Escobar Stadium in Puerto Rico.

The Cangrejeros won the Puerto Rican League championship in Clemente’s rookie season and one year later, on Feb.19, 1954, the young outfielder signed a deal with the Dodgers. He traveled north soon after, and played for the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers minor league team, but returned to Santurce again for the 1954-55 season.

A little over a month into the Cangrejeros’ season, Clemente made news stateside when the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him from the Dodgers during the Rule 5 Draft. “Every club which was shopping had his name at the top of its list,” reported the New York Daily News. “He hit only .257 for Montreal but he is a sensation in the Puerto Rican league now with Santurce, where he is hitting .380.”

But Clemente wasn’t the only sensation in Puerto Rico that season. The Cangrejeros de Santurce were a juggernaut, earning the nickname “Escuadrón del Pánico,” or “The Panic Squad.” They swept the league championship and powered their way to the Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela.

“Willie Mays Sparks Santurce to Title,” trumpeted the Associated Press on Feb. 15, 1955, reporting how Mays “was the key man in Santurce’s triumph in the Puerto Rican League and then played an important role as the Puerto Ricans defeated Panama to clinch the Caribbean Series.”

Though Clemente and Mays both starred during the series – including Mays’ Game 6 two-run walkoff home run – it was Zimmer, the team’s starting shortstop, who garnered MVP honors.

“We had a team that I thought could beat two-to-three of the lesser teams in the National League,” Zimmer recalled in an interview in 2011.

“Mays, Thurman and Clemente played the outfield. People laugh when I tell them that. They say, ‘No!’ I say, ‘Yes, that was our outfield’...That was a great club.”

The 1954-55 Santurce Cangrejeros are still widely regarded as one of the greatest Caribbean clubs of all time, and for the two future Hall of Famers on the team it was just a precursor of the baseball glory to come. Clemente made his major league debut that season, embarking on a legendary 18-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, while Mays built upon his big league excellence, playing 19 more seasons in the majors, including reprising his MVP honors in 1965.

The two Compañeros de equipo de los Cangrejeros were both ultimately reunited in Cooperstown, with Clemente posthumously inducted in 1973 and Mays inducted in 1979.

Isabelle Minasian was the digital content specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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