RIP to Freddie Velázquez, the first Dominican catcher to play in the major leagues. He died on May 21 at the age of 81. His death was originally reported by the Leones del Escogido, a professional baseball team from Santo Domingo. Velázquez was a part of four of their championship teams (1957-8, 1959-60, 1960-1 and 1968-9), and his uniform #20 is retired by the team. In the majors, Velázquez played for the Seattle Pilots (1969) and Atlanta Braves (1973).
Frederico Antonio Velázquez was born in Santo Domingo on December 6, 1937. He broke in with La Liga de Béisbol Profesional de República Dominicana (Lidom) in 1957 and spent 19 seasons playing in the Dominican Winter League. He played with the Leones from 1957-71 and 1977-78, with five seasons with the Tigres del Licey (1973-77) in between. According to his obituary on almomento.net, Velázquez is fourth all-time on the team’s history in games played (422), fourth in at-bats (1,358), sixth in hits (339), fifth in home runs (20) and seventh in runs (162). He was induced into the Dominican Sports Hall of Fame (el Pabellón de la Fama del Deporte Dominicano) in 1993.
Velázquez almost didn’t play baseball at all. He said in a 1973 profile that he could have been a doctor, but he decided that there was no money in it.
“I mean it,” he told Atlanta Constitution writer Frank Hyland. “Unless you come from a rich family, there isn’t any money in medicine in my country. Maybe $300 a month, that’s all. You work and study maybe 15 years and that’s all the money.”
Velázquez was first signed to a minor-league contract by the San Francisco Giants in 1958. The scout who signed him, Horacio Martínez, had also signed Juan Marichal, Manny Mota and the Alou brothers. He played just one season for the Giants organization, appearing in 102 games for the Panama City Fliers, a Class-D team in the Alabama-Florida League. He slashed .223/.255/.294 and was released by the Giants after the season. Velázquez stayed in the Dominican League until he was signed by the Kansas City Athletics prior to the 1964 season. He stayed with the A’s until 1968, playing mainly in A-ball. He hit fairly well in limited action; he appeared in more than 100 games three times in those five years, but he hit fairly well and hit as many as 16 home runs in a season.
The Padres acquired Velázquez in the winter of 1968, but he was officially with the team for about two months before he was picked up by the expansion Pilots on December 2. He made a brief appearance in the majors in 1969 as a 31-year-old rookie. He appeared in 6 Pilots’ games and hit 2 doubles in 16 at-bats, driving in 2 runs. He was then re-acquired by the A’s at the end of May and sent back to the minor leagues in June without ever making an appearance with the team.
In fact, Velázquez spent most of hit time in the majors waiting for something to happen. In his book Ball Four, pitcher Jim Bouton refers to him briefly. “Gary (Bell) has come up with a good nickname for Freddie Velázquez. Freddie just sits there in the bullpen, warming up pitchers, and he never gets into a game and just looks sad. So Gary calls him Poor Devil.”
Velázquez bounced around the minors, playing briefly in the Expos organization before getting picked up by the Braves. He stayed in the Braves minor-league system until catcher Johnny Oates was injured in 1973. Velázquez, now in his age 35 season, was brought up for his second cup of coffee in the big leagues. He was leading the Southern League in home runs and RBIs prior to his promotion. He was excellent in limited opportunities, with a .348 average in 15 games and 23 at-bats.
That hitting spree left him with a career slash line of .256/.293/.333 over 21 games in the major leagues. He had 10 hits, three of which were doubles, scored 3 runs and had 5 RBIs. He returned to the minors and played until 1976. In his 14 seasons in the minor leagues, he hit .262 with 152 home runs, 699 RBIs and 1137 hits. Those are pretty excellent numbers, considering that he essentially never had an offseason over his 14-year stay in pro ball. Remember that he was playing Winter Ball in the Dominican Republic during his entire stay in the U.S. And he did it as a catcher, which is the most physically demanding position on the field.
“I just love to play.” he said in 1973. “It’s my job, and I like my job. I never think of quitting no matter where I am. I know I’ll have to quit someday, but I don’t want to get out of baseball.”
If he ever felt slighted that he never got a fair chance in the majors, despite his star status in the Dominican Republic, he didn’t show it. When asked how he felt about his inevitable demotion to the minors once Oates’ was healthy, he said, “I’ll go, and I’ll go happy.”
Obituary (in Spanish): https://almomento.net/muere-en-villa-altagracia-el-exreceptor-federico-velasquez/
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