RIP to Julio Becquer, a native Cuban who was a pinch-hitting specialist and part of the very first Minnesota Twins team. He died on November 1 at an assisted care facility in Hastings, Minn. He was 88 years old. Becquer played for the Washington Senators (1955, 1957-60), Los Angeles Angels (1961) and Minnesota Twins (1961, 1963).
Julio Becquer was born in La Habana, Cuba, on December 20, 1931. He played sandlot ball when he wasn’t in school and eventually earned a degree in agriculture from a school in Havana. During his playing career, he would return to the island for winter ball, and he taught English as well. He grew up in the era before the Castro regime took over and shut off relations with the United States, so travel to the United States to play baseball was a much easier task. He signed with the Washington Senators organization prior to the 1952 season, thanks to Washington’s super-scout Joe Cambria, who supplied a steady stream of young, talented Cubans to the Washington organization. Becquer started his pro baseball career in 1952 with the Drummondville (Quebec) Cubs of the Provincial League. He batted .292 with 21 doubles and 11 triples for the Cubs. Former big-leaguer George McQuinn spotted Becquer and told Senators’ farm director Ossie Bluege that he was a sure-fire prospect. From that point, Washington refused all offers from other teams for the young player.
Becquer played for the Havana Cubans, a team in the Florida International League, in 1953. It featured a number of Cuban stars, including brothers Camilo and Carlos Pascual. Becquer was named to the All-Star team as the first baseman and batted .296 with 9 homers and a league-leading 11 triples.
Becquer should have had an opportunity to play for the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1954. There was an opening on the roster, and Becquer, based on his performance in Havana in 1953, would have had the inside track. But these were the days of the old Southern Association, which held out against racial integration until it killed the league. Becquer had dark skin, so he was lumped into the category of “Negro ballplayer.” Bluege told the Chattanooga Daily Times, “He could play first base for you all right, if your club wanted to play a Negro. But some clubs in the league object (Memphis and Birmingham) and so when the first Negro plays in your league he will undoubtedly be a pitcher, so that his work days can be arranged to skip play in some towns.”
Instead of being subjected to the indignities of the Southern Association, the Senators worked out a deal that got him out of Chattanooga and back to Havana, where he played for the new Sugar Kings team in the AAA International League. His average dropped to .260, but he remained a good prospect. The Senators tried to send Becquer to the Richmond Virginians, another International League team, but they declined the offer. No official reason was given, but 19 of the 31 players from the ’61 team have pictures on Baseball Reference, and guess what they all have in common. Becquer was sent instead to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, which was probably a better destination anyway. He hit a solid .291 with 54 RBIs in 124 games and ended up being called up to Washington in September.
Becquer was used primarily as a pinch-hitter and was hitless in his first 5 at-bats. He pinch-hit in both games of a doubleheader against the Yankees on September 19, 1955, and singled in both of them. His first big-league hits came off relievers Tom Morgan in the first game and Gerry Staley in the nightcap. He ended the season with 3 hits in 14 at-bats in 10 games.
Becquer spent all of 1956 with the Louisville Colonels, where he gained some recognition as a rare left-handed third baseman while filling in for an injured teammate. The results weren’t great, but he wasn’t fazed by the challenge. “If you have a good arm, it doesn’t make any difference where you play, second, third, outfield or what,” he said. Becquer’s batting average dipped into the .230s, but he smacked a career-high 15 home runs with 72 RBIs.
The Senators brought him back to the majors in 1957. He was a pinch-hitter and backup first baseman, so he appeared in plenty of games but had relatively few at-bats to show for it. His defense was excellent — he didn’t commit a single error at first base as a backup to Pete Runnels in ’57. In his second game of the year, he belted a pinch-hit RBI double off Baltimore pitcher Connie Johnson to make a winner out of fellow Cuban Camilo Pascual. His first MLB home run, a solo shot off the White Sox, came during a rare start. He went 3-for-4 on the day with 3 RBIs. Becquer spent most of the season near or over .300, but a rough two final months of the season dropped his average down to .226, with 2 home runs, 22 RBIs and 14 runs scored. He recorded 18 pinch-hits, which was two short of the AL record at the time.
Becquer continued to come through in the clutch with Washington in 1958, though his batting average was .238 for the season. He was a brilliant fielder again, but he hit poorly in his starts. However, by the start of September, he had won three games with key pinch-hits. “When the going is close he’s a fellow I like to see up there,” said his manager, Cookie Lavagetto. He beat Cleveland on April 30 with a pinch-hit walk-off single off two pitchers — Herb Score threw him two balls before leaving with a sore elbow, and Becquer drilled a base hit off reliever Don Mossi.
Eventually, the splits between his pinch-hitting and starting roles began to even out. Becquer was actually a better hitter in the starting lineup than he was coming off the bench in 1959, and he started 41 of his 108 games. He reached career highs in batting average (.268) and on-base percentage (.296) while driving in 26 runs. He broke up a no-hitter by the Yankees’ Bob Turley on July 5 with a bloop single leading off the ninth inning. Becquer still had some pinch-hitting magic, beating the Yankees 3-2 on August 12 with a 3-run homer off relief ace Ryne Duren. About a month later on September 11, he drove in the go-ahead run against the Indians for a 5-4 win.
Becquer appeared in 110 games for the 1960 Senators, which was a career high. It was also the only season of his career when he appeared in the field more often than he pinch-hit. He responded with a .252 batting average, 15 doubles and 4 home runs. He participated in an all-Cuban triple play on July 23. Whitey Herzog of the Kansas City Athletics hit a line drive to pitcher Pedro Ramos, who threw to first baseman Becquer to double up Jerry Lumpe. He tossed the ball to second baseman Jose Valdivielso, who beat baserunner Bill Tuttle to the bag for the third out. Some of Becquer’s extended playing time came at the expense of young slugger Harmon Killlebrew. When Killebrew was injured, he was a regular starter. When Killebrew played first base, he and rookie Don Mincher shared time at first base, per Killebrew’s SABR biography.
With Killebrew expected to play first base full-time in 1961, it seemed like he was destined to move back to his pinch-hitter role. Fate intervened when Becquer was drafted by the expansion Los Angeles Angels, but he just couldn’t get away from slugging first basemen.
“I thought, ‘This finally will be my chance to play [regularly],'” Becquer told Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse in 2010. “The Angels had taken Steve Bilko, a big, strong man, but I said, ‘I move much better and I’m a better fielder than him. I will play.’
“And then I found out the Angels had taken another first baseman — the biggest, strongest man I had ever seen in baseball. That was [Ted] Kluszewski. I said, ‘Oh, this is not good.'”
Unfortunately, Becquer’s analysis was pretty accurate. With no place to play regularly, he appeared in just 11 games and was hitless in 9 plate appearances with a walk. He was sold to the Phillies on May 10 and spent about a month in their minor-league system. His old team, now called the Minnesota Twins, made a deal to acquire him in early June. Within the first month he was with the Twins, Becquer slammed three pinch-hit home runs.
The biggest one came on July 4, in the first game of a doubleheader against the White Sox. With his team trailing 4-2 in the ninth inning, Becquer came to bat with the bases loaded and crushed the first pitch from Warren Hacker for a grand slam, giving the Twins a 6-4 win.
“I don’t even know what kind of a pitch I hit,” he said after the game. “All I know is I went up to hit the first good pitch. I don’t like to take any pitch near the plate.”
Manager Sam Mele, who corrected a flaw in Becquer’s batting stance that he saw while he was with the Angels, said that he didn’t start regularly because he was too valuable in his pinch-hitting role.
“Julio tends to swing at bad balls occasionally. Over a period of time this would catch up with him. But in a situation like today, where the pitcher has to get the ball near the plate, Becquer is tough,” he explained.
For pretty much the rest of his life, Becquer would hear from Twins fans who were either at the game or were listening to the game on the radio. “They were just kids then, but they will say, ‘I was at a picnic, listening with my grandpa, and you hit that grand slam, and we were so excited.’ That was 50 years ago, and people still remember,” he said in 2010.
In 57 games with the Twins, Becquer hit 5 home runs and put up a .238 batting average. Off the field, he and every other Cuban in the game were anxiously awaiting news about the new Castro regime in their homeland. The borders had closed, and they were unsure if they could ever return home again, or see their families again. Zoilo Versalles threatened to retire, as he was separated from his wife. Becquer was in the same position, but he credited Joe Cambria and Calvin Griffith for reuniting him and Edith.
Cambria and Griffith both have been criticized — justifiably — for their actions and attitudes. In this case, however, they came through for their ballplayers, and Becquer wouldn’t hear a bad word said about either man. In an interview with ESPN Page 2, he said that Griffith handled all Becquer’s visa problems personally, and Cambria spent a month taking care of the ballplayer’s wife before he was able to get her on a plane to Minnesota.
Becquer played one more game for the Twins — in 1963, after he had been released by the Twins and was playing in the Mexican League. He was a week short of being eligible for the league’s pension plan, so Griffith signed him, brought him back to Minnesota and put him on the roster that September. His final game came on September 18 against Detroit. He was brought into the game as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning and scored on a Bernie Allen double. When the season ended, Becquer returned to the team in Veracruz, where he played for two more seasons before retiring.
Over parts of seven seasons, Becquer slashed .244/.276/.352. Of his 238 hits, he had 37 doubles, 16 triples and 12 home runs, and he drove in 114 runs. He had a .246 average as a pinch-hitter with 4 home runs and 47 RBIs. He had an excellent .993 fielding percentage at first base in his career, and he even pitched in two games as a mopup reliever, giving up 4 runs in 2-1/3 innings.
Following his playing career, Becquer stayed in Minnesota and worked for the Dayton’s department store for 25 years, according to his obituary in the Star-Tribune. He also ran instructional camps for the Twins for many years. The team honored him in 2016 with the Kirby Puckett Award for Alumni Community Service.
For more information: Minneapolis Star-Tribune