Obituary: Pedro Gonzalez (1937-2021)

RIP to Pedro Gonzalez, an infielder-outfielder who was the first Dominican-born player in Yankees history. He died on January 10 in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, at the age of 83. Cause of death, according to this story, was from complications of diabetes. He had suffered from the disease for several years and at one point had a leg amputated because of it, according to his former Licey team. Gonzalez played for the New York Yankees (1963-65) and Cleveland Indians (1965-67).

Pedro Gonzalez was born on December 12, 1937, in San Pedro de Macoris. He signed with the Yankees organization in 1957 and made his American professional debut the following year with the St. Petersburg Saints of the Florida State League, as a second baseman. The Yankees, as well as most other major-league teams, were just starting to discover the Caribbean as a baseball haven. The first Dominican player to reach the major leagues, Ozzie Virgil, debuted in 1956, and it had not sunk in that the island was a hotbed of baseball talent. The Tampa Bay Times introduced Gonzalez to the Saints fans in 1957 by noting he “is one of those Latins that baseball occasionally seems to be born in. He can make the double play batter than anyone has previously made it for the Saints and will hit .280 or better.” Yes, “occasionally.”

The Saints dominated the Florida League with 101 wins, 19 games ahead of the next-best team. Bigotry aside, the Times was at least right about a couple of things. Gonzalez batted .289 for the Saints and led the league with 117 runs scored, 162 hits and 31 stolen bases. He also had a .972 fielding percentage at second base and turned 101 double plays, most of them with double-play partner Tom Tresh at shortstop. Tresh also helped Gonzalez with his English. Gonzalez brought an English dictionary with him to the United States, and he and Tresh spent long road trips in the back of station wagons, exchanging English phrases.

When the season ended, Gonzalez returned to his homeland and played with the Tigres del Licey. Like many of his Dominican compatriots, he returned home every offseason to play winter ball. During the course of his Dominican career, he became known as one of the best second basemen in the league. He hit three triples in a game on December 16, 1960, helping to whip the Aguilas 10-4. Those triples were three of the record-setting 10 that Gonzalez hit in the 1960-61 season.

Back in the United States, Gonzalez kept advancing through the ranks of the Yankees’ system, hitting .371 for the Modesto Reds in an injury-plagued 1959 and .327 for the Binghamton Triplets in 1960. He hardly ever walked — just 18 times in 131 games in 1960 — but his free-swinging habits racked up plenty of base hits.

After that season, the Yankees brought him to AAA Richmond, and he remained with the team for the next three seasons. He didn’t fare as well as he did at the lower levels, but he still he still had some good seasons. He batted .280 in 1962 with a career-high 13 home runs. He also established himself as a good warm-weather hitter. He tended to struggle early in the season, but as soon as the temperature started to rise, so did his batting average.

Gonzalez attended several spring training camps with the Yankees but did not make the team until 1963. He actually had several stays with the Yankees that year, breaking camp with the team in April, rejoining them in June thanks to injuries to infielders Tony Kubek and Phil Linz, and coming back as a September callup. In between, he hit over .300 for Richmond and made the International League All-Star Team. His first appearance in the big leagues came as a pinch-runner against Baltimore on April 11. His first at-bat was on April 16, when he pinch-hit for Whitey Ford, slapped a double to left field and scored on a Kubek ground-rule double. He didn’t get many chances to play and ended the year with a .192 batting average in 14 games.

Gonzalez was a versatile player, and the Yankees took full advantage of that in 1964. In 80 games, he made 31 appearances at first base, 6 at second base, 9 at third base, 5 in left field and 15 in right field. He also pinch-hit in 11 games and pinch-ran in 18 others. All total, he had a slash line of .277/.331/.366. “The more places I play, the more chances I get to play,” he reasoned.

Source: The Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, N.Y.), May 19, 1960.

The 1964 Yankees won 99 games and the AL pennant, but the team lost to the Cardinals in the World Series in seven games. Gonzalez made one appearance in Game Five, on October 12. He entered the game as a third baseman in the eighth inning. He popped to first against Bob Gibson in his only postseason at-bat. In the field, he was kept busy, making several putouts and assists at the hot corner. In the tenth inning, the Cardinals’ Bill White walked, advanced to second on a bunt single and then found himself picked off of second base while Dick Groat was at bat. Catcher Elston Howard fired the ball to shortstop Linz as White took off for third base. Linz’s throw to Gonzalez was late, and the third baseman couldn’t handle the ball when White collided with him. White was credited with a stolen base. The next batter, Tim McCarver, belted a 3-run homer to give the Cardinals a 5-2 lead.

Gonzalez barely played for the Yankees in 1965, appearing in 7 games and getting 2 hits in 5 at-bats. On May 10, he was traded to Cleveland for first baseman Roy Barker. He hit .253, getting regular playing time at second base. He also hit the first 5 home runs of his major-league career. His season came to an abrupt end on September 20, when he charged Detroit pitcher Larry Sherry after two brushback pitches. He ran to the mound with his bat in hand and took two swings at the pitcher before dropping it.

“The first pitch was close,” Gonzalez said after the game. “[Sherry] looked at me and called me a dirty name. Then the next pitch was close again. One pitch is all right. Sometimes one pitch can get away. But not two. There were fastballs here — at my face.”

Sherry called Gonzalez a liar and stated that he did get hit in the shoulder with the bat. Gonzalez said that he didn’t even realize he had the bat with him. American League President Joe Cronin suspended Gonzalez for the rest of the season (about 15 games) and fined him $500. Indians president Gabe Paul and manager Birdie Tebbetts defended Gonzalez and protested the harsh punishment, but to no avail.

Part of the reason that the suspension was so steep could have been that Giants pitcher and fellow Dominican Juan Marichal had infamously struck Dodgers catcher John Roseboro with a bat less than a month before. “These Latins have to be taught a lesson,” said Detroit manager Charlie Dressen, and his backwards attitude was probably shared by many of the old guard in baseball. Cronin, who didn’t even meet with Gonzalez before handing down his decision, was a part of a Red Sox management team that steadfastly refused to integrate, so his actions may be suspect as well.

“That’s part of baseball, but I would like to talk to the president about this incident,” Gonzalez said about the meeting that was never held.

Cleveland president Gabe Paul and Gonzalez review the telegram from AL president Joe Cronin, informing them of Gonzalez’s suspension. Source: Fort Worth Star Telegram, September 22, 1965.

The infielder came back determined to put the suspension behind him in 1966. He signed early and noted that he spent the offseason playing ball in Puerto Rico to stay in shape. Unfortunately, he never got hot with the bat and hit .233, with 2 homers, 17 RBIs and 21 runs scored. He kept his spot in the starting lineup for the most part, but in 1967 he split time with Gus Gil and Vern Fuller at second base. Of the three, Gonzalez had the best batting average, but it was .228 with a .275 on-base percentage. Cleveland moved on to other second basemen in 1968, ending Gonzalez’s time in the majors.

In parts of five seasons, Gonzalez had a slash line of .244/.282/.313. He had 264 hits that included 39 doubles, 6 triples and 8 home runs. He scored 99 times, drove in 70 runs and stole 22 bases in 42 attempts.

Gonzalez performed pretty well in Cleveland’s AAA team for several more seasons. He closed out his playing career in the United States in 1971 before moving to the Mexican League for several seasons as a player and, later, a player-manager. Back in the Dominican Republic, Gonzalez earned the nickname of “Gran Capitán Azul” for spending 10 of his 13 winter ball seasons with Licey and their blue uniforms. He is still among the top 10 leaders in most of the Tigres’ offensive categories.

Gonzalez made some more history in 1976, when he became the first Dominican to serve as a minor-league manager. He was hired to lead the Atlanta Braves’ Gulf Coast team in Bradenton, Fla., and he held the position for a decade. Among the players that he managed during that time were future Braves Rafael Ramirez, Brett Butler, Ron Gant, Paul Assenmacher and Tom Glavine. He also worked as a Latin American scout for the team.

As one of the first Macoristas to ever make the majors and a resident of San Pedro de Macoris in the offseasons, Gonzalez worked to get things like donated baseball gloves into the hands of the next generations of ballplayers. “American parents want their children to become doctors or lawyers to get rich,” he said in a 1986 interview. “But here the way to get rich is to be a baseball player. The parents see Pedro Guerrero’s car or Joaquin Andujar’s house and say, ‘That’s for my son. That’s the way out.'”

Gonzalez carries one more distinction. His baseball rookie card is one of the most valuable in the entire 1963 Topps set. He is one of four players listed on #537 as part of the “1963 Rookie Stars,” along with Ken McMullen of the Dodgers, Al Weis of the White Sox… and Pete Rose of the Reds.

For more information: Albat (in Spanish)
Los Tigres del Licey (in Spanish)

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