Winter ball is a longstanding baseball tradition, where ballplayers spend their offseason playing in places like Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic or Venezuela. Most of the time, they leave for home at the end of the season with a little more experience and a little more money. In the winter of 1967, Richie Scheinblum had just had a good season in AAA and a pretty successful stint with the Cleveland Indians as a September call-up. When the season ended, he traveled to Nicaragua to play for the Cinco Estrellas. By the end of the season, he was just lucky to be alive.
The Cinco Estrellas (Five Stars) were the team that belonged to five-star General Anastasio Samoza Debayle, Nicaragua’s dictator. He came into power by succeeding his father, who was assassinated in 1956, and his brother, who died in 1967. Technically speaking, he was president of Nicaragua from 1967 through 1972 and again from 1974 to 1979. Realistically, he ran the country the whole time, as well as those couple of years where he wasn’t president. And he could be brutal when it came to maintaining power.
By the time Scheinblum and the other American ballplayers came to Nicaragua in late 1967, Samoza had been president for about half a year. The Cinco Estrellas were one of the best teams in the league, predictably. Dictators tend to not like losing baseball teams — ask Satchel Paige about it. Scheinblum had a wonderful season and was in a neck-and-neck race with Doug Rader for the batting title. Rader played for Bóer, which was a favorite of the Nicaraguan people. Scheinblum won the batting title by singling against Bóer on the second to last day of the season, giving him a .331 average. “The Bóer fans stormed the field. All they wanted was my blood,” he later told columnist John Swagerty of The Wichita Eagle.
The championship series pitted the Cinco Estrellas against Bóer — the general’s team against the people’s team. Scheinblum homered in the climactic game to win the Estrellas the Nicaraguan championship. Again, the Bóer fans were left frustrated by their team’s loss and angry about Samoza in general, and they swarmed the field to take it out on the American ballplayer who was just trying to stick in the big leagues. “I couldn’t get off the field,” Scheinblum said. “One guy had his teeth in the back of my leg. All the others were trying to punch me. I would have been dead if [teammate] Jim Weaver hadn’t dragged me into the clubhouse.”
That night, more than 800 Nicaraguans were killed during an attempted revolution against Samoza. Most of the violence took place in the plaza across from the hotel where the American ballplayers were staying. Scheinblum and Weaver spent the night under their bed “while machine gun bullets ricocheted around the room,” Scheinblum said.
Once Samoza had squashed the revolution, the ballplayers were on the first flight out of Nicaragua. “I was interviewed by NBC and ABC when we landed in New York,” Scheinblum said. “My dad saw the telecast. He said I was stuttering.”
That 1967 season ended up being the last season for Nicaraguan baseball for decades, as Samoza pulled funding for the league. The dictator, driven out of power in 1979, was assassinated in Paraguay in 1980. Scheinblum played professional ball until 1976 in the United States and Japan, along with more winter ball in Venezuela. He couldn’t quite avoid problems in that country, either. He was hit in the head with a pitch and was knocked out cold. But better a beanball than a machine gun bullet, at least.