Obituary: Nino Escalera (1929-2021)

RIP to Nino Escalera, one of two players who broke the color line with the Cincinnati Reds. According to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) via family members, he died on July 3 in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, at the age of 91. Escalera played for the Reds in 1954 and became a very successful Latin American scout after his retirement as a player.

It’s important to note that the integration of baseball started with Jackie Robinson, but the process of eradicating the color barrier in baseball took more than a decade to complete. It wasn’t until 1959 that every major-league team had put an African-American ballplayer on the big-league roster, when the Red Sox debuted Pumpsie Green on July 21, 1959. The Cincinnati Reds integrated on April 17, 1954, when Escalera and Chuck Harmon both made their MLB debuts as pinch-hitters. Escalera was the first batter in the top of the seventh inning and singled off Lew Burdette of the Milwaukee Braves. Harmon was the very next batter and popped to first base. With Escalera’s death there is only one living player who integrated a major-league team, and that’s Ozzie Virgil Sr. Virgil had been playing in the majors since 1956, but he became Detroit’s first Black ballplayer in 1958.

Baseball fans are well aware of the roles that Robinson (Dodgers) and Larry Doby (Cleveland) have in baseball history. Here are the other first ballplayers and their teams (via Wikipedia): Hank Thompson (Browns, Giants), Monte Irvin (Giants — he and Thompson played in the same game), Sam Jethroe (Braves), Minnie Minoso (White Sox), Bob Trice (Athletics), Ernie Banks (Cubs), Curt Roberts (Pirates), Tom Alston (Cardinals), Escalera & Harmon (Reds), Carlos Paula (Senators), Elston Howard (Yankees), John Kennedy (Phillies), Virgil Sr. (Tigers) and Green (Red Sox). They all had their own hells to go through to get to the major leagues, and they deserve to be remembered as well.

Source: Beisbol 101

Saturnino Escalera Cuadrado was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on December 1, 1929. His first games at a pro ballplayer came with San Juan of the Puerto Rico Winter League in 1947-48, when he was 19 years old. He spent a total of 17 seasons playing in Puerto Rico, and all but one of them were with San Juan. He batted .337 in that first season, and while he never reached that level again in Puerto Rico, he was a speedy threat, leading the league in triples three times and stolen bases once. In 1949, he was part of a Puerto Rican Stars team that toured the U.S., playing minor league teams along the way. Later that year, Escalera joined the New York Yankees organization.

Originally signed as a first baseman, Escalera stayed in the low levels of the Yankees organization and destroyed pitching every year. He hit .347 for the Bristol Owls in 1949 and then .365 for the Owls and Amsterdam Rugmakers in 1950. He’s credited with the 1950 Colonial League batting title, as he was hitting .389 when the league suspended operations in July. In 1951, Escalera almost won another batting title when he hit .374 for the Muskegon Reds of the Central League. He lost out to teammate Jim Greengrass, .379 to .374. He also hit a career-best 16 homers with Muskegon and was tied for the league lead with 28 stolen bases. One local writer said he was the fastest player to ever wear a Muskegon uniform.

Escalera joined Toledo-Charleston of the American Association for the ’52 season, and he batted .249. The team was a Cincinnati Reds farm team. It’s not clear when Escalera was sent from the Yankees to the Reds organization, but the transaction was due to new Reds general manager Gabe Paul, who was hired in September 1951. The team and its former GM Warren Giles steadfastly refused to sign minority ballplayers, and their racism cost them. One of their scouts was one of the first to spot the brilliance in a Birmingham high schooler named Willie Mays, but he couldn’t do anything about it.

By the end of 1952, it was announced that Escalera had joined Cincinnati’s 40-man roster — he was the first Black player to ever reach that level. “There is scant significance that the Reds have in effect crossed the color line. In fact the color line scarcely exists as such anymore in the world of sport,” wrote columnist (and J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner) Ritter Collett of The Journal Herald of Dayton, Ohio. At the time Collett wrote that in November of 1952, only 6 of 16 major-league teams had put a Black player on the field. You couldn’t even field a full 25-man roster of African-American major-leaguers by then. So yes, even a baby step forward was a big deal at that point in time, and trying to downplay the progress is a very unaware take.

Escalera slides into home with a winning run in a game between Charleston and Louisville. Source: Louisville Courier-Journal, September 7, 1952.

Instead of reaching the majors in 1953, Escalera played in AA Tulsa of the Texas League, and he put on quite a show for the Drillers fans. Within his first month, the speedy outfielder had hit 6 triples. He ended the season with 19 three-baggers to easily lead the Texas League, he also stole 19 bases, hit .309 and walked 72 times for a .389 on-base percentage. He saved one of his best outings for the playoffs, when he hit for the cycle against the Fort Worth Cats. He had a 3-run homer, a triple, a double and 2 singles to drive in 6 runs in an 8-6 win.

As noted earlier, Escalera joined the Reds in 1954, along with Chuck Harmon. Neither of the rookies got very many opportunities to produce, and Escalera in particular was shuffled around in many roles. He was a pinch-runner, a pinch-hitter, a substitute at all three outfield spots and first base — and for one batter, he was a shortstop! That came on May 22 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Reds manager Birdie Tebbets, with the game on the line and Stan Musial coming to bat, brought in Escalera to act as a fourth outfielder to prevent an extra-base hit. Pitcher Art Fowler fanned Musial on the way to a complete game win, so Tebbets’ strategy didn’t affect the game. But because Escalera replaced shortstop Roy McMillan in the lineup, he was technically the shortstop in that at-bat. That makes Escalera the last left-handed shortstop that baseball has ever seen — something that is unlikely to change unless a manager gets caught very short-handed in a game someday.

Throughout his time in the minors, Escalera’s primary weapon was his speed. Unfortunately, he was never given much of an opportunity to utilize it. The Reds as a team stole 47 bases — third-best in the NL — and second baseman Johnny Temple was responsible for 21 of them. Escalera was successful in his only stolen base attempt, and he hit 1 triple on the year. It came on August 8 against Brooklyn, and it was the only day of Escalera’s major-league career where he had as many as 2 hits in a single game. He just was not cut out for a benchwarmer role.

Escalera played in a total of 73 games, with 11 hits in 69 at-bats for a .159/.234/.203 slash line. He had 1 double and 1 triple, scored 15 times and drove in 3 runs. Of those 73 games, 32 came as a pinch-hitter and 28 as a pinch-runner. He was in the starting lineup just 9 times — once at first base, once in center field and 6 times in right.

In December of 1954, the Reds assigned Escalera to the Havana Sugar Kings, their AAA affiliate in the International League. The 24-year-old would not return to the major leagues, but he still had plenty of baseball left in him. In addition to his offseasons spent playing ball in Puerto Rico, Escalera played in the minors until 1962. He spent four seasons with Havana as a productive hitter, hitting between .254 and .297. He had a career high with 65 RBIs in 1955, when he also hit 9 home runs and batted .297 for Havana. He was an International League All-Star in 1959, along with the likes of shortstop Clete Boyer, outfielder Deron Johnson and pitcher Tommy Lasorda.

Escalera was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in December 1958, in exchange for pitcher Luis Arroyo. He finished his minor-league playing career with three productive seasons in Rochester from 1959-61 and a season as a part-time player with Rochester of the Baltimore organization in 1962. In 13 seasons in the minors, Escalera batted .293 with 88 home runs and at least 123 stolen bases. In Puerto Rico, he stayed with San Juan as a player (and later player-manager) until 1962-63, and he spent a final season with Caguas in 1963-64. He is one of a handful of players to top 1,000 hits in the Puerto Rico Winter League — 1,071 to be exact — and he hit .275 in his career. In 2013, he was named as one of the top 75 players from the Winter League.

Escalera remained in baseball and became a scout for the New York Mets and, later, the San Francisco Giants. He conducted baseball clinics all over the Caribbean and found plenty of talent in pretty remote locations. According to Rod Nelson, chair of the SABR Scouts Committee, he signed Benny Ayala, Juan Berenguer, Manny Castillo, Frank Estrada, Ed Figueroa, Juan Guerrero, Ted Martinez, Jerry Morales, Jose Oquendo, Al Pedrique, Mario Ramirez, Orlando Sanchez, Andres Santana and Alex Trevino.

One more story: In the early 1950s, the Yankees had a young farmhand named Charlie Newton. When he was looking to sign with a team, his choices were the Yankees or Dodgers. He chose the Yankees — much to his father’s approval, because he didn’t want his son associating with Black or Hispanic ballplayers.

“I never thought of my father as a racist,” Newton told the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1988. “Anyway, I reported to camp, and the first day, who sits down in the locker next to me but Nino Escalera [who was both Black and Hispanic].” Newton said that he laughed to himself about the foolishness behind the bigotry he’d been exposed to, and it was something he never forgot.

Charlie Newton never amounted to much as a baseball player, but as C.M. Newton, he became an extremely successful college basketball coach and athletic director. As a coach, he integrated the men’s basketball programs at both Transylvania University (in Lexington) and the University of Alabama. As athletic director of the University of Kentucky, he hired Tubby Smith, the first African-American basketball coach in the program’s history. That brief encounter with Escalera reverberated far beyond baseball.

For more information:
Beisbol 101 — — an obituary, in Spanish
Besibol 101 — — an obituary in English
Beisbol 101 — — a remembrance of his life, also in Spanish

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