RIP to Memo Luna, the first Mexican left-handed pitcher in the major leagues. He died on November 8 in Mexico at the age of 91. His playing career both started and ended in Mexico, but he also pitched one game for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954.
Guillermo Romero Luna was born in Mexico City, Mexico, on June 25, 1930. He quit school at the age of 12 to work in factories near his home of Tacubaya, making jewelry that was sold to American tourists. Compared to that, baseball was a much more attractive way to make a living. In 1944, the 14-year-old was pitcher and manager for an amateur club named the Tacubaya Estrellas — he owned the baseballs, so he was the manager. The Estrellas won all 25 of its games, and Luna estimated that he won 22 or 23 of them. Then a team in Queretaro offered him 9 or 10 pesos per day to play for their team — more than he could get from the factories — and he went to play there. In 1948, he joined the Tampico Alijadores of the Mexican League, per this excellent history by artist Gary Cieradkowski.
Luna’s reputation started to seep across the Mexico-U.S. border in 1949, when newspapers in Arizona and Texas began reporting about the teenaged lefty who was winning 12 games for Cuidad Juarez Indians of the Arizona-Texas League. He won his 12th game by defeating Phoenix and the A-T League’s top pitcher, Tony Ponce, by a 9-2 margin.
Luna wasn’t even supposed to be in the league, as Mexican League President Eduardo Quijano Pitman was angling to claim the 19-year old for his own San Luis Potosi ballclub. The Mexican League had complained of major-league teams raiding its teams for talent, so MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler ordered American clubs to return the players. Luna was among the ballplayers who didn’t return. The Mexican League and Juarez president Julio Ramirez then worked out a separate agreement where Juarez renounced rights to several players, including Luna. However, as evidenced by the pitcher’s 12-6 record and 4.85 ERA in 41 appearances, Juarez was able to work around the demands of the Mexican League and keep their pitcher. Luna fanned 141 batters in 182 innings while allowing 228 hits. The A-T League was a hitters’ paradise, so Luna’s inflated pitching numbers actually rank him among the better starters in the league.
It’s worth noting that the Mexican League first rose to prominence in 1946 by poaching players from the American and National Leagues and pay them more than they could get in the states. Three years later, when American organizations started pilfering Mexican prospects, Pitman took his complaints all the way to Chandler. “This is hurting the Mexican League much more than organized baseball was hurt in 1946 when some major league players accepted offers from Mexican teams,” Pitman said.
Luna would have to deal with multiple teams vying for his services again in his career. For the time being, he settled in and won 14 games for Juarez in 1950, with a 4.95 ERA that, again, was better than most pitchers in the league. The A-T League added several teams and morphed into the Southwest International League in 1951. That’s the same league where the recently deceased Dave Roberts got his start in 1952. Luna joined the Tijuana Colts and became one of the top pitchers in the league. He won 26 games, which was third-best, and led the league with a 2.52 ERA. He also threw 314 innings, which was fifth-most in the league. Though he was just 21 years old, Luna was starting to rack up a lot of mileage on his left arm.
Tijuana sold Luna’s contract to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, where he was managed by the should-be legendary Lefty O’Doul. The transaction wasn’t nearly that simple, though. Cieradkowski wrote that some of Tijuana’s owners sold the pitcher’s contract to the Padres, while others sold it to the St. Louis Browns. The Padres eventually won that legal battle, and Luna had a 15-16 record and a fine 2.94 ERA for them. He was honored with a “Memo Luna” Day in San Diego on September 19, though he was outdueled that day in a 2-0 loss to Los Angeles and starter Cal McLish. However, warning sirens should have been going off. Luna got off to an excellent start but faltered in the second half of the season. He threw 260 more innings and struck out 138 batters — 4.8 per 9 innings that was a noticeable decline from his 7.0 rate with Juarez in 1949. Part of that strikeout decline could have been due to the better competition in the PCL, but Luna had thrown nearly 1,000 innings in the previous four seasons, and that’s not including his winter ball statistics. San Diego took the unusual step of forbidding him from playing in winter ball in the 1952-53 offseason to save his arm.
Luna improved in 1953, with a 17-12 record and 2.67 ERA. He completed 16 of his 35 starts, but he had only 90 strikeouts in 263 innings. O’Doul convinced Luna to abandon his slider and take up the knuckleball, and he used it to great effect. After his standout season, the St. Louis Cardinals purchased his contract from San Diego at the end of the season, at a price rumored to be $100,000. “A great control pitcher with other skills,” said Cardinals scout Joe Mathes. “His knuckleball and curve are very good, he has tremendous poise on the mound and is outstanding in fielding his position and holding runners on base.”
Luna, in June of 1954, gave an accounting of the 1953 season to the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y. This is Luna’s take on what was happening to him at the time, and St. Louis apparently wasn’t aware of any of it.
Note: The Chronicle elected to print all of Luna’s quotes in broken English. This is a cleaned-up version.
“I don’t know why they liked me so much in ’53… I have already lost the fastball. Now, I can’t find it. But they paid all that money,” Luna explained. Though the 23-year-old pitcher had been pitching pretty much year-round for close to a decade, he blamed a sore arm on the fact that the Padres didn’t let him pitch in winter ball in Cuba in the offseason.
“I don’t know about the other players, but winter ball is better for me,” he explained. “They say it’s too tiring in the summer. But I don’t need rest. I need to pitch more. I like to pitch doubleheaders, and pitch two days in a row, to find the fastball… But now I must try many things different. With no fastball, I tried the knuckleball, changeup, the sliders. Before I used only the fastball, curve ball and screwball.”
“Always with the fastball I had the control. Now? Terrible!,” Luna continued. “I walk two, three men in a game. I walk everybody. Even the pitcher. The fastball hurts my arm now. The curveball hurts my arm. So I throw the slider… Could I pitch for the Cardinals? Without the fastball, no. But if my arm didn’t hurt anymore, I can pitch for the Cardinals. But I must work every two, three days.”
So that was the pitcher that the Cardinals got — a pitcher who had lost his fastball and his control and was trying to pitch more frequently to find them. He also got into some early trouble with Cardinals management by pitching in Mexico just prior to his arrival in St. Petersburg for training camp. The team allowed him to pitch in Cuba, but, as manager Eddie Stanky noted, “We asked Luna to quit pitching December 1st. But we have no way of controlling what a man does back in his home country.”
Luna made the Cardinals team and got a start on April 20, the team’s seventh game of the season. Facing the visiting Cincinnati Reds, Luna started his major-league debut by walking Bobby Adams. The next batter, Roy McMillan, immediately doubled him home and advanced to third base on an error by left fielder Rip Repulski. Gus Bell and Jim Greengrass then both flew out to right field, and Greengrass was credited with a sacrifice fly when McMillan scored. Ted Kluszewski followed that with a double, and Luna threw three balls to Johnny Temple before Pesky had had enough. He yanked the rookie pitcher for reliever Mel Wright, who completed the walk to Temple (charged to Luna) before getting Wally Post to fly out and end the inning. A series of four Cardinal relievers all bombed, making the final score 13-6. Luna was charged with the loss.
Luna never had the chance to redeem himself. He never pitched again for the Cardinals, and on April 30, he was sold to the Rochester Red Wings of the International League. His major-league experience amounted to 2/3 of an inning and an 0-1 record, with a 27.00 ERA. “What happened in St. Louis?” he later said. “It was just one of those days. I lost my control, and when I got the ball over they hit it.”
Luna regained some of his form in Rochester. He had a 9-11 record and a 3.50 ERA in 26 games — 24 starts. He threw 10 complete games and 2 shutouts, with 83 strikeouts. His catcher, Nels Burbink, needed an oversized mitt to handle the knucklers, but said that Luna’s control was fine after a 4-0 shutout against Ottawa. “He’s a smart pitcher. His knuckleball moves. He’s good with low curves, and he can pitch to spots. He got the ball where we asked him to put it,” he said. Other opposing managers and players were less charitable about his stuff, saying that he just didn’t have the fastball to make it in the majors.
Luna remained in the Cardinals organization for one more season, spending 1955 in Omaha of the American Association. He was used mostly out of the bullpen and had a 4-4 record and ERA of 5.43. From there, he pitched both in the Mexican League and a season with San Antonio of the Texas League, but his fastball remained lost. His last season in pro ball, per Baseball Reference, was in 1961 with the Mexico City Tigers. Officially, his professional career included a 106-79 record in eight seasons, with a 3.49 ERA. He threw 1,601 innings in those seasons, but those numbers don’t include all his winter ball stats and his amateur record in Mexico. It would be almost impossible to determine just how many innings Luna pitched in his career.
Cieradkowski wrote that Luna was successful in sales after his baseball career ended, and he also coached youth baseball in Los Mochis. He was inducted into both the Salón de la Fama del Beisbol Profesional de México and the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame. He also was remembered by someone who once made another one-game wonder player famous. W.P. Kinsella had a rotisserie baseball team he called the Memo Lunatics. He even had a jersey made, with a tassel that hung on the last letter of the jersey. “This is the luna-tic fringe,” he said.
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