Obituary: Cholly Naranjo (1934-2022)

RIP to Cholly Naranjo, a Cuban pitcher whose international playing career included one season in the major leagues. He died on January 13 in Miami at the age of 87. Naranjo, who was living in a nursing home because of dementia, died from complications of COVID-19. Journalist Nick Diunte wrote a beautiful tribute to Naranjo, whom he had befriended more than a decade ago. Naranjo pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956.

Lazaro Ramon Gonzalo Naranjo was born in the Luyano neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, on November 25, 1934. When he was a 17-year-old student in Cuba, he joined the Cuba amateur team in the World Championship, held in Mexico. The team, reports El Nuevo Herald, lost in the finals against Puerto Rico but won the qualifying stage with a 9-1 record. Naranjo’s best pitch was a curveball, and the Washington Senators decided to see how he would fare in their organization. He was signed by scout “Papa” Joe Cambria and reported to the U.S. in 1952.

After three games with Double-A Chattanooga, the 17-year-old Naranjo was sent to the Richmond Colts of the Class-B Piedmont League. He was easily the youngest player on the team — he was the youngest player in the league — but he became a dependable hurler for manager Tom O’Connell. After pitching sparingly at first, he got a few starts, and then he got a few more. By the time he defeated the Norfolk Tars, the most dominant team in the League, by a score of 3-1 in late August, O’Connell was singing Naranjo’s praises.

“Just keep your eyes on our Charlie Naranjo,” he said. “”For a kid of 17, he shows remarkable poise. He’s got a nice fastball and a dandy curve. Sure, he needs polish — and once he gets it I predict he’ll move up quickly.” Naranjo later threw a shutout against the Tars in the playoffs to help knock the front-runners out of the postseason. Overall, Naranjo had a 5-5 record and a 3.49 ERA for the Colts.

Naranjo was called Gonzalo or “Charlie,” as noted above, until the newspapers decided on Cholly. He spent all of 1953 back in Havana, pitching in the Florida International League. He against impressed with his poise. “The prankish Cuban righthander… assumes a serious air when on the hilltop,” reported the Fort Lauderdale News. Naranjo almost made the Washington Senators roster in 1954 — in fact he was at the Opening Day ceremony in which President Dwight Eisenhower threw out the first pitches. The first one bounced off the glove of infielder Tony Roig and landed at the feet of Johnny Sain, who kept the souvenir. The President’s second pitch went right to Naranjo. He caught the ball and fired it back to the president, who caught it as well. “He threw hard — with plenty of stuff,” the pitcher said later. The president and the pitcher chatted a bit, and Naranjo was assigned to sit by the box and protect the party from foul balls. Eisenhower, himself a former outfielder at West Point, politely declined the offer.

Cholly Naranjo is not looking into a mirror. Naranjo, left, poses with roommate and near-twin Bill Mazeroski. Source: Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1956.

Immediately after the game, it was announced that Roig and Naranjo were both sent to the Chattanooga Lookouts — apparently catching a pitch from Eisenhower was bad luck. Naranjo had further bad luck when he was limited to just 23 games between Chattanooga and Charlotte — infected tonsils and the subsequent a tonsillectomy put him on the shelf for a while. After the season, Washington left him unprotected, and Pittsburgh acquired him in the November minor-league draft. Branch Rickey Jr., son of the Pirates president, saw him pitching in Cuba and recommended him, as did his manager in Cuba, Bobby Bragan.

Naranjo came to the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League in 1955 with some fanfare as a top pitching prospect. He ended up being reassigned to the Lincoln Chiefs of the Western League after compiling a 4-10 record and 4.41 ERA with the Stars, but part of that came from an unfortunate knack of losing low-scoring games. He dropped his first two decisions of the year to the Sacramento Solons by identical scores of 2-1, setting the tone for the rest of the season. He came back to Hollywood in 1956, and this time around, he had more offensive support. Part of that came from his roommate and near-twin, Bill Mazeroski.

Both men were the same height, about the same weight, had similar crew cuts and occasionally shared clothes. It was said that manager Clay Hopper could only tell them apart by Naranjo’s accent. They also shared an apartment in Hollywood, where Mazeroski cooked and Naranjo cleaned and provided some Spanish lessons. But he wouldn’t give the second baseman and pitching lessons. “He looks too much like me,” Naranjo pointed out. “Some day, Mr. Hopper might make the mistake, call Mazeroski to the mound and he pitches better than me.”

Both men also reached the major leagues for the first time that season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Naranjo made his debut on July 8, 1956, against the New York Giants. It didn’t go well, as he surrendered back-to-back home runs to Daryl Spencer and Wes Westrum. His next appearance was a start against the Chicago Cubs, and he gave up 4 runs in 2 innings, including a 3-run homer by Walt Moryn and a solo shot by Harry Chiti. He ended up with a no-decision when the Pirates rallied to win 5-4. Naranjo helped his cause by hitting a double off Sam Jones in the top of the third inning and scoring on a Dale Long triple.

Source: Nashville Banner, April 14, 1960.

Naranjo struggled his first couple of months in the majors, and he might not have lasted except for the fact that the Pirates were on their way to a seventh-place finish, so letting rookies like him and Mazeroski get some experience was useful. Naranjo pitched his best game of the season in the second game of a September 2 doubleheader against the Phillies. Starter Fred Waters was taken out of the game after retiring just one batter. Naranjo came into the game with runners on first and second and got out of the inning by getting Stan Lopata to ground into a double play. He then went the distance, allowing just 1 run in the ensuing 8 innings on 3 hits while striking out 5. He drove in the first run of the game with a sacrifice fly off Robin Roberts, too. Bill Virdon and Dick Groat each had 3 hits, and Dale Long drove in a couple of runs to make the score 5-1. It was Naranjo’s only major-league win. After that outing, he didn’t allow another earned run in the month of September, lowering his ERA to 4.46.

He never got another chance to play in the major leagues. The Pirates sent Naranjo to the Columbus Jets of the International League, where he again lost a share of low-scoring games but took a no-hitter against Buffalo into the ninth inning before settling on a 5-0, 1-hit shutout. The win broke up a 4-game losing streak where the pitcher had allowed a total of 6 runs. His greatest minor-league success came with the Nashville Vols, where he pitched in 1959 and ’60 after being acquired from the Pittsburgh organization. He won 13 games in each season, tossing 4 shutouts in 1959. His final season of pro ball in the United States came in 1961 with Houston (American Association) and Jacksonville (Sally League). He had a 3-5 record and a 1.81 ERA in 35 games, all but two of which were relief outings.

In his time with the Pirates, Naranjo had a 1-2 record and 4.46 ERA in 17 games, including 3 starts. He struck out 26 in 34-1/3 innings, with 7 home runs allowed and 17 walks. In 10 seasons in the minor leagues, he had a 72-77 record. El Nuevo Herald also notes that he pitched nine seasons in Cuban professional baseball, with a 16-25 record and 3.60 ERA.

Naranjo returned to Cuba after his playing days were over in the United States, and he became a pitching coach. He returned to the United States in 1991 and settled in Miami, where he was part of a large community of retired Cuban baeball stars. Diunte noted in his tribute that Naranjo worked with former major leaguer Paul Casanova at his hitting facility. Both men were also a part of the 2017 All-Star Game festivities in Miami, as Major League Baseball paid tribute to Cuban ballplayers.

For more information: El Nuevo Herald

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