Obituary: Sandy Valdespino (1939-2023)

RIP to Sandy Valdespino, a Cuban outfielder who played for 7 seasons in the major leagues. He died on February 26, a little over a month after his 84th birthday. He had been living at the Legacy Village assisted living facility in Moultrie, Ga. Valdespino played for the Minnesota Twins (1965-67), Atlanta Braves (1968), Houton Astros (1969), Seattle Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers (1969-70) and Kansas City Royals (1971).

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas, Cuba, on January 24, 1939. According to Valdespino’s SABR biography, baseball was a distraction from a difficult childhood. His father died when he was 9 years old, and the whole family had to work to support each other. Sandy worked at an iron pipe factory, his brother became a shoemaker and his mother washed clothes. “But I never felt bad about having to work. And my mother was always happy. So it is natural for me. I think I am so big in the shoulders because of that hard work. It was a good thing for me,” he said in The Sporting News. He played baseball whenever he wasn’t working or at school, and he played amateur ball starting at the age of 13.

Like many of the Cuban and other Latin American ballplayers who ended up in the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins organization, his journey into professional baseball started with scout “Papa Joe” Cambria. Valdespino played for the San Jose ballclub that won a championship in 1956. By the following year, he had signed with the Senators and Cambria and joined the Midland/Lamesa Indians of the Southwestern League. His first manager, Johnny Welaj, gave him the nickname of “Sandy” because of a resemblance to Sandy Amoros. Valdespino batted .296 and showed good power, with 17 doubles, 12 triples and 11 home runs. The 18-year-old was named to the All-Star team. Regardless of where he went, baseball fans quickly noticed that for a smaller player (5’7″, 170 pounds), he could hit for power. Additionally, the outfielder, as reported the Post-Crescent of Appleton, Wis., “wears an almost-constant smile except when he has serious business in the batter’s box.”

Valdespino started the 1958 season with the Fox Cities Foxes of Appleton, and he struggled to hit there. He was demoted to Class-C Missoula and hit over .300 in 87 games, with 15 home runs. He also stole 22 bases, though he was thrown out on the bases often enough that he earned a $10 fine from manager Jack McKeon. His aggressiveness on the bases was something he would maintain throughout his playing career, but that aggressiveness frequently turned into recklessness and led to many outs on the basepaths, unfortunately. McKeon would later relate a story about how he tried to keep Valdespino from making a baserunning mistake by literally restraining him with a lasso. “We took it off after one pitch. After that he was a pretty good baserunner,” the manager said. Valdespino moved up to Class-A Charlotte in 1959 and was named to the Sally League All-Star Team, with a .270 batting average, 10 homers and 10 triples. By 1960, he made it up to Triple-A, and that’s where he stalled out for several years.

Source: The Atlanta Constitution, March 29, 1968.

Between 1960 and 1965, Valdespino played on a total of six Triple-A teams — Charleston (W.V.), Syracuse, Indianapolis, Dallas-Fort Worth, Vancouver and Atlanta. Some of those teams were part of the Senators/Twins organization (the team moved to Minnesota in 1961). Other times, he was loaned out to other teams. He spent 28 games with the Indianapolis Indians, a Cincinnati farm team, in 1961 because they lost outfielder Joe Hicks to an injury and needed a replacement. While the move seems to indicate that the Twins felt Valdespino was disposable, it salvaged his season. While with the Twins’ Syracuse affiliate, Valdespino batted in the .230s with no homers. In those 28 games with Indianapolis, he batted over .300, homered 5 times and helped the team clinch the American Association pennant. During those seasons in Triple-A, Valdespino’s power largely vanished, but he rediscovered the home run while playing with the Atlanta Crackers in 1964. He batted .337 to win the International League batting title, finishing a single point ahead of Syracuse’s Mack Jones. He also slugged .509, and his 16 long balls led the team, ahead of future major-leaguers Ed Olivares (15) and Randy Hundley (13). He was voted the team’s most popular player, and his popularity among Cracker fans played a part in bringing major-league baseball to Atlanta.

When the Milwaukee Braves were exploring a relocation to Atlanta, one of the critics of the move was slugger Henry Aaron. Aaron had grown up in Mobile, Ala., and was all too familiar with how African-Americans were treated in the South in the 1960s. He stated that he wouldn’t move his family to Atlanta. “I don’t want to go on the road and find out one day that some Ku Klux Klan group has exploded a bomb in the area where my family is living,” Aaron said. Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., who worked to bring professional sports teams to the city, was one of the few white Southern politicians who spoke out in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He pointed to the desegregation of the city, from schools to sports teams. “There were delegations from several prominent cities, some of them National League cities, studying Atlanta’s ability to handle these problems,” he said. Atlanta in 1964 had not solved its race issues and still hasn’t today, but the popularity of Valdespino showed that good ballplayers of any ethnicity could be treated well in Atlanta. (Unless they get close to Babe Ruth’s home run record, but that’s a different story.)

While with Houston, Valdespino steals home against Philadelphia to break the Phillies 39-inning scoreless streak in 1969.

It’s unclear if the outfielder knew that he was playing a part in a potential franchise shift or not. Valdespino was mostly upset that his banner season hadn’t resulted in a September call-up to the majors. He finally got his opportunity to play with Minnesota in 1965, when he made the team out of spring training. He was 26 years old by then, and he was stuck behind good outfielders Tony Oliva, Jimmie Hall and Bob Allison, which prevented extensive playing time. But in 108 games and 274 plate appearances, Valdespino slashed .261/.319/.322, primarily as a pinch-hitter and as the left-handed half of a platoon in left field. He debuted in the Twins’ season opener against the Yankees on April 12. He was sent in to pinch-hit for reliever Jerry Fosnow in the bottom of the 11th inning and was intentionally walked; the Twins later scored the winning run to win 5-4. Valdespino pinch-hit for Fosnow again on April 15, and this time he singled off Tigers pitcher Dave Wickersham for his first major-league hit. Twins manager Sam Mele used Valdespino exclusively as a pinch-hitter for the first month of the season, not giving him a start until the first game of a May 19 doubleheader. He had 2 singles and a double in that game against the California Angels and began to earn more playing time. He didn’t hit for much power — he had just 1 home run — but he was the Twins’ top rookie as the team won 102 games and advanced to the World Series.

In his only postseason series, Valdespino appeared in 5 of the 7 games against the Los Angeles Dodgers and had 3 hits in 11 at-bats. He started Game One in left field and was part of a 6-run explosion against Don Drysdale in the third inning. He doubled and came around to score the fifth run of the inning on an Earl Battey single. Valdespino also singled off Drysdale in the first inning of Game 3, though he was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double.

Valdespino was the Twins’ Opening Day left fielder in 1966 because Bob Allison couldn’t get on track in spring training. He drove in both runs of the Twins’ Opening Day win over Kansas City and hit a 2-run homer in the next game. He went into a deep slump after those first couple of games and was returned to the bench. When the Twins optioned him to Triple-A Denver, he refused the assignment and was suspended by team owner Calvin Griffith. “I tried to see Calvin, but he was busy, so [Twins executives] Joe Hayes and Sherry Robertson tried to convince me to report to Denver,” the normally good-natured outfielder said. “I helped this ball club win the pennant last year. It’s not my fault I haven’t been given a chance to play this season.” Valdespino eventually relented and spent most of the summer in the minors, returning to the Twins in September. He ended the year with a .176 batting average in 52 games. He remained with the twins for ’67 and batted .165 in 99 games, playing largely as a defensive replacement or pinch-hitter. In November of 1967, he was picked by the Atlanta Braves in the annual minor-league draft.

Valdespino’s career with the Twins may not have ended as strongly as it started, but he left one contribution. In 1967, rookie second baseman Rod Carew reached base regularly on bunt base hits and finished the year with a .292 batting average. He would win seven AL batting titles in a Twins uniform, and his ability to beat out a bunt certainly helped. “Sandy Valdespino taught me to drag bunt, toward the second baseman,” Carew said in June of 1967. “And that’s what has helped me most. I used to bunt mostly toward third base. And I was trying to leave the bat and run. Sandy taught me to carry the bat.”

Valdespino still was a popular player in Atlanta from his days with the Crackers, but he did not find any opportunities with the Braves. He was one of the contenders to start in left field when the team learned that starter Rico Carty would be lost for the season because of tuberculosis. Valdespino spent most of the first month of the 1968 season in the starting lineup, and his batting average stayed around .300 during that time. Despite a good batting average, most of the starts in left field for the rest of the season went to Mike Lum, Tito Francona and Tommie Aaron, and Valdespino was left as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. His average tailed off to .233 by the end of the year, and he was traded to Houston for pitcher Paul Doyle in December.

The Astros gave Valdespino regular playing time in left field, and he hit for a fair average, but without any kind of power. He batted .244 and had a .326 on-base percentage, but his 29 hits included just 4 doubles. Houston traded Valdespino and Danny Walton to the Seattle Pilots for former NL batting champ Tommy Davis at the end of August, and he hit .211 in 20 games. He remained with the team as it moved to Milwaukee in 1970, but his time with the Brewers was limited to 9 hitless at-bats at the start of the season. He was sent to the minors at the end of April, was claimed by Kansas City in July, and returned to the majors a year later, with Kansas City in September of 1971. He batted over .300 in Triple-A Omaha during the ’71 season to earn his promotion, but the move also gave Valdespino a chance to qualify for his pension plan — he was 32 days shy of having four full years of major-league service under his belt. Valdespino made the most of his opportunity, rattling off a 9-game hitting streak. He also homered in two straight starts, ending his short stint with the Royals with a .317/.338/.508 slash line. He drove in 15 runs in 18 games, and that was the highest amount of RBIs he’d had in a season since he knocked in 22 during his rookie campaign of 1965.

Valdespino in his days as a coach in the Yankees organization. Source: The Miami Sun-Herald, April 23, 1978.

Valdespino ended the season two days short of his required service time to get vested in the pension plan, but never returned to the majors. He re-signed with the team for 1972 but spent the entire year back at Omaha. After that, he played for several seasons in Mexico before retiring in 1974 at the age of 35.

Over parts of 7 major-league seasons, Valdespino slashed .230/.286/.295, and his 176 hits included 23 doubles, 3 triples and 7 home runs. He drove in 67 runs and scored 96 times. He stole 14 bases in 24 attempts and took 57 walks against 129 strikeouts. He had a career .974 fielding percentage in the outfield, primarily in left field.

Valdespino relocated to Florida in his retirement and was a part of the strong community of ex-Cuban ballplayers in Miami. He once beat Ernie Banks in a home run derby in spring training. He had two, while Banks, who had been retired for about five years, homered once. He coached in the Yankees organization in the 1970s and ’80s, and part of his job was to help the Latin-American prospects adjust to life in the U.S. “I think when the kids from places like the Dominican Republic see someone like me, who speaks Spanish and lives in America, it makes it easier for them,” Valdespino said. “I try to give them a better understanding of what life is like here.”

Valdespino later moved away from Florida and lived Georgia, and then Las Vegas and Albany, N.Y. In this 2021 interview with the Albany Herald he discusses his journey from Cuba to the United States, as well as his travels around the world. Valdespino is survived by his wife, Esperanza, and a daughter, also named Esperanza. He was predeceased by his son, Hilario Jr.

For more information: Moultrie Observer

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