Obituary: Román Mejias (1925-2023)

RIP to Roman Mejias, an outfielder who played in the major leagues for parts of 9 seasons in the 1950s and ’60s — even though he didn’t reach the majors until he was 29. Mejias died on February 22 at the age of 97 in Sun City, Calif. In his career he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1955, 1957-61), Houston Colt .45s (1962) and Boston Red Sox (1963-64).

Roman Mejias was born on August 9, 1925, in Abreus, Cuba, per Baseball Reference. His SABR biographers list his birth place as Central Manuelita, a sugar mill complex near Abreus. They also point out that his birth date was listed incorrectly during his playing days — by as much as seven years, in some instances. Many of his baseball cards show a birth year of 1932. He had been discovered by the Pittsburgh Pirates during an open tryout, as the team’s spring training facility was in Havana. When he signed Mejias, George Sisler made the 100-mile trip to the ballplayer’s town, where he worked as an assistant train engineer, loading sugar cane. Mejias’ SABR bio indicates that the team and the scouts who signed him — Howie Haak, Sisler and Corito Verona — knew his true age but agreed to knock a few years off. So the rest of baseball may have thought that the Mejias who debuted for the Batavia Clippers in 1953 was 20 or 21 years old, the Pirates apparently knew that he was actually 27 years old.

“He’s a nice guy with a good family. It will help him, and we might get something for him down the line,” Haak told his boss, Branch Rickey, according to a 1985 interview. Haak gave Mejias’ age at signing as 32 and not 27. Either Haak got his numbers wrong after more than 30 years had gone by, or even Pittsburgh was just guessing at his age.

Mejias came to the United States as an experienced ballplayer who had played amateur ball in Cuba for several years. He was not intimidated by minor-league pitching in his first few seasons, playing against opposing ballplayers several years younger than he was. In his first season with Batavia, he batted .322 with 30 doubles and 97 RBIs. In 1954, he moved up to Class-B Waco and hit .354, with 49 doubles, 12 triples and 15 home runs. He drove in 141 runs and scored 108 times, and he also stole 23 bases. As impressive as all those stats are — the 49 doubles broke a Big State League record — Mejias’ biggest accomplishment on the season was hitting in an astounding 55 games in a row. It remains the third-longest minor-league hitting streak in history, behind Joe Wilhoit (69 games for Wichita in 1919) and Joe DiMaggio (61 games for San Francisco in 1933). The streak ended on August 2; along the way, Waco fans presented him with a $200 diamond and cash awards of more than $200. However, his journey in the minors was marked by the same racism that many African-American ballplayers faced. As a dark-skinned Cuban who spoke no English, Mejias also had to deal with the language barrier in the U.S. His SABR bio includes a quote that he could only point to food on restaurant menus until someone taught him “ham and eggs” and “fried chicken,” and then that was all he would order. The newspapers, when they wrote about him, called him “Ray,” as part of an attempt to whitewash Latin ballplayers.

The hitting streak and banner offensive numbers earned Mejias a chance to join the Pirates in spring training in 1955. He became the Bucs’ Opening Day right fielder on April 13 and singled and drew a walk off Brooklyn pitcher Carl Erskine. In the next game, facing Phillies starter Herm Wehmeier, Mejias walloped a first-inning, 2-run homer to give Pittsburgh an early lead. Of course, he later committed an error on an Earl Torgeson line drive that let two runs score. After those two games, Mejias went into a long dry spell, not getting another base hit until May 16. By then, the Pirates began getting other outfielders playing time, including slugger Frank Thomas and another foreign-born rookie, Roberto Clemente. Pittsburgh used what may have been the game’s first all-Latin American outfield on May 6, with the Cuban Mejias, Puerto Rican Clemente and Mexican Felipe Montemayor. Unfortunately for Mejias, he didn’t hit well enough to gain significant playing time, and he ended up appearing in 71 games as a reserve, hitting .216 with 3 home runs and 21 RBIs. One of those home runs came against the great Milwaukee pitcher Warren Spahn on June 12 and helped lead Pittsburgh to a 5-3 win in the first game of a doubleheader.

Mejias spent all of 1956 in the minor leagues and batted .275 with 15 home runs for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. By the time he returned to Pittsburgh in 1957, the team had a well-regarded outfield of Clemente, Bob Skinner and Bill Virdon. Thomas was also still there, playing corner infield and outfield spots as well. Mejias hit well in ’57, when he could get playing time. He slashed .275/.309/.423 in 58 games, but when Pittsburgh faced a roster crunch in August with the return of pitcher Bob Smith from the disabled list, it was Mejias who was sent out to the minors on a temporary basis.

Mejias spent the 1957-58 offseason playing in Cuba, and he hit over .300 and had a 22-game hitting streak. The streak came to an end not because of opposing pitching, but because Mejias got into a car accident, swerving off the road to avoid hitting a stray cat. One of the managers in Cuba was former Pirates skipper Bobby Bragan, who was impressed by what he saw of Mejias and called him the best player in the Cuban League. “None of our outfielders are guaranteed regular jobs this year… One of the men who may well win himself a regular job is Roman Mejias,” said Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh in March of 1958. Mejias made a case for more playing time on May 4 by slamming 3 home runs against San Francisco pitchers Marv Grissom and Johnny Antonelli, driving in 4 runs in a 6-2 win. “I think I’m a home run hitter now,” he said after the game. As it turned out, he hit just 2 more homers the rest of the season and finished with a .268 batting average and 19 RBIs in 76 games. His playing time increased to 96 games in 1959 due to injuries to Skinner and Clemente, but his batting average slumped to .236. Eventually, the logjam in the outfield grew to be too much, and Mejias was forced out entirely. In 1960 and ’61, he appeared in a total of 5 games for the Pirates, getting 2 at-bats (both strikeouts). The rest of the time, he spent in Triple-A Columbus. He played well in the minors and hit with power, but he unfortunately missed most of the Pirates’ 1960 pennant-winning season and the heroics that led to a World Series win over the New York Yankees.

Source: The Pittsburgh Press, April 7, 1955.

The expansion Houston Colt .45s gave Mejias a second chance by selecting him in the 1961 expansion draft. By going to a team with no set starters, the 36-year-old Mejias was given the best chance of his career to play — though few people in the game knew Mejias was 36. He was the starting right fielder in Houston’s first ever game — against Chicago on April 10 — and was the hitting star, with a pair of 3-run homers in an 11-2 win. The first one, in the third inning, was the first home run in franchise history. Mejias had a hit in each of the team’s first 8 games and batted .328 over the month of April. He remained a .300 hitter over most of the season, only slipping over the final month to end the year with a .286/.326/.445 slash line. He homered 24 times and drove in 76 runs, and he also led the team with 12 stolen bases. Half of those home runs came at Houston’s Colt Stadium, which was known for its far-off fences, but the distances — 360 feet to left field, 395 feet to left-center — didn’t slow Mejias down. He wasn’t the greatest right fielder, with 13 errors for a .946 fielding percentage, but in his first chance to start in the majors, he delivered an OPS+ of 112.

“I told [Pittsburgh general manager] Joe Brown I could do the job,” Mejias said. “But once he sent me to Columbus for a month only because that club needed an outfielder. I was disgusted. Now I have confidence.” The Pirates, for their part, were surprised by the outfielder’s success. “I never thought Mejias was that good a hitter when he was with us. There was nothing in his minor-league background to indicate that he was,” said Murtaugh, who may not have paid that close attention to Mejias’ minor-league record. He was forced to pay attention to Mejias in 1962, as the outfielder slashed .403/.433/.581 against his old team, with 3 home runs and 10 RBIs in 16 games.

The outfielder credited his power to a change in his swing. He went from a short stroke that made contact to a longer swing that led to more power. “Nobody told me to do it. I just found out in spring training. I hit a lot of long balls so I said I guess I’d better stay this way because I like to hit home runs,” he told Austin American-Statesman columnist Lou Maysel.

Source: Boston Globe, April 5, 1985.

After the season, Houston promptly traded their best hitter to the Boston Red Sox, getting AL batting champ Pete Runnels in return. The move didn’t work out well for either team. Runnels batted .253 for Houston in 1963 and was released in May of 1964 after he failed to top .200. Mejias spent two full seasons with the Red Sox, but he didn’t reach his offensive output from 1962. He hit 3 home runs in a doubleheader sweep of Baltimore on June 16, but his batting average didn’t stay over .200 until the end of that month. He ended the season with a .227 mark and 11 home runs. He later acknowledged that he was pressing too hard, out of a desire to do well for his new team and owner, Tom Yawkey. Yawkey was able to bring Mejias’ family out of Cuba to Boston, as the hostile Castro regime had made it impossible for the ballplayer to return to his native country to see them.

“I feel this is a good man and I must be a star for him,” Mejias said. “But I don’t star. I don’t hit. I don’t play good in the field. I worry. I lose weight.” Mejias was reduced to the role of a pinch-hitter in 1964, though he made some starts in right field in May and did well. “I’m not trying to do too much and doing nothing,” he explained. “I do my best in my own way, and if it helps the club I’m happy.”

Mejias hit .238 in 62 games for Boston in 1964, with a couple of home runs and 14 runs scored. It was his last season in the majors. He spent all of 1965 with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League in 1965, where he batted .269 in a player-coach role. But he was well-compensated for his time. The Red Sox reportedly sent Mejias a minor-league contract for $2,000 a month, but he misread it as $2,000 for the year. He threatened to retire, and the team sent him a contract with a raise. When he realized that he made a mistake, he sent back the second contract and offered to sign the first one instead. Boston gave him the raise anyway. After a year in Toronto, Mejias signed with the Sankei Atoms in Japan in 1966, but his time overseas lasted just 30 games. He joined the team in June and was hospitalized about a month later when he was hit in the head with a fastball from pitcher Makoto Inagawa — who also knocked down American hitter Lou Jackson in the same game. Mejias hit .289 in his final professional games before retiring at age 40.

Roman Mejias and his wife, Nicolasa, reunite after the Boston Red Sox helped bring the family from Cuba. Source: The Chicago Tribune, March 29, 2018.

Over parts of 9 seasons, Mejias slashed .254/.294/.391, with 449 hits, including 57 doubles, 12 triples and 54 home runs. He drove in 202 runs and scored 212 times. Never the easiest player to walk, he drew 89 bases on balls and struck out 238 times. In the field, he was at his best as a center fielder, where he had a .970 fielding percentage. Mejias also batted .299 in 7 seasons in the minor leagues and hit 88 homers.

To go back a couple of years: When Mejias left his family in Cuba in 1961 to play winter ball in Puerto Rico, he had no way of knowing that he was potentially seeing them for the last time. When the Castro government and United States severed ties, it ended a baseball history between the two countries that stretched back decades. It also left ballplayers like Mejias without any way to reunite with his family. During his star-turning year with Houston, Mejias was sending food packages to Cuba for his wife, Nicolasa, and children, Leandra Rafaela and Jose. It cost him $15 plus $25 for postage through Mexico, and the family would have to pay $40 to receive it. When the Red Sox discovered the situation involving their new outfielder, the team worked with the Red Cross to reunite the family. It happened on March 16, 1963, when 71 refugees from Cuba were allowed to fly to the United States. Nicolasa was permitted to bring three dresses and a pair of shoes in a duffel bag. The children brought only the clothes on their backs.

The reunion was joyous and tearful, with Roman and Nicolasa ignoring the flashing cameras as they met in Phoenix. “This morning I got a telephone call. Someone told me about 4 o’clock that maybe my family come. I have a boy, 12, and a girl, 10. I’m so excited I can’t sleep,” he said. “I like to kill myself for the Red Sox this season, believe me.”

Mejias is survived by his two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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