It had been a while since I had as much fun at a baseball game watching Los Cangrejeros (The Crabbers) de Santurce beat Los Gigantes (the Giants) de Carolina as I did at Hiram Bithorn Stadium last month in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This game had everything a baseball stadium fan could want. A game changing grand slam, cheap delicious food and beer, inexpensive front row tickets, fan-generated Latin percussion music from the stands, there was almost a bench-clearing brawl, and then there was JJ, the hardest working mascot in baseball.
JJ’s not a bad dancer either! But I am...
Puerto Rican Winter League playoff baseball is a certain cure for the off-season blues. MLB players without a current contract like Ivan De Jesus Jr. and Jonathan Sanchez, mix with young players like the Cubs‘ Victor Caratini , who is in need of some off-season seasoning. They play a passionate and professional level game for the love of the sport, island bragging rights and to move on to the Caribbean World Series.
There were fewer people at the stadium than at many 2013 Cubs games but after a game opening grand slam, we felt like we made more noise than Cubs fans did all that season.
Baseball came to Puerto Rico and into the hands of the United States (1898) before my family came to the United States from Europe (1905). And we have The Spanish American War to thank!
American soldiers introduced the game to its new territory, and Puerto Rico’s place in the American Century and baseball history includes not only being a winter home to current and future Major Leaguers, but also to Negro League stars of the past and players of any color other than white. South of the U.S. border, the best non-white players could obtain a baseball job with dignity playing for teams in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, and The Dominican Republic. The island was also the Spring Training destination for MLB teams like the Yankees and Reds decades ago. And Puerto Rico has produced some of the world’s best ballplayers. There are too many to name, so I’ll just mention our personal favorite Boricua, Javier Baez. The history of baseball in Puerto Rico is the history of baseball.
Of course, the most famous Puerto Rican ballplayer is Roberto Clemente, and although Roberto is well represented in murals of Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the ballpark naming rights stayed with Hiram. However, Roberto is honored by Coliseo Roberto Clemente right next door, which has hosted basketball and concerts from artists ranging from Cyndi Lauper to Van Halen.
And Cubs fans should be proud! Hiram Bithorn was the first Puerto Rican to play in the Major Leagues and he played for the Chicago Cubs!
The Cubs weren’t breaking any ground by hiring Hiram. For players with higher levels of melanin in their skin than Bithorn, the Majors were still forbidden at the time. Hiram was of completely European descent, and promoted as white. He was also a promising pitcher early in his career, going 18-12 with a 2.60 ERA and 128 ERA+ in his second year with Cubs in 1943. But then he was drafted into World War II and wasn’t the same pitcher after his promising start. He appeared mostly out of the pen in 28 more games, ending his career in 1947 after two innings pitched for the White Sox. Hiram then tried to stage a comeback a few years later in the Mexican League, but was shot and killed by a policeman who denounced Hiram as acting violently and part of a communist cell. The cop’s claim was debunked and the officer spent eight years in jail.
The Cultivating Catuli Cubs history podcast recently put out an episode on Hiram Bithorn which I enjoyed immensely!
The stadium named after Hiram was constructed in 1962 and it opened in 1963, making it nearly the same age as Dodger Stadium, MLB’s third oldest ballpark. Hiram Bithorn has hosted MLB games as well, including the Cubs and Expos in 2003 when Montreal played 22 home games at HBS. In 2018, the stadium hosted the Twins and Indians for two games and the teams split the wins in dramatic fashion with a homer from hometown favorite Francisco Lindor, plus a 16-inning marathon Twins walkoff win. If you’re on a quest to see all of the MLB stadiums, Hiram Bithorn should be on every baseball travelers list, because it has hosted some memorable MLB games.
Check out my pics of Hiram Bithorn Stadium and cheer on Los Cangrejeros in the Caribbean World Series. “The Crabbers” are the champs of Puerto Rico and have moved on to the big show!
Thanks to Joseorlando, Erin and Emma who showed us their beautiful island and brought us to the ballgame!