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San Juan Marlins burned brightly, briefly in Minors

Puerto Rico club entertained fans in International League in 1961
The San Juan Marlins played at Sixto Escobar Stadium during their brief Triple-A run. (courtesy Jorge Colón Delgado/Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente)
October 1, 2020

Tales of ballplayers who arrive on United States shores from across Latin America are well documented. A teenage player from a baseball hotbed signs a contract or heads to school and makes his way to the Draft. He journeys to far-flung destinations with the ultimate goal of big league ball

Tales of ballplayers who arrive on United States shores from across Latin America are well documented. A teenage player from a baseball hotbed signs a contract or heads to school and makes his way to the Draft. He journeys to far-flung destinations with the ultimate goal of big league ball in his heart.

Not many get to return home to play in their affiliated uniform in front of friends and family. Some lucky ones do.

In early 1960, eccentric entrepreneur and South Florida sports figure William B. MacDonald Jr. purchased the Triple-A Miami Marlins of the International League. Within a month, he was in conversations to move them, frustrated by the lack of a lucrative broadcast contract and issues with Miami Stadium.

“Jersey City probably would have the inside track,” The Miami News’ Bob Owens declared on Jan. 26, but San Juan, Puerto Rico -- with a nearly equal population and construction underway on a new ballpark -- was firmly in the mix.

A year after the speculation and after a lackluster season with Miami’s attendance, MacDonald made the move. Having struck a new player development partnership with the St. Louis Cardinals, the 1961 Marlins were headed to the Caribbean, where they called Sixto Escobar Stadium home while construction progressed on Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

“It’s a beautiful location, because it’s sort of in between the Condado section of Santurce and the Old San Juan with its historic buildings and forts,” said Puerto Rico baseball historian Thomas E. Van Hyning, who grew up in San Juan. “Escobar Stadium is literally catty-corner from the ocean.”

Sixto Escobar Stadium opened in the mid-1930s as a multi-purpose venue.courtesy Jorge Colón Delgado/Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente

Opened in the mid-1930s, Escobar Stadium played host to Cincinnati Reds Spring Training in 1936 and, two years later, it was home to the inaugural season of the island’s newest love: winter league ball.

“Of course, I became a baseball fan because year-round weather like Hawaii and then you had the winter league season that back then began in mid-October,” Van Hyning said. “I lived in a neighborhood in the Santurce part of San Juan, so from about 1960-66, I lived in Santurce and most of the kids in that area were Santurce fans, but there was one family that rooted for the archrival San Juan Senators. That was kind of interesting.”

In its heyday, Escobar Stadium hosted some of the biggest moments in Puerto Rican baseball. Ardent fans packed its more than 13,000-seat confines, witnessing the growth of the Puerto Rican Winter League as the circuit added teams, stars and supporters.

By 1961, with a modern ballpark under construction just 10 minutes south of Escobar Stadium, San Juan looked like an ideal situation for a Minor League club in need of a new home. A January 1961 Associated Press story declared, “With any kind of luck in weather -- and, of course, a contending team -- the International League’s newest member can expect to draw more than 300,000 customers.”

In its heyday, Escobar Stadium hosted some of the biggest moments in Puerto Rican baseball.courtesy Jorge Colón Delgado/Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente

Puerto Rican baseball was booming in many ways. Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente were two of the game’s brightest stars, but back on their home island, conditions weren’t exactly what they seemed.

“Obviously, you didn’t have cable TV, but people had television and they had other distractions,” Van Hyning said. “For some reason, winter league attendance in Puerto Rico hit a little decline in the early ’60s.”

According to Van Hyning, San Juan’s winter club averaged 2,463 fans per game in its 1960-61 championship season. The following year, its last at Escobar, it was down to 1,772.

Still, the Cardinals affiliate arrived in the spring of 1961.

“The St. Louis Cardinals weren’t exactly a hot topic in Puerto Rico,” Van Hyning explained. “Cepeda played for the San Francisco Giants and Clemente for the Pirates. Hypothetically, I don’t know if this would’ve happened, but let’s say if it had been a Pirates franchise, perhaps the thing with Clemente might’ve fit a better angle.”

While the Cards didn’t have the same cachet in Puerto Rico as the clubs’ of the island’s native sons, the new San Juan Marlins, boasting top prospects like catcher Tim McCarver and shortstop Dal Maxvill, did have three Puerto Ricans among their ranks: player-coach Reynaldo Oliver, third baseman Ed Olivares and infielder Julio Gotay.

Signed as a teenager, Gotay was well traveled by the time he was 22 in 1961, having played in places like Class D- Wytheville (Virginia), Class D Daytona Beach and Class C Winnipeg. After stops in Double-A Tulsa in 1959 and Triple-A Rochester in 1960, he finally reached St. Louis.

A statue of boxer Sixto Escobar outside the stadium that bears his name.Lorie Shaull/Creative Commons

“He was a really hot prospect with the Cardinals, a middle infielder,” Van Hyning said. “He was not a very big guy. I mean by today’s standards … I think wiry is the word. Wiry is a good word. He was actually a very hard-nosed player.”

Gotay was a favorite of Puerto Rican fans. The native son first suited up for Mayaguez in the winter league’s 1956-57 season, his first of 17 PRWL campaigns. In the spring of ’61, he got set for what was expected to be a summer of ball at home.

“It would’ve been awesome,” said his nephew, Ruben Gotay, who played in 316 Major League games between 2004-08. “Every time you can see a family member of yours play the game for a month or two months, that’s going to be a good experience. If I look back, every time I saw my family watching me play, they enjoyed the game, enjoyed watching me play. I bet it was the same thing with my uncle, watching him play.”

The younger Gotay was born in 1982, nearly a decade after his uncle’s career ended following the 1972-73 winter league campaign. Ruben Gotay was born into a baseball family, not just with his uncle but his father -- also named Ruben -- who was a pitcher of some repute in Puerto Rico as well as a youth coach.

“I liked it. It was fun,” Gotay said of his baseball background. “I never saw my dad pitching. A lot of people tell me that he could pitch, got on the mound and got the job done, but it was fun, because when I first set foot on a professional field, it was Hiram Bithorn in San Juan.”

Like his family members, the younger Gotay played all over the baseball world, from tiny Minor League outposts to the Puerto Rican Winter League, Mexican League, Caribbean Series, the Majors and more. As his career began, he connected with his uncle for one lengthy conversation.

Ruben Gotay was a key contributor for Team Puerto Rico in the 2007 Caribbean Series.Andres Leighton/AP

“He just told me, ‘Hey, play the game right. Do it the right way. Always respect the game. Learn from it, because as much as you give to the game, the game will give you back,'" he said. "Some of those words have stuck with me.”

Like his uncle, Gotay played hard enough -- and well enough -- that baseball took him to far away places and thrust him into a different culture from an early age.

“I left home when I was 17 years old and went to [Indian Hills Community College] in Iowa,” Gotay explained. “When I took the step to go and play, it was shocking. But at the same time, it was a learning experience, and I bet it was the same thing to my uncle, a learning experience...

"I bet you it helped him to mature, grow up and see something different, different competition. If I had to do that and think about that as, 'Is that going to help me in my playing career to do it?' I would do it. Don’t get me wrong, it would be tough to leave your family behind to go and play, but in the end, you’re trying to reach a goal.”

For the elder Gotay, the 1961 season provided an opportunity to prove he was ready to reach that goal while playing in familiar surroundings, straight from winter ball into the International League season.

“If family could not go and see you in the States, it was the perfect time to come see you, see Clemente, see Cepeda on our own island,” the younger Gotay said. “Come see me, come see us play. We’re going to try to put on the show that we do in the States.”

The show was good, but the gate receipts didn’t match. While the Marlins welcomed more than 6,600 fans for their April 17 Opening Night matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs, attendance declined sharply, and travel complaints within the IL rose.

“Going back to that era, I think it was a novelty,” Van Hyning said. “I don’t know how, but I think the novelty wore off pretty quickly.”

By the first week of May, calls came for MacDonald to return the team to the mainland. At first, he resisted.

“MacDonald stated that he did not feel there had been sufficient time at this stage of the season to determine whether the operation in Puerto Rico is successful,” IL president Tommy Richardson told the Associated Press. “He stated emphatically that he will continue to operate the Marlins in San Juan.”

Hiram Bithorn Stadium has hosted dozens of MLB and World Baseball Classic games.Getty Images

The same AP story from May 6, 1961 noted that average Marlins attendance was roughly 1,400 for the first homestand with some crowds “as low as 500.” Finances were an issue.

“One club, [Richardson] said, had received only the minimum guarantee of $1,000 for playing there after spending $4,000 on transportation,” the AP explained, citing ticket prices “too high for most Puerto Rican fans” as a factor.

“Julio, I’m assuming, was very attached to his family,” Van Hyning said. “He was a really nice guy and he’d played all over the place. I’m just imagining that [the team leaving] would’ve been somewhat of a disappointment.”

Larger factors were also at play. Opinions of the U.S. were increasingly volatile throughout Latin America. The Marlins’ home opener fell on the day of the Bay of Pigs invasion, when U.S.-funded Cuban exiles failed to storm Fidel Castro's Cuba. Havana’s IL team fled a year earlier -- for Jersey City.

“To be blunt, I think some Minor League executives, in my opinion, from what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, were getting a little uncomfortable even beyond the per diem stuff and traveling and all that,” Van Hyning said. “It’s expensive, right? Imagine the team from Toronto [traveling to Puerto Rico]. Teams from Canada, Puerto Rico and on the mainland, I don’t know what the budgets were, but these teams probably had very tight budgets.”

On the field, the Marlins didn’t cave. While MacDonald fought to keep his experiment alive, they continued winning, climbing to second place by May 9. Gotay put up some of the best numbers of his brief career.

“I don’t think I’m going to find the right words and feelings about [the Puerto Rican baseball] experience, but coming from a small island, seeing kids growing up, they play the game the way we love to play,” his nephew said. “Caribbean baseball, Latin baseball, it’s intense. We play with our soul. We leave everything on the field. Then when we represent Puerto Rico, we’re proud. We’re proud to represent our island. We give everything we can, we have, to make our people proud.”

But the financial issues didn’t abate. And in Charleston, West Virginia, local officials offered the Marlins a dollar-per-year lease on Watt Powell Park.

After a brief flirtation with Miami officials about a possible return, MacDonald relented. His San Juan experiment had failed. On May 17 at Escobar Stadium, before fewer than 1,000 fans, the Marlins eked out a 5-4, 14-inning win over Richmond. The next day, they were gone to Charleston.

“We don’t wish to be responsible for the insolvency of the league or other clubs,” Marlins general manager Joe Ryan told United Press International. On May 19, the team opened a three-game home series in Charleston against Jersey City, Havana’s relocated franchise.

Despite the tumult, San Juan/Charleston went 88-66 for the year, finishing second in the standings.

“We give everything we have,” Ruben Gotay said. “Coming from a small island, people sometimes don’t believe how many good players come from that small island. How do those guys play that way with that chip on their shoulder? It’s something we carry. It’s something we love to do.”

The legacy of players like Julio Gotay and teams like the Marlins and those of the Puerto Rican Winter League is carried by Puerto Rican stars such as Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and more.

It also spoke to Ruben Gotay.

“I never saw him play, obviously," he said of his uncle, who passed away in 2008, "but some people have told me that I kind of look like him playing. We play the same positions, so I’m humbled to say that I’m grateful to represent someone else besides my dad in my family.”

This year, the retired infielder was slated to be on the coaching staff of the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate of his new organization. The 37-year-old works for the franchise of Puerto Rico’s greatest player: Clemente’s Pittsburgh Pirates.

Tyler Maun is a reporter for and co-host of “The Show Before The Show” podcast. You can find him on Twitter @tylermaun.