SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO • Roberto Clemente was an outstanding baseball player. He was a better human being. He was on a plane bringing relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua on this date – New Year’s Eve 1972. The plane crashed shortly after take-off from his native Puerto Rico. His body never found.

Clemente was a winner of Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He was the type of baseball player who came across once in a lifetime. Clemente was a 5-tool player; run, throw, catch, hit and hit for power. It may be more accurate to say Clemente was a 10-tool player because he did all those things with an entertaining flair. It was exciting to see him hit a triple, throw a baserunner out at 3rd from right field, even take a ferocious swing and miss.

On the field, Clemente finished with a .317 lifetime batting average, 1,406 runs scored, exactly 3,000 hits, 12 all-star appearance and 12 Gold Gloves. But he didn’t intend for the ’72 season to be his last. Nor would he expect helping organize an earthquake relief effort be his last act of generosity. But he had to get on that plane to make sure the supplies got to the people who really needed them.

His legacy lives on in the Roberto Clemente Award given each year to the MLB player who “best exemplifies baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to the team.”

Dec 30, 1935 – A STAR BORN

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK • One of the greatest pitchers of all-time was born on this date in 1935, Sanford Braun.

Sanford who?
Never heard of him.

That’s because he’s better known as Sandy Koufax. Koufax was born to Evelyn and Jack Braun, but his parents divorced when he was a child, and his mother remarried Irving Koufax.

Koufax played baseball and basketball growing up. In fact, attended the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship. He impressed baseball scouts enough though that they offered him a contract in 1954.

Koufax’s major league baseball career was not long, eleven years (1955 to 1966). It took him a few seasons to harness his talent, but for a six year stretch he was as dominating a pitcher as there’s ever been.

From 1961 to 1966:

  • He won 129 games, losing just 47
  • His ERA was 2.76, lead the league 5 of those six year, 3 seasons his ERA was under 2.00
  • Lead the league in strikeouts 4 times, striking out more than 300 three times
  • Won 3 Cy Young awards

He ranks 19th in the major leagues in winning percentage (.655).

Arm trouble forced Koufax to retire at age 30. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.

Sandy Koufax
Jewish Virtual Library


EL MANTE, MEXICO • It was a mystery then. It’s a mystery today. A one-time rising star for the Chicago Cubs was shot and killed in El Mante (Ciudad, Mante in Spanish) Mexico on this date in 1951.

Thirty-five year old Hi Bithorn, a native of Puerto Rico, was playing in the Mexican Winter League trying to make a comeback when he was killed.

According to an article written by Jane Allen Quevedo for the Society of American Baseball Research, the Bithorn family believes Officer Cano’s motive for shooting Bithorn was because he wanted to steal his car.

According to several articles in The Chicago Tribune in the days after the shooting, Bithorn was broke and trying to sell a car for cash. El Mante policeman Ambrosio Castillo Cano asked Bithorn for the car’s registration papers. There was an altercation and Bithorn was shot in the stomach. Cano said Bithorn attacked him.

According to an article written by Jane Allen Quevedo for the Society of American Baseball Research, the Bithorn family believes Officer Cano’s motive for shooting Bithorn was because he wanted to steal his car.

For some unknown reason, Bithorn was driven to a hospital more than 80 miles away. He died enroute. Cano was charged with homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Bithorn was a shining star early in his career. He came up with the Chicago Cubs in 1942. He won 18 games in ’43, including a league leading 7 shutouts. It was the midst of World War II and Uncle Sam called. He missed the 1944 and ’45 seasons.

The luster Bithorn showed before entering the military wasn’t there when he got out in 1946. He bounced around the majors for a couple years, pitching two innings for the Chicago White Sox in 1947 until a sore arm put him out of action. He would never pitch in the major leagues again.

Bithorn was trying to make a comeback in the Mexican Winter League when he was killed. The largest baseball stadium in Puerto Rico is named after Bithorn.

Contributing sources:
The Chicago Tribune
, January 1-5, 1952
Hi Bithorn stats


Dec 28, 1994-12 PLAYER DEAL

HOUSTON, TEXAS / SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA • The Houston Astros and San Diego Padres closed the deal on one of the biggest trades in baseball history on this date in 1994. Twelve players, 6 from each team, switched uniforms.

Among the big names involved, the Padres got third-baseman Ken Caminiti and outfielder Steve Finley. The Astros got outfielder Derek Bell and a young pitcher by the name of Pedro Martinez. More in a moment.

Unfortunately for Houston, the promising young Pedro Martinez they got from San Diego was Pedro A. Martinez, not Pedro J. Martinez.

The Padres got the better part of the deal. Caminiti had some solid years with the Astros, but his best years were in San Diego. The same for Steve Finley. His best years were after he left Houston.

The Astros got several productive years out of Derek Bell after getting him from San Diego. Unfortunately for Houston, the promising young Pedro Martinez they got from San Diego was Pedro A. Martinez, not Pedro J. Martinez.

Pedro J. is the Pedro Martinez who went on to win 219 games, 3 Cy Young awards, appear in 2 World Series, winning 1, and make 8 All-star teams.

The Pedro Martinez Houston got from San Diego on this date in 1994 didn’t win or save a single game for the Astros. He retired in 1998 at the age of 28.

From Houston to San Diego 
Ken Caminiti
Steve Finley
Andujar Cedeno
Roberto Petagine
Brian Williams

From San Diego to Houston
Derek Bell
Pedro A. Martinez
Phil Plantier
Doug Brocail
Ricky Gutierrez
Craig Shipley

Contributing sources:
The New York Times, December 29, 1994, by Murray Chase
9 biggest baseball trades


Dec 23, 1994 – THE DARK DAYS

NEW YORK, NEW YORK • It was not a good time for major league baseball. As a players’ strike dragged into its fourth month on this date in 1994, the owners declared an impasse and imposed a salary cap just before Christmas.

The strike had abruptly ended the previous season in August. For the first time since 1904 there was no World Series. Fans were not pleased.

As far as the owners were concerned, “players had attained a position of bargaining power that inflated salaries beyond reason.”

As Leonard Koppett describes in Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, “distrust was the central issue.” As far as the owners were concerned, “players had attained a position of bargaining power that inflated salaries beyond reason.” The players’ position was that the owners reneged on an earlier agreement, lied about MLBs finances and were simply trying to break the union.

The strike ended in April of 1995. As the following list indicates, average salaries went down, considerably for some teams immediately after the strike.

Detroit Tigers……………$1.3M………..$225,000
New York Yankees……$1.3M………….$531,000
Atlanta Braves………….$750,000…….$550,000
Chicago White Sox……$750,000…….$775,000
Philadelphia Phillies…$750,000…….$250,000
Kansas City Royals……$700,000…….$300,000
San Francisco Giants…$700,000…….$325,000
Boston Red Sox………….$650,000……..$282,500
Cleveland Indians………$650,000…….$725,000
Baltimore Orioles………$637,500……..$387,500
Los Angeles Dodgers….$600,000…….$287,500
St. Louis Cardinals……..$587,500…….$300,000
Toronto Blue Jays………$530,000……..$425,000
Cincinnati Reds………….$500,000……. $600,000
Texas Rangers……………$475,000……. $270,000
Oakland Athletics……….$413,500……..$235,000
Los Angeles Angels…….$400,000……..$185,000
Milwaukee Brewers……$350,000……..$158,000
Houston Astros…………..$340,000……..$185,000
Chicago Cubs………………$300,000……..$240,000
New York Mets……………$290,000……..$210,000
Seattle Mariners………….$275,000……..$275,000
Minnesota Twins………..$262,500……..$167,500
Florida Marlins…………..$230,000……..$185,000
Colorado Rockies…………$224,000…….$350,000
Washington Nationals…$200,000…….$185,000
Pittsburgh Pirates………..$192,500……..$225,000
San Diego Padres…………$167,500……..$200,500

But it didn’t take long for average player salaries to skyrocket again. They are  in another stratosphere today. The average player salary in 1995 was just over $1-Million. An Associated Press study of salaries at the start of the 2016 season showed average player salaries had more than quadrupled to $4.4-Million.

Leonard Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, by Leonard Koppett, 1998

Comments welcome:

Dec 22, 1915 – THREE’S a CROWD

CINCINNATI, OHIO • The upstart Federal League‘s attempt at being a third major league came to an end on this date in 1915. The official word was National League, American League and Federal League bosses settled their differences at a meeting in Cincinnati. What in fact happened was the NL and AL flexed their muscles, and the Federal League ceased to exist. The rise and fall of the renegade league also put the wheels in motion to exempt major league baseball from competition.

The Federal League came about as a minor league in 1912. It declared itself a “major league” in 1914 and had a couple successful seasons with close pennant races, stars lured from the National and American Leagues and good attendance. It was an eight-team league competing in the major league cities of Chicago, St. Louis, Brooklyn and Pittsburgh (it also had teams in Baltimore, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Buffalo).

What brought about the events of this day in 1915 was the Federal League had filed an antitrust lawsuit against the National and American Leagues claiming they were illegal monopolies. The case stalled in the court of federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis while the future baseball commissioner urged negotiation. The Federal League’s position weakened as the delay drained it of funds. Several FL owners were bought out and some teams absorbed into the NL and AL.

But the Baltimore franchise of the Federal League was not happy with the agreement and sued. The lawsuit went all the way to the United States Supreme Court which ruled in 1922 that major league baseball was exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act, a decision in affect to this day.

Ironically, the episode gave a glimpse of what was to come 60 years later – free agency. Not only would the 1915 agreement bring amnesty for National and American League players who had jumped to the Federal League, but they would be able to sell their services to the highest bidder.

Another legacy of the defunct Federal League was Chicago’s Weeghman Park, built for the now defunct Chicago Whales. It was taken over by the National League franchise Chicago Cubs and renamed Wrigley Field, the same park they play in to this day.


Contributing sources:
Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, Georgia, December 23, 1915