By Nick Diunte
As a 19-year-old rookie with the 1954 Washington Senators, Gonzalo “Cholly” Naranjo was just trying to manage all of the emotions associated with his first major league Opening Day. Right up until the first pitch, Naranjo stood at Griffith Stadium still unsure about his place in the big leagues.
“They had me pitching batting practice,” the 83-year-old Naranjo recalled recently from his Florida home. “That gave me the idea that I wasn’t going to be staying with the ballclub. I thought I made the team because I had a heck of a spring training. I beat the Yankees and the Tigers. I pitched better than anyone there.”
As one of Papa Joe Cambria’s prized recruits, Naranjo entered spring training after pitching shutout relief for Almendares in the 1954 Caribbean Series. He continued to impress throughout the spring, enough for the Senators to take him north for Opening Day.
“[He] has been showing some pitching know-how beyond his years and has delivered handsomely in the Grapefruit League contests,” Shirley Povich noted in the April 7, 1954, edition of The Sporting News.
Catching Up with Ike
Early on this afternoon, Naranjo received the first in a series of messages signaling this Opening Day was going to be far from ordinary. After Naranjo retreated to the locker room to change into his uniform following batting practice, manager Bucky Harris approached him with some special news.
“Bucky came to me and said, ‘Naranjo, we chose you to sit with the President [Eisenhower],’” he recalled. “I told him, ‘Thank you very much Mr. Bucky Harris. You did me a great honor.’”
After both teams finished warming up, Naranjo emerged from the dugout to gather with the throng of players from both teams, hoping to catch Ike’s toss into the crowd. The ball landed in the hands of New York Yankees pitcher Johnny Sain, who then delivered it to Eisenhower. So how exactly did Naranjo come to make history with the President if Sain caught the first pitch?
“The Senators owners gave the President a brand new Wilson outfield glove,” Naranjo recalled. “Bucky Harris then told me to go and sit with the President. When I walked from the dugout to his box seat, the President had the ball and the glove. He sees me and said, ‘Hey, catch that!’”
Apparently, the press thought that Eisenhower shut down his arm after his ceremonial heave a few minutes earlier. The sight of Ike throwing to Naranjo caught the photographers off guard, and they beckoned to the nation’s leader to continue throwing with the Cuban rookie.
“’One more,’ they cried, and Ike obliged with a fast one to rookie Gonzalo Naranjo,” Time Magazine reported. “‘Throw it back,’ called the President, and Naranjo did. Then, feeling very pleased with himself, Ike pitched the ball once more to Naranjo. Baseball historians agreed that it was the first time a President had ever played catch at an opening game.”
A Day to Remember
Their famous game of catch ignited a further chain of unexpected events for Naranjo, who spent the next 30 minutes engaging in conversation with the President while protecting him from any foul balls. Talking with the President, Naranjo found that Ike took a personal interest in his family life.
“The President had a very regular conversation with me,” he said. “It was about my life, my parents, you know, family stuff. He never talked [to me] about baseball, just about my father and where he went to school. After about a half-hour, he told me, ‘I won’t need any more protection, I think I’ll be alright.”
Naranjo returned to the Senators bench. After the game, he received the disappointing news that the Senators were sending him to their Double-A team in Chattanooga, Tenn.
His wild ride was not over. Before he left for Tennessee, he had one more stop to make as a reward for his historic encounter —New York.
“I didn’t even get to the dugout,” Naranjo said. “I’m walking towards the box seat of the President, Howard Fox, the traveling secretary came to me and said, ‘You better pack up, you’ve got a television program in New York tomorrow night. You better pack up your stuff.’ They gave me plane fare and got me a cab to the airport.”
The television show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” had an arrangement with the Senators to bring the Washington player who caught Eisenhower’s first pitch onto their program. Within 24 hours, the teenager was front and center on national television with host Garry Moore, attempting to hide his “secret” catch with the President from the show’s contestants.
“I was in New York for the first time and they picked me up in a brand new green Chrysler,” he recalled. “I enjoyed [seeing] the subways and the beautiful hotel. I then went on the show and it was just a tremendous experience.”
Unfortunately, Naranjo never rejoined his Cuban brethren in Washington. He caught the eye of Branch Rickey and eventually made it to the major leagues in 1956 with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Although those looking up his official playing record may never know about his one day with the Senators, his experiences during those short precious hours on Opening Day in the nation’s capital created a historic event that few expected. For at least one player it was a lifetime memory.
Featured Image: Bettman
Nick Diunte is a New York City sports writer who contributes to La Vida Baseball. His work has included features in multiple SABR books, as well as national newspapers such as the Baltimore Sun. Contact him via Twitter @Examinebaseball.