By Jorge Fidel López Vélez
(as told to La Vida’s Clemson Smith Muñiz)
Sometimes we have myths and legends, but we know almost nothing about them.
So it is with Hiram “Hi” Bithorn.
Before Javy Baez, before Jerry Morales, before all the other Puerto Ricans to play for the Chicago Cubs – or in the major leagues, for that matter – there was Bithorn.
This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the first Boricua to play in the Big Show, the trailblazer for Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Alomar and Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez.
A hard-throwing, athletic right-hander, Bithorn debuted in 1942, and the following season won 18 games, leading the National League with seven shutouts. But World War II interrupted his career and he only played a total of four seasons.
He died young, fatally shot by a policeman in Mexico in 1951.
Revered in Puerto Rico, Bithorn’s history was only known in bits and pieces until Jorge Fidel López Vélez decided to publish the pitcher’s biography last year.
Here’s what he learned about the man behind the myth, as told to La Vida executive editor Clemson Smith Muñiz.
Hiram Bithorn’s legacy is summed up in four words:
He was the first.
There have been others with more talent, but his arrival marked a combination of factors: His talent. His determination. The times we were living through in Puerto Rico. The moment in history.
“HE WAS VERY YOUNG AT THE TIME”
Hiram Bithorn starred in every league that he played in. Like many players of that era, he played a full season in the States and then came back home to play winter ball. He deserves his due in this regard. Players today worry much more about fatigue, and major-league teams use many excuses not to allow players to compete elsewhere.
Bithorn was a natural athlete. While still in high school, he represented Puerto Rico in basketball and volleyball in the Third Central American and Caribbean Games in El Salvador, in 1935. In fact, he medaled in both sports, earning bronze for basketball and silver for volleyball. He was very young at the time, turning 19 two days after the games started. He stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 200 pounds. He threw fastballs and changeups, but was known primarily for throwing hard.
At that time, baseball in Puerto Rico was not organized. They played it year-round ̶ but at the local level, between towns or neighborhoods. They also played against teams from the Negro and minor leagues, as well as teams from other countries that would travel in the offseason to the island to take part in what was called the “foreign leagues” because Puerto Rico had not yet established a professional league.
Bithorn impressed visiting teams with his talent as early as 1933. But it was on January 12, 1936, when he took the mound as an emergency starter for the Negro League Newark Eagles in a game against a Mexican squad, that the course of Bithorn’s life changed. He allowed two hits and won 4-0. He was not yet 20 years old.
In the stands was Ted Norbert, a career minor-league player who is now in the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame. Norbert knew Bithorn from previous trips to Puerto Rico. This time he was there scouting for the New York Yankees. And a little more than two weeks later, on January 29, the Class B Piedmont League Norfolk Tars announced Bithorn’s signing. That’s how Bithorn turned pro. In fact, before leaving for the mainland, he got to pitch against a major league team, the Cincinnati Reds, who spent part of spring training that year in Puerto Rico.
In November of 1938, the Puerto Rican Semi-Professional Baseball League was established, and Bithorn played for San Juan. In that first season, since Bithorn was stronger and more advanced than the other players, he was considered a refuerzo, a reinforcement from the States, and not a nativo, or a local player. That first season they let him play first and third base, but they didn’t let him pitch ̶ because he was too good.
“HE WAS WHITE, VERY WHITE”
Bithorn made the Cubs’ roster in spring training in 1942. He debuted on April 15 as a reliever in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. He did speak English, but not as well as he spoke Spanish. And on that team, there were two other Latinos, a Cuban catcher called Salvador “Chico” Hernández and a Mexican pitcher named Jesse Flores. The manager at the time, Jimmie Wilson, prohibited them from speaking Spanish. They could only speak in English.
It’s important to note that he was white, very white. And his last name sounded Anglo-Saxon. Bithorn was white, had the right last name and had talent. All that helped him get his first contract.
The press never referred to Bithorn as white. But since he, Hernández and Flores were light-skinned and had straight hair, they could mingle with the other players. Others before him had played in the Negro Leagues ̶ pioneers like Emilio “Millito” Navarro, Francisco “Pancho” Coimbre and Pedro “Perucho” Cepeda, Orlando Cepeda’s father ̶ but the same thing always happened: They were dark-skinned and never got a chance to cross over into the major leagues.
“HE WAS AHEAD OF HIS TIME”
Puerto Rico named the biggest and most important ballpark on the island after him: Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which opened in 1962. These two factors weighed a lot when I made the decision to write about him. Unfortunately, for those of us here on the island, you can only find stories about our players on the Internet and baseball websites. It’s difficult to find information here, which is one of the reasons some of us have decided to undertake the responsibility of retelling all these stories about Puerto Rican players who have had outstanding baseball careers.
I learned from his family that Hiram Bithorn was very determined. When he wanted something, he worked hard for it. I learned that he always liked to say, “We’ve got to develop a league in Puerto Rico.” He was ahead of his time. He strived to improve his English. He traveled by boat to the States to try to win a spot on a baseball team at a time when racism was overt and prevalent. At the time of his death, he was working as a minor-league umpire, training for the major leagues. It’s important to admire his persona, his story, his determination. He was driven in his desire to get to the majors.
Luis Rodríguez Olmo, the second Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues, told me that one of his idols was Bithorn, and that Bithorn helped him reach the majors. I heard the same from other players. That’s the part about writing the book that gives me great satisfaction.
Why is Bithorn’s story important? Close to 325 Puerto Ricans, including those born in the States who consider themselves Boricuas, have reached the major leagues.
And on that list of 325, Hiram Bithorn was first. And he is still an inspiration to all those young kids who dream of someday playing in the major leagues.
Jorge Fidel López Vélez is past president of the SABR chapter in Puerto Rico and an avid collector of baseball memorabilia. Hiram Bithorn, published by the author in 2016, is his first book.