While the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is reserved for the best players in history, the doors to Cooperstown open gladly to any major leaguer who knocks.
That simple. Make the trip — and the staff at the Hall of Fame will roll out the red carpet.
That’s how Hediberto “Eddie” Vargas, a first baseman who played briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1982 and 1984, found himself taking in a private tour last summer with two fellow Puerto Ricans, brothers Ángel and José “Pepe” Mangual — all former big leaguers overjoyed to fulfill a lifelong dream.
Vargas began his pro career in Pittsburgh organization in 1977. He played in upstate New York for the Low-A Niagara Falls Pirates in 1978. And for the Double-A Buffalo Bisons in 1980 and 1981.
And all that time, he wanted to visit Cooperstown, roughly four hours away by car from both places, pestering his teammates by asking, “Can we stop for just for 15 minutes?”
Vargas never got there, but he never forgot. He finally closed the circle in 2017, spending the day with the Mangual brothers, plus family and friends, looking at bronze plaques of their favorite players and former teammates, as well as assorted artifacts and even some of their own personal history.
“Not only do we honor Hall of Fame careers in Cooperstown, but the museum serves as the definitive repository for baseball’s vast history on and off the field, in America and around the globe,” National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum President Jeff Idelson said recently. “When retired players visit, they invariably discover and relive their own history, with their stories and contributions to the game documented in perpetuity in our museum and library. This is truly every player’s home, whether they had a cup of coffee in the major leagues, or a long career.”
Not surprisingly, the visit ended up bringing back childhood memories. Given the group’s boricua blood, anything related to Roberto Clemente, the first Latino enshrined in Cooperstown, was a huge hit.
“If you watch videos with Clemente, he always talked about the family and family unity. That inspired me to get ahead,” Pepe Mangual said in Spanish during an interview with the group for La Vida Baseball.
“I never saw him play in person, but I saw him on television many times,” Vargas said. “My father was the No. 1 fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates and was always a fan of Clemente. We are three boys, and my dad always said that one of us had to be a ballplayer. That was his dream, to see one of his sons become a ballplayer and sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“When I signed, in my first year [at spring training], there was this room — and they always put four of us to a room — and I would always walk past this room and stop to look because no one could go in. That had been exclusively Clemente’s. I kept telling myself that one day I would enter that room, when I became a professional.”
We Are Family
Puerto Rico is called isla de primos — island of cousins — because if you don’t know someone, chances are you are probably related within six degrees. The Manguals say that they are related to Sandy Alomar Sr. and his two celebrated sons, Sandy Jr. and Hall of Famer Roberto. They are also cousins of another major leaguer, José “Coco” Laboy.
Meanwhile, Vargas’ father was friends with Francisco “Pancho” Coimbre, the legendary Negro Leagues outfielder who was Clemente’s idol and mentor. After retiring, Coimbre scouted for Pittsburgh and, of course, it was he who brought Vargas to the attention of the Pirates, with one concise and memorable scouting line:
“This is the player you have to sign because this kid is good and plays just like Roberto Clemente,” Vargas recalled Coimbre saying.
“I always liked how Clemente played, and I tried to play the same way,” Vargas said. “Not imitating him — but trying to do the things that he did that made him the player that he was.
“Even though he had passed away, I felt he was alive. Because he was always an inspiration, not just for kids, but also for adults and all the fans that always go to the ballpark. Even though he’s not on the field, the first thing people do is start talking about Roberto Clemente.”
Vargas made his debut on Sept. 8, 1982, getting a single as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter against the New York Mets. What he remembers vividly about his first day was arriving at Three Rivers Stadium.
“I said, ‘Wow, man, I’m here.’ And I kept walking around and around and around,” Vargas said, “Until finally all the Latinos on the team came out and said, ‘Hey, jíbaro, come here.’ And I went in. And Willie Stargell came up to me and asked, ‘How come you spent so much time walking outside?’ Because I liked it.”
The Clemente effect
The Mangual brothers enjoyed longer careers than Vargas. Ángel was a backup outfielder on the Oakland A’s team that won three straight championships from 1972 to 1974. He was so impressive as a prospect that he was dubbed “Little Clemente.”
And while Ángel didn’t live up to his billing, he’s the first Latino to earn three World Series rings and the only Puerto Rican to do so who wasn’t a member of the New York Yankees. His career highlight may have been a pinch-hit, walk-off single in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 1972 Fall Classic to give the A’s a 3-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.
“Clemente set the example,” said Ángel, who played seven seasons through 1976. “Because I didn’t go to school, I took advantage of the opportunities that I got from baseball. I fell in love with baseball, and [my life] was baseball, and baseball. Because of the game, I understand English well, even though sometimes I have problems speaking it.
“Clemente gave me everything — who he was, how he played and how he treated people — and I fell in love with him. And he inspired me to go as far as I went. And I’m very grateful to him because of it.”
During his time in Oakland, Ángel played with a variety of teammates, including the Dominican brothers Jesús and Mateo “Matty” Aloú; the Venezuelans Víctor “Vic” Davalillo and Manny Trillo; the Cuban shortstop Dagoberto “Bert” Campaneris; and, of course, the one and only Reginald “Reggie” Martínez Jackson.
Here to help
“I was hungry, and I found people who were willing to help,” Ángel said. “They were all good people. They came looking for me, offering their help. And that included Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi and the catcher Ray Fosse.
“Sometimes it made me cry, to see people worry about you, including fellow Latinos. There were some players who were too proud to help. There were divisions — on one side, there were serious people, serious players; and on the other, people who with a smile and a helping hand would make you smile and give you the energy to keep on playing.
“And to see them give me their hand made me feel like the proudest Puerto Rican in the major leagues,” Ángel added. “I felt part of the team. Every time we slapped five and said, ‘Let’s go,’ it gave me goosebumps. When people like that help you, it gives you the strength to keep going.”
Those A’s were known to be a fractious bunch. Ángel says the person he least got along with was the most important one — Dick Williams, who piloted the A’s during their first two titles in 1972 and 1973 and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
“Dick Williams was very strict,” Ángel recounted. “And if he didn’t like you, he would let you know. I had problems with him. The players would go to bat for me. They would tell [Williams], ‘Why don’t you play Ángel?’
“If players thought that you had talent, they would extend a helping hand.”
Hall of Fame friends
Vargas had one Hall of Fame teammate in Stargell. Ángel enjoyed many more. Clemente and Stargell, among others, when he debuted with the Pirates in 1969. With the A’s, he had Jackson, Williams, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers, as well as Orlando Cepeda for three midseason games in 1972.
Pepe, who played for the Montreal Expos from 1972 to 1976 until he was traded to the New York Mets halfway through the season, played with Gary Carter. While with the Mets for the rest of 1976 and eight games in 1977 — his final season — he shared the field with Tom Seaver and Joe Torre.
Of the three, Carter left a lasting impression on Pepe — literally.
“Carter loved to hustle. And he was scrappy,” Pepe said. “But we also had Barry Foote catching. They would alternate them, one catching and the other in right field. I played centerfield. Carter liked to take all the fly balls. He was nuts. He went after everything. They would hit to the outfield and he would start yelling, ‘Mine, mine!’ and take the ball away from me.
“One day, they hit a line drive between right and center field. I’m under the ball and here comes Carter. He crashes into me, knocks me down and I lose consciousness. I spend three days in a Montreal medical center in a stupor. When I finally snap out of it, there’s Carter. I see that he has a cast on one finger. Meanwhile, he hit me and knocked me out.”
Carter was traded to the Mets before the 1985 season and became one of the leaders of their 1986 World Series team. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2003 and passed away from brain cancer in 2012. Pepe still remembers him fondly.
“He was a good teammate. But he loved to rib you,” he said. “José Morales and I were playing dominoes on the plane and he would start yelling, ‘Speak English. We’re in America.’ He was like a little kid.”
Featured Image: Milo Stewart / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum