Luis Rodríguez Olmo: ‘El pelotero de América’

Luis Francisco Rodríguez Olmo, the second Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues and the first Latino to hit a home run in the World Series, passed away on April 28 from complications caused by double pneumonia. He was 97. We mourn his passing and remember one of the true pioneers.

While his debut on July 18, 1943 with the Brooklyn Dodgers made him the second Puerto Rican in the majors, Luis Rodríguez Olmo meant so much more for those who followed pelota on the island. Puerto Ricans called him El jíbaro, a nickname that not only signified roots in the island’s rural parts, but someone who embodied the island’s persona of humility, genuineness and pura pasión.

Rodríguez Olmo was a proud man; proud of his baseball talent and of his Puerto Rican roots.

In the days before Jackie Robinson broke through with the Dodgers, Rodríguez Olmo was the first non-white that American Dodgers fans embraced. He had nifty glove work and matinee-star looks, according to newspaper scribes who covered the Brooklyn beat. It’s a little known fact, but Rodríguez Olmo perfected basket catches before Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente always credited him for teaching him the art of catching the ball at his waist.

As a 23-year-old rookie, Rodríguez Olmo showed flashes on the plate and in the outfield that gave fans of Dem Bums hope, batting .303 in 57 games. The 1944 season did not go as well; he hit only .258 as Brooklyn finished in seventh in the National League.

A Dodger Star

But 1945 was a different story. Rodríguez Olmo emerged as a formidable part of the Dodgers’ starting lineup with his all-around game. Playing mainly left field, he drove in 110 runs with 27 doubles and 10 home runs while leading the National League with 13 triples. He also led the Dodgers with 15 stolen bases, helping the Bums improve by 24 games and vault up to third place with an 87-67 record.

Confident in his ball-playing abilities and insisting on being paid on par with his Dodger teammates, Rodríguez Olmo attempted for the 1946 season to negotiate a better contract with team president and general manager Branch Rickey. Rickey refused.

Not everyone agreed with Rickey. Writing in the New York World-Telegram, sportswriter Dan Daniel contended Rickey had offered Rodríguez Olmo a “ridiculous” annual salary of $8,000, insisting that the Puerto Rican outfielder was “worth better than twice that.”

Rodríguez Olmo instead accepted a three-year offer reportedly worth $40,000 from Mexican millionaire Jorge Pasquel to play in the Mexican League. In so doing, Rodríguez Olmo became one of the top talents who opted to leave segregated Major League Baseball for the racially integrated Mexican circuit.

Banned for ‘jumping’

Rickey and many in the sporting press derided Rodríguez Olmo and the other major- and minor-league players who left for Mexico as “jumpers.” Major League Baseball openly portrayed them as traitors and Commissioner Happy Chandler imposed a five-year suspension for their defections that was later shortened.

But labeling Rodríguez Olmo’s decision as a betrayal or as traitorous was then (and now) overly simplistic. Rather, Rodríguez Olmo deciding to head to Mexico in 1946 must be placed in the context of the Latino experience in the majors prior to Jackie Robinson’s 1947 arrival and the dismantling of MLB’s color line.

A dignified man and confident player who knew his value, Rodríguez Olmo insisted on being treated equally by the Dodgers in their contract offers. He simply believed that Rickey and the Dodgers ought to pay him based on performance.

For him, the contract offer from Pasquel to play in the Mexican League represented being paid on the merits of his performance. In short, this was the meaning of inclusion for Rodríguez Olmo: That all players be paid based on performance and not being dealt with differently because they were not white Americans, as was typical of the major leagues and United States society of the 1940s.

Rodríguez Olmo returned to the Dodgers and the majors in late June of 1949, just in time to play with Robinson. He played in 38 games the rest of the season, averaging .305 while becoming the first Puerto Rican and third Latino to reach the World Series. He played in four of the five games of the Fall Classic, hitting 3-for-11 with a home run and two RBI as the Bums fell to the Bronx Bombers. His dinger off reliever Joe Page in the ninth inning of Game Three was the shot heard around the island of Borinquen.

A true giant

Traded to the Boston Braves at the end of 1949, Rodríguez Olmo played two more seasons before finishing out his career in the Caribbean. Yet we should not measure his legacy solely by his Brooklyn and Boston numbers. Debuting a year after Hiram Bithorn, the first Puerto Rican major-leaguer, Rodríguez Olmo was also a pioneer who shined and inspired others as a player, manager, broadcaster and scout.

Born on August 11, 1919 in Arecibo, a town on the north coast of Puerto Rico, Rodríguez Olmo was the third of four sons of José Rodríguez, a carpenter, and Ana Olmo. According to his SABR biography written by Rory Costello, he loved baseball from the beginning, claiming Billy Herman of the Cubs as a childhood idol, the same Herman who would later become his teammate in Brooklyn.

Rodríguez Olmo himself would become a childhood idol to others. At last count, says historian Jorge Fidel López Vélez, who last year published a biography on Bithorn, 326 players born in Puerto Rico and of Puerto Rican descent have made it to the major leagues, including three Hall of Famers: Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Alomar, and one who will be enshrined in July, Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez.

In Latin America, Rodríguez Olmo is called El pelotero de América, the Americas’ Ballplayer, because he was a star in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. He was the last surviving ballplayer from the inaugural Puerto Rican Winter League season in the winter of 1938-39. He debuted with the Caguas Criollos, playing for them in nine of his 15 PRWL seasons, and was named the Player of the Decade for the ’40s. He was included on the roster of the Santurce Crabbers for the 1951 Caribbean Series and was named MVP.

Rodríguez Olmo hit .344 to win the 1952 batting title in the Dominican Republic, when the league there still played in the summer. He was part of the legendary Crabbers team of 1954-55 that included Clemente, Mays, Rubén “El Divino Loco” Gómez and Bob Thurman. He recommended infielder Félix Mantilla to the Braves and, later, as a scout, signed pitcher Juan “Terín” Pizarro and infielder Sandy Alomar Sr., and played a part in signing catcher Elrod Hendricks from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

We could go on and on. Rodríguez Olmo had a long, full and colorful life, learning to play golf at age 49 and generally staying active and supportive of those who followed in his footsteps. He was a friend and patriarch to many until his later years, when Alzheimer’s took its toll. Like Bithorn, he had a brief major-league career but a long and enduring legacy. Puerto Rico and béisbol have lost a true giant.

Featured Image: Jorge Fidel López Vélez

Inset Images: Jorge Fidel López Vélez