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Friday, January 20, 2012

Hi Bithorn: Puerto Rico's Baseball Pioneer

More than 225 players who were born in Puerto Rico have played major league baseball, representing a staggering amount for such a small country. Their successes were paved by right handed pitcher Hiram “Hi” Bithorn, who was the first of them to debut, with the Chicago Cubs in 1942. Bithorn is not well-remembered today because of an abbreviated playing career and life that ended at the age of 34 under bizarre circumstances.

Bithorn was born in 1916 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. He grew up playing baseball and was signed by the New York Yankees in 1936. Some initially thought that Bithorn was black, but his mother was Danish and his father was Puerto Rican, enabling him to avoid baseball’s segregation.

Bithorn played in the Yankees’ minor league system for several years with good success, even having 17 wins and a 1.94 ERA in 1937. However, there was little room for him to advance because of all the top talent possessed by the best team in baseball. He eventually wound up in the New York Giants’ system before getting his big break in the autumn of 1941.
On September 30, 1941, Bithorn was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the Rule 5 Draft. The Cubs were coming off a sixth place finish that year and were in dire need of pitching, as evidenced by 42 year old Charlie Root having held down one of their rotation spots for much of the season.

Bithorn made the 1942 Cubs and contributed 171.2 innings that season. His 9-14 record was made a little better by his 3.68 ERA. He really blossomed the following year, going 18-12, with a 2.60 ERA and a National League leading 7 shutouts. Despite his success, he was not a strikeout pitcher, notching just 86 in 249.2 innings, but he also gave up only 8 home runs.

Even though World War II was underway when Bithorn debuted with the Cubs, he was initially able to stay out of the service because of his role in supporting his mother and his sister’s education. His exemption ended in 1944 and he enlisted in the Navy, missing the next two baseball seasons as a result.

When Bithorn returned to the Cubs in 1946, he was not the same pitcher, and injuries hastened the end of his major league career in 1947. In 105 career major league games, Bithorn had a 34-31 record and 3.16 ERA. He bounced around the minors and abroad for a few years, but was unable to make it back to the big leagues.

It was in the midst of his efforts to get back to the major leagues that Bithorn met his untimely death in 1951. He was shot by police officer Ambrosio Castillo Cano in front of a bus station in Almante, Mexico, on December 27, 1951, while attempting a comeback in the Mexican Winter League. Cano tried to explain his actions by stating, “I was afraid he was going to kill me. Without warning or provocation, he suddenly struck me in the face with his suitcase and started to leap upon me as I lay in the street.” Bithorn lingered into the next day, but ultimately died from the gunshot wound he had received to his stomach.

The circumstances surrounding death were immediately suspicious. District Attorney Jesus Govea announced Bithorn had been arrested after he was discovered trying to sell a 1947 Buick for $350 without the proper documentation. Police said Bithorn was shot when he attacked officers who were escorting him back to Mexico City, where he had promised he would produce papers for the car.

The story was made even more bizarre when Cano and other witness claimed that after he was shot, Bithorn gasped “I am a member of a communist cell on an important mission.” Waldemar Bithorn, Hi’s brother, denied the pitcher was a communist and roundly disputed all aspects of the story.

Mexican police tried to keep the blame on Bithorn’s death focused on the pitcher himself. Cano and other witnesses claimed that as Bithorn lay dying, he admitted he was the one at fault, whispering, “I have only myself to blame for getting shot.”

 Fidel Garza, Commandant of Police, announced, “It is very mysterious. He had $2,000 in American currency in his pocket when he was picked up. He could not have been selling the car because he was out of money. Why was the car without license plates? Why did he have no papers? And what was the Communist connection?”

Interestingly, the news of the shooting was not reported until New Years Day, 1952, leading many contemporary sources to cite that as the day Bithorn was actually killed. Because of Bithorn’s status as a relatively well-known athlete, a perfunctory evaluation was made on the shooting. District Attorney Govea announced on January 2nd that Cano had acted properly. He said that the officer was still being investigated, “but the belief is that he only defended himself from his aggressor.”

Bithorn’s family refused to let the matter rest. His sister went to Mexico in light of the shooting looking for answers, stating, “The accident looks very suspicious.” Ultimately, her suspicions proved to be right and Cano was charged with homicide on January 7, 1952, after an investigation had been ordered by state governor. The case went before Judge Ismael Benavides, who automatically held Cano over for trial.

Details about what actually transpired are sketchy at best. Evidently, some sort of argument transpired between Bithorn and Cano, and after the baseball player was shot, a story was concocted to shift the blame. The claims of selling the car and ties to communism represented broad generalisms about Americans, and do not appear to have any truth in them.

Showing the lack of American press coverage on the investigation and trial of Bithorn’s murderer, many modern sources claim that his death went unsolved. However, an article appeared in the October 3, 1952 issue of the New York Times, reporting that Cano was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 8 years in prison. The article failed to mention if the trial determined what motive, if any, instigated the slaying.

Since that time, Bithorn has slipped even further from the memory and consciousness of American baseball, although he is still revered in his native Puerto Rico. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda considers Bithorn to be one of his heroes. “He was the first person from Puerto Rico to make it to the major leagues. He did so much for the island.”

Even current players like Javier Vazquez were inspired by the trail blazing Bithorn. Vazquez explained “Being a ballplayer, we all knew about him and what he meant to Puerto Rico. He was the first, and that’s history right there. But a lot of people, I don’t think they know who he was.”

As the ultimate tribute, Hiram Bithorn Stadium was built for, and eponymously dedicated to him in San Juan Puerto Rico in 1962. It is still the largest stadium on the island and hosts many important baseball games every year.

His life cut short by a bizarre murder, Bithorn is not well known today in the United States, but continues to inspire generations of baseball players in his native Puerto Rico. He may not have experienced great success during his playing career, but the number of players whose lives he subsequently touched far outweighs the contributions most make to the game, and qualifies him as a baseball legend.


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  1. Not only is he not really well known here in the US but his stature and recognition might be waning in PR. A few people I've spoken to who live on the island never knew who he was. Sad considering the history of Baseball on "La Isla Del Encanto".

  2. Terrific read. Really well done. Agree with everything FHPromos says too.

  3. Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it. I like digging up stories like this.

  4. I was fortunate enough to speak with one of his few living teammates, Lennie Merullo and used Lennie's thoughts for an article about Bithorn last year.

  5. Good article. You have a different name of the police officer who shot him. I confirmed the perpetrator as Cano through multiple sources, including the NY Times.