The Great Aparicio

luis card 3

More than any other, there is one baseball player responsible for inspiring this blog: Luis Aparicio Montiel of Maracaibo, Venezuela.  He played 18 seasons in the American League, for the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, and the Boston Red Sox—and several in the Venezuelan winter league, as well. The numbers don’t tell the whole story of “Little Louie” but here are some: 1956 Rookie of the Year, 9 Gold Gloves, 9 consecutive stolen base titles, 13-time all star shortstop; upon retirement in 1973, all-time leader in appearances, chances, assists and double plays at the position.  Aparicio played in two World Series and was champion with the 1966 Orioles.

The funny thing about Aparicio is that he might not be the most famous Luis Aparicio in his own country: his father, Luis Aparicio Ortega, (known as “El Grande” to differentiate him from his son) is considered by some to have been the better player. In a moment Hollywood wishes it had scripted, when Papa Aparicio retired from the Gavilanes (Hawks) on November 17, 1953, Little Louie walked onto the field to take his place. Teary-eyed dad handed Luis Jr. his glove and the rest was history. Visitors to the present-day stadium in Maracaibo will note that it is named for the father, and not the son, as is the statue inside the front gate.

The author with Luis Aparicio "El Grande"

Luis became the fourth Venezuelan to reach las grandes ligas in 1956 with the helping hand of countryman Alfonso “Chico” Carrasquel. With Carrasquel and Aparicio began the line of great Major-League shortstops that continues to the present day. Carrasquel, whose uncle was the first Venezuelan to play in the majors in 1939, told his employers the Chicago White Sox he knew of a kid who could really play. There was some haggling among the scouts of Cleveland and Brooklyn, but Chicago signed him and after a short apprenticeship in the minor leagues, Little Louie was the White Sox shortstop, and Carrasquel was traded to the Indians.

Luis busted out of the box. At a time when the stolen base was uncommon, he and Dodger Maury Wills brought it back into vogue, with Luis leading the light-hitting “Go Go” Sox of 1959 all the way to the World Series on the strength of smart baseball—bunting, stealing bases, and fielding his position like a demon.

I Guarantee You, He Won’t Be There

Aparicio’s first big league manager was Marty Marion, a former World Series shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. Known as a slick fielder, Marion played in the pre-Gold Glove era.  He was the manager in Chicago for only one year, but taught Aparicio an important part of the game—how to knock down a runner when pivoting on the double play.

Little Louis had been bullied a bit by the burly Americans when trying to turn two in Chicago. Marion’s advice was straightforward: “If the runner is coming right at you, just make your peg as if he’s not there. Do that and I guarantee you, he won’t be there.” After plunking a few runners, word got around the American League, and Little Louie got all the clearance he needed to make those double play throws.

In the book What It Means to be a White Sox, Aparicio actually credits Billy Martin with helping him turn the double play. Martin, a journeyman infielder for 11 seasons, never backed down from a confrontation on or off the field. According to Aparicio, “Everybody was running into me at second base to try and stop the double play….they would hit me. Billy said, ‘Kid, you’re going to have to learn how to throw the ball from down here. When you hit one or two guys, they’re going to leave you alone. They will slide way before they get to you.’ So I hit a couple of guys with my throws, including Mickey Mantle, and then there were no more slides into me at second base.”

Baseball was different then, a bit rougher, and management much the same. When Aparicio showed up for the 1963 season a bit out of shape, the White Sox promptly tried to cut his salary. Proud Luis refused, and was traded to the Orioles, where for five seasons he and Brooks Robinson formed a left side of the infield for the ages (25 career Gold Gloves between them).  One commentator said that to get one past that side of the Orioles diamond, you’d better hit it 10 feet in the air, because dang, those boys could jump, too.

Damned Yankees

Legendary Yankee skipper Casey Stengel , never one to mince words or use a sentence when a paragraph would do, said this about Aparicio, whose Go-Go Sox of ’59 broke the Yankees decade-long hold on the American League pennant. “If that kid gets any better you might as well call in the second baseman and third baseman because he gobbles up everything within a mile of him.” [1]

Stengel even surmised, “One of these days you’ll see that Aparicio field a ball in back of the pitcher and out run the hitter to first base. He’s done everything else, ain’t he?” [2]

Casey wasn’t the only Yankee manager vexed by Aparicio’s glove and aplomb on the basepaths. Ralph Houk, who guided the Bombers to the World Series from 1961-64, had this to say. “Since I’ve been managing the Yankees, Little Luis Aparicio has beaten me more than any other player in the American League,” he said. [3]

Luis was a proud man, and when the Orioles told him to show rookie shortstop Mark Belanger the ropes, the Zuilana would have no part in it. He froze Belanger out, refusing to even speak with him. A year later, Luis was back on Chicago’s South Side, and he and Belanger would alternate Gold Glove awards for a few years.

Hail From The Chief

Luis Aparicio’s spent the last three seasons wearing Sox, indeed, but Bostonian Red.  Although he had worked to improve his hitting throughout his career, and in 1970 batted .313, in his first year in Boston, 1971, he endured a traumatic 44-game hitless streak  The Fenway Faithful gave him a mocking round of applause when he hit a single during the 45th game. (Sports fans, have a heart: Luis’ father died in 1971. This perhaps contributed to his performance on the field; players are not emotionless automatons).

Someone who was about to run into a little bad luck of his own, President Richard Milhouse Nixon, felt Little Louie’s pain. The Republican, about to win the U.S. presidency for the second election in a row, sent Aparacio a telegram lauding him for his gentlemanly conduct during the abysmal streak. Nixon, a big sports fan, also thanked the Venezuelan for the thrills he had provided baseball fans for more the past 15 years.

Despite the ignoble streak, fans voted Luis to the American League All-Star team for the tenth time that summer.  In a game dominated by six home runs by the mastodons of the day (Aaron, Clemente [in his final All Star appearance], Frank Robinson, Bench, Killebrew and Reggie Jackson) Little Louie went 1-for-3 and fielded his position flawlessly—of course—paired with Panamanian star second-sacker (and future Hall of Famer) Rod Carew. In a Zelig-like historical footnote, Luis was on base in the third inning when Jackson hit one of the longest home runs in All-Star history, off the light tower in Tiger Stadium.

It was also Luis’ final All Star appearance-voted to the team the next year, he was injured and did not play. In 1973 Cuban sensation Bert “Campy” Campaneris took his place—the same man who had supplanted Aparicio for the stolen base crown in 1964 after Luis’ 9-year-reign as King of Steals.

In 1984 the Baseball Writers of America voted Aparicio into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The same year the White Sox retired his uniform #11. He is one of a handful of players in the honor roll mostly by merit of his stellar defense.

In 1998 I visited Cooperstown for the second time in my life, and brought a special gift back for my friends at Cafe Caracas in Berkeley, California: a postcard of Luis Ernesto Aparicio’s Hall of Fame plaque. Man, they were beaming when I handed them that card.

[1] Baseball’s Hall of Fame: Cooperstown, Where the Legends Live Forever by the editors of The Sporting News, Arlington House, NY, 1986.

[2] Donald Honig: The Greatest Shortstops of All Time. Wm. C. Brown Publishers, c. 1992.

[3] Stolen: A History of Base Stealing, by Russell Roberts. McFarland and Company, Inc. Jefferson, North Carolina, 1999.


About vzbaseball

Writer, Musician, Baseball Fanatic. Lonely Planet, Fodor's, scouring the nation and globe for stories. Big fish, small pond.
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