To Senators scout `Papa Joe,' Cuba was his personal island

Orioles vs. Cuba

May 03, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

He was a one-man scouting crew: "Papa Joe," as he was affectionately referred to in Cuba. Seemingly a surrogate father. His popularity was such that a Havana cigar was named for him the "Papa Joe."

"Papa Joe," born Joe Cambria, was the low-budget Washington Senators' only official scout, which is why he put a dragnet around Cuba and concentrated on pursuing the baseball talent there: He knew the players wanted only an opportunity -- not the bonus money he wasn't able to spend.

Cambria had to scout where he didn't have to contend with rival teams bidding against him, which is why he considered Cuba his promised land. Baltimore and Washington were his other venues. Few prospects in either city escaped his interest, and hundreds were signed for trials over a 30-year period.

He built the Bugle Field baseball park in 1932 and named it after a Baltimore laundry he owned. He also, at one time, operated the Baltimore Black Sox of the Negro National League and owned 10 different minor-league clubs in every classification, most of them struggling franchises.

Cambria was an innovative promoter, who once took an ex-convict, Alabama Pitts, from Sing Sing prison and played him at Albany in the International League. He also had a left-handed catcher, Lou Hanles, at Salisbury in the Eastern Shore League and, at one time, signed one-armed Pete Gray before he became a major-league outfielder.

Perhaps the most money Cambria spent for an untried player was the $1,000 bonus he gave Lou Grasmick, a Baltimore pitcher, whom he sold to Williamsport of the Eastern League and, ultimately, to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Cambria died at the age of 72 in Baltimore and was resentful of Fidel Castro, the Cuban insurrectionist, whom he accused of depriving him of his life's savings. He remembered Castro as a pitcher at Havana University, saying he had a good curve and "not much of a fastball" and because of such limitations, didn't consider him worthy of signing.

Cambria was part entrepreneur and showman but, mostly, he got by on his nerve. Cuban players had loyalty and trust in him because he was giving them the chance to find their way in baseball -- to come to the United States and play a game that was going to earn them a far better livelihood than they could have made in Cuba. Before he died, a hospital visit with Joe led to asking him to pick two teams of standout players he had signed, from the United States and also the island of Cuba. He submitted the following lineups:

United States: Catchers Babe Phelps, Mickey Livingston; pitchers Early Wynn, Walt Masterson, Ray Prim, Hugh Mulcahy, Joe Krakauskas; first baseman Mickey Vernon; infielders George Myatt, Rusty Peters, Eddie Yost; outfielders George Case, Jake Powell, Johnny Welaj.

Cuba: Catcher Mike Guerra; pitchers Pedro Ramos, Camilo Pascual, Sandy Consuegra, Connie Marrero, Julio Moreno, Mike Fornieles, Jorge Comellas; first basemen Julio Becquer, Reggie Otero; infielders Willy Miranda, Gil Torres, Jose Valdivielso, Zoilo Versalles; outfielders Bobby Estalella, Roberto Ortiz, Jose Zardon.

When Cambria brought players to the United States, he gave them pocket-sized cards with meal menus inscribed. They had little command of English, but "Papa Joe" didn't want them to go hungry.

He once bought a glass of milk for Estalella at a New York Automat, and the player was astonished. He wanted to know, where was the "vaca" or cow? Joe died in 1962 and is buried in Baltimore's New Cathedral Cemetery.

"Papa Joe" said his final dream was to find another island, similar to Cuba, where no scout had ever been and players had never heard of anything called a bonus contract.

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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