MLB's first Mexican catcher is an overlooked iron man legend

April 25th, 2023

With the Mexico Series taking place this weekend (April 29 and 30) between the Padres and Giants, we wanted to highlight some of the great Mexican players and stories from baseball's past. This story originally ran in January 2023


If you were to tune in for the first game of the Mets' doubleheader against the Expos on Sept. 14, 1971, you may not have stuck around long. The Mets were in the midst of a fourth-place finish, their season largely wrapped up, while Montreal finished another 11 1/2 games behind New York. Nolan Ryan, who was still a mystery to the Mets -- the Daily News wrote, "his consistent failure to perform to his enormous potential has bewitched, bothered, and bewildered his employers" -- gave up six runs in just 1 2/3 innings en route to a 12-1 loss.

So, there were probably very few fans still tuned in when Francisco "Paquín" Estrada, a 23-year-old catcher from Navojoa, Mexico, replaced starting catcher Jerry Grote in the top of the sixth. He gave up a passed ball that led to nothing, then laced a single in the bottom of the seventh. He got one more at-bat, grounding out in the bottom of the ninth to end the game.

Estrada's appearance arrived without much fanfare and ended with even less -- even though he had become the first Mexican-born player to ever catch in the big leagues. Though no one could have suspected it at the time, it was also Estrada's final big league at-bat, giving him a sterling .500 career batting average.

Estrada atop the Mets' seasonal averages. From the Sept. 15, 1971 issue of the Hackensack Record. Via

Though Estrada may be a footnote in history to MLB fans, he is a Hall of Famer in his home country.

"He’s one of the best in the history of Mexican baseball," Horacio Ibarra Álvarez, the historian at the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame (or Salón de la Fama del Béisbol Mexicano), told over Zoom. "Mexico has a summer and a winter league and he holds records in both."

While Estrada only ever made it into that one big league game, that certainly was not what many expected for a player with so much talent. "Paquín" joined the legendary Diablos Rojos del México when he was just 18 years old in 1966 and by 1970, he was a full-fledged superstar. That season, he hit .303 while bashing 18 home runs, 24 doubles, and even picked up 11 triples. (The last Major League catcher to hit that many? Tim McCarver when he raced for 13 triples in '66.)

"There was a big expectation," Álvarez said. "He had a spectacular season with the Diablos Rojos in the Mexican League. That is the thing that opened the scouts' eyes to call him to the big leagues. There was a lot of hope because there weren’t many Mexican players in the big leagues. The expectation was he was going to be this fierce, big-time player for Mexico. But actually, in the only game he played, he didn’t even start. Jerry Grote started that day."

The Sporting News reported that the Diablos had sent Estrada to Spring Training with the Yankees before the 1970 season to "observe training in a Major League camp," giving Estrada his first taste of the American game. While it seemed to have helped him ahead of his breakout campaign with the Diablos Rojos, there was still the issue of the language divide. According to columnist Red Smith, it was his inability to speak English that hindered his training camp with the Yankees and even led to Estrada arriving to Mets' camp late because he got lost along the way. 

"By the time that he went to the big leagues, there had been only 19 Mexicans in history who played in the Majors," Álvarez said. "Around those times, if you asked the Mexican players, not speaking English was a factor. The Mets had a very good catcher in Jerry Grote. Not speaking English, it might have hurt his chances."

From the Sept. 15, 1971 issue of the New York Daily News. Via

After the 1971 season ended, Estrada was then included in one of the most memorable trades of all-time: He was one of the prospects included in the Mets' trade of Nolan Ryan to the Angels for Jim Fregosi. While Ryan went on to become a star in California, Estrada played only 21 games for the Angels' Triple-A farm club before he was traded to Baltimore. The next year, he was sent to the Cubs -- never seeing the big leagues along the way.

While that ended his time in affiliated baseball, Estrada's legend was just beginning. Now 26 years old, Estrada returned to Mexico in 1974 and played seven seasons with Puebla before joining Campeche from '81-84 -- all the while spending every winter playing in the Mexican Winter Leagues. Come 1985, when Estrada was 37 years old -- an age when almost every catcher is winding up their career -- Estrada was nowhere close to giving up the tools of ignorance. He then became a player-manager for the next decade, catching anywhere from "23 to 88 games a season," as reported in his SABR biography by Rory Costello.

When he finally set down his catcher's gear at the end of the 1994 season, Estrada had caught a remarkable 2,415 games and bashed out 84 HRs, 923 RBIs, and 2,089 hits in the Mexican League. He had also played another 30 seasons in the winter league, adding 1,538 more games, 1,269 hits, 74 home runs, and 514 RBIs.

To put that in comparison, Iván Rodríguez holds the Major League record with 2,427 games caught, while Japanese legend Katsuya Nomura -- who hit 657 home runs in the NPB -- caught an astronomical 3,017 games. That is still nearly 1,000 fewer games than Estrada piled up behind the dish.

Despite his nearly 4,000 games behind the plate, he is perhaps best known as a manager, leading his teams to 12 titles and a record 800-plus victories in the Mexican Pacific League. He was also Team Mexico's manager for the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and was set to be their skipper in 2017 before he went missing while suffering from poor health before passing away in 2019.

"His profile now is actually bigger as a manager because of the things that he did," Álvarez said. "He was a very good player and a very good manager. He went to play 30 years in the winter leagues and 26 in the summer league. Then as a manager, he won seven championships, two Caribbean series, and 3 championships in the summer league. He was viewed as a very good person."

While Estrada's career may be a fun big league factoid to share at your next cocktail party, he should be remembered more for his stature in the international game and his records which may never be broken.

"He’s like our Johnny Bench," Álvarez said. "He was a student of the game and it was a skill that helped him after his playing career as a manager. Sure, he played only one game, but now it’s like a joke: He’s the Mexican with the best batting average ever."

Thanks to Ricardo Montes de Oca for translation assistance.