Mays, Clemente in the same outfield? It happened

The two legends won a championship together in Puerto Rico

September 15th, 2022
Art by Tom Forget

A version of this story was originally published on Feb. 15, 2022.

Scroll through baseball history and think about which two outfielders you wish played on the same team together. Two of MLB's most talented, super popular, inner-circle Hall of Famers.

There's a good chance one of them might be the man who went to 15 All-Star Games, won 12 Gold Gloves and had such gravity-defying arm strength that every great throw after him would be compared to this one:

The other could be a 24-time All-Star -- an outfielder so good his name is basically synonymous with the sport. He's one of the greatest to ever step onto a field, and he once made a play so jaw-dropping and so clutch, it's simply called "The Catch."

For one winter season, in 1954, the two legends patrolled the same outfield for the Santurce Cangrejeros in Puerto Rico. They formed one of the more dynamic duos to ever appear on a baseball diamond and helped lead a star-studded team to a Caribbean Series championship.

"Santurce had a lousy season in '53-54," Thomas Van Hyning, author of "The Santurce Crabbers: 60 Seasons of Puerto Rican Winter League Baseball," told me in a call. "So, the ownership obviously wanted to find a way to do better and win a title."

Clemente had already agreed to join the team. The soon-to-be 20-year-old was coming off a year with the Montreal Royals -- the Triple-A affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had played for Santurce for two winters already, displaying some of the otherworldly skills he'd showcase for decades to come.

Mays joining the club was another story. The 23-year-old had just won the NL MVP Award after he hit 41 homers, put up 110 RBIs and led the NL with a .345 average and 1.078 OPS. He also helped the Giants to their first World Series title in 21 seasons. Did he really want to continue playing baseball for another few months after a long, 154-plus game season?

Of course he did.

“I don’t think I’ll have any trouble making a decent showing in the Puerto Rican League,” Mays told United Press International in October 1954. “I don’t care what league it is, I live to play ball. I was never in Puerto Rico before but that doesn’t matter."

Although he'd never been on the island, Mays would have some familiar faces down there with him. Puerto Rican native and Giants pitcher Rubén Gómez would be on the team; Bill Greason -- who played for the Negro League Birmingham Barons with Mays -- would also join the rotation; and Herman Franks, the Giants' third-base coach, was the manager. Santurce owner Pedrín Zorrilla also had a close relationship with the Giants, helping the team acquire Gomez back in 1953.

Mays, Santurce team owner Pedrín Zorrilla and Rubén Gómez chatting it up. (Photo via Jorge Colón Delgado)

Still, Mays -- because he was Willie Mays -- was able to work out a deal where he didn't have to play an entire season.

"Mays loved watching college football, so Pedrín bought him plane tickets so he could see the Army-Navy football game," Van Hyning said. "Mays also received many offseason awards so Pedrín gave him permission to travel to the mainland many times. Basically, in a 72-game season, Mays played in about half the games."

But when he was there, the reigning MVP was one of the best players on the island: In 172 at-bats, he collected 63 runs, 68 hits, 15 doubles, seven triples, 12 homers, 33 RBIs and 10 steals, and led the league with a .395 batting average and .773 slugging percentage. Clemente had 271 at-bats, scored a league-leading 65 runs and knocked a league-leading 94 hits. He also had six homers, 37 RBIs and finished with a .344 average.

Mays played center field and, interestingly, Clemente played in left instead of right. Negro League star Bob Thurman, then 37, played in right because, if you can believe it, he had an even better throwing arm than the man who was said to have a "rifle hanging from his right shoulder."

"I was on a radio talk show with Thurman about 30 years ago and one of the members of the audience asked Thurman, 'Why did you play right field instead of Clemente?'" Van Hyning recalled. "Thurman deadpanned, 'Well, I had a better throwing arm than he did.'"

Thurman also hit 14 homers for Santurce and batted in 60 runs. It'd be hard to dream up a better outfield. As team shortstop Don Zimmer said, “Mays, Thurman and Clemente played the outfield. People laugh when I tell them that. They say, ‘No!’ I say, ‘Yes, that was our outfield.’"

Mays, Clemente, Buster Clarkson, Bob Thurman and George Crowe make up the winter league dream team. (Photo via Jorge Colón Delgado)

Third baseman Buster Clarkson added 15 homers, while first baseman George Crowe put up 40 RBIs. Along with Gomez and Greason on the mound, Santurce had Sam Jones as a starting pitcher: A Negro League All-Star known as much for his signature toothpick on the mound as for his propensity to strike out (and walk) batters.

Even the Cangrejeros' bat boy was a future Hall of Famer: Teenager and Santurce native Orlando Cepeda. The future Giant would routinely partake in morning drills with Clemente and Mays when Mays suggested Clemente needed help charging the ball. Just imagine, three MLB MVPs at the outset of their careers tossing it around on a ballfield in Puerto Rico.

"Yeah, Mays and Clemente and Herman Franks and Orlando Cepeda would go to Sixto Escobar Stadium," Van Hyning told me. "Escobar Stadium is where those guys would have a little morning practice. Franks would hit line drives or fly balls to the outfield, and Mays and Clemente would take turns throwing the ball back to Cepeda, who would then hand the ball back to Franks. It was so that Clemente could improve on some aspects of his game."

Orlando Cepeda broke in with the Giants in 1958. (AP)

Unsurprisingly, the team bulldozed through the league -- going 47-25 and sweeping the championship series to gain entrance to the four-team, round robin Caribbean Series in Venezuela. Once there, they also dominated, going 5-1. Clemente slugged at a .517 rate, but Mays started off cold with an 0-for-12 start. Then he went off for a blistering 11 hits in 13 at-bats, including a dramatic, game-winning homer in Game 3 -- scoring Clemente from first.

But neither of these two generational superstars won the Series MVP. That honor belonged to the 23-year-old Zimmer -- who hit three homers and had a .971 OPS.

Don Zimmer with the Dodgers in 1956. (AP)

After the win, the Cangrejeros squad celebrated late into the night, wanting to make their time with their teammates -- as unfathomable a set of teammates as there ever was -- last even longer.

Many on Santurce's roster ended up getting their big breaks in 1955. Clemente made his debut with the Pirates in April. Thurman, at the age of 38, got signed by the Reds for his MLB debut and spent five seasons there. Toothpick Sam Jones made his first of two MLB All-Star teams for Cleveland, leading the AL with 198 strikeouts ... and 185 walks. Mays followed up his MVP season by hitting an MLB-leading 51 homers. Pitcher Luis Arroyo made his big league debut and first All-Star team. Even Cepeda, at the age of 17, was signed by the Giants.

The 1954-55 Santurce team is widely regarded as the greatest winter league team in history. There was a "dream team" in 1995 in Puerto Rico that included Edgar Martinez, Roberto Alomar, Bernie Williams and others, but that was a collection of players from different winter league teams. It wasn't just one already established squad.

Van Hyning told me Clemente and Mays seemed to remember the time they spent together that winter fondly, developing "huge respect" for one another.

"I think there was a bond," he said. "I think there was a very special bond between them that began in Puerto Rico."

As Mays once said in an interview, "I first saw Clemente in 1954 down in Puerto Rico. He could throw, he could run, he could hit -- he could do just about everything."

"Willie Mays is the greatest ballplayer I've ever seen," Clemente said in Karl Wagenheim's "Clemente!" "I never saw Joe DiMaggio play, but if Joe DiMaggio was better than Willie Mays, he belongs in Heaven."

Roberto Clemente is congratulated by Willie Mays after getting his 3,000th hit on Sept. 30, 1972. (AP)