Starting as a 17-year-old in 1952 with the Washington Senators organization, Gonzalo “Cholly” Naranjo
has ties to a unique baseball world from his ten-year career in both the United States and Cuba. The Cuban-born former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher recently appeared on the Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss the Trump administration canceling the deal between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation, his first meeting with Roberto Clemente, and a host of other wonderful tales from his baseball journey between Cuba and the United States.
|Cholly Naranjo / 1956 Hollywood Stars|
President Trump's decision to end MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation's relationship
In April 2019, President Donald Trump ended a four-month-old agreement between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation
that allowed Major League teams to sign Cuban players for a 25% fee over their signing bonus to the Federation, as well as paying their Cuban income taxes. In his 85 years, Naranjo has lived through a variety of regimes in Cuba, as he was one of the few ex-Major League players who stayed in Cuba after the laws changed for professional baseball players in 1961. Naranjo returned to the United States full time in 1995 and feels this decision is a repeat version of an old tale.
“You don’t pick where you’re born,” Naranjo said. “You come out wherever you come out, and you’ve gotta go through the rules in the place where you live. You come to the United States, you’ve gotta go by the rules. We come [here] to play baseball, and we don’t pick where we’re born. What can you do?
“Now all of that is kind of juggling between baseball and the places where you live. All we wanted to do is play baseball and make a living. It happened before with us. We had that in 1961. The guys who couldn’t accomplish making the big leagues came back to their home. It’s a new copy of what baseball in Cuba is going through with the ballplayers. You’ve gotta face it because you cannot do anything with the laws of the country.”
Cholly Naranjo's favorite Almendares teammate
Naranjo built his chops playing for Almendares of the famed Cuban Winter League from 1952-1961, serving as a mainstay of their pitching staff for a decade. When asked to choose his favorite teammate, he went out of his way to recognize Willy Miranda. Regarded by many as the premier defensive shortstop of the 1950s, Naranjo told how even Miranda could poke fun at his own light hitting abilities.
“I was right beside Willy Miranda for 10 years and Willy was an outstanding guy,” Naranjo said. “He knew more about baseball than you could ever believe. … He came up one time to hit against Vinegar Bend Mizell with three men on. Dick Rand was the catcher. He turned to Dick and said, ‘Do you want to see a home run with the bases loaded?’ [Rand] said, ‘Are you going to hit it?’ He said, ‘No, the guy that’s coming after me [will hit it].’ That’s what kind of guy he was.
“He was incredible. Paul Richards said a lot about that. He could get rid of the ball faster than anybody he’d ever seen. He could make that play in the hole out on the left field grass and throw you out.”
Naranjo's toughest foes in the Cuban Winter League
On the mound, Naranjo battled established veterans during his Cuban League tenure, even drawing Branch Rickey’s attention for how he improved his curveball in the winter league. Surprisingly, when Naranjo recalled the batters who gave him fits, he pointed to two rookies whom he just could not get out.
“Jose Tartabull and Sandy Valdespino, they could read me like they owned me,” he said. “Everybody was a tough hitter for me. Those two guys, they were rookies. The rest, were day in, day out.”
Cholly's most cherished Roberto Clemente memory
Naranjo eventually reached the majors in 1956 with the Pittsburgh Pirates after narrowly missing the Washington Senators Opening Day roster in 1954
. His time in Pittsburgh opened the door for a relationship with Roberto Clemente, a topic Naranjo frequently encounters. He revealed how they built their kinship before they were teammates during a chance February 1954 meeting in Puerto Rico.
“The story about Roberto [was] in 1954,” he said. “We won the pennant in Havana. The year before, I was in Chattanooga and I went to Havana. Manuel Maldonado (Denis), the Puerto Rican pitcher who beat me in Mexico in the Amateur World Series in 1949, he went to Chattanooga when I went to Havana. He was going out with the same girl I was going out with. I came back home after the season ... we won the pennant and we flew out to Puerto Rico because the Caribbean Series was in San Juan.
“He [Maldonado] came up to the hotel and he was going to the University of San Juan. He came to see me as a friend. He said, ‘Come on, I’m going to take you to the university, and I’m going to introduce you to a guy who is going to be a hell of a ballplayer.’ You know who it was, Roberto Clemente. He was sitting in the track and field stands by himself. Branch Rickey just signed him and gave him a $15,000 bonus. Rickey was the general manager of the Dodgers. He sent him to Montreal. He told the Montreal manager not to play him. When he went to Havana, the fans in Havana knew a lot of baseball. They were calling the manager a “racista” because he didn’t play Roberto. They didn’t know that Rickey told him not to play because he didn’t want the scouts to see Roberto [so] they could get him in the draft. He already knew that he had the job with the Pirates and got Roberto for $5,000 in the winter meetings of the draft.”
During our 40-minute talk, Naranjo shared just a sliver of his baseball treasures that spanned his 85 years of playing and observing the game. He was especially proud that both his mind and body were clear enough to lead an active lifestyle.
“I’ve got my health at my age,” he said. “I got this far, and I’m better than when I was playing ball. Can you believe that? Sometimes I think, well, give me the ball; I’m going to get somebody out.
“It makes me feel well that I can be a normal person and do all the things necessary to live in the United States and travel. … To me, it’s like a prize that I have proven that it can happen to anybody. ... I’ve lived over there and over here, and I’m clean in both of them. I have lived long enough to show everybody what is what. I feel proud of that inside. … I say Cholly, how old are you? Well, I’ve got more miles than Pan American Airlines!"