January, 1954: Caguas, Puerto Rico
The wrinkled baseball card of Victor Pellot rested in the back pocket of Francisco Antonio Benítez’s Levis like a sacred relic in the Vatican. As he walked to the first row of Yldefonso Solá Morales Stadium with his father Don Octavio Benítez, Francisco Antonio’s heart pumped. Today, with 6,500 winter baseball fans drinking shots of local rum and munching on crispy plantain chips, he would meet the great Pellot, the flashy first baseman for the hometown Caguas Criollos and the future bonus baby of the Philadelphia Athletics.
To the Caguas locals, Pellot was their god, even though he had begun to use the name Vic Power on the mainland and some of the more radical nationalists started to call him Tío Tom. According to Pellot, he began to use Power (a variation of Pove, his mother’s maiden name) because when he played in the minor leagues of Quebec, the French-speaking fans would laugh at him. He first thought it was because of his black skin, but Pellot soon found out that his last name sounded a lot like plotte, French Canadian slang for vagina. So, on the mainland, he became Vic Power. In Caguas, he was still Victor Pellot. And every Caguas resident, from the whitest Spaniard to the darkest Africano, would cheer every time Pellot would slowly stroll to home plate, a 34-ounce Louisville Slugger slathered with pine tar and dirt in his Powerful hands.
“Did you know Pellot almost made the Yankees in 1951?” Don Octavio told his son, as they sat right behind the mesh net near home plate. “He would have been the first Negro Puerto Rican in the American League. They took Elston Howeard instead.”
Francisco Antonio loved when his father talked to him about baseball. Don Octavio, whose fortune had begun to grow once he sold his pool halls to a Caguas syndicate and had built a materials store in the city’s center, was frequently flying to New York to buy cloth in the Garment District. In between his negotiations with crusty Jews who made fun of his broken English and baggy suits, Don Octavio would take the subway to Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field. In one week, he saw Mays, Robinson, Mantle, Snider, Ford, Irvin, and Berra. The white corporate Yankees were methodical, cold, passionless. The Giants and Dodgers reminded Don Octavio of the island’s winter league: aggressive, fancy, players jawing at each other in both Spanish and English. The Giants and Dodgers had more Negroes, and those Negroes played in the winter league.
“If you ever saw Mays, Francisco, you could die the next moment a happy man,” Don Octavio told his son. “Pellot is as black as Mays. But the difference between Pellot and Mays is that Pellot is Puerto Rican, Mays is a Negro. Did you ever hear the story of Pellot when he was in the South and walked into a restaurant in Missisippi after a game? The waitress said that they didn’t serve Negroes. Pellot told her not to worry, he didn’t eat Negroes, he just wanted rice and beans.”
Francisco Antonio laughed at his father’s stories, even the ones he told over and over again. Baseball, the game that came to Puerto Rico when American soldiers arrived in 1898 and never left, was what every island boy talked about with his island father.
“Do you think he will hit a grand slam, Papi?” Francisco Antonio asked. “That would be a lot of money.”
For the entire winter league, Don Octavio had been advertising a contest in the newspaper for his store: The first Criollo to hit a grand slam would win a $1,000 check, personally signed by Don Octavio. After 20 games, no one had even come close, not even Pellot. But when the slugger saw Don Octavio at mass earlier in the day, after asking for blessings from the older businessman, Pellot said he had prayed to God for the chance to hit a grand slam later in the game.
“The money would help me, Don Octavio,” Pellot told him.
“I can just give it to you know,” Don Ocatvio said.
“No, Don Octavio,” Pellot said. “I am a baseball player. I will earn that check today. Blessings to you and your family.”
The first three innings of the game against Ponce sped through. Caguas could only manage a hit, while Ponce didn’t even hit the ball out of the infield. After the Ponce shortstop missed a Chichi Olivo fastball for a third strike, Francisco Antonio cheered along with his neighbors. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Caguas loaded the bases. Up came Pellot, and instead of walking towards home plate, he headed over to where Don Octavio was sitting.
“Sign the check, Don Octavio,” he told Francisco Antonio’s father and then looked at the younger Benítez. “And get a camera ready to take a picture with your son.”
Don Octavio smiled as Pellot picked up his bat and walked to the batter’s box. As the Ponce pitcher released a curve ball from his fingers, Pellot crouched his stance, winked and began to swing.
The sound of the wood ricocheted through the crowd, Pellot’s bat smacking the ball and stopping it for a second. The ball’s path sailed up high, towards the mountains of Caguas, past the stadium’s lights, over a two-lane road, and landed 500 feet away in a stable of lazy paso fino horses. Pellot watched the ball like an artist studies his models. He trotted around each base, soaking in applause and chants. When he stepped on home, his three teammates shook his hand and then headed back to the Caguas dugout. Pellot didn’t follow them.
He walked to Don Octavio, who had a check in hand and a photographer with his camera and a flash bulb.
“Viva Pellot!” Francico Antonio said.
Pellot picked up the younger Benítez and stood him up on the field. Together, they smiled for the camera.
“Dreams can come true, son,” Pellot said. “Don’t ever forget that.”