Players don’t do what Manny Sanguillen used to do. As we see on his 1971 Topps card, Sangy wore his helmet over his cap, during batting practice and when he took his official at-bats within games. I’m not sure why players don’t do that anymore. In our neighborhood, wearing your helmet over your cap was cool—super cool.
More importantly, Sanguillen’s 1971 card typifies his congenial nature. We see him signing a large piece of paper—likely a scorecard from a program—for one of his fans at the newly opened Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.
It was not the first time that Topps captured a player signing an autograph; Bud Harrelson’s 1970 Topps card shows him signing for a number of fans at Shea Stadium. But there could have been no more appropriate player for Topps to choose in such a fan-friendly pose than the ever smiling Sanguillen, who seemed to be the happiest player at the ballpark on any given day. For that, and for his ability to hit line drives into the gaps, Pirates fans adored Manny Sanguillen.
As popular a following as he had with Pittsburgh fans, Sanguillen was even more well-liked within the Pirates’ clubhouse. His easygoing nature and sense of humor made him one of the central figures of a raucous clubhouse that led the league in ribbing and practical jokes.
Sanguillen and Willie Stargell often put on a show by engaging in mock arguments that led to imaginary fights. In a typical exchange between the two, Stargell would challenge Sangyl— former amateur boxer in his native Panamal—to a fistfight by shouting several angry words. Stargell would then charge Sanguillen, who would usually respond by assuming an old fashioned, bare-knuckled boxing stance in the tradition of the legendary John Sullivan. After several more displays of machismo, Sanguillen and Stargell would usually end the encounter with wide smiles and loud laughter.
Pirates players ceaselessly needled the well-liked Sanguillen about a variety of his habits, including his slow, exaggerated home run trots. “Sometimes it takes Manny five minutes to circle the bases after a home run,” Richie Hebner said to The Sporting News. “It is good for TV commercials. They get in four or five commercials after every one of Manny’s homers.”
Sanguillen, not known for his power-hitting, defended his slow pace around the bases. “I like to take my time after a home run,” Sanguillen informed Charley Feeney, the longtime Pirates beat writer. “I never can tell when the next one will come.” It was a typically self-deprecating response from the laid-back Sanguillen. It was also somewhat accurate, considering that he reached double figures in home runs only once in his 13 seasons.
Some Pirates poked fun at Sanguillen’s unusual facial features. “Hey double ugly,” relief pitcher Bob Miller once said to Sanguillen, who took the ribbing in stride. In general, Sanguillen’s teammates concentrated their jabs on the unusually wide gap between two of the catcher’s front teeth. (Sadly, the gap-toothed look is not evident on his 1971 card.) At one point, pitcher Bob Johnson needled Sanguillen during a series against the Dodgers. “They could steal your teeth,” Johnson said to Sanguillen in describing the Dodgers, one of the best base-stealing teams in the National League. “And you wouldn’t know it.”
Pirate pitchers, despite the jokes, enjoyed a good working rapport with Sanguillen. His broad smile, positive disposition and encouraging mannerisms counteracted his limitations with the English language. He became a master of strengthening the confidence and resolve of his pitchers. The pitchers, along with the coaching staff and the front office, also realized that Sangy possessed the basic physical characteristics required of a catcher: soft hands, cat-like quickness, an above-average throwing arm and a fast release.
After struggling in the transition to the catching position early in his career, Sanguillen had succeeded in making himself into a high-grade defensive catcher. Although Sanguillen was not quite a Gold-Glover behind the plate (that honor went to Johnny Bench on an annual basis), he had evolved into a very capable receiver.
Sanguillen’s is best remembered fir his hitting. He batted .296 for his career, as he riddled line drives from foul line to foul line. He did this despite being the most aggressive hitter I’ve seen. (At his most patient, he drew 48 walks in a season; most seasons he drew about 20.) He could hit pitches at helmet level or take pitches that nearly hit the ground and practically scoop them with the bat and dump them into the outfield.
Sanguillen continued to be a durable and productive catcher for the Pirates from 1972 through 1975, save for an unsuccessful stint as the Bucs’ right fielder in the aftermath of the death of Roberto Clemente. Against his wishes, Sanguillen opened the 1973 season as the Pirates’ starting right fielder.
“I feel bad being here,” he told The Sporting News. “I know I don’t belong. I know I’m here because ‘Great One’s’ gone and I want the best for the ball club. Only I wish there was somebody in right field to talk to.” It soon became obvious that Sanguillen did not belong in the outfield, as he committed six errors in the team’s first 34 games.
Realizing that he had made a mistake, Pirates manager Bill Virdon moved Sanguillen back to his regular position behind the plate. Sanguillen quickly re-acclimated himself to catching. Two years later, he enjoyed his best offensive season as he displayed increased patience at the plate and batted a career-high .328. Sangy’s play put him on his third National League All-Star team. As always, Sanguillen showed off his “iron horse” tendencies behind the plate, playing in more than 130 games for the fifth consecutive season.
It was not until 1976 that Sanguillen began to show significant falloff. Sensing that the 32-year-old catcher was breaking down after having caught too many games, the Pirates sent him to the A’s as compensation for their new manager, Chuck Tanner. Sanguillen would play only one season on the West Coast, where he became friendly with Charlie Finley but where he had little connection to an uninterested fan base.
Unfortunately, Sanguillen didn’t fit in with Oakland’s movement toward youth. In April of 1978, the rebuilding A’s traded Sanguillen back to the Pirates for three mediocre players. During his second stint in Pittsburgh, Sanguillen became a part-time player. He didn’t play much, but he contributed subtly to the Pirates’ “We Are Family” championship season. In Game Two of the World Series against the Orioles, his contributions reached their high point when he lined a ninth-inning pinch-hit single to score the game-winning run. Sanguillen’s hit evened the Series at a game apiece.
By the end of the Series, Sanguillen would have his second world championship.
Thirty years later, Sanguillen can still be found in the Pittsburgh area. During the season, he operates a popular barbecue stand at PNC Park. Though he no longer wears a cap under his helmet, I’m sure he still signs his share of programs for Pirates fan. And I’d bet he loves giving those autographs as much now as he did then.