When I first saw this card, I figured that Paul Casanova couldn’t really be a catcher. First, he looks so lean and athletic, more like a fleet-footed outfielder than a muscular or overweight catcher. Though it’s impossible to tell how fast a runner is from a still photograph, it looks like Casanova knows what he is doing in running the bases. With his fists clenched and his arms extended, Casanova appears to have excellent form. As he’s rounding the third base bag, notice how his left leg is touching the inside corner of the bag while his right leg is about to step above and beyond the bag. That’s textbook baserunning on how to cut the third base bag as you’re making a mad dash toward home plate.
Technique aside, this Topps card is one of the most beautiful of the 1973 set. It’s a wonderful action shot of a baserunner who appears to be giving maximum effort. Without any hint of blurring, which is sometimes a problem with the ‘73 action shots, Casanova’s full body is located squarely within the picture frame. Finally, there’s a nice contrast between the Braves’ bold blue jersey and the green artificial turf behind Casanova. There’s some mystery, too, involving the location of the picture. Based on the road blue, we know that it’s an away game for the Braves, but I can’t tell if it’s Candlestick Park or Veterans Stadium or some other National League location.
Paul Casanova presented me with other challenges, too. While growing up in 1973, I had no idea that Casanova was Latino, and not an African-American. More specifically, he hailed from Colon, Cuba. The name, Paul Casanova, just didn’t give away his background. A check of his biography showed his full name to be Paulino, which would have given me a better clue.
Additionally, I never would have guessed that Casanova played in the Negro Leagues. He was born in 1943, only four years before the birth of Jackie Robinson, but Casanova did play in what amounted to the remnants of the Negro Leagues. He was a standout for the old Indianapolis Clowns, one of the last all-black teams that remained standing.
The Indians scouted Casanova while he played semi-pro ball in Cuba. Coming away impressed with his commanding presence, the Indians offered him a free agent contract in 1960. But he would never see the light of day in Cleveland. For the most part, he served as a bullpen catcher, coming to bat only six times for their low-level affiliate in the Northern League before drawing his release. The Indians decided to give him a second chance after the season, signing him in December after scouting him in winter ball. But they released him the following April, this time without giving him a single minor league at-bat. The Indians simply didn’t think he would ever hit.
With no other teams calling, Casanova decided to spend the summer of 1961 playing for the Clowns, an independent all-black team that barnstormed across the country. Life was hardly glamorous with the Clowns, whose players often slept on the bus and sometimes had to endure tripleheaders. During one tripleheader, Casanova went 5-for-5, with one of the hits coming against the legendary Satchel Paige. Casanova’s play with the Clowns caught the attention of the Cubs, who agreed to pick up half of his salary and eventually signed him to a contract in late September.
The Cubs brought him to their minor league camp in 1962 and assigned him to their affiliate in the Texas League. He played in two games, accruing one at-bat, and then the Cubs released him. So after a grand total of seven minor league plate appearances, Casanova had already been cut loose three times.
Barely 20 years of age, Casanova now faced an early crossroads in his career. For a spell, he decided to give up the game and pursue a career in construction. But the Washington Senators, through the efforts of scout John Caruso, showed interest. Caruso told him to stick with baseball. Come October, Caruso and the Senators offered him a minor league deal. “He never saw me hit,” Casanova told Bob Addie of The Sporting News. “All he wanted to do was see me throw. The following spring, the Senators assigned him to Geneva of the NY-Penn League.
Given his first dose of real playing time in Organized Ball in 1963, Casanova hit a respectable .261 with seven home runs in a league known for its pitching. The Senators decided to keep him at Geneva in 1964 and watched him dominate the league. He hit .325 with 19 home runs and a .508 slugging percentage. He was now on his way.
Casanova’s strong performance at Geneva earned him a bump up to Burlington in 1965. Taking on the role of a workhorse, he played in 142 games, hit .287, and ripped eight home runs.
The 1965 edition of the Senators badly needed help at catcher, where Mike Brumley had hit a measly .208 with a .280 on-base percentage. So when Casanova’s minor league season ended, the Senators called him up to Washington for a late-season audition. In making his major league debut, Casanova became the second-to-last Negro Leaguer to advance to a big league roster. (Only Ike Brown, the future Tiger utilityman, would debut later than Casanova.) In a five-game trial, Casanova received 14 plate appearances and responded with a .308 batting average. It was the smallest of sample sizes, but it gave the Senators hope for the future.
Just to be conservative, the Senators put Casanova at Double-A York of the Eastern League to start the 1966 season. Casanova hit only .211 in a handful of appearances, but the Senators experienced a flood of injuries, affecting their catching situation. Dissatisfied with Brumley, they farmed him out and made the call to Casanova, who suddenly became their starting catcher. In his first major league game, he hit an eighth-inning home run, which also happened to break up a no-hit bid by Fred Talbot.
The rookie receiver responded by hitting .254 with 13 home runs while playing fine defense, highlighted by a 46 per cent success rate in throwing out opposing basestealers. Those attributes counterbalanced his free-swinging ways, which resulted in only 14 walks on the season.
Defensively, Casanova made a unique impression. He was built different than most catchers, tall and rangy, at six feet, four inches, and 190 pounds. When opposing batters bunted against him, he reacted with catlike quickness, pouncing on the ball before firing a bullet to first base. Combining quick footwork with a cannonlike throwing arm, Casanova offered a package of talents that was difficult to find in a catcher.
Although Casanova finished behind a pair of Red Sox, George Scott and Joe Foy, in Rookie of the Year voting, Senators skipper Gil Hodges cast his vote for his own catcher. “I wouldn’t trade ‘Cazzie’ for Scott or Foy either,” Hodges emphatically told Bob Addie. “This boy could be a really great catcher. He has done a remarkable job for his first year in the big leagues.”
As an organization, the Senators saw enough in Casanova to consider him their catcher for the foreseeable future. A fast start to the 1967 season earned him some notoriety, as did the events of a June 12th game against the White Sox. Casanova played all 22 innings behind the plate, throwing out three basestealers, and then capped off the performance with a game-winning hit. It was his only hit in nine at-bats that night, but it ended the longest night game in American League history.
“No kidding, I’m not tired,” Casanova told UPI after 22-inning game. “I could have gone another 10 innings.” Simply put, he loved to play.
Casanova’s catching and hitting earned him a place as a backup on the American League All-Star team, though he did not appear in the actual game. Even more significantly, he would receive some support for league MVP that October, with the writers putting him 21st in the balloting. If not for a second-half tail off, he would have finished significantly higher in the election.
The Senators loved Casanova’s on-field enthusiasm, which made him a fun player during a conservative era. They appreciated his hustle and exuberance, the way that he ran out to his position at the start of each inning. They also enjoyed the ritual of each at-bat. Instead of walking up to the plate, he practically ran toward the batter’s box. He then took two all-out practice swings, settled into a deep crouch, and planned to swing at anything close.
Washington’s brass adored his spectacular defense, in particular a powerful throwing arm that allowed him to throw out 49 per cent of runners. The Senators also liked his power potential (nine home runs). Conversely, the lack of plate discipline became a concern. In 141 games, he drew only 17 walks. That’s why his on-base percentage rested at .273 by season’s end. If anything, he swung more wildly in 1967 than he had as a rookie.
Casanova’s absence of patience hurt him more badly in 1968. He began the season in a deep slump. By the end of June, his batting average stood at an intolerable .181. Even within the context of a 1968 season that saw pitchers at a major advantage over hitters, the Senators needed more offense from their catcher. So they sent Casanova to Triple-A Buffalo in the hopes that he would regain his stroke and his confidence.
During a nearly month-long stint in the International League, Casanova hit .273 with a couple of home runs. They were not great numbers, but they were sufficient to merit a recall in late July. He regained his starting catching job and hit a little better over the second half, lifting his final average to .196. But the overall numbers remained putrid. A .210 on-base percentage, fueled by only seven walks, and a .252 slugging percentage simply could not be glossed over. Even his defense suffered, as he threw out only 38 per cent of baserunners, a figure that was barely above league average.
By 1968, Casanova had also developed a reputation as someone who enjoyed the night life a bit too much. He stayed out late at nightclubs, drinking the dancing the night away while missing curfew. The habit drew several fines from manager Jim Lemon.
Despite his struggles, the Senators did not give up on Casanova, who would lead American League catchers in double plays on three occasions. He retained his starting job in 1969, while being exposed to a new manager in Ted Williams. On the plus side, Casanova drew a career-high in walks. On the negative side, the total was only 18, just one better than his previous high. He batted a mere .216 and reached base only 25 per cent of the time. On a team where most of the hitters showed significant improvement under the tutelage of Williams, Casanova mostly maintained the status quo.
As his batting woes continued, Casanova began to lose playing time, first to veteran John Roseboro in 1970 and then to young Jim French in 1971. The ongoing struggles would prevent Casanova from making the switch from Washington to Texas, as the Senators prepared to execute a franchise switch and become the Rangers.
Fast approaching his 30th birthday, Casanova was headed out of town. At the famed 1971 winter meetings, the Rangers traded him to the Braves for fellow catcher Hal King, a far better hitter than Casanova.
The Braves already had a strong hitting catcher in Earl Williams, the 1971 National League Rookie of the Year. They wanted (and needed) a strong backup, a defensive catcher who could tutor Williams. Casanova filled the role perfectly. He hit only .209 in 49 games, but the Braves didn’t care about that. When he played, he served as a deterrent to opposing baserunners. They attempted only 18 steals and were thrown out eight times. A 44 per cent success rate for Casanova proved that his throwing remained top-notch.
After the 1972 season, the Braves decided to trade the defensively-challenged Williams, sending him to Baltimore in a blockbuster trade. That decision opened some playing time for Casanova in 1973; he became the right-handed half of a platoon with young Johnny Oates. The additional playing time exposed Casanova, whose defensive play, including his throwing, slipped from his 1972 performance. But he did become involved in a history-making moment that summer. On August 5, Casanova caught Phil Niekro’s no-hitter against the Padres. Niekro threw knuckleballs almost exclusively that day, but Casanova handled all of them without incident.
As Casanova prepared for the 1974 season, he became involved in a venture in Venezuela, his home during the winter. Along with the White Sox’ Pat Kelly and his NFL brother Leroy Kelly, Cazzie opened up a nightclub. It was the perfect business venture for the man who liked to party.
With his outgoing personality, Casanova became connected to the most famous player on the Braves. He and Hank Aaron emerged as friends. Like Casanova, Aaron had also played in the Negro Leagues with the Clowns, albeit at a much earlier time. Sharing a common bond, the two men became the closest of friends.
As Aaron tied and then broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, Casanova watched with special interest. Shortly after hitting his 715th home run, Aaron came to the plate and hit No. 716. Stationed in the Braves’ bullpen, Casanova caught the home run ball and then gave it to Aaron.
Casanova spent a lot of his time in the bullpen that summer, as the Braves reduced him to the role of a No. 3 catcher and defensive caddy. Oates now shared playing time with Vic Correll, who had been acquired from the Red Sox. Limited to 104 at-bats in 42 games, Casanova batted .202. He played well defensively while tutoring the younger Oates and Correll.
The Braves brought the 32-year-old Casanova to spring training in 1975, but Aaron was now gone, having been dispatched to Milwaukee. Casanova faced an uphill battle in trying to make the team, in part because the Braves liked one of their young catchers, 21-year-old Biff Pocoroba. The last straw came late in the spring, when Casanova injured his elbow. On March 28, with just a few days remaining in spring training, the Braves released the ailing Casanova.
The late release hurt Casanova’s hopes of catching on with another club, given that most teams were looking to cut down their rosters rather than add veterans at the last minute. The elbow injury also curtailed his greatest strength as a player. No one expressed interest in Casanova, forcing him to call it quits after 10 years in the big leagues. And with the release of Casanova, only one ex-Negro Leaguer, a fellow named Hank Aaron, remained in the major leagues.
Long retired from the big leagues, Casanova just turned 72. Most would consider that retirement age, but not him. Ever smiling, he continues to work with youngsters at a baseball academy that he and two fellow Negro Leagues alumni opened in Florida. The academy is affectionately called “Paul’s Backyard.” It exists as a safe haven where Casanova instructs youngsters on how to play the game properly.
I imagine Paul also tells kids how to cut the bag the right way, just like he did on his 1973 Topps card.