When the Yankees fell out of contention quickly that summer, I turned my baseball attention to The Sporting News. My father had a subscription that pretty much guaranteed the arrival of the latest issue each Friday. We went to Jones Beach often that summer; each time I loaded up on the most recent issues of The Sporting News and took them with me. When I wasn’t jumping the waves, I’d spend much of the afternoon stretched out on the beach reading those old periodicals. And within those pages, I became fascinated with a new minor league known as the Inter-American League.
The Sporting News featured extensive minor league coverage back then, at a time when it was still known as the “Bible of Baseball.” At least every other week, it included a full recap of news and notes about the Inter-American League. In the days before the Internet, there was simply no other regular source for finding out the latest happenings in my favorite new league.
The Inter-American League was the brainchild of Roberto “Bobby” Maduro, the owner of the defunct minor league Havana Sugar Kings and an assistant to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Given the presence of only 18 minor leagues at the time, Maduro felt there was a crying need for another to provide a stage for would-be major leaguers. Furthermore, Maduro had long envisioned a league featuring both American-based and Caribbean-based teams that would help bridge the gap between baseball in the United States and in Latin America. “Somebody had to do it,” Maduro told The Sporting News, “and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
The six teams included one American team (the Miami Amigos) and five franchises based in the Caribbean: San Juan, Puerto Rico; Caracas, Venezuela; Maracaibo, Venezuela; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Panama City, Panama.
According to Maduro’s plan, the six teams would play a 130-game schedule stretched over five months. Given the blessing of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and minor league president Bobby Bragan, the IAL would operate as a Triple-A League, given the same status as the well-established American Association, International League and Pacific Coast League. Unlike the established leagues, the IAL would operate independently, with no major league affiliations for any of the six teams.
Each of the six franchises posted $50,000 as a financial commitment to the league. Salaries ranged from $600 per month on the low end to a ceiling of $2,500 for veteran players. Each club would operate under a payroll cap of $200,000, spread among 21 players. This was legitimate minor league money for the time period.
Maduro assured the skeptics that the IAL had plenty of monetary backing. “We are not worried about finishing the season,” he told The Sporting News with full confidence. “We have enough money to operate three or four years.” Remember those words.
As a Triple-A League, the IAL certainly had brand name credibility. The names of former big league players dotted the preseason rosters, giving the league an experienced, veteran feel. The players included well-known infielders like Chico Carrasquel, Tito Fuentes, Chico Salmon and Lee “Bee Bee” Richard
; established outfielders like Bobby Tolan, Cesar Tovar and Adolfo Phillips; and brand name pitchers in Mike Cuellar and Tom House. Other familiar names, like Hal Breeden, Angel Mangual and Bullet Bob Reynolds, also signed up for active duty in the IAL. For anybody following 1970s baseball with any degree of seriousness, these were all names that needed little introduction.
Even the six managers carried impressive name value. Former Orioles and Braves second baseman Dave Johnson was named player/manager of the Amigos. Three ex-pitchers—Pat Dobson, Mike Kekich and Jose Santiago—took the reins of franchises in Maracaibo, Santo Domingo, and San Juan, respectively. Chico Salmon managed Panama. And onetime outfielder Jim Busby agreed to manage the Caracas Metropolitans.
Thanks to the credibility supplied by so many major league alumni, the Inter-American League received its share of fanfare that spring. On April 11, Maduro’s dream came to full life—and in absolute glory. A booming crowd of better than 10,000 fans attended the first game in league history, as the Panama Bankers hosted the Miami Amigos at Arosemena Stadium.
Maduro was thrilled by the results of the first night. His exultation soon gave way to anxiety. Almost immediately, players had difficulty with the umpiring crews assigned to work the league’s games. With six American and six Latino umpires, there was a wide variance in strike zones, creating havoc for pitchers and hitters in trying to adjust game to game.
Another hazardous trend involved the dreaded visa problem. With teams located in four different countries, many players found it difficult to obtain visas, leaving teams shorthanded for a number of road games. For example, Miami catcher Jorge Curbelo (a Cuban) and hard-throwing right-hander Porfirio Altamirano (a Nicaraguan) were twice refused entrance into Venezuela because of visa problems. The strained relations between Venezuela and the two other countries (Cuba and Nicaragua) created a nightmarish scenario for the two players, leaving the Amigos short two bodies.
A general lack of stability plagued the IAL. Over the first month and a half of the season, two owners, two general managers, and one manager (Salmon) were all ousted. Through the first three months of the season, Maracaibo would employ three different managers: Dobson, Gus Gil and Luis Aparicio. The lack of organization on the part of some teams was staggering. Although Panama’s opener had been a success, the team soon ran into a problem when the scoreboard was left blank for an entire afternoon game in April. The reason? There was no one to operate it. As a member of the Bankers’ front office tried to explain, “The guy who runs it only works at night.” Apparently, the team didn’t plan on training a backup to operate the scoreboard.
Panama City’s ballpark featured a brand new tarpaulin, a state-of-the-art piece of equipment for a minor league team. Unfortunately, the grounds crew, consisting mostly of local children, had absolutely no idea how to spread the tarp over the playing field, creating a circus-like event during the first rain delay of the season.
The front office of the Santo Domingo Sharks was just as poorly organized as the Panama grounds crew. The front office didn’t send the team’s box scores to the league for the first six weeks, making it difficult for the IAL to keep accurate statistics. Shortly thereafter, the Santo Domingo franchise announced that it had been sold and that the team would now be known as the Sugarmakers.
Amidst the chaos, there were some bright spots. The Caracas franchise drew an average of over 7,000 fans per game in April, the best figure for any team in Triple-A. The Maracaibo Oilers seemed to have the league’s best ballpark in Luis Aparicio Stadium, named for the future Hall of Fame shortstop who also served as the team’s general manager. It was a first-class stadium, built in 1969 for the Pan American Games, and featured a seating capacity of 35,000, making it equivalent in size to Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.
Off the field, the Oilers encountered a near tragedy when a car carrying several of their players was rammed at an intersection by a driver who had ignored a stop light. No one was injured seriously, but the incident left pitchers Dave Garcia and Stan Perzanowski so banged up that the Oilers had to play a series with only six healthy hurlers.
Not even the best franchise in the league could escape some degree of bad luck. Just prior to the season, the Miami Amigos had their colorful new uniforms stolen. As a result, they had to play temporarily with uniforms that once belonged to the Miami Marlins minor league franchise.
The theft of uniforms couldn’t stop the Amigos from excelling on the field. With a base of proven ex-major leaguers (which reached a peak of 13 major league alumni at one point), the Amigos established themselves as having far and away the best talent in the league. Veterans like Brock Pemberton, Leon Brown and the Tyrone brothers (Wayne and Jim) made the Amigos the envy of the league.
The Amigos also made history by becoming the first IAL franchise to strike a trade with a major league team. The Amigos sent veteran catcher George “The Baron” Mitterwald, the ex-Twin and Cub, to the Oakland A’s for infielders Darrell Woodard and Steve Staggs. Oakland had no use for “Baron von Mitterwald” as a player; instead the A’s made the veteran catcher their bullpen coach. In the meantime, Staggs decided not to report to Miami, perhaps scared off by widespread reports of the league’s growing fly-by-night reputation.
The Amigos’ attendance did not fully reflect the team’s talent base, but Miami did draw a good crowd of 3,500 for an early season game against San Juan, as Cuellar provided the opposition. A native Cuban, Cuellar drew a large Latino contingent that night, as sounds of conga drums and cowbells filled the Miami Stadium air. Drawing from another Latino baseball custom, the Amigos featured a set of cheerleaders, who were given the rather remarkable name of the “Hot and Juicy Wendy’s Girls.” Only in the Inter-American League.
The quality of play on the field remained surprisingly good. The large number of former major leaguers and experienced minor leaguers put the caliber of play somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A. As Kekich, the manager of Santo Domingo explained, in assessing the team’s veteran players: “They’re now reaching their outer limits.” In other words, Kekich felt that many of the players were still capable of playing in the major leagues, but were also facing retirement within a season or two because of their advancing age.
One of the more successful players was left-hander Mike Wallace, formerly of the Yankees and Rangers, who found himself on a pace to win 20 games and took pleasure in defying the naysayers. “Baseball has said we’re dead,” Wallace told Sports Illustrated. “We’re all trying to prove them wrong.”
Some of the players had interesting arrangements. Amigos right-hander Oscar Zamora, the ex-Cub and Astro, showed up to the ballpark only on days that he was scheduled to pitch. That allowed him to tend to his fulltime job, a Miami-based shoe business.
As the season progressed, other notable players joined the league. The group of add-ons included Dave May (the ex-Brewer once traded for Hank Aaron), former Padres center fielder Clarence Cito Gaston, Uptown Bobby Brown (who would later become the Yankees’ starting center fielder), and sidearming reliever Wayne Granger, the onetime relief ace for the Reds. Bolstered by some of the midseason additions, the league continued to showcase a credible product.
While most of the players seemed happy playing in the league, if only because it beat the alternative of unemployment, at least one brand-name player expressed little joy about having to toil in Inter-American territories. “I know I don’t belong here, and I’m going to keep working hard until somebody notices me,” said San Juan Boricuas outfielder Tolan, an alumnus of “The Big Red Machine,” in an interview with The Sporting News. “Maybe it’ll be three months. Maybe it’ll be three years.”
As it turned out, it was neither. On June 16, the league put Tolan, not to mention the rest of his San Juan teammates, out of a state of misery. League representatives ousted last-place San Juan because of “inactivity.” The team had failed to arrive for a series in Santo Domingo, apparently because it had run out of money. When word came that San Juan had been terminated, the Panama franchise also volunteered to drop out, to leave the league with an even number of four franchises.
The loss of two teams in midseason left the league with the shakiest of reputations. In late June, Caracas owner Roberto Weill phoned Maduro to tell him that he was about to lose advertising sponsors. Weill recommended that the league shut down, at least for the rest of the season. Maduro then contacted the other owners; only Maracaibo and Miami wanted to continue. Unfortunately, two teams were not enough to keep the league afloat.
On June 30, Maduro announced the shutdown of the Inter-American League. He promised that the league would return in 1980, with more teams and a better financial base, but it never did.
Three major factors doomed the league. First, terrible weather plagued the Caribbean that spring and summer. Seventy games were postponed by rain, while a number of others were played in horrific conditions caused by heavy downpours. Second, the lack of radio and television money killed the league’s revenue stream. Only three of the six teams had season-long radio contracts, and there was virtually no TV coverage. Finally, the high cost of airfares in 1979 created additional expenses for teams. Then came the grounding of DC-10 jets in June after an American Airlines crash made travel a nightmare throughout the league. Because of grounded flights, some teams had difficulty making it to the ballpark by gametime.
Every one of the six league franchises lost money. Other than Caracas, which averaged over 3,000 fans per game, none of the other teams cracked an average of even 2,000 fans per game. Even the Amigos, who won the first and second half titles and were declared league champions, struggled to draw fans to Miami Stadium, attracting only 1,300 fans a night.
Awash in unpaid bills and unfulfilled payroll obligations, the league could boast of only one positive development. “We showed a brand of ball better than anyone expected,” Maduro told The Sporting News. “I thought finding good players would be one of our biggest problems. It turned out to be one of our smallest.”
Perhaps no player epitomized the unpleasant fate of the Inter-American League more than Danny Thomas, a talented but troubled outfielder for the Amigos. He had once won the Eastern League Triple Crown, making him one of the crown jewels of the Brewers’ farm system. But Thomas was also a member of the Worldwide Church of God, a sect that mandated its members not work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Thomas complied with the mandate, missing many games on Fridays and Saturdays and infuriating the Brewers. In the process, he earned the nickname “The Sundown Kid.”
Thomas also had severe problems with alcohol and prescription pills. Additionally, he almost certainly was suffering from mental illness. When the Brewers lost patience and tried to send him back to Double-A, Thomas refused the assignment. The Brewers responded by releasing the onetime phenom. Thomas signed on with the Amigos and led the Inter-American League in home runs for much of the season. But he continued to miss games because of his church affiliation. He also committed mental errors on the field, failing to run out ground balls and even missing a base on one occasion. He then became embroiled in a nasty and unnecessary argument with an umpire, who ejected him from the game.
Thomas’ manager, Dave Johnson, felt he had no choice but to suspend Thomas. “He had been fighting himself a little bit,” Johnson explained to The Sporting News, “and his attitude hasn’t been real good.”
When the league folded, Thomas’ playing days came to an end. With a wife and two children to support, he tried to find work in the Spokane area, but he and his family fell into poverty. In 1980, Thomas reached rock bottom when the family’s 12-year-old babysitter accused him of rape.
As he sat in a jail cell awaiting trial, Thomas tore strips from his jeans, tied them into a noose, and hanged himself. The troubled ex-slugger was only 29. Because his family was so poor, Thomas could not be given a proper funeral. Instead, he was buried in a potter’s field.
While the folding of the Inter-American League should not be interpreted as a tragedy, there were parallels between the demise of the league and the sad fortunes of the ill-fated Thomas. Like Thomas, the league had once seemed so promising. Buttressed by name players and fortified with a mission statement that hoped to improve baseball relations between the U.S. and Latin America, the league had a few notable moments of prominence. But a series of incidents, poor planning, questionable decision-making, and general bad luck ended the dream far too quickly.
During its short existence, players had taken to calling the Inter-American League the “Manana League.” When players asked for something, be it at the ballpark or at the hotel, they were often told, “Manana,” the Spanish word for “tomorrow.” For the Inter-American League, there simply would be no manana.
References & Resources
- The Sporting News
- Sports Illustrated
- Society for American Baseball Research