Jose Pagan died on Tuesday at the age of 76, a victim of Alzheimer‘s disease.
As someone who has long cherished the 1971 Pirates, it always hits me hard when I hear that a member of that team has left us. First, there was Roberto Clemente and that awful plane crash on New Year‘s Eve, 1972. Then Bob Moose died in a car accident. Years later, Willie Stargell succumbed to a long illness. More recently, colorful pitching ace Dock Ellis and left-handed relief specialist Ramon Hernandez have passed away. And now we hear of the loss of Pagan, though if there is any consolation, he lived a longer life than some of the other ‘71 Bucs.
Long before he played for the Pirates, Pagan was a flashy and sure-handed shortstop for the Giants, good enough to start for their 1962 National League championship team. Pagan was so reliable for the Giants that NL beat writers gave him support in the MVP Award voting, enabling him to finish 11th in the balloting.
By the time Pagan joined the Pirates, he was no longer an everyday shortstop. With his range diminished, he was now a part-time third baseman and utility infielder. In 1971, he emerged as a key role player for the Bucs, contributing to one of the best bench brigades in the expansion era. With 12 years of major league service, Pagan ranked as the elder statesman of a Pirate bench that included Vic Davalillo, Gene Clines and Rennie Stennett.
In Pagan, the ‘71 Pirates featured the ultimate “thinking man’s” bench player, one who fancied himself a future field manager after his playing days. Now 36 and thinking of his post-playing days, Pagan expressed his desire to become the first Puerto Rican to manage in either the National or American League. Given the color of his skin, he would have also become the first black manager in the history of the major leagues.
In an April interview, Pagan informed The Sporting News that he often “managed” games in his own mind from the Pirates bench. “I think to myself the type move I might make in a certain situation,” Pagan said. “I think that’s common among ballplayers, especially those who are thinking of staying in the game. I think it’s important for a manager to be an inning ahead in his thinking during the game.”
The Pirates’ resident manager, Danny Murtaugh, had touted Pagan as an excellent choice to lead a major league ballclub in the future. “Pagan has the qualities to make a good manager,” Murtaugh told longtime Pittsburgh beat writer Charley Feeney. “Jose has knowledge of the game. He can communicate with players and he has a good personality.”
Murtaugh knew of what he spoke. Pagan had played the game from two different perspectives, first as a starting shortstop and then as a bench player. He had played for a variety of successful or influential managers, including Murtaugh andHarry “The Hat” Walkerwith the Pirates, and Bill Rigney and Alvin Dark with the Giants.
By playing for Dark, he learned exactly how not to deal with minority players. Rather infamously, Dark banned the Giants’ Latino players from speaking Spanish at the ballpark. Dark also tended to blame Giants losses on the team’s Latino and African-American players, the latter group including Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.
Although he hailed from Puerto Rico, Pagan spoke English well enough to communicate with American-born players. As a bonus, Pagan’s ability to speak Spanish helped him relate to one of the game’s fastest growing constituencies. Only one factor seemed to detract from Pagan’s candidacy: He lacked the big-name appeal of a Frank Robinson, or an Ernie Banks, or even a Maury Wills, who had often been mentioned as candidates to become the first black manager in the major leagues.
After finishing the 1973 season as a player and coach with the Phillies, Pagan returned to the Pirates organization the following spring as third base coach, replacing the popular Bill Mazeroski. Pagan later worked as a first base and infield coach through October of 1978, when the Pirates, for some reason, fired him.
Pagan managed successfully in the Puerto Rican Winter League, but he soon realized that he would never become a major league skipper and decided to give up managing entirely. He watched as other black and Latino candidates, like Robinson, Cito Gaston, Felipe Alou and Ozzie Guillen, earned opportunities at the major league level.
It’s hard to say with certainty that Pagan would have succeeded to the extent of some of those managers, but Pagan possessed many of the best qualifications: strategic intelligence, the ability to communicate in both English and Spanish, and the experience of playing for championship-caliber teams in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Teams looking for a manager in the 1970s or ’80s would have been hard-pressed to find stronger candidates than Pagan.
Sadly, he never received the chance. And that is baseball’s shame. Jose Pagan, a good man, deserved better. So did baseball.