Bobby Estalella : Passing Through Shades of Gray

 

Many are familiar with songwriter Dave Frishberg and his baseball songs, the most celebrated of which is “Van Lingle Mungo”. Those who haven’t heard it, should, it’s a delightful masterpiece. The lyrics are all old ballplayer’s names, arranged so artfully and rhythmically so as to become poetry, with the pitcher’s name Van Lingle Mungo repeated throughout the song as a kind of haunting refrain and link.

Being a retro-maniac, a mental collector of old ballplayers’ names, I was familiar with most of the players in the song the first time I heard it, but there were four names that I didn’t know very well : Eddie Basinski, Danny Gardella, Augie Bergamo and Bob Estalella. None of these guys was really a notable player, at least part of the reason they’re in the song is that their five-syllable names fit the lilting metric requirements of Frishberg’s bossa nova rhythm. In fact Estalella was always known as “Bobby”, but Frishberg shortens it to “Bob” to keep the five syllables intact.

I decided to look these guys up (as Casey Stengel would have put it), they’re all in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Three of them had very short, wartime careers and are justly obscure. The exception is Bobby Estalella, (pronounced Esta-LAY-ah), who had a longer and very interesting career indeed. First though, the other guys :

Eddie Basinski was a back-up middle infielder who played with Brooklyn 1944-45 and Pittsburgh in 1947. Altogether he played 203 games, with a batting average of .244.

Augie Bergamo was a back-up outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1944-45, hitting .304. When outfield regulars Stan Musial, Terry Moore and Enos Slaughter returned from the War, his major-league career ended, but at least he got to play on the winning side in the all-St. Louis World Series of 1944.

Danny Gardella played outfield and a little first base with the Giants in 1944-5, hitting .267. He had a pretty decent year in 1945, hitting 18 home runs, with 71 RBI. After that, he disappears from the majors – he returned to play with the Cardinals in 1950, getting one at-bat as a pinch-hitter that year. This is odd because the Giants at that time were not exactly stacked and Gardella’s 1945 season was solid enough to merit more playing time.

Bobby Estalella’s career lasted from 1935 to 1949, with some significant gaps, none of them caused by the War (as a Cuban-born player, he was exempted from the draft.) Most of what I’ve learned about him comes from Bill James’ great book, The Revised Baseball Historical Abstract, which is just teeming with facts and stories.

If you look at Estalella’s career stats in the Encyclopedia, it’s puzzling as to why his career was so sporadic. He earned a brief 15-game trial at age 24 with the Washington Senators in September of 1935 and was terrific. He hit .314 with two homers, two doubles and 10 RBI; he also walked 17 times in the 15 games. This all added up to a slugging percentage of .471 and an on-base percentage of .485. Despite these good numbers, Estalella was given only 13 plate appearances early in 1936, all as a pinch-hitter. He had two triples and four walks, giving him a .667 slugging percentage with a .462 on-base percentage. Clearly, the perennially also-ran Senators didn’t need anyone like this, so they sent him back to the minor leagues for two-and-a-half years.

He finally grabbed a major-league position in mid-1939 with Washington, hitting .275 with 8 home runs in 82 games. Considering that the Senators played in a park where hitting a home run practically occasioned a civic holiday, the 8 home runs were pretty good. Buddy Lewis led the team with 10 in full-time play and nobody else hit more than 4. As a half-time player, Estalella scored 51 runs, while driving in 41 on a team that finished 41.5 games out of first place. Naturally, they sent him back to the minors in 1940.

He resurfaced briefly with the St. Louis Browns in 1941, then was back with the Senators in 1942. He played during the war years with the Philadelphia Athletics and played well. He hit .298 in 1944, and .299 in 1945, fourth-best in the league. He was also fifth in slugging and third in on-base percentage that year. After the war however, he disappears completely until 1949, when he played eight games with the A’s. He was 38 by then, this marks the end of his major-league career.

James speculates on some of the reasons why Estalella didn’t gain more acceptance. He was not regarded as a good defensive player, either in the outfield or at third base. He walked a good deal, but unlike today, players who walked a lot were not valued back then unless they were big sluggers like Jimmie Foxx or Hank Greenberg. Walks were regarded as something pitchers gave up, not anything that could be credited to a hitter. In fact, frequent walkers were often seen as lazy guys who wouldn’t “get in there and swing the bat”. An idiot named Bill DeWitt, who ran the Browns during this time got rid of a really good player named Roy Cullenbine after the 1941 season because Cullenbine was a lollygagger, always trying to get on base with a walk. The lazy bastard hit .317 in 1941 with 9 homers, 98 RBI and 121 walks, what a slug. This ignorant attitude probably worked against Estalella as well.

James became even more intrigued by Estalella’s career after he got hold of his minor-league stats, which are head-spinning at every turn. He’d earned his first major-league trial in 1935 after hitting .316 at Harrisburg, with a .563 slugging percentage. After failing to stick with the Senators 1935-6, he went to Albany in the International League, where he hit .331, slugging .545. This earned him a demotion to the Piedmont League in 1937, where he hit .349 with 33 homers and 89 RBI in 106 games. Back in the same league in 1938, he won its Triple Crown – .378, 38 home runs, 123 RBI. For good measure, he also led the league in runs scored and drew 117 walks, while going 28-for-32 as a base stealer. This earned him one full year with the Senators as a part-time outfielder, even though he was probably their most productive hitter. After this, he was sent to Minneapolis of the American Association in 1940, where he hit .341, with 36 doubles, 32 homers, 121 RBI, 132 walks and 147 runs scored in 147 games. Clearly, all these numbers show a player of versatile talents and that his major-league success in limited stints was no fluke.

So you have to ask, what gave here? Why was he given such a raw deal by baseball? Was it a character/personality thing? Was he hard to get along with, a drunk, a dope fiend, a homosexual, a guy whose manager’s wives just couldn’t resist? Nope, it turns out Bobby Estalella was actually black, not very dark-skinned, but dark enough to retard his career in that time. He’d been a Cuban star, born in Cardenas in 1911. While there was a firm colour-line in major-league baseball not broken till 1947, the unwritten rule was that teams could play Cuban or other Latin ballplayers as long as they were light enough to pass as white.

Some teams did this with lighter-skinned pitchers such as Dolph Luque and Hi Bithorn, who only played every fourth or fifth day so were less open to scrutiny than everyday players. Bobby Estalella was borderline in this regard though; his skin tone was such that the teams he played for were skating on thin political ice by giving him a chance to play in the majors at all. As James puts it, “He was not exactly an albino; he looked more like Jackie Robinson than Richie Ashburn”. While he had never actually played in the Negro Leagues, he had mixed often with Negro League players in Cuba. Perhaps not oddly, he played with the three worst teams in the American League; teams that were always in need of players and didn’t attract much attention.

History tells us that Jackie Robinson, with Branch Rickey as architect, broke professional baseball’s colour-line in 1946-7 and the story of Bobby Estalella does nothing to refute or tarnish this, nor should it. Jackie Robinson effected a deliberate and official breaking of a racial barrier; everybody knew he was black and represented a breakthrough, an end to the established order of things.  He had to endure a personal hell of threats and abuse in doing this and nothing can diminish his courage and heroism in seeing it through.  While Robinson broke through the barricades first, it does no harm to acknowledge that others like Estalella came before him to soften them up.  What is to be taken from Estalella’s example is that reality is not very often as simple as it seems, or as we try to make it.  There are complexities and layers of nuance, shades of gray.  Nothing is ever just black and white and this was literally true in the case of Bobby Estalella.

Ironically, when the colour line was finally broken in the majors, Estalella had jumped to the Mexican Leagues along with a bunch of other major-leaguers, lured by the proposition of large salaries and gifts promised by its aggressive President, Jorge Pascual. Happy Chandler was the Commissioner of Baseball at the time and a major fathead; he threatened to banish for life any players who jumped to Mexico and didn’t return by a deadline, eventually softening this to a five-year ban. This didn’t fly for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that major-league teams wanted their star players – such as Sal Maglie, Mickey Owen and Max Lanier – back, after the Mexican league ended in bankruptcy.

One of the players involved, the afore-mentioned Danny Gardella, threatened to sue in Federal Court over this ban, on anti-trust grounds and was joined by several others. This would have led to an investigation of baseball’s finances and contracts, which the owners didn’t want because it could have led to free agency. Gardella was persuaded to drop the suit for a payment of $60,000 and a promise he could return to play for the Cardinals, which they welched on after a few games. This explains the weird pattern of his career after the War and also the 1946-48 gap in Estalella’s major-league career.

So there you have the bizarre, prophetic career-story of Bobby Estalella. He was, like many, a good player at the wrong time, a peculiar time with odd rules in place. As Bill James puts it so well, “Somehow he slipped past the bouncer and got a chance to play. But not much of a chance”.

If the name Bobby Estalella rings more recent bells, it’s because his grandson, also named Bobby Estalella, was a catcher from 1996-2004 with the Phillies, Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks and our Blue Jays. He got into all kids of steroid trouble and was indicted in the whole BALCO affair. He holds the odd distinction of being the player to have hit the most home runs in MLB history with fewer than 200 hits (49 homers, 195 hits).

As to Bobby Estalella the elder, he died January 6, 1991 in Hialeah, Florida; he was 79. He was unique enough that Dave Frishberg or somebody should write a song just about him alone.

 

© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Bobby Estalella : Passing Through Shades of Gray

  1. Well, Steve, I’m not a huge baseball fan though I found this quite interesting. I am, however, a rabid Frishberg fan and, as such, actually have “Van Lingle Mungo” in my repertoire. I don’t sing it very often though. Did you know that one of his audience members thought the song was in Portuguese? 🙂

    • Hi Ilana, I hadn’t heard about someone thinking the song was in Portuguese, that’s very funny. Dick Cavett had both Frishberg and Mungo on his talk show and Frishberg sang the song for the old wildman pitcher. Later, Mungo asked Frishberg if he could expect any payment for having his name used in a song. Dave smiled wearily and said no, but added that Mungo might earn some royalties if he were to write a song called “Dave Frishberg”.

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