Dusty Rhodes and Armando Ortíz: Hidden Weapons

Dusty Rhodes’ heroics in the 1954 World Series made for an unforgettable baseball moment. (via Wikimedia Commons)

In clutch situations, Leo Durocher always called on Dusty Rhodes. And while Durocher accused him of being indifferent in the field, Rhodes was the first one to recognize his weaknesses — along with, of course, his strengths. He told The New York World Telegram and Sun in 1954, “I ain’t much of a fielder and I got a pretty lousy arm, but I sure love to whack at that ball.” His accolades during the season and the 1954 World Series ended giving him a picturesque nickname: The Colossus of Rhodes.

In 1954, Rhodes played in 82 games, took 164 at-bats, scored 31 runs, and plated in 50. He slapped 56 hits, seven doubles, three triples, and 15 home runs. He got 18 walks and 25 strikeouts. His batting average: .341. When he appeared in the game as a pinch hitter, he batted .326 — scarcely worse.

Dusty was born James Lamar Rhodes was born in Mathews, Ala., on May 13, 1927. He dropped out of school after eighth grade, working as a cotton picker and as an errand boy in a grocery store. He eventually joined the Navy, and after World War II played semipro baseball in nearby Montgomery. Bruce Hayes, a Southern Association Nashville Vols scout, saw young Jim bash a home run while playing barefoot. He was impressed enough to offer him a contract. A friend of his autographed his mother’s name on the contract because Jim was too young. Hayes began to call Jim “Dusty” because every single player named Rhodes was nicknamed that way.

In 1947, Rhodes began his career in the minor leagues. starting with the Hopkinsville Hoppers in Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League, Class D ball. He spent the next five seasons playing in the Chicago Cubs farm system, earning notoriety as a party animal.

After his best minor-league season, when he hit 31 homers for Class B Rock Hill,  the Cubs sold his contract to the Nashville Volunteers of the Double-A  Southern Association, where he started the 1952 season. He was batting .347 in 90 games, with 18 homers, when the New York Giants purchased his contract and brought him to the majors. He had an acceptable season for a player who performed mainly as pinch hitter (10 homers, 36 RBI) and had similar numbers in 1953.

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He was a normal, skinny outfielder. Sometimes he could become the starting left fielder, but most of the time he was just a resident of the bench, a pinch hitter, the second side of a platoon. He never played in the big leagues; maybe he never adapted to the United States way of living, maybe he never learned English, maybe he couldn’t handle his homesickness. He just played four seasons in the minor leagues. The last and best was 1968 with the Greenwood Braves in the West Carolina Class A League, when he hit .287 with 11 homers. The only other time when he played outside Venezuela was in the 1971 season, when he went to play in the Mexican League for the Poza Rica and Reynosa teams. But in the Venezuelan Winter League, the story was different.

Armando Ortíz was born on May 3, 1945, in Barcelona, Anzoategui, Venezuela. In 1965, he signed to play professional baseball with the Atlanta Braves organization and the Tiburones de La Guaira through the scout Napoleón Reyes. He played for La Guaira, the Navegantes del Magallanes, and the Tigres de Aragua.

On December 31, 1967, Ortíz had maybe his best game in the Venezuelan league. That day, Magallanes confronted the Leones del Caracas and pitching ace Diego Segui, who was undefeated with an 8-0 record. Tom Fisher was the pitcher for Magallanes.

In the second inning, with Paul Schaal running at third base, Ortíz caught a Cesar Tovar fly to right-center field. He immediately threw the ball to home plate and catcher Ed Herrmann to complete an unexpected double play. Then, in the bottom of that inning, Oswaldo Blanco hit a double and Ortíz plated him in with a triple to right-center field.

In the fifth frame. Roberto Musulungo Herrera hit a single to right field, as Teodoro Obregón, on second base, tried to score. Ortíz activated his cannon and threw Obregón out at home plate, keeping the game tied 1-1. In the sixth inning, Obregón hit a pop-up to right field, deep enough to make Nelson Castellanos think he could score from third base, but again Ortiz made a fantastic throw that struck in the middle of Herrmann’s mitt to complete another double play. Those three outs at home plate set a record for the Venezuelan Winter League, and the three assists tied another record.

To complete his day, in the seventh inning Ortiz hit a home run into the left-field bleachers off Segui’s high curve to give the victory to Magallanes 2-1. When the game was won, the Magallanes fans spilled onto the field, raising him on their shoulders.

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In the second game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals at Polo Grounds on July 5, 1954, Rhodes, who had started the game as left fielder, came to bat in the bottom of the fifth inning with the Cards leading the Giants 3-1. Whitey Lockman and Alvin Dark had begun the inning hitting singles against Murry Dickson. Rhodes homered, giving his team a 4-3 edge, which was the way the game ended.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

On August 29, 1954, this time against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, Rhodes started again in left field. He smacked a homer against Joe Presko leading off the second inning, giving the Giants the lead 1-0. In the top of the sixth inning, he homered off Presko again, starting a  rally that gave the Giants a 4-3 lead. The next inning he hit a double as the Giants scored three. They won 7-4.

The 1954 World Series Game One arrived in the bottom of the 10th inning tied 2-2, most of all because in the eighth Willie Mays, sprinting to Polo Grounds’ deepest center field to haul in Vic Wertz’s tremendous shot of nearly 480 feet, had made The Catch. The game had been a good pitching duel between Sal Maglie for the Giants and Bob Lemon for Cleveland. Lemon was still pitching when the Giants put runners on first and second. Durocher called Rhodes from the bench to pinch-hit for Monte Irvin. Maybe he was thinking about what was almost a litany at the end of the games: “…usually when you look down the bench for a pinch-hitter, most of the guys are trying to hide behind each other. Oh, they’ll pinch-hit if you ask them, but for most of them, it’s the worst kind of pressure. But Dusty was different. He’d anticipate the situation every time, and when you turned to look for him, he’d already have a bat in one hand and he’d point to his chest, like he didn’t even want you to even think of anyone else.”

Lemon’s first delivery was a curve that hung on the plate. Rhodes hit what seemed a normal pop up to right field. But the wind started carrying the ball, until it landed in the bleachers, just 257 feet from home plate, for a three-run walk-off homer. Lemon threw his glove against the mound in frustration. The Giants had won the game. In the middle of the dugout celebration, Rhodes said: “I didn’t give a damn about the situation. I kind of dragged my bat up to the plate. Nothing bothered me. I always said I could get out of a coffin and get a base hit.”

***

On December 29, 1969. the Navegantes del Magallanes hosted the Cardenales de Lara, both teams fighting for a playoff spot. Armando Ortíz hit a two-run double in the seventh to give Magallanes the win. His team did make the playoffs, and when manager Carlos “Patato” Pascual wrote the lineup for Game Three of the 1969-1970 Venezuelan Winter League’s final series between his Navegantes del Magallanes and the Tiburones de La Guaira, he put Armando Ortíz in the sixth slot, playing left field. On February 1, 1970, the Universitario Stadium was a sellout.

In the top of the third inning, after Marcelino López had got the first two outs, Jim Holt hit a single to left field and Ray Fosse walked. Then, Ortíz came to the plate and knocked Holt in to tie the score 1-1. In the fifth inning, the same two men on base, Ortíz plated Holt again with another single to left field. This one ended up being the winning run, giving the Venezuelan Winter League championship to the Magallanes team for the first time in 15 years.

Four days later, the Magallanes team was in Caracas to participate at the Caribbean Series. Magallanes took the field at the Universitario Stadium with right-hander Orlando Peña, to face the Leones de Ponce and lefty Mike Cuellar, who had won 23 games for the Baltimore Orioles and shared the Cy Young Award with Denny McLain. Magallanes took the lead in the bottom of the third inning, Cesar Tovar driving in Dámaso Blanco with a single. Then, in the seventh, Armando Ortíz bashed a two-run homer to center field, to put the score 3-0. Ponce scored in the top of the ninth, but that was it against Peña. “When you have a bat in your hands, you shouldn’t get intimidated by anyone,” Ortíz said after the game. “Cuellar has a good repertoire but he made a mistake and paid very expensively for it.”

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In the second game of the 1954 World Series, the Giants came to to the fifth inning trailing 1-0 against another pitching ace, Early Wynn, who had retired the first 12 batters. But Willie Mays had walked and Hank Thompson had singled, putting runners on first and third. Durocher looked again to the bench and again called on Dusty Rhodes to hit for Irvin.  Rhodes singled to center field to plate Willie Mays with the tying run. In the seventh,  Rhodes homered to right field again to make the score 3-1, and the Giants won that game.

In Game Three, it was more of the same. Rhodes once again to pinch-hit for Irvin with the bases loaded in the third inning, Mike Garcia pitching, Giants up 1-0. Rhodes hit a two-run single was instrumental in the 6-2 Giants victory. It was Rhodes’ fourth consecutive hit; he collected seven RBI in the Series sweep.

He had another good year in 1955, again playing part-time, followed by two disappointing seasons in 1956 and 1957. After a strong 1958 performance for the Phoenix Giants in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League (25 homers, 100 RBI), Rhodes tried to come back to play for the now-San Francisco Giants in 1959, but he hit just .188 in 54 games. That was the end of his baseball career.

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The Navegantes del Magallanes won that 1970 Caribbean Series. On February 10, the Leones de Ponce took the lead 3-2 in the top of the eighth inning. Ray Fosse led off the bottom of that inning with a double and Ortíz followed with another two-base hit to tie the score. The Magallanes won it with Gus Gil’s single driving in Dámaso Blanco in the bottom of the 11th.

In the 1970-71 season, the Tiburones de La Guaira and Navegantes del Magallanes faced each other again in the final series of the Venezuelan Winter League. On February 3, La Guaira took control in the top of the eighth inning, beating Magallanes 5-2. Hal King hit a three-run home run against Jerry Cram to send the game to extra innings. In the top of the 13th, with a man on base, manager Pascual sent Armando Ortíz to pinch hit for Nelson Cañas with no balls and one strike in the count. Ortiz hit Orlando Peña’s first pitch to deep right field for a triple that drove in Magallanes had tied the series, three games each.

That was the last of the heroics. The next day, the La Guaira team won the decisive seventh game to win the championship.

***

Baseball has always had its air of mystery, its touch of suspense. Some special teams seem to have an invisible key that switches on the last part of the games. Inside the dugout there are some guys whose nature is to remain in silence, just watching every detail. Sometimes they are platoon players; other times, players called on by the manager to take an at-bat in a critical moment of the game. 

This was the case of the 1954 New York Giants. It also was the case with and the 1969-1970 Navegantes del Magallanes. Those were teams with very important players such as Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Whitey Lockman, Hank Thompson or Alvin Dark of the Giants or Cito Gaston, Gus Gil, Dámaso Blanco, Jim Holt and Ray Fosse of Magallanes. Leo Durocher and Carlos “Patato” Pascual knew what Rhodes and Armando Ortíz were capable of doing with a bat in the clutch. But they kept those options almost secret; when it came those very demanding moments in the final innings with the team trailing, it seemed like if they were magicians who took out a hidden weapon from the sleeve of their jerseys. And there they were: Rhodes with his piercing gaze nailed to the pitcher’s hand, Ortíz with his calm steps approaching the batter’s box; both petrifying the atmosphere, both silencing the whole stadium, both giving baseball such unforgettable moments.

Resources and References

Bill Madden, New York Daily News, “Dusty Rhodes Recalls His Short-Lived Big League Career.” Baseball Digest, May 2009.
Warren Corbett, “Dusty Rhodes,” SABR BioProject.sabr.org.
Richard Gómez. Campeones. Las Series Finales del Beisbol Profesional Venezolano. Fondo Editorial Cárdenas Lares. Caracas 1997.
Revista Sport Gráfico. Caracas. Jan. 5, 1968.
Daniel Gutierrez, Efraim Álvarez, Daniel Gutierrez (h). La Enciclopedia del Beisbol en Venezuela. Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional. Caracas 2006.
baseball-reference.com
Giner García, Emil Bracho, Luis E. Sequera. 99+1. Junta Administradora navegantes del Magallanes,1996.
Una Temporada Mágica. Alfonso Tusa. LVBP. Central Banco Universal, Caracas.
Retrosheet.org


Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.
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hysdavid
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hysdavid

Fabulous article! Thank you Alfonso. The exploits of Dusty Rhodes during the NY Giants 1954 sweep of the 111 win Indians are well worth repeating. I probably read them first in a Scholastic amazing but true kids baseball book. Never heard of the Armando Ortiz legend but it’s equally compelling particularly his HR of the Cy Young award winner Mike Cuellar. What a shame there will be no US players in this years Venezuelan Winter League due to the dire conditions there. There can be no new legends made without an operating league of professional players. May this fallow period… Read more »