Bobby Ávila

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BobbyAvila.jpg

Roberto Francisco Ávila González
(Beto)

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Biographical Information[edit]

Bobby Avila and Willie Mays

“He has that something extra that makes a great hitter. Call it competitive instinct... He’s always fighting the pitcher, never choking up and never giving an inch... In a tough spot, I’m always glad to see Bobby coming to the plate.” - Hank Greenberg

[1]

Bobby Ávila was a three-time American League All-Star, noted for both his offensive and defensive talents, who also was prominent for his off-field endeavors after his playing days. He starred in three different countries. He won the 1954 AL batting title and was a key part of the Cleveland Indians squad that held the junior circuit record for wins in a season for over four decades. In the Mexican League, he nearly broke one of Cool Papa Bell's records while setting the record for walks in a season (later broken). He was an All-Star in the Cuban Winter League as well. He was president of the Mexican League after his playing career ended and entered politics, becoming the mayor of Veracruz, his hometown. He was inducted into Mexico's Hall of Fame and had two stadiums named after him.

Youth[edit]

Bobby was a soccer player in his youth and was playing professionally by age 16. His father, a wealthy lawyer, discouraged Bobby from playing sports and tried to steer him into more intellectual pursuits. Devoting more time to baseball in high school against his father's wishes, the younger Ávila was heavily influenced by Baseball: Individual Play and Team Strategy, a book by Jack Coombs. He continued to reject his father's wishes when he joined a club in the winter Vera Cruz State League. [2]

Mexico and Cuba[edit]

By the age of 19, Bobby was playing regularly for the Mexican League, hitting .229/~.322/.276 for the Puebla Parrots. [3] In 1944, his production increased significantly as he hit .334/~.419/.472 and hit 14 triples, tying Carlos Galina for the league lead, one shy of Cool Papa Bell's league record. He was 6th in the Liga in batting average, between Wild Bill Wright and Jose Castro. [4] His brother Pedro Ávila was a teammate that season. He played for the Mexican national team in the 1944 Amateur World Series. [5] Though he was not an amateur at this point, with two pro seasons under his belt, Mexico was then routinely using professionals in amateur-only events. The Cuban national team vigorously protested at times, forcing Mexico from the 1935 Central American and Caribbean Games due to using pros, though Mexico returned with some of the same players in the 1938 Central American and Caribbean Games and was allowed to play despite Cuba's protests. [6]

The next year, Ávila (known as Beto in Mexico) batted .350/~.450/.480, stole 25 bases and hit 10 more triples. He was in the top 10 in average again. [7] He then went to the Cuban Winter League but struggled with Almendares, hitting .216 and slugging .245 as their regular second baseman. [8] He was the 8th Mexican to play in the CWL. [9] In 1946, the level of competition in the Mexican League increased significantly as many Major League Baseball players were lured south due to large contracts offered by Jorge Pasquel. Ávila remained one of the best players in the circuit: at the age of 22, he hit .359/~.417/.490 and finished third in the league in batting, five points behind Claro Duany and two points behind teammate Nap Reyes. His 27 doubles were tied for second in the Liga (with René Monteagudo and Duany), one behind leader Roberto Ortiz, and he was also second with 138 hits, two behind Reyes. [10] His return engagement to Cuba proved much more successful as he hit .323 and slugged .417 for the Marianao Tigers. He was second in the CWL in average, .007 behind leader Lou Klein and .003 ahead of third-best Hank Thompson. His 13 doubles tied Andrés Fleitas for 3rd in the circuit and his 9 steals tied Klein and Lenny Pearson for 5th. He was named the league's All-Star second baseman. [11] That winter, Ávila turned down a $10,000 offer from Leo Durocher and also from legendary scout Joe Cambria. [12]

The next season, Beto again hit as well as any of the major league veterans - he chipped in a .346/~.444/.463 line with 11 triples and 18 steals. He won the Mexican League batting title that year, the first native Mexican to lead the Liga in that category in a decade, beating out Santos Amaro by .005. [13] In 1947-1948, he starred for Cuba in the Cuban Players League, hitting .304 and slugging .353 while stealing 17 bases. He was 6th in average, between Avelino Cañizares and René González and second in swipes, two behind Héctor Rodríguez. He was named the All-Star second sacker. [14]

Early US career[edit]

Shortly thereafter, Bobby signed with the Cleveland Indians after scout Cy Slapnicka offered him $17,500. [15] He was assigned to the Baltimore Orioles, where he struggled in 1948. He posted a .220/.307/.269 line in 56 games before the team found that he was being plagued by a hernia. His brother wound up operating on him back in Mexico. [16] As a bonus baby, he then spent time on the Indians' roster, riding the pine behind Joe Gordon. He made his major league debut as a pinch-runner for Hal Peck on April 30th. [17] In fact, most of his action was as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner. He did not get to bat until late May when, pinch-hitting for Al Benton, he was retired by Joe Dobson. His first hit did not come until July 21st. Down 6-3 in the 8th against the Chicago White Sox, he batted for Gene Bearden with the bases loaded and two out. Facing Bob Kuzava, he singled home both Larry Doby and Lou Boudreau. Cleveland tied it but the White Sox rallied to win. [18] He only managed 15 plate appearances in 31 games, getting 3 hits in 14 at-bats, drawing a walk and scoring three runs. Unlike in Baltimore, he had someone he could communicate with as pitcher Mike Garcia spoke Spanish. [19] He ran afoul of player/manager Boudreau for falling asleep on the bench (though Boudreau said he had never seen a rookie knowing the fundamentals so well) and asked Muddy Ruel how to stay awake when not playing; Ruel advised chewing tobacco as, if he began to nod off, the juice would go down his throat and wake him up. [20]

BobbyAvila2.jpg

With Gordon slowing down in 1950, Ávila saw an increase in playing time, though he remained the backup. He hit .299/.390/.383 for a 102 OPS+ in 239 plate appearances, slightly ahead of Gordon's 99 OPS+. His first major league homer (and only one of the season) was a game-winner off Mickey Harris of the Washington Senators. He was noted for his ability to withstand runners trying to break up double plays; Pat Mullin said "He's death on the double play". [21]

Star years[edit]

When Gordon left after the season to manage in the Pacific Coast League, Cleveland GM Hank Greenberg questioned if Bobby could hit well enough to hold down the second base job in 1951 (despite his 1950 performance), feeling he was certainly up to snuff defensively. [22] Manager Al Lopez figured he would give Ávila the chance and the move certainly paid off. He hit .304/.374/.410 with 76 runs scored, 10 homers and 60 walks (to 31 strikeouts) while fielding .982 for the Indians. He led the team in average and was among the American League leaders in batting average (8th, between Gil McDougald and Gil Coan), hits (165, 6th, between Ted Williams and Coan), steals (14, tied with Chico Carrasquel and McDougald for 4th), sacrifice hits (13, tied for 4th with Vic Raschi), caught stealing (8, tied for 5th with Eddie Joost), power/speed number (4th, between Joost and teammate Al Rosen), fielding percentage at second base (2nd, .005 behind Pete Suder), Defensive Wins Above Replacement (1.3, 6th, between Joost and Joe Tipton), Offensive WAR (4.1, 9th) and total WAR (4.8, 7th among position players, between Nellie Fox and McDougald). On June 20, he had 15 total bases with three homers, a double, a single, four runs and four RBI in a 14-8 win over the Red Sox. He capped the day with an inside-the-park shot off Paul Hinrichs. [23] He was 10th in voting for the 1951 AL MVP.

Bobby played in his first All-Star Game in 1952, starting at second base for the AL and hitting 7th. He grounded out against Curt Simmons in the 2nd. With a 1-1 tie in the 4th and two outs, he singled off Bob Rush to bring in Rosen. The AL lost, 3-2, in a game shortened by rain. On August 22nd, he had a chance for the 8th unassisted triple play in major league history but opted not to hog the spotlight. He caught a hard liner by Hank Bauer at the shoetops and stepped on second base to double up Billy Martin. He could easily have tagged out Allie Reynolds, who was headed from first to second, but instead threw to Luke Easter to complete the triple play. [24] He hit .300/.371/.415 for the Indians, with 102 runs scored, 11 triples and 67 walks. He was 8th in the AL in average, 2nd in at-bats (597, 51 behind Fox]), second in runs (two behind Larry Doby), 2nd in hits (179, 13 behind Fox), tied Gus Zernial for 8th in total bases (248), tied for 10th in doubles (26), 1st in triples (1 ahead of Harry Simpson, Fox and Phil Rizzuto), tied Elmer Valo for 6th in steals (122), 2nd with 19 sacrifice hits (4 behind Rizzuto), tied Jackie Jensen for 9th in double-play grounders (19), tied Pete Runnels and Johnny Groth for 3rd in caught stealing (10), was 6th in power-speed number (between Bauer and Doby), was the 9th-hardest batter to fan (1 K/16.6 AB, between Dave Philley and Clint Courtney), tied Joost for 3rd in assists regardless of position (431) but also tied Ray Boone and Joost for the most errors in the league (28, leading second basemen). He was 7th in WAR by position players (4.7, between Ferris Fain and Bauer) and 5th in Offensive WAR (5.2, between Berra and Joost, easily leading second basemen) as his defense brought him down that year.

Ávila had somewhat of an off season in 1953, his OPS+ dropping from 125 to 101, but this was still a fine mark for a second baseman. He hit .286/.355/.379 with 85 runs scored and 58 walks to 27 whiffs. His fielding percentage jumped 20 points to .986. He made the AL leaderboards in hits (160, 9th, between Billy Goodman and Jimmy Piersall), steals (10, 7th), sacrifice hits (14, tied for 3rd with Bill Glynn and Bobby Young), double play grounders (18, tied for 7th with Pete Runnels), caught stealing (8, tied for 4th with Jensen), hardest to whiff (6th, between George Kell and Philley), assists at 2nd (445, 1st, 19 ahead of #2 Fox despite 14 fewer games), range factor at second (5.86, .09 ahead of Wayne Terwilliger, fielding percentage at 2B (1st, .001 ahead of Martin), defensive wins above replacement (2.0, 6th, between Piersall and Rizzuto) and wins above replacement for a position player (4.6, 9th, between Jim Busby and Gene Woodling). While he was noted for being tough to take out on a double play, he was showing he could break up a twin killing pretty well. When Rizzuto complained about his slides, Ávila cited his soccer experience to explain his aggressiveness. ref> Baseball's 25 Greatest Teams by Lowell Reidenbaugh, pg. 91 </ref>

Beto batted second for the AL in the 1954 All-Star Game. He had an excellent day in the AL's 11-9 win. He singled off Robin Roberts in the 1st and singled again in the 3rd (and scored on Rosen's homer). Down 5-4 in the 4th, he hit a sacrifice fly off Johnny Antonelli to score Carrasquel and tie it. With the game 7-7 in the 6th, he singled off Warren Spahn to bring home Williams with the go-ahead run. After having gone 3-for-3 with a run and two RBI, he was replaced by Fox in the 8th in a double switch; Bob Keegan took his spot in the batting order. It was the time before an All-Star Game MVP was named or he would presumably have been a leading candidate.

He hit .341 in 1954 and became the first Latino player to win a major league batting title. He did it despite breaking his thumb at one point after Hank Bauer slid into him at second base. [25] He finished the season with career bests in average, OBP (.402), home runs (15), runs scored (112) and RBI (67). Despite the time missed due to injury, he was among the AL leaders in average (.021 over Minoso for the title), OBP (6th, between Rosen and Cal Abrams), slugging (9th, between Irv Noren and Jackie Jensen), OPS (5th, between Rosen and Noren), runs (3rd, behind Mantle and Minoso), hits (3rd, trailing Harvey Kuenn and Fox), total bases (265, 7th, between Jensen and Kuenn), doubles (27, 7th), steals (9, tied for 8th), OPS+ (5th, between Rosen and Noren), sacrifice hits (19, 1st, one ahead of Rizzuto), power-speed number (4th, between Jim Rivera and Busby), hardest to K (1/17.9 AB, 8th, between Berra and Minoso), assists (3rd, behind shortstops Rizzuto and Carrasquel), range factor at 2B (2nd, behind Ted Lepcio), fielding percentage at 2B (.976, 3rd behind Fox and Young), offensive Wins Above Replacement (6.7, 3rd, behind Williams and Mantle) and Wins Above Replacement (3rd, behind Minoso and Williams).

He was 3rd in voting for the 1954 American League Most Valuable Player Award in a close race with Berra and Doby. The Sporting News elected him Player of the Year (the third straight Indian to win, after Easter and Rosen) as the Tribe steamrolled the rest of the American League, finishing with a 111-43 record (setting the AL mark for wins in a season, which stood until the 2001 Mariners) and a date with the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. Their ownership of the AL did not translate to a world championship, as the Giants swept in four games. Bobby managed just two singles in 15 plate appearances in the Fall Classic.

He made his final All-Star appearance in 1955, falling to a .272 average with 13 homers and 61 RBI as the Indians returned to the middle of the pack. He still had a solid OPS+ for a second baseman (104) thanks to a .368 OBP and .400 slugging at age 31. In the game, he took over for Fox in the 6th. He struck out against Don Newcombe and laid down a successful sacrifice off Joe Nuxhall. In the AL, he made the leaderboards for walks (82, tied Al Kaline for 10th), sacrifice hits (18, 1st), double-play grounders (17, tied for 6th) and fielding percentage at 2B (.982, 2nd, .003 behind McDougald).

Decline[edit]

He dropped off precipitously in 1956, batting just .224/.323/.318 for a 69 OPS+ in regular duty. He did steal 17 bases in 21 tries and draw 70 walks. He was 3rd in the AL in swipes (behind Luis Aparicio and Rivera), 2nd in steal percentage (behind Aparicio), 5th in power-speed number (between Jensen and Kaline) and remained near the top in defensive statistics. He was 4th in the AL in Defensive Wins Above Replacement, behind only Piersall, Joe DeMaestri and McDougald.

That began his slow descent out of a starting job and eventually the big leagues though he still had okay seasons in 1957 (a still-decent 89 OPS+ for a second baseman while fielding .983; he hit .268/.334/.354) and 1958 (.253/.349/.365, 98 OPS+, .986 at 2B). In the 1957 AL, he was second with 16 sacrifice hits (3 behind McDougald) and 3rd in fielding at 2B (behind Billy Gardner and Fox). In 1958, he was again second in sacrifice hits (12, tied with Fox, one behind Martin). It was his last time on a MLB leaderboard.

He played for three teams in his final big league season, 1959: the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Braves, batting .227/.314/.322 in 93 games.

Back to Mexico[edit]

In 1960, a 36-year-old Ávila returned to the Liga and hit .333/.480/.486 for the Mexico City Tigers, leading the league in runs scored (125 in 127 games) and shattering the Liga walk record with 124, 29 more than Ronnie Camacho had drawn a season earlier. Ávila's walk record stood 9 years before Hector Espino broke it by one. [26]

Career Statistics[edit]

Overall, Ávila hit .329/~.430/.451 in 6 years in his homeland. He had batted .281/.359/.388 in 1,300 MLB games, with 725 runs, 185 doubles, 80 homers, 467 RBI and 561 walks to 399 whiffs. He had fielded .979 at second base and had seen a little action at third base, shortstop and the outfield. Through 2019, he was 94th in MLB history in games at second (1,168, between Ron Oester and Dick Green), 70th in putouts at second (2,820, between Davey Johnson and Glenn Hubbard) and 69th in assists at second (785, between Eric Young Sr. and Dan Uggla). While Gold Gloves were not given out during his career, Bill James' Win Shares method shows him as deserving of four of them (1951, 1953, 1954, 1956), with him or Fox winning every season from 1951-1959. [27] James also rates him as the 9th-best second baseman among players with 3,000+ innings, between Bobby Grich and Eddie Mayo. [28]

James rates Ávila as the 36th-best second baseman in MLB history through 2000, between Del Pratt and Miller Huggins, with the caveat that the rating was hindered by his missing several major league seasons while playing south of the border. His career win shares (175) are lower than everybody else in the top 45 except Tom Herr (170, #40) but his top-5 seasons outrank everyone after him except Kid Gleason as well as almost half the guys ahead of him (15 of 35), not far behind Bobby Doerr (rated #18) and Fox (rated #15). [29]

Executive Role[edit]

After retiring, he became an owner in the Liga, president of the Veracruz Eagle and eventually president of the Mexican League. [30] He later went into politics and was elected mayor of Veracruz. [31] He also served two terms in the Mexican Senate. [32] Two Liga stadiums were later named after Avila - Estadio Beto Avila and Parque Beto Avila

He was elected to the Salón de la Fama in 1971 and was one of the original inductees to the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010. [33] He died in 2004 of complications of diabetes and a lung ailment at the age of 80. [34]

Notable Achievements[edit]

  • 3-time AL All-Star (1952, 1954 & 1955)
  • AL Batting Average Leader (1954)
  • AL Triples Leader (1952)
  • 100 Runs Scored Seasons: 2 (1952 & 1954)

Sources[edit]

  1. Latino Stars in Major League Baseball by Jonathan Weeks
  2. The New Bill James Historical Abstract by Bill James, pg. 507-508
  3. The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics by Pedro Treto Cisneros, pg. 88
  4. ibid., pg. 30; Pat Doyle's Professional Baseball Player Database
  5. A History of Cuban Baseball by Peter Bjarkman, pg. 166
  6. ibid., pg. 226
  7. Doyle Database
  8. Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History by Jorge Figueredo, pg. 268
  9. ibid., pg. 510
  10. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, pg. 508; The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics
  11. Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, pg. 278-283
  12. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, pg. 508
  13. The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics]]; Doyle Database
  14. Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, pg. 299-302
  15. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, pg. 508
  16. ibid.
  17. Box score from his debut
  18. Box score from his first hit in MLB
  19. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, pg. 508
  20. ibid., pg. 405
  21. Baseball's 25 Greatest Teams by Lowell Reidenbaugh, pg. 91
  22. ibid.
  23. Box score from his 15-total-base day
  24. 1953 Baseball Guide, pg. 34
  25. New York Times
  26. "The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics", pg. 38 and 40
  27. The New Bill James Historical Abstract, pg. 495
  28. ibid., pg. 502
  29. ibid., pg. 510 and 536
  30. ibid., pg. 510
  31. New York Times obituary
  32. 24/7 Sports
  33. Salon de la Fama, PRWeb.com
  34. Los Angeles Times

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