Hector Espino Gonzalez
(The Babe Ruth of Mexico)
- Bats Right, Throws Right
- Height 5'11", Weight 185 lb.
- Born June 6, 1939 in Chihuahua, Chihuahua Mexico
- Died September 7, 1997 in Monterrey, Nuevo León Mexico
Hector Espino is considered the greatest player in the history of the Mexican League. With 484 home runs, he is the all-time minor league home run king; 481 of those homers came in Mexico and 453 in the Mexican League.
Espino broke in in the Mexican League in 1962 with Monterrey. He hit 23 homers, 12 triples, drove in 105 (tying for the league lead) and scored 106 while batting .358/.459/.613. He was named Rookie of the Year. He was named MVP of the Mexican Pacific League that winter after hitting .402, a record which stood until he topped it 10 years later. In the summer of '63, he slipped a bit to .346/.416/.611. That winter, he repeated as MVP, the first position player to take that honor twice in a row, hitting .379 with 25 HR and 77 RBI; he was the batting champ and broke the old RBI record by 25 (this mark also stood until 1972-1973, when he topped it).
In 1964, Espino won his first Mexican League batting title, with a .371/.479/.741; he hit 46 home runs, scored 115 and drove in 117. His run total was the third highest in Mexican League history (behind only Bobby Avila and Cool Papa Bell), he set a new home run record (the old mark had been 39 by Ronnie Camacho, he set a record with 30 intentional walks and his 332 total bases were second-best in league history. That drew the attention of the St. Louis Cardinals, who signed Espino late in the year and sent him to their AAA club, the Jacksonville Suns. Espino did just fine there, hitting .300 with 3 homers in 32 games, but would never play outside the Mexican League again. Sources list several different reasons and Total Baseball reports that Espino himself gave different ones. Total Baseball says that Espino might have liked being a big fish in a small pond; some said homesickness; Mexican League writer Bruce Baskin says that racism discouraged Espino from playing in the US. He was the first player to lead the Mexican League and Mexican Pacific League in average in the course of a year; the next player to do so would be Jimmie Collins in 1983 (not counting Espino repeating in 1967 and 1972). Through 2016, there were six instances of players leading the LMB and LMP in average in the same year and three of those belonged to Espino.
In 1965, the Cardinals invited Espino to spring training, but he did not report. Jamie Marshall writes that it was because Espino wanted a "fair share of the sale price." He hit .335 with 17 HR in just 67 games in the Mexican League that year. In '66, back in full time duty, he hit .369/.495/.667 - leading the league in all 3 stats (beating out Minnie Minoso by 21 points for the average title); he was second in the league with 31 homers and 3rd with 91 walks. He did this despite missing two road series due to conflicts with his manager.
In 1967 and 1968, Espino repeated as batting champ with marks of .379 and .365. He hit 34 homers, slugged .706 and scored 106 in '67; in '68 he won his second home run title with 27. His fourth batting title tied Al Pinkston for the Mexican League record.
In '69, his run of 3 straight batting titles ended with a .304 season. He repeated as the home run champ, with 37, and scored 101 runs. He also drew 125 walks, breaking Avila's record; his mark would stand just one season though. In the late '60s, the California Angels had tried to sign Espino several times without success.
1970 was one of Espino's least productive seasons - .319/.431/.493 with 18 HR. That winter, he hit .348 for his 8th Mexican Pacific League batting title; the Hermosillo slugger also won his 6th LMP home run crown (22), won his 9th slugging title, led in runs (64 in 78 games), had his 4th RBI title (62). He became the league's first three-time MVP; Daniel Ríos, Claudio Solano and Miguel Sotelo each had also won two. He would win three more MVPs to give him six in the LMP. Since he won #3, no one else has joined with even that many, with Aurelio López, Antonio Osuna and Luis Garcia also winning two (through 2014).
He moved to Tampico in '71 and hit about the same (.311 with 20 HR). 1972 saw him bounce back - .356/.481/.670 - he had his 4th and final LMB home run title (37), 101 runs, 101 RBI and a league-high 94 walks. In 1971-1972, he hit .372 and led the Mexican Pacific League for his 9th batting title there. He also led with 18 doubles, 56 runs and 75 RBI (in 70 games). He won his 10th slugging crown in the winter league. His 24 homers were three shy of leader Bobby Darwin. He won his 4th MVP in the LMP. In the summer of '72, his average kept rising at the expense of power and walks as he hit .377/.459/.590; he won his fifth and final Mexican League batting championship and drove in 107 runs. He hit 22 homers; while it was 15 fewer than his previous season, the 34-year old slugger would never again hit as many. No native Mexican would lead the league in batting for 23 years, until Matías Carrillo did so.
In the winter of 1972-1973, he had perhaps his best winter season. He set LMP records for average (.415) and slugging (.754), both breaking his own records; as of 2014, both records still stand. He led with 24 doubles and with 26 home runs (one shy of the record shared by Darwin and Camacho). His 66 runs tied Rommel Canada for the league lead. He drove in 83 runs in 83 games to break the league RBI record. He won his third straight MVP (more than anyone else has won in their LMP careers, no one else having more than two MVPs) and fifth total MVP. He would win a sixth MVP during the 1975-1976 season when he hit .319, his 11th batting title - he would take two more.
From the summer of 1973 to 1980, he remained in double digit homers, reaching 20 once, though he remained a .300 hitter through 1980 except for one .297 season. In 1980, he set a Mexican League record by collecting hits in 11 straight at-bats. His stats declined drastically in his 40s - .292 to .270 to .246 to .220 with his home run titles never rising above 4. He retired at the age of 45.
Espino was also a winter league superstar. He hit .329 in winter league ball, with 299 home runs and 1,029 RBI; in 1976 he led the Mexican entry to its first Caribbean Series win and he played in 6 Caribbean Series. He would make the Caribbean Hall of Fame and won 13 batting titles in 24 years in winter ball. He is the only player in the history of the Mexican Pacific League with a career average over .300 (the next player, Matias Carrillo is 36 points behind Espino).
Hector's son Daniel Espino made his Mexican League debut in 1994 and after several years on the bench has assumed a starting role; he is no threat to break his father's records.
He died of a heart attack in 1997.
Nelson Barrera broke Espino's Mexican League home run record (455 to 453) but did not break his all-time minor league home run title. Espino's other records fell over the years - Jack Pierce broke his season HR record in 1986, Jesus Sommers and Frank Estrada broke his record for seasons played, Sommers took over the games played record, Daniel Fernandez broke his career run record (1,479), Sommers and Barrera broke his hit record (2,752), Sommers was one of several to break his double record (373), Barrera broke his RBI record, Espino had never caught Camacho in walks (1,330 to 1,441) and Barrera broke his total bases record (4,574). Only his intentional walk records - 53 in a season (1969) and 408 career (over 200 more than #2 Barrera) - have not been approached. In addition, no one has yet broken his minor league home run record.
It should also be noted that the offensive levels in Mexico rose significantly after Espino retired - Barrera, Fernandez and Sommers (while all overlapping Espino's career somewhat) all played in a much more friendly era for hitters.
Primary Sources: The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics by Pedro Treto Cisneros, Great Baseball Feats, Facts & Firsts by David Nemec, Viva Beisbol! newsletter by Bruce Baskin, Total Baseball.