With Jackie Robinson Day upon us, I wondered who was the first black player to play for the Angels. After digging around in the internet the other morning, I found the answer: Julio Bécquer.
The Angels selected Bécquer with the 49th pick of the December 14, 1960 Expansion Draft. He was a 5-foot-11, left-handed first baseman from the Washington Senators. He had played in 419 games for the Senators from 1955 to 1959, batting .247 over that span. He was mostly known for leading the American League in pinch hits in 1957 and again in 1959.
Before he could join the Angels in Palm Springs for spring training in the February of 1961, however, he had to officially and permanently leave Cuba.
Bécquer was born in Havana in 1931 and was a student at the University of Havana when he was discovered by the Senators’ scout Joe Cambria. In 1952, Cambria signed Bécquer for $300. Since the color line had not been broken yet in Florida, where the Senators’ minor league B-level teams were, Bécquer had to spend his first season in professional baseball in Canada with the C-level Drummondville Cubs in Québec. At the end of that season, and for the next eight seasons after that, Bécquer would always return home to Cuba for the winter. But in January of 1961 relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated to the point where the US officially ended diplomatic ties with the island. Bécquer and all of the other Cuban major leaguers, a group that included Camilo Pascual and Minnie Miñoso, had to choose between professional baseball and their homeland. Those who chose baseball left Cuba for the last time and went to Mexico where they stayed for a week before the legalities were all worked out and they could enter the United States.
Bécquer reported for spring training that February with the Angels on time. When he had first heard the news that he had been drafted by Los Angeles, he hoped that this would be his chance to finally become a regular, everyday player. But in camp he saw Steve Bilko and Ted Kluszewski and he knew that he was going to be the third first baseman on the depth chart. (Another man in camp was pitcher Tom Morgan, against whom Bécquer recorded his first big league hit against back in September 1955.)
Bécquer broke camp with the Angels and appeared in nine games as a late-inning defensive replacement or as a pinch hitter. But when May 10 came around and all teams had to trim their rosters from 28 men down to 25, the Angels let Julio go. He was picked up right away by the Phillies who in turn sold his contract to the Twins a month later.
On July 4, 1961, Bécquer added to his pinch-hitting reputation when he stepped in for third baseman Bill Tuttle with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and belted a grand slam to deep right field to win the game for the Twins, 6-4, over the White Sox.
The ’61 season would prove to be Bécquer’s final campaign in Major League Baseball, sort of. In 1963 Twins owner Cal Griffiths found out that Bécquer was just one week short of having enough service time to qualify for the Major League Baseball players’ pension, so he had the Twins sign him to a contract at the end of the season. Julio suited up for a week and manager Sam Mele even put Julio into a game, on September 18th, against the Tigers. He pinch ran for catcher Earl Battey who had just drawn a two-out walk in the ninth inning of a 9-0 game Minnesota was winning. The very next batter hit a double, allowing Bécquer to score all the way from first base.
After his baseball career Bécquer and his wife remained in Minnesota, where they still live. Bécquer is now 83 years old.