The forgotten left-handed throwing shortstop

There was an omission in my earlier post about left-handed throwing shortstops.  An understandable one, because he really didn’t play “shortstop”…and, until I discovered this story a year and a half ago, he was listed in the Retrosheet database as throwing right-handed.  (Those good folks have since made the change.)

Saturnino “Nino” Escalera is a member of the Puerto Rico Baseball Hall of Fame, which somehow in 2009 doesn’t have a web site (and yes, I also searched under its Picture 1proper name, Salón de la Fama del Béisbol Puertorriqueño).  Despite a very brief major league career, he holds two significant milestones, one first and one last.  He is considered the first black player to appear in a game for the Cincinnati Reds.  (Escalera was dark-skinned.  He was used as a pinch-hitter in the Reds’ third game of the 1954 season.  The next batter, Chuck Harmon, was an African-American.)  He started his pro career on the mainland as a teenager (at least if his baseball age is accurate) in 1949 and got off to a promising start:  .347 in the Colonial League in ’49, .337 in the Canadian-American League and .389 in the Colonial in ’50, .374 with 16 homers in the Central League in ’51.  He struggled to adjust to AAA pitching in 1952, but after hitting .305 in the Texas League in ’53 he went north with the Reds as a 24-year-old rookie in ’54.

Escalera is also as of now, at least officially, the last left-handed throwing shortstop in National League history.  I stumbled across his story while flipping through a copy of the 1955 Sporting News Baseball Guide I had just purchased.  Here’s the account that appears there (on page 144):

Birdie Tebbetts, rookie Cincinnati manager, tried a novel four-man outfield against Stan Musial in a game at Busch Stadium, May 22, 1954.  As a result, the box score of that contest and official National League averages for the year show a lefthanded shortstop, Nino Escalera, in the Reds’ lineup. Tebbetts pulled his surprise shift in the eighth inning. At the time Cincinnati owned a 4 to 2 lead, two were out and Red Schoendienst was on first for the Cards. With Musial coming to bat, the Redleg pilot removed Shortstop Roy McMillan from the game and called Escalera off the bench, stationing him in right-center between Outfielders Wally Post and Gus Bell. Tebbets explained later that he would rather risk a single through the vacated shortstop spot than an extra-base hit. The shift, however, wasn’t needed, for Pitcher Art Fowler struck Musial out and emerged with a 4 to 2 victory.

You’ll notice this happened in the eighth inning; Escalera was replaced by an actual shortstop, Rocky Bridges, in the ninth.

Tom Swope wrote a long piece about the four-man outfield in The Sporting News on page 9 of the June 2 issue:

Picture 4

Swope referred to it as “probably . . . the first four-man outfield formation of its kind ever used in major-league society.” He said Escalera was stationed in “middling deep right-center field” and all the other Reds were in their “normal positions.” Third baseman Charley Harmon was actually ordered to play close to the line, so there was a huge hole on the left side of the infield.  The story even included a helpful diagram:

Picture 3

Swope did not specifically mention Escalera being lefthanded, but he did say Tebbetts “motioned with his left arm” that he wanted Escalera to enter the game. Swope said first base umpire Dusty Boggess held up the game, thinking the Reds had too many players on the field, but Johnny Temple pointed out there was no shortstop.  Tebbetts said had this situation come up earlier in the game, he would have sent McMillan into the outfield. Apparently the tactic had come up in team meetings earlier in the month, and when Tebbetts came out to make the change McMillan asked if he were to go into the outfield.

Here’s how Tebbetts explained the move to Swope:

I decided that if [Musial] should single through our unprotected shortstop position that would be all right. We still would not be in as much danger of losing as if he bounced a double or triple off the right field fence. I figured that if he did line a ball against the wall, [one of the outfielders] could recover the ball quickly enough to keep Stan from getting more than a single.

Tebbetts said he thought the St. Louis park was best suited for use of the shift, and that the Cincinnati park wasn’t well suited at all, that he would not even use it against Musial at home.Picture 2

Birdie did use a four-man outfield later in the season, this time with McMillan, in the eighth inning of the August 20 game at St. Louis…Reds up by one, two out, nobody on, McMillan went to left-center and Bell moved to right-center.  Musial tried to hit the ball through the shortstop hole and grounded out to Bobby Adams at third base.

Even though he was physically in the outfield, McMillan was not credited with playing in the outfield in that game.  Here’s how the situation is handled under official major league rules:

Rule 10.03(a) Comment: When a player does not exchange positions with another fielder but is merely placed in a different spot for a particular batter (for example, if a second baseman goes to the outfield to form a four-man outfield, or if a third baseman moves to a position between the shortstop and second baseman), the official scorer should not list this as a new position.

Likewise, when Escalera entered the game on May 22, he replaced McMillan, so he was considered the shortstop.

I wish I knew how Escalera wound up in the databases as a right-handed thrower.  He is clearly marked as a lefty in the fielding statistics of the 1955 Baseball Guide.  I’ve checked some of his minor league stats in other guides and he is shown as a lefty there too.

Escalera didn’t return to the majors after 1954, but he played the next seven years at the AAA level in the International League.  He continued to play and manage in winter ball, and from 1966 to 1981 he scouted for the Mets in Puerto Rico, then scouted for the Giants for more than a decade.  Among the players he’s credited with signing are Jerry Morales, Ed Figueroa, Benny Ayala, Jose Oquendo and Juan Berenguer.

1 thought on “The forgotten left-handed throwing shortstop

  1. Pingback: Left-handed throwing second basemen, shortstops and third basemen « The J.G. Preston Experience

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