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New Book on the Legacy of Hiram Bithorn, 1st Puerto Rican in the MLB

Néstor David Pastor

Several efforts throughout the year have been made to honor the legacy of Hiram Bithorn on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Earlier this year, for example, the Puerto Rico Lottery dedicated one of its drawings to Bithorn, placing his portrait on the ticket. The San Juan Post Office also issued a postmark to commemorate the centenario. Then, in mid-March, a plaque was dedicated on his birthday at the baseball stadium in San Juan that bears his name. That ceremony coincided with the release of Jorgefidel López Vélez’s new book, Sobre la vida de Hiram Gabriel Bithorn Sosa, which recounts the life and career of the first Puerto Rican to play in the Major Leagues. The bilingual edition is divided into chronological sections, or “innings,” and cover Bithorn’s early life in Santurce to his years in Major League Baseball to his tragic, early death in Mexico.

Born in 1916 in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, Hiram Bithorn was recognized as a gifted athlete from a young age. In 1935, for example, he competed in the Central American and Caribbean Games held in San Salvador, where he helped Puerto Rico to win the silver medal in volleyball and the bronze medal in basketball. Yet it was baseball that would become his lifelong passion. By the early 1930s, the sport was growing in popularity around the island. Much of Bithorn’s early success came during this informal period. American teams would sometimes visit Puerto Rico to play exhibition games against local teams. As a teenager, Bithorn would lead Puerto Rican squads to victory against professional teams–which on separate occasions included future MLB Hall of Famers Kiki Cuyler and Johnny Mize.

From there, Bithorn would make his way to the Minor Leagues, playing for several New York Yankee affiliates in the process. Beginning in 1938, he would also return to Puerto Rico during the winter to play in the newly formed Liga de Béisbol Semiprofesional de Puerto Rico (today known as the Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente). At 22 years old, Bithorn made history as the youngest manager in the league’s history, managing and playing for the now-defunct San Juan Senadores.

In 1941, Bithorn was drafted by the Chicago Cubs. He would make his professional debut the following year. Statistically, the 1943 season would be his best season as a professional ballplayer. His promising career was then interrupted by WWII. Bithorn was drafted and served nearly two years in the Navy. After being discharged, he returned to the Chicago Cubs overweight, with nagging injuries. These two factors led to his career ending prematurely in 1947, after just four seasons. Although Bithorn continued to play baseball in an attempt to make a comeback, he was never the same athlete.

Bithorn’s story then takes a tragic turn as López narrates the suspicious circumstances which lead to his untimely death and decades of speculation. In December of 1951, Bithorn drives to Mexico to visit his family where is shot and killed by a police officer. Several conflicting accounts of the story later emerge. Eventually Bithorn’s body is returned to Puerto Rico and the Mexican police officer is convicted of murder. In spite of this tragic ending, the name Hiram Bithorn is mostly recognized as the baseball stadium in San Juan that bears his name, leaving the legacy of its namesake to languish as a consequence. The Hiram Bithorn Stadium was built in 1962 and replaced the Estadio Sixto Escobar, named for another pioneering athlete who became Puerto Rico’s first world champion boxer.

López’s book, in part, attempts to recover Bithorn’s story by providing an unprecedented attention to detail with regard to the pitcher’s life and playing career. In past interviews, López has also cited the need to correct factual errors concerning Bithorn’s biography. López, a longtime member of the Society for American Baseball Research, has also compiled an impressive collection of archival materials, including newspaper articles, photographs, anecdotes, and official documents. Sobre la vida de Hiram Gabriel Bithorn Sosa is a must-read for baseball fans and those interested in the nearly forgotten history of a Puerto Rican trailblazer.