I read this great article by Eric Nusbaum on http://www.sbnation.com about Mexican slugger Hector Espino today. Most American baseball fans have heard of Espino, if at all, as the answer to the trivia question “who hit the most home runs in minor league history?” Since the Mexican summer league is today categorized as a AAA minor league, Espino’s exploits south of the border technically set the record.
The two questions that arise in anyone familiar with Espino’s career are (1) why didn’t he ever play in the major leagues; and (2) could he have been a major league star?
The article linked above suggests that there is some mystery as to why Espino never played in the major leagues. However, the article, which references a detailed Spanish language biography of Espino written by Horacio Ibarra Alvarez, gives plenty of legitimate-sounding reasons why Espino elected to remain in Mexico.
As background, Espino’s entire United States career consisted of 32 games played late in the season for the 1964 Jacksonville Suns, the team that won the AAA International League pennant that year. Espino was then 25 years old and had just finished off a Mexican League season in which he had led the league with 46 HRs and a .371 batting average.
Espino didn’t hit a lot of home runs in Jacksonville, a tough home run park, and the reports indicate his defense wasn’t very good. However, he still hit .300 with an .838 OPS for a team that as a whole batted .244 with a .677 OPS. [1964 was a tough year for hitters throughout professional baseball.]
Espino’s Mexican League team sold his contract to the St. Louis Cardinals for $30,000 prior to the 1965 season. However, Espino insisted that he receive a portion of the purchase price if he was going to leave his homeland to play in the U.S., where at least at first he wasn’t likely to make as much money as he was already making in Mexico. [In 1965, as a rookie, it's unlikely he would have been payed any more than $6,000, the then minimum -- young players didn't start to make the big bucks until the players' union came in and began to bargain a year or two later.]
Espino reached an agreement with Monterrey Sultanes owner Anuar Canavati that Espino would receive 10% of the purchase price — i.e., $3,000. However, when the time came for Espino to report to Florida for Spring Training in 1965, Canavati had not paid the promised money, and Espino returned to Mexico. [Six years later, Mexico passed a law providing that any athlete sold to an international team had to receive 25% of the purchase price.]
In 1967, Espino reached a verbal agreement to join the California Angels, who hoped a Mexican star would appeal to Southern California’s large Chicano population, but on the eve of Spring Training, Angels manager Bill Rigney announced that he didn’t want any of the team’s Mexican players crossing the border during Spring Training (the Angels were training in Palm Springs that year). According to Nusbaum, the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported the matter in a article entitled, “Rigney Puts Check on Angel Wetbacks.”
Espino lived in Northern Mexico, and he was a proud man, so he decided not to report. Nusbaum writes that Angels assistant general manager Marvin Milkes then wrote Espino an angry letter accusing Espino of being scared, of wasting an opportunity, and of “wanting to be a one-eyed man in the land of the blind.” If accurate, and this kind of arrogant attitude was typical of MLB executives of this era, it’s no wonder Espino told the Angels to pound sand. Unlike American players, Espino had options — he could stay at home in Mexico, where he was the country’s biggest baseball star and was making a good living.
Espino reportedly had later offers from other major league teams, including the Yankees in 1970, but nothing ever came of it. Of course, after 1967, Espino was no longer young, greatly reducing his desirability to major league teams.
Could Espino have been a successful major league player if he had joined the Cardinals in 1965 or the Angels in 1967? Very likely.
While Espino appears to have missed half of the Mexican League season in 1965, following a long hold-out that ended only with the death of Sultanes owner Canavati, who fell of his horse during a polo match in Texas, in the four years from 1966 through 1969, Espino batted .369, .379, .365 and .304 and slugged 31, 34, 27 and 37 HRs, leading his league in batting average the first three years and in HRs the last two.
After slumping in 1970 and 1971 (he still hit .311 and .319 with power those years), he returned to form in 1972 and 1973, batting .356 and .377 and hitting 37 and 22 HRs, leading his league in the latter category the first year and the former category the next.
According to my 1984 edition of SABR’s Minor League Baseball Stars, Vol. I, Espino finished his Mexican summer leagues (and brief International League) career with 484 HRs, a .337 batting average, 2,898 hits, 1,597 runs scored and 1,678 RBIs. He led the Mexican League in batting average five times, HRs and runs scored four times each and in RBIs twice. Aside from being the all-time minor league home run leader, his RBI total is 8th best all-time.
Espino slowed down considerably as he got older, but still managed to play until he was about 45 years old. Espino also played Mexican winter league ball every year, usually with and against a large number of American players, and, according to Nusbaum, hit nearly 300 more career HRs there.
Hector Espino will never be well known in the United States. However, just because a player never played in the major leagues, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great player in his own right.