The Ten Best Panamanian Players in MLB History

Continuing on to Panama, a country between Colombia and Nicaragua which also has a long baseball tradition.  At least 58 Panamanian-born players have played in the majors league.

The first was Humberto Robinson, when he pitched a third of an inning for the Milwaukee Braves on April 20, 1955.  Hector Lopez started his successful 12 year major league career on May 12, 1955, and Webbo Clarke, who pitched for many years in the Negro Leagues, made all seven of his major league appearances for the Washington Senators in September 1955, following a 16-12 record in the Class A Sally League that year, the same league in which Robinson had won a record-setting 23 games the year before.

Both pitchers were long and lean, and Robinson went 8-13 with three saves and a career 3.25 ERA over parts of five major league seasons.  It’s likely that both pitched in the Panamanian Professional Baseball League, which played continuously between 1946 and 1972, after their U.S. careers were over.

Robinson died in Brooklyn in 2009 at the age of 79, while Clarke died at the relatively young age of 42 back in Panama.  Robinson also notably reported a bribe offered in the amount of $1,500 to throw a baseball game in 1959.

The relative success of the PPBL is surely one of the reasons so many Panamanians have played in MLB, despite a population of only 3.75 million currently. The current version of the PPBL, Probeis, has been playing continuously since 2011.

1. Rod Carew (1967-1985)(HOF).  Carew was one of the great pure-hitters of all time, a terrific base runner who stole home plate seven times in 1969, tying Pete Reiser‘s 1946 Post-World War II record.  Ty Cobb stole home eight times in 1912 and 50 times for his career.  During their mostly lively-ball era careers, Lou Gehrig stole home 15 times and Babe Ruth did it 10 times.

Carew moved to New York City after two years of high school in Panama.  He did not immediately begin playing high school baseball, because he was spending all of his time studying, working and learning English.  In 1964, he began to play with an organized team, and he reaches the majors three years later.  He worked as a hitting instructor and coach for many years after his playing career.

Carew married Marilyn Levy, a woman of Jewish ancestry, in 1970, as a result of which Carew received death threats.  They had three daughters, but divorced after 26 years, shortly after the death of their 18 year old daughter Michelle to leukemia when doctors were unable to find a matching bone marrow donor due to her unusual ancestry.  Carew subsequently performed extensive charity work to increase the number of bone marrow donors.

Carew chewed tobacco for 28 years before developing mouth cancer in 1992.  In late 2016, Carew had heart transplant surgery, but he’s still alive as of this writing.

2.  Mariano Rivera (1995-2013).  With an all-time best 652 saves, Rivera will make the Hall of Fame shortly.  He played recently enough and burned brightly enough, that no one reading this needs anything further from me to remember Rivera.

3.  Carlos Lee (1999-2012).  He bounced around a bit, but he had five seasons with 30 home runs, six with 100 or more runs batted in, and four seasons with at least 100 runs scored.  A left fielder with an exceptionally effective throwing arm, Lee is now a wealthy rancher in Texas and Panama.

4.  Ben Oglivie (1971-1986).  Oglivie took a long time to develop, but he became a fearsome slugger for Harvey’s Wallbangers during the American League Milwaukee Brewers’ great period of success from 1978 to 1983.  He led the Junior Circuit with 41 home runs in 1980 in a tie with Reggie Jackson, becoming the first player born outside the United States to lead the AL in HRs. He hit 34 regular season long flies and two more in the post-season for the Wallbangers’ team that lost the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.

After MLB, Oglivie had two successful seasons in Japan’s NPB at the ages of 38 and 39.  He finished his playing career with two games in the Texas League at the age of 40.

Oglivie also moved to the United States (Bronx, NY) when he was in high school.  Bill Lee described Oglivie as the”brightest guy on the club” when they played together on the Red Sox, and he attended college in Boston and Milwaukee while he played.  He’s worked for years as a hitting coach since his playing days ended.

5.  Manny Sanguillen (1967-1980).  One of the batting heroes, along with Roberto Clemente and Bob Robertson, of the 1971 Pirates who came back from two games down to win the World Series against the Orioles.  Sanguillen made the National League All-Star Team three times and received MVP votes in four seasons.  Sanguillen didn’t have much power, and, a notorious bad ball hitter, he didn’t walk much either, but he had a .296 career batting average and threw out 39% of the 820 men who tried to steal bases against him.

Sanguillen played in the post-season six times for the Pirates, including driving in a run for the Pirates’ last victorious World Series team in 1979, when he was 35 and nearing the end of his career.  Sanguillen married a Pennsylvania woman, Kathy Swanger, had two kids, and still lives in the Pittsburgh area, hosting Manny’s BBQ behind center field at PNC Park.  Sanguillen says his greatest baseball accomplishment was catching Bob Moose‘s no-hitter on September 20, 1969.

6 (Tie).  Roberto Kelly (1987-2000) & Hector Lopez (1955-1966).  Kelley was a center fielder who played well for the Yankees between 1989 to 1992.  Lopez was a jack-of-all-trades guy who played at least 175 games in each of LF, RF, 3B and 2B, playing most often in left field and at third base. Lopez’s best seasons were for the Kansas City A’s and the Yankees between 1955 and 1960 and he played on five consecutive World Series teams for the Yankees from 1960 through 1964.

Lopez also sported the nicknames “The Panama Clipper” and “Hector the Hit Collector.”  Playing for Kansas City, Lopez roomed with former Negro League star, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, who got the nickname because he wore size 13 shoes, which a sportswriter wrote looked like suitcases.  After his playing career was over, Lopez became the first black, let alone Panamanian, manager of a AAA team, when he managed the International League’s Buffalo Bisons to a 7th place finish.

Roberto Kelly coached and managed for the San Francisco Giants organization for nine years until 2016, after his playing career ended.

8.  Omar Moreno (1975-1986). Today, Omar Moreno is primarily remembered as a light-hitting stolen base threat, and he was known as the Antelope, but he was also a really good player for the 1979 World Champion Pirates, leading the Senior Circuit with 77 stolen bases (in 98 attempts) and in putouts by an outfielder (489, 64 more than Gold Glove winner Garry Maddox of the 4th place Phillies) and also scoring 110 runs.  Moreno finished 15th in the NL MVP vote that year and was almost certainly more valuable than that.

In 1980, Moreno stole 96 bases (in 129 attempts) being edged out of the league lead by Ron LeFlore with 97, and again led NL outfielders in putouts, but he didn’t bat as well and only scored 87 times while making more than 500 outs on offense, even more than he prevented on defense.   Moreno stole 487 bases on his major league career at a 73% success rate.

After his playing career, Moreno and his family returned to Panama, where he started a foundation to help poor kids to play baseball.  In 2009, he became Panama’s Secretary of Sport where he represented Panama internationally and oversaw the country’s athletic programs.  After he left office, he returned to working with under-privileged children.

9. Bruce Chen (1998-2015).  Chen is a Panamanian of Chinese descent who amounts to the best starting pitcher Panama has produced.  Another bright guy, Chen studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech during his playing career.

Chen won 13 games for the Orioles in 2005, and won 12 back to back for the Royals in 2010-2011.  He was a consistently affordable bottom of the rotation starter who ate up a lot of innings by today’s standards and pitched well enough to hold onto that role for an astounding 17 seasons.

He finished his career with an 82-81 record, tying him with Mariano Rivera for most wins by a Panamanian-born pitcher, and a 4.62 ERA.  Chen came out of retirement to pitch for Team China in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

10.  Juan Berenguer (1978-1992).  Berenguer went 11-10 with a 3.42 ERA as the World Champion Detroit Tigers‘ fourth starter in 1984, but didn’t pitch in the post-season, when Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox got all the starts.  He then became an effective reliever  (32 career saves) for the Giants, Twins and Braves, ending his major league career at the age of 37.

Known as “Senor Smoke,” “El Gasolino” and the “Panama Express” because of his high-90’s fastball, Berenguer went 8-1 as a reliever and spot starter for the underwhelming Twins team that went on to win the 1987 World Series.  After his playing career, he returned to and still lives in Minnesota.

Berenguer retired with a 67-62 career record and 3.90 ERA.  He was the all-time Panamanian wins leader until Mariano Rivera passed him in 2008.

Honorable MentionsRamiro Mendoza, Rennie Stennett, Carlos Ruiz and Randall Delgado.  Panama has produced enough major league players that some pretty good ones don’t make my list of the top ten.  The 1970’s Pirates, during their best run of the post-WW II period, had three Panamanians in Sanguillen, Stennett and Moreno who were key starters on winning teams.  I remember Stennett as being one of the worst free agent signings in SF Giants’ history, although five years for $3 million sounds like peanuts today.

Carlos Ruiz deserves to be in the top ten for the six seasons he had for the Phillies from 2009 through 2014, and he was the starting catcher for the World Champion 2008 Phillies, the last period when the Phillies were consistent winners.  Randall Delgado is entering his age 28 season in 2018, so he’s certainly got a chance to break into the top 10 one day, although he missed most of the second half of the 2017 season to an elbow injury, for which he received platelet rich injections in his elbow as recently as late September.

A majority of Pananian born baseball players are Afro-Panamanian with many coming from in and around the heavily Afro-Caribbean city of Colon.  However, my personal observation spending 16 days in Panama around January 1, 1999 was that a large percentage of the population in greater Panama City appeared to my surely untrained eyes to be some admixture of European, African and Indigenous Panamanian ancestries.

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One Comment on “The Ten Best Panamanian Players in MLB History”

  1. Burly Says:

    Shortstop Frankie Austin was born ten years too soon to play in the major leagues. He played five years in the Negro leagues, followed by eight seasons in the Pacific Coast League, the best minor league at the time. HIs PCL seasons started at the age of 32.


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