By William S. Bike
If Chicago White Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso was the Jackie Robinson of Latino baseball players, blazing a path to the major leagues for Latinos as Robinson did for African Americans, then Juan Pizarro was the Don Newcombe of Latino pitchers. Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers was the first black pitcher to become a team’s ace starting pitcher, and just as Robinson and Minoso proved minority players could be stars at the plate and in the field, Pizarro, like Newcombe, proved that a minority pitcher could be the ace pitcher on his team.
Juan Pizarro’s passing on Feb. 18 was little noted, and that’s a shame. He not only was the best Puerto Rican pitcher to make it to the major leagues, but he was the ace of the Chicago White Sox staff in the early 1960s, and then worked his way into the Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation a decade later.
“Wonderful Juan” broke into the majors with the old Milwaukee Braves in 1957, and helped pitch them into the World Series that year and the next as a spot starter and reliever.
Besides his blazing fastball, Pizarro was known for demolishing the stereotype of the quiet Latino baseball player who was just glad to be playing “beisbol.” As I relate in my book The Forgotten 1970 Chicago Cubs: Go and Glow, Pizarro was known for his eating, drinking, gambling, and carousing and his penchant for throwing at batters who were crowding the plate. In fact, it was some chin-music he threw at the beloved Stan Musial of the Cardinals that cemented his bad-dude reputation and made the Braves decide to trade Pizarro to the Chicago White Sox.
On that early 1960s White Sox team known for its stellar pitching, Pizarro was the ace, the star, although he was the youngest pitcher in the rotation. He led the team in victories in 1961, was the opening day pitcher in 1962, made the American League All-Star team in 1963, and was 19–9 with four shutouts in 1964, when he pitched the White Sox to a second place finish, only one game behind the New York Yankees. He also drew a considerable contingent of Puerto Rican fans to Comiskey Park every time he pitched, despite the Puerto Rican community being located predominantly on the North Side.
With the White Sox having come so close in 1964 and the Yankees aging, baseball experts expected the Sox to go all the way in 1965. That they did not is directly attributable to injuries Pizarro suffered that year that limited the recent ace to only 18 starts, and both the pitcher and the team faded fast.
In 1966 Pizarro was even less of a factor for the Sox as he became primarily a reliever. Then he started to bounce around for the next three years, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Oakland Athletics.
By 1970, Pizarro was pitching in the minor leagues, when on July 9 the Chicago Cubs, desperate for a left-handed reliever after inexplicably releasing Hank Aguirre less than two weeks before, called him up and rejuvenated his career. The Pizarro acquisition was one of several surprising Cub management moves detailed in The Forgotten 1970 Chicago Cubs that showed that for that year at least, traditionally conservative Cub management was willing to acquire players with bad-dude reputations if they could help the team.
In 1970, Pizarro had two particularly effective relief appearances in September that helped keep the Cubs in the pennant race, one against the New York Mets and one against the Montreal Expos.
The next year, to everyone’s surprise, the veteran pitcher not only made the team but worked himself into the starting rotation. Pizarro beat New York Mets great Tom Seaver head-to-head twice that year, one of them a September shutout Pizarro won 1–0 when he hit a home run off of Seaver.
Pizarro remained with the Cubs through 1972 and part of 1973, when he went to the Houston Astros and then finished his career with a playoff appearance with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1974.
While a number of ballplayers played for both the White Sox and Cubs, Pizarro was that rarity who was effective with both instead of just playing out the string of the end of his career on the opposite side of town.
A frequent participant in winter baseball, Pizarro also is the Puerto Rican Winter League’s all-time leader in strikeouts and shutouts and is a member of the Caribbean and Puerto Rican sports halls of fame. After his retirement as a player, the Cubs showed so much respect for his pitching acumen that they made him a minor league coach. He later coached in Santurce, Puerto Rico and worked for the city’s park system.
Juan Pizarro was that rare vital member of both the White Sox and Cubs pitching staffs, and his accomplishments as a pathbreaking Latin player in the early 1960s deserved to be remembered.
For more on Juan Pizarro and the 1970 Chicago Cubs, see The Forgotten 1970 Chicago Cubs: Go and Glow, to be published by The History Press on May 17, 2021.