Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 1 – Bobby Avila

Join Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we dig through the archives in our countdown to Opening Day with a story on the late Bobby Avila, who would have turned 93 today.

Countdown to Opening Day – 1 days

As a child growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, Roberto “Bobby” Avila played soccer and dreamed of being a bullfighter. As a student, he studied engineering. His later life was spent in politics.

But Avila – called Beto in Spanish-speaking nations but known as Bobby in the United States – was probably most famous as the first really prominent Mexican baseball player.

Avila found a book by former major leaguer Jack Coombs and used it to teach himself the game of baseball. By the time he was 19, he was playing in the Mexican League. Jorge Pasquel, the owner of the league’s Veracruz team, became president of the league and mounted a challenge to the major league monopoly and even attracted some major leaguers to play in Mexico. It was then that Avila started to be noticed – and realized he could potentially play in the major leagues.

After a stint in Cuba, he had attracted the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were raiding the Negro Leagues for talent. Branch Rickey offered $9,000, but Avila wanted $10,000. Rickey, who was described as the kind of person who’d go to the vault for a nickel in change, passed. Avila later said he did him a favor, since he was a second baseman and would have ended up riding the pine behind Jackie Robinson.

Also intrigued was legendary Indians scout Cy Slapnicka, who offered Avila $17,500 – and was prepared to go higher, but Avila accepted. He spent 1948 in the minor leagues and was put on the roster in 1949, where he occasionally spelled everyday second baseman Joe Gordon. By the end of 1950, Avila was the Indians’ everyday second baseman and he received a glowing endorsement from his predecessor Gordon, who said, “That kid knows more about pitchers and batters after two years on the bench than most of the 10-year men in the game.”

Avila’s best years coincided with – or maybe were one of the reasons for – a streak where the Indians were one of the best teams in the major leagues. He was a three-time All-Star in 1952, 1954 and 1955, and in 1954 – the year the Indians won 111 games and the American League pennant – he became the first Latin American ball player to win a batting title, with a .341 average. The title didn’t come without controversy.

Rules at the time said that to be eligible for the batting title, a player had to have 400 at-bats in a 154-game season, based on 2.6 at-bats per game. Avila got 189 hits in 555 at-bats for a .341 batting average. Ted Williams got 133 hits in 386 at-bats for a .345 average. Williams also walked 136 times – a luxury not afforded pitchers facing Avila in the middle of a murderous lineup. In fact, Williams walked so much that Red Sox manager Lou Boudreau (who came up with the shift against him while Indians skipper) moved him from third to second in the batting order to get him more at-bats.

As a result, in 1957, the criteria for the batting title was changed from official at-bats (which don’t include walks) to plate appearances. Avila’s high water mark was 1954. Although he remained an everyday player for the Indians for four more years, he never hit higher than .272 again.

Avila’s major league career ended after the 1959 season, but he played another season in his native Mexico, coming full circle by serving as an owner in the Mexican League and the league’s president.

Avila died in 2004 at the age of 80. His 1954 batting title remains the most recent by an Indians player.

Other notable 1’s in Indians history: Johnny Burnett (1931-34), Billy Martin (1959), Johnny Temple (1960), Jose Cardenal (1968-69), Tony Fernandez (1997), Casey Blake (2003-08), Luis Valbuena (2009-11)

Photo: Associated Press

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