In 1961, Cuno Barragan (Sacramento, Sacramento JC) was invited to his first major- league spring training. The 29-year-old was excited and focused because he was expected to be the Chicago Cubs’ starting catcher.
However, just one week before Opening Day in a March 26 exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians, he suffered a devastating injury.
Barragan was on second base and the pitcher was at the plate. He figured the bunt was on. So, he took a big lead and readied himself for a hard slide into third base.
“The bunt goes down and I head for third base ready to hit the dirt,” the 83-year-old Barragan recalled in an interview in 2015. “But third-base coach Elvin Tappe suddenly signals for me to stand up. I stumble and collide with Indians third baseman Bubba Phillips. I slammed so hard into Phillips that I broke my ankle. Right then, I saw my whole life flash before my eyes.”
Barragan never saw action again until the major-league rosters expanded on September 1.
The Cubs faced the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field the day the rosters grew. When the lineup card was posted in the dugout it read: center fielder Ritchie Ashburn leading off followed by second baseman Don Zimmer, shortstop Ernie Banks, right fielder George Altman, left-fielder Billy Williams, third baseman Ron Santo, first baseman Andre Rodgers, Barragan and pitcher Glen Hobbie.
Barragan had waited a long time for that day. He sat in the dugout thinking about his first major-league at-bat and wondering, “What am I going to do? Am I going to strike out? I don’t want to strike out.”
In the Cubs half of the second inning, Altman singled. Williams grounded out to third base. Santo grounded out to shortstop. Then, Rodgers slugged a two-run homer.
While everyone was congratulating Rodgers, Barragan stepped to the plate and hit the first pitch off Giants right-hander Dick LeMay over the left-field wall.
“When I hit the ball, I ran like hell around first base,” Barragan said. “I figured it was going to be a double so I slide into second base. I didn’t even know the ball left the park until the umpire told me. Then I just started laughing. That turned out to be the highlight of my major-league career. It put me in the trivia books with 11 other guys for hitting a home run in their first at-bat and then never hitting another one.”
Barragan also became the 28th player in major league history to homer in his first at-bat.
For the 5-foot 11-inch, 180-pound Barragan, however, his historic home run seemed anti-climactic.
“I never got the ball. I never got called out of the dugout to take a bow,” Barragan remembered. “There must have been all of 25 people in the stands that day. Nobody came to the games because we were so bad and in last place. Hobbie was the next batter. He shook my hand. No one else seemed to give a shit.”
Barragan was described as a solid catcher with an excellent throwing arm. He often threw out the best baserunners in the game, including Maury Wills, who swiped 586 bases in his 14-year career.
“I could throw Maury Wills out any day or night,” Barragan said.
Barragan, whose short three-year career ended in 1963 with a .202 batting average, said the veteran Cubs players like Hall of Famers Santo, Banks and Williams “treated me great.” In fact, Santo was his roommate on the road in 1962.
Barragan treasured his time with Santo. His first trip to New York with the Hall of Famer was a memorable one.
He and Santo had a room on the sixth floor. The team bus was scheduled to leave in front of the hotel for the ballpark at 5 p.m. The pair got so wrapped up in watching American Bandstand on television, they lost track of time.
Fearing they’d be late for the bus, the pair raced to the elevator. When they reached the first floor and hustled out the front entrance, the bus had left.
Barragan and Santo didn’t know what to do.
“Me being a rookie, my heart was pounding out of my chest,” Barragan said. “Fortunately, out of the blue a guy stepped forward, said he could help and flagged down a cab.”
Barragan and Santo jumped into the cab and screamed, “Get us to the Polo Grounds.”
The cabbie responded, “Where’s that?”
The dilemma was solved when the bystander who flagged down the cab jumped into the driver’s seat and drove Barragan, Santo and the cabbie to the ballpark. They reached the Polo Grounds just as the Cubs players were getting off the bus.
Barragan remembered with great pride the last game at the Polo Grounds.
The Latin-American All-Star Game was played there on October 12, 1963. Barragan represented the United States and was a member of the National League team that included Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou, Manny Mota and Julian Javier from the Dominican Republic and Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente and Ruben Amaro from Puerto Rico.
The American League team had Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles and Minnie Minoso from Cuba, Luis Aparicio from Venezuela and Vic Powers from Puerto Rico.
The National League team won 5-2. Barragan went 0-for-3.
In the folklore of old-time baseball there have always been stories of spies in stadium scoreboards who relayed pitches to the batters.
Barragan said those shenanigans were true and he played his part.
“During a game at Wrigley Field, Tappe takes me behind the scoreboard, up a ladder, through a door and into the scoreboard,” Barragan said. “We sit down and he opens a little window and points toward home plate. Next to me there’s a telescope. It’s pointed toward home plate. I look through it and can see the catcher’s signals clear as glass.
“At this point I’m thinking to myself, ‘what’s going on and what have I gotten myself into?’ Tappe tells me over my right shoulder there’s a switch. He says to flip the switch on and off if the pitch is going to be a fastball.
“The switch was wired to an exit sign out in the center-field bleachers. The sign was red and from our dugout you couldn’t miss it. When the light flashed, it meant a fastball was coming.”
Barragan learned quickly in gaining a questionable edge. He learned what goes around comes around.
“I went into the dugout after a game against St. Louis and asked the guys why no one was hitting,” he said. “I told them I was giving them the signal. The guys told me that someone from the Cardinals put a paper bag over the exit sign and they couldn’t see a thing.”
Then, there was the time the Giants and Hank Sauer, a former Cubs player, came to town. Sauer knew what was going on in the scoreboard.
“During one of the games, Sauer got so upset about what was going on that he climbed up the ladder and tried to get into the scoreboard,” Barragan said. “But, I never took any chances and always barricaded myself in there pretty good. So, Sauer couldn’t get in. Then, he started yelling, ‘I know you’re up there Barragan, you SOB. I’m going to get in there and rip you apart.’ He kept pounding on that door. Boy, was he mad. It was hilarious.”
In his three seasons with the Cubs, Barragan was exposed to one of the most unusual managerial concepts ever utilized in the major leagues.
After the Cubs finished 60-94 in 1960, owner P.K. Wrigley announced that the team would no longer have a manager. Instead the team would be led by a committee known as the “College of Coaches” which included coaches Elvin Tappe, Charlie Grimm, Goldie Holt, Bobby Adams, Harry Craft, Verlon Walker, Ripper Collins and Vedie Himsl. Each coach would serve as head coach for part of the season.
The plan called for the coaches to rotate through the entire organization from the low minors all the way to the Cubs, ensuring a standard system of play. Wrigley said that it would be better for the players to be exposed to the wisdom and experience of eight men rather than just one.
“Wrigley may have had a good idea there, but he definitely had the wrong people,” Barragan said. “It wasn’t easy playing under those conditions. You never knew who was calling the shots from month to month. There was so much constant bickering and arguing going on between the coaches that it became comical. If you ask any former Cubs player who played at that time, they’d say the same thing. It was crazy and it failed terribly.”
One anonymous player told the Chicago Tribune in 1962 that he’d never been on a club with “lower morale” in his career. CBS Sports reported that Barragan’s teammate Sammy Taylor said of the collection of paranoid authority figures, “I can’t even fart without one of the coaches hearing it.”
The “College of Coaches,” which Stan Hack (Sacramento) was a part in 1965, has never been attempted by another major-league team and remains widely ridiculed to this day.
In November of 1965, Wrigley hired Leo Durocher. At the press conference Durocher put an end to the “College of Coaches” experiment by declaring himself manager with Wrigley’s blessing.
Barragan believed the “College of Coaches” may have been responsible for allowing rookie and future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to get away from the Cubs. Brock, who made his debut 10 days after Barragan made his, was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in June of 1964.
“None of the coaches had any idea how good Brock could be because none of them ever worked with him,” Barragan said. “Brock knew how good he was. The players on the team did, too.”