Long before Tony Pérez was immortalized in 2015 with a bronze statue at Great American Ball Park, where the Cincinnati Reds play …
And long before he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2000, taking his place alongside other all-time greats such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle …
And long before he began a 23-year major league career that would result in 2,732 hits, 379 home runs, 1,652 runs batted in, seven All-Star Game appearances and two World Series championships …
… he spent two summers in Geneva, playing baseball while also trying to learn English and assimilate the American culture.
It’s also the reason acclaimed sportswriter John Erardi has spent some time in our fair city, both here at the paper doing research and out and about talking with folks who knew and watched Pérez. Erardi’s latest book, “Tony Pérez: From Cuba to Cooperstown,” was published recently. It’s the first full-length biography on one of greatest imports from the island known as the Pearl of the Antilles.
“Geneva was the first place I visited for the book, even before Cuba,” said Erardi, who grew up in Liverpool but now lives in Kentucky with his wife, Barb. “My first stop in Geneva was in the summer of 2015 when I ran into Joe Marone making those great tacos at McDonough Park. Tony would’ve killed for those way back in ’60 and ’61, let me tell you.”
Erardi returned in the summer of 2016 and interviewed the likes of Chuck Agonito, John “Johnny O” Oughterson and Bill Kohlberger at the ballpark and Alan Brignall and me here at the Times. All are quoted or mentioned in the book.
We told Erardi a tale that our former boss — the late Norm Jollow, the longtime sports editor at the Times — recounted to us often. Back in 1960, the New York-Penn League, which counted the Geneva Redlegs as one of its franchises, played a 130-game schedule that started in early May. Players who were still in high school didn’t join their minor league teams until after graduating in June. The 1960 season was seven weeks old, and the Redlegs already were struggling through what would be a last-place campaign, when a brash, crew-cut kid with two bats slung over his shoulder walked into the office of manager Reno DeBenedetti.
Norm was in the office at the time too. He said DeBenedetti asked the kid, “Who are you?”
“Pete Rose, your new second baseman,” was the precocious teen’s reply.
Interestingly, Pérez was the second baseman for the Redlegs at the time, and though he was struggling on the field — and off in the unfamiliar surroundings of Upstate New York — his manager had no intentions of replacing him. However, when DeBenedetti became fed up with all the errors Pérez was making, he did replace him — actually putting him on the disabled list because he had nowhere else for him — and inserted Rose at second. How’s that for a trivia question: Who replaced Tony Pérez at second base for the Geneva Redlegs?
And yes, that 1960 team — with a future Hall of Famer in Pérez, baseball’s future all-time hits king in Rose and another future major league star, Art Shamsky — would finish in the cellar at 54-75, 29 games behind first-place Erie.
Pérez hit .279 that season with six home runs, 43 RBIs and 11 stolen bases, respectable numbers but not good enough to earn him a promotion. In something of an unusual move, he was returned to the Class A Redlegs for the 1961 season, while Rose and Shamsky moved up the ladder. In ’61, however, Pérez — now a year older and more comfortable — would fashion one of the most spectacular seasons in Geneva’s long pro baseball history and begin to show signs of becoming a future big league star: a .348 batting average, 27 homers, an incredible 132 RBIs and 17 stolen bases.
It’s all in Erardi’s book. In fact, Geneva is the only one of Pérez’s four minor league stops that warrants two chapters.
“I had to be able to recreate Tony’s two years in Geneva,” Erardi told me. “Year two is the first time Tony realized he was a prospect. Up until then, he didn’t know what he was. Un sospechoso. A ‘suspect.’
“Think about it: An 18-year-old kid from Cuba, doesn’t speak a word of the language, eats chicken for a week once he learned the [English] word for pollo — and none of the five other Cuban players who were with him in 1960 are back in 1961. Talk about a persevering son of a gun. That was Tony Pérez.”
Besides that, Erardi says he loves McDonough Park.
“But I call it Shuron Field because that’s what it was called back in Tony’s day,” he said. “I live in the moment — as long as the moment is whatever period I’m writing about.”
While it was Pérez and baseball that drew Erardi to Geneva in the first place, he jokes that it’s something else that has kept him coming back: “The Italian food!”
The 323-page book — which Erardi will discuss and sign for those who buy it during an appearance this afternoon at the Sons of Italy lodge — is about more than just Geneva, though. The author spent nine days in Cuba delving into Pérez’s roots, writing about the sugar cane fields where he used to work near his hometown of Central Violeta. He discusses the rise of Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, all of which affected Pérez and his family in one way or another.
In fact, Tony was home in Cuba when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out in October 1962.
“He barely got back out,” Erardi said, “and he couldn’t return home for nine years, which was the last time he saw his father.”
Regardless of the Geneva mentions, if you like sports or history or even travelogues, you will enjoy this book.
Erardi himself adds insight that he culled from decades of covering Pérez and the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, arguably one of the greatest baseball teams of all-time, as a sports writer and columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He has authored or co-authored seven other sports books, including “Pete Rose 4,192,” “Cincinnati’s Crosley Field” and “Big Red Dynasty: How Bob Howsam & Sparky Anderson Built the Big Red Machine.”
So, if you go to today’s book-signing, be prepared to talk some baseball with John. Or Cuba. Or history. Or long-ago Geneva. Or something you might not expect to talk about: love.
“The anecdotes and nuggets are just amazing, especially the way those Cuban players intertwined with the names and exploits of so many of the great American players,” Erardi says. “It’s as though one can’t tell the story of our national pastime without telling the story of Cuba baseball. It’s their national pastime, too. We’ve deeply enriched each other’s games.
“In a way, that’s a love story too.”