Pitcher Hiram Bithorn was the first Puerto Rican play in the majors outside of the Negro Leagues, but he lived a lot of life beyond that in his 35 years.
Because Puerto Rico did not yet have a national baseball team, Bithorn medaled in volleyball (silver) and basketball (bronze) during the 1935 Caribbean Games. But by the next year, at just 20, he arrived in the U.S. to pitch for Norfolk. He won 16 games for the Class B Tars. During his rise through the minors, he routinely returned home to play in the winter Puerto Rican League, and in 1938 managed the Senadores de San Juan — at 22, still the youngest manager in PRL history.
By 1942, Bithorn was in the majors, pitching for the Cubs. A year later he achieved superstardom, going 18-12 with a 2.60 ERA, a majors-best seven shutouts, a 128 ERA+ and 5.5 WAR. Somehow, Bithorn finished just 32nd in MVP voting (three guesses why).
Instead of heading back to Wrigley Field in 1944 to follow up on his second-best NL pitcher WAR, however, Bithorn enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II. Like so many others, his career was permanently sidelined after two years away from the game.
He pitched in 1946 as a swingman for the north siders and did OK, although the Cubs sold him to Pittsburgh in January 1947. Two months later, the White Sox grabbed Bithorn off of waivers, but only gave him two outings (career White Sox record: 1-0). Despite a brief comeback in 1949, nagging arm soreness ended Tropical Hurricane Hi’s career.
The story gets trickier after the South Side, as Bithorn attempted another comeback in 1951, in the Mexican Pacific League. It was there, on this day in 1951, when Bithorn was murdered by a policeman in Mexico who subsequently (and falsely) claimed the pitcher was acting violently. With a fatal stomach wound, Bithorn suffered as he was transferred to the nearest hospital — 84 miles away. He died the next day.
Bithorn was a national hero in Puerto Rico, still second among sports figures to Roberto Clemente. Hiram Bithorn Stadium was built in 1962 to honor him, and it still stands, right next to Roberto Clemente Coliseum. It was at Hiram Bithorn Stadium that the Montreal Expos played 22 “home” games in both the 2003 and 2004 campaigns.
Bithorn’s seven shutouts in 1943 remain the all-time best among Puerto Rican pitchers.