"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Card Corner: Cesar Tovar


With two wins in their first two tries against the Angels, the Yankees once again have me feeling good. Just like last week, when I profiled Walt “No Neck” Williams, I’m in the mood to talk about one of my favorite ex-Yankees, one who reminds me of Game Two hero Jerry Hairston, Jr. This time the happy spotlight falls upon Cesar Tovar, who was even more versatile than the Yankees’ current utility infielder.

Tovar’s Yankee career didn’t amount to much. He batted a mere .154 in a handful of games in 1976, brought back by an appreciative Billy Martin, who had managed him with the Minnesota Twins in 1969. I wish Tovar had played longer with the Yankees, if only because he was a damned interesting character, a fun player on the field who lived to the fullest—sometimes a bit too full—off the field.

Originally signed by the Cincinnati Reds’ organization, Tovar never actually played for the Red Legs. In 1964, they traded him to the Twins, where he would make his major league debut the following year. Foreshadowing the careers of players like Randy Velarde, Tony Phillips and Mark DeRosa, the undersized Tovar eventually moved into a kind of “super utility” role, playing almost every day, but usually at different positions. Tovar didn’t seem to care where he played, just so long as he did get in the game. His boundless enthusiasm, determination, and hard-nosed approach all gained him favor with the Twins.

The native Venezuelan also impressed the Twins’ brass with his speed and willingness to sacrifice his five-foot, nine-inch, 155-pound body. Aggressive on the basepaths, he tried to steal bases at every opportunity. Tovar weighed relatively little, but he had a strong, muscular build, with little body fat. He particularly seemed to enjoy getting hit by pitches, which provided him with another way to reach first base. As former Twins beat writer Bob Fowler once explained to me, Tovar never flinched, instead taking pride with each hit-by-pitch.

In 1967, Tovar enjoyed a breakthrough at the plate, scoring 98 runs while leading the American League in at-bats. (Tovar never walked much, so his at-bat totals were usually very high.) Rather remarkably, he even picked up a first-place vote in the MVP balloting, which should have gone unanimously to Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski. So how did that happen? It was a way for one sportswriter to show his appreciation for Tovar’s versatility, hustle, and grit.

The following season, with Tovar enjoying another solid season but the Twins well out of contention in the pennant chase, team owner Calvin Griffith decided to use advantage Tovar’s versatility for his own promotional purposes. Griffith outlined a plan that would have Tovar play one inning at each of the nine positions, including pitcher and catcher. Griffith decided that the Tovar “experiment” would take place on September 22 in a game against the Oakland A’s.

Tovar began the game as the Twins’ starting pitcher. In his one inning on the mound, Tovar allowed a walk and committed a balk, but permitted no hits or runs. He also struck out a fellow named Reggie Jackson.

In the second inning, Tovar became the Twins’ catcher. Donning oversized catching gear—including a chest protector that practically touched the ground—Tovar looked like a Little League player and drew laughs from fans and fellow players as he took his position behind the plate. Although he didn’t look the part of a catcher, Tovar handled the job flawlessly, committing no errors or passed balls while recording a putout.

Having handled the two toughest positions on the diamond, Tovar then proceeded to make his way around the infield and then the outfield. Tovar played brilliantly in displaying his versatility; he completed the game with five putouts, one assist, and no errors—his only miscue being the first-inning balk. As a bonus, Tovar had a productive game at the plate, collecting a hit, a run, and a stolen base in three at-bats.

Tovar’s willingness to take part in Griffith’s stunt typified a “happy-go-lucky” personality that made him popular with three of the game’s most important constituencies: the players, the media, and the fans. Tovar insisted that everyone call him “Pepi” or “Pepito,” a Spanish nickname that, when sounded out in English, exemplified his upbeat, energetic manner. He smiled perpetually, even if it meant revealing the large gap between two of his front teeth. As with most Latin American players of the era, Tovar faced limitations with the English language, but overcame them with his free spirit and his eagerness to communicate with the writers who covered his teams. Given his level of enthusiasm and articulation, Tovar became a beloved figure to the Minnesota media.

Tovar’s outgoing personality might have also contributed to a rather remarkable personal life. According to the wonderfully entertaining book by Mike Shropshire, Seasons in Hell, there was a rumor in baseball circles that Tovar had three different wives in three different countries by the time he joined the Texas Rangers in 1973. And just to make matters clear, Tovar was not a practicing Mormon.

Another one of Tovar’s unusual but less scandalous habits exemplified his caring nature. At the end of each season, Tovar would gather up as much equipment as he could. Rather than turn the equipment in to the team, Tovar would ship dozens of bats, balls, and gloves to his hometown in Caracas, Venezuela. Tovar usually told others that he wanted the equipment for his winter workouts, but in reality, he was hiding the truth; he was actually sending the equipment to underprivileged children in Caracas. If not for Tovar’s generosity, many of the youngsters in his native city would have been left without the equipment needed to play.

Sadly, this generous soul left us far too soon. Tovar died in 1994, a victim of pancreatic cancer at the age of 54. On the night that Tovar passed away, the Twins did not forget him. They announced his passing and a held a moment of silence for him at the Metrodome. Although never a star, he had succeeded in making plenty of friends in the Twin Cities from the mid-sixties through the early 1970s. And he made enough of an impression that Billy Martin brought him back for one last major league stint—and his 15 minutes in pinstripes.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver