Monday, December 20, 2010

Bobby Avila: Star of the Indians

This weekend I spoke with my mom about the passing of Bob Feller, which I wrote about Friday. In our discussion I mentioned my teddy bears which had been named after the Cleveland Indians starting rotation, a fact of my personal history which I have repeated for many decades. She wasn't so sure. She remembered Feller, Lemon and Garcia, the three bears named after Indian pitchers. But she believed the fourth, a reddish teddy bear, was called Avila, named after her favorite player, the star infielder from Mexico.

Garcia, by the way, was a huge teddy bear. I remember one time years later finding that my parents had him stored in the attic still, leaning against the chimney under the eaves. Because Lemon and Feller were my favorites, they got pretty much "used up" and worn out. But Avila I had forgotten about.

I never forgot the ballplayer, though. He was my Mom's favorite player hands down. And pretty much forgotten today, even though in 1954 he was the American League's leading hitter. Indians manager Hank Greenberg, himself no slouch with a bat, said of Avila, "He has that extra something that makes a great hitter. Call it the competitive instinct.... He's always fighting the pitcher, never choking up, and never giving an inch.... In a tough spot, I'm always glad to see Bobby coming to the plate."

Avila was the first Major League ballplayer to come straight out of Mexico into the Majors. But baseball was not Avila's first professional sport. Like most boys in Mexico he was a skilled soccer player, and unlike most he signed his first professional soccer contract at age 14. The deft footwork of his soccer experience was demonstrated in the way in which he moved as a second baseman.

It was both his glove and his bat that got him elected to the All-Star team in 1952, '54 and '55. In 1954 he took the American League batting title with a .341 average. For a second baseman, that's a pretty good stick.

Avila was not greatly feared as a home run slugger. (He hit a respectable 80.) Yet of his 15 homers in 1954, 13 came in clutch situations that either won or tied important games, and a grand slam against the Tiger during the stretch was instrumental in helping the Indians win the pennant that year.

Having lived in Mexico for a year, I was familiar with Avila's hometown of Vera Cruz, and the passion for soccer that begins shortly after kids learn to walk. We ourselves lived outside Monterrey, which is home to many museums and parks. One museum of which I was not aware, was the Baseball Hall of Fame (Solon de la Fama). Susie and I were strolling in a picturesque part of town when the building caught my eye. Inside many memories were stirred, as baseball had once been my first love.

Here I discovered Mexico's contribution to Major League Baseball, and the pride they experienced by this association, enshrining their many stars, the first of these being my mother's hero as well. The two photos on this page were taken that afternoon.

Bobby Avila passed away in 2004, in Vera Cruz, the town where he was born and to which he returned. Viva Avila.

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