July 29, Félix Mantilla turns 81

Photo from milwaukeebraves.info

Photo from milwaukeebraves.info

With proximity to some of the best players of the 1950s, Félix Mantilla played 11 years of Major League baseball. His first six years in Milwaukee introduced him to Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn and Red Schoendienst. Underratedly , Bobby Thompson also joined the Braves for their 1957 World Series Chapmionship.

But of all the names on the team that beat out the Yankees in Game 7, one knew Mantilla better than the rest. That player, Hank Aaron, roomed with Mantilla as teenagers who just joined the Braves’ farm system.

Born in Puerto Rico, he signed with the Boston Braves in 1952. Just before the 1953 season started, the National League unanimously voted to allow the team into Milwaukee.

Mantilla’s 160-pound frame landed him in the middle infield. When the Jacksonville Braves switched Major-League affiliates in 1953, Mantilla and Aaron started up the middle. But as Charlie Vascaerllaro’s book describes, they joined Horace Garner, Junior Reedy and Al Isreal as the first five black players to integrate the, “fifty-year history of the South Atlantic League.”

The Minors moved much slower to integrate than the Major League. Instead, big league teams dipped into the Negro Leagues to bring black talent to their squads. But nobody at the in the Minors (or Majors, for that matter) could Aaron’s bat. He skipped over AAA baseball. By the time Mantilla and Aaron joined the Braves in Milwaukee, the color barrier hardly existed anymore.

Read the anecdote from Vascerllaro’s book on page 38. To summarize, Aaron, Garner and Mantilla responded about as well as you could to ignorant remarks from a 1953 Minor League fan.

For a summer or two of Puerto Rican winter baseball (a safe hideout from American segregation) Mantilla and Aaron played together under manager Mickey Owen. Allegedly, Owen turned Aaron into an outfielder.

Eventually, Hank and Felix got the call to the Majors, bringing Milwaukee its first championship. Mantilla only got 200 plate appearances that season behind All-Star Johnny Logan. Aaron, who ascended to the Braves in 1954, batted .322 with 44 RBI.

Only once did Felix enjoy a nearly-full season of MLB action. In his 1965 All-Star year with Boston, he batted .275.

Listen to Mantilla, still a big deal in the Milwaukee area, talk about his time with the Braves here. Interesting stuff.

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