"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Zoilo Versalles was "in the arena" as shortstop

I first saw this Zoilo Versalles baseball card when my classmate Rick Van Horn showed it to me. The cards could be like rare gems. How exciting compared to our routine schoolwork! We attended East Elementary in Morris MN.
Zoilo Versalles was the leadoff batter in the first-ever Minnesota Twins home opener. Most of us can't imagine a time when there were no Minnesota Twins. Or Vikings. I was six years old when the transformation happened. It was on Friday, April 21, 1961, when the significant new chapter opened. Versalles was the shortstop. Don Mincher was at first, Billy Gardner played second and Reno Bertoia was at third.
"There is something about an Opening Day that puts a stamp of legitimacy on a big town," Joe Soucheray wrote in a reflective piece years later.
It was as if we got "plugged into the national circuitry," Soucheray continued, "as though we had just achieved telephone service or a first television set."
Versalles was the first Twin to have his name announced as batter, on that day of gala bunting and festivity at "the Met." The Twins had vacated Washington D.C. at the end of the previous season. Soucheray reported that the weather was clear at game-time, sunny and 63 degrees.
We must add that no mania had taken hold. Perhaps many Minnesotans didn't quite know what to make of this attraction. They were used to getting excited over the U of M Gophers, especially the football team. The fan turnout was 24,606. The Twins lost 5-3 to the "new" Washington Senators. Wind built up from the west, which Soucheray said aided the home runs off the bats of Mincher and Lenny Green. The obscure Pete Whisenant, pinch-hitter, struck out on three pitches from Dave Sisler with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. Fans were treated to those anxious moments of possibility at the end. It was a prelude to much more excitement.
Versalles would be at the fore of that excitement. Typical of supremely talented people, Versalles' story would end up a mixture of triumph and tragedy. Also typical of such people, he "entered the arena" and accepted the highs and lows, the exhilaration and heartbreak, that comes with competition at the highest level, where countless eyes are trained on you.
As sports heroes go, Versalles was not a big man: five feet ten and 160 pounds. He used that frame to amaze in 1965. He led the American League in total bases, doubles and runs scored. He won the Gold Glove as shortstop, showing considerable range with his cat-like reflexes. He was No. 3 in the A.L. in stolen bases.
My APBA (simulation game) baseball cards reported that his nickname was "Zorro." Cute, however I don't recall broadcasters ever using this nickname. It was new to me when I first saw a reference to it.
"Zorro" won that MVP honor amidst debate about whether Tony Oliva should have gotten it instead. Oliva won the batting title. How those Cuban players thrilled us.
Versalles was born in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. He didn't adapt well to the U.S. The language barrier was a problem, we learn, and he experienced homesickness. He had psychological quirks that I might suggest are associated with those supremely talented people. He had an unusual fear of failure. And yet as he came up through the minors, he got a reputation as someone so supremely confident, he had trouble taking instruction.
Coaches did recognize the talent. Zoilo's fielding could be both brilliant and erratic. His errors sometimes happened with disturbing frequency. We might assume he made errors on balls that other infielders couldn't get to. It was hitting that kept him in the big leagues while he developed further.
The young Twins infielders like Versalles were the reason the team obtained Vic Power for the 1962 season. Power was a tremendous and flashy first baseman who could handle errant throws. We might forget that Power upstaged many of his fellow Twins in '62 - he was more than just stabilizing. We finished in second place in '62 as we challenged the Yankees who had baseball god Mickey Mantle. Indeed, the Minneapolis Millers days were long gone. Pinocchio had become a real boy.
Versalles played 160 games in 1962 and hit 17 home runs. He led the league in assists with 501. He even got a smattering of MVP votes.
In 1963 we saw Versalles up his batting average to .261, and he led the league in triples with 13. He was voted to his first all-star team. He started in the July 9 All-Star Game - he singled and was hit by pitch in two plate appearances.
Zoilo continued having some problems with errors in '63. Of course, his position of shortstop subjected him to lots of work handling balls. He made five errors in a July 5, 1963, doubleheader against Baltimore! However, his competence was affirmed totally by winning the A.L. Gold Glove. Again, he was "in the arena." Such a player isn't going to agonize over having a "bad day" like in that doubleheader. These guys come back renewed the next day.
Versalles went on and on until physical difficulties caught up to him. In July of 1966 the talented man was treated for a hematoma in his back. This led to a lifelong condition.
In 1964, Versalles was still on the way up and he thrilled us Minnesotans with 20 home runs, 64 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. He topped the league in triples with ten.
Talent at its apex in 1965
In '65 the stars all got aligned for this fascinating Cuban fellow. Billy Martin had sort of taken Versalles under his wing. Under intense tutelage, we saw "Zorro" at his best, never mind I never heard that nickname.
Versalles' MVP season of '65 was that glorious time when the Twins knocked the full-of-themselves Yankees off their perch and won the pennant. It was just the Twins' fifth season. Most of us were mesmerized. There is always an element of the population that stays sober about sports. My sixth grade teacher at East Elementary in Morris was one. I won't type her name here. She's deceased. Any time a member of the class wanted to bring up sports as news, she totally sniffed as if she had been insulted personally.
"It's just money-making," she'd say. I remember the look on Dean Anderson's face one day when she said this. There are always sticks in the mud amongst us. However, I think that by the time the 1994 baseball strike was over, I wasn't so averse to her thinking anymore.
Back in '65 we didn't want to think that money had anything to do with it. We would have resented any talk of money. It was all about the sheer exhilaration of seeing our still-new Twins overcome those heralded Yankees from Gotham. Roger Angell wrote about us in a rather condescending way, suggesting that maybe a lot of us were rubes. I recall him describing the atmosphere around our Met Stadium as being "like a big family wedding." Well OK then. He also seemed to assume we were going to lose Game 7 against the Dodgers. I guess Sandy Koufax was just that good.
I'll remind you that Koufax became a great pitcher partly if not largely because umpires starting calling the high fastball a strike. David Halberstam reported about this in a book. The game began to favor pitching in a way that climaxed in 1968. After that, adjustments were made.
Versalles and his Twins mates couldn't repeat the magic in 1966. All the big names were still here. But it was like air going out of a balloon. Maybe it was because owner Calvin Griffith couldn't open up his wallet well enough after the pennant-winning season. He did have that reputation.
Versalles did get a raise to $40,000 annually. That's right, I'm saying a raise to $40,000, not a raise of $40,000. Unbelievable! That was a decent professional salary at that time, but not the kind of windfall all major leaguers get today, where they can be independently wealthy.
Versalles declined to a .249 average in '66. We still saw signs of those magical early Twins years like on June 9, when, against Kansas City (the Athletics, not the Royals), Versalles was one of five Twins to hit home runs in the seventh inning. Harmon Killebrew joined "Zorro" in that parade. So did Mincher, Oliva and Rich Rollins. We did finish in second place in '66 but we were nine games behind the Orioles.
His Twins days conclude
Versalles was traded to the Dodgers with "Mudcat" Grant in November of 1967. In exchange we got relief pitchers Bob Miller and Ron Perranoski and catcher John Roseboro.
Versalles struggled in Los Angeles. He got exposed to the 1968 expansion draft. He was chosen by San Diego but never played for them. Instead he got signed by Cleveland. In July of '69 he was purchased by the Senators. He managed to hit .267 in limited action and got invited back for spring training in 1970. But he got released on April 6. He played for a time in the Mexican League. He then got another shot in the majors, with Atlanta, but the glory days were clearly over. He played 66 games in 1972.
Zoilo finished his playing career with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan.
We can remember that during his five-year peak in Minnesota, Zoilo led all American League shortstops with 73 home runs. We remember that Zoilo did fine in our '65 World Series, batting .286 with a home run. We can remember that somewhat inauspicious day back in 1961, before only 24,606 fans at the Met, when Versalles brought his lumber to the plate as the first-ever Twins batter at home. (We had won the season opener 6-0 at New York.)
After that April 21 of 1961, Minnesotans were guaranteed-not-to-tarnish major leaguers, getting attention throughout the U.S. in the daily newspapers. We'd be listed in the standings everywhere. We were "plugged into the national circuitry," as "Sooch" wrote. (Does anyone besides me remember when Joe went through his "hippie phase," at least in terms of appearance?)
Versalles had a sad retirement. He had never mastered speaking English. His back injury remained a hindrance. He relied on disability and Social Security payments at the end. He was found dead in his home in Bloomington on July 11, 1995, of unknown causes. I'm pleased to learn he was survived by six daughters and several grandchildren. That's the best kind of legacy, right?
Zoilo was elected to the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame in 2006.
Zoilo Versalles, RIP. I hope you're "going into the hole" to cut off would-be hits, in heaven.
I have the name "Zoilo" in a song I wrote that is on YouTube. The song is "The Ballad of Harmon Killebrew." I cover the whole infield. I invite you to listen by clicking on the link below. Thanks so much for visiting my site.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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