• position: pitcher.
• batted / threw: switch / right.
• height: 173 cm.
• weight: 77 kg.
• born: December 17th, 1855.
• hometown: San Juan, Puerto Rico.
• Clarendon Warriors (Liga Novata Antillana): 1886.
• Montañeses de Utuado: 1886-
• Reverse Triple Crown winner
(Liga Hostos, 1887)
• Threw a no-hitter (July 7th, 1887)
In 1871, when General Rojas rang in the new year still menaced by Spanish troop ships off the coast of Arecibo, and the island of Culebra had finally been recaptured by the Insular forces, it was forgivable for a thirty-year-old man to consider baseball a viable second career.
If he knew the game at all, he would be playing it alongside and against the men with whom he had learned it, and even if he were unfamiliar, the pay (certainly not admirable in those days) was more than most of the league’s founding players got for bringing the various bounties of the island to usable form—sugarcane, coffee, plantains, avocados, lumber—and certainly more than they had received in the past two years from the Insular government, which by now hoped to secure their pay through the peace treaty with Spain.
However, fifteen years after the establishment of the Republic, which enjoyed a burgeoning presence as a free port (read: black market stop) on the Caribbean, it is difficult to divine why a man past his athletic peak would choose to desert whatever productive trade he had learned in order to pursue a sport which would most likely provide him with a few years of half-decent pay before his body was completely wrung out.
Now, it matters that Emilio Buitrón wanted to make his name as a pitcher. The 1880s saw the first class of viejotes (“very old men”), who not only started dozens of games for their ballclubs well into their early forties, but did so with remarkable skill. There was Carlos Rodrigues in Mayagüez and Celestino Rubio, “The Old Lion,” in Ceiba. Hormigueros and Aguas Buenas called upon the services of Jesús Rosales, and San Lorenzo saw the post-Corozal resurgence of Rafael Flores’ whiplike left arm.
There was no greater example than Antonio Santiago of Naguabo, the first man chosen in La Selección, whose quiet cunning and pinpoint command terrified the loudest bats of Liga Betances even after a decade.
Of course, Santiago and the other viejotes enjoyed significant advantages over someone who, like Buitrón, was attempting to start their career as a gently-used arm on the winter market. They had spent over a dozen seasons honing their abilities against the best available competition, and though some of them lost effectiveness due to injuries, new hitting philosophies, or simple biological entropy, the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña of the 19th century was dominated by men who cajoled soft contact out of hitters rather than powering past them for strikeouts.
The second major advantage they possessed is far more obvious: unlike Buitrón, they were good pitchers.
With all that in mind, what exactly possessed Buitrón to try his luck out as a professional baseball player, when he does not appear once in the fragmentary records of the amateur leagues that sprang up around the island in the 1880s, is a stupefying mystery.
But there he was, throwing the hardest fastball he could muster, for a few league executives and their guests from the Antilles. Buitrón had failed to make the board for the invernales, but now, his quiet demeanor—today he would probably be described as “coachable”—and ability to repeat a consistent pitching motion without injury had attracted the attention of league personnel standing up the Liga Novata Antillana.
A more focused predecessor of Albert Spalding’s World Tour, the new league was intended to showcase the sport throughout the Caribbean. Crucially, however, it had to do so without thinning the talent pool available for the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña. Untrained pitchers, far past usual rookie age and with zero chance of being signed by a major league team, were exactly the players they sought.
So suitable was Buitrón for this assignment, in fact that the reason we know anything of his Antillean League career is because, of the many untrained thirtysomethings who signed with him, one was so bafflingly similar that a quirk of Spanish orthography played a major role in differentiating them.
|height||173 cm (5'8")||173 cm (5'8")|
|weight||78 kg (172 lbs)||78 kg (172 lbs)|
|pitch mix||FB, SL, CH||FB, CH|
|first professional league||Liga Antillana||Liga Antillana|
|location of first professional team||Jamaica||Jamaica|
|first letter of first name||E||E|
|last two letters of first name||io||io|
|last six letters of surname||uitrón||uitrón|
The two men took the same ship to Jamaica, and according to Guitrón, spent most of the short journey in each other’s company, perhaps drawn together by this particularly precise cosmic joke. They rhapsodized about their favorite players, expressed their hopes for their beloved Metropolitanos and Vaqueros, and when all the more refined subjects were exhausted, apparently sat around comparing pitch grips.
Knowing they would go their separate ways when they arrived in Jamaica, Guitrón encouraged his taciturn younger doppelgänger to stay in touch, and they pledged to support each other and work towards two common goals.
The first was to pitch against each other in an Antillean league ballpark.
The second—and they both knew this was far less likely—was not just to prove themselves worthy of inclusion on a Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña roster, but to meet in the torneo, where their performance on the mound would have the highest possible stakes.
By the end of February 1886, both men would’ve been boarding with their clubs for one or two weeks. They had likely acquired some marginal English, and they nervously awaited the first spring campaign of their baseball careers, hoping not just to get a regular contract for the season, but to get a chance to prove themselves against each other.
Instead, on March 1st, both men received pats on the back; words of support quickly, if not unkindly, delivered; a little local currency; and the necessary paperwork to return them to Puerto Rico.
In typical baseball irony, being cut from the Antillean League only quickened the two men’s plans to play baseball on their home soil. They arrived in Puerto Rico by the middle of March, and took full advantage of the late spring market to secure surprisingly decent contracts from teams desperate to find working arms to round out their staffs.
Granted, teams that were willing to sign pitchers with zero experience in real game situations on April 7th—also known as the third day of the 1886 season—had to be in appropriately dire circumstances. This was indeed the case for both men, whose quest for the best offer available took them to each other’s home leagues: Guitrón, from Bayamón, considered too old and one-dimensional, settled for the armbarn in Moca, while Buitrón, on the strength of his developing changeup, found himself in the Utuado rotation.
The era in which they pitched makes comparing their rookie seasons that much more difficult. In 1886, teams used their fogones (lit. “ovens”) as emergency buttons, not load managers or dedicated specialists. It was simply impossible for any individual armbarner to have a large impact on his team’s success.
Guitrón, despite being used more than almost any reliever in Liga Betances, pitched one-sixth as many innings as his counterpart. These two men were not in the same galaxy as far as quantifiable contributions to their teams’ campaigns.
Still, it will shock precisely no one that two men who waited until they were thirty (or well past it) to begin pitching professionally, and who—again—had zero experience facing real opposing batters, did not have stellar debuts in the major leagues.
Despite these initial struggles—and the fact that, of course, both teams extremely missed the playoffs—neither man was cut from the roster. This is, to put it bluntly, incredible.
In the winter of 1886, reserve rosters were limited for the first time, with a standard size set at 15 players. This was meant to force teams that hoarded developing talent there (like the Capitanes, Brujos, Taínos, Poetas and Grises) to move those players to the active roster and give them serious playing time, or release them, which would enable them to test the open market and seek a team willing to turn them into a bona fide ballplayer.
Teams like the Rebeldes and Montañeses were meant to benefit from this arrangement, which ideally would provide an influx of talented youngsters with something to prove, or past-their-prime veterans who could grant productive stability. Instead the hoarder teams simply cut old or dead wood from active and reserve rosters, flooding the market with players that had basically no chance of being hired.
In other words, even though neither team was a hoarder, it was a perfect environment for cutting their losses and getting rid of these two, or at least moving them to the reserves and trying to find someone who could actually pitch on the winter market.
The cellar-dwelling Rebeldes were never going to do this. More disturbing is that the Montañeses, who had won their division as recently as 1884, seemed equally committed to wasting the considerable amount of talent they still had on the roster.
Both teams stuck with their substandard arms, although they forced them to sign for the league minimum. Guitrón would continue being a bad reliever, and nothing more.
In his sophomore season, however, Emilio Buitrón would reward the Montañeses with one of the most unique performances any pitcher had ever accomplished, in any year, for any team in the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña.
July 7th, 1887
Before we discuss this game, it’s important to note one thing: the same season Emilio Buitrón pitched it, he “won” the Reverse Triple Crown.
This “award,” born out of the strange sense of humor endemic to the Gaceta‘s archives, is given to a pitcher who leads his league in games lost and walks given up as well as having its worst earned run average. That is to say, by any quantifiable measure, Emilio Buitrón was the worst pitcher in the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña during the 1887 season. There is, in fact, a very strong case to be made that he was the worst starter ever deployed to that point in the league’s history.
|Emilio Buitrón, 1887||277.1||5||34||0||257||52||6.36||6.34||2.08||-7.3|
And yet, perhaps attracted by the perfection of the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year of the decade, some cosmic arrangement granted Emilio Buitrón a few hours of unexpected pitching competence.
It did not manifest immediately: Buitrón was thoroughly recognizable when he walked Cayey leadoff man Guillermo Sánchez, who promptly got himself gunned down at second base in a similarly surprising show of skill by Utuado’s normally quite perturbable catcher, Rafael Soto.
Four pitches later, Buitrón had engineered an easy cross-the-hall grounder and a popout to first for a scoreless opening frame, which, combined with his team’s early offensive prowess, put him in line for a win he sorely needed. Up to that point, Buitrón’s record was a truly wretched 2-23.
For anyone who had seen Buitrón pitch before, the 2nd inning must have been downright bewildering. Not only did he issue zero walks, not only did the ball fail to leave the infield during the entire frame, but it took him exactly three pitches to sit down the Toritos heartsmen. His bench, which must have been mystified, still struck for three more runs in the top of the third.
Here, with a sizable early lead, is where the center no longer held.
Against the bottom of the order, Buitrón’s usual performance reasserted itself. Parra reached on an error by the shortstop, and after Santiago flew out, became the ignominious victim of a second accurate Rafael Soto throw to second base, while Gilberto Hernández was at bat.
Four pitches later, Buitrón would commit one of the most egregious offenses against good baseball: he walked the opposing pitcher.
He continued to make things more difficult for himself when, still needing just one out, he hit Sánchez with his intended put-away pitch and walked Marín on a full count to load the bases, before Oscar Vega rolled one into the infield to allow Buitrón yet another escape.
In the 4th, with Torito first baseman David Martínez behind him via walk and successful sacrifice bunt, Buitrón somehow engineered a right-field-to-shortstop double play to keep Cayey at zero.
In the 5th, however, Diego Santiago, who had also made it to first via one-out walk, injected a little bit more normalcy into the universe when he broke for second and made it to third on an utterly predictable Rafael Soto throwing error. He scored on a groundout by pitcher Hernández, ruining Buitrón’s shutout but allowing him to retain a chance at an even greater accomplishment.
Buitrón got away with his third leadoff walk in six innings when Oscar Vega’s grounder didn’t quite pierce the right-side infield gap, rolling instead into a pretty double play that required only the addition of a flyout over shallow left to seal six winning frames for the league’s least-victorious pitcher. He was not only nine outs away from his third win of the season, but he’d barely broken a sweat on the mound.
Which was good, because he was about to perform his true magnum opus.
In the 7th, having clearly internalized that miracles would never cease, Buitrón yet again walked the first man he faced. Catcher Raúl Sánchez (no relation to Guillermo) then advanced into scoring position on a promising passed ball, but after bag Víctor Trevizo somehow managed to go down swinging and Parra flew out into right field, it certainly seemed as if the Toritos were about to get clowned on by a man who loved nothing more than stacking the pond with entirely unnecessary ducks.
Buitrón chose this moment, with one out left in the inning and the #8 and #9 hitters coming up, to turn back into a pumpkin.
First, he walked Santiago on four pitches.
Then, as the Cayey crowd watched in disbelief, for the second time in the game, he walked Gilberto Hernández—and let us remind you that Hernández, despite having some skill with the bat, was employed in this game as the opposing pitcher.
With the sacks full, the batting order turned over and Guillermo Sánchez came up to bat. Understandably, given that he’d already reached base in this game by walk and beanball, the Utuado battery opted to go for groundballs. So proficient was Buitrón at these that all four of his pitches sailed below the bottom edge of the strike zone and Sánchez trotted off to the first base with his second walk of the game, forcing in a run and granting the Toritos a cautious semblance of real hope.
Buitrón tried the same strategy against pinch hitter Jorge Correa, and although he did hit his spot this time, he could only seethe as his first pitch, which should’ve become an easy groundout to third, instead became an RBI reach when the third baseman’s rushed throw missed the opposite base by a meter.
Now thoroughly unnerved by watching two runs score on his last two pitches, Buitrón brought every ounce of control he could muster against new pincher Ramón Martínez.
Unfortunately, as we’ve already made clear, his control simply wasn’t very good.
It was a bigger surprise that Martínez incurred two strikes than the full-count walk he eventually drew, which meant Cayey had now forced in two runs in the last three at-bats.
By the time David Martínez ended the inning with a flare over shallow right-center, the Toritos had somehow managed to pull within one run. That proximity lasted only two-thirds of an inning before César Aguilar, who had come aboard via single and stolen second and advanced to third on error, came home on a Roberto Martínez sac fly, widening the gap back to two.
Despite giving up his second successive walk to Raúl Sánchez, the only troublesome play Buitrón had to deal with in the bottom of the 8th was an error that put two on with two out for José Flores, who before 1887 was the only man to have hit three home runs in one game, and who took three pitches to ground out to Jorge Pitti, the same second baseman whose error extended the inning in the first place.
Though most Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña pitchers completed the vast majority of their games, Gilberto Hernández only did so for about two-thirds of his 1887 starts. This time, it was fellow starter Édgar Idrogo, who had picked up a few relief stints now that his strikeout-heavy approach had hit some snags.
Despite allowing Fernando Muñoz to reach second via dropped ball and immediately steal third, Idrogo kept the Toritos deficit at just two by flying out the next batter and issuing a one-out intentional walk to Luis Vélez—which, in retrospect, the Montañeses should’ve probably seen as the ideal setup for Faro Guadalupe to ground into a textbook around-the-horn double play.
Now considerably harder-ridden, Buitrón returned to the mound for the 9th. He fell behind 2-0 against Guillermo Sánchez, before rushing so haphazardly to cover first that he dropped the throw.
After retiring Villagraña, who had come in as a defensive substitution in the seventh, on an easy arc into left field, he again dropped a comebacker from Aguilar, putting two on with just one out, and after having consistently beaten David Martínez all day, he finally, on this last at-bat, gave him the gift of first base for free, loading the bases with—again—just one out.
Absolutely no one, not even Buitrón himself, was surprised when his next groundball pitch—a 2-1 changeup to Raúl Sánchez—became an RBI reach when his shortstop committed yet another dereliction of duty. With the bases loaded and just one out, Buitrón’s fielders and his own lack of command had again pulled Cayey within one run.
The tying and go-ahead runs were in scoring position. Any ball in play, with the role that speed and pure gumption played in 1887 baseball, would almost certainly lose Utuado the game.
Buitrón gathered himself. Against Aldecoa, he threw his changeup down and in, jamming the hitter up enough that he petered the ball out in front of the plate, letting Soto cut the tying run down at home but leaving the bases still drunk with one out away and a one-run lead.
Bereft of any further pinch hitters, the Cayey benches could only watch as notoriously lightweight bat Elías Parra came to the plate and took one of the few pitches Buitrón had definitely put in the zone through the entire afternoon.
Smarting, perhaps, Parra responded by getting completely ahold of the next one. It thundered down the right field line, seemingly headed for the kind of carom off the fence that won so many ballgames in those days, until a tricky wind caught it just long enough for Pajarito Martínez, the Utuado right fielder, to get sure footing underneath it.
It dropped into his hands like a whisper, followed by a giant explosion of cheers as Rafael Soto charged the mound to embrace his battery-mate and lift him up on his shoulders.
Buitrón had just done the impossible.
Not throw a no-hitter: that had happened, literally, 56 times before he took the mound that day.
His feat was to throw a no-hitter while being Emilio Buitrón.
what the hell was that?
If you’re satisfied with the above story, you can stop here. Emilio Buitrón was a truly atrocious pitcher who nonetheless managed to throw a no-hitter, and we can all be happy with that.
We gaceteros, however, have a higher duty here, and that is to point out that this no-hitter is probably the most anomalous one of its era—and that includes the one José Rivera managed to lose against the Reyes.
Some charts for you to peruse, with explanations below each. Don’t worry about trying to find this no-hitter: look at the 1887 column, and trust us, you’ll know where it is.
While 100+ pitches might seem a little much to modern eyes, in the 1870s and 1880s they were fairly routine outings for starters—and most no-hitters fell well short of that. Buitrón’s came in at 150 pitches, the most ever thrown in a no-no.
While we don’t have official line scores for the first two no-hitters thrown, it’s safe to assume that a pitcher on such a good day would give up few free passes to first base. Then there’s Buitrón, who allowed 13 walks, nearly tripling the next nearest count.
Game score is a fairly silly measure of a pitcher’s overall performance, but it’s somewhat dispositive here: a no-hitter typically involves such pitching mastery that it guarantees you a score in the low eighties at the very least. If you’re Emilio Buitrón, however, you’re expected to be satisfied with a 65, the lowest any no-hitter of this era would receive by far.
On top of being an extremely weird no-hitter, it was also an extremely weird Emilio Buitrón start, including in ways we really weren’t expecting to see. Some more charts, this time with this game, start #28, highlighted in pink:
Obviously, Buitrón had to get through all nine innings to finish a no-hitter. For most other 19th-century starters, this wasn’t a big deal—they routinely completed 80 to 90 percent of their assignments—but as you can see here, Buitrón, who took 20 starts to achieve his first complete game, would only repeat that feat four more times throughout the season.
The biggest single reason for Buitrón’s short outings, as you might have sussed out from our earlier discussion, is that he simply could not stop walking batters. The fact that he gave up 13 walks in a game he not only won, but during which he didn’t give up a single solitary hit, is ridiculous.
The fact that that was the walk-happiest performance of his entire season is beyond parody.
While we don’t think this would’ve made much of a difference—an ERA of 6.36 would be garbage now, let alone then—it’s also worth noting that Buitrón was pitching around one of Liga Hostos’ most horrid defenses. Utuado’s fielders, especially catcher Rafael Soto, regularly extended his outings by botching routine plays that brought those walked batters home.
In fact, despite those 13 walks, not a single run Buitrón gave up in his Cayey game was earned. He would’ve had his only shutout of the season, as well as a no-hitter, if not for the dingbats behind and opposite him.
If you really want to see how funny this game was in a single number, though, we have to go back to game score. Not only was his 65 a low score for a no-hitter, it was such a weak performance that it wasn’t even his highest-scoring game of the season.
This isn’t that rare an event. In the 1880s, before this stat even existed, pitchers usually did their “best games” by pitching well into extra innings, often because of a nonexistent armbarn or simply legendary stamina. A no-hitter was often a particularly dominant pitcher’s second- or third-best game of the season.
But as we’ve already established, for Buitrón, making it into the seventh, let alone the ninth, was an achievement all its own. The fact that, in a season littered with execrable performances, he managed one of the greatest feats known to baseball—and it technically wasn’t even the best game he pitched that year—is exactly why we’re writing this article.
When Rafael Soto charged the mound, he wasn’t celebrating a no-hitter. He was celebrating the fact that, as the worst defensive catcher in league history, catching for the worst starting pitcher in league history, they’d won a game. By the smallest particle of the skin of their teeth, but they’d won a game together.
In fact, had Jesús Macías, the Toritos manager, not been quite so angry when the gaceteros caught up with him, the achievement would’ve probably remained invisible until a later generation found the box score in the archives.
Asked what he thought of Buitrón’s atypical performance, and despite the fact that his team had had both the tying and winning runs on base when Parra flew out, Macías snapped, unaware that his error would seal this game in history:
“The Montañeses had all the hits and all the runs, so they won.”
— Jesús Macías, manager, Toritos de Cayey.