The fact that Espártaco de la Guila had a baseball career at all—let alone one where his name was called on the first day of La Selección, in the same round as luminaries like Felipe Villicana, Polideuco Ocampo, Oscar Rendón, or Zabulón Matías—is a testament to the triumph of the Revolution.
First and foremost, because Espártaco de la Guila was not born free, nor was he even born answering to “Espártaco.” Hubris may be one of the many sins of the slaveholding class, but even the most classically-minded among them strenuously avoided calling any of the men they owned by a name so redolent of rebellion—which is exactly why, as every historian of the late 19th-century Republic knows, it exploded in popularity among Black Puerto Rican men who, for the first time, were allowed to choose to what name they answered, and to whom.
De la Guila’s surname is equally easy to explain. Given the opportunity to craft a new name, he had selected del Águila as a suitably grandiose second barrel. Unfortunately, whichever clerk of the Insular Forces took down his information for the regimental roll had received a less-than-thorough grounding in the principles of Spanish orthography, and so butchered the spacing. Supposedly, by his playing days, de la Guila had come to appreciate the erroneous, if more unique, spelling.
Second, because de la Guila, at thirty-six, was significantly older than most of his future teammates and opponents, and for many ballplayers, their official age only told the first chapter of the story. Though the owners of sugar and coffee plantations in Puerto Rico had only just begun to industrialize their processes by the time the Republic was officially extant, that did not make the work any less arduous on the enslaved men and women who did much of it, and it only magnified the toll it exacted from their bodies. De la Guila was fortunate enough to still have the arm on which his career would rest, but, characteristically dissatisfied with being simply whole, he garnered a reputation in the Insular Forces for feats of legendary endurance—a particularly impressive feat considering how many of his fellow soldiers had also led lives marked by privation.
The 2,028 men who signed Selección contracts came from 76 of the island’s 78 post-Republic municipalities (though Barranquitas and Maricao would join the parade in due time) and an even broader variety of personal loyalties and owed favors, many of which won a young cousin or an old sergeant a late-round selection.
No surprises here: though nearly every team’s general manager took a gamble on a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old who’d picked up the game watching the local regiment play, the vast majority of their rosters were made out of dependable men in their twenties and thirties.
Most famously, de la Guila was one of the three survivors of the Pelotón Tragao, a group of volunteer soldiers who went days without food, medical treatment, or company as they covered the escape of the Batallón Eleuterio Gómez after the Reversal at Comerío. The valiant effort saved nearly a hundred lives and gained all three men señalamientos; in de la Guila’s case, it vouchsafed him a promotion to Sergeant and, after recovering at El Recóndito in Culebra, an appointment to its guard, where the relative safety apparently so bored him that he learned to read and write in order to pass the time: though he was listed as analfabeto in the Informe general of 1870, his Selección contract a few months later bore his full name, signed in his own hand.
Third, because de la Guila, like many other men and women of Puerto Rico, did not wait for the Revolution to come to him. When the Insular Government’s founding promise of final and total abolition reached the ears of the thousands of men and women still enslaved in Puerto Rico, many of them listened. When Francisco Ramírez Medina declared that “every man, woman and child born within our liberated precincts is free and equal since being born,” more than a few gathered friends and arms to await the proper opportunity.
Unwittingly, it was the Spaniards who provided that moment, when they chose to regroup in the east of the island. There, with plentiful men and supplies, they found it easy to crush the few uprisings that did arise. In the north of the island, however, where most soldiers had either gone east to reinforce San Juan or west to bolster the forces at Aguadilla, the local landowners had been left almost defenseless, and the maceteros took advantage.
Despite a near-total lack of support—the Insular Government did not even bother to send a representative to Vega Alta until its troops had already brought it into Republic territory—they attacked overseers, destroyed machinery, burned manor houses, and generally made themselves enough of a nuisance to encourage the manumission the Insular Government had hoped landowners would enact voluntarily. De la Guila never spoke of his activities in this regard. He seems to have avoided the town of Vega Alta altogether: when he trained pitchers for Río Grande and Hormigueros, he refused to travel with the team for road games there.
This may seem a particularly long introduction, but given the trajectory of de la Guila’s career, it is especially important to understand how he had spent the years before his baseball career began.
Despite being selected in the fifth round, which provided plenty of serviceable starters across the Liga Nacional, de la Guila did not pitch a game in 1871. It is unknown how he spent the time. Naranjito finished 20-18, but in their division, a mere game above .500 did not get you to the torneo.
In 1872, however, intrigued by the possibilities of the doble ciclo, Naranjito manager Horacio Martín gave the mound to de la Guila on April 4th, 1872, against Florida. He needed a second starter, de la Guila had apparently learned to throw six different ways while in Culebra, and a man with his outlandish stamina could be expected to finish what he started. After all, he had already proven quite efficient in the season opener, where he shut down Guayama on four pitches after entering with men on base to keep the game within reach.
In short, it was a defensible decision, at least until the game began.
Espártaco de la Guila, 4/4/1872:
7.0 IP, 15 H, 6 R / 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 126 pitches / 86 strikes.
De la Guila had flashed enough brilliance that his inauspicious debut would not cost him his roster spot, but he had not achieved the one thing Martín needed from him: a complete game. For the second game in a row, and as early as the second game of the season, Naranjito had needed three pitchers to get through a contest. In an era where games were rarely, if ever, won from the pen, this was a problem.
More dismally, it was a recurring theme. Left without a truly dependable moundsman by a front office unwilling to spend premium money when they had four arms under contract, Martín made do with what he aptly termed el carrusel, from the way nearly every game saw nearly every pitcher warm up for the Brillantes. That, and a bottom-third defense, ensured they would end the season at 33-43, well below .500 and in third place—but only a game and a half back from Corozal.
Cataño native Celso Herrera had started the majority of games in 1871. It had not gone well, which is why Martín was willing to change the whole carriage.
Naranjito’s ace hopes were now pinned on Pablo Nazario, whose phlegmatic personality and groundball pitching earned him the nickname of “El Resfriado.”
Due to his uninspiring two-pitch arsenal, Eneas Bahena, inexplicably known as “Enriquito,” would not be activated until August. He would go on to become one of the few dedicated relief pitchers of the 1870s.
In de la Guila’s case, given his tendency to walk or plunk batters onto first, this combination of circumstances was an odd gift: even if he instigated or prolonged many of the jams in which he ended up, it was his fielders whose butcheries resulted in runs. Not that he ever dodged responsibility for a bad start: Martín later said he never heard de la Guila lose his temper with a teammate, and that, in fact, he often insisted on finishing losing efforts to save other arms for winnable games.
Espártaco de la Guila, 1872:
328.0 IP, 51 G (39 GS)
16 W, 23 L, 19 CG (48.7%), 29 QS (74.4%)
38 K, 25 BB, 18 HR
2.63 ERA (112 ERA+) / 3.67 FIP (120 FIP-) / 1.33 WHIP
That honesty earned him the respect of those few teammates who were not already awed by the presence of a macetero among their ranks. So did the effort he put forward at the plate, swinging so hard that he was sat down a league-leading 17 times, and yet showing enough plate discipline that he drew two walks with the bases loaded.
It is difficult to imagine de la Guila needing respect from men who, almost by default, had spent the last few years in more comfort than him, but he likely appreciated it.
De la Guila pitched in 51 games in 1872, though only 20.1 innings of that was in relief. His 2.63 ERA on the season was quite respectable, about 12% above league average for the season—but significantly buoyed by the (lack of) fielding talent among his teammates.
Second verse, as stark as the first: many of de la Guila’s losses were caused by unearned runs, which often accounted for 4-5 scores above the ones he directly caused. True aces of the time were capable of pitching their way out of these jams, but de la Guila had neither the command nor the defense to achieve that.
Wins are in blue, losses in red. Due to the every-other-day schedule in 1872, de la Guila usually went four days between starts—but as this chart shows, he was sometimes asked to start multiple games in a row, and that does not include games where he relieved a starter. It’s a wonder he completed even half of them.
Wins still in blue, losses in red. Game score is an imperfect metric in many ways, but in this era, when even bad pitchers often finished their own games, it makes more sense as an analytical tool. De la Guila could throw a good game, but most of these are stinkers, even accounting for the failures he didn’t commit.
18 home runs allowed led the league; running up was the Arzos‘ Antonio Alvarado, with 13. There are good stretches of work here (notably, de la Guila won those four last starts where he did not allow a roundtripper), but of the six home runs he allowed in late July and August, five gave the opposing team the lead, and three were grand slams.
Even in 1872, it was an open question how brilliant a 38-year-old could be as a pitcher. No teammate, no matter how disappointed at missing the torneo, would have denied that Martín and de la Guila had done their best—at least, not to the latter’s face, not when legends of him walking into the Torre de San Blas covered in several days of beard, blood and branches still passed around veterans’ clubs.
Partly, that was because the 1872 edition of El Colorido just wasn’t a very good team, as their play had more than proved. Naranjito had plenty of speedy players—they were second in stolen bases only to the Tortugas—but their offensive prowess was otherwise so lacking that it suggests their wheels were most useful to take advantage of other teams’ defensive miscues.
It was also because these men were baseball players, and as strange as that made them in the Puerto Rico of the 1870s, they were just as prone as other men to thinking their luck would turn.
Then 1873 arrived.
In April of 1873, Naranjito rolled out Herrera and Nazario as an extremely sensible starting rotation. Both had shown they could handle the workload, and Nazario in particular just needed some polish to become a bona fide staff ace. With Bahena and de la Guila as a relatively well-stocked bullpen, if Herrera just gave them league-average work, they would have no trouble improving on their previous season.
Unfortunately for that plan, Celso Herrera was a 40-year-old man whose arm was no longer in sporting condition. He would retire after the season, and after a quiet 1874, served a few years as pitching coach for the Metropolitanos before becoming the most celebrated pitching coach of the Leopardos de Santa Clara in Cuba, who won thirteen Torneo del Oriente pennants in a row and turned eight of them into national titles.
Celso Herrera, 1873 ( 4/9 – 4/29 ):
42.2 IP, 7 G (6 GS)
3 W, 1 L, 2 CG (33.3%), 3 QS (50.0%)
3 K, 7 BB, 5 HR
4.22 ERA (73 ERA+) / 5.03 FIP (162 FIP-) / 1.55 WHIP
Now that his dependable veteran had developed a tendency to give up longballs, Horacio Martín found himself, again, with 38 games that needed a starter. He made, as he tended to make, the most sensical decision under the circumstances.
May 3rd (Carolina)
Two days ago, at home, de la Guila relieved Bahena with a Macabeo on base and two outs, finished the inning, and then proceeded to get the last six outs of the game, allowing only two hits and throwing an impressive 18 strikes of 26 total pitches. Six of the seven outs may have been fly balls, which were rather worrisome in the 1870s, but to the Naranjito benches, any out is a good out.
That’s certainly Martín’s reasoning as he gives de la Guila the next start. The outfielders have been told to expect rain, and with light-hitting center fielder Acón Meza up first, de la Guila figures he can take the first at-bat to loosen up. He chooses to lead with his best pitch, his forkball, and signals to catcher Gustavo Santos, who agrees.
A few seconds later, Meza sends the ball 110 meters away, well over the left field line. It’s the only home run he will hit in his six-season career. One pitch in, the score is Carolina 1, Naranjito 0.
With his usual sangfroid, de la Guila hunkers down and works his way through the rest of the inning. His teammates pick him up in the third when his own centerfielder, Atanasio Castillo, ties the game on a dropped ball. Carolina 1, Naranjito 1.
That equalizer doesn’t last long. Arasibo “El Divino” Carrillo, Carolina’s RBI machine, grounds out to let a teammate scamper home, and two batters later, left fielder Sergio García doubles the Tumbabrazos’ score with a shot over his own corner. Two months from now, he’ll hit another dinger off de la Guila, that time farther and in left-center. Carolina 4, Naranjito 1.
De la Guila gets a chance to redeem himself in the next half—and does so by lancing a beauty of a two-run single that rolls into the left-field gap. He tacks on the game-tying score when shortstop Mateo Gómez fouls off four pitches before ripping a single over the opposing shortstop’s head into center field, and a missed throw lets him score. Carolina 4, Naranjito 4.
In the fifth, Carolina uses a couple productive outs and a García at-bat to once again take the lead—but this time, Naranjito’s top of the order shows up for work, until second baseman Natalino Torres, whose four-hit games have often gone to waste with de la Guila on the mound, uncharacteristically screws up by trying for third. Nonetheless . . . Naranjito 8, Carolina 5.
Given a chance to answer, Carolina’s Mercuriano Garza blasts a 1-2 fastball into left field to cut the lead down to one, and after Meza appropriately grounds out, it’s El Divino Carrillo who ends de la Guila’s outing, with a deep-right-field home run that would’ve given Carolina the lead, had Aluino Bernal not gotten caught trying for second base a pitch ago. It’s Carrillo’s second home run off de la Guila: two months from now, in the rematch between the two teams, he’ll hit an absolute moonshot to make de la Guila’s first inning that much more painful. Naranjito 8, Carolina 8.
Nazario, in relief, throws one pitch to end the inning. In the next one, now into the Carolina bullpen, Santos reaches on error and gets singled and bunted to third—from where Gómez drives him home, and would’ve even given the Brillantes a cushion if not for Sergio García’s arm.
Eneas Bahena takes the mound in the seventh and proceeds to maneuver his way through three tightrope innings, flying out seven straight before two singles put a runner in scoring position—whom he promptly extinguishes via pop-up.
Naranjito 9, Carolina 8.
Celso Herrera had retired under the humiliation of giving up five home runs in a month. Espártaco de la Guila, clearly made of sterner stuff, had given up four home runs in under six innings . . . and there was no lesson to be learned, because they had won the game regardless. Martín must have been flummoxed.
Twenty days later, he perhaps felt a little less confused.
May 23rd (Guánica)
Just under two weeks ago, de la Guila gave up the fourth grand slam of his career to one of the worst first basemen in the league. It clearly hasn’t shaken his confidence, but by the time he makes his first expensive mistake to catcher Sebastián Cáceres, his teammates have already shored up his performance. Naranjito 3, Guánica 2.
Two innings later, trying to whiff pitcher Narciso Maldonado, de la Guila goes to his devastating forkball—and Maldonado, somehow, cracks it all the way into left field and beyond. Luckily, Torres and Santos had widened the cushion this time. Naranjito 5, Guánica 4.
The very next inning, de la Guila gets Aldo Salgado into the hole and, once again, opts for that forkball. The beautiful arc Salgado responds with ties the game, and a later throwing error grants the Amigos the lead. Guánica 6, Naranjito 5.
The inning after that, after the Naranjito lineup scratched out two runs to take the lead, Hansel García hits his only home run until 1878. It’s particularly galling for de la Guila, since the pitch landed on the right side of the wall—but his outfielders were, apparently, too busy watching the local wildlife to notice. That, and a double from Salgado, end de la Guila’s outing. Guánica 7, Naranjito 7.
Nazario finishes the sixth, the seventh and the eighth before handing the ninth over to Bahena, who gets his first two outs in short order before an error and a double tie the game. As the only available arm, he’ll be the one to give up a walk-off single to Laertes Osorio in the twelfth.
Guánica 13, Naranjito 12.
These were two especially bad games. Two eerily similar especially bad games.
|5/3 @ CAR||5/23 @ GUC|
|R / ER||8 / 6||7 / 5|
|PI / PS||92 / 62||83 / 59|
On the one hand, the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña of the 1870s was not interested in posterity, and home runs were so rare that some early umpires had to be reminded that they existed. On the other, it would be nothing short of appalling if this was not the record for home runs allowed in a single game—and de la Guila had now done it twice in less than a month.
Unfortunately for Martín, Nazario, Bahena, Herrera and the rest of the Naranjito men, the rest of his year was not much more encouraging.
Espártaco de la Guila, 1873:
199.2 IP, 43 G (32 GS)
5 W, 17 L, 2 CG (6.2%), 5 QS (15.6%)
13 K, 22 BB, 48 HR
5.99 ERA (52 ERA+) / 6.35 FIP (205 FIP-) / 1.72 WHIP
The 48 home runs de la Guila allowed that year would stand as a record for more or less the entirety of the early Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña: not until 1889 would any other pitcher allow more than 40 in a season, and that was with fifty more games to play.
He gave up two grand slams, neither to a player who could generally be accused of being a power hitter, and on four separate occasions gave up back-to-back home runs, including one in which he allowed both players the only home run they would hit during that season.
That is the most famous, and most damning, number from the 1873 season—alongside the pitiful two complete games, as many as Celso Herrera had thrown in the month he was able to play with the remnants of his collateral ligaments—but it by no means tells the whole story.
Espártaco de la Guila, 1873 (starter): 178.0 IP, 5-17, 13 K / 22 BB, 45 HR, 6.47 ERA (we don’t even want to know).
Espártaco de la Guila, 1873 (reliever): 21.2 IP, 0-0 (1 SV), 0 K / 0 BB, 3 HR, 2.08 ERA (154 ERA+).
Had Martín’s plan not relied on a quadragenarian arm, de la Guila could have spent a year as a pretty decent reliever for a beleaguered rotation. Instead, being pushed into long service made him the worst pitcher in Liga Hostos by some distance.
Naranjito’s defense was in the exact same place as 1872, relative to the rest of the league—so the fact that the separation here is often smaller than in the previous season is fairly revealing about de la Guila’s pitching.
Wins are in blue, losses in red. This was the cruellest indictment against de la Guila at the time: a pitcher was expected to finish the games he started, even while being shelled. Unfortunately, Martín was too afraid of losing his other workhorse to keep him in any game that had become a rout against the Brillantes.
Wins still in blue, losses in red. It is completely understandable that de la Guila was not the same man as last year: he was 38, dealing with the effects of his various war wounds, and not especially motivated on a team that was clearly not going to the torneo. Even controlling for that, this is a dreadful season.
Obviously, de la Guila had allowed more home runs than anyone else—otherwise this article would not be about him—but he actually lapped the competition: the runner-up this year, Alcibíades Segovia of Hormigueros, allowed only 19.
Finding a silver lining would usually have been the thirteenth labor after a pitching campaign this catastrophic, but Naranjito had actual reasons to be happy—as in, reasons other than knowing the next season could not be worse.
On the one hand, de la Guila’s season had been so dire that he had been “worth” seven losses to his team—seven losses they could ill afford, because they had once again finished 33-43, and six games back from Barranquitas, although that was good enough for second place in 1873.
On the other, they managed to finish 33-43 in spite of both de la Guila’s wretched year on the mound and fielding that had taken a significant step backwards, thanks to a rebounding offense that sacrificed a little speed for quality contact. In fact, de la Guila became somewhat infamous for “evading” responsibility for many of his starts turning sour, due to his teammates scoring enough runs to keep games competitive until, almost invariably, opposing lineups backed by reliable starting pitchers finally ganged up on a gassed Nazario or Bahena in the bottom third or extras.
In fact, some wag at La Central commented on an internal document that Nazario and Bahena had lost seventeen games apiece, “but only the great Espártaco could lose a game his team wanted to win.” How Horacio Martín managed to repeatedly pull a pitcher who had once spent three days shadowing a Spanish patrol before hacking them to death would be a question for the ages, except that we have Martín’s own words on the subject.
“I never understood why people were so afraid of him. I looked him in the eyes and told him the truth. ‘You’re having a bad game,’ I’d say. ‘They’re killing you today.’ It could be he grunted once or twice, but that was all.”
— Horacio Martín
If the front office could be convinced to sign a real second pitcher, or a couple better fielders in important positions, they had a real shot at the torneo. For the first time in Horacio Martín’s tenure as Naranjito skipper, there was real, unadulterated hope for the future.
Instead, the front office allowed every pitcher on the winter market to go to other teams, Naranjito was forced to start de la Guila for a third consecutive year, and to boot, Nazario’s 1874 was merely above average, rather than dominant.
Fortunately, though de la Guila’s offspeed pitches continued to decline, he was at least bad in a way that was understandable at the time. For the first time in his career, had to settle for being third in home runs allowed, behind old friend Segovia and the Esqueletos‘ Sancho González.
Espártaco de la Guila, 1874:
276.2 IP, 45 G (38 GS)
15 W, 21 L, 18 CG (47.4%), 24 QS (63.2%)
18 K, 13 BB, 21 HR
3.09 ERA (82 ERA+) / 3.64 FIP (143 FIP-) / 1.31 WHIP
Buoyed by their stabilized pitching (“improved” seems a stretch) Naranjito finished 34-42, five games back, and the front office finally signed Felipe Esquibel on the winter market, beginning their long climb towards respectability and a streak of playoff appearances that included several years among the top lineups in Liga Hostos.
It would not, however, be Horacio Martín leading that team. Along with general manager Prudencio Borbolla, who had bowed to sponsorial pressure in refusing to spend money on a top rotation, Martín had been fired some days before the end of the regular season—a move that likely influenced de la Guila’s decision to retire after the torneo was over, as he had always respected Martín’s forthrightness with his players.
Plus, he was nearing forty, and it was clear he would not have the same success as a pitcher that he did as a soldier. For a man who had handled years of violence and horror with nothing but implacable resolve, the recognition of his age and concomitant uselessness in his new chosen career would have been rather difficult.
He retired with a thoroughly substandard record, like many older pitchers of his decade, but in one respect—one we suspect most readers will already have guessed—he was once again a legend.
The X-axis denotes how many home runs each of these pitchers allowed over the course of their career, with a similarly dominant Cresencio Gutiérrez at the right end. The Y-axis is what damns de la Guila: it counts the average number of home runs each pitcher gave up per season, and at only three qualified campaigns, de la Guila’s 87 incurred longballs count for a cool 29 per year.
After his playing career, de la Guila trained pitchers for various teams, none with any particular success. His four-year stop in Aibonito was by far his best work, but then it was also where he had the best clay to work with, and he had never chosen the easy task. He attempted to serialize his memoirs in the Voz del Valle, but they did not prove popular enough to sustain the paper’s popularity, and it folded in 1891.
From there, very little evidence is available of the rest of the life of Espártaco de la Guila. There are legends that he returned to El Recóndito as a porter; that he rejoined the Insular Forces as a macetero during the invasion of 1898; that he departed for parts unknown; that he brought organized baseball to Haiti; that he died fighting a bear in Kamchatka.
Whatever the truth may be, these stories share an appropriate awe of a man who, given a chance to literally make his name and place in the society of the Republic, did so with more determination than almost any of his compatriots, and in that, Espártaco de la Guila was living proof of the victory of the Revolution.
No amount of baseballs he watched disappear over the fence could take that away.