My new baseball card: Paula’s 1955 card
As I noted yesterday, on September 6, 1954, more than seven years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, Carlos Paula became the first black player for the Washington Senators. Paula has become one of my favorite players not only because he broke the color barrier with the Senators, but because relatively little seems to have been written about him. Aside from some stats on Baseball Reference, a woefully incomplete Wikipedia page, and an interesting (but also incomplete) piece by author Larry Brunt on the Baseball Hall of Fame (HoF) website, there are only passing mentions of Paula in a few books. Even the various sources for his stats don’t really match up. Carlos Paula deserves more than that.
Nonetheless, this is his story:
Carlos Paula Conill was born on November 28, 1927, in Havana, Cuba. His career in the U.S. began in Decatur, Illinois, where he played for the Decatur Commodores of the Class D Mississippi-Ohio Valley League in 1952, helping them win the league championship that year. Paula appeared in 119 games for Decatur, amassing a batting average of .334 with 6 home runs, and was selected for the All-Star team that year.
He returned to the Commodores the next year, hitting .265 in 26 games before moving up to the Class B Paris Indians of the Big State League, a team that also featured pitcher Alex Carrasquel. (Carrasquel was the first player from Venezuela in the Major Leagues. Alex made his MLB debut with the Washington Senators in April 1939; he was the uncle of Chico Carrasquel, the third Venezuelan in the Major Leagues.)
Paula likely continued to play winter ball in Cuba, where he would have caught the attention of the Washington Senators’ scout in Cuba, Joe Cambria. Brunt’s HoF article quoted Cambria as saying Paula had “’the best throwing arm in the outfield, is a terror on the bases, and can hit big league pitching,’” to which Senators’ Manager Bucky Harris reportedly replied, “’If this fellow is such a great hitter, then how come he hit only .309 in the Big State League?’”
Nonetheless, the Senators purchased Paula’s contract from the Paris Indians in 1954 and invited him to Spring Training, where, according to the HoF article: “Teammates told the [Washington] Post that Paula was the most exciting new player in camp … But Harris tempered the enthusiasm: Paula had a hitch in his swing, he said. Paula chased too many balls low and away, he said. Paula wasn’t ready, he decided, and he sent the Cuban down to the Senators’ Charlotte Hornets farm team of the Class A Sally League.”
While with Charlotte, Paula was the team leader in hits (153), doubles (24), and triples (13), with a batting average of .309. He also hit 14 home runs. At the end of the Hornets’ season, Paula was called up to the Majors. On September 6, 1954, he made his debut with the Washington Senators with little fanfare. The Washington Post simply stated at the end of its story on the game: “’Carlos Paula, Cuban outfielder, became the first Negro player to break into action in a regular game with the Senators. He had a double and a single in the first game, but went hitless in the second game.’”
Paula remained with the Senators for the 1955 season, earning a regular spot in the outfield by the end of May. Despite impressive stats, Paula’s feats were ignored by the papers like the Baltimore Afro-American and diminished by the Washington Post. According to an article by NBC Sports (referencing the HoF piece):
“… there seemed to be an almost pathological fixation on what Paula didn’t do well as opposed to what he did do well. In 1955 he went on a 22-game stretch when he hit .450, with 10 doubles, 3 triples and a homer among his 36 hits and struck out only 4 times. It was barely covered by the press. A lot of play, however, was given to his mistakes and an alleged ‘hitch’ in his swing about which his manager complained but no one else really seemed to see. He’d go 3-for-5 and an article would appear that only mentioned his base running mistake. Stuff like that.
More troubling was the way in which he was profiled by the press on a personal basis. His heavily accented English was phonetically reproduced in the paper, with the clear purpose of making him out to sound uneducated. There were stories of his life in Cuba — some obvious fabrications — which made him out to be a rube. Over time he literally became a punchline. And not just during his playing career. Paula’s name was invoked for decades after he was out of baseball, used exclusively for a dumb or mistake-prone player. One high-profile Boston scribe continuing to use Paula’s name as a go-to joke into the 1980s.”
According to the HoF article, during Spring Training in 1956 Paula returned to Cuba to care for his mother who’d had a heart attack. When he did not return when expected, the team threated to fine him. Paula returned to training camp, but just before Opening Day he was optioned to the Denver Bears. After hitting .375 in 22 games, he re-joined the Senators in May. Unfortunately, Paula got off to a slow start upon his return, batting just .183 in 33 games, so the Senators optioned him to the Louisville Colonels. (Baseball Reference also notes that he was demoted in 1956 to the Miami Marlins, but the timeline is unclear.)
My other recent acquisition: Paula’s 1956 baseball card
Before the beginning of the 1957 season, Paula was optioned again, this time to the Minneapolis Millers. In 1958, the team was out of options, meaning that the Senators had to keep him, trade him, or place him on waivers. They decided to trade him to the Sacramento Solons, a team in the Pacific Coast League with no MLB affiliation. Although Paula hit .315 with the Solons in 1958, his batting average fell to .167 in 1959 and he only appeared in 12 games. (In 1959, by the way, the Solons were affiliated with the Milwaukee Braves.)
However, Paula appears to have left the Solons for the Havana Sugar Kings, a Cincinnati affiliate, with whom he played 88 games, batting .312 with 10 home runs. The Sugar Kings won the Junior World Series that year under manager Preston Gomez, who had played for the Senators in 1944. In 1960, at age 32, Carlos Paula played for the Mexico City Tigres of the Mexican League, a team that also included Bobby Avila and a 19-year old Luis Tiant. Paula appeared in 85 games for the Tigres and hit .339.
And this is where the story of Carlos Paula’s baseball career ends, yet so many questions remained unanswered. Where did he play in Cuba (I saw one reference to Almendares during the winters)? How did he end up in the United States? When was he signed by the Senators? What did he do after his apparent retirement from baseball after the 1960 season?
All we know is that Carlos Paula passed away on April 25, 1983, in Miami, Florida.
Rest in peace, Mr. Paula. Thank you for being a trail-blazer.
PS Carlos Paula’s story was just the beginning of the integration of the Washington Senators. Tomorrow, I’ll post more about those who came before and after him – up until the Senators’ departure from the Nation’s capital in 1962.