The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Pitcher and Broadcaster

05 February 2010

An Ugly American: Nellie Recalls his Season of Winter Baseball in Mexico

As the snows of February swirl, anyone who has been involved in major league baseball begins to think not only of opening day--now just two months away--but also of the joys of spending six weeks in the tropics. Nellie and his family treasure glowing memories of splashing in the waves and walking on the beaches of Anna Maria Island on Florida's Gulf coast during spring training, but Nellie also remembers a less pleasant -- but highly educational -- trip to the Pacific coast of Mexico in 1955.

Eager to play winter ball in Mexico, I appreciated my wife’s willingness to join me in my first trip “south of the border.” Neither of us were prepared for the profound cultural differences that awaited us. Making adjustment matters worse was the damage done by a typhoon that hit Mazatlan a week before our arrival. Floods had washed out roads and cut off the electricity. My lack of understanding of the culture and anger about the daily inconveniences created by the storm grew each day. Looking back at this experience, I realized I was an “Ugly American.”
Our trip began with a flight from Newark, NJ to Tucson, AZ. We traveled by bus to Nogales, Mexico where we found accommodations overnight at a local motel. We left an early wake up call and arrived at the airport with time for clearing customs and having breakfast. Our flight included stops at Hermosillo, Los Mochis, and Culican before arriving at Mazatlan.
Before boarding the flight, we had time to view the 30-seat, two-propeller plane. It was not a comforting scene. Two laborers on ladders were working on the propeller engines with what looked like ordinary pliers. A youngster who was crying loudly was creating a disturbance that the stewardess corrected by whacking him on his rear and telling him to be quiet. His mother did not protest. Welcome to Aeronaves de Mexico!
The stewardess went through the ritual of showing us how to fasten our seat belts as the pilot drove the plane to the end of the runway for takeoff. As the plane began to move, I was certain we did not have enough speed to get off the ground.  My observation was correct. The pilot quickly hit the brakes and informed us that we would be returning to the terminal. We got off the plane while the workers returned with their ladders and pliers to work on the engines.  
(As an indication of our anxiety level on this flight, while typing this chapter I asked my wife to recall how she felt during that first flight on Aeronaves de Mexico. She answered, “How the hell should I know? I was too busy saying the Rosary!”) 
After some delay, the pilot decided to give it another try, but this time without passengers on board. He took the plane to the end of the runway and gathered what he was sure was appropriate speed to take off and returned to the terminal. We were asked to re-board, and despite the anxiety, all passengers returned to the plane. My wife was now heavily into the rosary and I told her, “Don’t worry, if the pilot didn’t think he could take off, he wouldn’t try it.” I was right and we had a safe flight.
We finally reached our destination at Mazatlan in the early afternoon and enjoyed our first sight from the air. The view of the crescent shaped shoreline and beach that defined the western limits of the city was marvelous. The view of the Pacific Ocean from our apartment was fantastic. Daily we would take delight in watching groups of swordfish and porpoises leaping from the water. The beach was named Olas Altos for the high waves that funneled into the crescent shaped beach. It attracted many swimmers who enjoyed body-surfing all day on the big waves.
Pleased with our accommodations, we agreed they were ideal. However, later that evening we discovered because of the typhoon that hit the area a week before, Mazatlan was unable to keep electric generators going for 24 hours. We assumed the generators would be working for the evening hours, but the city turned off the electricity after 6:00 PM and we had to live by candlelight until the next morning when the electricity returned.
A large hotel adjacent to our apartment had lights turned on all evening, which made us question why we didn’t. It turned out the hotel had its own generator and did not have to depend on the city’s electricity. I still questioned the decision to turn off power during the evening. I thought “how dumb these Mexicans are!”, and expressed my opinions loudly from our apartment.
With no electricity, the refrigerator defrosted at night. The melting ice dripped into a glass bowl we used to store the eggs. When Bernadette opened the door to get eggs for breakfast, the water and the eggs were frozen solid. I made more comments about the stupidity and ignorance of the Mexicans. I was embarrassed by my words when I discovered the electricity was available only during daylight hours so industrial plants and business could continue working, as they provided needed income for the citizens of Mazatlan.
Just as I had during my first journey through the U.S. south in 1946, I became aware of the prevalence and injustice of poverty. Despite their impoverishment and the need to repair the damage done by the typhoon, the people displayed an inner strength and a real joy for life.  The typhoon’s impact was evident during our first bus trip to open the season at Los Mochis. We arrived at a wide stream where the flood had washed out a bridge and I wondered how we would be able to continue. We did, thanks to the talent and “can-do” attitude of the Mexican workers. We were transported on a hand-made wooden flatbed barge, similar to the kind depicted in Tom Sawyer. We loaded all of or luggage from the bus onto the barge and two men rowed us across the stream with no problems, delivering us to another bus waiting to complete the trip.
We were warned not to drink any of the local tap water in Los Mochis and after entering my hotel room I knew why. The water from the bathroom tap was grayish and foul-smelling. I joined some of the players for dinner at a restaurant not far from the hotel. I can’t recall what I ate, but I do not recall drinking the water. I ordered bottled beverages as suggested. The next morning I awoke and had to wash up with the foul smelling tap water. I then made the mistake of brushing my teeth and in two days I had developed a bad case of the “Aztec two-step,” which soon developed into dysentery. I was in no shape to play baseball after this, but I persisted.
Games were scheduled on Friday and Saturday with a doubleheader on Sunday. Monday and Tuesday were off days, and Wednesday and Thursday were scheduled for practice. As the “American” pitcher, I had the number one spot in the rotation and was also expected to pitch in relief for the other games. Despite suffering from nausea and dysentery, I felt an obligation to pitch since I was making $700 a month in salary and the team had paid for our airfare and accommodations.
I was eager to see the end of the series at Los Mochis and return to cosmopolitan Mazatlan. As soon as I returned to our apartment, my wife could see I was very ill. She requested the manager to get a doctor to treat me. The doctor showed up the next morning and introduced himself as Dr. Corona-Corona. The double name was unique, but not so much as the fact he wore two pair of glasses. He diagnosed my illness as dysentery and dehydration, prescribed an antibiotic, and gave me intravenous fluids to reverse my dehydration. Bedridden for two days, I recovered enough to make practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
In the wee hours of Monday morning I got up feeling worse and asked Bernadette to call for a doctor. Bernadette, who served as a Red Cross nurse, was aware that this could not go on any longer. I recall her telling me, “If you say we are going home, I’ll call for a doctor. If you don’t, I’m not going to.” I told her we were going home and the doctor arrived and informed me that my condition was serious. I had lost 15 pounds in three weeks. We contacted the Pirates’ office to inform Branch Rickey, Jr. of my illness and the need to return home for health reasons. He agreed, and we joyously returned to the United States.
My Mexican experiences made me aware of the advantages I took for granted living in the United Stats. I felt then, and still do today, that if a leader offered and provided the benefits and social services people so desperately needed, Mexicans wouldn’t care if they were Socialists or Communists—anything had to be better than what they had in 1955. I understand why so many citizens of Mexico are eager to cross our borders. They are simply looking for a better life.
After playing ball at Mazatlan, I recalled manager Frank Oceak’s comment at York, PA: “Keep your eyes, ears and bowels open, and your mouth shut.” Mexico was the only place I was able to do that.

The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Baseball Pitcher and Broadcaster