Paul Casanova, Cuban catcher for the Senators


Paul Casanova

Paul Casanova was one of the last major-leaguers to come from both the Negro Leagues and pre-Castro Cuba. He died this week at age 75. Casanova was released three times — twice by the same team — and left Cuba for good before his professional career was established. Casanova was 19 when he left Cuba, according to his bio at sabr.org, with several other players, going to Mexico and then the U.S. According to sabr.org, Casanova told author Brent Kelley: “If I would’ve went back to Cuba I probably would’ve been Cuban and never got a chance to play here.” At first, he didn’t get much of a chance in the States. He had nine plate appearances for the Indians’ Class C affiliate in Minot, North Dakota — imagine what Minot, N.D. must have been like for an 18-year-old from Cuba — but the Indians released him, signed him again and released him again. Casanova next played with the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns, who barnstormed across the country since the Negro Leagues were no more. According to sabr.org, he hit safely off Hall of Famer Satchel Paige and homered off Joe Black, one-time star of the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers. The Cubs signed him, and like the Indians, released Casanova after an abbreviated look: he batted just once for the Cubs’ AA team in San Antonio. At the end of 1962, the Senators signed Casanova, and he wasn’t released again for 13 years, until the end of his career. Casanova was a catcher valued for his defense more than his bat — he was a notoriously impatient hitter, walking just 101 times in 2,929 plate appearances or little more than three percent of them. He did his best hitting for the Senators before Ted Williams became their final manager in 1969; it’s hard to conceive of the profanities Williams must have uttered watching Casanova’s undisciplined approach. But Casanova’s defense made him valuable; according to sabr.org, the former catcher Joe Garagiola watched Casanova and told him, “The Army could use you as a secret weapon. I never saw a gun like that.” Casanova debuted in 1965, and became the starter in 1966, when he hit a career-high .254 with a career-high 13 home runs. In 1967 he was an All-Star, in part because the Senators had to have one and in part because of Casanova’s defense. He threw out 49% of potential base stealers, batted a career-high .253 and finished 21st in the MVP vote (Frank Howard, who hit 36 homers, or Ken McMullen, who hit 16 and had a defensive WAR of 2.3, were the ’67 Senators’ other options). Casanova caught all 22 innings of a 6-5 win over the White Sox — according to sabr.org, he received 268 pitches — throwing out three White Sox trying to steal and driving in the winning run with a single, his only hit after going 0-for-8 (his eighth at-bat was a 5-2-3 DP with the bases loaded and one out in the 20th). Casanova never hit more than .229 again, though he did beat Wilbur Wood with a pinch-hit ninth-inning homer in 1969 (of Casanova’s 50 homers, he hit three off Mickey Lolich, 1968 World Series hero, and two each off Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter, Sonny Siebert and Fred Talbot of Ball Four fame). Casanova was a regular for the Senators but his playing time dwindled until he was traded to the Braves after the 1971 season, for whom he was a backup. He spent his final three years with the Braves, where he caught a Phil Niekro no-hitter and witnessed Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th homer. He was released for the final time in spring training 1975. “You see Cassie on my wall in my office if you have ever been in there,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker, a Braves teammate of Casanova’s, told masn.com. “. . . It was him, Hank Aaron, Ralph Garr and myself. Cassie and us were sort of in charge of keeping Hank loose during the time he was going for the (home run) record. We all love Cassie.” Career numbers: .225 average, .571 OPS, 50 homers, 627 hits, 101 walks, 430 strikeouts, 65 OPS+, 40% of opposing base stealers caught, 6.6 career defensive WAR, 1.3 WAR (2.3 in 1966 and 2.1 in 1967).

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