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01/04/2007 Archived Entry: "MAESTROS of MEXICO #1: Hector Espino"
by Bruce Baskin, Editor
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HECTOR ESPINO GONZALEZ
HGT: 5í11Ē WGT: 185
BORN: June 6, 1939
BIRTHPLACE: Chihuahua, Chihuahua, MX
BATTED: Right THREW: Right
POSITION: First Base/Outfield
The consensus pick among Mexican fans as the greatest player in their baseball history, Hector Espino was known as "The Babe Ruth of Mexico" during his 24-year Mexican League career. Playing primarily for Monterrey or Tampico between 1962 and 1984, the right-handed Espino retired as minor league baseball's all-time home run king with 484 (453 in the Mexican League), although he has since been passed by both Andres Mora and Nelson Barrera. He led the LMB in homers four times, including a career-high 46 for the Sultanes in 1964. The 5'11" 185-pounder from Chihuahua also drove in 1,573 runs in his LMB career and hung up his spikes with a cool .335 batting mark. He hit better than .300 every year but one in the Liga from 1962 through 1980, winning three straight hitting titles between 1966 and 1968 and four overall.
As a 20-year-old outfielder, Espino broke into pro ball in 1960 with San Luis Potosi in the Class A Mexican Center League. He pounded LCM pitchers for a .363 batting average with 20 homers and 60 RBIís in 63 games that year, and after an abbreviated season with SLP in 1961, he broke into the Mexican League with Monterrey in 1962. Espino blasted his way to a .358 average with 23 homers and led the Liga with 106 runs and 105 RBIís. Although he missed a chunk of the following season, playing just 99 games, he still belted 24 homers and drove in 80 runs en route to a .346 average for the Sultanes. He shifted from the outfield to first base in 1964 for wht proved to be his greatest season, just missing the LMB Triple Crown with a Liga-best .371 average, a career high 46 homers (also tops in Mexico) and 117 RBIís. Espino was drawing a lot of interest from major league teams, and St. Louis finally won the bidding war for his contract from Monterrey.
Espino played briefly for the Cardinals' AAA farm team in Jacksonville at the end of the 1964 season. He hit well (batting .300 with three homers in 32 games), but his time in the International League was not pleasant. Playing during the Civil Rights era with home games in Florida and road trips to such Southern cities as Richmond and Atlanta, the young slugger would not accept the kind of treatment Latinos received in many cities on the circuit, including the one he played for. The proud Espino was so offended by the racism he encountered while playing in the IL that he went home to Mexico after that season and never returned to play in the United States again despite a number of attractive offers over the years.
His return to Mexico in 1965 was not noteworthy (.335/17/48 in 67 games), but he reeled off the first of four consecutive standout seasons in Monterrey in 1966, winning one of three straight batting crowns (.369) and clubbing 31 homers. He then hit a career-best .377 in 1967 (with 34 home runs) and .365 for 1968, topping the LMB with 27 homers. Espino fell to .304 in 1969, but led the Liga with 37 homers. After a subpar 1970, he was dealt to the Tampico Alijadores, or Dockworkers, in 1971.
Following a so-so year that season (.311/20/58), Espino turned in two strong campaigns for Tampico. He was .356/37/101 in 1972, leading the league in homers, then turned it up a notch by going .377/22/107 in 1973 to finish number one in batting and RBIís. It was his last great season, as Espino turned 35 the following summer and started slowing down. While his numbers were respectable for his last five years with the Dockers (although he hit just .297 in 1976, his only sub-.300 pro season between 1960 and 1980), Espino left Tampico after the 1978 campaign. He then went on a bit of an odyssey, playing for six different teams in three seasons before returning to Monterrey as a part-timer in 1982. After only hitting .220 with one homer in 20 games in 1984, the 45-year-old Espino retired in July of that season.
His record in winter ball was no less impressive. In 24 seasons with the Hermosillo Naranjeros, he won an amazing 13 batting titles and six home run crowns en route to a career average of .329 with 299 homers and 1,029 RBIs. He led Hermosillo to Mexico's first Caribbean Series win in 1976, and played in six Series in all. A six-time LMP Most Valuable Player, the Naranjerosí ballpark is named after him. He is a member of Mexican baseball's Hall of Fame (the Salon de Fama) in Monterrey, where he was inducted in 1988, and is also enshrined in the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame. In all, he blasted 783 homers as a pro.
After retiring as a player, Espino took a shot at managing. He spent two summers with the Monterrey Industriales, but was not successful. The team went just 49-82 in 1990, and Espino was sacked during the following season. He passed away September 7, 1997 at the age of 58.
Espino was beloved by fans across Mexico because he combined his great skills in baseball with a sense of pride and loyalty for his country to become the face of Mexican baseball for two decades. He was a true national hero, and (as with Jackie Robinson) his number 21 has been retired by all Mexican professional teams. There are as many ways to compare Hector Espino with Robinson as there are to measure him by Ruthian standards. The question of how successful he might have been had he remained in the United States is a poor one. The fact that he became an icon among baseball fans in his home country indicates he didnít need to be a star in the USA to be a success where it mattered most to him.
LMB CAREER STATS (24 yrs)
GP-2388, AB-8205, R-1505, H-2752, 2B-373, 3B-45, HR-453, RBI-1573, AVG-.335, SB-54
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