There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The ghosts of the District don’t bother with sheets and chains to get your attention. They don’t wait until dark to haunt you with their stories, their chants about the past. They can catch you on any afternoon, on any street, maybe over on Irving Street near 14th.
Like that old Cuban guy, the one who sits on the chair near the La Casa shelter. Walk by and he will scare the pants off you as he springs from perfect silence into a deep bark of Spanglish patter, spouting bullshit about playing baseball with the departed lions of the game.
“Jackie Robinson! 1949! Satchel Paige. That’s my teacher! El Bambino. I pitch to him!” he’ll shout between coughs and drags on a cigarette.
He’ll go on and on about rubbing elbows with baseball greatness as a pitcher in the Negro League, or he might even suggest that he once gave a street musician named Elvis a few pesos for a song. His tales are tall enough to make Forrest Gump choke on his precious chocolates, sidewalk incantations that prompt you to pick up the pace as you walk by.
Slow down. The ghost isn’t lying. José Piloto is throwing all strikes, right down the middle. Elvis. Jackie. Satchel. The Babe. And Piloto. True story.
What you see on Irving Street, across from the La Casa men’s homeless shelter, is a long, mysterious, dark face with a wiry gray goatee scribbled about otherwise leathery terrain, anchored by a huge, flat nose. Piloto, also known as “The Potato,” is pushing 70, but his weathered affect allows the Potato to pass for a young 85 or 90, no problema.
But peel away the years and a tall, handsome, serious young man emerges, glowering from obscure team photos of the 1949 Memphis Red Sox of the Negro National League. He’s the lefty flamethrower who sinks batters in 12 nations, on hundreds of ball fields. He’s the human pitching machine, able to single-handedly hurl a doubleheader—and win both. He’s the Cuban phenom whose name tripped up enough gringo tongues that he answered to “Potato” instead. It’s hard to find a Negro Leaguer who didn’t catch a nickname in his day, but few fit theirs as well as the Potato, a dark son of the earth who ripened just beneath the surface of history.
Before he got yanked from the mound, this Potato—even spotting him generous memories—certainly rolled in the dirt with greatness. An afternoon at his side and a few days of investigation reveal that the Cubano street person who spends his days caging cigarettes has lived many lives, most all of them charmed. History and the Potato tell us that he pitched to Babe Ruth in Mexico, bought a song from Elvis in Memphis, and traded pitches with Satchel Paige. Along the way, he boxed a gorilla, dined with a dictator, and was jailed by Castro for selling sandwiches.
Today, for a bummed cigarette and a moment to listen, his throaty caw will deliver—in staccato Cuban English—names, dates and places, many dots that beg connecting. The punctuation is all chuckles and coughs.
“Satchel Paige! Nineteen FORTY-five! Memphis RED Sox! Jackie Robinson! Miami BEACH! Baby Ruth! El Bambino!”
Hee hee hee, hack hack. The sounds erupt every time his lingering smile connects with some pungent memory. Apart from the chant, there is little English in his arsenal, so from here on he must pitch in Spanish. He jacks out one of those large, rubbery hands.
“Te voy a contar.” I’m going to tell you a story, he says.
It’s a tale that starts with his untimely death. It says so right in The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues:
Piloto, José (Potato)
Career: 1948-50Position: pTeam: Memphis Red Sox
This youngster was pitching barefoot in the Cuban sandlots when he was discovered. He began in the Negro Leagues in 1948 with the Memphis Red Sox. The following winter he played his only season in the Cuban winter league. He was back with Memphis in 1949, but in 1950 he pitched in only 2 games and did not register a decision. After having one bad year in baseball, he went to Mexico, where he became embroiled in an argument and was killed.
José remembers playing in Mexico—he played there more than anywhere else in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s where he learned to smoke and drink at age 28. Yes, the Potato remembers it all, just not the part about him dying.
On a lousy day, the morning sun rudely pries the Potato’s eyes open, and he has no curtain to draw. The shelter filled up early the night before, and his sack is made of concrete.
On a beautiful day, a real corker, Piloto takes the first game of a double bill—fanning 14 batters in a shutout—and then convinces the manager to let him pitch Game 2, where he strikes out 13 more and wins again. If memory serves, he can spend hours as a king.
Most days, the base paths he treads are far more prosaic. The Potato makes his way from home plate—the shelter, if he was lucky last night—and goes around the horn with the help of any two friends who will haul his belongings. He is fairly endowed, for a homeless person. There’s the chair, a radio, an empty milk crate, a black duffel bag stuffed with clothes and food—dragged along on a jerry-rigged baby stroller. There’s the old baseball trophy, too, and a large black-and-white photo of an already-old Potato tossing a pitch, mugging for the camera. The crutch serves as cup-holder for his Velicoff vodka, as a bat for practice swings, and as a means to tenderly hobble around the base paths each day.
He is a specter even without the ghostly biography. The Potato’s tall, bony frame seems to rattle when he thumps his chest with his palm for emphasis. His tobacco-tarred lungs interrupt with huge clumps of hacking, usually right as his trembling voice is reeling in the catch of a mighty tale.
“I pitched to Baby Ruth. In Mexico. To Baby Ruth! He hit me a “rolling to pitcher,’ and I took it and I kissed the ball. I threw it to first and he kissed it, he threw it to second, and the second baseman kissed it, and everybody kissed it.”
Between words, the Potato hisses in an attempt to silence the calls of “Roberto Clemente!” and “Ugly man!” from his street comrades. The streetside Latinos—homeless or out-of-work day laborers—kid, tease, and hound, but they all believe Piloto.
They believe Piloto because he has told them this tale, words never varying, added or subtracted, for days upon months upon years. They believe his adamant pledge of pitching to Ruth in 1946 even though common wisdom argues against it. After all, Ruth retired in 1935.
But a few devoted Babe Ruth historians will tell you that indeed the retired Bambino took a whirlwind two-week tour of Mexico in 1946 at the behest of baseball mogul Jorge Pascual. Trying to get a new league started, Pascual lured Ruth to Mexico as a means to promote the venture. Ruth, past 50, saw a nice opportunity for a family vacation, and according to Robert W. Creamer’s 1974 biography, saw a few ballgames and swung at some batting-practice pitches.
“It was an exhibition,” the Potato explains. “See, all the pitchers pitched to Baby Ruth. They took him everywhere, like a tourist. He hit it to me, and I kissed the ball!” Hee hee. Hack hack.
A small crowd has gathered at first base with Piloto, across the street from La Casa on Irving, to take in the Bambino story once again. Piloto is not supposed to be here—large block letters painted on the concrete wall behind him announce, in English and Spanish, “No Loitering.” His small sidewalk camp is clearly a violation, as he’s reminded every so often by police who roll by in their cruisers, but don’t stop long enough to hear his stories about Babe Ruth, about his days playing in Quebec, about how he was buried in a book about baseball.
Piloto knows too many people in this little crowd. “Who doesn’t know me here?” he says, stabbing at a neighbor with a finger and pleading his case for a cigarette. He pours into his glass, and the story of his one-man doubleheader with the Sherbrooke team spills out.
“I remember when I pitched a doubleheader. For Sherbrooke in Canada. The Provincial League. Three Rivers! Quebec! And I won two. One-zero and two to one. Because I won the first one, I said to the manager, “Put me in for the second,’ and he said, “You’re crazy.’ And I said, “Crazy, no.’ And everyone else said, “Yeah, yeah, let him pitch. Let him.’ All the pitchers said so. And I won both. Hee hee. The batters were scared of me. Left-handed. Zurdo!”
The late morning sun blazes over first base, and without need for discussion, members of the crowd pick up Piloto’s effects to help him steal second base. He crutches around the corner to Hiatt Place, where second is a patch of shade under the trees. Halfway home.
Even though his career in the Negro League was short—not to mention that nuisance of his supposedly being dead—the Potato hung in long enough to stick in the minds of some old veterans of the diamond.
Clinton “Casey” Jones in Chicago knows the Potato. Jones, a Red Sox mainstay from 1940 to 1955, is surprised to hear Piloto’s still kicking. “He was one of the Cuban players. In the ratings of one to 10, he was an eight, eight-and-a-half, nine. He had a good fastball, good curveball, good control. He was a good pitcher.”
“That’s my catcher!” Piloto roars when he hears Jones’ name. “Bob Boyd, first base. Johnny Caughil, segunda base. American player. Orlando Verona, shortstop. Cuba! Tercera base, Neil Robinson.” Without prompting, he proceeds to name the rest of the field and a good part of the bench of the 1949 Memphis Red Sox.
According to Larry Lester, a premier historian of the old leagues who lives in St. Louis, Mo., that’s more of a recall than most Negro baseball researchers can give you of the ’49 team without running to their shelves.
Lester says Piloto’s 1949 stats of five wins, five losses, six complete games, and a 3.35 earned run average were pretty darned good for the hitter-friendly Negro League. “Hitters always had the advantage. The fields were pretty bad. The ball used to bounce anywhere, and that was a hit. He’s a pretty decent pitcher. His stats are up there with quality pitchers.”
The Potato’s out pitch was la bola escondida—the hidden ball. “When the batter was really frustrated, I’d throw the bola escondida,” he recalls. When he did, the bottom dropped out an instant before the batter swung, and the ball hit the dirt—a disappearing ball thrown by a man destined to become a ghost.
Those Memphis days in the Negro League loom large for Piloto. It was his biggest pitching thrill. It’s when he fathered José Piloto, Jr. with Ada, a waitress he has not seen since that time. It’s when he faced Satchel Paige, only the greatest pitcher who ever took the mound in the Negro League. You wonder if Piloto maybe is remembering just seeing Paige pitch, but….
“Then I find myself with Satchel Paige, the best Negro American pitcher. I beat him 1-0, and then he tells me I don’t know how to pitch. What a character! He said, “You don’t know how to pitch.’ I said, “How? I just beat you 1-0.’ He said, “Because they steal bases on you. Because you waste time on the mound. Instead of putting the ball way up here, you have to keep it down here.’ And like he said, I pitched like that.”
Piloto started pitching for Memphis in 1948, the year Paige jumped to Major League Baseball with the Cleveland Indians. The Potato’s soup would be thin, except historian Lester reports the aging Paige actually played the early part of 1948 in the Negro League before joining Cleveland in midseason, making it eminently possible that those paths crossed.
Piloto drags on the last millimeter of a cigarette. Hack hack. He gives away two sandwiches and a piece of bread out of his bag to a younger street amigo who’s looking for food. “Take it all,” he says, moving the small radio from his lap to the sidewalk as it crackles Latino music.
The Potato’s taste in music ranges as wide as his repertoire of stories. He loved Elvis before Elvis was Elvis. He will tell you that he found the King playing on the street in Memphis in 1949. Yeah right, José, and Jesus was behind him on percussion.
“There I come across Elvis Presley with a guitar. Hee hee hee. He goes around with a guitar. With the guitar he sings me “Good Rockin’ Tonight.’ Da-ri, da-ri, da-ri, da-ri, da-ra, da-ra. I gave him 20 pesos. This is the truth. Then, when I went back downtown three days later and I saw him, I said, “Look, don’t sing me “Good Rockin’ Tonight.’ Sing me another.’ He said, “I know a few. What should I play?’ I said, “Play me the train of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.’ And he played it, hee hee, but it cost me 10 pesos. He was in the street with a guitar.”
By this time, it should be no surprise to find out the teen-age Elvis was known to roam around the streets of downtown Memphis with his guitar in 1949. The 14-year-old loved to listen to the blues musicians on Beale Street. Patsy Andersen, an Elvis expert and Graceland spokesperson, said the pre-King took his guitar to school every day.
But why would the Potato stop with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll? Why not throw in the King of the Jungle? Or his monkey, anyway.
“It was the guy from Tarzan, Johnny Weiss muller. He had a monkey named Cheetah. I was sitting on the beach in Acapulco, and I see this guy and that monkey. Agustin Lara and Maria Felix were there on the beach. And the guy with the monkey. And he says, “Cheetah!’ Hee hee hee. He says to the monkey, “Kiss!’ And that Cheetah pegs me with a pile of kisses!” Check the Motion Picture Guide and it will tell you that in 1948, Tarzan and his co-star went down to Mexico to make a movie called Tarzan and the Mermaids. Kissed by Cheetah, kissed by destiny, the Potato finds his memories make a cozy place on the hard streets.
“You played in the Negro League?” asks a passer-by who realizes what the old man’s picture is supposed to represent. Piloto once had 11 such photos, but someone threw all but this one away.
“Jackie Robinson! 1949! Sherbrooke! Memphis Red Sox! Satchel Paige. That’s my teacher!” Legs crossed, hands outstretched, Piloto’s eyes flicker as he throws English at the man.
“Wow,” says the passer-by, getting confused.
“Give me cigarette? How are you today? You all right?”
The smoke lit, the stories come out like a rich selection of pitches.
Here’s the fastball. “Jackie Robinson took me to Japan. To the city of Tokyo. Robinson played for Montreal, and after that he went to Brooklyn in 1947. In 1950, he picked players to go, and he looked for me. I was in the Negro League with the Red Sox. We were all blacks. One series. Seven games. They play well, the Japanese. They won the first one. But then they didn’t win any more. They won the first, 3-1. I won the second,2-0.” He says the 28 players, who earned $2,000 apiece, were asked to donate money to poor Japanese children.
The listener’s eyebrows arch in a weave of interest and waning skepticism.
In comes the slider. It’s mealtime with a dictator. “Four times with him. I ate with him. Hee hee. We called him Chapita!” He means Rafael Trujillo, the baseball-fanatic former dictator/president of the Dominican Republic, for whom the Potato played one season. And there was the Potato’s friendship with Joaquin Chamorro, his journalist friend, the nemesis of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, and the father-in-law of current Nicaraguan president Violeta Chamorro.
The guy who gave him the cigarette has moved beyond disbelief.
Piloto wings in a curveball, bending below the Equator. His days with the Cartagena Indians of Colombia. The Caracas brewery’s team in Venezuela. Club Panama of Panama City. The Mexican teams of Veracruz, Monterrey, Jalapa, Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana. Seasons and tours in Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica. When one country’s season wrapped up, he was off to another, traveling wherever batters were in need of a pitch. “I didn’t hate it. It was good. Everyone loved you.”
Old games, old pitches, old teammates.
“That’s all I think about. When you see me, I am only thinking about them. Carlos Paula. Sensio Garcia. Santo Amado….”
Piloto lowers the sound on his radio, tuned to Radio Mundo. The hike to third base, to the line forming outside the shelter, awaits. The doors open at seven, sometimes.
April 4, nineteen TWENTY-six! At 2:30 in the afternoon. In Melena del Sur. Near Havana. The capital. Thirty minutes from Havana.” The Potato sprouts.
At the age of 11 years, he starts on the ball fields of Cuba. Right field! Center field!
“One day the game got bad, and they put me in as pitcher, but I didn’t know how to pitch. And there I stay as a pitcher. No, it was that I had a super arm. Powerful. Now at 17, I go semi-pro. In Cuba.”
It’s an arm good enough for a team in the Yucatan to scoop him out of Cuba. He plays for Mérida, Yucatan, until 1945, when he is sold to the Negro team of Miami Beach.
One of his street friends drops off a bag of chips and some mini-donuts, and the old man snacks.
“Mérida sent me to Miami Beach. They sold me. They gave me 10 percent of the sale. They gave me $1,500 in pesos, but who knows what they owed me. Then I get to Miami Beach, and they give me a Coca-Cola, good and cold, and then give me $1,000 to drink it. Hee hee hee.”
Is this the real thing? If he can sell Baby Ruth, why not…?
“When I get to the airport, there was the camera, and they gave me a Coca-Cola, and I drank it and they photographed me, and they gave me $1,000, and I said, “What’s this?’ For a commercial. Hee hee.”
Miami Beach one year, and then he is sold again to West Palm Beach. Soon after he arrives in Memphis, Ada falls in love with him, he with Ada. They have a son. Then he’s off to Cuba, to play for the first time ever in his country’s professional league.
“The first year I played in my country, we went to the championship of Cuba, and I won rookie of the year. In Cuba, the big leagues. They gave me 1,500 pesos with the prize. I played with Club Havana, but we lost to Mendario.” He played only two seasons in Cuba, but it was home. When his baseball migrancy came to an end—his last season was with Mexico’s Tijuana club—he went back to Cuba.
Another cigarette burns to the filter as he inhales ardently.
With the bat and glove shelved, Piloto looks for work in construction, carpentry, painting, odd jobs. “Let’s widen this deck. Let’s add a floor here,” he says of his new career.
His son, who has a promising arm, does not inherit his love of the game.
“My son. I took him to the tryout because I wanted him to be the same as me. He won the champion pitcher! And then he told me he didn’t like it. He said, “Papa, I don’t like baseball. What I want to be is a tank driver, a soldier.’ I said, “You’re crazy.’ But there he stayed, with the government.”
So in Castro’s Cuba, an aging Potato gets by on day work, and by the day’s wits. Like a lot of people, he plays the angles to survive.
“There was the line for sandwiches in the Parque de la Paloma. I was the one who got the sandwiches. It was one per person, each with a ticket. At the government restaurant. But they only gave you one ticket. So I say to you, get me a sandwich. To that one, get me another. I pay a buck for each one,” he says, explaining that he in turn sold the food on the street for two bucks. A good plan, so far.
“But the police were waiting for me. They got me with 23, in a box. They said, “What do you have there?’ I said, “Sandwiches, for my family.’ They said, “Nope. We already know that you sell them for two bucks.’ And the judge says, “Four years!’ For selling sandwiches. They toss me in for four years for selling sandwiches. That’s why I’m here.”
The sandwich smuggler happened to be jailed in 1980, when Fidel emptied the Cuban jails by way of the Mariel boat lift.
“I served 60 days. And then they sent me here. By Mariel. One of those boats came. It was a yacht called Ventura Uno. It brought me to Key West, where I got off. From there they sent me to Wisconsin. To Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, I stay six months. From Wisconsin they sent me to Kansas. Six months in one place, six months in the other. I wanted to go to Miami, but they said I had to come to Washington because I already was older than 50. Now I sleep on the street. I’m here now 15 years. Without going anywhere. What I am is lame, with arthritis. I can barely walk.”
Rounding third toward home, the line for the La Casa shelter starts moving. A familiar face walks by, but the woman doesn’t stop.
“Hey! Gimme cigarette!”
“I don’t have any today, sugar,” she says.
“O.K. Bring me tomorrow.”
Tomorrow won’t be much different. It will still be in Washington, D.C., where the Potato has no money, not much food. One square meal a day and seldom the stuff he likes: rice and beans, chicken and potatoes, ripe bananas.
No family here either. There is a son maybe in Memphis, another in Nicaragua, and the two children in Cuba. His wife, too, in Cuba. Sure, Piloto would like to return….
“But I won’t get there. I won’t get there. I think I die here. I would like maybe to go….
Piloto doesn’t see the last 15 years as bad luck. He believes in the spirits. He has had premonitions of how his life would unfold.
“I just wait to die, because what else am I going to do? The spirit is leaving me. I can’t even walk. It’s a chore to get up. I sit here. I don’t go anywhere.” He nods toward the shelter. “And they don’t let me in there until 9 o’clock at night.” Why? He shrugs.
One of the street companions says that Piloto has told these stories hundreds of times. He insists Piloto is the real thing, that there is no other. “Who else can pitch to Babe Ruth, and then get beat up by a gorilla?”
There’s still time and enough light for one more toss. “I’m going to tell you something,” the Potato says. “I had a gang. We were seven. Seven who lived on the street in Cuba drinking coffee with milk, guarapos and everything. We see these five, five Americans in Havana. Outside there was one who says, “Enter, enter, enter, gentlemen.’ A carnival. There are seven crocodiles. I said, “I don’t go in here.’ Now, when they told me about the boxing gorilla, sure, I got in. The gorilla had his gloves on, and the American is putting the gloves on me. The gang said, “You’re crazy!’ Well, at a dollar for every minute in the ring, they gave me 25 cents. I didn’t last a second. When the bell rang, the gorilla jumps all over me, punching me, and then steps on my head. If the American doesn’t help me, I’m dead. Then my gang: “Get up! Get up!’ How am I going to get up? I was laid up for a week. Hee hee hee.”
Old Piloto shakes his head, still grinning. So he lasts only a few seconds with the gorilla, one pitch to the Bambino, a couple of songs with the King, one outing against Satchel, and a few minutes with the 23 sandwiches before he’s nailed.
If you’re going to circle the base paths around Irving Street for the rest of your days, you might as well keep sliding headfirst; stretch every lead, grip every memory tight. José Piloto may not be dead, and he may not be alive and well. Somewhere in between is the chuckling and hacking, and a chant about the past.
“Jackie Robinson! 1947! Memphis Red Sox! The Negro Leagues Americana. Baby Ruth!”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.