Inter-American League (1979)
Folded: June 1979
Stadium: Miami Stadium
Roberto “Bobby” Maduro dreamed of forming a pan-Caribbean professional baseball league, linking the hardball-crazed tropical capitals of the sport by air: the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama and Venezuela. Everywhere but his native Cuba, that Soviet farm club drifting 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Maduro knew Cuban baseball as well as anyone. He owned the Class AAA Havana Sugar Kings of the International League from 1954 to 1960 before the Revolution cost him his ballclub and all of his property. He settled in Miami’s Cuban exile community in 1961 and it was Miami that would fill in spiritually for Cuba when Bobby Maduro formed the Inter-American Professional Baseball League in the fall of 1978.
Maduro announced the birth of the Miami Amigos on September 14th, 1978. Ronald Fine and Joe Ryan, owners of the Class A Miami Orioles of the Florida State League, would own both ballclubs who would share Miami Stadium. The Orioles/Amigos even sold a combined season ticket, for the masochist who wanted to wrap himself in Miami’s blanket of sweltering humidity for 130 ballgames each summer.
Maduro called in connections from a lifetime in the game to get his vision off the ground. He worked for Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for more than a decade as a special assistant on Latin American baseball. Amigos owner Joe Ryan was another key figure – in addition to his Miami Orioles investment, he served as President of the American Association, one of the three U.S. minor leagues recognized as triple-A by Minor League Baseball’s governing body, the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs. Departing National Association President Bobby Bragan managed winter league ball in pre-Revolutionary Cuba and knew Maduro well. On his way out the door in late 1978, Bragan gave the final approval to confer triple-A status on Maduro’s upstart league for the 1979 season.
There were six teams for the 1979 season, including the Amigos, the Caracas Metropolitanos and the Maracaibo Petroleros (Oilers) in Venezuela, the Panama Banqueros (Bankers), the San Juan Boricuas in Puerto Rico, and the Santo Domingo Tiburones (Sharks) in the Dominican Republic. Unlike other triple-A leagues, the Inter-American League was composed entirely of independent clubs with no Major League affiliations. On the down side, this meant that the teams were responsible for all of their own expenses, which would contribute to the Inter-American League’s eventual undoing. On the bright side, independent clubs could sign – and keep – and players they wished and could focus on winning rather than developing players for the parent club.
The Amigos brought on former Baltimore Orioles All-Star Davey Johnson as player/manager. It was the first managerial experience for Johnson, who would go on to win a World Series at the helm of the New York Mets seven years later. Johnson’s charges included a league-high thirteen players with Major League service time. A few highlights:
Danny “The Sundown Kid” Thomas, whose once promising career with the Milwaukee Brewers was derailed by psychiatric problems, a suicide attempt, and his membership in the Worldwide Church of God, which prohibited him from playing baseball on the Sabbath.
Cuban-born pitcher Oscar Zamora pitched in the Majors just the previous summer with the Houston Astros. Like Thomas, who was excused from playing between sundown Friday and sundown, Zamora only showed up to pitch intermittently while tending to his shoe business in Miami.
“Bullet” Bob Reynolds was a 1st round draft pick in 1966 who threw 100 miles per hour as a high school phenom in Seattle. Like Reynolds, 35-year old slugger Hal Breeden was just back in the States after mercenary work in the Japanese Central League.
The Inter-American League debuted in April 1979 and by June it has plunged into its death spiral. From the beginning, the league was plagued with problems both natural and man-made, from tropical rains that washed out large numbers of games to visa and airline snafus that turned inter-Carribean travel into a nightmare and caused more games to be missed entirely. The Venezuelan teams drew well, particulaly Caracas who pulled larger crowds on average than the Oakland A’s. But entrenched winter league interests in Puerto Rico set out to destroy the San Juan Boricuas club, who occasionally drew fewer than 100 fans to Bithoron Stadium. Owners were undercapitalized and unreliable. In mid-June, the owners in San Juan and Panama walked away, leaving players stranded across the Carribean, trying to find their own way home with rubber paychecks in their pockets.
In Miami, the Amigos had their own troubles. Davey Johnson underwent back surgery and missed most of the chaotic final weeks of the league.
Danny Thomas, leading the league with six home runs in early June, began to unravel emotionally once again. Already missing one and sometimes two games a week due to his religious observances, he began getting thrown out of games for angry tantrums with umpires. Davey Johnson suspended Thomas, who then visited a nutrionist he found through the Worldwide Church of God. The nutritionist attributed Thomas’ anger problems to low blood sugar and put him on a cleanse diet that included drinking 80 ounces of distilled water and molasses a day. It was a diagnosis that tragically misread the severity of Thomas’ psychiatric problems.
The Inter-American League limped along for two more weeks after San Juan and Panama folded. The league played its final games on the evening of June 30th, 1979 and the league disbanded in the middle of the night. The Amigos finished with the best record in the league at 51-21. Acccording to Baseball-Reference.com, the club averaged 1,350 fans at home.
Nicaraguan pitcher Porfirio Altamirano was the only Amigo who managed to use the Inter-American League as a springboard to (or back to) the Major Leagues. He played parts of three seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs from 1982 to 1984.
Davey Johnson became manager of the New York Mets in 1984 and won a World Championship in 1986 at the age of 43. He later managed the Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers and as of this writing in 2011 is the manager of the Washington Nationals. Johnson also dabbled in sports investments as the founding owner of the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators in 1991-1992.
Danny Thomas never played professional baseball again after the Inter-American League folded. His young family quickly fell back into poverty in the Mobile, Alabama area and his severe psychiatric problems continued to plague him. In June 1980, he was arrested on charges of raping his family’s 12-year old babysitter. Soon afterward, he hanged himself in his jail cell and was given a state burial for indigents.
Amigos and Orioles owner Ronald Fine passed away in 1988 at the age of 58.
Roberto Maduro passed away at the age of 70 in 1986. Miami Stadium, the home of the Amigos, was renamed Bobby Maduro Stadium in his memory the following year. The stadium continued to host baseball events of various types through mid 1990’s. It was demolished in 2001.