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Mudville: May 25, 2022 8:51 am PDT
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Jersey City Sugar Kings

This year marks the 60th anniversary of one of baseball’s most unique teams.

A team that has been largely forgotten. Here at The Story, we remember — and this is a team worth remembering. Teams go through difficult times in baseball all the time, but no team ever went through what this team did.

This team made it through a revolution and one of its players was even grazed by a bullet during a game in 1959. Say hello to the Havana Sugar Kings that were owned by Bobby Maduro. You may only know them through the Miami Marlins’ colorful throwback uniforms but there is so much more to this truly International League team.

The Triple-A Sugar Kings survived the Cuban Revolution and then after a championship season in Havana in 1959, found themselves playing in Jersey City at Roosevelt Stadium in the middle of the 1960 season – and all of 1961 as well – to escape the turmoil of the revolution and the possibility of being nationalized.

The name was changed to the Jersey City Jerseys, blowing a great marketing opportunity to be the Jersey City Sugar Kings, but it was a much different time and jersey sales were not even a figment of the imagination back then.

Shortstop Leo Cardenas, who went on to play 16 years in the majors, was the player grazed by a bullet in Havana during that game against the Rochester Red Wings in 1959 when a midnight “celebration’’ of the sixth anniversary of the first attack of Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries on government forces took place.

Yes, the game was running late. Rochester player/coach Frank Verdi also was hit by a falling bullet but like Cardenas, was not seriously injured.

“The Yankees farm team from Richmond would come in and they had Tommy Tresh, Rochester had Boog Powell. It was really fun, a good brand of baseball. You saw guys who eventually wound up in the Bigs. I really enjoyed it.’’

Nothing could stop those Sugar Kings that season as they went on to win the International League Championship beating Columbus (Pirates) and Richmond (Yankees) in the playoffs. They went onto the Junior World Series against the Minneapolis Millers, led by Carl Yastrzemski.

Fidel Castro threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game 3 and in Game 7 the Sugar Kings won the series in walk-off fashion with a head-first slide at home, only to escape to New Jersey in the middle of the next season.

Here at BallNine we don’t just tell great baseball stories. We go to the source. We tracked down the public address announcer for the Jersey City Jerseys back in 1960, Dom Alagia, who at the age of 93 is still going strong as a PA announcer. We also spoke to one of the star players on the Sugar Kings/Jerseys, Cookie Rojas, a legend in his own right, who also played 16 years in the majors.

Rojas, 82, recalled the Havana summer night when bullets rained down on the ball field.

“We were playing on July 26 against Rochester, and they were shooting Springfield rifles up in the air in celebration and, of course, you had thousands of shots, some of them came over and hit one of their guys and also Leo Cardenas in the arm,’’ Rojas told BallNIne. “It was crazy. That caused baseball to start getting involved into seeing if they could move the club from Havana to Jersey City. They finally got permission to move the team the next year.\

“We had a tremendous amount of Latin American players and there was talent all over the island,’’ said Rojas, who became a five-time MLB All-Star. “We had Luis Arroyo and there was Vic Davalillo, one of the best hitters you ever saw.’’

Portrait of members of the Jersey City Little Giants as they pose before an International League game, Jersey City, New Jersey, 1960. Among those pictured are Cuban players Vic Davalillo and Orlando Pena. Later, Jersey City became the home of the relocated Havana Sugar Kings International League franchise. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

Davalillo came to Cuba from Venezuela. He was a pitcher at first, not a hitter.

“The story about Davalillo, when we were working out in Havana, Davalillo came in to practice with Tony Castano, then the manager of the team,’’ Rojas explained. “Davalillo came as a pitcher and then in batting practice he started hitting balls in the old stadium in centerfield against the scoreboard.

“Castano went crazy, called him over and said, ‘Forget about pitching, get that glove and walk over to first base, you are not a pitcher anymore.’’

Davalillo played 16 years in the majors, batted .301 in 1965 for the Indians, second best in the American League, was an All-Star and also won a Gold Glove as he moved to the outfield. Over 22 postseason games he batted .323. Only 5’7” and 150 lbs., he made the most of his size.

“He could hit, no question about that, it was really something to see,’’ Rojas said admiringly.

That 1959 Havana Sugar Kings team won the 75th International League Championship and the Junior World Series, beating the Millers in seven games. The first two games of the Junior World Series were played in the cold of Minneapolis and only around 3,000 fans showed up. In the games in Havana huge crowds came to the ballpark.

After the move to Jersey City, there were few big crowds. Attendance was dreadful even though the baseball was excellent.

When Dom Alagia would arrive for work at Roosevelt Stadium to do the PA, the team would be taking infield and he quickly made a positive impression on Cookie, by saying hello every day but using Cookie’s proper name: Octavio.

“I just loved being the PA address announcer for the team, and such wonderful names,’’ Alagia told BallNine as he started going through the roster by memory of a team from 60 years ago.

The Sugar Kings were a Cincinnati Redlegs minor league team. When they moved to New Jersey they also were known as the Jersey City Reds. That first season there were 13 players from Cuba, former Sugar Kings, who played for the Jerseys.

PA Announcer Dom Alagia.

“I just loved the names, there was Chico Cardenas, Rogelio Alvarez, Yo-Yo Davalillo, and his younger brother Victor Davalillo,’’ Alagia said in his baritone voice. “You had Mike Cuellar. You had Luis Arroyo who made it to the Yankees. Nap Reyes, from the New York Giants, was the manager. It was really something special.’’

And of course, there was Octavio “Cookie’’ Rojas.

“When I’d walk into the ballpark and he’d be out there in the field I would call out, ‘Octavio’ and he’d smile,’’ Alagia recalled. “He was a good guy.’’

Rojas laughed about that memory and said, “That is correct. No one ever called me Octavio.’’

It was his mother that gave him the nickname, but it was not Cookie.

“It was Cuqui,’’ Rojas explained to me.

And it meant charming, adorable.

“When I came over to America they asked me if I had a nickname and I said, ‘Yeah, Cuqui.’’’

It became the Americanized version of Cookie.

Rojas was a trailblazer, not only coming over from Cuba to play baseball in the United States but in the way he was utilized. He was primarily a second baseman but could play anywhere on the diamond, and became one of the game’s first super subs, a role that is so in fashion today with teams wanting players who can bounce all over the field. He became an All-Star in both the National and American Leagues.

After just 39 games with the Reds in 1962, Rojas was traded to the Phillies for relief pitcher Jim Owens. He spent seven years in Philadelphia and wound up in a huge trade, along with Dick Allen to the Cardinals. The Phillies got Tim McCarver and Curt Flood, but Flood refused to report and that eventually changed the ways the business of baseball was conducted. After only one year in St. Louis, Rojas was dealt to the Royals at the age of 31 and his career was reborn in Kansas City. Five times over his career Rojas was an All-Star. In one game for the Phillies he started in centerfield, moved to shortstop and finished at catcher.

Octavio ``Cookie`` Rojas - shown here while playing for the Cienfuego Elephantes. (Photo courtesy Victor Rojas)

“The story with that is this,’’ Rojas told me of becoming a super sub, “when we finally beat Richmond and Columbus to get to the playoffs in the International League (in 1959), we had as our manager Preston Gomez.

“The other team Minneapolis, in the Little World Series, their manager was Gene Mauch,’’ Rojas said. “At that time, I never did play more than second base. When the season was over and we won the Little World Series and then (after the 1962 season) I was sent to Philadelphia, Gene Mauch was the manager in Philadelpha. So look at all the coincidences that happened. He saw me play in the International League, I went over to Philadelphia and the big league club as a second baseman, but Gene Mauch, you’ll remember, believed a lot in platooning. Lefty-righty, righty-lefty all the time, he started using me at second base and then all of a sudden send me to left field the next inning. Then after that, it was just unbelievable. One or two positions every day, Tony Taylor would play third base, I’d be at second. The next day Tony would be at second and I’d be moved somewhere else. Just one of those things.

“After that, I got traded to St. Louis; Dick Allen and I went to St. Louis,’’ Rojas said. “Then I went to Kansas City, played there eight years and all that. After I retired in ’77, looking for a job, Preston Gomez helped get me hired with the Cubs (1978-81) as a coach. Preston was later hired by California Angels as a scout and he offered me a job with the Angels, and who was the manager – Gene Mauch. Unbelievable.’’

Rojas was a coach, a scout and even managed the Angels in 1988. In addition to those jobs he also coached for the Marlins, Blue Jays and Mets, under Bobby Valentine. Rojas has been a broadcaster, too, he has done it all in his baseball life.

From my days in San Diego I got to know Preston Gomez, who was a scout at that time, one of the nicest men I have ever met in the game.

Jersey City baseball returns to Roosevelt Stadium, July 15th as a resulf of the International League withdrawing their club, the Sugar Kings, from Havana. Here are (from left to right): William V. McLaughlin, Director of Public Safety of Jersey City; Nat Reyes, Manager of the Jerseys; Miss Jersey City, Delphine Risk; Bernard Berry, Commissioner of Parks; (front seat) Orlando Pena, pitcher for the Jerseys; and Enrique Izquirdo, catcher for the Jerseys. The team will play its first game at Roosevelt Stadium July 15th.

“Preston Gomez was like a father to me,’’ Rojas said of the manager of the 1959 Sugar Kings. “We’d go out to the ballpark at 12 o’clock, sit in the stands and start talking baseball. ‘Why do you do this? Why do you do that?’ He taught me a lot of baseball.’’

Rojas, 5’10”, 160, was known as a heady and talented player throughout his long career, a career that began to take off with the Havana Sugar Kings and then the Jersey City Jerseys. Over his 6,871 major league plate appearances, Rojas struck out only 489 times.

“It was good baseball, Triple-A baseball,’’ Alagia said of those days in 1960-61 in Jersey City. The Yankees farm team from Richmond would come in and they had Tommy Tresh, Rochester had Boog Powell. It was really fun, a good brand of baseball. You saw guys who eventually wound up in the Bigs. I really enjoyed it.’’

In that era, though, fans would rather watch the major league Yankees on free TV than spend money to go to Roosevelt Stadium to watch the team.

Noted Rojas, “In Jersey City there was no attendance, they could not draw any kind of fans and that determined if they would move the ballclub.’’

“You couldn’t compete,’’ Alagia said, who also worked at one of the local newspapers, the Hudson Dispatch, and knew the area well. “I remember Ken Frank, Todd Frazier’s high school coach, he grew up in Jersey City and used to go to the games, later telling me he used to hear me at those games. The ballpark was good, 330 down each foul line and 411 in dead center. The seating was good, it just wasn’t meant to be. I think if it were today, people would support them considering high price of major league tickets, plus the long games in the major leagues now, the games are forever.’’

That’s for sure.

Workers put last minute touches on Roosevelt Stadium in preperation for the opening game of the International League team the ``Jerseys.`` The Jerseys, originally the ``Sugar Kings`` of Havana were moved form the Cuban city there as a result of the recent disturbance in Cuba.

For many years, Alagia would do the PA at picturesque Michie Stadium at West Point for Army football. “I started in 1972 and went to 2003, 32 years, I had 15-Army-Navy games,’’ he said of those most special games that were played in Philadelphia. He also did one Army-Navy game at Giants Stadium.

“Every time Army was the home team I would get it,’’ Alagia explained

“West Point is such a beautiful place to watch a game,’’ Alagia said of one of the great sports venues in the country. “The history of that place is amazing. If you love the game, the tailgating is great, you can walk around, I can’t say enough about it and the kids are fantastic. I’d walk in on a Saturday and a cadet, either male or female would say, ‘Good afternoon, sir,’ and I’d say, ‘It’s Saturday, forget the Sir thing and they’d go, ‘Yes, Sir.’ And then I’d say, ‘Okay, you win.’ It’s so much ingrained in them. Just terrific kids.’’

Alagia loves basketball PA as well and did the NCAA Regionals at the Meadowlands

“I was a lucky charm for my man Mike Krzyzewski, a West Point grad,’’ Alagia said. “They played four times in it (with Alagia doing the PA) and four times they won.’’

This weekend Alagia, who lives in Toms River, is working the 37th annual WOBM Christmas Classic at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena at Toms River High School, an event he cherishes. He also does PA for Stockton College and Ocean County College.

“What am I going to do sit at home and look to the four walls, and they don’t talk to me much, they are not very good conversationalists,’’ Alagia said with a laugh.

He has stories to tell like the Havana Sugar Kings playing in Jersey City.

After the 1961 season the team moved to Jacksonville, Florida, became affiliated with the Cleveland Indians and were renamed the Suns. Jacksonville still has a team. They are now called the Jumbo Shrimp, the AAA affiliate of the Miami Marlins.

Seems like Sugar Kings would be a fitting name for them, but the Sugar Kings remain a memory, and a popular jersey to sell some 60 years later for the Marlins.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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