Tony Pérez: 1942—: Professional Baseball Player and Manager Biography
"If there's a runner on second base," former Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson told the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the occasion of Pérez's induction into that body, "there isn't anybody I'd rather see walk to the plate than Tony Pérez. He turns mean with men on base." Indeed, Pérez notched more runs batted in (RBIs) than any other Latin American player in history. One of a group of Hispanic players who dominated major-league play in the 1960s and 1970s, third baseman Pérez was a linchpin of the Reds' legendary offensive "Big Red Machine."
Pérez was born in Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, on May 14, 1942, and grew up in the small town of Central de Violeta. His father was a sugar-factory worker, and young Atanasio Pérez seemed destined to follow in his footsteps although he had been a baseball fan since early childhood and had particularly followed the career of the pioneering Latin American star Minnie Minoso. But he got his break when he attracted the attention of Reds' scout Tony Pacheco while playing with a factory baseball team. At the age of 17, Pérez was signed to the Reds. His only signing bonus was a $2.50 exit visa fee.
Pérez showed up in late winter to play for a Reds farm team in Geneva, New York in 1960. His dislike of cold northern winters was matched by his disorientation; he spoke little English, and the specialized jargon of baseball posed special challenges. Pérez spent six years in the minor leagues, moving to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1962. Of Afro-Cuban background and identified as black, Pérez got a taste of southern segregation. "The black players and I could not stay with the rest of the team," he told Sports Illustrated. "We also couldn't eat with the white players, and sometimes we would wait in the bus outside a restaurant until the white players finished their meals and brought us hamburgers."
In 1963 Pérez moved up to the AAA level San Diego squad in the Pacific Coast League, leaving the South behind, and at the end of the next season was called up to join the Reds. For the 1965 and 1966 seasons he came off the bench frequently, playing in about 100 games each year and recording batting averages in the .260 range. In 1967 Pérez won the starting third-base slot and notched the first of an all-time record 11 seasons with over 90 RBIs. His celebrity in the baseball world got off to a spectacular start in the 1967 All-StarGame, when he hit a home run in the 15th inning off Oakland Athletics pitching ace "Catfish" Hunter and was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
Over the next nine seasons with the Reds Pérez was remarkably consistent, the biggest variation in his year-to-year routine being a position switch from third to first base in 1972. Each year he batted close to .300, batted in about 100 runs, and hit over 20 home runs (except in 1968 when he hit only 18). Pérez's best year was 1970, when he hit 40 home runs, batted .317, and notched 129 RBIs—career-high totals in all three categories. As part of a power-hitting lineup that included Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Pete Rose, Pérez helped the Reds dominate the National League and made numerous All-Star Game appearances. Another career high point came in 1975, when Perez hit three home runs in the Reds' World Series struggle against the Boston Red Sox, the last of them an ultimate clutch shot in the sixth inning of game seven.
Despite that contribution and another solid performance (19 home runs, 91 RBIs) the following year, Pérez was traded to the Montreal Expos at the end of the 1976 season. Shocked by the move, he had no desire to uproot himself for the still colder climes and foreign-language habitat of Quebec, and made his dissatisfaction known. In truth the trade had purely monetary motivations, as Reds general manager Bob Howsam hoped to elevate a young first baseman at the low end of the salary scale and unload the now well-paid Pérez. But it was at about this time that the Reds' fortunes began to crumble, and Howsam later admitted that the trade ranked as the worst move of his career.
Never one to let his feelings interfere with his performance on the field, Pérez continued to rank among the league leaders over three seasons with the Expos; he then was traded to the Boston Red Sox and played for three years there, topping 100 RBIs for the last time during the 1980 season. Pérez reunited with former teammates Morgan and Rose to play for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983, landing in his fifth and final World Series. The Reds finally realized the error of their ways in 1984 and brought him back to finish his career in Cincinnati, where in 1985, at age 42, he hit a grand slam home run on May 13th, becoming the oldest player ever to do so. Pérez retired at the end of the 1986 season; his total of 379 home runs was tied for the lead among Hispanic players until the José Canseco years, and his 1,652 career RBIs are still tops among Latinos and in the top 25 of all players.
Pérez stayed in baseball after his retirement, working in the Reds' front office and getting an abortive shot as manager in 1993—because, some thought, Reds owner Marge Schott wanted to repair her standing with fans after some racially insensitive comments that were widely reported. Pérez lasted only 44 games. "The only thing I didn't like," Pérez told the Sporting News, "was the way I got fired—by a phone call." The Reds had a record of 20 wins and 24 losses at the time—not stellar, but perhaps not bad enough to disguise the fact that Pérez had suffered the fifth-quickest managerial firing in major-league history and had endured another indignity from a team to which he had given a great deal.
Moving to the Florida Marlins organization, Pérez prospered as a front-office executive. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the year 2000 and at the end of that year was hired as an interim manager by the Marlins. Things clicked with the Marlins squad, and Pérez was asked to stay on. The Marlins improved dramatically in 2001, winning 19 of its first 29 games and impressing observers with the bond between manager and team. "This team is young, with a lot of enthusiasm," first baseman Kevin Millar told Sporting News. "Everybody kind of feeds off Tony. We're all a bunch of loud, young idiots out there." At the end of the 2001 season, Pérez's future in his new career as manager seemed a promising one.
Ebony, May 1993, p. 110.
Jet, June 14, 1993, p. 48.
Sporting News, July 9, 2001, p. 27.
Sports Illustrated, June 30, 1986, p. 62.
Baseball Hall of Fame, http://www.baseballhalloffame.org
Latino Legends in Sports, http://www.latinolegends.com
—James M. Manheim