Ted Leavengood is the author of two books on Washington, D.C., baseball: Ted Williams and the 1969 Senators and The 2005 Washington Nationals: Major League Baseball Returns to the Capital.
He’s also managing editor at Seamheads. Some days after I started my obscure baseball figure project, he sent me the below article choosing all-around baseball man Joe Cambria, who’s especially closely tied to the original Washington MLB team, as his favorite obscure baseball figure. Here it is:
Webster’s lists the synonyms for “obscure” as ambiguous, dark and mysterious and Joe Cambria fills out that suit about as well as anyone. Cambria was a swarthy Italian-American and his shady reputation colors him certainly ambiguous, with a hint of mystery for good measure. The myth and reality to the man is as smoky as Clark Griffith’s office beneath the stadium when pinochle cards were flying and every player was identified by his cigar.
Cambria allegedly scouted and signed Fidel Castro as a baseball player, but it is an urban legend like Cambria himself seems at times to be. What is certain is that he played minor league or semi-pro baseball in Massachusetts until he broke his leg. He then opened a laundry business in Baltimore, MD called the Bugle Coat and Apron Supply Company. Cambria started a company team and built them a field that came to be known as Bugle Field. That company team was the first of many Cambria would sponsor and own.
Bugle Field achieved fame when it became the home of the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1938. Though the Elites played some games at Orioles Field, their home field was the stadium built by Cambria. The field had been home to the Baltimore Black Sox in earlier years when Cambria owned that Negro leagues team. The team folded when the wages he paid were not enough to keep the players from jumping to other opportunities after the 1932 season. “Cheap” became a watchword for Cambria as he trafficked in baseball talent, trying to buy low and sell high.
Whatever fame Cambria reached came through his relationship with Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Nationals. The history of Washington baseball could almost be divided into two periods–one Pre-Cambrian that existed until 1934 when Cambria and Griffith met, and the post-Cambrian period that saw the Nationals achieve their own obscurity.
Griffith met Cambria in the grandstands one day when both men were scouting talent from the team fielded by Huerich Brewery in Washington. Whatever conversation transpired revealed sufficient commonality for Griffith to put Cambria on the payroll shortly thereafter. It was 1934 and Cambria owned numerous minor league teams including the Albany, NY franchise. In typical Cambria fashion, he bought the Albany team early in the Depression years for $5,000 and sold it several years later for $65,000.
Baseball Commissioner, Judge Landis, forbid scouts from owning minor league teams because he eschewed the entire “farm” system concept. Cambria ran afoul of Landis on the issue, only to be bailed out by Griffith. That kindness cemented the friendship between Cambria and Griffith.
Cambria opened a pipeline between Washington and Cuba in 1934 as well. He owned the Havana Cubans of the Florida International League and spent many months of the year on the island. Economic distress forced Griffith to sell Joe Cronin for $250,000 to Tom Yawkey to meet his baseball debts after the failures of the 1934 season. From that date onward, Griffith looked for talent in the most obscure nooks and crannies he could find and Joe Cambria seemed to know them all too well. The appealing price tag for Cuban talent made it an increasingly important source of talent for Clark Griffith and his Washington Natonals.
Brad Snyder, in his book–Beyond the Shadow of the Senators–recalls the name Cambria took on in the day as the “Christopher Columbus of baseball” for first discovering Latin ballplayers. Perhaps the best of his early finds was Bobby Estalella, a Cuban who played for the Nationals from 1935-1942. Snyder alleges that Estalella was of African descent and hence the first black ballplayer. He was but the first of many olive-skinned Cubans. Alex Carrasquel was the first Cuban pitcher to take the mound for Washington–also signed by Cambria.
The very first Cambria signing for Griffith was actually Alan “Bullet Ben” Benson, who had played for the House of David barnstorming team. He played for the Nationals in 1934, for a less than princely sum no doubt. Cambria replaced Joe Engel who had been the primary Washington Nationals scout since Griffith had become owner in 1920. Engel and he signed such Washington notables as Bucky Harris and Joe Cronin. By 1934 Engel had become tied to Griffith’s attempts to build a minor league organization beginning in Chattanooga, TN.
Cambria brought many of the best players to Washington over the next two decades and followed the team to Minnesota. His first non-Cuban talent of any note was George Case, the speedy base-runner who became the starting left-fielder for the Nationals. He also signed Mickey Vernon, Eddie Yost, Early Wynn and most of the talent that played for Clark Griffith in the years when the team seldom escaped the cellar. His most famous signings formed the backbone for the Minnesota Twins’ AL championship team in 1965: Camilo Pascual, Zoilo Versalles, and Tony Oliva. Luis Tiant was also a Cambria discovery. Cambria died in Minneapolis in 1962 before seeing any of that talent achieve their first taste of fame. It was a death in obscurity, of course, noted only in the most devout of baseball publications.
Resources: Shirley Povich, The Washington Senators; Bob Luke, The Baltimore Elite Giants; Brad Snyder, Playing in the Shadow of the Senators; S.L. Price, Pitching Around Fidel.