New Orleans’ Ralph “Putsy” Caballero’s 70th anniversary of a major league milestone arrives _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- New Orleans native Ralph "Putsy" Caballero, 86, debuted at third base for the Philadelphia Phillies on Sept. 14, 1944, at the ripe old age of 16, seen here in his home in Lakeview on Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014.

He’s the answer to one of baseball’s best trivia questions: Who was the youngest player to hold down third base in the major leagues?

On Sept. 14, 1944 — 70 years ago today — Ralph “Putsy” Caballero, less than a month removed from playing on Jesuit High’s American Legion team, took the field against the New York Giants at what used to be called the hot corner for the Philadelphia Phillies.

He was in the major leagues. At an age when the most difficult decision he should have to make is whom to take to the homecoming dance, Caballero had to choose which major league team he was going to sign with.

Caballero, at 16 years and 314 days, is still the second-youngest major leaguer of all time. Joe Nuxhall was called up to pitch for the Cincinnati Reds that same 1944 season; Nuxhall was 15 years, 316 days old.

That was the strange world in which U.S. sports operated during World War II.

Caballero was a highly sought-after prospect. He was prepared to sign a two-sport grant-in-aid to play basketball and baseball at LSU — where he would have been teammates on both squads with another familiar name in box scores, Joe Adcock. His potential was known at least in part because Jesuit coach Gernon Brown was a scout for the Giants, and he made Mel Ott (another New Orleanian who got to the majors as a teen) aware of Caballero. “There was a definite connection there,” Caballero said.

The Giants made Caballero an offer with a bonus of $6,000. The Phillies made an offer of a $8,000 bonus. Most accounts of Caballero’s career say he signed for $10,000, but he insists it was the lesser figure, which was considerable for the day.

In those times, a family could purchase a lavish house for $2,000. In today’s money an $8,000 bonus translates to $168,000.

Oddly, it was Ott who steered Caballero to the Phillies.

“I’m treating you like a father would,” Ott advised him. “Whoever offers you the most, sign with them.”

Caballero’s dad, a New Orleans druggist, sealed the deal when he said, “Putsy, if you go to college, it will take you years to save $8,000. So go ahead and sign, and you can go back to college in the offseason.”

On Sept. 9, Caballero signed — as did his father, since Putsy was a minor. Five days later, with the Phillies firmly in last place in the National League, the club activated him and sent him out to third base. He still remembers manager Freddie Fitzsimmons telling him, “Just go there and play the way we know you can.’’

That led to eight seasons in the major leagues in which Caballero played 322 games and pinch-hit twice in the World Series.

In the bigs, Putsy and the Whiz Kids

Playing any in-field position, but mostly second and third base, the light-hitting Caballero spent his 11-year career going back and forth between the Phillies and their minor league affiliates.

The Phillies of that era led the league in colorful nicknames: Bill “Swish” Nicholson, “Granny” Hamner. Willie “Puddin’ Head” Jones and Putsy — a name that could have been a public-relations gaffe. Announcer Gene Kelly kept calling Caballero “Putsch,” which apparently had an insulting connotation to Jewish fans. Eventually it got straightened out.

Caballero also got to see a wider history in the making, playing against Jackie Robinson when the color line was broken in 1947. There’s a classic shot of Caballero tagging Robinson out at third that often appears when an account of Robinson’s career is published. It’s interesting because Caballero played under unrepentant racist manager Ben Chapman, who offered anyone on his team $500 if they got Robinson out of the game and who ordered his pitchers to hit Robinson in the ribs anytime they got a 3-0 count on him.

But Robinson earned Caballero’s admiration.

“He was the perfect man for his mission,” Caballero says now. “Jackie was a great ballplayer, and he conducted himself just the way that was needed at the time, with class and dignity.”

In the offseason of 1948, Caballero, who always returned home — as opposed to most players, who took jobs in the city where they played — married his grammar schoolmate, Clare.

“My daddy (who had heard of the $8,000 bonus) thought I was marrying a rich man,” she recalls.

Clare brought him good fortune, Caballero says. That season, instead of just pinch-hitting and pinch-running, he became an everyday player. He called her “The Rookie’’ because she understood little about the game.

She had no idea about the nuances of baseball. Her sister, on a visit, took a game program, pointed to the information on Caballero and asked what the “2B” by his picture meant.

“Gee, I don’t know,” Clare said. “I think it must mean he had two hits in his last game.”

But then, her sister pointed out, there was also a “3B.” Clare thought, then said, “Maybe he got three hits the game before that.”

Clare says she was out of it as far as baseball was concerned. At spring training after they got married, one of the other wives said she had to come to meet a guy named Happy. Clare had no idea who this “Happy” fellow was and, when she was introduced, she asked if he liked baseball. Happy laughed and said he sure did.

Later, she found out it was Happy Chandler, commissioner of baseball.

The club matured with two Hall of Fame players in pitcher Robin Roberts and outfielder Richie Ashburn (who was Caballero’s roommate and always said Putsy was the greatest card player in the world), ushering in a fabled chapter in baseball: The Whiz Kids. The Phillies, the youngest team in baseball with an average age of 26.4 (Caballero was 22), went from 16 games back in 1949 to winning the National League pennant in 1950.

The Phillies built a 7½-game lead on the preseason favorite Brooklyn Dodgers, then had to hold the Bums off. On the last game of the season, Philadelphia had to win or face a one-game playoff for the pennant. Roberts, pitching his fourth game in the last nine, took the hill. The Whiz Kids won 4-1 in 10 innings at Ebbets Field; Philadelphia, with 91 victories, became the National League champs for the first time in 35 seasons.

Alas, the weakened pitching staff couldn’t hold up in the World Series against the New York Yankees, who won in four straight.

Not until 25 years later, in 1975, did the Whiz Kids get so much as a momento for their accomplishment. Owner Bob Carpenter sent all the players a World Series ring. It hasn’t left Caballero’s finer since.

“He doesn’t wear his wedding ring,” Clare says sarcastically, “but that one never comes off.”

Rounding third, heading for home

At age 24, when most players are just getting started, Caballero played his last game in the major leagues, though he stayed in the minors three more years.

He says he could have played longer, and several clubs (the Red Sox, Cubs and Reds) made offers to buy his rights. But the Phillies wouldn’t cut him loose.

“And in those days, the team owned you. You couldn’t play out your option or contract,” Caballero said.

Three of his seven children were already born, and he and Clare started thinking it might be time to consider a second career. That decision would have far-reaching consequences.

Clare’s father was an entrepreneur, with interests in a pest extermination company as well as a entertainment property on Bourbon Street.

While he took classes at Loyola, then Tulane, Caballero worked as a representative for the pest control company, along with a couple of other local talents in music. Clarinettist Pete Fountain and trumpeter Al Hirt needed day jobs until they could make names for themselves, and they worked as representatives with Caballero.

Once Clare’s father heard them play, he was blown away. They were offered Friday, Saturday and Sunday dates at the club, at 600 Bourbon St.

Caballero eventually owned his own exterminating company, building a comfortable life for the family.

Like all New Orleanians, though, that existence came crashing down with Hurricane Katrina. Thirteen feet of water destroyed their Lakeview home. They lost virtually everything — including a treasure trove of baseball memorabilia Caballero collected through his career. Baseballs autographed by Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Eddie Mathews, Pete Rose and others were lost, along with the house (now restored).

“We lost a lot, and it was heartbreaking,” Caballero says. “But one thing we have that can never taken away is the memories.’’