Béisbol in the Canal Zone
by Mac Metheny, BHS '61
Dry season in the Canal Zone brought an inexhaustible list of things to do without the threat of rain. For the boys it meant baseball. In my day, it seemed to be much more competitive for the youngsters then it is today. While the adults tried to round up enough sponsors to ensure that there were playing opportunities for everyone, the harsh reality was that not everyone got to play. There were try-outs with draft selections and it usually produced parity within the leagues. Of course there were some really good players who always stood out but, in general, most of the guys were relatively accomplished players. On the Gold Coast side I remember the Margarita Oilers, Powell’s Garage, Police Pals, and Coco Solito (Cubs) all fielded teams in the Little League that played in Margarita. The Pony Leaguers played in Coco Solito and the American Legion had a team that played in Mount Hope and later at CHS in Coco Solo against “The Other Side”. On the Pacific Side there was an Armed Forces Little League with teams from Amador (Caribbean Command), Curundu (perennial winners), Fort Kobbe, West Bank, Fort Clayton, and Albrook. The Canal Zone Little League played at the sports complex just off Galliard Highway behind the railroad roundhouse and across from Albrook’s landing strip. They had sponsors from among the various businesses in Panama. As I recall, the insurance agencies had a monopoly on team sponsorship. The teenagers played at the same complex in the Fastlich League (sponsored by Casa Fastlich Jewelers) and had the names of local animals/birds (Ocelots, Pumas, Macaws, Palomas, Pericos, and the powerful Fighting Conejos). Man, those rabbits could hit! All of the games were written-up along with box scores and published in the Panama American and each of us would scour the sports pages for the results, even if we had an 0 for 3 performance with a couple of strikeouts. The older teens played American Legion on the weekends at the Balboa High School field. I remember playing with some of the same boys when we were 8 or 9 years old and we were on the same teams all the way through Canal Zone Junior College (The Green Devils) and even into the twilight league. Baseball was a terrific outlet for our energies and thanks to some solid adult leadership built strong character and a sense of fair play for all of us.
After youth baseball and you became a “working boy”, there was the fast-pitch softball league just across the way from the Little League field. With teams like Pan Liquido (Cerveza Balboa sponsored) and White Horse Whiskey and a few rounds of liars dice, who could blame you if you got home a little late after the game. In the late 40’s and early 50’s there was some real professional baseball in the Canal Zone with top-notch players including some who played in the Major’s. There was also the Winter League ball that was played in the National Stadium next to the Metropole and at Mount Hope that showcased some of the top caliber local players as well as some Major Leaguers. I remember Clyde Paris (Rochester of the International League), Marcos Cobos (Salt Lake of the Pacific Coast League), Hector Lopez (NY Yankees), Winston Brown and the like. One year Jim Gentile (the original manos de piedra) from the Baltimore Orioles came down for winter ball and broke his ankle. He spent the next month drinking at the Key Club just off 4th of July Avenue where we pestered him to death while he squired “local talent.” In the mid 50’s Willie Mays brought an all black all-star team to Panama and played in the National Stadium against a good Panamanian all star team. He stole home to win the game 2-1. Pretty exciting stuff! To be at the top of your game with a professional model “heart of the hide” glove and a pair of genuine kangaroo leather spikes, Abernathy’s Sporting Goods was the place to go. They had two stores in Panama; one just off 4th of July Avenue around the corner from Gran Morrison’s and the other just down the hill from the Hilton and just a few doors down from Club Maxim’s. Panama continues to produce Major League caliber talent such as Manuel Rivera and Carlos Lee. One of the best CZ’ers was Eddie Napoleon who, at one time, was a 1st base coach with the New York Yankees. I never could hit my hat size, but could “flash leather” with the best of the fielders. After leaving the Zone, I played baseball with the Navy while stationed in Japan in the early 60’s and was on the All-Navy fast-pitch team in 1975. Baseball in the CZ was a big part of almost every boy’s life and I still enjoy the memories, friendships, and watching a good game!
November 21, 2006