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by Editor, Rick Cabral

The Long Journey of
Facundo Antonio "Cuno" Barragan
 


The name Cuno Barragan is nearly synonymous with Sacramento baseball, and almost everyone who knows the game locally knows Cuno and his story: a local boy who played baseball at Sac High and Sac City College, performed in the hometown Solons organization throughout the 1950s, and eventually played with the Chicago Cubs in the early '60s.  

What isn't as well known is Cuno's Latin heritage. One of six children to Mexican immigrant parents, Barragan (pronounced "Barrrrrrr-a-GAN") was the first Mexican American from Sacramento to rise from the local sandlots and make it to the major leagues; in Cuno's case all the way to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

 Cuno1

Asked if his Hispanic major league counterparts—Cepeda, Marichal, Alou, Clemente—knew of his Latin heritage despite the Irish-sounding surname, Cuno explains, "I always introduced myself as Facundo Antonio Barrrrrrr-a-GAN," he says, dramatically trilling his "r's". "But everyone always called me 'Cuno,'" the nickname given to him in Sacramento. 

Ironically, Cuno's final professional game occurred in New York on October 12, 1963 when he was selected as the National League catcher in the first-ever Latin All-Star Game^. The game featured Latin notables from Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other Latin countries and commonwealths. More importantly, it featured the emerging stars of major league baseball, including Roberto Clemente of the Pirates, the Orioles' Luis Aparicio , and the San Francisco Giants' Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal. Clemente, in fact, managed the National League All-Star team. 

Before the game, Barragan met with his battery mate Juan Marichal to go over the signs. The "Dominican Dandy" told him 'When I throw my curve ball, I may throw it slow, fast, over the top, or from the side.' He had so many pitches, you had to have two hands to give signals. But it was a pleasure." Cuno especially was pleased to be on the receiving end for a change, having faced Marichal all the way back to Triple-A when the Giants future star pitched for Tacoma.  

Marichal_button


"He was a pretty good catcher," Marichal says today by phone. "And a real nice guy."
(See Marichal Sidebar)

Among Barragan's prized baseball possesions is a Life Magazine (Spanish version) that chronicled the historic game. In the photo spread, Cuno proudly points to a picture of himself lined up with the great  Latin All-Stars of the  National League, who triumphed that day 5-2. But the score was insignificant compared to the showcase it provided for the Latin stars. Ironically, the game was never staged again.  

Also, that event was the final baseball contest ever played at New York's hallowed Polo Grounds.  

And for Cuno Barragan, it was his final professional baseball game, the culmination of a long personal journey. 


Cuno's parents immigrated from Mexico and met in Sacramento. Claudio Barragan was a widower and had three children when Cuno's mother began working for the Barragan family as a housekeeper and sitter.  Shortly after, Mr. Barragan married Cuno's mother, Josefa, and together they had six more children.  

Cuno Barragan was a Depression-era baby, and in 1934, at the age of 2, his father passed away. Named Facundo for his maternal grandfather, his mother nicknamed him "Cundito," which eventually was shortened to "Cuno." The Barragan family relied on "government relief" to survive, Cuno admits. But he fondly remembers his childhood, growing up at 13th and Q Streets in Sacramento, and playing baseball in the street with his siblings and neighbors. When the ball inevitably rolled toward the P Street tracks senses went on high alert to avoid the oncoming trolley cars. Cuno and friends freely roamed the local parks and streets well into darkness, never afraid. 

Barragan learned the game in city recreation leagues, but when he went out for the team at Sacramento High he was the fourth string catcher. Woody Adams, the Dragons football coach, also served as the baseball team manager. "We didn't think he knew too much about baseball. He didn't instruct us on how to play baseball. He just made sure we didn't get in trouble and made out the lineup," Cuno says in honest reflection. Eventually, in 1949 during his senior year, Jim McKeegan, the established backstop, moved to the outfield, clearing the way for Cuno to catch. "Besides, I was a better hitter," Barragan adds with a wink. Sac High that year took the Sac Joaquin Conference. 

Barragan graduated in January 1950 and immediately went off to Sacramento Junior College. When he went out for the baseball team once again he found himself fourth on the depth chart at the catching position. Believing he was better than the two backup catchers, Cuno took an incomplete and left junior college to begin an on-again, off-again career with Fischer Tile.  

In summer of 1951, two friends from Christian Brothers High—Dan Lahey and Ken Orvick—told Cuno they had resigned their scholarships when St. Mary's College dropped football (along with the other Bay Area Catholic schools, University of San Francisco and Santa Clara). Lahey and Orvick were enrolling at Sac JC to play football, and encouraged Cuno to come out for the team. Barragan told them they were nuts; he was then making $75 a week setting tile in homes or commercial kitchens. But the friends won out, and Barragan returned to college and excelled at football. 

The following spring (1952), Cuno again went out for the baseball team, this time earning the starting catching position and leading the team in hitting with a .4088 average (he won the batting title by a whisker), as the Panthers came close to another state championship. 

He credits Ron King with helping him develop as a catcher. King, himself a pro catcher since 1947, one day watched Barragan's throw down the second sail into the outfield. Behind the backstop, King asked Cuno how he gripped the baseball. "I don't know; I just throw it!" King advised that he begin practicing looking for the seams to get a perfect grip before throwing the ball and to repeat it one thousand times in practice. The advice paid off. Coupled with a strong arm, Barragan became a solid backstop. "That was the biggest instrumental instruction I ever received. Nobody ever worked with me about catching, throwing, hitting." Not even later, during his big league career. 

While catching for Sac City, Cuno also played with two other teams: Rio Vista in the County League on Sunday and Glenn County Cardinals of the Valley League twice weekly. In total, he played five games a week. "All of that exposure was good," he remembers. It led to the Seals calling him for a tryout and offering a contract to play in Yakima, Washington.  

Although he declined the Seals' offer, word of the deal filtered back to Sacramento where Charley Graham, Jr. signed Barragan to a Solons contract starting at $800 per month. As a Naval Reservist, Cuno knew he would be entering the Korean Conflict after the 1953 season, so he wisely negotiated a two-year deal with Sacramento. This guaranteed that he would have one year remaining on his Solons contract after he returning from his two-year Naval duty. 

In the spring of 1953, the Solons optioned Barragan to Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League (Class "C"). Overall, Barragan had a good first year (hitting .269), save for the fractured cheekbone he sustained while colliding with first baseman Red Jessen. Adding insult to injury, Jessen berated Barragan "What the hell were you doing near the first base area?" asked the team's player/manager.

"I was just hustling!" Cuno laughs in remembrance of the collision which resulted in an overnight hospital stay. 

In October, he honored his commitment by entering the Naval Training Center in San Diego. One look at his pro baseball background and the base commander assigned him to the baseball team, which competed against other southern California service teams. When the Solons came down to San Diego for a series against the Padres, Barragan would contact the Solons trainer, who arranged for him to catch batting practice and maintain contact with the Solons organization. 

Eventually, Cuno was granted a transfer to the Naval Air Station Oakland, and received Temporary Assignment Duty to the Naval Air Station Alameda baseball club. That team played against Northern California service squads, such as the Coast Guard, plus local town teams, like the Susanville Merchants and the Humboldt Crabs (3 games per series). "That was good for those guys that had never been up to Northern California," Barragan remembers. 

When Barragan reported for spring training in 1956  he found a crew of catchers in the Solons' camp and was promptly assigned to Amarillo (Single-A, Western League). "Right back out of the service, I didn't think I was going to make that ballclub." But Cuno hit a respectable .257 and Amarillo made the playoffs. 

That fall, as he did every offseason, Barragan continued his education, eventually earning his bachelor's degree from Sacramento State College and later a teaching credential. 

Cuno entered the 1957 spring training optimistic that he could finally make the hometown team. The Solons brought in Jim Mangan, a journeyman major league catcher. Mangan immediately made an impression when he walked on to the field with his golf clubs, and began hitting drives over the outfield wall. Cuno thought him kooky, but Mangan earned Manager Tommy Heath's confidence and the starting job, with Barragan as his backup.

Cuno_Solons

Cuno Barragan was under contract with the Sacramento Solons organization from 1953 to 1960.
Twice the Solons sold his contract for $1. Photo reprinted courtesy of Alan O'Connor Collection.

A few weeks later, Mangan eventually was released. Cuno caught 108 games, but only hit .193. In hindsight he wasn't relaxed playing in front of friends and family. He credits his handling of the Solons pitching staff, which included a bunch of hard throwers: Roger Osenbaugh, Joe Stanka, Bud Watkins, Milo Candini, plus knuckleballer, Earl Harrist. "I did a good job of catching, but I didn't hit." 

That fall, he played winter ball in Mexico and worked on his hitting. On the Pueblo team Cuno played with future Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who passed away last year. 

Nineteen Fifty-Eight was a pivotal year, as Fred David and Dave Kelley took over the Solons ownership. In spring training, they brought in two new catchers (Clay Dalrymple and Bob Roselli), along with Barragan. Despite a solid spring, Kelley informed Cuno "We're going to send you to Atlanta (Double "AA", South Atlantic League). You need a little more experience." 

"Last year, I caught 108 games in the Coast League. That's a lot of experience," Cuno objected. "I just need to work on my hitting." Kelley disagreed and when Barragan rejected the Atlanta assignment, the Solons suspended him. Cuno shrugged and went back to work at Fischer Tile, where by this time he had advanced to apprentice tile setter. 

About a month later, Portland Beavers came to town. Managed by Tommy Heath, the previous year's  Solons manager, Heath finished the series with both catchers hurt. He inquired about Barragan and learned he had been placed on the suspended list. The Solons "sold" Barragan's contract to Portland for $1. Heath that night phoned Cuno. "Meet me at the airport at 8 tomorrow morning; we're flying out to Salt Lake."

Cuno explained that he was retired. "I'm setting tile tomorrow."

Heath repeated his demand, "I need a catcher tomorrow. Meet me at the airport." 

Cuno agreed and explained his situation to the tile company owner, who chided  him, "When are you gonna wake up and forget about baseball? You've got a great career ahead of you in tile."  

The next morning Barragan met Heath and flew to Salt Lake City. That evening, he resumed his position behind the plate. Glad to be back in baseball, Barragan admitted he felt "a little nervous." He threw out one base stealer and also got a hit. He caught five more games and returned to Portland with the team.

In Portland, Bill Brenner, the team's General Manager, called Cuno into his office. "You've been with us for two weeks; it's time to sign a contract." Amazingly, Cuno had been playing without a Portland contract, and the team was "covering its bases." Looking at his Solons deal, Brenner questioned the language that said the Solons would give Barragan 10 percent of the sales price if he ever was sold to a major league club. Cuno explained it was inserted by Charley Graham as a motivational incentive for young  players. Brenner laughed and increased the bonus language to 25 percent. Cuno said "Fine with me; I'm going back to setting tile."  

Ironically in 1959, Brenner took over as Solons GM and invited Cuno to spring training. "Cuno, you can make this ballclub," he said. Barragan mustered a .348 spring average, however, when PCL rival Spokane inquired about a catcher the Solons inexplicably sold his contract once again for $1. Barragan only managed a .205 average, and at the season's end, Spokane returned him to the Solons and got their buck back to complete the transaction. The crazy contracts of the Pacific Coast League.

 Cuno_Batting
In 1960, Cuno once more reported to spring training with the Solons. This time, he made the club, which had sold Clay Dalrymple to the Phillies. Cuno hit .318 in 89 games and  at the end of the season was drafted by the Cubs which purchased his contract for $25,000. Since his Portland deal stipulated the 25 percent bonus clause, Cuno garnered a substantial $6,000 bonus. "It could only happen to Cuno," Barragan remarked about his unusually good fortune. 

Barragan's promotion to the Cubs earned high praise from Sacramento's Mexican American population. A friend told this writer that his father, and others who had played in Sacramento's Mexican-American League, were bursting with pride that one of their own "had made it to the majors." 

 

 

 




As the old saying goes, "Timing is everything." When Cuno Barragan reported to spring training in 1961, his timing couldn't have been worse.  

Throughout the 1950s, the Chicago Cubs had been National League cellar dwellers, despite Ernie Banks twice winning the Most Valuable Player award (1958-1959). In 1961 Cubs owner Phil Wrigley announced that he had hired and fired his last manager and would employ a "college of coaches" to run his ball teams, one of the most unusual experiments in the history of baseball. In lieu of a manager, coaches would rotate throughout the organization, in effect "taking turns" running the Cubs, and its minor league teams over the course of the season. "Unfortunately, they were guys no one had ever heard of," Barragan says with derision, "all vying for the head responsibility. On any given day, there were three or four of them in the Cubs clubhouse." 

At the end of spring training, Cuno was having "a helluva spring," and had won the starting job. In late March, Barragan hit a gapper off of Jim Perry. Trying to stretch it into a triple, Cuno started to slide when the third base coach signaled to stand up. In the process, he suffered a reverse dislocation of his ankle. Writhing in pain, with the Giants' third baseman cradling him, Cuno was thinking, "I'm all done." On the wall of his study is a series of photographs that document that tortuous moment. 

A few days later, the Cubs broke camp, and Cuno Barragan began a long, arduous rehabilitation. By late August, he eventually worked himself into shape, first through batting practice and then catching bullpens. During this period, he watched the coaching carousel up close from the Wrigley Field stands. The attitude of the ball players "was terrible," he remembers, as Chicago again occupied the bottom half of the National League. 

With the roster expansion on September 1, Cuno started his first major league game against the San Francisco Giants. He swung at the first pitch offered by Dick LeMay and drove it in the left field stands for a home run, earning a place in the record book. "I just went up there swinging." When he returned to the dugout a few teammates kidded him, 'Nothin' to it, huh Barragan? Just go up there and stroke it." 

Cuno, who displays impeccable timing, adds "No ball no stop the game, like today," he says arms outstretched in comical disbelief. Ironically, it would be the only home run of his short career.

While poring through Barragan's major league stats, the interviewer is asked, "Does it say in there that I got a hit off of Sandy Koufax?" On Wednesday, September 20, 1961, the Cubs were finishing a three-game series with the Dodgers, who were playing their final game in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The stadium originally opened as a track facility for the 1932 Olympics, served college and professional football for decades and became home to the Dodgers in 1958. The Coliseum, Barragan says, was a "terrible" place to play baseball, and encouraged hitters to aim for the 40-foot net only 250 feet away in left field.  

Koufax

The first two times up against Koufax, he whiffed. Then in the ninth inning with the game still tied 2-2, Barragan slashed a Koufax curve into center field. "Had to be a mistake (pitch)," he admits. The Cubs sent Lou Brock (a future Hall of Famer) to run for Cuno. The contest eventually went into extra innings and the Dodgers won, but Barragan came away with hit off the great "Sandy the K" in the losing effort. 

Barragan opened the 1962 season as the starting Cubs catcher against the expansion Houston Colt .45's. A highlight for that year was throwing out Maury Wills and halting his 20+ game streak of stolen bases, during the fleet-footed Dodger's record-breaking mark of 104 steals in a season. "I never had any problem with him in the minor leagues," Barragan confides. "He wasn't a notorious base stealer then." 

During his time on the Cubs, Barragan played with wonderful teammates: Ernie Banks, Billie Williams (both of whom he refers to as "very personable") and Ron Santo (who recently passed away). While rooming with Santo, Cuno learned that the diabetic third baseman needed to have a bowl of candy around at all times, and they forged a lifetime friendship. 

 Banks

 Williams

Santo

 

In 1963, the Cubs assigned the 31-year-old Barragan to their Triple-A club in Salt Lake City, while still paying his major league salary of $12,000. He remembers it was a great environment (his family had moved out with him), which may have helped his batting average rise to .284.  

That fall, Cuno was excited to learn that he'd been sold to the Dodgers, inspiring thoughts of catching that great Los Angeles pitching staff. Hope turned to dismay, however, when he read his new contract: he had been assigned to their Triple-A farm club in Spokane, for $4,000 less and no chance of trying out for the Dodgers in the spring. In hindsight, Cuno believes he would have won the second string job from Doug Camilli and rookie Jeff Torborg, if given a chance. "I could have been Roseboro's caddie for one or two years," he muses wistfully. 

Once more, Barragan bumped heads with team management by refusing to report to Spokane. He finally retired from professional baseball after nine seasons. His final at bat came that fall in the Hispanic All-Star game in New York.


In 1964, Barragan hoped to ply his college degree and teaching credential into a teaching and coaching position. McClatchy and Sacramento, the only high schools in the Sacramento Unified School District, were staffed with baseball coaches. The only position available was a junior high job. Consequently, Cuno ventured into selling life insurance, and turned it into a successful second career.  

In the meantime, a group of college students—Bernie Church, Jim Fox and Larry Marietti (who all played on the state championship 1962 Bishop Armstrong baseball team) asked Barragan to manage them in the Sacramento County League. At first he was reluctant to spend weekends away from his fledging insurance business, but Cuno consented. He secured a sponsorship from Rainbo Bread, which provided uniforms and equipment. Church, who later coached McClatchy High baseball, remembers Cuno was highly organized, and during the week sent players postcards with motivational messages. "He was probably the best coach I ever played for," Church says. That Rainbo Bread team went on to beat La Fiesta to claim the 1965 County League Championship, and again met their rivals in the big game the following season.

Rainbow_Champs

Manager Cuno Barragan (3rd from left) celebrates with his team just after Carl Boyer (2nd from right)
hit a home run in the Sacramento County League Championship Game, 1966. 
Photo reprinted courtesy of Bernie Church (behind Boyer in photo).


Ironically, Barragan later managed La Fiesta for Sal Gomez. "Do you know hard it is to find nine Mexican ballplayers?" Cuno quipped about the experience. One of those players—Burbank's Fernando Arroyo—went on to a fine major league career as a pitcher.  

In time, Barragan's baseball career would earn him several esteemed honors. In 1973, he was elected to the Mexican-American Hall of Fame for Northern California. The LaSalle Club Hall of Fame inducted him in 1998. And in 2002, Sacramento City College voted Cuno into its Hall of Fame for both football and baseball.  

Looking back on a baseball career that succeeded in large part to tenacity and fortitude, Cuno Barragan admits "It was a long journey, and I'm a better man because of that."

Well said by a Sacramento legend. 

# # # # 



         ^ For more information on the Hispanic All-Star Game, read this article at SABR, at page 23.

Updated 02/02/2010

All contents © Rick Cabral 2011

 

 

 

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