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Hispanic Yankee Greats of Days Past: Luis Arroyo

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Arroyo was the lead bullpen arm for the 1961 World Series champion Yankees.

New York Yankees Pitchers Whitey Ford and Luis Arroyo

The history of Hispanic baseball culture runs deep in the past of the New York Yankees. From Jorge Posada to Alfonso Soriano to Luis Severino, the Yankees have always been aided by great Hispanic players. To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month (Sep. 15th – Oct. 15th) at Pinstripe Alley, we will be highlighting the stories of Hispanic Yankee greats both unheralded and iconic.

This week, we will celebrating the great career of the Puerto Rican native and former Yankee reliever, Luis “Tite” Arroyo. Arroyo was a member of the Yankee bullpen for four seasons, including the World Series winning teams in 1961 and 1962.

In the 1961 championship season, Arroyo had one of the most iconic reliever seasons of all time. Through 119 innings, Arroyo had a 15-5 record and 29 saves; in terms of run prevention, he had a 2.19 ERA — according to the statistical standard of the 1960s, this season is unrivaled. I can confidently say there will never be another season where a reliever accumulates 15 wins and 29 saves. In fact, Arroyo was the first player to ever accomplish this feat, thus providing a huge boost for rookie manager Ralph Houk, making his bullpen management so much easier.

Only one time since Arroyo’s historical 1961 season has a player totaled at least 15 wins and 25 saves when Dick Radatz of the rival Red Sox had 29 saves and 16 wins. This season alone lifted Arroyo to big time status in New York. Outside of this season, his time with the Yankees was modest, as weak as his time in the big leagues with other teams.

Known for having an elite screwball, Arroyo was a bit of a doozy for opposing batters. While he wasn’t a strikeout machine, Arroyo’s command and unique pitch helped him in eight MLB seasons and almost 20 seasons in the Puerto Rican Winter League. He is a bit of an anomaly in baseball history.

Nowadays, we’ve become accustomed to mega-athletic hurlers coming out of the pen throwing 100-mph high heat. Arroyo wasn’t your prototypical athlete. The history logs tell us he may have been the exact opposite. The Associated Press wrote up a profile on Arroyo back when he was with the Yankees, and it is filled with several magnificent quotes. This is how the feature opened:

“He’s fat. He’s old. He’s little. But Luis Arroyo is a big man in the New York Yankee scheme of things when he answers Stengel’s call for a relief pitcher.”

Picture yourself walking up to the plate and seeing a short, out-of-shape pitcher who is slinging all different types of screwballs. Sounds like a very funky at-bat to me. Despite his lack of imposing stature, Arroyo was first trusted by legendary manager Casey Stengel in 1960 perhaps for those exact reasons. He was unlike any other pitcher in the physical sense of it, and he also offered a different look in terms of repertoire.

In that same AP feature, Arroyo was applauded by Stengel for his idiosyncratic screwball usage. In his odd nomenclature he called Arroyo’s screwball a “whoosh-whish” pitch. Setting himself apart from other screwball-throwers, Arroyo threw variants of the pitch, including one that moved in the opposite direction of his primary screwball. Here’s another great quote from Arroyo on the pitch:

“I call it a back-up scroogie … That’s a screwball that breaks the other way, which is the way an ordinary curve breaks. I keep it away from right-handed batters and inside to left-handed batters.”

What an interesting player. In a way, he is a baseball unicorn. He was unique in his own era, and would have been in any other as well. Arroyo is in the crop of players from the mid-20th century who was a legend in various leagues in Latin America who had a brief stint in MLB. To put things into perspective, you should know that Arroyo was the player who traveled with the great Roberto Clemente in his first trip to the states. Arroyo was a legend in the PRWL looking to guide a young Clemente in his first trip stateside.

There isn’t much else more on Arroyo and his life. As baseball historians continue to invest more time into exploring the lives of players like him, hopefully we get to learn more and more. Most of the information from this piece came from Arroyo’s SABR bio. Go there to read more about his great story.