SPORTS

A baseball pioneer takes a road trip, with Little Leaguers, to his native Puerto Rico

  • The Felix Mantilla Little League squad headed to Puerto Rico. Felix Mantilla (center rear) wears a black shirt and sunglasses, while his son Tony stands next to him. (Photo: Courtesy of Journey House and Felix Mantilla)

    The Felix Mantilla Little League squad headed to Puerto Rico. Felix Mantilla (center rear) wears a black shirt and sunglasses, while his son Tony stands next to him. (Photo: Courtesy of Journey House and Felix Mantilla)

  • From left: Hank Aaron, Felix Mantilla and Bill Bruton of the Milwaukee Braves. (Photo: Courtesy of Journey House and Felix Mantilla)

    From left: Hank Aaron, Felix Mantilla and Bill Bruton of the Milwaukee Braves. (Photo: Courtesy of Journey House and Felix Mantilla)

Over his 11-year big league baseball career, Felix Mantilla helped integrate baseball, roomed with Hank Aaron on the 1957 championship Milwaukee Braves, was one of the best hitters on possibly the worst team in MLB history – the 40-120 1962 New York Mets – and broke up Harvey Haddix’s 1959 bid for perfect game in the bottom of the 13th inning.

But despite all that, his most lasting baseball legacy may involve a bunch of 9- and 10-year-old kids.

Mantilla, now 82, and his son Tony, run a Little League on Milwaukee’s south side named after the former All Star, and this Thursday they are taking a group of 14 kids, along with one parent or guardian apeice, to Mantilla’s native Puerto Rico for a 5-day trek filled with culture, Puerto Rican history and, of course, baseball.

And while baseball will be played on the excursion, “This is a cultural and educational opportunity for the kids,” Tony Mantilla told Fox News Latino. “Many of them haven’t even seen Lake Michigan, but now they’ll be getting a chance to expand their circumstances that middle-class folks take for granted.”

The kids, a selection of players from the Felix Mantilla Little League, will meet with the governor of the island, Alejandro García Padilla, and his wife, get a private tour of the Museum of Sports outside San Juan, hike in El Yunque rainforest, experience the Camuy River caves – and, oh, yeah, play a little ball.

“Clearly, everybody is very excited about playing baseball as well,” Tony Mantilla said.

“The kids are getting a chance to do all that,” Felix Mantilla told FNL in Spanish. “I’m going to take it a bit easy, visit with my sisters in Isabella, call up a few former teammates from the Criollos de Caguas” in the Puerto Rican league.

The baseball exchange between Milwaukee and Isabella is an effort that’s being funded largely by local groups like the Luke Homan Foundation, the Geiger Family Foundation and the Thomson Companies, as well as big-time athletes like former NBA star Sidney Moncrief and the recently released New York Yankees slugger, Alex Rodriguez.

It will culminate next summer, when a group of Isabella kids come to the U.S.

“The response in the Milwaukee community has been fantastic,” said Tony Mantilla, 61, a corporate lawyer who last year started to get involved in the Little League founded by his dad in 1972.

Felix Mantilla was part of a unique time in baseball history. Signed by the Milwaukee Braves in the early 1950s, he was one of the franchise’s first black players, along with Hank Aaron and Bill Bruton.

In 1953, he roomed with Aaron on the Jacksonville, Florida, Braves – one of the only integrated minor league teams in the southern U.S.

“That was a little too hot to handle,” he remembered. “We couldn’t stay in hotels with the rest of the team. We had to take black taxi cabs. It wasn’t easy, especially since I was still learning how to speak English.”

Mantilla, a versatile fielder who played six seasons for the Braves and went on to hit 30 home runs and made it to the All-Star game while with the Boston Red Sox, played a key role in one of the strangest games in baseball history.

On the afternoon of May 26, 1959, in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh Pirates ace pitcher Harvey Haddix had a perfect game – no hits, no walks, no errors, no men on base – going into the bottom of the 13th inning.

Problem was, Lew Burdette of the Braves was matching Haddix 0 for 0 on the scoreboard, despite having allowed the Pirates 12 hits.

Mantilla led off the bottom of the 13th for the Braves. It was his first time up after entering the game as a defensive replacement, and he bounced a ball to Pirate third baseman Don Hoak, whose wild throw pulled first baseman Rocky Nelson off the base. With the error, Mantilla ended Haddix’s perfect game.

Two batters later, with Mantilla on second base and Aaron on first after an intentional walk, Joe Adcock drilled the ball into the right field stands for what seemed to be a no-hitter and game-ending three-run home run.

Except Aaron for some reason headed for the dugout, and Adcock passed him. Aaron was called out, and Adcock was awarded a double. The game ended with Mantilla scoring the only official run.

“Nobody had any idea what had happened,” he recalled. “It was the craziest thing I ever saw.”

And as one of the stars of the expansion 1962 New York Mets, Mantilla clearly had some experience with crazy.

He remembers when his teammate, the shortstop Elio Chacón, got into a scrape with San Francisco Giants star Willie Mays.

“Mays slid into second base, and I saw him pop up and grab Elio,” Mantilla remembered. “I threw myself on top of Mays to restrain him, and after it got cleared up I asked Elio, ‘Why did he go after you?’ he said, ‘Probably because I bit him in the leg.’”

But his biggest baseball thrill came in 1957, when he and Aaron and the rest of the Braves won the World Series in a seven-game thriller over the powerful New York Yankees. “That was one of the most fantastic moments of my life,” he said.

One, he hopes, that will be rivaled by taking a Little League squad to Puerto Rico.

“I can’t wait to get there,” he said. “To give these wonderful kids a great experience.”