Once Luque got me throwing the fastball, I started throwing hard to snap my curves and I did all right for Puebla. When I beat Mexico City or Veracruz, the big clubs in the league, the fans would put me on their shoulders and carry me out of the ball park. Naturally, I wasn't popular everywhere. In one game Roberto Ortiz, who played in the majors, hit a homer off me. I was always embarrassed when that happened, but Ortiz annoyed me because he was laughing as he ran around the bases. I told him, "Ortiz, you'll never do that again. Whenever I see you you're going down." I kept my promise. Every time I pitched against him I flattened him. If he said anything he went down again. He didn't do any more laughing. He didn't hit another homer either.
I pitched in the Mexican League for two years, was 20 and 12 in '46, 21 and 13 in '47 and then the league broke up. It was costing too much money. All us refugees were out of jobs. Since we were barred from organized ball we formed a club of our own, the Max Lanier All-Stars, and played 81 games all over the U.S. We won them all. I pitched, played the outfield and first base. But we didn't make any money. In Des Moines we were barred. Organized baseball said we were outlaws, and anyone who let us use a field could be barred, too. We'd kid each other about being outlaws, but we were serious about one point: at least, we told ourselves, we'd helped baseball. And we did, with the pension and all that. I'm qualified for the pension right now. Time flies.
In the fall of '48 I came back home to Niagara Falls and opened a gas station at 56th and Pine. But I wanted to get back into ball, anything to get away from those pumps. The next year I landed a job with Drummondville in the Provincial League, an outlaw league in Canada. Vic Power was there. So were Alex Carrasquel and a lot of fellows from Cuba. We won the championship, and I won 23 ball games. It was while I was at Drummondville that I learned that the Mexican League guys had been reinstated. I was pitching in the fifth inning of a game when I got a phone call telling me that I could come back to New York.
I was 33 when I reported in 1950 to the Giant training camp in Arizona. It felt good to be back, but I knew that it might just be a formality, that they'd give us outlaws a month—just long enough to be legally safe should the Government try to use us to break the reserve clause. They did that with a few but, though Lanier hung on for a while with the Cardinals, I'm the only one who really stayed around. I pitched another nine years in the majors.
In Arizona I caught Durocher's eye right away. The first day the Giants called out seven or eight pitchers to work off the mound. I wasn't among them, but I went out anyway. Later, at a meeting in the clubhouse, Leo welcomed back the boys from Mexico and said to me, "I'm very happy to have you. I see you want to pitch." Durocher was tough like Luque and, like Luque, he always taught. He didn't hold it against me because I had played in the Mexican League. He gave me a real chance. The only guys, in fact, who said anything were a couple of the Pirates, who shouted one day, "Hey, you Mexican jumping bean!" I told them that I'd get them.
The Giants figured I was a reliever because of my age and the fact that I could get the ball over. I did a good job relieving in spring training, but when the season began I was not good. Why I don't know. I was shelved for a while, but the inaction got to me. Finally I went to Leo. "I'm doing something wrong," I told him, "and I want to pitch batting practice." He let me, and suddenly I started getting the corners. We were playing Boston that day and already were losing 3-0 in the first. There were two men on and two out when I got the call. I held the Braves to one run for the next 6? innings.
By July I was a starting pitcher. In a game with St. Louis I walked two, gave up 11 hits and shut the Cards out 3-0. For that performance Jim McCulley of the New York Daily News nicknamed me Sal the Barber. "How come?" I asked McCulley. Because I shaved the plate and came close to the hitters, he said. I didn't mind the name. In fact, it added to my reputation. If the hitters wanted to think I was going to shave them within an inch of the jugular vein, so much the better.
I wound up the year, my first full one in the majors, with a record of 18 and 4. Two of the losses came in the 12th and 13th innings. We finished third that year, and the next year, '51, we were picked to win the pennant. But early in the season we lost 11 straight games, and there were jokes about the Giants.
There were no jokes about the Dodgers, who had won 10 straight at one point and were that many ahead of us almost from the start. I won my first ball game that year against Brooklyn. As it turned out, that was something, because in 1951 any win over the Dodgers was going to be big. For me, though, any win over the Dodgers any year was big. Not that I was bad against them. The truth is I always did well when I faced Brooklyn. In all my career I think I only lost one game at Ebbets Field. But there was a special feeling about Giant-Dodger games in those days. They were great, exciting games, no matter what the standing of the clubs. The fans were wonderful. There was more excitement, for me anyway, in a Giant-Dodger game than in a World Series. There was never anything like it. I felt it. I was all keyed up. It didn't matter if one team got five runs in the first inning. Something was going to happen.
Of course, I was hated in Brooklyn. At Ebbets Field they booed at me, yelled at me and I loved it. The whole scene made me competitive. The first time Campanella would come to bat I'd put the ball about two feet over his head. Down he'd go, and all the Dodgers would start screaming. They'd get so damn angry that they'd try to kill me with home runs—be the big heroes—and they'd break their backs swinging at bad balls. They didn't get anything. I had their number.