I thought I had finally made it to the majors. In the 1945 season, after I was called up from Jersey City to the Giants, I won five, lost four. I had three shutouts, one of them against the Pirates. I never threw the spitter, but Preacher Roe, who was then with Pittsburgh, sure did. He admitted it after he retired, but I knew it at the time. Once when the writers asked me about the spitter I said, "Well, I don't throw it. I know one pitcher who throws it a lot. I won't tell you who he is, but his first name is spelled P-r-e-a-c-h-e-r." He was sore as hell about that.
Dolf Luque was a Giant coach during the '45 season. He liked the way I pitched, and I liked Luque. He was going to manage Cienfuegos in the winter league in Cuba, and he suggested that I play for him so I would be ready when the '46 season began. I was thought of as a "wartime" player, and I wanted to show that I could produce, so I agreed. With Kay, my wife, I went down to Cuba. She was a wonderful woman. She'd watch me pitch and never say a word. We never talked baseball at home, except once. After a bad call I threw my glove down on the mound, and I was thrown out of the game. She told me later, "Sal, that was bush. You should never act like that again." I never did.
I won nine ball games that winter for Cienfuegos, and we beat Almendares, the big rival, for the championship. This was when I began working high inside on the hitters. Luque believed in protecting the plate, and I became a believer, too.
While I was playing Cuban ball, Bernardo Pasquel made me an offer to play in the Mexican League he and his brother Jorge had just started. Both millionaires, they were raiding the majors for ballplayers and wanted their league to be as good, if not better, than the National and American Leagues. But I wanted to pitch for the Giants, said no and turned Bernardo down. Besides, the offer wasn't that much more than what New York was paying me.
Some players made good money jumping to the Mexican League, but from the beginning I knew I had no name and wouldn't be worth much to the Pasquels. Anyway I was confident that I could make it with the Giants and went to camp in Florida with them. I pitched five innings in one game and struck out seven. And then I never got a chance to pitch again—not even batting practice. Mel Ott was the manager. Maybe he didn't like me. I never asked him, but Ott was noted for having his likes and dislikes. He was a doghouse manager, and I guess I was in his doghouse.
Danny Gardella, who had been with the Giants, was already in Mexico, and he called me in my room. "How about coming down?" he asked. When I said no he asked me if I could get him a shortstop, a second baseman and a first baseman. I agreed to do that and still had no intention of going myself until I had talked George Hausmann and Roy Zimmerman into it. By then, since I wasn't getting a chance to pitch anyway, I decided to go to Mexico. The Giants were furious. I still believe that if Mel Ott had talked to me I might not have left, but I'm not sorry I went. I really learned to pitch in Mexico.
I was assigned to the club in Puebla, a cute little city 7,000 feet up in the Sierra Madre. For the first 10 days the Pasquels had guards tailing me. The major leagues had ruled that if we jumpers hadn't returned from Mexico by April 16 we would be barred for life from organized ball. With Vein Stephens having already defected back, the Pasquels weren't about to lose any more players.
Luque was my manager in Puebla. I won my first games easily, and then I didn't win a game for another month. I couldn't figure out what was going wrong until I began to pay closer attention to the different climatic conditions in Mexico. Puebla and Mexico City were both over 7,000. Veracruz and Tampico were down on the coast. Tampico, in fact, was hot as hell. You could take a dozen showers there and still not cool off. We stayed in a hotel that must have been a warehouse. I'd get so tired there I'd walk seven or eight in a game. The ball park was crazy. A train track ran through the outfield, and when a train had to go by the game stopped, a gate opened in right field, the train chugged across center field and then out through a gate in left. I remember one game we lost when a line drive whacked against one of the rails and sailed back over a fielder's head. Curves, I discovered, broke wickedly in the moist atmosphere of the low country. Throw them the same way in the light air of the mountains and they would hang. I knew plenty about using atmospheric differences when I got back to the majors.
It was tough for me at first. Since my curveball wouldn't break in high altitude, Luque, who taught me to think about pitching, had me use my fastball. It always had moved. In fact, Birdie Tebbetts once told me that if he were hitting against me he'd hope to get a curve. My fastball moved in and sank on a right-handed hitter and it was hard for him to pick up. Of course, it was a bad pitch to throw to a lefty.
In Mexico I also shortened up on my curveball so that it broke when it was almost on top of the plate. I held it with two fingers apart, and when I let the ball go all four seams would go spinning toward the plate. I found that I could get three different curveballs, breaking across, breaking down and breaking out, depending on when I released the pitch. These were my living when I went back to the majors.