Willie Mays And Roberto Clemente Were Teammates On A Legendary Puerto Rican Baseball Team

Two of the greatest baseball players to ever live were Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays. Further still, both played the entirety of their careers with the same teams, a rarity among Hall of Famers. Clemente was with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955-1972, according to Baseball-Reference, while Mays played the entirety of his career (1948-1973) with the Giants, first in New York and later in San Francisco, per Baseball-Reference.

Since they played on National League teams during overlapping seasons in their careers, they were certainly on the same field together at the same time, although as opponents and not teammates. However, in their day, it wasn't uncommon for Major League Baseball players to play baseball in the winter for teams in Mexico, Central America, and/or the Caribbean. And it was in this context that the two were, in fact, teammates, and the team they played for, San Juan Puerto Rico's Santurce Cangrejeros, was so dominant that, as the Baseball Hall of Fame reports, they were given the nickname "The Panic Squad."

Winter Baseball

These days, professional athletes in major sports, Major League Baseball included, can make millions. Even mediocre players on mediocre teams can make as much as $700,000 per year, as USA Today reports, while the highest-paid players make 50 or 60 times that.

A couple of generations ago, however, it wasn't that simple. Sure, there were baseball players who made bank, but they were the exception, not the rule. As Expensivity reports, in 1960 the average salary of a Major League Baseball player was $17,394, or about three times the average household income at the time. By comparison, that would be the equivalent of a MLB player today making about $150,000 per year. And of course, some made less than the average.

As such, it wasn't uncommon in those days for MLB players to augment their income by heading south and playing baseball during the winter, in leagues in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Further still, some players who didn't need the money did it anyway, the alternative being getting a day job, or taking a few months off and getting out of shape.

The Panic Squad

Puerto Rico developed its own professional baseball league in 1934, according to Ebbets Field Flannels, but in its first couple of decades in existence, the dominant team was not from the island's largest city (San Juan) but from Ponce. San Juan's team, the Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabs), consistently failed to make a splash.

Following the 1954 season, during which he won the MVP and his Giants won the World Series, Willie Mays headed to the island, to which he'd never been, to play winter ball for the Cangrejeros. "I live to play ball," he said, via the Baseball Hall of Fame. Also on that team was Roberto Clemente, in his late teens at the time and not yet signed to a Major League Baseball team.

With Mays in center field and Clemente in right field, plus their regular roster of non-MLB players, the Cangerjeros were unstoppable that season, winning the Puerto Rican league and then going on to win the Caribbean league as well.

As the Baseball Hall of Fame notes, Clemente and Mays were — metaphorically anyway — made teammates again in 1979, when Mays was inducted to the Hall of Fame six years after Clemente had gotten his own posthumous nod.