Ralph “Putsy” Caballero, a New Orleans native and baseball standout who went on to play part of eight seasons in the major leagues in the 1940s, died Thursday. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his son and reported by Ken Trahan on sportsnola.com.
Caballero, who attended Jesuit High School and Loyola University, was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1944, when he was just 16 years old and less than a month removed from playing on Jesuit's American Legion team. He became the youngest third baseman in major league history.
"Caballero, at 16 years and 314 days, is still the second-youngest major leaguer of all time. Joe Nuxhall was called up to pitch for the Cincinnati Reds that same 1944 season; Nuxhall was 15 years, 316 days old," wrote Marty Mule in a 2014 profile in The Advocate. "That was the strange world in which U.S. sports operated during World War II."
"Caballero was a highly sought-after prospect. He was prepared to sign a two-sport grant-in-aid to play basketball and baseball at LSU — where he would have been teammates on both squads with another familiar name in box scores, Joe Adcock. His potential was known at least in part because Jesuit coach Gernon Brown was a scout for the Giants, and he made Mel Ott (another New Orleanian who got to the majors as a teen) aware of Caballero," Mule' wrote.
As for Caballero's colorful nickname, Mule' wrote that it could have been a public-relations gaffe. "Announcer Gene Kelly kept calling Caballero 'Putsch,' which had an insulting connotation to Jewish fans. Eventually it got straightened out."
Caballero was a witness to history, playing against Jackie Robinson when the color line was broken in 1947.
“He was the perfect man for his mission,” Caballero said in 2014. “Jackie was a great ballplayer, and he conducted himself just the way that was needed at the time, with class and dignity,” he told The Advocate.
At age 22 in 1950, Caballero was a part of a youthful 1950 Phillies team that became known as the 'Whiz Kids' and reached the World Series, Trahan reported.
After retiring from baseball, Caballero owned and operated an exterminating company in New Orleans. Earlier, he worked alongside clarinetist Pete Fountain and trumpeter Al Hirt, who held down day jobs working in pest control alongside Caballero.
Caballero was inducted into the Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame and the New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame.
Funeral arrangements are pending.