Ruben Amaro Sr. dies at 81

Ruben Amaro in a 1959 photo.

Ruben Amaro Sr., who played a role in the Phillies' greatest successes but was forever haunted by his part in the franchise's most infamous failure, died Friday in a Miami nursing home. He was 81.

Mr. Amaro, whose namesake son became the Phillies general manager in November 2008, spent more than six decades in the game as a player, manager, coach, scout, instructor and executive. More than 30 of those seasons, including six on the field as a slap-hitting but slick-fielding shortstop, were spent with the Phillies.

"I have a 'P' in the middle of my chest," Mr. Amaro told The Inquirer's Phil Sheridan in 2009. "I touched Richie Ashburn. I played behind Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning. I knew Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt. Was there at the beginnings of Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. I would very much like to be buried with the Phillies uniform."

The Phillies said in a statement that Amaro died after a long illness.

"As a young fan in the early 1960s, I had the privilege of watching the amazing grace of Ruben Amaro Sr. as he played shortstop for the Phillies," Phillies Chairman David Montgomery said in the statement. "Ten years later, Ruben was my professional colleague at the Phillies. He was a joy to be around because he treated people with the same special grace he exhibited fielding a ground ball. Ruben initially worked as a scout and would periodically come to Philadelphia. We were all excited when he came to town as his personal warmth would brighten every room he entered."

A native of Mexico with roots in Cuba, Mr. Amaro was instrumental in helping the Phillies make inroads in Latin America, aiding in the signing of such talents as Julio Franco and Juan Samuel. He was Dallas Green's first-base coach when the 1980 Phillies won the franchise's first World Series championship. And he was a special-assignment scout when the talent that would bring them a second in 2008 was discovered and developed.

But he likely will be best-remembered here as the Gold Glove-winning shortstop on Gene Mauch's ill-fated 1964 Phillies, the team that blew a 6 ½ game lead in the season's final two weeks.

Mr. Amaro, who won that defensive honor despite being platooned with Bobby Wine, often told the story of how he had ordered $1,800 worth of World Series tickets. They went unused and, as with so many Philadelphians, the disappointment never left him.

"When we won it all [in 1980], it was fabulous, extraordinary," he recalled, "but nothing ever is going to make up for our loss in 1964."

His death comes nine days after the passing of Green, his 1960s' Phillies teammate and later his colleague and boss in the organization's farm system. In 1983, a year after Green left Philadelphia for Chicago, he imported Mr. Amaro to be the Cubs' third-base coach.

"Ruben is smart and he's a guy who doesn't miss anything that happens on a baseball field," Green explained.

Mr. Amaro called baseball "the family business." His father, Santos, was a home run-hitting star in Cuban baseball and a member of the sport's hall of fame both there and in Mexico. His Mexican mother, Josefina, played for that country's women's national team.

His son, the future Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr., also played in the big leagues, including a stint with the Phillies. Ruben Amaro, Jr. is now the first-base coach for the Boston Red Sox. And a second son, David, was drafted by the Cubs in 1984.

While playing with the Phillies, Mr. Amaro met his future wife, Northeast Philadelphia resident Judith Herman, when she was working at the family's cheese stand in the Reading Terminal.

"My sister Marlene taught English to [Phillies players] Pancho Herrera and Tony Taylor. Ruben would drive them to our house for the lessons," she recalled.

Judith and Ruben were married in 1961.

Born in Mexico in 1936, Mr. Amaro was playing with that country's national team when the Cardinals signed him in 1954. While working his way through the St. Louis system, he played several seasons of winter ball in various Latin leagues.

He finally reached the majors in 1958. For his debut, he took his father, whose skin color likely had kept him from playing in the big leagues, into the spartan Sportsman's Park clubhouse in St. Louis.

"The clubhouses in Cuba were wonderful facilities," Mr. Amaro recalled. "They had nice chairs you could lean back in, steam baths, laundry facilities. My dad looked around and sheepishly said, 'Is this a major-league clubhouse?' "

The uniform Ruben had been issued was several sizes too big, but Mr. Amaro wore it in silence until teammate and future Hall of Famer Stan Musial, who had played with his father in winter ball, instructed the equipment manager to get him one that fit.

In 2011, Mr. Amaro told a sportswriter that the interaction with Musial was "the highlight of my career."

That winter, after appearing in just 40 games for St. Louis and batting .224, he was traded to Philadelphia for outfielder Chuck Essegian.

Heady, with great range and extremely sure hands, Mr. Amaro soon became a favorite of Mauch's.

"There's no shortstop in the league playing better ball defensively than Amaro," Mauch said in 1961. "Ernie Banks might have better hands, but he isn't a better shortstop."

In turn, the shortstop grew to be an admiring pupil of his intense and demanding manager.

"You'd be taking grounders or shagging flies," Mr. Amaro said in 1989, "and suddenly he would appear and ask you about something you had done the previous game. Or you might be in the middle of a hand of bridge and he'd walk by and fire a question at you."

Amaro had his best season in 1964, when, in addition to the Gold Glove, he hit .264 with 4 home runs - half his career total - and 34 RBIs. Mauch split the shortstop job that season between Mr. Amaro and Wine, both right-handed-hitting defensive specialists.

There seemed to be no apparent reason for Mauch's daily choice at the position. The Daily News' Stan Hochman claimed Mauch based his decisions on "biorhythms only he detected, the opposing pitcher, the day of the week, the phases of the moon."

Whatever the rationale, it worked. The two combined to give the surprising Phillies superb shortstop play as well as 8 homers and 68 RBIs.

But after the 1965 season, the Phillies were retooling and they traded Mr. Amaro to the Yankees for shortstop Phil Linz.

"We know Amaro isn't much of a bet to win the batting title," New York manager Ralph Houk said, "but we know he is truly a first-class infielder."

Injuries limited his play for the last-place Yankees in 1966, but the following year he started 130 games, though he hit only .223. Amaro played 47 games for the Yankees in 1968, but after the season, the Angels, needing a backup for future Phils manager Jim Fregosi, purchased him for $25,000. After playing just 41 games for the Angels in 1969, his big-league playing career was over.

Mr. Amaro's final offensive statistics - always an after-thought to his defensive abilities - include a .234 lifetime batting average in 940 games with 8 home runs and 156 RBIs.

The Phillies re-hired Mr. Amaro in 1970 as a minor-league player-coach. Mauch told reporters his former shortstop would make an excellent manager.

"He's got it up here," Mauch said, pointing to his head.

Over the ensuing decades his would be a baseball odyssey - managing and coaching in the minor- and major-leagues, in America, Venezuela and Mexico; scouting and administering for the Phillies, Cubs, Tigers, White Sox and Astros.

"When I first worked for the Phillies in 1972," Mr. Amaro told SABR's Rory Costello, "there were only four people in the [farm director's] office: Paul Owens, Dallas Green, me, and Bill Gargano, plus a couple of secretaries."

Perhaps the most eventful of those post-playing career seasons was 1980 when he was Green's first-base coach with the champion Phillies.

"He was a fantastic baseball man," Schmidt, the Hall of Fame third baseman, said in 2009. "He was very passionate, but he was very soft-spoke. He just had a way with words. Very intelligent, fun guy to be around."

In 2000, after manager Terry Francona was fired, the Phillies interviewed Mr. Amaro for the vacancy.

"I was not only Latin, but my family was also a bit dark," he said in 2011. "My time came too early."

He divorced, married again and had a daughter and two more sons, one of whom, Luis, played Class A ball for the Phillies in 2011.

In 1986, Ruben Amaro joined his father as a member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.

When, as an official of the Baseball Assistance Team, he appeared in 2011 at New York Mets camp, he was treated as the elder baseball statesman he was.

"Wherever he was, lines formed," sportswriter Marty Noble wrote. "Scouts, writers, club officials actually queued up to say hello and show reverence, appreciation and respect for the soft-spoken 75-year-old. He never was a star. . . But he is one of the game's great gentlemen."

Amaro is survived by his wife of 29 years, Lilia; five children - sons David (Jen), Ruben Jr. (Jami), Luis Alfredo and Ruben Andrés and daughter Alayna - and seven grandchildren.

Services are pending.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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