Elmo Plaskett

Elmo Plaskett had only two cups of coffee in the major leagues, but those brief stints barely hint at the full picture of a talented hitter who was devoted to baseball throughout his life. Plaskett, who passed away in November 1998 at the age of 60, was a legend in Ponce as well as the Virgin Islands and is still remembered as a selfless man who strove his utmost to help local youth.

A native of Frederiksted, Plaskett was the fourth of 17 children. Mumps” was the classic young boy who skipped out on chores to play ball. His mother said baseball was “his tea, breakfast, and dinner.” At St. Patrick’s School, he followed a few years behind Joe Christopher, whom he credited for helping him to learn the game.

Howie Haak signed Plaskett in 1957, though he didn’t get to see him play in the NBC tournament three years before — Joe Christopher recommended his friend. Elmo came up as a pitcher but played every position over the course of his minor-league career. He earned his call-up in Asheville, North Carolina, where he played a memorable season in 1962. Bob Terrell, a long-time columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, wrote a warm tribute to the man he called Mighty Mo, “a muscular fellow with the broadest grin in the Sally League” and part of “the most dreaded one-two-three punch the league has ever known.” After a bit of lax play in the outfield cost a Tourists teammate a no-hitter, Plaskett responded to a lecture with a six-week tear. He went on to beat Tony Oliva for the batting title, .34979 to .34978, and was named Player of the Year.

Before he became the baseball coach and hugely successful athletics director at Duke University, Tom Butters came up with Elmo in the Pirates system. He remembers Plaskett, as “not only slender, he was skinny — he couldn’t have weighed 160 pounds” as the opening day pitcher at Jamestown, NY (Class D) in 1957. Butters was also called up from Asheville in 1962. “My recollection was, he hit around .500 at home that year. It was a tremendous home hitting spree that went on for the season. It was incredible.” He calls Elmo “really one of the great people and characters that I’ve ever played with.”

Ray Hathaway, the Tourists’ manager in ’62, says “I begged Pittsburgh to take him up–in the middle of that year, in fact. At that time he was so locked in that he would hit anybody. And Joe Brown said ‘What would that do to your club?’ I said ‘Well, it’s going to hurt us, but you’re gonna help yourself and you’re gonna help Elmo.'” But despite the plug, the Bucs did not call until September.

Still, Plaskett’s lone major-league home run had a bearing on the 1962 pennant race. In his first start on September 17, he hit a three-run shot off the right-field foul pole at Forbes Field off Mike McCormick. That dropped the Giants four games behind the Dodgers with 13 to play, but the Dodgers staggered to a 3-10 finish, setting up a three-game playoff which the Giants won.

But Elmo’s greatest feats came in Ponce. In 1960-61, with 15-45-.328 in 64 games, he became the second of four players to win Puerto Rico’s Triple Crown. (The others were Willard “Ese Hombre” Brown, who did it twice, Wally Joyner, and Hector Villanueva. Plaskett was the only one not to win MVP, as Luis “Tite” Arroyo led San Juan to the title.) At age 20 in 1958-59, Elmo led the league in hits and triples and became the third of 10 players to hit three homers in a game. He also led the league in RBI in 1962-63.

Cal Ermer, who went on to manage the Minnesota Twins in 1967 and 1968, was Elmo’s skipper in Ponce during the Triple Crown year. He states flat out: “never, in my 57 years of pro baseball, have I seen a young hitter as good as Elmo was.” In particular, Ermer singles out Plaskett’s prowess with breaking stuff. Teammate Cal Neeman told the manager that Elmo was the best he’d run across since Mickey Mantle — and Neeman had broken in with The Mick at Class D Joplin (MO) in 1950.

Ermer recalls how his young friend outdueled another fellow Lion, Rafael Alomar, for the batting title. Canena Marquez, then a Ponce player-coach, told his boss that Alomar had a badly upset stomach. “I did not see him for six days, in the meantime, Elmo got two and three hits.” Alomar led Elmo .3267 to .3265, but he went 0-for-8 while Plaskett finished his stretch drive 3-for-8. The runner-up in home runs that winter was Frank Howard, quite possibly the strongest man in major-league history.

One would think that such results in a high-quality league would surely have led to more than a mere 17 games in the majors. Joe Brown recalls Plaskett as “an outstanding young hitter. We thought we really had something … we did have something there.” He cites a spring training game in which Elmo hammered tough Lew Burdette for two homers and then a double off the top of the wall. However, the Pirates of the time were well stocked at Plaskett’s various positions, including Hall of Famers Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente in the outfield, slugger Dick Stuart and Donn Clendenon at first, and Don Hoak and bonus baby Bob Bailey at third. The organization decided to convert Elmo to catcher, but there too, he was blocked — by Jim Pagliaroni, who in 1965 set a club record for home runs that still stands.

Most of all, though, Brown believes Elmo’s main drawback was that “he allowed himself to get heavy.” Even though those Bucs also had corpulent Smoky Burgess behind the plate, Burgess was a proven vet and ace pinch-hitter. Perhaps if Plaskett had played a decade later, the DH rule could have helped him.

Horace Clarke backs up Joe Brown’s view. During the 1964-65 season in Ponce, Elmo caught a spike sliding into second and badly broke his fibula, putting him out for the year. As Clarke remembers, it was then that Elmo put on weight, which in turn didn’t help the leg when the cast came off.

Elmo played for nine seasons with Ponce, although he spent the 1963-64 campaign with the Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican League owing to a disagreement between managements. Pittsburgh wanted him to play only catcher, but the Leones wanted to use him wherever they saw fit — another indication of the serious play-to-win mentality in the Puerto Rican league. The Pirates also had a working relationship with Cibao; Elmo’s teammates there included Stargell and Steve Blass.

Plaskett continued to play in the minors through 1969 with the Baltimore and Oakland organizations. (If the Orioles had called him up from Rochester, he would have joined Elrod Hendricks behind the plate.) The A’s obtained Elmo in part because Charles O. Finley liked him, and they assigned him to nurture rising star Vida Blue. In Puerto Rico, he played nine games for Caguas in 1967-68, spent two full seasons with the Arecibo Lobos, and hung it up as a player after one at-bat in the winter of 1970-71.

After retiring, Elmo became a baseball specialist for the department of Housing, Parks, and Recreation on St. Croix. His partner was Horace Clarke. In recent years, he also lobbied successfully for the reintroduction of high-school baseball, umpired local games, and served as one of the coaches for the Virgin Islands branch of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. He also gave input to the Major League Scouting Bureau on behalf of many local prospects.

Horace Clarke relates that when Plaskett’s health began to fail in 1998, and he was admitted to the hospital, he was asked several questions for registration. “In his ill state and not-so-conscious mind, he answered all the same way, ‘I am Elmo Plaskett Baseball Player.'”