Felix Mantilla: “El Gato” de Isabela

Mantilla with the 1953 Jacksonville Braves. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.

Felix Mantilla, known as “El Gato” for his catlike agility on the field, was born in the city of Isabela in northwestern Puerto Rico in 1934. His father Juan, a cab driver, was Afro-Puerto Rican, and his mother Navidad was of European and indigenous Taíno ancestry. Like many young Puerto Ricans of his time, Mantilla grew up enamored of baseball, the island’s most popular sport. As a teenager his skills as an infielder saw him recruited into Puerto Rico’s minor league system, and in 1951, he played for the Puerto Rican national team that won the Amateur World Series.

In 1952, Mantilla joined the Criollos de Caguas (Caguas Creoles) at the top tier of Puerto Rican baseball. Manager Luis Olmos saw potential in the 17 year old, and arranged to send him to the Boston Braves’ training camp in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Impressed by Mantilla’s abilities, the Braves offered him a contract, and Mantilla spent the summer playing for one of the team’s minor league affiliates, the Evansville Braves in Indiana.

Mantilla tagging out an opponent as a member of the Criollos de Caguas in 1960. Throughout his career, Mantilla played for the Criollos in Puerto Rico’s winter league.

Stateside racism and the language barrier were obstacles, but Mantilla had a successful rookie season in Evansville, earning the league’s Rookie of the Year title. At the end of the season he returned to Caguas, as he would throughout his career (Puerto Rican baseball leagues play in the winter, so some players spent their offseason there for extra cash and experience). That year, one of his new teammates was a young outfielder from Alabama named Hank Aaron, with whom he formed a long lasting friendship.

The next year, the Braves promoted both Mantilla and Aaron several rungs in their farm system to the Jacksonville Braves, the predecessors to the modern Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. This move proved a breakthrough not only for the players’ careers, but for Black baseball players across the South.

The Jacksonville Braves and the integration of Southern baseball

In 1953 the Jacksonville Braves played at Durkee Stadium in Durkeeville, now J.P. Small Field. The stadium was also home to the Jacksonville Red Caps of the Negro American League in 1938 and 1941-1942.

Before the 1953 season, Samuel W. Wolfson bought Jacksonville’s baseball franchise, then known as the Jacksonville Tars. For nearly 20 years the Tars had been a perennial basement team in the South Atlantic League, or “Sally” League, an eight-team Class A circuit with franchises in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Wolfson and manager Ben Geraghty hoped to turn the team around. They started a new affiliation with the Braves, who moved to Milwaukee for the 1953 season. By far their biggest change was integrating Jacksonville baseball.

Jackie Robinson had broken minor league baseball’s color line in 1946 with the Montreal Royals, the year before he did the same in the major leagues. Subsequently many minor league teams across North America began signing Black players, but many others, especially in the Jim Crow South, held out for years. Starting in 1951 and 1952 a few Southern teams, including the Dallas Eagles, Tampa Smokers, and Miami Beach Flamingos, finally signed African Americans. For 1953, the South Atlantic League vowed to follow suit.

Wolfson’s jumped at the chance to go first - and reap the benefits both on and off the field. The Jacksonville Braves and the Savannah Indians became the first South Atlantic leagues to integrate, shattering one of the most notorious color lines in minor league baseball. Mantilla, Aaron, and outfielder Horace Garner became the first Black players on an integrated team in Jacksonville history, and along with Fleming “Junior” Reedy and Al Israel of Savannah, were the pioneers of Sally League baseball.

Next page: Felix Mantilla in Jacksonville