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Obituaries

Bobby Avila, 78; First Mexican to Win Major League Batting Crown

October 28, 2004|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

Bobby Avila, the first Mexican to win a major league baseball batting title when he hit .341 for the Cleveland Indians in 1954, died Tuesday in his hometown of Veracruz, Mexico, of complications from diabetes and a lung ailment. He was 78.

Avila, whose given name was Roberto, was a three-time American League All-Star for the Indians, in 1952, '54 and '55.

The second baseman, who had dreams in his youth of being a bullfighter and studied engineering at the University of Mexico, played for Cleveland from 1949 to 1958, then spent 1959 with the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Braves.

In 1954, the year he won his American League batting crown, Avila hit a career-high 15 home runs and drove in a career-best 67 runs.

He played half that season with a broken thumb while helping the Indians win the American League pennant.

Avila finished third in the league's most-valuable-player voting that season, behind the New York Yankees' Yogi Berra and Cleveland teammate Larry Doby.

But in the Indians' four-game World Series loss to the New York Giants, Avila batted only .133.

In his 11-year major league career, Avila played in 1,300 games and batted .281 with 1,296 hits, 80 homers and 467 RBIs. His fielding percentage was .978.

Avila returned to his home country in 1960 and excelled for the Mexico City Tigers, batting .333 and driving in 125 runs. Later, he became the president of the Mexican league.

"Everybody knows who Avila was in Mexico," said Fernando Valenzuela, the former Dodger pitcher turned broadcaster and a native of Navojoa, Mexico.

"He was an inspiration, of course, for Mexican ballplayers to follow to the States and play in the major leagues. He did a good job. Everybody knows and recognizes what he did."

Avila was at the leading edge of Latino expansion into the majors, a trend that continues today.

Latinos accounted for 85.9% of the 227 players born outside of the United States who were on major league rosters on opening day this season -- with such Latino stars as Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols and Edgar Renteria playing in this year's World Series.

"He had some impact on the Mexican players that came up in the 1960s and 1970s because he was the first Mexican to win a batting crown," said Jaime Jarrin, the Dodgers' Hall of Fame Spanish-language broadcaster. "I think he was a tremendous source of pride for the Mexican ballplayers."

In a 1962 interview with The Times, Avila said he had been close to signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 but money and history stood in his way.

"Mr. [Branch] Rickey offered me $9,000, but I wanted $10,000," Avila said. "I think he would have given me what I wanted if he hadn't had Jackie Robinson.

"If I'd gone with Brooklyn, chances are that I would have sat on the bench while Robinson played second base."

Instead, Avila signed with Cleveland for $17,500 and became a national hero while making history himself.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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