As you probably know, recent Royals acquisition Jorge Soler is a native of Cuba. Of course, he is not the first Cuban in team history, joining a list that includes the good (Kendrys Morales), the bad (Yuniesky Betancourt), and the popular backup catcher (Brayan Peña), among others.
But probably the most popular and best Cuban player in team history is a man who turned 78 this week. Cookie Rojas was one of the links between the “expansion” Kansas City Royals and the “division champion” Kansas City Royals, and a fan favorite almost from the day he arrived in town.
Octavio Victor Rojas Rivas was born on March 6, 1939, in Havana. When he was young, his mom nicknamed him “Cuqui,” meaning charming or adorable. The nickname stuck and got Americanized when he arrived in the United States, resulting in the “Cookie” nickname we know him by. The Rojas family was well-off; Cookie’s father was a doctor and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. But Cookie had different ideas. At 17, he signed a free agent contract with Cincinnati, and began his professional baseball career at Class D West Palm Beach in 1956.
It only took Rojas three years to advance to Class AAA ball, but then it took him three seasons to reach the majors. He began the 1962 season with the Reds but, after hitting .206/.299/.221 in 32 games through July 19, he was sent back to the minors until a September call-up.
The Reds dealt Rojas to Philadelphia following the 1962 season, and Rojas got a little more playing time in 1963, appearing in 64 games while hitting just .221/.259/.286. But 1964 would be a better year for Rojas, who adapted well to his role as utility player. He hit .291./.334/.394 in 109 games, although the Phillies suffered an epic collapse in the last two weeks of the season and missed the National League pennant by one game. Rojas then took over the Phillies’ second base job, cementing his status with an excellent 1965 season (.303/.356/.380 and his first All-Star appearance). He would hold that job for the next four seasons, but after a .228/.269/.292 line in 1969, the Phillies were ready to move on.
Rojas was traded to St. Louis as part of a deal for Curt Flood and Tim McCarver. This would become famous as the trade that began free agency, as Flood refused to report to his new team and went on to challenge baseball’s reserve clause. Rojas wasn’t thrilled with the trade either; the Cardinals had Julian Javier at second base already, and Rojas played sparingly the first half of the season. But the Royals, in their second season of play, were looking for bargains and maybe some veteran leadership. On June 13, 1970, the two Missouri teams made a trade: outfielder Fred Rico to St. Louis for Rojas. Rico had played 12 games for the 1969 Royals; he would never make it back to the majors. Rojas would play 880 games for Kansas City.
The new Royal hit .260/.296/.326 in 98 games, which may not sound that great but was his best performance in three seasons. Also, keep in mind that expectations were much different for middle infielders in that time period. Combined with his good defense, that was a perfectly fine second baseman, and it was also a vast improvement over what the Royals had been getting from that position.
But Rojas almost retired after the season, as his wife was battling an illness. Happily, her health improved over the winter and Cookie reported for spring training in 1971. He then proceeded to hit .300/.357/.406 and make the All-Star team. On defense, he teamed up with Kansas City’s new shortstop, Freddie Patek, to form one of the league’s top double play combos. Rojas led the league in fielding percentage, and enjoyed a 52-game errorless streak. With Amos Otis behind Rojas and Patek in center field, the Royals had a strong defense, which helped them to an 85-76 record in the team’s third season of existence.
Rojas was an All-Star in 1972 (belting a pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning of that game to give the AL a 3-2 lead). For the season, he hit .261/.315/.331, although the team’s record dipped to 76-78.
But 1973 would be a bounce-back year for Rojas and the Royals. The team moved into brand new Royals Stadium with its artificial turf surface, which put even more importance on defense. The turf also may have helped Rojas set career highs in stolen bases (18, after not having more than eight in any season) and doubles (29). Not bad for a 34-year-old.
Rojas got off to a hot start, picking up seven hits in the Royals’ first three games. He enjoyed an eight-game hit streak in mid-April, and ended the month with a .310/.378/.437 line. Since that would have been his best season ever by far, it is not really surprising that he slumped a bit in May, hitting .232/.245/.313. He began June with a five-game hitting streak, but collected only seven hits in those games. By the end of June, Rojas was down to a .248/.293/.326 line.
But as the calendar turned to July, Rojas heated up. He had another eight-game hit streak, collecting 14 hits in those games. Later in July, he had three straight two-hit games, leading into the All-Star Game at Royals Stadium. For the third straight year, Rojas represented the Royals in the Midsummer Classic, although he was limited to one plate appearance, working a walk from Tom Seaver.
Back to the regular season, as Rojas continued to hit. He ended the month with hits in six straight games, raising his season line to .272/.318/.371. The Royals went 18-10 in July, winning on the last day of the month to pull into a first-place tie with Oakland. For the first time as a franchise, the Royals were in a pennant race.
Cookie remained steady through August, hitting .275/.306/.314 for the month. The Royals took the division lead in early August, but a 3-8 stretch late in the month gave Oakland a 4.5-game lead. Not insurmountable, but tough to overcome. The A’s tried to help by going just 15-14 over the last month, but the Royals could do no better than 14-14, and Oakland won the division by six games. Rojas did his part, hitting .303/.352/.470 in 16 games; he sat out the last few games after the Royals were eliminated. Rojas ended his season with a .276/.320/.372 line.
The seemingly ageless Rojas would make the All-Star team again in 1974, hitting .271/.309/.339 in 144 games. He followed that with a .254/.304/.323 performance in 120 games in 1975; as a youngster named Frank White began taking over the full-time second base spot, Rojas moved into more of a utility role. Rojas played two more seasons in Kansas City, appearing in 63 games in 1976 and 64 in 1977. Not that he wasn’t enjoying himself; Rojas famously jumped into the Royals Stadium fountains when the 1976 team clinched the division title. And for good reason: after 15 major league seasons and at the ripe age of 37, he would finally taste postseason play. He picked up three hits in 10 plate appearances in the 1976 ALCS, then one hit in four plate appearances in the 1977 ALCS. That would be his last major league playing time, as the Royals released him after the season. Although he signed with the Cubs the following year, he never appeared in a game with them.
Following his playing days, Rojas went into coaching and scouting. He became the third Cuban-born manager in MLB history when he took over the California Angels in 1988, although he was fired with a week left in the season. He went back to being a scout, then became the first third-base coach in Florida Marlins history in 1993. He finally reached the World Series as the Mets’ third-base coach in 2000. A few years later, he went back to Miami to be a color commentator on the Marlins’ Spanish broadcasts. Although he finally retired for good, his son Victor serves as play-by-play voice of the Los Angeles Angels, and his son Mike will manage the Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit’s Triple-A affiliate) this season.
Rojas was inducted into the Royals’ Hall of Fame in 1987, the second class enshrined. It was a fitting honor for one of the most popular players in team history.
Cookie Rojas’ best games of 1973:
7/5 @ MIN: Went 3-6 with two doubles and a home run, driving in five runs in 12-10 win.
8/22 vs. NY: Doubled twice, walked, scored three runs and drove in two in 8-7 win.
5/12 vs. MIN: Doubled twice and singled, driving in three runs in 4-2 win.
7/29 vs. CAL: Went 6-10 with three doubles and scored three runs in 7-6, 7-0 doubleheader sweep.
4/7 @ CAL: Had two doubles and four runs driven in in 12-5 win.
About the card:
I can’t tell who that is behind Cookie on the front of the card. I do like that this is one of those obviously staged spring training shots. Couldn’t even get the equipment cart out of the way. On the back, that is an interesting hobby. And I wonder what an 18-year-old Cuban thought of Wausau, Wisconsin in 1957.