“Everyone in the Phillies' camp seems to believe [Herrera] can do a big-league job defensively. If Pancho can solve major pitching, he's up to stay!"
Negro Leaguer of the Month
Juan Francisco (Willavicencio) Herrera
Pancho Herrera was one of the last Negro Leaguers to jump to the Major Leagues, and one of the greatest sluggers in the waning days of the Negro Leagues. A slick-fielding first baseman, Herrera was built for comfort and not speed, and hit homers of the tape-measure variety.
Herrera was born in Santiago, Cuba, and signed his first professional contract at age 16 with the Havana Giants in 1951. The Kansas City Monarchs, which had a working agreement with Havana, bought Herrera's contract in 1952 and the youngster played for manager Buck O'Neil. Other Monarchs in '52 included future and former Big Leaguers Willard Brown, Ernie Banks, Hank Thompson and Connie Johnson.
In 1953, Herrera, 19, was selected to play in the East-West game where he went hitless in one at bat. The 1953 East-West Game featured 20 players who would eventually play in the Big Leagues, including Junior Gilliam, Minnie Minoso, Joe Black, George Crowe and Sam Jethroe.
After another year with the Monarchs in '54 where a woman named Toni Stone was his teammate, Herrera was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies--the first black latin in the Phillies organization--and spent several season in their farm system.
In 1959, Herrera went to the Buffalo Bisons and blasted 37 homers and 128 RBIs while batting .329, outslugging the more famous Luke Easter (22 homers).
Herrera had his only full seasons in the Big Leagues in 1960 and '61, where he continued to produce good power numbers--17 homers in '60 and a second place finish in Rookie of the Year Voting behind Frank Howard in '61. Unfortunately, Major League curveballs gave Herrera trouble, and he led the league in strikeouts in '60 with 136, and was second with 120 in '61. He also led the National League in errors by a first baseman in '60 and was soon back in the minors for good, spending eight more seasons in the bushes.
After a short retirement, Herrera returned in 1972 as player-manager of the Minor League's Key West Conchs of the Florida State League.
Baseball card collectors will find it interesting that Herrera appeared on the rarest post-WWII single issue baseball card, the 1958 Topps card #433. Because of a printing error, the "a" at the end of his name was omitted which has made it more valuable that many Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays cards!