With the 2019 Major League Baseball season now underway, a story about a baseball All-Star from an oil field town is at bat.
Though its origins are controversial, we know that baseball crossed the borders from the United States to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean islands where leagues were started in the early 20th century. Venezuelan students attending American schools brought the game to the capital city of Caracas. An American department store owner named William Phelps introduced the sport to Maracaibo in 1912, which was a major oil-industry hub where many Americans resided. Baseball caught on and several ballparks were built.
Around the same time, Venezuelans began playing in the leagues in Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico. In 1939, a Venezuelan pitcher named Alex Carrasquel joined the Washington Senators, becoming the first native of that country to play major league baseball. In 1950 his nephew Chico Carrasquel became a star with the Chicago White Sox. In 1956, he was replaced by Luis Aparicio, who is so far the only Venezuelan to reach the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Back in 1941, an important event highlighted Venezuela baseball when the National team won the World Amateur Championship in Havana, beating Cuba in the final game. The players were welcomed home as heroes at the Caracas seaport andbaseball became unchallenged as Venezuela’s main sport.
Since then, Venezuelans have been stars in most of the Major League Baseball teams. Besides Aparicio, this includes names like Omar Vizquel, Johann Santana, Andres Galarraga, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve and Manny Trillo, the subject of this story.
Venezuela’s Oil Industry
Venezuela’s oil boom started in 1922 with the huge blowout of the Los Barrosos well in a town near Maracaibo. It confirmed the country as oil-rich, and soon thereafter the largest oil companies (Shell, Standard of New Jersey,Mobil and Gulf) started exploration activities all over the country, from the west in the Maracaibo Basin to the eastern states of Monagas and Anzoátegui.Standard was active in both areas, with its subsidiaries Lago Petroleum in Maracaibo and Standard Oil Company of Venezuela (which later became Creole) in the east.
As soon as a field was discovered and reserves proven, camps were built nearby to locate workers. Houses were built to accommodate their families, as well as clinics, schools, grocery stores, clubs and sports parks. Most oilfield camps had two camps: one for the staff personnel – foreign and local – and the other for the non-staff workers.
In the east, there were several oil seeps that attracted the oil companies. A huge asphalt lake (Guanoco, in Sucre State) had been operated by an American company since 1910. Standard drilled several exploratory wells in places the geologists had selected down-dip from the seeps and following surface anticlines. In the Quiriquire area, 25 miles south of the asphalt lake, exploration drilling started in 1922 with little success. But finally, on June 1, 1928, oil was foundin well Quiriquire-1, in Pliocene reservoirs, apparently sourced from truncated shales of Miocene, Oligocene and Cretaceous ages.The estimated oil in place was 4-5 billion barrels of 16 API gravity. Carmalt and St. John (1986) ranked it 226th of 509 giant oil and gas fields of the world, with recoverable oil reserves of 1 billion barrels.
In 1944, Standard merged the two oil companies in Venezuela into one, named Creole Petroleum Corporation.In 1963 this writer was hired to work for Creole as a petroleum engineer and live in the Quiriquire compound, where the offices and camp were located.
Baseball was one of the sports played by oilfield workers and their children. This activity was directed by a physical education teacher named Romulo Ortiz. The Creole medical director, Dr. Amilkar Torrealba, presided over the league.
Ortiz was a good physical education instructor and his passion was baseball. He was totally dedicated to his team and worked seven days a week, teaching them the basics of baseball and providing discipline. If a boy was lazy, Ortiz did not want him on his team. As a good baseball fan, I used to watch their training, accompanying Dr. Torrealba, who invited me to join him on the league’s board. In 1967 I replaced him as president of the league.
That year the Junior Quiriquire baseball league was filled with stars: good pitchers, infielders and outfielders, and one great catcher, 16-year-old Jesús Marcano Trillo, the son of oilfield worker Ismael Marcano and nurse Trina Trillo. Manny had been born at the Creole local hospital.
“All those boys are good, but, El Indio Trillo, is the best: great arm, intelligent, good hitter and very disciplined. He will go very far,” said Ortiz.
Sadly, Ortiz died in the late 1960s and did not live to see how right he was.
In December 1967, a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies came to Quiriquire looking for prospects, and he wanted to sign Jesús. Since the boy was underage, his mother had to sign the contract. It was written in English, so she called me to translate and advise her. It was the only baseball contract I’ve ever read. It indicated a starting salary of $400 a month and bonus clauses if he moved up to higher minor leagues, plus a more lucrative bonus if he made it to the Major League.
The next day, his mother came to my office, and by chance I asked her how he was doing in his studies. She said he was not doing very well, and I told her, “Look Trina, the best thing for Jesús and you is that you sign that contract.” She accepted and signed it.
And that is how Jesús Marcano Trillo, later known as Manny Trillo, started his brilliant baseball career.
In 1968, at age 17, he went to the Phillies minor league camp, battling for a spot in any league. He had the added challenge to learn English. Soon thereafter, and despite his strong arm, he was considered too thin to be a catcher and was switched to third base. Manny was 6 feet tall and weighed 155 pounds.
The Phillies later traded him to Oakland where, in 1973, he made the Oakland AAA team. In June, he was promoted to the parent club, the Oakland Athletics, whose third baseman was a star named Sal Bando. They moved Manny to second base where he showed his strong arm and soon developed one of the best arms in the Majors. In 1976, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs where he became not only the regular second baseman, but a big star. He was a four-time All Star; three-time Gold Glove winner, given annually to the players in each league judged to have superior individual fielding performances at their position; and he won two Silver Slugger Awards, given annually to the best offensive player at each position.
In 1968, I was transferred from the Eastern Division where I was a senior engineer to the Western Division, where I was promoted into executive positions. (In 1976 the oil industry was nationalized, and all Creole assets were transferred to a new company called Lagoven.)
Four years later, I was named Eastern Division general manager and based in Quiriquire. In those two decades, Manny and I both rose in our professions, from our roots at Quiriquire.
Trillo won the Most Valuable Player award in the 1980 National League Championship series when the Phillies beat the Houston Astros. He hit .381 with four RBIs in the series, and his brilliant fielding was a key to their triumph.
Manny left the Majors with 1,780 games played, 1,600 at second base. He hit over .290 for three years, and he retired at the end of 1989 season to become a coach and instructor in the minor leagues with several teams. In Venezuela, he is considered one of their best infielders of all time.
After his great 1980 year he came to Quiriquire to visit his mom and this former president of the Junior League, who was also the Lagoven Division manager. I had the pleasure and honor to award him a plaque for his achievements in the Majors. He was the same nice kid, humble and proud of his origins.
Manny also played in the Venezuela Summer League, starting with the Caracas Lions as a catcher. Afterward, as a second baseman, he was traded to Aguilas del Zulia, based in Maracaibo, where he became a local star and hero. Off the field, he married a local lady, and they had two children who were later educated in the United States.
He is now a youthful 68 years old. His hair is still almost all black, he is a good golfer and divides his time between Maracaibo and Florida.
Quiriquire, Maracaibo, Venezuela and all of Latin America are proud of him. Now enshrined in Venezuela’s Baseball Hall of Fame, Trillo rose from a modest background in the oil fields to become an inspiration for young people everywhere and a bright example of the enduring benefits that the oil industry can provide to its workers and their families.