Bobby Balcena, the only Filipino ever to make it to the major leagues and one of San Pedro’s best-known sport figures, died at his home over the weekend of natural causes. He was 64.
“I wasn’t up there long. But I was there,” Balcena would say, grinning as he explained a bit of baseball trivia. He was a utility outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds in 1956.
Rich Marazzi and Len Fiorito’s book, “Aaron to Zuverink--A Nostalgic Look at the Baseball Players of the Fifties” includes this brief biography of Balcena:
“Bobby Balcena, the only Filipino to ever reach the majors. He scored two runs in two at-bats in seven games for the 1956 Reds.”
But the 5-foot-6 ballplayer was a star in the minor leagues for 15 years, from 1948 through 1963, and ranked as one of the big sports heroes of Filipino communities across the nation and in the Philippines.
He broke into pro ball with a bang, with the Mexicali Eagles in the old Sunset League in 1948, leading the league in batting with a .369 average. He was an outfielder with the Wichita Indians, San Antonio Missions, Kansas City Blues, Buffalo Bisons, Dallas Rangers, Vancouver Mounties, Hawaii Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs and Seattle Rainiers.
Balcena was called up to Cincinnati in September, 1956, from the Rainiers, where he played center field and batted .295, leading the Pacific Coast League in doubles. He stayed with the Reds through spring training the next year, then was sent back to Seattle.
San Pedro’s fishermen and longshoremen turned out to honor him at a “Bobby Balcena Night” at old Wrigley Field during a game in which he played. He fished and worked as a longshoreman when he wasn’t playing baseball.
“The stands that night at Wrigley Field were jammed with half the people of San Pedro, who turned out to pay respects to our hero,” recalled retired fishing boat skipper Norm Mezin.
“Bobby was one of San Pedro’s all-time sports greats,” said Times artist Pete Bentovoja, a lifelong friend. “As little as he was, he was one hell of a football player at San Pedro High School, as well as a super baseball player. If he had only been a little bigger, he would have been one of the immortals.”
Memorial services will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at McNerney’s Mortuary Chapel, 570 W. 5th St., San Pedro.