The endearing moniker on the scuffed, halftone-printed Topps rookie card from 1961 for Zorro Versalles immediately caught my attention. However, these kinds of stage (or stadium) names seem fairly commonplace in the realm of pulp ephemera. Instead, the story of Versalles proved even more captivating.
As some anonymous owner previously scrawled “HA . . . , CUBA” by the top border of the particular Versalles card pictured above, Zorro Versalles indeed hailed from Havana Cuba. Though certainly not among the first wave of Cuban ballplayers to make the move to U.S., he was still one of the relatively early dream-seekers as such when he began minor league play in the United States in 1958.
In fact, Versalles performed exceptionally well at the start of his career once he moved up to the majors with the Minnesota Twins. In 1963, he earned both All-Star and Golden Glove distinctions—dual honors he earned yet again in 1965, along with the coveted MVP award in the American League. Apparently, this marked a(n) historic occasion, since Versalles was the first Latin American to receive the MVP.
As so often happens in baseball and life, however, this peak only led to an inevitable and (in the case of Versalles) immediate downward trajectory. Soon after the stellar ’65 season and a hefty raise, Versalles suffered hematoma in his back, which plagued him the following year and until the end of his career. Not long after a short stint playing for a Japanese baseball team in 1972, he eventually retired. With respect to his pinnacle achievement of the MVP, perhaps his obituary from June of 1995 in The New York Times says it best: “It was a shining memory that helped sustain him as his career and life went into a long decline.” (And all of this is to say nothing about the harsh and dismal winters of Minnesota, where Versalles retired, compared to the tropical weather of Cuba—the troubled country for which he nevertheless felt homesick.)
But these rather generic laments about stardom and decline really fail to capture the severity of Versalles’s fall from sportsdom’s figurative Versailles. To conclude, Bleacher Report elaborates about the truly lower depths of this “Forgotten MVP”:
After retiring, Versalles returned to Minneapolis in search [of work], which was almost impossible to find. He could not read or write English and could not do strenuous work due to his lingering back problems.
He began menial labor, and eventually lost his house to foreclosure. He was forced to sell his MVP trophy, All-Star rings, and his Gold Glove awards.
He continued to have health and financial problems as he had two heart attacks and stomach surgery. [Ultimately,] he lived off of disability payments and Social Security and was forced to live with the memories of a season that only came once.