We Say A Sad Good-Bye to “Jungle Jim” Rivera

We Say A Sad Good-Bye to “Jungle Jim” Rivera

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We Say A Sad Good-Bye to “Jungle Jim” Rivera

“I’d rather watch Rivera play more than anybody else. He does everything he can to beat you.” –Rogers Hornby, speaking of his protégé, “Jungle Jim” Rivera

…That’s quite a statement from the “Rajah” himself, considering all the great players he saw over his long career!

The Baseball World gave most of its attention this week to the passing of Hall-of-Famer Bobby Doerr. But here at Old-Time Baseball, we would be remiss if we failed to mention the death of another fine ball player: “Jungle Jim” Rivera.

I’m sure Jungle Jim’s death caught the attention of old-time White Sox fans. Rivera was a beloved sparkplug on the pennant-winning 1959 “Go-Go” White Sox. He, along with Luis Aparacio, Nellie Fox, Jim Landis, Al Smith, Billy Pierce, and Early Wynn formed the “heart-and-soul” of a great Sox team which captured the Pale Hose’s first pennant since the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Plus he had a great baseball nickname, “Jungle Jim,” pinned on him by Chicago sportswriter, Edgar Munzel, for his unorthodox playing style, and his outgoing, excitable personality. The name just seemed to fit and it stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Jungle Jim played 10 seasons in the major leagues (1952-1961). Remembered for his years with the White Sox, he also played briefly for the Browns (1952) and Athletics (1961). Born to Puerto Rican migrants, over his career Rivera hit .256, with 83 home runs, 422 RBIs, and a lifetime .978 fielding average.  In 1953 he led the league in triples (16), and in ’54 in stolen bases (25). He was 0-11 in the 1959 World Series, but saved Game Five with a remarkable catch. Rivera’s best season was 1954 when he hit .286, with 11 home runs, and 61 RBIs.

A strong-armed outfielder and a smart, fast runner, Rivera was fearless on the base paths, often using head first belly slides before it was fashionable. He was also known for his many game-saving catches in right field. He used his speed to full advantage, legging out many infield hits.

Rivera’s mother died when he was six, so young Jim was raised in a New York orphanage until age 16. His flourished athletically, and became an accomplished ball player and boxer. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, winning the light-heavyweight boxing title at Camp Barkley, Texas, while also playing on the camp’s baseball team.

In 1944, Rivera’s life fell into turmoil as he was convicted of attempted rape. He received a dishonorable discharge and a life sentence in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He was paroled after five years, partly due to his baseball skills: Playing on the pen team, he caught the eye of the Atlanta Crackers’ owner who took a chance on him and signed Rivera for the 1949 season.

Jim owed his ascent to the major leagues to Rogers Hornsby, his 1950 manager in the Puerto Rican Winter League. The one-time orphan later cited Hornsby as being “like a step-father.” Rajah became infatuated with his “all-out” style of play and brought the 6-foot 196-lb. outfielder back with him to the Seattle Raniers for the 1951 season.

Rivera soon became a fan favorite. The Rainiers went 99-68, winning their first PCL title since 1942, with Rivera enjoying the best season of his pro career: 231 hits, 135 runs, 20 home runs, and 120 RBIs. He won the league batting title (.352) and was named MVP. In 1952, Hornsby, now managing the Browns, convinced owner Bill Veeck to acquire Rivera, and he made his major league debut on April 15, 1952. After 92 games, he was traded to the White Sox, where he spent the next 10 years.

Following his baseball career, Jungle Jim kept in shape by playing racquetball and golfing 2-3 times a week. For many years, he ran a popular saloon called “Jungle Jim’s.”

Gary Livacari

Photo Credits: All from Google search

Information: Excerpts edited from the Wikipedia page.

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I'm a baseball historian who also loves to write. My forte is identifying ballplayers in old photos, and my specail interest is the Dead Ball Era.

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