Sports

Carrao Bracho, the pitching fisherman

Carrao Bracho was the Venezuelan Cy Young, the brightest baseball star in a country known for them. When baseball ended, he disappeared into anonymity.

“I believe in America.”

Those are the first four words from the seminal movie The Godfather, and they aptly describe the little story that we are about to tell. America gave birth to baseball, and baseball gave birth to millions of dreams, both fulfilled and broken.

Baseball gave birth to Carrao Bracho, Venezuelan pitching extraordinaire, so yeah, we might as well start by saying, “I Believe in America.”

Baseball is a big deal in Venezuela. It truly is the undisputed national pastime. It arrived in the country during the first decades of the 20th century, brought by American immigrants closely linked to Venezuela’s growing oil industry at the time. Oil is not a minor detail here because José de la Trinidad “Carrao” Bracho was born in Maracaibo on July 23, 1928. Maracaibo is the capital of Zulia state, and Lake Maracaibo is where the larger oil deposits could be found. Therefore, baseball was always close.

Carrao grew up in a small fishing town called Los Puertos de Altagracia, separated from his birthplace by water. In Los Puertos, he did precisely what everyone else did: fish. Fishing would accompany him way longer than baseball: it was with him before the game found him and long after the game left him. A fish bite accident left a permanent injury on his right hand — an injury that would turn into an asset later on.

In 1941, Venezuelan baseball exploded when the national team won the Baseball World Cup in Havana, beating Cuba on a team that’s still referred to as “The Heroes of ‘41.” Carrao was 13. In 1945, the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League was born, cementing the sport throughout the whole country. In 1948, Carrao Bracho made his debut playing for Cervecería Caracas.He was 20.

His amazing professional career in the country spanned 23 seasons, where he went on to become the all-time leader in seasons played, games started (191), complete games (92), innings pitched (1,753) and wins (109). He was a symbol of durability; a hard worker that would get the job done.

In the 1961-62 season pitching for Oriente, he won a staggering 15 games (more than 25 percent of the total games played that season).He won 11 the previous year. For context,, in a normal Venezuelan season, any pitcher that wins six or seven games has the equivalent of a 20-win MLB season.

It is said that Carrao’s best pitch was a forkball that he allegedly invented. Did he invent this pitch as a way to gain an edge? No. Necessity is the mother of invention. That injured finger from being bitten by a fish as a kid made him find a different way to grab the ball just so he could be effective. And boy, was he effective. It was one of those little chance events in life that end up having unimaginable and long-lasting consequences.

Major League Baseball has the Cy Young Award for the best pitcher every year, and the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League has the Carrao Bracho Award for the same achievement. Cy Young is still MLB’s all-time leader in starts, complete games, innings pitched and wins… just like Carrao in Venezuela. The Fisherman is our Cy Young. Baseball myths; real-life workers.

Photo Credit: Bracho family

Carrao Bracho, The Fisher King

Baseball is a beautiful pastoral sport; eye-pleasing. Professional baseball is show business, a bit of beauty and fun in a cutthroat atmosphere. In one and a half centuries, Major League Baseball has had a little over 20,000 players. During Carrao’s playing years, only 22 Venezuelans made it to the Big Show.

Since then, more than 400 Venezuelans have made it to the majors, including Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu, Johan Santana, Felix Hernandez, Andres Galarraga and Hall-of-Famer Luis Aparicio, further cementing the country’s deep connection with American baseball. According to Baseball-Reference, the United States and the Dominican Republic are the only countries to produce more Major Leaguers.

Just making it to the big leagues is an astounding achievement all by itself, never mind staying in it. Was Carrao good enough to be an MLB player? Most likely. Was he good enough to excel? We’ll never know, and that’s definitely more debatable than the first question. What is certain is that lack of talent is not what kept him from a career in America.

Carrao was born in Maracaibo, raised in Los Puertos de Altagracia which, as the name suggests, is basically a port. Even in Maracaibo, which is a relatively big city, he lived in an area called Milagro Norte (North Miracle), which is located just by the lake. He spent most of his life around water. And, as it turns out, this Fisher King from North Miracle was terrified of planes. Carrao was a water creature, and the sky was not for him. This limitation might be the main reason why we didn’t have an MLB Bracho chapter. Not his talent, but a peripheral technicality. That’s why making it to the big leagues needs way more than just skill and athletic gifts

MLB was not in Carrao’s cards. From a writer’s point of view, it’s bittersweet and somewhat romantic —  one of the all-time greats from a land of greats, not achieving the pinnacle of his profession.

Photo Credit: Ernesto Pérez

The old man and the lake

Professional baseball played almost no role in Carrao’s life after retirement. He held no long-lasting positions in the game. Almost everyone that knows a little baseball in Venezuela would recognize him based solely on the award that bears his name, but almost no one could name his achievements or even pinpoint him based on photos. Only loved ones know the few successes and many struggles of his later years.

In this search for Carrao’s legend, we were lucky enough to meet his living family members. They live in the same places as Carrao did, basically carrying on the same life. Bracho had very little to do with baseball in his later years, except for fixing the occasional glove here and there to make some extra bucks. When he lived in Maracaibo, in Milagro Norte, you could see him cleaning fish by the side of the road near his home. No one would recognize that this was the winningest pitcher in the history of Venezuelan baseball.

He was known and loved by family and neighbors. A bit of a folk hero in his area, he was a jokester. Friendly, loud, larger than life, funny and sweet to kids. This description would fit most old men in this part of Venezuela, where the hot weather has made us loud and bad circumstances have brought out humor as a defense mechanism. Carrao, however, was not most men.

Leroy, his grandson, remembers no conversations about baseball at all. The only anecdote he could recall was the fact that when Leroy was a baby, he had an inclination to be left-handed, and he was told that his grandfather would tie his hand to deter Leroy from left-handed practices.

“If my grandson is going to be a pitcher, he must be a righthander like me”, was the quote Leroy told us his grandad repeated.

Carrao died in Los Puertos de Altagracia on June 16, 2011. Leroy was 16.

Dougnes, his granddaughter, has nothing but love in her voice when she talks about the old man. She says he was extremely professional and equally competitive when he played creole balls, a game that requires throwing precision. He was also known as an avid domino player.

But of course, the Fisher King from North Miracle had fishing as his go-to activity. He used fish hooks, nets and even harpoons. He used to submerge himself in the lake without any scuba gear to try and catch groupers near the oil pipes in Lake Maracaibo. Once, a huge grouper bit him in the arm and he wrestled it, getting the fish out of the water with its teeth still firmly on him. He caught the fish, cleared the wounds on his arm, and ate it.

Carrao was never wealthy: not when he was born, not when he played baseball, and definitely not after he retired. Was he happy? That’s impossible to tell. He certainly lived quite a life. It was said that beer drinking was a big part of the final years of the Fisher King. He supposedly sold all his baseball mementos and trophies to buy beer. He did not hand the award with his name to the pitchers that won it every season. Usually, his late son or his grandson Leroy were his representatives when those ceremonies took place.

The later years of Cy Young were also very hard financially, and even though he was inducted to the Hall of Fame, he was not highly celebrated during his lifetime. This is yet another similarity between the two legendary pitchers. Cy worked on his farm. Carrao fished at the lake. Both struggled to make ends meet. Somewhat ignominious endings to legendary lives, some might think, yet there is a quiet dignity about them. Pitching is the ultimate individual position in a collective game. A conversation between Cy and José might’ve been something wonderful.

Photo Credit: Ernesto Pérez

When the legends die

The first motivator to write this piece was the faces of the fans. That happiness in the face of anyone that sees the star pitcher of their team get the outs and win the games. How many smiles did Carrao put on thousands of faces that are no longer here? We wanted to search for the ghost of Carrao. We also wanted to search for the ghost of a smile.

Carrao’s footprint in Venezuelan baseball is undeniable, even if that footprint seems to have been made in the sandy beaches of Lake Maracaibo, with waves bound to erase it from our memories. But the fact that this story is real and largely untold is another example of what baseball gives us again and again — romance, sadness, highs and lows. Carrao made brief Minor League appearances in 1952 and 1954 but we don’t know much about those experiences besides his stats, and we don’t really know what he believed about this far-off land, the birthplace of baseball.

But we know that if America had ever gotten to see him pitch, they would have believed in him.

Leroy is now coaching low-income kids in Maracaibo, teaching them the fundamentals of baseball. Because life is sometimes wonderful and weird, there’s a chance one of these kids could make it big. A small chance, but a chance nevertheless. Perhaps Leroy’s love of the game, a love that can be directly linked to his grandfather’s history, is changing lives for the better right now, whether these kids make it big or not. This makes the legend of Carrao live on.

Tecumseh said, “When the legends die, the dreams end. When the dreams end, there is no more greatness”. As long as these kids that probably don’t even know Carrao have dreams, his greatness is secure.

Original photographs were taken by Ernesto Perez



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