Hometown Report

Sacramento native Barragan, 84, fondly recalls catching for Cubs

Cuno Barragan, a Sacramento native and former Cubs catcher, is surrounded by baseball memorabilia at his home in Carmichael.
Cuno Barragan, a Sacramento native and former Cubs catcher, is surrounded by baseball memorabilia at his home in Carmichael. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Cuno Barragan whipped open the front door of his Carmichael home with the enthusiasm of a kid eager to show off his prized memorabilia collection.

And there’s still a lot of kid in Barragan, who at 84 is an enduring treasure of local baseball history.

The Sacramento native’s collection of bats, balls, cards, team photos, scrapbooks and playing gear reflect a career that started in the late 1930s on 13th and Q streets, where sidewalks represented bases and the outfield was the end of the street. Barragan’s baseball journey took him to Sacramento High School, Sacramento City College, the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League and, ultimately, the Chicago Cubs in the early 1960s.

He homered off the San Francisco Giants in his first major-league at-bat in 1961, a ball he never located. It’s the missing piece to his collection. It was also the only home run of his career, a highlight that “still makes me very proud,” said Barragan, whose given first name is Facundo.

What’s the old saying? Once a Cub, always a Cub? That’s Barragan. He has soaked in every inning of the the World Series between the Cubs and Cleveland Indians, the old catcher rearing back on inside pitches from the confines of his couch, and exalting the good moments.

“Oh, we had all the windows closed so the neighbors didn’t hear all of the noise,” wife Karla said with a laugh.

If the welcome mat – shaped like home plate – to this cozy cul-de-sac residence doesn’t give you a clue about the love of the game inside, the pumpkin with the Cubs hat surely does. There’s even a life-size cut-out of Barragan in Solons catching gear. The only thing missing – besides the home run ball – are bobbleheads.

“I don’t have a bobblehead,” Barragan said with a laugh.

Without missing a beat, Karla added, “No, but you’re a bobblehead.”

Barragan’s cherished memories include playing alongside Cub greats Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams, and competing in Latin-American All-Star games with Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal. He points to a plaque he was awarded at his induction into the California Mexican-American Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. He looks at photos of teammates and friends who have passed away. Too many to count, and Barragan misses them all. He is in good health and good spirits, though he feels the rigors of so many years squatting behind the plate.

“It starts to catch up to you when you turn 80,” Barragan said. “I have a sore shoulder and arm, replaced knees, a bad ankle. But no regrets. I loved every moment of baseball. I’ve had a really good life.”

The youngest of six children of Mexican immigrants, Barragan and his siblings bonded because all they had was one another. They lost their father, Claudio, to illness when Barragan was 2. His mother, Josefa, died when he was 15.

“When we lost our mother, we took care of ourselves,” Barragan said. “There are only two of us kids left. My sister Josephine is 94 and lives in Sacramento. I think about not having a father growing up, and it’s so gratifying to see a father tend to his son’s baseball or sports dreams.”

An early baseball memory for Barragan included the Cubs. As a student at Sutter Junior High School, Barragan caught wind that a janitor in the boiler room was listening to the 1945 World Series, the last time the Cubs were in the Fall Classic.

“I got to listen to an inning or two before I had to get back to class,” Barragan said.

Barragan and pals would sneak into Edmonds Field on Broadway and Riverside in the 1940s to watch Solons games. In the late 1950s, Barragan played for the Solons, hitting homers that landed in the Tower Theatre parking lot. Barragan was a 29-year-old rookie with the Cubs in 1961, the starting catcher after a strong spring training. His home run off Dick LeMay in a 14-inning game against the Giants still surprises him.

“I thought it was a double, and what I really remember was being so happy I homered,” Barragan recalled.

Barragan broke his ankle sliding into third base that rookie season, which ended after 10 games. Injuries continued to plague Barragan, who played a major-league career high 58 games in 1962. After playing in just one game with one plate appearance in 1963, his career was over.

He then sold insurance, although he could have worked as spy with his experience in Chicago.

While injured in 1962, Barragan was instructed by a coach to climb into the Wrigley Field scoreboard beyond the ivy-lined brick walls where a telescope and tripod had been set up. Barragan would see what pitch was called by the catcher and signal Cubs batters by turning an exit sign beyond the center-field wall on or off. When the light flashed on, it meant fastball.

“One time, our guys weren’t hitting, and I asked what the problem was, and someone said a paper bag had been placed over that light,” Barragan said. “I don’t want people to think that the Cubs were the only ones who did this. Everyone did it. All the players who came to the Cubs from other teams said they did the same thing.

“I just know this: It’s great what’s happened with the Cubs this season. The fans have always loved that team. I never believed in any curse of the goat. It just wasn’t meant to be for a lot of years. Now it’s meant to be.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD