Remembering Cuno Barragan: Former Sacramento Solons star hit HR in first at-bat with Cubs

His full name was Facuno Anthony Barragan, but everyone knew the gritty, fiery catcher by the catchy name that was as fun as his character. And it sounded like a baseball name.

Cuno Barragan.

His was a story to embrace, a late bloomer, rising from fourth string as a catcher at Sacramento High School to starring on his hometown Triple-A Sacramento Solons to making an immediate hit with the Chicago Cubs.

Barragan died at 91 on Sunday in Placer County from old age, heart failure and dementia, his wife, Karla, told The Sacramento Bee while sharing stories of how proud he was to be listed among the region’s all-time baseball players and personalities.

“Cuno was certainly larger than life,” Karla Barragan said. “So many great stories. I know he had an explosive temper as a player. Talk to any umpire back then and they’ll tell you.”

Alan O’Connor is a Sacramento-raised baseball historian who has written books on the history of regional players and their links to history. He knew Cuno Barragan for more than 25 years. The two regularly joined ballplayers from the 1950s to talk shop and compare old stories at nearby eateries, calling themselves “The Bagel Boys.”

“We’ve lost a local legend,” O’Connor said. “We’re down to our last Sacramento Solon. Only Sam Kanelos is left. Cuno was a rags-to-riches story, then becomes a beloved guy in the circle of old baseball players in this town.”

Years ago, O’Connor tracked down a bat that Barragan used in a Solons game. He took it to the Barragan family home in Carmichael to have it autographed.

“I told him, ‘I’ve got a used bat,’” O’Connor said. “He said, ‘It couldn’t be that used,’ deprecating his batting average. That was Cuno.”

Barragan wasn’t known as a hitter, but he showed enough behind the plate with a strong arm to throw out runners to rise through the ranks.

Early upbringing

Barragan was born on June 20, 1932, the youngest of seven children to Mexican immigrants. His father, Claudio, worked at the Southern Pacific Railroad shop in Sacramento and died of an illness when Cuno was two.

Spanish was the only language spoken at home. Barragan’s mother, Josefa, did not speak English. She died when Barragan was 15, a loss so painful, he would later say, that it made him appreciate sports as a release.

Barragan regaled stories with The Bee in 2016 of how he used to sneak into Solons games as a little boy in the 1940s. He was hooked on the sport, even if the sport wasn’t initially hooked on him. Barragan didn’t play much at Sacramento High, where he graduated in 1949, planted low on the depth chart. He figured his baseball days were over.

Barragan went to work for a local tile company. Some of his buddies convinced him to play football at Sacramento City College. He accepted the challenge. Barragan played linebacker and was voted as the Panthers’ MVP in 1951. He excelled at catcher for Sac City, leading the team in hitting with a .408 average in 1952. Barragan in 2002 was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, one of several local Halls of Fame he was involved with.

Barragan toiled in the minors and for teams in the service, including at the Naval Station in Alameda. He joined the Sacramento Solons in 1956. His contract was twice sold in the Pacific Coast League for a dollar. He told The Bee in 2016, amid laughter, “I always thought I was worth at least $5.”

At 28, Barragan was signed by the Chicago Cubs, his dream come true. He was one of seven catchers in spring training. He earned the starting catcher job with the Cubs in 1961 and hit a home run in his first Major League at-bat, doing so against the San Francisco Giants. He played for parts of three seasons with the Cubs, batting .202 with 14 RBI.

Injuries ended Barragan’s career. He returned to Sacramento to sell insurance and to help raise his three sons, Michael, Stephen and David. Barragan was a fixtures at local games, was a fundraiser for Sacramento State athletics and was a popular draw at speaking engagements, autograph sessions and while visiting the Sacramento River Cats games, a link to the past connecting with the current.

Spirited to the end

Karla Barragan was Barragan’s second wife. They were married 21 years and were a couple for nearly 30. Her two children from a previous marriage, Tammy Bullard and Denny McClain, were close to Barragan, she said.

The home run ball Barragan hit with the Cubs was never located. Barragan deemed that the only missing item in his home collection of bats, gloves, gear and scrapbooks. Karla said she still has the life-sized cutout of Barragan in his Solons gear in her home. The front doormat is a replica of home plate. The man is gone, but the memories remain.

Cuno Barragan of Sacramento, left, former Sacramento Solons catcher from 1957-1960 and Chicago Cubs catcher from 1961-1963, and Tom Crisp of Davis examine historic baseball jerseys at the “History of Baseball in Sacramento” exhibit at the Folsom Historical Museum in 2017. The exhibit featured memorabilia from baseball teams in Sacramento, including jerseys, jackets and cards collected by Alan O’Connor.

Karla met Barragan in the 1990s through a mutual friend in Bob Mattos, the one-time Sacramento State football coach who retired as athletic director at Elk Grove High School, where Karla worked. It took a year before Karla agreed to meet him.

“I am so glad I did,” she said with a laugh. “I had no idea who Cuno Barragan was, but I had to have seen him play years ago at Edmonds Field. My brothers (Dan and David Goff) were catchers, and when I told them who I was dating, they went ape. They knew exactly who he was.”

Karla said the nurses at Summerset Lincoln Memory Care in Placer County were drawn to Barragan’s charm in his final weeks. One bought a Cubs hat to wear and another purchased one of his playing cards online for $129.

“I told her that I probably had an old baseball card in the desk,” Karla said, laughing. “Cuno was asked by one of the nurses what position he played and he proudly said ‘catcher!’ There’s so much to Cuno, so many stories, so many good times. What a life.”