At 14, an age when most boys are collecting the autographs of their baseball heroes, Jorge Lebron is giving them out. Last month he inked his biggest one so far: a two-year, $30,000 contract with the Philadelphia Phillies that makes him the youngest player ever to sign with a major league team.
“We’re not ransacking the cradle,” Phillies’ scout Ruben Amaro says defensively. Actually, it was more like raiding the playground. On a trip to Puerto Rico, Amaro was scouting a group of 18-year-olds when he was astonished to see 14-year-old Jorge, who plays shortstop and third base and batted over .500 in an amateur league, slickly scoop up every grounder in sight and then rattle a 375-foot line drive off the wall of a nearby schoolhouse.
Although organized baseball prohibits the signing of a player before his graduation from high school, the rules do not apply to territories like Puerto Rico. After promising Jorge’s parents that their son would be able to finish his schooling even if the Phillies had to hire tutors, Amaro promptly packed him off for three days of tryouts at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium.
There, the gangly, 5’10”, 150-lb. youngster impressed everyone with his presence of mind, precision of glove and power of bat. Says Amaro: “Jorge has fantastic natural abilities for his age and is as good a prospect as I’ve seen even among 18-year-olds.”
This summer Jorge is sharpening both his skills and his English with the Phillies’ farm team in Auburn, N.Y. His biggest problem so far has been steering clear of New York State’s child labor law, which forbids employment of anyone under 16 after 7 p.m. Accordingly, Jorge may have to confine his game appearances to afternoons, a fact which will make it difficult for him to break into the big leagues in time to lower the mark Joe Nuxhall set when he pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 1944 at age 15.
Not that Jorge is in a hurry. After the season is over in late August, he plans to return to Puerto Rico for more pressing business: the beginning of the school year and, for him, the rigors of the ninth grade.