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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Martín Dihigo: Baseball's Least-Known Hall of Famer
By Peter C. Bjarkman

Cuban baseball—for all the glamor it now seemingly holds for American diamond aficionados—is hardly a matter of household names. The biggest stars on the current Cuban national team—a big-league-quality outfit that has more than held its own in recent seasons with both the big league Orioles and AAA-level USA and Japanese Olympic nines—are virtually unknown to all but the most dedicated Cuba watchers. Nineteen-year-old Maels Rodríguez twirls a scorching fastball clocked in Cuban League play in excess of one hundred miles per hour, and equally proficient flamethrowers José Ariel Contreras and José Ibar have of late set big league scouts salivating with their repeated mastery of U.S. pro hitters in Winnipeg (1999 Pan Am Games) and Sydney (2000 Olympics). Yet none of these headlining island stars would receive even a knowing nod from perhaps one in fifty thousand self-proclaimed U.S. baseball experts.

The first Cuban-born big leaguer enshrined in Cooperstown? Big Red Machine icon Tony Pérez finally cracked that barrier with the last Hall-of-Fame balloting of the twentieth century. Minnie Miñoso, Camilo Pascual, Bert Campaneris, and Tony Oliva may be familiar enough names from earlier Cuban big league infiltrations, but the Cuban presence in the U.S. major leagues has seemingly always been more a matter of colorful role players than one of legitimate front-line stars. Yankee ace Orlando "El Duque" Hernández and his much-embellished tale of heroic escape from Cuban baseball servitude is, admittedly, a recent headline grabber—as was half-brother World Series MVP Livan Hernández a few short Octobers back with the Florida Marlins. But in Cuba itself, Orlando Hernández would never have been classed among the island's true diamond immortals. And Livan was hardly a blip on the radar scope of Cuban baseball (posting a lifetime 27–16 mark over three seasons) before defecting from the junior national team earlier in the last decade. Far heftier stars on the Cuban scene like sluggers Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelán and hurlers Lázaro Valle and Norge Vera (owner of a league-best 0.97 ERA in 2000) are all but invisible anywhere except on their native island.

 

"Doubleheaders on the Dark Side of the Moon"

This is an old story for Cuban baseball. Light-skinned Dolf Luque (a twenty-year major leaguer from 1914 through 1935 who still owns the best-ever season for a Cincinnati Reds hurler) and swarthy-toned Martín Dihigo (legendary denizen of the invisible Negro leagues) remain the indelible Cuban baseball icons of the first half-century. Yet such hallowed status can be claimed only within the boundaries of Fidel Castro's off-the-beaten-track Communist island. Both Luque and Dihigo are entirely overlooked by U.S. diamond historians—even those of a most industrious bent who ply their trade under the banner of the august Society for American Baseball Research, an organization whose members pride themselves for leaving almost no stone unturned when it comes to mining baseball's rich past.

Despite nearly two hundred wins and one dominating National League season where he boasted twenty-seven victories and a microscopic 1.93 ERA (both NL bests in 1923), Luque was never a genuine star in the big leagues, even if he was the most visible and renowned among exotic Caribbean ballplayers who labored on the major league scene between the two world wars. More tragical, Dihigo remained virtually unknown to U.S. ballpark denizens, along with the bulk of his fellow Negro league stars, at least until his strange-sounding name was belatedly added decades later to the list of immortals housed in Cooperstown. On the annual winter tour back home in Cuba—as well as in Venezuela, Mexico, and the neighboring Dominican Republic—the lanky and trim six-foot-one-inch Dihigo was a true giant among itinerant diamond barnstormers. His absence from big league parks nonetheless meant certain anonymity among white U.S. fans and white U.S. sports writers up north, where the biggest crowds and biggest headlines were always drawn.

The fates of Dihigo and Luque were anything but unique, to be sure. Back on the island, however, there were still other Cuban stalwarts who rivaled Luque and Dihigo in athletic stature, even if none ever quite surpassed "The Pride of Havana" (Luque's popular moniker) or "El Inmortal" (Dihigo's) for the sheer dimension of their outsized homespun legends. Among the most notable of the island stars from the century's earliest decades was a brief and brilliant comet known everywhere on the winter ball scene as the Cuban "Black Diamond"—José Méndez—who turned big league heads and warmed Cuban pride with his domination of John McGraw's Giants and Ty Cobb's Tigers back in 1908 and 1909. The rubber-armed, ebony-faced Méndez stood only five feet nine inches and tipped the scales at a mere 155 pounds, but he flung a dancing fastball that appeared to even the most seasoned pro hitters to weigh more than the pitcher himself.

Méndez amazed the baseball world almost overnight in the winter of 1908 when he was first discovered by baseball's white establishment, much to the dismay of one set of big league batsmen who performed off-season duties for the Cincinnati Reds. When the visiting National League club arrived in Havana that winter for their celebrated whirlwind tour, they could hardly have anticipated the rude greeting they would receive from an unheralded set of island blackball strikeout artists. First came Méndez's 1908 exhibition contests versus the bedazzled Cincinnati ball club. In November of that year the diminutive Cuban first shut down the big leaguers with a brilliant 1–0, one-hit masterpiece. To prove that the first dominant encounter was no fluke, Méndez hurled another seven shutout innings of relief only two weeks after the first surprise blanking. He then punctuated the issue with a second complete-game shutout, 4–0, just four days later.


A rare image of Martín Dihigo during his brief career (193335) in Venezuela. Author's Collection

"El Diamante Negro" had suddenly thrown twenty-five straight scoreless frames against the bewildered Cincinnati team. Trading his Cuban League uniform representing Havana-based Club Almendares for the jerseys of various barnstorming outfits, he reportedly then continued his miraculous string of outings with twenty more consecutive runless frames, though now admittedly working against somewhat lesser competition: a nine-inning shutout against a touring semipro team from Key West; a no-hitter in a return engagement against the same ball club back in Key West (perhaps the first integrated game ever played in Florida); and finally, two additional shutout innings for Almendares in Cuban League play.

The magic which Méndez began against the shell-shocked Cincinnati ball club in 1908 continued against four additional big league visitors over the course of the next three winters. Things started a bit roughly for the celebrated Cuban ace the following winter, however, when the touring Detroit Tigers (even sans Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford) drubbed him 9–3. Returning to form against the Tigers' Ed Willett (21–10 that summer in the American League), Méndez fell again, 4–0, despite yielding just six hits and one earned run while enduring four costly fielding errors behind him. But Méndez did manage a victory against the Tigers in 1909—a two-to-one, five-hitter in his third and final outing. The 1909 series against Detroit also saw a second black Cuban ace, Eustaquio Pedroso, dazzle the once-more humiliated visiting big leaguers with his own eleven-inning no-hitter.

Manager John McGraw desperately wanted Méndez for his own roster despite the Cuban's taboo swarthy skin tone, and he even compared the "El Diamante Negro" to the immortal Christy Mathewson—the current ace of his own National League staff back in New York. It was Luque, however, who somewhat later offered perhaps the highest praise for the talents of the remarkable José Méndez. Returning to Havana for a public celebration honoring his own twenty-seven-win 1923 National League campaign, the successful big leaguer spied Méndez lurking in the grandstand and approached the aging and injured thirty-six-year-old Negro leaguer with a most memorable greeting: "This parade should have been for you," the humble and politic Luque remarked. "Certainly you're a far better pitcher than I am."

There was also another blackball star from Cuba—this one named Cristobal Torriente—who once outslugged Babe Ruth during a memorable island visit by the Bambino more noted than anything else for the Babe's epic carousing. Much of Torriente's own legend is indeed founded not on his stellar decade of blackball play (with Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants), but upon his brief encounter with John McGraw's touring team of big leaguers (mostly New York Giants) in Havana during the late fall following the 1920 season. And no lesser figure played a key role in this memorable face-off than Babe Ruth himself, fresh from his stunning fifty-four-homer debut with the Yankees the previous summer and enticed to perform in Havana by a then-incredible offer of $1,000 per game in hard cash from Cuban promoter Abel Linares. With regular Giants first baseman George "High-pockets" Kelly taking the mound for the big leaguers against the same Cuban Almendares club that had once featured Méndez, Torriente seized advantage by smashing booming back-to-back opposite field homers. When Ruth (who himself failed at the plate three times) assumed the hill to silence the Cuban slugger, he was greeted rudely enough by Torriente's third prodigious blow—a ringing double to left that nearly removed the legs of Giants third sacker Frank Frisch.

The final count saw Torriente going four for five with three round-trippers and six runs batted home; Ruth stood zero for two, having walked twice and reached once on an error. Frisch would later lionize "The Cuban Strongboy" when he remembered the particular blast that nearly amputated his limbs: "In those days Torriente was a hell of a player! Christ, I'd like to whitewash him and bring him straight up [to the majors]!"

Thus, for three full decades—1910 through 1940—Cuba was a genuine "Béisbol Paradiso," a true island paradise of wintertime barnstorming heroics. The big leaguers visited frequently and seemingly always returned home with awestruck assessments like the one Torriente had inspired from Frankie Frisch or the one Méndez elicited from John McGraw. So did the best among U.S. blackball stars, who were tested regulars on the November–January Cuban League scene. Oscar Charleston fashioned a .361 batting mark over nine Cuban seasons and was part of a Santa Clara Leopards outfield in 1923–24 (with Cubans Pablo Mesa and Alejandro Oms)—often considered the best fly-chasing trio pro baseball ever produced. James "Cool Papa" Bell ("Jimmy" Bell in Cuba) spent four seasons flashing on the base paths with Cienfuegos. Lesser black stars like Preston Hill, Rube Foster, and Oliver Marcelle were as lionized on the island as they were in the shadowy blackball circuit back in the U.S. And the legends they left behind still vibrate in the island's baseball soul: Jimmy Bell's three homers (one struck against Dihigo) in a single 1929 game; Ray "Jabao" Brown's first twentieth-century Cuban no-hitter; and native Cuban Alejandro Oms's prodigious slugging (featuring powerful blasts sprayed to all fields), daring base-path feats, and circus outfield catches spread over two full decades.

But as far as most white North American fans of the major league game were concerned, these tropical barnstormers might just as well—in the phrase of historian Douglass Wallop—have been "playing doubleheaders on the dark side of the moon." They were invisible in the lands up north where baseball was strictly a summertime affair—and strictly a white man's affair when it came to mainstream reporting. It would be more than half a century before the efforts of dedicated revisionist historians would bring these legends back to life for the bulk of a major-league-oriented (and largely white) North American baseball fandom.

For all the unappreciated glories of Luque, Torriente, Méndez, and the island's other forgotten white and black stars, one name still towers above all the rest. When a special committee of Hall-of-Fame electors was established in 1971 for the overdue task of selecting past-era greats from among excluded blackballers, one of the committee's earliest choices (1977) was inevitably the versatile Cuban pitcher-infielder-outfielder who stands head and shoulders above his Latin countrymen. Among fourteen greats tabbed to date by this special Negro leagues enshrinement committee (Satchel Paige was the first in 1971 and Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard followed close behind), Martín Dihigo was the ninth chosen and thus far remains the only player of Latin American origin selected by this group. The perhaps-surprising nomination of Dihigo for Cooperstown enshrinement, coming at a time when only Roberto Clemente among Latin-born ballplayers was a member of the unique fraternity of the game's greatest stars, is a decision that, in retrospect, is beyond criticism—even under the most exacting of standards. Yet without careful study of long-buried blackball and winter ball records, perhaps few at the time could have truly appreciated the wisdom underlying the honor.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2001 issue.

PETER C. BJARKMAN made history on March 3, 2001, as the first American in forty years to be interviewed on Cuban television about the shared national sport of baseball. He is co-author (with Mark Rucker) of Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball (1999), and he is currently completing a history of Cuban baseball after Fidel Castro's revolution, writing a biography of Martín Dihigo, and working on a novel set in Cuba during the first three decades of the past century.

© 2001 Peter C. Bjarkman

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