February 2015

February 16, 2015-(This is the fourth in a four-part series on the history of Cuba, its relationship with baseball, and the stories of the three Hall of Famers who are buried there. For part three scroll down to the post from Feb. 4)

With the adoption of the Cuban constitution in 1902 came the election of their first president, Tomás Estrada Palma. Unfortunately, corruption came almost immediately to the fledgling democracy when Palma ousted all the members of the opposition Liberal Party from their government positions by the time the subsequent 1906 election rolled around. The election itself was one-sided and disputed, so United States mediator William Howard Taft (who would be elected US President three years later), was brought in to reconcile the Palma faction with the Liberal Party.

When Taft was unable to make both sides happy, the Cuban government requested that the United States military return to the island to maintain order. It was preferable for America to rule than for either side to allow their enemies to gain the upper hand. For decades, asking for US intervention would become standard operating procedure in Cuba. By the time the Cuban people began to realize the inherent dangers of this, America’s business interests (including the Mafia) were so inexorably intertwined that it would take the revolution of Fidel Castro’s barbudos to untie the knot.

Besides marking the first of many disputed Cuban elections, 1906 also witnessed the birth of Martín Magdaleno Dihigo Llanos. Born in Matanzas, Dihigo would have been introduced to baseball at an early age. Dating all the way back to the beginning of Cuban League play in 1878, Matanzas was a presence in the baseball circuit. Although never of the caliber of Habana and Almendares, Matanzas was the third of three charter clubs that first season. Since then, numerous squads have called the province home, including the current National Series squad, the Cocodrilos (Crocodiles).

Dihigo would premiere as a seventeen-year old playing for Habana during the 1922/23 season, alongside teammates Cristóbal Torriente, Pop Lloyd and Major Leaguer Adolofo Luque. His first season was unimpressive, as he bat a pitiful .167 in 30 at bats. However, his talent, while still blossoming, was apparent. Thus it was with the completion of the Cuban League season that the youngster found himself playing for Alex Pompez’s Cuban Stars East in the Eastern Colored League in 1923.

With Pompez’s squad Dihigo continued to struggle at the plate, but he shined in the field and also started to further develop his skills as a pitcher. Again, his pitching stats from that first ECL season were nothing to crow about, finishing with a 2-2 record and a 4.05 ERA, but his versatility was becoming apparent to all. Over the course of his long career Dihigo would star not only in Cuba and the US, but he would leave his mark in the Mexican Leagues as well as Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. He is, in fact, the only person elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in five different countries.

Within just a couple of seasons of his less-than-stellar debut, Dihigo had learned to hit the curveball that had eluded him as a teenager and set about establishing himself as the most dominant and influential player in Cuban baseball history. Historian John Holway has compiled a lifetime batting average for Dihigo of .304 with 134 career home runs, which certainly outshines the numbers of many of his contemporaries. Plus, his lifetime pitching record of 288-142 gives him a .670 winning percentage, ahead of such names as Christy Mathewson, Roger Clemens and Sandy Koufax. But, as is typical for the Negro Leagues, statistics do not tell the entire story.

His legend also comes from the individual tales of his performances. He was known throughout the Cuban and Mexican Leagues for his speed, strength and ingenuity. Dihigo was able to beat you not only with his physical talents, but with his keen intellect. One tale, conveyed in Peter Bjarkman’s “A History of Cuban Baseball: 1864-2006,” tells of Dihigo scoring by confusing a pitcher from third base. Standing at the hot corner, he kept yelling at the confounded twirler, “You balked! You balked!” over and over. Uncertain what to make of this odd outburst, the pitcher simply stood there as Dihigo worked his way down the line and across the plate for the run.

When his long playing career came to an end in 1947, twenty-five years after he played his first game, he had set multiple standards. He would win double digits as a pitcher in the Mexican League six times, in the Cuban League four times and in the Venezuelan League once. With the Cuban Stars he would lead the league in home runs twice, a feat he would repeat in 1935 with the New York Cubans and in 1936/37 for the CL Marianao squad. In 1935/36 he would have a season for the ages playing for the CL Santa Clara team, dominating the circuit in runs, triples, RBIs and batting average.

When he finally did retire, Dihigo kept his hand in the game, managing, umpiring and broadcasting for years after. Opposed to the Batista regime, he left Cuba in 1952 and returned only after Castro, whom he openly supported, took power in 1959. Towards the end of his life, suffering from illness, he lived with his son, Martín Jr., in the province of Cienfuegos. He died there on May 20, 1971. He is buried in the Cementerio Municipal Cruces, in the town of Cruces.

Because the tour that I’ll be going on is focused around the ongoing Cuban National Series, we are not scheduled to visit Cruces. The squad from Cienfuegos finished a miserable 16-29 this season, securing them last place and excluding them from the current Winners Stage that we’ll be witnessing. As a result, I will be breaking away from the group and venturing out to Cruces on my own.

Tour director Kit Krieger has arranged for me to have none other than Martín Dihigo, Jr. serve as my guide while I am there. Mr. Dihigo had a brief baseball career of his own, playing alongside Pete Rose and Tony Perez in the Cincinnati Reds minor league organization. He still lives in Cienfuegos and is more than willing to speak to anyone who wants to hear about his legendary father. Kit informs me that he even looks eerily like his namesake.

In the nine days I’ll be in Cuba we are scheduled to see six games featuring Cuba’s premiere teams. We will visit some of the most important landmarks in the history of Cuba, even beyond the world of baseball. But, it is this once in a lifetime opportunity to sit at the feet of such a direct connection to history that I am looking forward to the most. The tales of Dihigo’s greatness are legion, but I hope to pry one or two previously unheard nuggets from the son. If I succeed, you folks will be the first to know.

I am now less than a week away from boarding the plane that will take me on this adventure. Although progress does seem to be happening in regards to the normalization of Cuban/American ties (at least on the surface), my US phone will still be useless to me while I am there. Our hotel does offer internet but only at the rate of $11/hr, meaning that finances will be limiting my access. I mention all of this to let you know that while I am there, you loyal followers of The Hall Ball likely won’t hear from me much. But, rest assured, I will be recording every minute of the trip and I anxiously look forward to sharing it with you upon my return.

While I am gone, Spring Training will have gotten started here in the States. Life will begin anew as the crisp snap of leather on leather will be heard on the diamonds of Arizona and Florida. When I leave Cuba on March 3rd, I will immediately be visiting Puerto Rico to photograph the beach where the wreckage of Roberto Clemente’s plane washed up. Then, I’ll be heading off to Florida to shoot the ten Hall of Fame graves remaining there, completing The Sunshine State four and half years after I visited the Sarasota grave of Heine Manush. I’ll also be catching a game between the Washington Nationals and the Detroit Tigers at the Nationals spring home in Viera, near Cape Canaveral.

Yes, it’s almost baseball season here at home. Stay warm between now and then friends. Hope, in the form of a familiar white ball, is soon on the way.

February 4, 2015(This is the third in a four-part series on the history of Cuba, its relationship with baseball, and the stories of the three Hall of Famers who are buried there. For part two scroll down to the post from Jan. 28)

Four hundred years of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba came to a head at the end of the 19th century. While the thirst for independence was quieted by the concessions of “autonomy” brought about by the Ten Years’ War, it was not extinguished. Revolutionaries from that failed attempt had scattered to the four corners of the earth, or gone underground, but they survived and continued their quest to free their homeland. The convoluted intertwining of American and Cuban history would become even more linked and it could be said that, like baseball, this was a direct result of a movement that was begun in New York City.

José Julián Martí Pérez was born in Havana in 1853, and was a mere child of fifteen when the Ten Years’ War began. This did not prevent the artistically-talented and politically-minded youth from being a vocal supporter of the rebellion. He was arrested at sixteen and exiled to Spain at eighteen. He would complete his studies in Spain before traveling extensively, all the while writing about his beloved homeland.

Martí’s travels would bring him to New York City, where he lived for fifteen years. It was also where, in April 1892, he would be tagged as the delegate of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, a group of fellow exiles who had been plotting to return to Cuba and oust the Spanish. He would, for the next three years, be a moral and tactical inspiration in the planning for Cuba’s final war of independence. In April of 1895 Martí returned to the place of his birth, armed and prepared to die to oust the Spanish. A little more than a month later, he made that ultimate sacrifice.

His early exit from the drama likely only emboldened his followers as the struggle continued through 1898. It was that year that the United States, whose loyalties were somewhat murky at the beginning of the conflict, decided to intervene. Spain was already in the process of establishing an autonomous government in Cuba when in February the USS Maine, which had been anchored in the Harbor of Havana, mysteriously exploded. The US government used this as justification to declare war and within months, unable to face another sustained conflict, this time against the naval superiority of the US, Spain surrendered.

Although the US gained much of Spain’s territory in the region as a result of the ensuing Treaty of Paris, including Puerto Rico and Guam, they maintained governmental jurisdiction over Cuba only until 1902. That was when the Cuban people formed their own government for the first time since the Taínos and the arrival of Columbus. The US would maintain their hold on the installations at Guantánamo Bay, the now famous military base that remains a sticking point today, as Cuba and the US attempt to end decades of international isolation.

A little more than a year after Martí became the head of the CRP, Cristóbal Torriente was born in the small city of Cienfuegos, about 150 miles from Havana. For the first few years of his youth, there was no baseball in Cuba. The war canceled the 1894-1898 seasons of the professional Cuban League, with the grim realities of conflict making play impossible. Despite this, he was barely twenty years old when he made his professional debut with Habana for the 1912/13 season.

One of the Cuban Leagues greatest challenges throughout its existence was overcoming the fact that although there were (usually) four teams in the league, success and the subsequent fandom consistently only came to two of them. Between 1901 and 1960, 43 of the 59 championships were won either by Habana or Almendares. Torriente would spend a total of six seasons playing for Habana and another five for Almendares and would create a legacy as one of the islands greatest sluggers by adding to their respective dynasties.

He also spent thirteen seasons playing in the American Negro Leagues, logging time with the Cuban Stars of Havana, the Kansas City All Nations (where he played alongside José Méndez), the Cuban Stars West and the Chicago American Giants. It is with this final club, a charter franchise in Rube Foster’s Negro National League, that he played the greater portion of his Negro League career. In six seasons with Chicago, he batted a blistering .356 with a .559 slugging percentage.

Torriente would go back and forth between the Cuban League and the Negro Leagues throughout his career. So it was in 1920 that, after leading the Chicago American Giants to the first pennant in NNL history, he was back in Cuba for an exhibition series against John McGraw’s New York Giants and Babe Ruth, who himself was fresh off his record setting first year with the New York Yankees. On November 4th, playing for Almendares, Torriente cemented his legacy in Cuban history by slugging three home runs that day. The Babe, who was already one of the most popular athletes in the world, went a meek 0 for 3 with a walk.

It is important to point out that even this legendary game has suffered from the glorification that comes with a good baseball yarn. As historian Peter C. Bjarkman points out, “the Giants pitcher serving up the Torriente blasts was an out-of-position first baseman, the New York players were all suffering from head-splitting hangovers, and none of the ballplayers on either side were trying especially hard that afternoon. But the myth surrounding Torriente’s performance apparently fueled a popular need in Cuba at the time.” Bjarkman concludes, as any good baseball historian will tell you, that “a good myth is rarely if ever diminished by the troublesome facts which might surround it.”

Such is the case with Torriente, nicknamed “The Cuban Strongman,” whose powerful on field feats remain the stuff of legend, but for whom the details of his death seem to be clouded by misinformation. History records that Torriente died in New York City in 1938, the victim of an excessive lifestyle that is an all-too-frequent coda of many a ballplayer. Upon his death, teammates and friends paid to have his body shipped back to Cuba and he was buried in Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. His name appears on the 1951 monument, not far Mendez’s.

In preparing for The Hall Ball’s trip to Cuba, I was discussing Torriente with tour director Kit Krieger and he mentioned that Torriente is actually not buried in the monument. In fact, no one is really sure where he is buried. He encouraged me to reach out to Sigfredo Barros, baseball beat writer for Granma, the official newspaper for the Cuban Communist Party. “Siggy” confirmed that a check of the cemetery records showed no information about “The Cuban Babe Ruth.”

I contacted the New York City department of records and obtained a copy of Torriente’s death certificate, which you can see for yourself below. Among other interesting bits of information, I learned that he died at Riverside Hospital in the Bronx. Located on tiny North Brother Island, completely removed from the mainland of New York City, Riverside was a sanitarium for infectious disease. Its most famous resident, who was there concurrently with Torriente and who died just seven months after he did, was Typhoid Mary. The hospital was closed down in the 1960s, and the dilapidated buildings still remain today, inaccessible to most New Yorkers as the City has cut off access to the island completely.

Torriente Death Cert

Torriente’s death certificate goes on to explain that he had originally checked into the hospital in July 1937, suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, and that he died on April 11. The mystery deepens when one looks at the bottom of the page. Next to “Place of Burial,” it is clear that his original destination was a city cemetery, likely to be buried in a communal grave earmarked for the city’s poorest. But, that has been crossed out and replaced with “Calvary Cemetery.”

There is only one Calvary Cemetery in the five boroughs, and it is located in Queens, just on the other side of the Queensborough Bridge. Hall of Famers Wee Willie Keeler and Mickey Welch are buried there, and it was also the shooting location for the funeral of Don Corleone in The Godfather. It is also one of the more expensive cemeteries in which to be buried in the metropolitan area, and an unlikely resting place for a ward of the city. Calls to their offices confirm that they have no record of Torriente.

Which leaves us with a mystery, just weeks before I depart for Cuba. I will, of course, visit the Monument to Baseballists and make sure that The Hall Ball is photographed near Torriente’s name. If I am unable to discover the facts surrounding his burial, that will have to suffice for the purposes of the project. But, I have reached out to researcher extraordinaire Jim Overmyer, who recently discovered the closest living relation to the great Sol White, and enlisted his aide. Sadly, this is not the first time since The Hall Ball began that the burial location of a Negro League great has been in question. However, the dedicated work of people like Jeremy Krock, founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, has been able to bring those other mysteries to light over the ensuing four and a half years. I’m hoping that magic can be found again, and that it is discovered before I bid the “Pearl of the Antilles” goodbye.