January 2015

January 28, 2015-(This is the second 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 one scroll down to the post from Jan. 16)

Located just a few miles to the west of the Port of Havana, lies the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. Americans better know this cemetery’s namesake by the Anglicized version of Christopher Columbus, though, to be fair, his Genoan birth name was in fact Cristoforo Columbo. There is no better way to start an exploration of Cuba then with the world’s most famous invader who is still, to this day, credited with “discovering” the new world, a claim that has only slightly more credence than Doubleday’s influence on the creation of baseball.

Prior to 1492, three distinct indigenous peoples existed on the Cuban island: the Guanahatabeyes, the Ciboneyes and the Taínos. When Columbus arrived in October of that seminal year, it signaled the doom of these cultures, just as it would cause the near extinction of their Indian neighbors to the North. As with America, small pockets of these native people still exist in Cuba today, but their way of life was annihilated by Columbus’s benefactors, the Spanish.

Over the next four-hundred years Cuba would be subject to Spanish rule. Besides serving as an agricultural resource, providing fertile land for coffee, sugar and molasses, Cuba was also a convenient hub for the Spanish slave trade. Cuban law, however, did allow opportunity for slaves to buy their freedom. By the start of the 19th century, frequent small slave rebellions, ironically indebted to the thirst for democracy created by the American Revolution, coupled with those who had purchased their emancipation, led to a sizable free black population. Palenques, Spanish for “walled city,” began to sprout up around Cuba; protected communities outside of the reach of the law, made up entirely of free blacks or, gente libre de color.

Large-scale rebellion came to Cuba in 1868, just three years after the end of the Unites States Civil War. The goal of the conflict, which would come to be known as The Ten Years’ War, was to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. They were not successful, although Spain did promise greater autonomy to the country in the 1878 pact that brought about an end to the fighting. That agreement, known as the Pact of Zanjón, also guaranteed the freedom of any black who fought on either side of the war. It was an important step and just eight years later, on October 6, 1886 slavery would be completely abolished throughout the nation.

Twenty-two months prior to that historic day (sources vary as to the exact date), José de la Caridad Méndez was born in Cárdenas, in the Matanzas Province, roughy one-hundred miles east of Havana. Méndez was ebony-skinned and small for a ballplayer, only 5’ 8” and roughly 160 lbs. (again sources vary as to his exact size). But, this did not prevent him from becoming one of history’s most dominating pitchers and the first superstar Cuban export to North American baseball.

The Cuban League was founded the same year the Ten Years’ War ended, in 1878, and was strengthened with Cuba’s eventual independence in 1898. In fact, it would operate continuously until 1961, when Fidel Castro dissolved the league along with the rest of professional sport throughout the country. When Méndez began his professional career during the 1907/08 season, he joined the Almendares, one of the Cuban League’s charter franchises. The club was in the middle of quite a successful run, having won the championships of the 1904/05 and 1906/07 seasons.

Méndez’s presence made a good team better. Almendares had an .826 winning percentage his rookie year and the twenty-three year old set the league on fire. He posted an 8-0 mark, pitching two shutouts in seven games started. He was a little wild, walking thirty-two in seventy-five innings, but he still managed a minuscule 0.48 ERA. Along with offensive powerhouse Emilio Palomino, he led the club to another championship, finishing five and a half games ahead of Habana.

In 1908, during the Cuban League off-season, he joined the Cuban Stars of Havana, members of the Independent National Association of Colored Professional Clubs of the United States and Cuba, a long-winded name that would mercifully shorten over the ensuing years. Members of the pre-Rube Foster disconnected Negro Leagues, the small league would feature the Brooklyn Royal Giants, who would play an exciting exhibition series against Almandares in Cuba later that year. It also included the Sol White-led Philadelphia Giants and the misnamed Cuban Giants. Unlike the Stars of Havana, who actually were Cuban, the Giants were made up of Americans who capitalized on the mystique surrounding Cuban baseball.

The Stars never played home games, appearing mostly in ballparks in the Northeast, and fared poorly, finishing 8-12 that season. However, Méndez’s return to Almendares brought immediate success. Picking up where he left off his freshman year, he won fourteen league games in 1908/09, and an additional three in exhibition play against the Brooklyn Royal Giants and the Major League Cincinnati Reds, who visited Cuba in November of that year. Méndez dominated the white big leaguers, pitching two shutouts and declining to give up a run in his twenty-five innings of work. His status in Cuba, and abroad, had become legendary.

He would play with Almendares for seven seasons, his last in 1915/16 and would help them win four more championships along the way. He would also play with the Cuban Stars until 1912, winning twenty games with them over his career, including a stellar 9-0 mark in 1911.  Méndez was likely the most celebrated athlete in Cuba when, in 1916, he joined the Kansas City All Nations of the Western Independent Clubs of the American Negro Leagues.

By then, his arm had given out and he was no longer able to command his lightning fastball. Enticed by All Nations owner and fellow Hall of Famer J.L. Wilkinson, he converted to shortstop. Despite mixed success at the new position, he would spend the next five years playing exclusively in the United States. Appearing with the Chicago American Giants in 1918 and the Detroit Stars in 1919, he found a new home in 1920 with the Kansas City Monarchs, again working for Wilkinson.

A charter club of Foster’s Negro National League that season, Méndez would serve as the first player/manager of one of the most famous franchises in Negro League history. His playing time would lessen as he reached his mid-thirties, but he would lead the Monarchs to championships in 1923 and 1924. He even pitched, as a thirty-nine year old, in the first Negro League World Series in ‘24, defeating the Hilldale Daisies twice and allowing only four runs over nineteen innings of work. It would be his final hurrah with the Monarchs.

He would return to Cuba briefly, for the 1920/21 season, playing one more time for Almendares, and would return for good after he left the Monarchs. He would play for Santa Clara in 1923-25, Habana in 1925/26 and Alacranes of the newly formed Triangular League for 1926/27. The league lasted for only a season, but was well funded and could afford to hire legendary names like Méndez. The Alacranes would win the special season that was created for the three new teams, bringing Méndez one more championship in his storied career. He would never pitch professionally again.

Less than two years after he was out of baseball, Méndez died in Havana on October 31, 1928, likely of tuberculosis. He was buried in Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, and his name was inscribed on the 1951 Monument to Baseballists. He was inducted into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in its inaugural class of 1939, and he joined the elite at Cooperstown in 2006, one of the members of the final class of Negro Leaguers voted in under current rules. His nickname in life had been El Diamante Negro, the Black Diamond, and today, 108 years after he made his professional debut, Méndez remains the premier jewel in the crown of Cuban baseball elites.

January 23, 2015-We are saddened by the news of the passing of Ernie Banks. We have lost a piece of American history tonight. Not only was he the most beloved Cub in that venerable franchise’s long history, but he was one of the few remaining on this earth who played in the Negro Leagues.

There will always be another game tomorrow, but life reminds us that the time of the men who play it is short.

Ernie Banks

January 16, 2015-The Hall Ball would like to extend its most sincere congratulations to newly elected Hall of Famers Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. This most deserving class brings the total number of Hall members up to 310, with 70 of them still alive, the most since we started working on The Hall Ball four and half years ago. As much as we are moved by the sanctity of visiting the graves of the members who are no longer with us, we would of course prefer to visit with them while they are alive.  The dead, after all, tell no tales and they certainly don’t move you to tears of laughter when they keep asking you to take the picture over again because their hair doesn’t look right, like Hall Ball favorite Lou Brock.

As we announced on facebook, we recently added our 213th member, Cincinnati Reds legend Barry Larkin. Mr. Larkin was warm and encouraging when we told him about the project and his smile in the photo was genuine. There are two more living members who will be in the New York City area in the next few weeks, but as always we will wait to announce them until we’ve succeeded in getting the pictures. Baseball is filled with superstitions and just as it’s inappropriate to mention a no-hitter when you’re in the middle of it, we aren’t comfortable with talking about the “possibles” until they become the “definites.”

Most exciting to us, however, is the upcoming trip to Cuba. All of the pieces are nearly in place and we are just over a month away from visiting this tiny country that has been very big news of late. In preparation for the trip we have been boning up on the history of not only baseball within Cuba, but the country itself. Its story is one of beauty, tragedy, optimism, revolution and the realities of trying to create a socialist utopia in a capitalist world.

The mistakes of the Castro regime have been legion and looked at in the context of the original goals of Fidel’s barbudos, they are also poignantly sad. Prior to the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba was one of the more prosperous Latin American countries. However, it was also rife with Mafia-led crime and excess along with governmental sanctioned economic disparity. When Batista, who was once the democratically elected President of Cuba, took over in a bloodless coup in 1952, it was in part because the poor had been suffering terribly for nearly a decade under the ruling Los Auténticos, or Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party.

Unfortunately, conditions under Batista’s corrupt regime only worsened. Thus, when Fidel, with folk anti-hero Che Guevara by his side, rode out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains to oust Batista in 1959, the Cuban people looked to him with optimism. He spoke, charismatically, of a great revolution that would end hunger and poverty, and make each Cuban the equal of their fellow man. It was only later, after Castro found a friend in Nikita Khrushchev, that his revolution became a communist one. We now know that the communism experiment is a failure, and Castro’s self-serving, oppressive and, at times, violent reign of over five decades has prevented Cuba from reaching its dreams of self-sustaining equality, despite his successful efforts to lower crime and increase literacy. The Castro legacy will always be a complicated one.

Despite this, Cubans have found their pleasures where they could. This has always included baseball. Cuban baseball is barely two decades younger than American baseball. When the Cuban League was founded in 1878, just two years after the National League, it became the first baseball league outside of the borders of the United States. Like everything else, baseball has been effected by Castro’s reign, as the professional sport was abolished in 1961. Since then, the Baseball Federation of Cuba has lead a multi-league amateur coalition made up of teams representing each of Cuba’s provinces. It has cultivated some of the most sought after and talented athletes in the history of the game and at times dominated the world stage.

I am honored that one of my guides will be the amazing Peter Bjarkman. He is the leading authority on Cuban baseball. With the recent announcements about the shift in Cuban/American relations, Peter has become ubiquitous, including an appearance on the NBC Nightly News last month. His expertise guarantees that this trip will be a most enlightening one. I have much to learn about the country and its game.

There are three members of the Hall of Fame who we believe are buried in Cuba. If that sentence sounds a little non-committal, that’s because it is. The accepted wisdom is that Negro League greats José Méndez, Cristóbal Torriente and Martín Dihigo are all buried on their native soil. For two of them, there is some question as to the exact accuracy of this. Both Méndez and Torriente are listed on the Monument to Baseballists in Havana’s Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, but that was not erected until 1951, years after their deaths. Records to confirm that their bodies have actually been placed alongside their fellow ballplayers remain undiscovered.

This mystery is part of what we’ll be exploring between now and when we leave. Over the next few weeks I will writing about these three men. I will look at their impact on baseball, both in America and Cuba, as well as the role Cuba played in black baseball and vice-versa. Just as the complicated political history of Cuba is intrinsically intertwined with that of America, so is our game. Now, at the dawn of a new normal, we will say goodbye to the end of an epoch by examining the men who helped define it. Join us.