THE CUBAN CONNECTION
Martin Dihigo was the best player who never reached — or more accurately was never allowed to reach — the major leagues. Despite such a fate, he is enshrined in four Halls of Fame: Cuban, Venezuelan, Mexican and U.S.
Born in 1905 in Matanzas, Cuba, where the island’s first ballpark was built, Dihigo made his Negro Leagues debut at 17 and soon demonstrated that he could play any position, including pitcher. As one Cuban baseball official once told me, “Imagine a player like Vladimir Guerrero, who could pitch. That was Martin Dihigo.”
The legend never became a household name in America because he played in the era before the color barrier was broken. But with some digging, one can realize what a marvelous player he truly was.
Early in his career, Dihigo broke in playing shortstop and second base. But he soon began to pitch and play the outfield as well. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, he was the prototypical player for just about any era.
This original photo features several members of the Almendares team celebrating with the great Martin Dihigo after winning the Cuban Winter League Championship in 1932. Dihigo was considered a national hero in his native Cuba.
Although too many box scores from his time have been lost, we do know that Dihigo began his four-decade career in 1927 in his native Cuba. Published reports credit him with batting .408 in 1927 and .389 in 1929. By the mid-1930s, he was playing in Mexico and turning heads with his pitching performances, too. In 1936, he led all pitchers in the Mexican professional leagues with a 0.90 ERA.
His lifetime pitching record was 256-136, and the games when he went against Satchel Paige became legendary. An intimidating right-hander, Dihigo threw no-hitters in the United States, Mexico and Venezuela. Perhaps only Babe Ruth showed as much prowess on and off the mound.
With the Homestead Grays, Dihigo won several home runs titles and tied Josh Gibson for another. John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, called Dihigo the greatest player alive. Walter “Buck” Leonard claimed Dihigo “could run, hit, throw, think, pitch and manage. You take your Ruths, Cobbs and DiMaggios. Give me Dihigo. I bet I would beat you almost every time.” In the U.S., Dihigo also played for the New York Cubans and Darby Daisies. In addition to Leonard, Willie Wells, Vic Harris, George Scales and fellow Cuban Orestes “Minnie” Minoso all claim that Dihigo was the finest ballplayer they ever saw.
As a member of the Negro League New York Cubans in 1935 (back row, 14), Dihigo had an impressive season. He hit .335, homered nine times, and went 7-3 on the mound.
“For versatility on the baseball diamond, Martin Dihigo was in a class by himself,” reads a scouting report on file at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “He was also a power hitter who possessed one of the strongest arms in black baseball.”
Another report at Cooperstown states, “To his early-day black contemporaries, Dihigo was the greatest professional baseball player. To sports fans today, he is an unknown.”
Dihigo was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown in 1977, six years after his death. Yet arguably Dihigo’s greatest impact could have been a decision he made once his playing days were over in the mid-1950s. After the revolution in Cuba, and Fidel Castro came to power, Dihigo chose to stay in his homeland. He became an announcer in Havana and often held court, talking baseball with fans for hours.
Then Castro named him his minister of sports – a designation that forced several of his admirers, especially those from Cuba, to reconsider their opinion of him and perhaps their relationship to a new Cuba. Watching how Dihigo became integral to Castro’s regime soon forced Minoso and other Cuban-born ballplayer of that era to take drastic action.
In 1949, Minoso broke in with the Cleveland Indians and spent much of that season and the next in the minor leagues. Early in the ’51 season, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox, where he had to confront discrimination as well as opposing batters.
In 1951, Cuban-born Orestes “Minnie” Minoso became the first player of color for the Chicago White Sox and the first black Latino to play in the Major Leagues. Known for his speed and base running ability, “The Cuban Comet” paved the way for other Latinos in the Majors and is considered a legend in Chicago.
“First you had Jackie Robinson. Then Larry Doby and then you had me,” Minoso said. “I was the first black-skinned ballplayer to play in the city of Chicago.”
To make the leap, Minoso explained that he had “to be strong in the mind.” That required him to remember that Cuban players such as the great Dihigo hadn’t gotten a chance to play in the major leagues. Also, star players like Ted Williams told Minoso that he had talent and could hit in the majors. He just had to stick it out.
“I cannot tell you how good that made me feel,” Minoso said. “How I remembered that when I was going through difficult times, on and off the field.”
Between 1951 and 1961, Minoso scored more than 100 runs four times and was among the leaders in hits. But such accomplishments were often overlooked because the first wave of Latino ballplayers was routinely marginalized. They were often given nicknames they didn’t want. “Orestes Minoso, with his proud classical name, became ‘Minnie’ Minoso in the United States,” author Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria once wrote.
Yet such struggles paled in comparison to the decision Minoso had to make regarding his homeland of Cuba and his memory of the great Dihigo. For Minoso had witnessed Castro’s parade into Havana in 1959. Minoso was sitting in his trademark Cadillac when passing soldiers recognized him and called for him to join the celebration.
A kind and humble fellow, Minnie Minoso also had a flashy side — he indulged in dressing well and loved driving Cadillacs.
He got out of his car, but something held him back. Minoso claimed from that moment on he never trusted the Castro government and soon made plans to leave the island permanently. Pulling out of Cuba for good proved to be costly because he owned several apartment buildings and a fleet of taxis. But there was no looking back and soon Minoso’s “gut feeling” proved correct as Castro deemed that baseball on the island would only be played by amateurs. Luis Tiant Jr., Orlando Hernandez and Livan Hernandez were among those to flee the island; a parade of talent that continues to this day with Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig.
Through it all, the great Dihigo stayed in Cuba. “I was disappointed in later years when he became minister of sports for Castro,” Minoso said. “Those people, those times — I try not to remember them. It’s only so much sadness for me. Martin Dihigo was the greatest player ever to come from Cuba. But I couldn’t agree with the final choice he made.”
Though he started his career playing second base and became a star pitcher, Martin Dihigo could skillfully play all nine positions in addition to being a superior batter. He is considered the most versatile man to ever play the game and is the only player enshrined in Halls of Fame in four countries.
Tim Wendel is the author of 10 books, including “Habana Libre” and “Castro’s Curveball.”