Jose Cardenal

This article was written by Ray Birch
José Cardenal, one of the last Cuban baseball players to leave that island before the Castro regime clamped down, played for 18 seasons in the US major leagues for nine teams. But that information only scratches the surface of a talented, yet complicated man who was once compared to Willie Mays as a young player. Despite his relatively slight physical stature, weighing 150 pounds and 5-feet-10-inches tall, Cardenal could hit for power, if needed, and had blazing speed both in
the field and on the basepaths, to complement a rifle arm. On the other hand, he was frequently involved in argumentative behavior both on and off the field, leading to eight ejections from games, as a player and as a coach. The question remains whether Cardenal was misunderstood by management and the media because of his Cuban heritage. Despite Cardenal’s many outbursts and his bizarre injury history, he compiled a .275 career batting average and appeared in a World Series with the Kansas City Royals.
José Rosario Domec Cardenal was born in Matanzas, Cuba, on October 7, 1943, at a time when Cuba was “free and fun,” attending José Marti High School in Matanzas.1 He is the second cousin of former Athletics standout Bert Campaneris, and they grew up a few blocks apart in Matanzas; they would often play baseball together. Cardenal’s father was a carpenter, his mother a homemaker, and he had two brothers and two sisters. Cardenal left Cuba on March 23, 1960, to come to the United States, when he was not yet 17, receiving $200 to sign with the San Francisco Giants. According to Cardenal, his signing bonus allowed him to purchase a suit, a pair of shoes, and a new baseball glove; his first pair of baseball shoes was issued to him by the Giants. 2
Cardenal had a difficult time adjusting to the United States, battling the language barrier and becoming lonely and depressed because he could not communicate with his family back in Cuba. His letters
were frequently delayed, if not already opened before his family received them. 3
Cardenal made his US baseball debut on April 26, 1961, with the El Paso (Texas) Sun Kings of the Class-D Sophomore League, affiliated with the San Francisco Giants. He played left field and hit a home run. Cardenal hit .355 in 527 at-bats with 35 home runs, 108 RBIs, and 64 stolen bases, and showed versatility in the field in El Paso’s final game of the season by playing all nine positions, a feat his cousin Campaneris accomplished in 1965 for the Kansas City Athletics. Cardenal 35 home runs set a league record for homers in a season, 4 helping him to gain MVP honors in the league, and earning him the Spanish nickname Jonronero (home-run hitter) from El Paso fans. 5  At season’s end manager Genovese said of Cardenal’s season: “The best prospect in the league. ... He can hit, has power, has fine speed, a good throwing arm, and can play almost every position in baseball and do a good job of it.” 6
After El Paso’s season ended, Cardenal earned a call-up to the Class-B Eugene Emeralds for the remainder of their season; he then played in the Arizona Winter Instructional League.
In the offseason the Giants added Cardenal to their 40-man roster, to keep him from being drafted by another team. He played winter ball in Venezuela, and it was reported that he and El Paso teammate Gerry Pedroso expressed a desire to return to Cuba to visit friends and relatives. 7 The Giants were not happy with the possibility that he might not return, and the trip never occurred.
Cardenal went to spring training with the Giants in 1962 and then was assigned to Triple-A Tacoma (Pacific Coast League). The boost from Class D to Triple A proved to be daunting for Cardenal; he batted only .222 in 121 games. Despite his difficulties, he was a popular player there, although he did incur $50 fines from manager Red Davis for “failure to hustle” on the basepaths and for being picked off at second base. Cardenal again played in the Arizona Winter League, seeing limited action because of a sore arm.
Cardenal went to spring training with the Giants in 1963, and, after playing in five regular-season games, was optioned to the El Paso Sun Kings of the Double-A Texas League, where he played in 125 games and batted .312 with 36 home runs and 95 RBIs. In his first game with the Sun Kings he walloped three two-run homers. But issues of behavior on the field continued to plague him. In June the 19-year-old Cardenal was suspended and put on a year’s probation by the Texas League for rushing the dugout of the heckling Austin Senators and making threatening gestures with a letter opener. 8 After being reinstated, he was suspended again and fined $50 for an incident involving teammate Lazaro Gomez. Still, he was able to play 125 games for El Paso and was called up to the Giants on September 15 for the remainder of the season, appearing in four games. He played winter ball again, in Puerto Rico for the Caguas Criollos.
Batting .289 for Triple-A Tacoma in 1964, Cardenal was called up on September 4 to replace the injured Jesus Alou on the Giants, and had no hits in 15 atbats. But even a trip to the majors was not without controversy, as Cardenal was given a “disciplinary fine” of an undisclosed amount for reporting late to the Giants, possibly because of missing a flight connection. 9 The Caguas Criollos again signed him for the Puerto Rico Winter League and, on November 21 the Giants traded him to the California Angels for Jack Hiatt. The Seattle Times probably expressed the general feeling about Cardenal in February: “José Domec Cardenal is one of the most gifted youngsters in baseball, but he never has unwrapped all of his gifts, never has applied himself fully to the job at hand.” 10
Despite a report that Cardenal would compete for the third-base job, his original position coming up with the Giants, he eventually returned to center field. It didn’t take him long to express his feelings about leaving the Giants: “Nobody was working together with the Giants. ... I was never happy with the Giants.” 11 After recovering from surgery in January, Cardenal got off to a great start with the Angels and seemed to have a supporter in manager Bill Rigney, who said, “He can be a really good one. He has a lot of things going for him.” 12
Cardenal began to show his baserunning prowess with the Angels, stealing 37 bases in 1965, three of them steals of home, and was given the green light to run by Rigney. 13 Cardenal, however, began to wear down in June and began to slump, and ended the season batting .250 with 11 homes runs and 57 RBIs. On September 8 he played in the game in which cousin Bert Campaneris played all nine positions for Kansas City. As a pitcher, Campaneris retired Cardenal on a pop fly, after retiring him on a fly ball as a left fielder.
Cardenal made the Topps All-Rookie Team for 1965 and went to Venezuela to play in their Winter Baseball League for the LaGuaira Sharks, but was released for “not giving his best” and “hurting the morale of the other players.” 14 The Sharks acted after learning that Cardenal had an offer to play in the Puerto Rican League with Arecibo; they sought to
have him banned from playing baseball anywhere in the Caribbean. Cardenal claimed that his performance was hampered by a leg injury. 15
In March 1966 Cardenal and pitcher Rudy May claimed that they and their families were victims of racial discrimination. The two players, both black, complained that when they tried to find housing near the Angels’ new ballpark, they were strongly discouraged by three landlords. 16 (No official action resulted. The Angels assigned outfielder Jimmy Piersall to mentor Cardenal during the season in case Cardenal’s spirits flagged. In April Piersall said of Cardenal, “José can be the best center fielder in our league and a tremendous gate attraction. His whole attitude has improved. He is doing everything in his power to make the other guys on the team like him.” 17 Cardenal got off to a good start, partly because he began to try to hit up the middle, rather than pull everything, despite having a pulled groin and bruised throwing arm. The Angels, in turn, felt that Cardenal had made great progress, both on the field and off. Playing in 154 games, he batted .276, hit 16 homers, and stole 24 bases. After the season Cardenal played for a team of minor and major leaguers who toured Brazil, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, managed by Angels coach Billy Herman.
In 1967 Cardenal faced a new challenge — competition
for his job from Jay Johnstone. Cardenal backed up
Johnstone and outfielder Jimmy Hall until he injured
his right knee in a home-plate collision with Detroit
Tigers catcher Bill Freehan on August 28, ending his
season. Trade rumors sprang up involving Cardenal,
with one report saying that the Cleveland Indians
were interested in acquiring him, even as his batting
average plummeted to its final .236. Pronounced fit
to play again after the injury, Cardenal again played
in the Puerto Rican Winter League, for San Juan. In
December he defended himself against an article in
The Sporting News by Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles
Times that said he was moody and a pouter, among
other things. “I cannot understand how these things
could possibly be said of me,” Cardenal responded.
“I would guess that every person has varying moods,
but I do not believe mine is exceptional. ... I love to
play baseball and this is all I ask — to be able to play,
and carry my … own weight.”18
Shortly after the article appeared, Cardenal was
traded to the Indians for outfielder Chuck Hinton.
Angels general manager Fred Haney put the reason
for the trade succinctly: “Bill Rigney didn’t like
Cardenal.”19 The change of scenery and playing for
former Giants manager Al Dark seemed to agree
with Cardenal. On May 23, 1968, he had four hits
in an Indians victory — a game in which Dark had
allowed him to make up the lineup card; for the season,
he batted .257 in 157 games, with 40 stolen bases, and
became the fourth outfielder to pull off two unassisted
double plays in a season.
By 1969 (.257, 36 stolen bases), Cardenal had worn
out his welcome in Cleveland with his moodiness
during the Indians’ disappointing season. After the
season he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for
outfielder Vada Pinson. Cardenal embraced the trade,
and in 1970 improved his batting average to .293 in
148 games. But he was also criticized for lackadaisical
play, an accusation he vehemently protested in a press
conference held in St. Louis with his wife, Pat, by his
side. He objected to anonymous comments made by
teammates in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about his style
of play. Manager Red Schoendienst came to Cardenal’s
defense, calling him one of the best players on the
Cardinals, but hinted that he could be a better team
player.20 Cardenal credited Cardinals teammate Dick
Allen with helping him to stop fighting himself as a
player, quit trying to hit everything out of the ballpark,
and learning to be more of a bat-control hitter.21
In 1971 spring training Cardenal hit .366 and
seemed, for the short term, to silence those who
thought he should be traded. But the critics returned
as Cardenal’s batting average stayed around .200 for the
first six weeks of the season, despite his use of Japanese
bats with a hollowed-out end that shifted the center
of gravity, supposedly providing better bat control for
him.22 (For using them, he was fined $70, but after the
season the major leagues approved them, saying that
they gave no unfair advantage to the hitter.23)
Batting.243 on July 29, Cardenal was traded to
the Milwaukee Brewers in a five-player deal. Marvin
Milkes, a Milwaukee scout, called Cardenal the player
to lead Milwaukee “out of the wilderness.”24 After initially
showing hesitancy about the trade, he joined the
Brewers in a few days, and there was great optimism
José Cardenal
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about what he might bring to the Brewers. Cardenal
batted.258 for the Brewers in 53 games, then went
to Venezuela to play for the LaGuaira Sharks. On
December 3, the Brewers traded him to the Chicago
Cubs for three players, Brock Davis, Jim Colborn,
and Earl Stephenson. Cubs manager Leo Durocher
valued Cardenal for his speed. Cardenal started off
strong and became a fan favorite at Wrigley Field.
Even the tempestuous Durocher liked him.
Everything seemed to be going in the right direction
for Cardenal with the Cubs. But a problem
surfaced when Cubs pitcher Ferguson Jenkins complained
about how Cardenal missed balls in right field
and lost balls in the lights.25 Also, in a game against
the Montreal Expos on September 20, Cardenal and
Expos manager Gene Mauch exchanged words after
Cardenal had been knocked down by pitcher Mike
Torrez. After the game Mauch and about 20 Expos
players attempted to confront Cardenal in the Cubs’
clubhouse. Cubs manager Whitey Lockman (who had
replaced Durocher after 91 games) was able to calm
the situation without further incident. The situation
had a humorous sidelight. The Cubs won the game,
and it was Milt Pappas’s 200th victory. When Cubs
broadcaster Jack Brickhouse saw Mauch and the
players approaching the Cubs dugout, he blurted out
on the air: “Look at that! That’s the most sportsmanlike
thing I’ve ever seen. Gene Mauch is leading his
entire team over to congratulate Milt Pappas on his
200th victory.”26
Cardenal lasted six seasons with the Cubs. After
batting.291 in 1972 with 17 homers, 70 RBIs, and 25
stolen bases, he returned to the Venezuelan Winter
League, but battled illness. “One doctor tells me it
might be hepatitis. A second doctor tells me it might
be kidney trouble. And a third, he tells me I may have
amoebic problems,” he said.27
Cardenal played with injuries in 1973, among them
an infected toe, and a head injury suffered when he
was hit by a throw trying to leg out an infield hit.
Still, he had a strong season. In July Cubs bullpen
coach Hank Aguirre was effusive in his praise, saying,
“I played with (Al) Kaline 10 years, and I’ll tell you
Cardenal is the complete player and in some areas is
better than Kaline.”28 Aside from baseball, Cardenal
became a US citizen during the season.
The 1974 season shaped up as one of change. The
Cubs had cleaned house, and veterans Ron Santo,
Ferguson Jenkins, Randy Hundley, and Glenn Beckert
were no longer with the team. Cardenal had another
solid year, batting .293, and heading into 1975, he was
considered to be one of the team’s strengths, a team
player and no longer a journeyman.29 In the offseason
Cardenal signed a two-year contract with the Cubs
for a reported $250,000, and he batted a career-high
.317 with 34 stolen bases.
Cardenal was batting .299 in 1976 when his season
ended on September 11 after he sprained a ligament
in a game against the Phillies. He hoped to join Bill
Veeck, the president of the Chicago White Sox, who
planned to go to Cuba to scout baseball prospects.30
Cardenal hoped to be able to travel with Veeck to see
his family, whom he had not seen since he had left
Cuba in 1960. He filled out the needed paperwork, but
did not receive the approval of the Cuban government
to make the trip.31
Fully recovered for 1977, Cardenal hoped to duplicate
or better his 1976 season. But manager Herman
Franks shuffled his lineup after a short losing streak
and benched Cardenal. Trade rumors grew louder.
Returning to the lineup after 19 games, Cardenal
soon went on the disabled list with fluid in his left
knee and a bone chip in his wrist. Cardenal seemed
resigned to being traded, but when a proposed trade
for Phillies’ left-hander Tom Underwood was canceled,
he responded testily: “That’s a bad way to treat a man
who has done as much for the Cubs as I have.”32
Cardenal seemed to accept his new role as a platoon
player when he returned from the DL. On August 10,
the Chicago columnist Mike Royko called him “the
new Mr. Cub,” even after he had earned the wrath
of manager Franks for missing signs.33 However, the
Cubs believed that Cardenal’s unhappiness may have
been a negative influence on his teammates. He was
traded on October 25 to the Phillies for journeyman
pitcher Manny Seaone. As a 10-year player with five
years on the Cubs, he had to give his approval for the
trade, but his displeasure with the Cubs was apparent:
CUBAN BASEBALL LEGENDS
— 97 —
“I was the target. They were beating my brains in.
People treat dogs better than I was treated last year.”34
Seeking a new start in Philadelphia, Cardenal got
some good off-field news when he learned that his
parents, Felipe and Consuelo, would finally be able
to visit the United States on a six-month visa.35 The
Phillies used Cardenal in a reserve role at first base
for 50 games, in addition to the outfield. The Phillies
finished atop the National League East but lost to the
Dodgers in the NLCS. In 1979 Cardenal returned in
a similar reserve role but on August 2, after batting
.208 in only 29 games, he was sold to the New York
Mets. He played only 11 games with the Mets for the
remainder of the season after injuring a knee and
breaking his left wrist. Playing in the Venezuelan
Winter League with LaGuaira, he fractured his left
jawbone in two places on December 19; his injury was
responsible for his loss of about 20 pounds due to the
wiring of his jaw.
In 1980 Cardenal criticized the Mets management
over his lack of playing time (26 games, .167 BA). He
was released on August 13. On the 21st the Kansas City
Royals signed him, hoping he could provide a veteran
presence and versatility in the field to a club heading
toward the playoffs. He batted .340 in 61 at-bats, but
his power and speed had diminished. The Royals
finished first in the American League West, defeated
the New York Yankees in the ALCS, and faced the
Phillies in the World Series. The teams were tied at
two games apiece when in Game Five in Kansas City,
manager Jim Frey allowed Cardenal to bat against
left-hander Tug McGraw in the ninth inning with
the bases loaded, two outs, and the Royals behind by
a run. McGraw proceeded to strike out Cardenal to
end the game, and the Series ended in the next game.
Frey was strongly second-guessed for his decision to
let Cardenal bat; John Wathan was available, in most
people’s eyes a better choice. Shortly after the World
Series, the Royals dropped Cardenal. He officially
retired in 1981.
Cardenal remained around the baseball world in
a number of roles over the next few years. In 1982 he
returned to his hometown, Matanzas, Cuba, for the
first time in 22 years to conduct baseball clinics. He also
appeared at fantasy camps involving other retired Cubs,
such as Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ferguson
Jenkins. He participated in the All-Time Old Timers
series that was popular in the 1980s, ran a baseball camp
for little leaguers, and was involved with charity events
for MS and other causes. The Reagan administration in
1985 sent Cardenal and fellow Cuban Minnie Miñoso
on a goodwill tour of Central America. Later that
year he was hired by the Chicago White Sox to be a
roving minor-league instructor; one player he worked
with in particular was Ozzie Guillen, helping teach
him to switch-hit. In December 1986 the White Sox
scrapped their roving minor-league instructor plan,
and Cardenal and others were fired.
Another door opened for Cardenal when the
Cincinnati Reds hired him as a roving minor-league
instructor in 1988. In spring training in 1990 he was
struck in the head by a batted ball and suffered a
fractured skull for which surgery was required to
break up a blood clot. He had a successful recovery
and moved up to the Reds in 1993 as a coach, but
resigned after the season.
Cardenal went to the St. Louis Cardinals for the
1994 season as a first-base coach to help with baserunning
and outfield play, and to aid in communicating
with Latin players on the club. After two years in St.
Louis, he left the Cardinals and was the first-base and
outfield coach for the New York Yankees from 1996
through 1999, with a role in the successful Yankees
teams of that period. Part of Cardenal’s responsibilities
was to mentor and serve as an interpreter for pitcher
Orlando Hernandez, who had come to the United
States from Cuba and signed with the Yankees in
1998.36 Hernandez “fired” Cardenal as his interpreter
twice in 1999, but quickly “rehired” him when no one
else on the Yankees felt up to the task.37 The Yankees,
though, were not willing to meet Cardenal’s request
for a $30,000 pay raise for the 2000 season, so he left
the Yankees to become the first-base, outfielders, and
baserunning coach for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; his
tenure with Tampa Bay ended in April 2001 when
Devils manager Larry Rothschild and his coaches
were fired.38 Cardenal was not unemployed for long,
and he signed with the Reds as a special consultant to
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— 98 —
the general manager and farm director in August 2001;
later he was named first-base coach for 2002. When
asked whether he had any aspirations of managing in
the major leagues, Cardenal responded: “I don’t want
to go through all that hassle and aggravation that
managers go through today. With the players making
so much money, it’s hard. I like to go to bed at night.”39
Cardenal remained with the Reds through the 2003
season, then became an adviser with the Washington
Nationals. In October 2009 he was let go by the
Nationals. He said that he had no hard feelings and
that his plan was to work toward bringing Cuban
ballplayers to the United States. “My plan is to go to
my country and try to see if I could start something
if possible,” Cardenal said. “That’s going to be my
next dream, to bring players from Cuba to the United
States [legally].”40
No discussion of Cardenal’s career would be complete
without mention of three issues: his use of bats,
his interesting antics, and the matter of his Cuban
heritage as it may have affected his relationships in
baseball. Concerning the bats, Cardenal in 1970 started
using bats made in Japan, given to him by former Cub
George Altman, a veteran of Japanese baseball. They
were made of a harder wood than most American bats,
had a hollowed-out concave end and were known as
“teacup” bats.41 This Louisville Slugger-style bat, made
by Hillerich & Bradsby, is branded with C271, the C
standing for Cardenal and the 271 meaning it was
the 271st bat named for a specific player whose last
name begins with the letter C.42 With a handle not
too skinny, and a barrel not too fat, it became the bat
of choice for players for many years, including Ken
Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.
As for the antics, Cardenal had a few managers
scratching their heads regarding reasons why he would
not be able to play in a game. In one incident, in 1972
while with the Cubs, Cardenal reportedly told his
manager that he would not be able to play that day
because crickets in his room kept him awake all night.
On Opening Day in 1974, Cardenal told his manager,
Whitey Lockman, that he would not be able to play
because his eyelid was stuck open.43 When Cardenal
was sold to the Mets in August 1979, between games
of a doubleheader, he said that he was so in shock
from the transaction that he could not play in the
second game, although he just needed to cross the
field to get to the other clubhouse. Cubs Hall of Famer
Billy Williams provided another anecdote regarding
Cardenal’s behavior. He said that often before games
at Wrigley Field, Cardenal would hide balls in the
outfield ivy and then during games would pull one
out and throw it back in play.44
It is clear that society in general and baseball in particular
have changed their treatment of Latin players
over the last 50 or so years. For many years players of
Hispanic heritage were described by many adjectives,
among them fiery, brooding, temperamental, sulking,
nonchalant, and uncooperative. When quoted in the
press, their words were spelled in broken English;
for example, when Cardenal spoke of facing Whitey
Ford for the first time, it was put into print as follows:
“I was a leetle nervous the first time I face Ford. ... I
not nervous now. I like eet here. I got chance play.”45
In Cardenal’s case, it must be considered that he
came to the United States at the age of 16, with little
fluency in English, and his family still in Cuba; it does
not seem to be a stretch to say that he must have felt
some frustration from those experiences and suffered
some discrimination because of his heritage. Whether
or not Cardenal should be “excused” for some of his
behavior on and off the field because of such factors is
a question left to others. But it is clear that Cardenal
overcame many obstacles to become the accomplished
player he was and, for that, he should be given credit.
In March 2016 Cardenal was among the former
players selected by Commissioner Rob Manfred to
represent Major League Baseball at events in conjunction
with the exhibition game played in Havana
between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national
team on March 22.
Notes
18 The Sporting News, December 2, 1967.
19 The Sporting News, December 16, 1967.
20 The Sporting News, September 19, 1970.
21 The Sporting News, August 3, 1970.
22 The Sporting News, June 12, 1971.
23 The Sporting News, December 18, 1971.
24 The Sporting News, August 21, 1971.
25 The Sporting News, September 9, 1972.
26 Baseball Digest, August, 1973.
27 The Sporting News, March 17, 1973.
28 The Sporting News, July 14, 1973.
29 New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 4, 1975.
30 Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, October 1, 1976.
31 Rockford Morning Star, October 3, 1976.
32 The Sporting News, July 2, 1977.
33 Rockford Morning Star, October 28, 1977.
34 Ibid.
35 The Sporting News, March 25, 1978.
36 Retrosheet.org.
37 Stamford (Connecticut) Daily Advocate, October 22, 1999.
38 Rockford (Illinois) Register Star, April 19, 2001.
39 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 18, 2002.
40 Bill Ladson, “Nationals Cut Ties With Cardenal,” MLB.com,
October 8, 2009.
41 The Sporting News, October 18, 1971.
42 Rockford Register Star, June 28, 2003.
43 Las Vegas Review Journal, November 21, 2012.
44 Associated Press, April 23, 2014.
45 Redlands (California) Daily Facts, April 15, 1965.
  • 1. 1 The Sporting News, March 11, 1965.
  • 2.  2 Ibid.
  • 3. 3 Ibid.
  • 4. 4 Hobbs (New Mexico) Daily News Sun, August 27, 1961.
  • 5. 5 Ibid.
  • 6. 6 El Paso Herald Post, August 29, 1961.
  • 7. 7 El Paso Herald Post, December 9, 1961.
  • 8. 8 El Paso Herald Post, July 13, 1963.
  • 9. 9 Springfield (Illinois) Union, September 7, 1964.
  • 10. 10 Seattle Daily Times, February 4, 1965.
  • 11. 11 Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1965.
  • 12. 12 Ibid.
  • 13. 13 Long Beach Independent, May 31, 1965.
  • 14. 14 The Sporting News, December 11, 1965.
  • 15. 15 The Sporting News, January 15, 1966.
  • 16. 16 Trenton Evening Times, March 13, 1966.
  • 17. 17 The Sporting News, April 30, 1966.