A brilliant defensive outfielder who briefly starred with the Cincinnati Reds, Armando Marsáns was the first Cuban player to make an impact in the major leagues. Dubbed "an aristocrat by birth, but a big league outfielder by choice," he was among baseball's top stars before his career was derailed by an ill-fated attempt to challenge the reserve clause. Marsáns was known for his aggressive base running and was often praised for stretching singles into doubles and doubles into triples. "There is not a more intelligent player in the game than Marsans, who seems to have an uncanny knack of knowing what to do and when to do it," wrote one reporter. He was also versatile. As a youngster in Cuba, Marsáns had learned to play all nine positions, and before he was through in the majors he played everywhere but pitcher and catcher.
The son of a well-to-do Havana merchant, Armando Marsáns was born in Matanzas, Cuba, on October 3, 1887. His family, like many wealthy Cubans at the time, moved to New York City in 1898 to escape the Spanish-American War. Eleven-year-old Armando took to baseball, playing regularly in Central Park. When his family returned to Cuba after a year and a half, the love of the game came back to Cuba with him. In 1905 Armando signed with Almendares, a powerful team in the professional Cuban Winter League. Marsáns and another promising youngster, Rafael Almeida, combined to lead the team to the pennant. In 1907 the team won another title, defeating a Fé team that included Negro League stars Rube Foster, Pete Hill, Charlie Grant, and Bill Monroe.
In 1908 the Cincinnati Reds visited Cuba for a series of exhibition games against the best teams on the island. Marsáns' Almendares club won four of its five games against the Reds, thanks mostly to pitcher José Méndez, but also with contributions from Marsáns, who scored the only run in a 1-0 victory on November 13, 1908. By that time Marsáns and Almeida both were playing in the US minor leagues, signing with New Britain of the Connecticut State League for the 1908 season. Marsáns was an outstanding player for New Britain, batting .285 over four seasons there. In June 1911 the Cincinnati Reds purchased his and Almeida's contracts on the recommendation of Reds secretary Frank Bancroft, who remembered the Cuban pair as a result of his annual exhibition trips to the island nation. At the time, the sale prices were reported as $2,500 for Marsáns and $3,500 for Almeida. During Marsáns' later legal battles with the Reds, owner Garry Herrmann claimed that he paid $6,000 for Marsáns alone.
Marsáns and Almeida were the first Cubans to reach the majors since 1873, and there were whispers around baseball that they had some "Negro" blood. The Reds refuted this at length, calling Marsáns and Almeida "two of the purest bars of Castilian soap ever floated to these shores," and insisting that they were entirely of European descent. In fact that was probably true, as the surname Marsáns is of Catalán rather than Spanish origin. In the late 19th century about 8,000 people--Marsáns' family likely among them--emigrated from Catalonia to Cuba. Racial mixing was fairly uncommon among the light-skinned catalanes, who ranked at the top of Cuba's skin color-based caste system.
Whatever their racial background, Marsáns and Almeida got along well with their new teammates. "The gentlemanly deportment and fast work on the field of these boys have already made them popular with other members of the Reds," the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on July 1, before the pair had even gotten into a game. Only about 15,000 Cubans lived in the United States in 1911, but the Reds acquired the Cuban players in part because, according to the Enquirer, they were "figuring on Marsáns and Almeida being good drawing cards in New York and Philadelphia, where there are thousands of Cubans." Fans back in Cuba, meanwhile, were so enthusiastic that Marsáns and Almeida even had their own media escort. Victor Muñoz, sports editor of El Mundo in Havana, accompanied the Reds everywhere they went, much as the Japanese media followed Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki nearly a century later.
On July 4, 1911, in the midst of one of the biggest heat waves ever to hit the Midwest, Marsáns and Almeida finally made their debuts against the Cubs at Chicago's West Side Park. The heat was so sweltering that it caused 27 deaths in Chicago that day, and with the Reds comfortably ahead in the first game of a doubleheader, Marsáns entered as a defensive replacement for exhausted right fielder Mike Mitchell. He went 1 for 2, and to the Enquirer's Jack Ryder he "looked good at the bat and fast on his feet." Marsáns spent the rest of the 1911 season as the Reds' fourth outfielder.
Though there is no record of what their personal relationship was like, Marsáns and Almeida became inseparable in the public's eye after spending nearly a decade as teammates with Almendares, New Britain, and Cincinnati. But Almeida failed to impress the Reds either at bat or in the field and was dispatched to the minors after three years on the bench. Marsáns, meanwhile, became one of the brightest young stars in the National League, and one of the fastest. In 1912, his first full season, his .317 batting average and 35 stolen bases both ranked in the NL's top ten. In 1913 he increased his stolen bases to 37 while batting .297, 35 points above the league average.
Marsáns made a strong impression on his first major league manager, Clark Griffith, who left after the 1911 season to take over the Washington Senators. In the spring of 1912 Griffith offered the Reds $5,000 for Marsáns but was refused. Griffith never did obtain Marsáns' services, but he did develop an affinity for Cuban players unparalleled in baseball history. During Griffith's 44 years in charge of the Washington club, 63 Cubans debuted in the majors--35 of them with the Senators.
A genteel man who spoke and wrote near-flawless English, Marsáns was the antithesis of what later became the Latin American baseball stereotype. He reportedly attended college in the United States, though that is not confirmed. Still, American sportswriters always emphasized that he was "of wealthy parentage and aristocratic stock." In 1912 the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Marsáns and Almeida "are both large land owners in Cuba and have independent incomes, and the fact that they continue to be ball players instead of prominent men of affairs on the island is simply because that is what they prefer to be." Marsáns spent his off-seasons managing a tobacco factory that he owned in Havana, and was well-liked enough by fans in Cincinnati to open a successful cigar store there. By 1914 his annual baseball earnings were $4,400, more than double what he had earned as a rookie.
Though almost universally well-liked, Marsáns was known for being headstrong and temperamental. According to a friend, "there is really only one man who is his master, and who can reason and talk to him, and that man is his father." In 1914 Marsáns' quick temper led to the biggest scandal of his career. In June he got into a heated argument with his manager, Buck Herzog, who "said a number of things not at all to the liking of the classy outfielder." Herzog suspended Marsáns, and Marsáns demanded to be traded, a request that was refused by Herrmann. Marsáns responded by jumping his contract with Cincinnati and leaving for St. Louis, where he was wined and dined by the owners of the outlaw Federal League franchise. Marsáns was offered a three-year, $21,000 contract by the Feds, which he accepted after giving the Reds 10 days' notice, the same notice a ball club was required to give before terminating a contract with a player. Cincinnati immediately filed a lawsuit in, ironically, Federal Court, claiming that its "property" had been jeopardized. After Marsáns had played only nine games with St. Louis, the court issued an injunction barring him from playing in the Federal League pending the outcome of trial.
The Reds also retaliated by impounding the clothing and baseball equipment Marsáns had left in his locker in Cincinnati. Because Marsáns owned a cigar shop there, the club also tried to appeal to his business interests. "Marsans is very enthusiastic about his cigar business, and holds it close to his heart," a correspondent wrote to Herrmann. "If he can be made to realize that his actions with the Cincinnati Baseball Club will not help the sale of his cigars, I am sure that he will act differently."
Marsáns' case, along with that of Hal Chase, became a cause célèbre for supporters of the Federal League. Baseball Magazine dubbed it "the sensational Marsans case, one of the series of recent legal battles which have thrown the baseball world into an upheaval, and which threaten to wreck the entire game." Unable to play while the two sides battled in court, Marsáns could do little but return to Havana, where he spent his days shark fishing in the bay. "We are not restraining Marsans and Chase from playing, but trying to get them to play," Herrmann insisted. "It is the Federal League that is keeping them from playing, if any one is." In a bizarre twist, Marsáns' younger brother Francisco showed up in Cincinnati in September 1914, apologized to the Reds for any trouble Armando had caused them, and offered his own services to replace Armando in the outfield. Not surprisingly, the team declined.
Because the National Commission had threatened to ban any player who competed against Marsáns, he was forced to play the 1914-15 Cuban Winter League season under the assumed name "Mendromedo." In February 1915, with Marsáns still on the sidelines, his friend John McGraw visited him in Cuba, offering to trade for him if he would return to the NL with the Giants. But Marsáns would have none of it. He believed that the press, and New York writers in particular, treated him unfairly, saying they "always thought it funny to poke jokes at me." Finally, on August 19, 1915, a federal judge in St. Louis set aside Herrmann's injunction, ruling that Marsáns could play in the Federal League until the case was decided in appeals court. Marsáns returned to the Terriers the next day, and the team finished the season only percentage points out of first place.
But the legal battles had ruined Marsáns' career. After the Federal League folded his contract was assigned to the St. Louis Browns, but he was no longer the player he had been after being out of the majors for nearly two years. Disappointed with his performance, the Browns traded him to the Yankees for Lee Magee on July 15, 1917. Baseball Magazine predicted that going to New York would revitalize Marsáns, as he was "a brilliant outfielder, once a .300 hitter and even now a most dangerous man on the bases." But Marsáns had always been injury prone, and soon after reporting to the Yankees he suffered a broken leg that ended his season. In 1918, at age 30, Marsans gave it one more try with the Yankees but batted only .236 in what turned out to be his final major league season.
In 1923, after a four-year absence from American baseball, Marsáns returned to bat .319 in a brief minor league stint with Louisville. Also in 1923, he briefly joined Martín Dihigo on the Cuban Stars of the Eastern Colored League, becoming the first player to play in both the major leagues and the formally organized Negro Leagues. In 1924, his last season in the United States, Marsáns became the first Cuban manager in the minor leagues, serving as player-manager of the Elmira Colonels in the New York-Penn League. He batted .280 in his farewell to American baseball. Marsáns played a few more winters in Cuba before retiring there, too, after the 1927-28 season.
In all, Marsáns played on 10 pennant-winning teams in his 21 seasons in the Cuban Winter League, posting a lifetime average there of .261 in 455 games. He twice led the notorious pitchers' circuit in runs scored, and in 1913 won the batting title with a .400 average. He also led the league in stolen bases three times. Playing most of his career in spacious Almendares Park, he hit only two lifetime home runs in 1,632 at bats. Marsáns also was a longtime manager in the league, leading Orientales to the championship as player-manager in 1917. In the 1940s he managed Marianao, where his players included Ray Dandridge, future batting champion Roberto Ávila, and rookie outfielder Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso. He also managed Tampico in the Mexican League from 1945-47, winning championships in 1945 and 1946.
On July 26, 1939, Marsáns became one of the first ten men inducted into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame. The inductees were honored with a bronze plaque placed at La Tropical stadium in Havana, where it still stands today. Little is known of Marsáns' post-baseball life. His reaction to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 is unknown, but since the rebellion's goal was to overthrow the wealthy aristocracy to which Marsáns belonged, it's hard to imagine him supporting the revolutionaries. Marsáns died in Havana a little over a year after Fidel Castro's takeover, on September 3, 1960.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2004).
For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.