Lázaro Salazar was a great two-way player and manager in Cuban professional baseball and the American Negro Leagues, as well as in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, from 1930 until 1957. In addition to winning two MVP awards in the Cuban Winter League, he won four batting championships in three countries, won more than 150 games as a pitcher, and was perhaps the greatest manager in the history of Latin American baseball, winning 14 league championships in four countries.
Salazar was born on December 17, 1911,1 in the Belén neighborhood of Havana, a poor, rugged area of the city that had attracted many rural blacks from the provinces seeking employment in the aftermath of Cuba’s abolition of slavery and the subsequent restructuring of the sugar industry. He was named after Saint Lázaro, one of the most important saints in the Afro-Cuban syncretic religious belief system, and wore the number 17 on his uniform throughout his career to honor his patron.
Baseball was already enormously popular on the island by the time Salazar was a young boy, and he learned the game on the streets of Belén and on local amateur clubs. Because he was a mulatto, however, he was excluded from belonging to the more prestigious, organized amateur teams that participated in leagues throughout Havana. Racism was prevalent in Cuba at the turn of the century, and structured amateur baseball was an enclave of wealthy private clubs that excluded blacks, who were relegated to the sugar mill teams or semipro ball. Still, it did not take long for the precocious Salazar to be noticed.
Abel Linares was the magnate of Cuban baseball at the time; his integrated All Cubans traveling team toured the United States in 1899 and from 1902 through 1905, playing American semipro and Negro League teams, and his subsequent Cuban Stars did the same beginning in 1907 until 1920, when they became a charter member of the Negro National League. Linares became aware of Salazar, and recruited him to join his squad – by then known as the Cuban Stars (West) to distinguish them from Alex Pompez’s rival team – in the summer of 1930.
At the tender age of 18, Salazar had already earned the nickname El Príncipe del Bélen for his stately manner, sartorial splendor, and soft-spoken kindness. Now he was leaving his country to become the youngest player on a ballclub in the United States. He had 128 plate appearances, hitting .210 with a .260 on-base average and a .277 slugging percentage, and also made one start on the mound, in which he pitched a 14-inning complete game that resulted in a loss.
The Cuban Winter League was in a state of disarray in the late 1920s and early ’30s due to the market crash and political unrest that manifested itself in demonstrations, bombings, and violent reprisals by the police and military forces. Nevertheless, it was natural that Salazar would return to play in Cuba, given that Linares had a controlling interest in – if not full ownership of –every team. When Linares died on August 21, 1930, his widow maintained control of his interests, and leased the team franchises out to others.
Salazar made his debut for the Santa Clara Leopardos in the truncated 1930-31 season, two months before his 19th birthday. He came to the plate five times without receiving credit for a hit as Santa Clara played only one game before the season was cut short by a conflict between the league and the owners of La Tropical stadium. Salazar began his career in the Cuban League at the approximate nadir of its existence; the first “Golden Age” of Cuban baseball had passed, along with many of its heroes, like José “The Black Diamond” Méndez, Cristóbal Torriente and Bernardo Baró. American players were not participating, wary of the political strife and economic uncertainties surrounding the league.
After Linares’ death, the Cuban Stars (West) temporarily disbanded. In 1931, Salazar returned to the United States and played for the Cuban House of David barnstorming team, which included many of the players on the 1930 Stars club.
In the winter of 1931, Salazar returned to Cuba to play for the Almendares Alacranes, one of the two clubs, along with the Habana Leones, that owned the hearts and minds of baseball fans in Havana – in other words, everyone in Havana – for more than eight decades. No American players were signed to play for any of the three teams that year, which left openings for younger, less experienced Cubans like Salazar. He had 83 at-bats, hitting .229 with two doubles and two triples. Almendares won the championship with a 21-9 record.
The Cuban House of David morphed back into the Stars for the 1932 season, playing in the fledgling East-West League that was created by Cum Posey after the demise of the original Negro National League. The East-West League failed to last much more than a month, leaving the Stars to finish out the year as an independent team.
Salazar began to tap into his talent in 1932 as a 20-year-old, hitting .344/.394/.361 for the Cuban Stars while playing first base and starting at least one game on the mound, in which he pitched a complete-game shutout. He returned to Cuba to play his second season for Almendares, and his progress was notable. He batted .366 and tied with José Abreu for the league lead in RBIs with 15 while finishing first in stolen bases with 13. Almendares finished in a tie with Habana for the league title, and a playoff was scheduled for later that year, since many of the players had to leave to honor contracts to play in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the regime of General Gerardo Machado led to the overthrow of his government, resulting in chaotic conditions that forced the cancellation of not only the scheduled playoff but the entire 1933-34 season.
Salazar returned to the US play for the Cuban Stars in 1933 and 1934, but very little statistical evidence survives from this period as the Stars were solely a barnstorming team. He returned to Cuba to play in the 1934-35 winter season with the Marianao Tigres but was soon traded back to Almendares, where he blossomed into one of the premier players in the league. He hit .407 and won six games as a pitcher, finishing with a 1.64 ERA. He hit .407, and won six games as a pitcher, finishing with a 1.64 ERA. He led the league in batting, pitcher wins and won-loss percentage and was named league MVP as Almendares finished with an 18-9-1 record and another championship.
Certainly the 1934-35 season was one of the weakest in memory, as no American players participated, and both of the “eternal rivals,” Almendares and Habana, were embarrassed in a series of games against a new, powerhouse semipro squad created by the Arrechabala Company, named the Havana Club after the brand of rum they manufactured. Despite the weakened competition, Salazar’s reputation was widespread by this time; he was signed by impresario Alex Pompez to join the New York Cubans in the second incarnation of the Negro National League.
Pompez made his fortune as a numbers banker, and in 1935 – a year before he was run out of the country during New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey’s crackdown on Dutch Schultz and the burgeoning racketeering trade – he spent $60,000 to expand and renovate the Dyckman Oval in Harlem and install his Cubans as tenants. The 1935 Cubans were an outstanding club that featured the splendid Martin Dihigo, considered to be one of the greatest two-way players in the history of baseball and the player to whom Salazar is most often compared, as well as Alejandro Oms, Luis Tiant Sr the elder, Ramon Bragaña, and Manuel “Cocaina” Garcia. But Salazar more than held his own in such exalted company, batting .390 (fifth best in the league) with 15 doubles (leading the league) and 6 triples (third best). The Cubans won the second-half championship and narrowly missed defeating a Pittsburgh Crawfords club studded with four future Hall of Famers and considered by many to be the greatest Negro league team in history, in the Colored World Series.
Salazar played for Almendares once again in 1935-36, batting .285 and appearing in five games as a pitcher, with a 4-1 record. He returned to the Cubans in 1936, when he finished second in the league in batting with a .371 average. The Americans returned to Cuba in full force for the 1936-37 season, which featured the likes of Buck Leonard, Willie Wells, John Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor, Bill Perkins, and Raymond “Jabao” Brown, who won an astounding 21 games, one of them a no-hitter, and who famously threw both ends of a doubleheader on December 16, tossing 20 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. Despite the increased level of competition, Salazar had another fine season, leading the league in runs scored with 47 while batting .313 and finishing 4-3 on the mound.
The New York Cubans did not participate in the Negro National League in 1937. As fate would have it, an unusual opportunity arose for Salazar that proved to be quite prophetic. Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic did not share the passion of his countrymen for the game of baseball, but he certainly was capable of recognizing an opportunity to exploit it to his advantage. His advisers had come up with a scheme to combine the two perennial archrival clubs from Santo Domingo, the Leones del Escogido and the Tigres del Licey, into one team, the Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo, as the city was now known during the humble dictator’s rule.
Trujillo’s henchmen persuaded many of the top American Negro League stars, as well as the top players from Cuba and Puerto Rico, to join the new team by offering salaries far in excess of what those players could earn elsewhere. Following the money, many took Trujillo’s bait. The roster included Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Sam Bankhead, Cy Perkins, Pancho Coimbre, and Perucho Cepeda, yet the 24-year-old, relatively inexperienced Salazar was chosen to play as well as manage the team.
The players soon realized that the situation was more than they had bargained for, as Trujillo’s soldiers were constant companions. In a championship series that redefined the expression “must win,” the Dragones proved victorious over the Águilas Cibaeñas, a team that featured Martín Dihigo, Chet Brewer, and Luis Tiant, and happened to be owned by a rival political faction. Paige later claimed that Trujillo was so concerned about his players carousing before the deciding contest that he locked them in prison overnight under the watchful eyes of his guards.
Proving without doubt that he was capable of performing under pressure, Salazar hit .292 and led the league in runs scored. More importantly, his leadership skills were recognized by Emilio de Armas, the owner of the Santa Clara Leopardos of the Cuban League, who signed him to manage his club for the 1937-38 season. Salazar put together a pantheon of American Negro Leaguers and Latin American stars including Bankhead, Brown, Oms, Garcia, and pitcher Bob Griffith, and led the Leopardos to the championship. He finished second in the league in batting to teammate Sam Bankhead, with a .318 average, and won his second MVP award.
The year 1938 marked a turning point in Salazar’s life, both inside and outside of baseball. He was recruited to come to Mexico for the first time, joining the Cordoba Cafeteros as a player, and soon afterward as manager. He hit for a .500 average in 48 at-bats and had a record of 4-3 on the mound with a 1.92 ERA. More significantly, he moved to Mexico, married a Mexican woman, and lived there for the rest of his life, despite his travels back to Cuba, and later to Venezuela, for the winter baseball seasons.
With the exception of Griffith, Salazar reassembled his key players from the 1937-38 Leopardos for the following campaign, and for good measure added Josh Gibson, who broke the league home run record with 11 in 163 at-bats. Teammates Antonio Castaño and Santos Amoro finished first and second in batting, and Salazar contributed a .293 average as well as six complete-game wins on the mound. The Leopardos won their second consecutive league title with a record of 34-20.
Salazar’s first season in Mexico went so well that he was invited to manage the team once again in 1939. Now in the prime of his playing career at 27, Salazar won the Mexican League batting championship with an average of .374, and came into his own as a pitcher with a 16-5 record and an ERA of 2.20. With an outstanding record of 46-12, the Cafeteros won the first of Salazar’s many Mexican League championships.
Salazar did not return to Cuba for the 1939-40 winter season. In 1940 the Cafeteros disbanded (not to be seen again until 1952 in the Veracruz Winter League) and Mexican baseball underwent a transformation at the hands of multimillionaire Jorge Pasqual, who purchased the Aguilas of Veracruz with the intention of moving them to Mexico City to form an instant rivalry with the longtime inhabitants of the capital, the Diablos Rojos. Salazar joined fellow Cubans Santos Amoro, Ramon Bragaña, and Martin Dihigo on the newly minted Veracruz Azules. Dihigo was the manager, and he recruited a who’s who of American Negro League luminaries, including Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Barney Brown, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Roy Partlow, Double Duty Radcliffe, and Willie Wells, all lured by the largesse of Pasqual, as well as the relative equality and racial harmony of prewar Mexico. As you might have imagined, the Azules won the league championship rather easily with a record of 61-30.
Salazar decided to return to Cuba for the 1940-41 season, and led the league in hitting once again with a .316 average for Almendares. When Dihigo did not return to Mexico for the 1941 season, Salazar took over at the helm of the powerful Veracruz club and led them to a second consecutive championship with a 67-35 record, while hitting .336 and garnering seven victories on the mound.
In 1942 Salazar moved on from Veracruz to the Monterrey Industriales (later the Sultanes), where he not only became a fixture as their manager, but carved out a new life for himself in his adopted country. Salazar managed Monterrey for 13 seasons, from 1942 through 1954, winning four league championships, including three consecutive titles from 1947-49. He contributed on the field as well; in 1942 he batted .363 and won 14 games on the mound. In 1944 he batted .379, won another 14 games while finishing second in the league with an ERA of 2.87, and won a Gold Glove at first base with a .995 fielding percentage. Even in 1952, his last year as a player at age 41, he hit .314.
During the winters Salazar continued to play in the Cuban League for either the Marianao Tigres or the Alacranes, and won the pennant with the latter in the historic 1946-47 campaign that not only featured the opening of Gran Stadium, a pennant race between the eternal rivals that was not settled until the last day, and the debut of a rival league, the National Baseball Federation. This new circuit was created in order to provide a safe haven for both Cuban and American “players of good standing” within Major League Baseball after the Cuban Winter League ignored the dictum of Commissioner Happy Chandler and refused to purge itself of players who had jumped the majors to play in Mexico for Pasqual.
The 1947-48 season turned out to be Salazar’s last year in his native country, and it came about under an unusual set of circumstances. The Federation failed miserably in its attempt to supplant the Cuban Winter League, folding before the completion of its initial season. But MLB and the Cuban Winter League patched up their differences after the season, reaching an agreement under which the Cubans would purge the ineligibles and give up autonomy over their circuit in return for restoration to the good graces of MLB.
Many players, if not the majority, did not go along with the loss of independence, and were seeking a larger cut of the pie from the team owners after the most successful year in the league’s history. A Players Association had been created the previous December to lobby for better salaries, and its creators took advantage of the fortuitous timing to form the fledgling Liga Nacional. For the second year in a row, the Cuban Winter League would have a rival.
It is not known why Salazar, one of the most successful, longstanding and pre-eminent figures in the Cuban Winter League, would give up his position to jump to La Liga Nacional, but one can only assume that he was drawn to the principles of the Players Association. But despite a strong beginning that saw overflow crowds at La Tropical, the league’s popularity waned, and Salazar’s club, Santiago, folded after only two months. From that point on, Salazar never returned to play or manage in Cuba, instead spending his winters in Venezuela with the Magallanes Navegantes of Valencia.
Salazar was an immediate hit in Valencia – the Navegantes won consecutive championships in his first two seasons at the helm, 1949-50 and 1950-51, although he arrived from his home in Monterrey in November of each year, taking over for the interim manager. In 1954-55, the Navegantes named Freddie Fitzsimmons as manager, but he resigned in November. On December 8, mired in the cellar with an 11-14 record, they brought back Salazar as manager, and at the same time added reinforcements in the form of Brooklyn’s Clem Labine and Pittsburgh’s Bob Skinner. Apparently inspired by Salazar’s return, the Navegantes racked up eight straight wins and 13 out of their first 15 games. Their hot streak took them from last to first, and they finished the season with 23 out of 27 wins, ultimately earning Salazar his third league championship.
The Navegantes moved on to the Serie del Caribe, the round-robin tournament involving the champions of each of the Caribbean Baseball Federation members, which was initiated in 1949. The series rotated among its member nations, and in 1955 was scheduled to be held at University Stadium in Caracas. New York sportswriter Dick Young wrote, “On the first day, beautifully kept, modern University City Stadium was jammed to its 40,000 plus capacity. In six previous series, Venezuela alone had been non-victorious, and the Venezuelan fans were strongly behind their team to break the jinx.”2
After winning Game One of the tournament, Magallanes lost its next game to Almendares of Cuba 1-0 on a controversial out call at first base in the seventh inning that cost the home team the tying run and nearly caused a riot in the stadium. The next day the Navegantes lost to the Santurce Cangrejeros of Puerto Rico when Sad Sam Jones bested Ramón Monzant in an 11-inning thriller, a game that ended on a two-run homer by Willie Mays that scored Roberto Clemente. The Crabbers, known that year as the Panic Squad for the fear they instilled in their opponents, came by that name honestly – in addition to Mays and Clemente, they featured Jones, Bob Thurman, Don Zimmer, Harry Chiti, Buster Clarkson, Bill Greason, George Crowe, Rubén Gómez, and Luis Olmo.
In reality, Salazar had no chance at winning the only Serie del Caribe he appeared in – the Cangrejeros may have been the greatest team in the history of Latin American winter baseball. But in seven years with Salazar as their manager, the Navegantes finished first or second on six occasions.
Salazar did not manage in Mexico in 1955, but returned in 1956 to take over the reins for the Mexico City Diablos Rojos. His continued his winning ways as the Red Devils romped to their first Mexican League pennant. Salazar returned in 1957, but tragedy struck on April 25. While in the Diablos Rojos dugout during a game, he suddenly crumpled to the floor, stammering, “There are two outs! We win.” He was rushed to the hospital, but at 3:45 pm the next day he died from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 45. Unbeknownst to many, he had signed a contract to return to Cuba for the first time since 1947 to manage Almendares that winter. It had always been his dream in baseball.
Mexico was stunned by Salazar’s death. His funeral was held on April 27, as his widow refused all overtures to have his body flown to Cuba for burial. His teammates, in full uniform, served as pallbearers and marched in procession behind the casket to his final resting place. The Diablos Rojos canceled two games out of respect for his memory, and on May 25 at Parque del Seguro Social in Mexico City, they officially retired his number and played a benefit game from which all gate receipts were donated to an education fund set up to benefit Salazar’s two children, Adalita, 6, and Lazaro Jr., 3.
It is somewhat difficult to understand why Salazar is not held in as high esteem as many of his contemporaries. One reason is certainly the relatively insignificant amount of time he spent playing in the American Negro Leagues, at such a young age. Even so, researcher John Holway credits him with a batting average of .382 in 338 at-bats during the 1935 season; although this is a small sample size, his average would rank third behind Charles “Chino” Smith and Larry Doby in Negro League history.
Salazar’s reputation has also suffered unnecessarily from comparison with fellow Cuban Martin Dihigo, who – aside from Babe Ruth – may have been the greatest two-way player in the history of the game. While Dihigo was right-handed, a good outfielder, and had prodigious power, Salazar was a left-handed fielder who was best at first base, and was known as a supremely talented contact hitter.
Despite winning two MVP awards in Cuba and four batting championships in three countries, and being named to eight Mexican League All-Star teams, Salazar left an even greater legacy as a manager. He won the Cuban Winter League title in his first three seasons, and his winning percentage slipped below .500 only because of two years spent with lowly Marianao and his year with ill-fated Santiago of La Liga Nacional.
Salazar had a 218-173 record as a manager in Venezuela and won three championships in seven years. In Mexico he had an extraordinary record of 779-573. His lifetime record as a manager is 1153-898 for a winning percentage of .562. To put this in context, only 15 major-league managers with 600 games managed have a higher career winning percentage – all but two have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Salazar was not forgotten in Latin America. In 1959 he was elected to the Salón de la Fama del Beisbol Cubano; in 1964 he was elected to the Salón de la Fama (Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame) in Monterrey; and in 2010 he was elected to the Salón de la Fama y Museo del Béisbol Venezolano in Valencia. His uniform number 17 was retired across all of Mexican baseball.
His plaque in Monterrey reads:
The greatest manager there has ever been in Mexico. The first to conquer seven pennants in a row. An extraordinary pitcher, first baseman and outfielder.
Indeed, El Príncipe del Bélen led an abbreviated but quite remarkable life.
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Figueredo, Jorge S., Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2011)
Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto, The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Hernández, Lou, The Rise of the Latin-American Baseball Leagues, 1947-1961: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2011)
Holway, John, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Winter Park, Florida: Hastings House, 2001)
McNeill, William F., Black Baseball Out of Season: Pay for Play Outside of the Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2007)
Revel, Layton, and Luis Muñoz, Forgotten Heroes; Lázaro Salazar (Carrollton, Texas: Center for Negro League Baseball Research, 2008)
Riley, James A., The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994)
Virtue, John, South of the Color Barrier: How Jorge Pasqual and the Mexican League Pushed Baseball Toward Racial Integration (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2007)
Young, Dick, “Puerto Rico Copped Caribe Title, But Venezuelan Fans Stole the Show, The Sporting News, February 23, 1955.
1 In some accounts, Salazar’s birthday is listed as December 12, 1911, while others indicate February 4, 1912. I have chosen to accept Echeverria’s listed birth date of December 17, 1911, given that Salazar was named after Saint Lázaro and wore the number 17 throughout his baseball career.
2 Dick Young, “Puerto Rico Copped Caribe Title, But Venezuelan Fans Stole the Show, The Sporting News, February 23, 1955.