Cuba’s Black Diamond

This article was written by John Holway

This article was published in the 1981 Baseball Research Journal


“Joe Mendez is better than any pitcher but Christy Mathewson and Mordecai Brown — and sometimes I think he’s better than Matty.” — John McGraw

 

Little Jose Mendez, the wiry 20-year old Cuban fast-baller, startled the baseball establishment in November 1908 when the Cincinnati Reds arrived in the Islands and faced him for the first time. Showing them a hopping fast ball “that looked like a pea,” in the words of one old-timer, and a curve “that looked like it was failing off a pool table,” Mendez struck out nine Reds, walked only two, and gave up but one single, to future Yankee manager Miller Huggins in the ninth, and beat the proud Rhinelanders 1-0.

Then, to prove it wasn’t a fluke, two weeks later he blanked the Reds in seven innings of relief, according to historian Jorge Figueredo. Four days later he shut them out for nine more innings on a five-hitter with eight strikeouts and no walks. That made 25 straight innings without giving up a run. No wonder the Cubans hailed Mendez as El Daimante Negro — The Black Diamond.

The Reds, who had finished fifth in the National League that year with a 73-81 mark, limped out of Cuba after winning only four games and losing seven.

In the next three winters, Mendez would beat touring big leaguers six more times, including Eddie Plank, Howard Camnitz, and the great Christy Mathewson himself.

In 1909 Mendez’ Almendares teammate, Eustaquio Pedroso, threw an 11-inning no-hitter against the American Leauge champion Detroit Tigers. Thus together, Mendez and Pedroso made dramatically clear that the upstart Cuban game was the equal of the best in the U.S. big leagues.

“Pedroso was good,” shrugs Arthur W. Hardy, who played against both men in the States in 1909, “but I wouldn’t put him in a class with Mendez. The first time I met Mendez was in Chicago, and boy, could he throw a ball! He had developed tremendous shoulders and biceps from chopping sugar cane. That ball was hoping. It looked like a pea coming up there.” To Hardy, Mendez was even faster than Smokey Joe Williams.

In the early 1920s rookie outfielder George “Never” Sweatt would play under Mendez, who was then managing the Kansas City Monarchs in the new Negro National League. “He was a small man,” says Sweatt, “about 155-160 pounds, about five-eight. But he could burn that ball. It was so heavy you hated to catch it. He’d only warm up about ten minutes. He’d throw about ten balls right fast, and was warmed up.”

Sweatt, a college grad and a school teacher, was shocked by the rowdy behavior of many of the players of that day. But he was drawn to Mendez. “That’s the fellow I copied after,” Sweatt says. “He was quiet, unassuming. But he did the job.”

“Mendez was smart,” adds third baseman Judy Johnson, who played against him in the black world series of 1924. “He was a small guy, a Bobby Shantz sort of pitcher. He had everything and he knew how to use it.” Joe Taylor, who played for the Fort Leavenworth Army team, often played against Mendez in Kansas City. “He was great on the out-shoot and drop and slow balls,” Taylor says. “He’d come at you with that same terrific motion, but the speed of the ball was altogether different.

Jose de la Caridad Mendez was born in Cardenas, Cuba, in 1887, while Cuba was still in Spanish hands. The Yankee game was already well established, transplanted by white Cubans who had been educated in the States. In fact, Cuban championship records go back to 1879. Jose was a barefoot kid of 11 when Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill. Eleven years later Roosevelt was leaving the White House, and Mendez was pitching for the Almendares Blues with a 9-0 record in the Cuban League when the Reds arrived and innocently walked into his one-hitter.

After his 25 straight shutout innings against the big leaguers, Figueredo says, Jose added 20 more scoreless innings for a total of 45 straight innings without giving up a run. He shut out a visiting Key West, Florida team for nine innings. Then he went to Key West and shut them out again — this time on a no-hitter. He followed that with two hitless innings against arch-rival Havana in the Cuban League before finally giving up a run in the third inning. That winter he compiled a league mark of 15 wins, six losses. He led the league in victories, complete games, 18, and shutouts, five.

Jose barnstormed in the States with the Cuban Stars in 1909. Figures obtained by Merl Kleinknecht of SABR show him with 44 victories, only two defeats, for the tour, presumably mostly against semipro teams. That October he returned to Havana and beat the touring Indianapolis club of the American Association 2-1 with 11 strikeouts.

Then the American League champion Detroit Tigers arrived to face the Latin phenom. The President of Cuba led a jam-packed crowd to the Havana stadium to witness the clash — and Mendez was humiliated. Even without Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, the Tigers socked him for 11 hits and administered a 9-3 drubbing — “the worst beating of his career,” one Havana newspaper wrote.

But in his next outing, Jose was once again pitching like “the heretofore invincible Mendez,” as the Reach Guide would later call him. He held the Tigers to only six hits and one earned run, though his teammates committed four errors behind him to give the Tigers a 4-0 victory. A few days later Pedroso would restore the Cubans’ lost pride with his dramatic no-hitter. Havana went wild. Pedroso was feted and wined so much that he never pitched another game that winter.

It was up to Mendez then to carry the burden for the Blues. This he did with his next start against Detroit, a 2-1 victory on a strong five-hitter. In all, that winter, the champion Tigers could win only four games while losing eight. Havana’s bilingual paper La Lucha called Detroit’s performance “disastrous.” The Reach Guide called it a “disgrace.”

Next to try its luck in Cuba that winter was an all-star big league squad made up of Germany Schaefer, Sherry Magee, Fred Merkle, Jimmy Archer, “Circus Solly” Hofman, and a brilliant pitching staff that included Mordecai Brown, Addie Joss, Nap Rucker, and Howie Camnitz, the ace of the world champion Pirates. But they fared little better than the Reds and Tigers, winning two and losing three. In their only game against Mendez, they were almost helpless. He gave them only two hits and two walks, struck out ten, and beat Camnitz (24-6 in the National League) 3-1. No one can say Mendez got any help from a hometown umpire: Hank O’Day of the National League was behind the plate for the whole series.

In the summer of 1910 Mendez posted a perfect 7-0 record in the Cuban League. That November the Tigers returned for revenge. This time they brought along Sam Crawford, the American League RBI champ, and started their ace, George Mullin (21-12) against Mendez. Jose shut Crawford out without a hit in four tries and gave the Tigers only five hits altogether. Mullin was even better, however, and beat him 3-0.

A week later Detroit’s Ed Summers (12-12) went into the pit against Mendez. Again Mendez stopped Crawford without a hit. In fact, he gave only three hits in all, collected two himself, yet could only settle for a ten-inning 2-2 tie.

At this point the great Cobb himself arrived to help his teammates regain their tarnished prestige. In his first clash against Mendez, the Georgian drove out a hit. The next time Jose struck him out, to give Ty l-for-2 for the day. Crawford went 0-for 4 again. The rest of the Tigers were hitting, however, and pinned a 6-3 defeat on their Cuban bete noire. (They also split two 11-inning games with Pedroso, losing 2-1 and winning 4-3.) They left the Islands much more satisfied this time, with seven victories against four losses.

Cobb had hit .3 69. But three American blacks playing with Havana — Pop Lloyd, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, and Bruce Petway — all hit better than that. To make it worse, Petway, the little catcher, threw Ty out three times stealing. Lloyd, wearing catchers’ shin guards, put the ball on Ty each time, and The Great One stomped out of Cuba vowing never to play blacks again.

Connie Mack’s world champion Athletics were next. They won only one of their first three games, as Jack Coombs defeated Pedroso 2-1. Chief Bender, 22-5 during the AL season, lost twice. In the fourth game Mack decided to put in his top lefthander, Eddie Plank, to stop the slide. Almendares countered with Mendez. Jose stopped the A’s on a five-hitter, 5-2, and would have had a shutout but for six errors behind him. Mendez fanned five, Plank one. In another duel against Plank, five days later, Mendez won 7-5. Meanwhile Coombs beat Pedroso again 7-4, and Bender salvaged the last two games. The A’s were happy to get back on board ship with an even split in eight games against the pesky Cubans.

After the big leaguers left, Mendez dominated the Cuban League with an 11-2 record. His 11 victories, 12 complete games, and four shutouts were again tops. According to Figueredo, one of

Mendez’ victories was a two-hitter in which he faced only 27 men. He picked one man off first; the other, American Spotswood Poles, was out trying to stretch his hit.

The big leaguers returned in the fall of 19 11, and this time did a little better. First the Philadelphia Phils arrived and Mendez whipped them 3-1 and slugged a triple of his own off Eddie Stack. In their second try the Phils had the pleasure of humiliating their Latin tormentor at last, whipping him 8-1. In all, they won five, lost three, somewhat better than their inter-city rivals, the A’s, had done the year before.

Now it was John McGraw’s turn to bring to Havana the famous New York Giants, champions of the National League. They boasted three .300 hitters — Turkey Mike Donlin, Larry Doyle, and Arthur Fletcher. Pitching would be Doc Crandall (15-5 on the regular season), Hooks Wiltse (12-10), and Christy Mathewson (24-13). Pedroso won the first game 6-4. In the second contest, a lightskinned Cuban kid named Adolfo Luque also beat the Giants 3-2. McGraw was in a rage. “Angry, humiliated, he gave the players a going over,” Mrs. McGraw writes in her memoirs, The Real McGraw. “You’ll beat these clowns, or I’ll know the reason why,” the Little Napoleon thundered.

For the third contest, on Thanksgiving Day, the Giants would face Cuba’s best, Mendez. So McGraw called on his own ace, Mathewson, thus setting up the duel the fans had been waiting to see. And it was a splendid duel. The chastened Giants gritted their teeth, took up a collection, and bet $800 on themselves to win.

Mendez was in great form. According to one story, when he blew his first strike over the plate against Donlin, Turkey Mike laid his bat on the ground, muttered, “Tell him to throw two more,” and walked back to the bench. When the duel was over Mendez had given up only five hits, Matty three. Mendez fanned four batters, Matty two. Mendez allowed two walks, Matty none. But Matty gave up no runs, and Mendez lost another shutout, this one 4-0. The jubilant McGraw threw a party for the players to celebrate.

In his next game Mendez faced Crandall. Jose was fast – he whiffed 11 New Yorkers — and though they clipped him for 11 hits, the game was all tied up 3-3 after ten innings. In the 11th Mendez put two Giants on base, then threw the wrong pitch to Buck Herzog, who hit it over the fence for a 6-3 victory.

Mrs. McGraw says the Giants won the rest of their games. But she was wrong. Four days later Pedroso and Matty hooked up. Pedroso went five innings, giving up six hits, before he yielded to Mendez. Jose stopped the Giants with only one hit the rest of the game, and the two Cuban stars had finally done it — they had whipped Christy Mathewson 7-4. McGraw was mightily impressed.

He’d give $50,00 for Mendez, he said — “if only he were white.”

Mrs. McGraw called Jose “the black Mathewson.” “He always pitched against the Giants,” she wrote. “Without mincing words, John bemoaned the failure of baseball, himself included, to cast aside custom or unwritten law, or whatever it was, and sign a player on ability alone, regardless of race or color.” But the Giants trained in Texas, she explained, and McGraw “understood the significance and severity of segregation laws. At no time did he wish to offend the ordinance of people who lived by them 365 days of the year.” Thus he “settled for players who were undeniably Cuban.”

Outfielder Armando Marsans and third baseman Rafael Almeida had already received tryouts with Cincinnati. Marsans particularly looked impressive: He hit .317 in 1912. In 1914 Luque would get a tryout with the Boston Braves and go on to win almost 200 big league games, including a league-leading 27 in 1923. Would dark-skinned Cubans like Mendez get a shot at the majors, too? Not a chance. Even the Caucasian Luque was sometimes jeered as a nigger. Mendez didn’t stand a chance of following him.

For the next dozen years, while Luque was traveling by Pullman around the National League circuit, Jose Mendez would spend his summers bouncing by bus from hotel to hotel across the prairies and small towns of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

The big league jaunts to Cuba ended in 1911. No more U.S. teams would arrive for another eight years. The Cubans, meanwhile, could be excused their pride. In four years they had played 65 games against the best the U.S. big leagues had to offer. They won 32, lost 32, tied one. As for Mendez, he pitched 18 games, won eight, lost seven, and tied one. Three of his losses were shutouts. For years afterward, it was said, Jose Mendez had merely to walk into a restaurant in Havana and everyone would stand and applaud.

In 1912 Mendez won nine and lost five in Cuba, again leading the league in complete games and shutouts. He had a bad year in 1913, winning only one against four losses but came back triumphantly that winter with a perfect 10-0 record, including a league-leading three shutouts.

Mendez was at the pinnacle of his career. In seven years he had led the league in victory percentage five times. He had been tops in shutouts five times, and in all had won 62 and lost only 15 for an .805 percentage. He started the 19 14-15 season with two more victories. Then his arm went dead. The brilliant career was cut off. Mendez didn’t pitch another game that winter. He tried a comeback the next year, pitched six games and completed only one. For the next four years he was out of the Cuban campaigns entirely.

He journeyed to the States as a shortstop — in fact, he played everywhere except catcher — and managed J. L. Wilkinson’s All Nations team. True to their name, they included U.S. Caucasians,

(Wilkinson himself was white), U.S. blacks, Cubans, Hawaiians, Chinese, and even one girl, who was advertised as Carrie Nation. They played all the small towns of the Midwest and met the best U.S. black teams too, often visiting Chicago for games against Rube Foster’s American Giants.

In 1918 Foster enticed Mendez to join the American Giants. A year later the Cuban hopped to the Detroit Stars. In the winter he went to Los Angeles, playing with the L.A. White Sox, made up of Bullet Joe Rogan and other ex-army stars who were about to become the nucleus of the brand new Kansas City Monarchs. When the Negro National League was formed in 1920, Wilkinson beckoned to his old skipper, Mendez, and asked him to return as playing manager of the new Kansas City Monarchs.

Mendez played shortstop and third base and spot pitched on occasion, both in the States and in Cuba in the winters. He guided the Monarchs to pennants in 1923 and 1924. With their second flag they won the right to play the Philadelphia Hilldales in the first modern black world series. The struggle went to ten games, including one tie and one 12-inning marathon.

In that contest the Hilldales had just tied the score in the ninth, there were two men on and only one out, when manager Mendez put himself in to pitch against big George “Tank” Carr, the hulking Philadelphia first baseman, who had recently jumped to Philadelphia from the Monarchs. Mendez threw three strikes past him. Next pitcher Jesse “Nip” Winters, a good hitter, stepped in. Mendez got him on a fly to end the threat and the game went into extra innings. For three more innings Mendez “was a puzzle to the Easterners,” the Kansas City Call wrote. Finally, in the bottom of the 12th, the Monarchs scored on George Sweatt’s long triple to win.

By the time the final game rolled around, each club had won four, the Monarchs’ pitching staff was depleted, and Mendez was shaking his head over his problem to Rube Foster, president of the league. “Why don’t you pitch yourself, Darling?” Rube asked, using his characteristic appellation. So once again Mendez took the mound to face Philadelphia’s young submarine hurler, Holsey “Scrip” Lee.

Mendez was then 36 years old and beginning to show some white hairs around the ears and temples. “Gray, gaunt and grim,” as the Philadelphia Tribune described him, he matched the younger Lee inning for inning through seven long innings. In the last of the eighth, the score was still 0-0. Then the Monarchs suddenly caught fire. Dobie Moore singled, Hurley McNair sacrificed, Heavy Johnson doubled in one run, Frank Duncan walked, Mendez himself lined a single to center to load the bases, Newt Allen singled in two more runs, and Carrol Mothel singled in Mendez and Allen, making it 5-0.

In the ninth Mendez trudged back to the mound to nail down the victory. Pinch-hitter Nip Winters hit a long drive that the wind carried over to the right field corner, but McNair speared it. Mendez got Otto Briggs on a ground ball, walked Frank Warfield, then bore down on the dangerous Biz Mackey, getting him on a pop to short, and the Monarchs were champs.

It was Jose Mendez’ last hurrah. Two years later he was out of the game, and in four years he was dead at the age of 41. The boy who had watched the American Army march into Havana had pitched his final masterpiece.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved