Twice Champions: The 1923-24 Santa Clara Leopardos

This article was written by David C. Skinner

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “From McGillicuddy to McGwire,” the 2000 SABR convention journal.

 

The 1923-24 Santa Clara Baseball Club is ranked by many historians and baseball aficionados as the greatest team in the long and storied history of the pre-revolutionary Cuban League. Their 112 game margin of victory was the largest in 83 years of league play, and they have been compared to the 1927 New York Yankees. They were so dominant that attendance waned, and the league abruptly ended the season in midstream. Santa Clara was declared champion and summoned to the national capital to play in a tournament against runners-up Habana and Almendares, both bolstered by players from last place Marianao, which was dropped from the competition.

Forced to play all of their games in Havana, Santa Clara struggled to cap their league title with the Gran Premio as well, but the second season lingered a little too long. By the time it was over, most of the league’s players, American and Cuban alike, had departed for spring training in the States, and nobody much cared who won.

Baseball first came to Cuba about the time of the U.S. Civil War and soon became the island’s national pastime. Play began in the Cuban League in 1878, just two years after the National League’s first season in the United States. Article 98 of the Cuban league statutes, which prohibited men of color from playing in the league (while failing to prevent teams from hiring exceptional blacks and mulattos), was abrogated in 1900. Afro-Cubans immediately took their rightful place among the league’s top players. They were joined in 1907 by African Americans from leading U.S. black clubs, as well as U.S. whites, mostly from the minor leagues. Cubans, white and black, also were going to the U.S. to play in organized baseball or the Negro Leagues, and the Cuban League arranged its schedule to coincide with the winter off-season in the States.

Although Cuban teams integrated quickly after racial barriers fell, some were predominantly white, while others featured a majority of black players. Some teams were all Cuban, others predominantly North American. None, however, was more dominated by players from the U.S. Negro Leagues than the Santa Clara club of 1923-24. There were nineteen players on the roster over the course of he season, eighteen black and one white, eleven American and eight Cuban. Each of them played in the Negro Leagues, and were among those league’s biggest stars. The manager was a club owner and manager in the Negro National League, making it easy for him to contact players seeking winter employment.

What brought this sterling collection of talent to a small provincial capital in Central Cuba to play in a league that had generally scheduled all of its games in one stadium in Havana is of some interest. That the team had begun only the season before— and quit the competition in mid-season over a questionable decision that the locals felt had been engineered to impede first- place Santa Clara’s quest for a league championship—increases the intrigue. When the team was broken up the following season and failed to compete at its previous high level, the fans stayed away and the franchise was moved, again in mid-season. That the ball club only existed for two partial seasons and one truncated one plus an aborted tournament makes this an amazing story.

The most powerful figure in the Cuban League during the first three decades of the 20th century was Abel Linares. He owned both of the “eternal rivals,” the Alendares and Habana clubs, as well as Havana’s Almendares Park, where all league games were played. He held various positions in the league administration, but his power was supreme regardless of any official title. It is difficult for those familiar only with the structure of the U.S. Major Leagues to comprehend how one man could so dominate baseball in an entire country. His influence reached even from beyond the grave, as his widow owned both eternal rivals from the time of his death in 1930 until the mid-1940s.

Linares had owned an early Cuban Stars team in the U.S., but his influence stateside was limited. For that he was dependent on his right-hand man, Augustin (Tinti) Molina, a former player in Cuba and the U.S. who owned and managed the Cuban Stars in the Negro National League from 1921 through 1931. The Cuban League struggled to find teams to compete with the eternal rivals and fill out the league schedule. For the 1922-23 season the Marianao team, based like the rivals in Havana, was added, along with a club that Linares owned and Molina managed in Santa Clara, capital of the province of the same name which was ever, was more dominated by players from Negril to Las Villas and is now known in its much Leagues than the Santa Clara club of Villa Clara.

The city of Santa Clara had a population of 63,151 as of December 31, 1923, ranking sixth in a country whose capital was the only city of over 100,000. The hub of a vast agricultural region in the center of the island, Santa Clara’s livelihood was originally based on livestock but diversified into a sugar and tobacco center with the coming of the railroad. The economy boomed as the city developed into a country whose economy boomed as the city developed into a major rail junction at the meeting place of north-south and east-west lines. The region’s relative prosperity was one reason that Linares decided to locate a team there in an attempt to increase interest in the league and broaden its fan base. Surely another factor was its location, 190 miles east-southeast of Havana, which made it an easy train ride from the capital. Santa Clara also had a reputation as a good baseball town, with teams and leagues throughout the province from the earliest days of the sport in Cuba.

Slavery has had a definite impact on Cuban demographics. During the first half of the 19th century, Cuba had a majority of blacks and mulattos, although whites officially constituted the majority beginning in 1859. One-third of the slaves worked on sugar plantations, with a similar percentage initially on coffee estates, although that number declined to almost nothing by 1860. Historian Hugh Thomas believes that more than 50,000 slaves may have been brought to Cuba from 1820 to 1865, but none have been documented after that date. Slavery was abolished as of 1888, although with little change in the social status of Afro-Cubans. The non-white minority numbered just over 600,000 by 1907, which was less than 30% of the total population, but raised expectations after the 1895-98 war for independence from Spain were not realized.

Black political solidarity, as expressed in a 1912 uprising, was diluted in the next decade, as over 150,000 black laborers were brought in from Haiti and Jamaica, and the farther removed from revolutionary wars, the more that blacks were excluded from political and cultural developments. Until 1959, black rights were virtually ignored, even by non-white politicians. American colonial domination, which replaced Spanish rule in 1898, was effectively ended by the communist revolution, as was racial segregation. Blacks and mulattos, however, remain a political and economic underclass in communist Cuba—this despite once again constituting (due to white emigration to the U.S.) a 62 majority on the island.

Santa Clara was an interesting choice for Linares and Molina to locate a nearly all-black baseball team in 1922. Despite a history of rigid racial segregation—the central Parque Vidal still features a double-wide sidewalk that once was divided by an iron fence to separate black and white strollers—the city had a reputation for tolerance that was manifested in fan acceptance of black players. Acceptance is perhaps not a strong enough word. Elderly fanaticos today remember black players, especially Americans from the 1930s, with an awe bordering on reverence. It is perhaps appropriate in a city that has embraced ballplayers of all hues that the Villa Clara entry in the late 20th-century Serie Nacional, revolutionary Cuba’s overwhelmingly black amateur major league, has more white players than most other teams.

Molina assembled a powerhouse that began league play with a home double header on November 26, 1922, at Boulanger Park on the west bank of the Rio Cubanacay, losing to Marianao 5-2 in the debut game for both new clubs and taking the nightcap 2-1 for Santa Clara’s initial Cuban League victory. The outfield of native son Alejandro Oms and Pablo “Champion” Mesa from the nearby port of Caribbean flanking U.S. Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston was one of the finest to ever play the game, and Americans Oliver “Ghost” Marcelle and Frank Warfield were among the best at third and second. The American righty-lefty pitching tandem of Bill Holland and Dave Brown led a crew of talented Cubans that found itself in first place in mid-January 1923. The team was nicknamed the Leopardos, or Leopards, a powerful animal in the mode of the Habana Leones (lions) and Almendares Alacranes (scorpions). Like other Santa Clara teams in various sports over the years, however, they frequently were called the Pilongos.

Pilongos means those who are baptized in the same font, and in Santa Clara at the time that was literally true. There was a pool beneath a waterfall in the Cubanacay, near where it ran behind the since-demolished main church, where local babies received the baptismal rites. To this day, natives of Santa Clara are known as Pilongos.

The club, known to the press as “Santa” during its initial season, left the league at a time when it was battling for the lead, with Charleston and Oms 1-2 in batting with averages well over .400. The dispute came to light in the newspapers on January 14 with the publication of a formal document dated January 11 and signed by league officers. The situation stemmed from the reluctance of the Havana teams to participate in Sunday morning games in Santa Clara, with Marianao contending that its 8-5 loss to the home team on Sunday, January 7, violated a new league policy outlawing them. The officials declared the results and all statistics of that game null and void. Following a 12-7 loss to Habana on January 13, Santa Clara withdrew from the league in protest. At a meeting two days later, the league accepted that decision and ruled the club’s remaining twenty-seven games forfeited. Havana newspaper comments, although expressing regret at the loss of the Santa Clara team, revealed a condescending prejudice against the city that it represented, perhaps suggesting that the allegations of a plot by those in the more sophisticated capital city may not have been totally unfounded. Whatever his motive, Linares paid off the Santa Clara players and sent them home. By January 19, all of the Americans on the club had left the island, and Linares’ eternal rivals were left to finish the season with Marianao at Almendares Park.

With no mention of the events of the previous season, and with the sole stipulation that games rained out or otherwise suspended in Santa Clara would be made up in Havana, Santa Clara entered the 1923-24 campaign with a stacked deck, a team so powerful that its supremacy could not be questioned or compromised by anyone.

From the onset of the season in October, the Leopardos dominated the Havana clubs, opening up by mid-January an 112 game lead over Habana, with pre-season favorite Almendares standing 11 games below .500. Eight of the players would later join manager Molina in the Cuban Hall of Fame. Holdovers from the 1922-23 squad included American infielders Marcelle and Warfield, whose names would be forever linked in infamy, and American pitchers Holland and the mysterious Brown. Returning Cubans included catcher Julio Rojo, infielder Matias Rios, and pitcher Eustaquio “Bombin” Pedroso. Most significantly, the outfield of Oms, Charleston, and Mesa returned intact.

Homegrown left fielder Alejandro Oms was an example of the prodigious talent the Pilongos displayed at every position. The left hander was a natural hitter who possessed both speed and power. He had begun his Cuban career the previous season as a 27-year-old rookie, en route to a .351 average over fifteen seasons on the island, second by a point behind Cristobal Torriente as the best career mark by a Cuban player, and fourth best in league history. He also starred in the States with the Cuban Stars of the Eastern Colored League, where he was known as a great center fielder, and incomplete records show a .306 mark for 11 recorded Negro League campaigns. Known as “El Caballero” for his gentlemanly demeanor, he was said to have never argued with an umpire nor been in a fight.

He led the Cuban League once each in home runs and runs scored, twice in hits, and three times in average, including a record .432 for Habana in 1928-29. That season he was the second recipient of Cuba’s version of a MVP award, “Player Most Useful to his Club.” His 11 seasons hitting .300 or better tied a Cuban record, and he holds the mark for doing so in eight consecutive seasons (1922-23 through 1929-30). He was the first to get six hits in a Cuban game and ranked sixth in career runs scored.

Pablo Mesa played in the same outfield with Oms in the States as well, hitting .283 over six seasons with the Cuban Stars. A superb fielder, he was also an outstanding offensive player blessed with speed and power, He was a fine bunter and a baserunner who is remembered in Cuba as having been thrown out sometimes because he was so fast he tended to overrun a base. His best recorded mark in the Negro Leagues was 14 steals in 47 games in 1924. In his best season as a hitter at home, he exceeded Oms with a .433 mark in 1926-27, when both played for Marianao in the Campeonato triangular, a rival league that played its games in the new Stadium Unuversitario of the University of Havana. Oms and Mesa had begun the season with the Cuba club in the Cuban League but defected to the new league after a hurricane destroyed Almendares Park. Mesa’s six-year Cuban average was .332.

Oscar Charleston was a player for whom so many superlatives have been used that the mind boggles at how good he must have been. Called the “Black Ty Cobb” for his speed and aggressive style, his power and build brought comparisons to Babe Ruth and his play in center to Tris Speaker. Some believe that such analogies fail to do justice to Charleston’s talents. Umpire Jocko Conlan called him the best Negro player of his time. In an article about a 1999 SABR poll of the top Negro League figures, in which Charleston finished fourth (just ahead of Josh Gibson and Rube Foster) and appeared on 96.5 of ballots, Sports Collectors Digest called him “perhaps the greatest of Negro League players.”

But many who saw him play called him simply the greatest baseball player ever, including such authoritative voices as Giants’ Manager John McGraw, Negro League player-managers Ben Taylor and Buck O’Neil, umpire George Moriarty, and sportswriter Grantland Rice. In the Negro leagues, available records show a .349 average over 26 seasons, most notably for his hometown Indianapolis ABC’s, the Harrisburg Giants, Homestead Grays, and Pittsburgh Crawfords, where he switched to first base and was player-manager of what is generally considered to be the best black team ever. In Cuba, his .361 career average was exceeded only by fellow Negro Leaguer Jud Wilson. He twice led the Cuban League in runs and stolen bases, including 1923-24, when he swiped 31 bags, the third-best mark in league history and three less than his top Negro League mark. He also was the Cuban leader once each in average, home runs, triples, and hits during his nine years there.

Oliver Marcelle was one of the great third baseman in Negro League history, known for his defensive wizardry, baserunning skills, and a fierce temper. Regarded as the best at his positioning the 1920s, he was picked over Hall of Famers Judy Johnson and Roy Dandridge in a 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll and by John Henry Lloyd for his all-time team in 1953. Playing primarily for the Royal, Bacharach, and Lincoln Giants, he hit .304 over 13 U.S. seasons and .305 for eight years in Cuba. His .393 mark for the 1923-24 Leopardos led the Cuban League. Second baseman Frank Warfield was a great fielder and baserunner. He hit .264 in 17 Negro League seasons and .304 for four years in Cuba. Although the only starter for the 1923-24 Leopardos to hit below .300 for a regular season, he led the Grand Premio in stolen bases.

The starters were rested frequently and sometimes played out of position, giving reserves like Mayari a chance to shine. Molina was apparently getting players ready for the season in the U.S. and seemingly used the Grand Premio as sort of an extended spring training. After all, the Leopardos had nothing to prove, having already won a championship. Fatigue from playing all year was also catching up to them, and they began a slump which lasted through the second series and found Santa Clara barely able to score as each player’s hitting ability deserted him. After a 4-0 loss to Habana, the Leopardos regrouped and registered back-to-back triumphs against Almendares. They won 5-4 behind Oms’ triple, then held on to win 10-9 after leading 10-0 with 2 home runs by Marcelle and Mesa, giving themselves a half-game second-series lead over the Alacranes on March 2. That lead was short-lived, however, as Almendares recovered to pound Currie and Mendez for a 13-2 victory on March 5.

By this time all three teams were losing players, and with the departure of Charleston, then Douglass, and finally Duncan, the Pilongos were having difficulty just getting nine men on the field. After a 5-2 loss to the Leones on March 15, Santa Clara stood last at 4-6 for the secondseries, two games behind leader Almendares, and it was announced that those two clubs would play one game at 10:00 a.m. the next day to decide the winner of the Grand Premio, with Holland scheduled to pitch against Lucas Boada.

There was an urgency to determine a champion while there still were some players left on the island, but even after shortening the second series, it apparently was too late to save face with a one-game playoff. The game was never played, and with no further word of this proposed contest, final statistics were published on March 17, and standings were printed for each series. League officials were to meet that afternoon to clarify the situation, but no mention of the results of such a meeting can be found, nor is there any determination of prize money distribution noted. The same article in the Diario de la Marina that announced the meeting left no doubt about the reason for the abrupt ending of play, reporting the departure of Dibut and Habana pitcher-manager Adolfo Luque for the Cincinnati Reds’ camp in Orlando, as well as other players from each Grand Premio squad to various minor-league training sites. Cumulative standings for the Grand Premio give Santa Clara a total record of 13-12, .520, a half-game better than Habana’s 13-13 and one up on 12-13 Almendares. Historians recognize the Leopardos as Grand Premio champion, while contemporary accounts indicate that the tournament was met with ongoing fan indifference despite the closeness of teams.

Was the 1923-24 Santa Clara club Cuba’s greatest professional team? Comparisons between eras are difficult, although the players and the numbers should speak for themselves. They cannot be called a dynasty, because the core group remained together for only three seasons, each of which was essentially terminated by mid-January. Linares apparently tired of allowing a team from outside Havana dominate league play, as Charleston, Duncan, Douglass, Moore, and some key pitchers and reserves were not kept on for the 1924-25 season. Fan support dwindled with the declining won-lost record. The season was divided into two series, with Santa Clara third at 14-15, .483 for the first half, which ended on Christmas Day. Santa Clara began the second series with a “home” game at Matanzas on December 27, losing 14-5 to Almendares, Charleston’s new team, as the ex-Leopardo cracked three doubles. The Pilongos stood at 1-6, .143 in Series Two when the franchise was officially shifted to Mtanzas on January 8. The last game in Santa Clara had been on January 3, an 8-6 loss to Marianao.

The outfield of Oms, Charleston, and Mesa draws comparisons to other great combos but suffers from its scant two seasons as a unit. Oms, a great centerfielder in his own right, was forced to play out of position in deference to Charleston. The greatest outfield in the Negro Leagues is generally thought to have been that of the Eastern Colored League Cuban Stars, which had Oms in center flanked by Bearnardo Baro (and later Martin Dihigo) and Mesa. The Baro-Oms-Mesa combine of 1923 and 1924, which played summers at the same time as the Santa Clara winner trio, must be considered inferior to the Leopardo outfield if only because of Charleston. The best Major League threesome probably was Duffy Lewis, Tris Speaker, and Harry Hooper of the 1910-15 Boston Red Sox. This grouping had the advantages of longevity and two U.S. Hall of Famers and probably should get the nod for all-time greatest, but for a brief period, the 1922-24 Leopardos outfield was unsurpassed as an offensive and defensive presence.

The Cuban League did not return to Santa Clara until 1929, and that team disbanded along with the league fivedays into the 1930- 31 season. The next Santa Clara team in the league began play in 1935-36 and may be classified as a dynasty. Under Dihigo and then Lazaro Salazar, these Leopardos won three championships in their first four years and were denied four straight by losing a three-game playoff to Marianao in 1936-37 to settle a disputed first-place tie. Santa Clara left the Cuban League for good in 1941 but had strong professional teams over the next two decades, playing as an independent or in regional circuits.

Teams representing the province fared well from the beginning of the post-revolutionary Serie Nacional, and the Villa Clara Naranjas are a power in Cuba today. The Naranjas are led by the heavy-hitting Eduardo Paret, Cuba’s most dangerous base runner and an acrobatic shortstop who stands out in a country blessed with a number of greats at that position. A 1996 Olympian, Paret was suspended and lost his spot on the National Team for minor infractions marking him to the authorities as a threat to defect, but he returned to league play in 1998 without missing a beat. Catcher Ariel Pestano and left fielder Oscar Machado are currently on the National team. Boulanger Park is today configured for football (soccer) , and is shared by the city’s youth and adult soccer teams. The old wooden grandstand is gone. Just down the street and across the river is modern and spacious Estadio Augusto Cesar Sandfino, home of the Naranjas. Santa Clara is famed as a city where the revolutionary victory was won, and Che Guevara’s remains now reside in a gigantic mausoleum/museum. The city still ranks sixth in population, at an estimated 205,400 in 1994.

A number of the participants in the 1923-24 Santa Clara championship season fared poorly in the years immediately following. At a time when life expectancies were generally in the low 30s for blacks in the U.S. as well as Cuba, careers and lives were prematurely snuffed out. Four of the American players had their careers ended in their primes, due to apparent acts of violence involving women, cocaine, and gambling. The well-liked Brown, an ex-con, was the first to disappear from baseball. Wanted for murder after a 1925 barroom fight, reputedly over cocaine, he barnstormed as a fugitive and played for semi-pro teams in small Midwestern cities under an alias. Some reports indicate that he died in Denver under mysterious circumstances. Next to go was Moore, who in 1926 was shot in the leg by a female acquaintance, suffering multiple fractures that ended his time as a player. The handsome Marcelle left first-class play, perhaps in embarrassment, after former teammate Warfield bit off part of his nose in a 1930 craps-game fight in Cuba. Warfield was in Pittsburgh as player-manager of the Washington Pilots in 1932 when he died of a heart attack in another unusual incident, after being rushed bleeding to the hospital in the company of a woman.

Three Cubans on the 1923-24 team died young from infectious disease. Rios was the first of the unfortunate trio, succumbing in July 1924, a month after having been sent home to recover his health while playing for the Cuban Stars. Mendez, who managed and pitched the Monarchs to victory in the first Colored World Series, died of bronchial pneumonia or tuberculosis in 1928, not many months after retiring as an active player. Montalvo died of tuberculosis in 1930.

Not all of the erstwhile Leopardos were star-crossed. Oms died in 1946, honored in a proclamation by the mayor of Santa Clara as a great gentleman and ballplayer, and his funeral was a major event in his hometown. Dibut had a disappointing career with the Reds. After going 3-0 with a 2.21 ERA in 1924, he was unable to retire a batter in his first outing the following season and was banished from the majors, never to return. His life was as long as his big-league career was short. The last on the team to pass, he died in Hialeah in 1979 at age 87. Rojo managed and coached in Cuba and Mexico into the 1950s.

Douglas, who had been a player-manager for the Royal Giants, later operated a poolroom in New York City. Duncan, married to blues singer Julia Lee, ran a tavern in Kansas City after stints as a manager and umpire in the Negro Leagues. Like Marcelle, his son played briefly in the black leagues. Holland was another of the Pilongos to manage in the Negro Leagues.

The last of the players from1923-24 to wear a uniform in the U.S. was the great Charleston. Even after integration, the old war-horse stayed in the Negro Leagues, managing the Philadelphia Stars through 1950. Though the surviving Negro American League was not as strong as in earlier days, Charleston got the best from his players. He made a comeback in 1954, and skippered the Indianapolis Clowns to the NAL title. In October of that year he fell down a flight of stairs after suffering a stroke or heart attack and died in Philadelphia eight days before his sixtieth birthday.

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