Tuesday, February 7, 2012

104. José Méndez: Beating The Reds Black & Blue

Before I start off this week's story, please let me thank ESPN's Jim Caple for the beautiful article he wrote about my cards. I don't think I could have envisioned a nicer write-up on my work and Jim was a really great guy to talk to, which I discovered while being interviewed for the article. Anyway, here's this week's ballplayer, a guy I've gotten quite a few requests for - José Méndez.

When the Cincinnati Reds disembarked in Havana in early November, 1908, they expected a nice, leisurely vacation and nice, easy exhibition games against the locals. Baseball was an American game and hell, they were The Cincinnati Reds of the National League. Though they finished in 5th place, the Reds were tried and true professionals - Hans Lobert’s .293 average was 6th best in the league and he finished in the top five in hits, triples, games played, total bases, singles and stolen bases. No, they weren’t a great team, but they were National Leaguers, surely more than a match for the island competition they were going to face in the 11 exhibition games over the next 2 weeks.

The first game they played was on November 12th against the Havana Reds. Luis Padrón gave up seven hits to the Reds and lost 3-1. Three days later they were slated to meet the Havana Reds’ rival club, the Almandares Blues.

12,000 fans packed into Almandares Stadium to watch the Americanos play their Azules. No one recorded what the Cincinnati players thought when the Blues’ pitcher took his warm-up pitches before the game, but it must have made them lick their lips. The skinny fella that stood on the mound that day was barely 5’-8” tall, black as coal and his own teammates called him by the unflattering nickname “Congo”. Surely this was going to be an easy win.

The only problem was this skinny kid was José Méndez, perhaps one of the top 5 greatest pitchers of all time.

Raised on the sugar cane plantations in Cardenas, Méndez became a skilled carpenter as well as talented clarinet and guitar player. Some say he had quite a voice as well. He was discovered playing semi-pro ball and the Almandares club signed him in 1906 where he promptly went 9-0 and was the top pitcher in the Cuban Winter League. Méndez had a blinding fast rising fastball, and if that wasn’t good enough, he also threw a wicked curve. Both these pitches were helped out with Méndez’s unique physical traits - he had extra long arms and attached to them were equally long fingers - these gave him an extra spin on the ball as he released it.

Méndez followed up his rookie season with a 15-6 record and this is where he stood as he faced the Cincinnati Reds that day.

To start off the game Méndez retired the side in order. Facing Cincinnati rookie Jean Dubuc, who would go on to a successful 9 year career in the majors, Almandares scored a quick run to make it 1-0. For the next 8 innings Méndez and Dubuc dueled each other, matching zeros on the scoreboard. But unlike Dubuc, Méndez hadn’t allowed a hit - he was pitching a no-hitter.

As the ninth inning commenced, Méndez got two out when Reds second baseman Miller Huggins, the future Yankees manager, hit a weak grounder between first and second. Méndez and first baseman Regino García went for the ball but neither could make the play. It was a cheap single but Huggins made it to first and the no-hitter was busted. Méndez bore down and got the next batter to end the game.

It wasn’t a no-hitter, but heck, a 1-hitting a major league team wasn’t something to sniff at!

Smarting from the embarrassing loss to an unknown black Cuban, the Reds won their next exhibition game 8-0 against the Havana Reds. Cuban sports pages at the time opined that the Havana club didn’t field their best players that day, but a win is a win and the big leaguers needed it. On November 19th Cincinnati faced Almandares again and lost 2-1 as Andrés Ortega held them to just 3 hits.

The following afternoon the Reds took a break from the Cubans and took on some of their countrymen, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, a Negro league team. If they thought they would be any easier than the Cubans, they were sorely mistaken as Brooklyn beat the heck out of them 9 to 1. The Reds were only able to get 6 hits off the Royal Giants and the great Pete Hill hit a home run, a rare feat in the cavernous baseball stadiums they played in down in Cuba.

After a day off, a desperate Cincinnati Reds team jumped all over the Havana team and won 11-4.

The next afternoon, November 23rd, brought the Americans back to Almandares Stadium and they were defeated by the Blues for the third strait time, 4-3.

Then on the 25th Cincinnati got by Havana again 5 to 1. The Americans now had 3 days off to regroup. So far their record stood at 4 and 4 against 2 Cuban League teams and 1 Negro league squad. In the past, visiting major league ball clubs could usually sleepwalk their way through an exhibition series in the islands, but now, something was different.

I’m sure the Reds weren’t all that excited to arrive at Almandares Stadium again on the afternoon of the 29th, but things started off well for them because by the 3rd inning they were up 3-0 over the Blues. Then that damn little Cuban kid came walking out of the bullpen.

José Méndez took the ball and proceeded to throw 6 shut-out innings against Cincinnati. Although the Reds won the game, Méndez had now racked up 16 innings without the big leagues being able to score. The Cuban public went bananas. The local sports writers predicted before the series that the home teams would hold their own against the Americans, but what was unfolding before their eyes was beyond their wildest dreams.

The next day Cincinnati was to face the Havana Reds again but before the game began the Americans protested about the umpiring of the games thus far. The Cuban newspapers took note of this and called it what it was - a cheap excuse. Havana proceeded to best the Reds 6-4.

There was another break in the series and the Americanos had a few days to pick up the broken pieces of what was supposed to be their playing-holiday in the sun. And it was going to get worse. Almandares was next on the schedule.

In what was beginning to seem like deja-vu all over again, Jose Mendez shut out the Reds 3 zip and now had an incredible 25 CONSECUTIVE scoreless innings of work against a major league team!

The next day Cincinnati finally found an opponent they could trounce - the amateur Vedado Tennis Club - and slapped them around 13-3.

Inspired by this easy win the Reds defeated Havana 4-1, but now they had to head over to Almandares Stadium again. There the Reds were wrapping up a win going into the bottom of the ninth ahead 6 to 3 when the Blues tied it up. Mercifully for the Reds, the game was called due to darkness the following inning.

The last game of the series was against the Blues again and of course, José Méndez got the ball for Almandares. In the first he had his scoreless inning streak ended but he held the Reds to 9 harmless hits and won again 6-2.

The Reds slinked home and José Méndez traded in the nickname “Congo” for the much more regal moniker of “El Diamante Negro” or “The Black Diamond”. His Cuban fame preceded him to the U.S. where he pitched splendidly for the Cuban Stars, All Nations, Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs for over 20 years. New York Giants manager John McGraw famously said he would be worth $30,000 to his team, if only he were white. Among the other marquee big league talent he bested was Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank and Chief Bender. Towards the end of his career he was made manager of Kansas City and led the Monarchs to Negro National League pennants in 1924, 1925 and 1926 as well as the Colored World Championship in 1924.

Much of the Cincinnati Reds series highlights were gleaned from Gary Ashwill's great baseball research blog, Agate Type. Ever the groundbreaking baseball archaeologist, Gary uncovered all the games played by the Reds down in Cuba in 1908 and their results. As far as I know, until his research no one ever published a full account of that trip.

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