Tomás Romañach: Afraid of being what the Americanos call “the lemon”

 

In the spring of 1913, Cincinnati Reds fans, players and management were finally confident their club was turning a corner. Two years earlier, in what was thinking outside the box for the time, the Reds signed Cubans Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida to fill holes in their roster. Now they were awaiting the arrival of another Cuban to solve their shortstop problem. Tomás Romañach had hit .300 in the minors the previous summer and big leaguers that played against the kid in Cuba said he was another Johnny Evers in the field. Reds owner Garry Herrmann decided to sign him and instructed Armando Marsans, who was teammates with Romañach in the minors and in Cuba, to get his signature on a contract. However, as spring training progressed Romañach failed to report. The Cincinnati beat writers looked to Armando Marsans for answers. The cheery Cuban outfielder pondered the question, turning it from English to his native Spanish and then reversing the order for his reply:

“It is of this way with Tomás Romañach – he is proud and sensitive. If by reason of youth he should fail, the people of dear old Habana they would not understand. They would cry “Ah Tomás, he is what the Americanos call the lemon.”

Before he retired in the early 1920’s, Tomás Romañach would have several flirtations with the Major Leagues, be one of the few men to play in both the white minor leagues and the Negro leagues and would be remembered as being one of the best shortstops in outsider baseball.

Although newspapers usually reported his age two to four years younger than he actually was, records show Tomás Romañach was born in Havana, Cuba in 1890. His nickname while playing ball was “El Italiano” – “The Italian” – which supposedly reflected his ancestry. However contemporary newspapers have him as being of Basque origin. He seems to have come from an affluent family and one newspaper article claims that his father was the major of Marianao. Romañach was reported to be an architect and he must have been attending university in Cuba when he began playing pro ball in 1908. That year he signed with the Rojo club and appeared in one game. Two years later he was with Almendares where the 20 year-old got into 8 games and hit a soft .182. 1911 he came into his own as Almendares’ regular second baseman and he showed off his skill playing against American big leaguers that toured the island that winter.

His performance in Cuba brought about an invitation to play in the U.S. The New Britain Perfectos of the class B Connecticut League was one of the few minor league clubs to actively recruit Latino players. As far back as 1908 the team was liberally stocked with Cubans and no less than three – Armando Marsans, Rafael Almeida, and Alfredo Cabrera – would go on to play in the majors. When Romañach joined the team in 1912 he was most likely sorely disappointed with the conditions he found there. It was reported that opposing fans perpetually harassed the Cuban imports and there were endless inquiries into the familial background of all the Cubans to make sure there was no Black ancestry. Having failed the background check, the great Luis Padron had been hounded out of the league in 1909 even though he was the team’s best hitter. So it’s no wonder that Romañach didn’t last more than a few games with the Perfectos. He was an educated man from a good family – he didn’t need all this needless hassle so he headed south to Long Branch, New Jersey where he joined a team in the Atlantic League called the Cubans. Unlike the Perfectos who had a mixture of Latino and American players, the Long Beach Cubans were entirely made up of players from the island nation. The team was put owned and managed by Dr. Carlos Henriquez, a Cuban national practicing medicine in New Jersey. In this familiar environment Romañach flourished. He successfully made the switch to shortstop and he finished the season hitting over .300. He was blessed with lightning speed and began hitting in the leadoff spot. This got the big league scouts on his trail and when he tore up the Cuban League that winter with a .362 average and comparisons to the great Johnny Evers, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox dispatched agents to sign him.

This is when Garry Herrmann and Armando Marsans swooped in to snatch up Romañach and sign him to a Reds contract. As we already know, the shortstop failed to report to the Reds. For their part, Cincinnati tried everything to convince the shortstop to report, to the point of Reds manager Joe Tinker promising to keep Romañach with the club all season and not farm him out to a minor league team. Described in the American newspapers as shy, coy and timid, it appears he sat out the summer back in Cuba, presumably working as an architect.

During the winter the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition series in Cuba and the team’s captain Jake Daubert was so impressed that he sent reams of telegrams back to Brooklyn begging owner Charlie Ebbets to sign this guy. John McGraw of the Giants heard of the Johnny Evers comparison and immediately dispatched someone to sign him at any cost. By the time he tracked Romañach down in Havana he had verbally committed to Brooklyn and the Giants man went home empty handed. Brooklyn may have been pleased to outfox McGraw and the Giants but their elation was short-lived. When Garry Herrmann got wind of Brooklyn’s coup he produced the Cuban’s contract from the previous year that effectively made him property of the Cincinnati Reds. Now while Ebbets began battling Herrmann for the right to sign him, Romañach began demanding an extravagant signing bonus of $2000 on top of his $3000 salary. Ebbets countered with a $1000 bonus but eventually tired of the whole affair and gave up. The Reds also lost interest and that’s when Dr. Henriquez breezed into Havana and convinced Romañach to play the 1914 season with his Cubans.

The summer of 1914 proved to be Romañach’s finest. The Cubans began the season in Newark but returned to Long Branch in July where there was a bigger fan base among the beach going vacationers. The Cubans had a powerhouse that year – of the five players in the Atlantic League who would go on to play in the majors, three were on the Long Branch Cubans. In a pennant race that went right down to the last week, the Cubans finished second and Romañach’s .372 average put him at number 8 in batting leaders. Playing so close to New York meant that big league scouts were ever-present and Romañach’s off season was again filled with tantalizing offers from Brooklyn and the outlaw Federal League – all of which he turned down after excruciating negotiations.

By now Romañach was being called the best (white) shortstop outside the major leagues. Besides being compared to Johnny Evers he was now said to be on par with Rabbit Marranville of the World Champion Boston Braves, another future Hall of Famer. It must have galled the Major League owners that they could do nothing to convince this lanky Cuban Evers-Marranville clone to sign a contract.

Spring of 1915 saw him return to Long Branch. The Atlantic League had folded during the off-season and the Long Branch Cubans were now part of a loose league called the Eastern Independent Clubs. This move is significant because this put Long Branch in what was essentially a Negro league and Romañach became one of the very few ball players pre-1947 that played in both the white minors leagues and the Negro leagues. The shortstop hit a resounding .377 and in August it looked like he was about to sign with the Brooklyn Tip Tops of the Federal League. Like he always seemed to do, Romañach held out for a big bonus, but this time he refused to sign unless the Tip Tops signed a second Cuban to keep him company. These time consuming negotiations and the precarious financial status of the Federal League precluded Romañach ever appearing for Brooklyn.

The following summer Romañach again played for Dr. Henrique who moved his team to Jersey City. Romañach was the team’s best hitter with a .333 average against Negro league and semi-pro competition that again attracted big league scouts. With an unfulfilled hole in their middle infield, the Cincinnati Reds never gave up on the wiry shortstop and during the winter they sent a representative to try once again to coax Romañach to the big leagues.

To everyone’s surprise, Tomás Romañach signed on the dotted line. But signing was only half the battle – the question on everyone’s mind was whether or not the Cuban would show up in the Reds camp that spring. That’s why when he got off the train in Shreveport, Louisiana he was the focus of all the beat writers. During the exhibition season Romañach reversed expectations by performing sub-standard in the field but tearing the cover off the ball at the plate. He still had to beat out weak hitting starter Larry Kopf for the shortstop job and things looked good when the Reds headed to Cincinnati for Opening Day. Sometime after they got to the Queen City Tomás Romañach was standing dead center just behind manager Christy Mathewson in the second row of the official team photo of the 1917 Reds. Then, without ever appearing in a league game, he was sold to Montreal of the International League.

As an aside, Romañach’s appearance in the official team photo without ever playing a game has baffled historians for years, just as Joe Styborski would with his presence in the famous photo of the 1927 Yankees.

With his demotion to Montreal, Tomás Romañach’s worst fears were realized – he was, as the Americano’s say, “the lemon”. The shortstop never appeared in a game for Montreal and he played only sporadically over the next few years. He returned to America’s Negro leagues in 1920 with Alex Pomez’s Cuban Stars and hung up his spikes for good afterwards. Although he never made the Majors, Romañach’s play against American big leaguers was one factor that brought real credibility and respect to Cuban baseball. The talent he displayed each winter season in Cuba led to his being enshrined to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1948.

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