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, heck, they were The Cincinnati Reds of the National League. Though they finished in 5th place, the Reds were tried and true professionals – even with their two best pitchers staying home in the States, surely they’d be 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. Havana was well-seeded with top-draw Negro league imports including Grant “Home Run” Johnson, Bill Monroe and future Hall of Famer Pete Hill. Luis Padrón, who would play in both the minor leagues and Negro leagues, 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 Almendares Blues.
12,000 fans packed into Almendares Stadium to watch the Americanos play their Azules. While Almendares lacked Havana’s American ringers, the Blues boasted two home-grown hotshots, third baseman Rafael Almeida and outfielder Armando Marsans. It is not 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 5’9” 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 10 greatest pitchers of all time.
RAISED ON THE sugar cane plantations in Cardenas, Méndez became a skilled carpenter as well as a talented clarinet and guitar player. Some say he had quite a voice as well. After playing semi-pro ball around the island, the Almendares club signed him in 1906. Méndez promptly went 8-0 and became 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, giving him an extra spin on the ball as he released it.
Méndez followed up his rookie season with a 17-8 record, and this is where he stood as he faced the Cincinnati Reds that day in November 1908.
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, Almendares scored a quick run to make it 1-0. For the next 8 innings, Méndez and Dubuc dueled, matching zeros on the scoreboard. But unlike Dubuc, Méndez hadn’t allowed a hit – he was slinging 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, 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 Almendares 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 Almendares Stadium and they were defeated by the Blues for the third straight 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.
Surely the Reds weren’t all that excited to arrive at Almendares 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 darn skinny Cuban kid came 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 leaguers 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. To underline how disappointing the Reds’ showing had been thus far, the Havana city council voted down a measure to award silver medals to the winners of the series because a Cuban victory over such a lousy Reds team would not be worthy of such an honor. And it was going to get worse. Almendares was next on the schedule.
In what was beginning to seem like déjà vu all over again, José Méndez 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, slapping the country club swells around to the tune of 13-3.
Inspired by this easy win, the Reds defeated Havana 4-1, but now they had to head over to Almendares 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 Almendares. In the first he had his scoreless inning streak ended but held the Reds to 9 harmless hits in his 6-2 victory.
THE REDS slinked home and José Méndez traded in the nickname “Congo” for the much more regal “El Diamante Negro” – “The Black Diamond.” His Cuban fame preceded him to the U.S. where, for the next twenty years, he pitched splendidly for the Cuban Stars, All Nations, Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs. New York Giants manager John McGraw famously said Méndez would be worth $30,000 to his team, if only he were white. Among the marquee big league talent he would go on to beat 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 the Colored World Championship in 1924 and Negro National League pennants in 1925 and 1926.
While the Cincinnati Reds tried their best to obliterate any memory of their brush with José Méndez, the club did not forget his two lighter-skinned Almendares teammates, Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans. The pair had batted .136 and .186 respectively during the series but had impressed the Reds to such an extent that they would be wearing Cincinnati uniforms in 1911, becoming the first and second Cuban-born players in the Major Leagues.
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While the story of the Reds Cuban sojourn has been told in bits and pieces in many places, only one historian has uncovered the whole story: Gary Ashwill. Ever the groundbreaking baseball archaeologist, Gary uncovered all the 1908 games played by the Reds and their results. As far as I know, until his research, no one has ever published a full account of that trip. This story would not have been possible without referencing his work and I highly suggest visiting his research website: agatetype.typepad.com