The ghost of the Babe himself, Shohei Ohtani, is coming to the Stadium for a one-night stand Monday night. He is leading the league in home runs, was the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, and has a smooth and compact lefty swing.
Never before, say the experts, not since George Herman Ruth (“Jidge” to his friends) went 109-54 as a Red Sox pitcher, then smashed 113 dingers during his first two seasons with the Yankees, have we witnessed a more versatile and complete ballplayer. There’s only one problem with that version of history: Ohtani, as the greatest ever, better than the Babe, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, is off by a continent, a language, a culture, a color, a player.
Martin Dihigo, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound, dark-skinned Afro-Cuban, who — dig this, and it isn’t a typo — is a pitcher and hitter is in the halls of fame in five different countries: Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the U.S.
Dihigo, who signed his first professional contract at 17, was raised in the Matanzas Province sugar cane fields. His paternal grandparents were slaves to the Spanish colonists. An uncle was a physician.
Dihigo dropped out of school in sixth grade and played his first professional game in 1922 as an infielder. He wasn’t so much a journeyman during his soon-to-be year-round 23-season career, as a survivor. In the States, he met Jim Crow — a nasty unforgiving opponent, leaving him to rampage through the Negro Leagues. For three seasons, he suited up for the New York Cubans. He had blazing bat speed. Historian John Holway compared his wrists to Ernie Banks’s and Hank Aaron’s.
He became an outfielder, “the greatest one I’ve ever seen,” said rival Ted Page, “better than Clemente.” And later, Dihigo hit the mound. In 1937, as a rookie in the Mexican Leagues, he batted .387, and finished 18-2 as a pitcher, with an ERA of .093.
Buck Lemand, known as the “Black Lou Gehrig,” said, “You take your Ruths, Cobbs, DiMaggios, just give me Dihigo. … He was the best ballplayer of all time, black or white.”
In 1977, six years after he died, Dihigo was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, when then-MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn opened its doors for the first of just two times to the star-studded yet denied Negro Leaguers. Dihigo’s plaque refers to him as “El Maestro.”
At home, though, in the hotbed of beisbol in Cuba, he is lionized as “El Inmortal,” the Immortal One. No matter the geography, you don’t get to be called “El Inmortal” for nothing.
Dihigo played all nine positions at one time or another. Hall of Fame outfielder Johnny Mize, who barnstormed against him, said, “He was the only guy I ever saw who could play all nine positions, manage, run and switch hit.” He pitched three no-hitters in three different countries.
In an era when white Latinos were able to pass as Caucasian and suit up in the majors, Dihigo was banned. Nevertheless, some of his head-to-head battles were legendary. He went 10 innings against Adolpho Luque, the great MLB curveballer in Cuba, beating him 1-0. Later, he faced Satchel Paige and shut him out, homering against him in the bottom of the ninth.
Dihigo hit over .300 in 14 of the 16 years in which records exist from 1925-42. He would become fluent in English. Mythology followed him, as it does for many outsiders. Schoolboy Johnny Taylor, a Negro League hurler, swore El Inmortal once hit a line drive so hard it banged off the left-field fence before the shortstop could even raise his glove. In Havana, a contest was held to determine whether Dihigo’s arm was better than a champion jai alai player who threw with his cesta. Dihigo’s ball went from home plate to the outfield wall without a bounce, cinching the win.
But, as all other black Latinos, he faced a grueling, tiresome, humiliating form of triple discrimination: skin color, as well as American language and customs. This was especially painful because Caucasian Latino players, such as Luque, hit the majors by 1912. During World War II, the Washington Senators roster was filled with seven light-skinned Latinos, including the future manager and intellect Preston Gomez.
Labels, stereotypes, generations, neglect and a lack of humanity haunted black Latinos, bringing, in Dihigo’s case, great unhappiness. Players’ real first names were either Anglicized or simply changed to stereotypical nicknames such as “chico.” They were considered to be “good field, no hit.” Even Clemente was thought to be lazy. Their inability to speak English without an accent made them “dumb.” And of course their infamous tempers were construed as reflective of a lack of discipline.
Felipe Alou, the grand Dominican outfielder and manager, the father of Mets skipper Luis Rojas, challenged: “The Latin temper is a myth. We came to this country alone. We learned English through comic books. We read that Superman, one Anglo, could beat up and kill 50 Germans, so we were afraid. And fear leads you to strike, to fight for your life.”
The exclusionary behavior and banning Dihigo faced was the norm. The Yankees refused to call up their phenomenal Puerto Rican first baseman, Victor Pellot (Power) in the 1950s, not only because he was dark-skinned, but also for his penchant of dating white women. Power lucked out when the Yankees traded the minor league hitting champion and innovative fielding leader, to the Kansas City A’s — where he became a five-time All Star, won seven consecutive Gold Gloves (just ask Mets announcer Keith Hernandez about his style), and hit over .300 five separate seasons.
The language barrier relegating them unable to pal around with sportswriters after games during the mid 20th Century cost numerous well-deserving Latin players their rightful places in Cooperstown. The writers are the voters. Writers and players on the road found camaraderie. They could drink, eat and womanize together, so long as omerta ruled.
So the Hall continues to exclude the likes of Minnie Minoso, from Dihigo’s same Mantanzas province. The 1951 American League Rookie of the Year, seven-time All Star, eight-time .300 hitter, lifetime .299 average, has been overlooked. Luis Tiant Jr. won 229 games, pitched 49 shutouts, was a 20-game winner four times, and ERA leader in 1968 and 1972, too. And Tony Oliva won three batting titles, was an All-Star outfielder eight times with a lifetime .304 average, yet no nod for him either.
Following his retirement as a player, Dihigo managed, even umpired then became a broadcaster back in Cuba. He would be outspoken about the neglect he faced, leading many to label him “bitter.” He was a critic of the Batista regime and later served as Fidel Castro’s minister of sport, a propaganda tool for the manipulative Communistas.
Dihigo died at 65 in 1971, six years before he, the Immortal One, was admitted into Cooperstown. His funeral, according to writer Bijan C. Bayne of The Undefeated, was declared a period of national mourning in Cuba. His legacy needs to be reborn.
Dan Klores is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker. His film, “Viva Baseball,” came out in 2007. He is also the founder of the Earl Monroe New Renaissance Basketball School, to open in the South Bronx.
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