In fall 1908, the Cincinnati Reds inaugurated a series of visits by U.S. major league teams to Havana over the next few years to play Cuban League clubs. José Méndez was already a budding star, having pitched well for the champion Almendares club in the previous Cuban League season; but the Cincinnati series marked his emergence as a legend, as the 21-year-old tossed 25 shutout innings, including a one-hitter.
The Cincinnati Reds played a total of 14 games in this series: seven against Almendares (going 1-5-1), six against Habana (going 5-1), and one against the visiting Brooklyn Royal Giants (0-1). The Reds performed about the same against their Cuban and black American opponents (6-7-1 overall) as they had against the National League in 1908 (73-81, fifth place). They left their top two starters (Bob Ewing and Andy Coakley) at home, but brought most of their regular starting lineup, including their best overall player for 1908, third baseman Hans Lobert. They were managed for this tour by oldtime manager Frank Bancroft (who piloted the Providence Grays to the NL pennant in 1884), rather than player-manager John Ganzel.
For some reason, this series has not received complete coverage in English-language sources. Holway’s Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues lists only six games, leaving out two of Méndez’s games (though elsewhere he refers to the 25 scoreless innings). Even Jorge Figueredo’s normally authoritative Cuban Baseball lists only ten contests, missing the last three games and getting the score wrong on the November 16 and November 23 games (Roberto González Echevarría also misses the last three games in The Pride of Havana). Figueredo also leaves out the Brooklyn game (probably on purpose).
Since I haven’t seen a full account, I thought I’d present complete statistics for the series and a rundown on the games. One interesting aspect of this is that while the performances of Negro Leaguers and Latin American players vs. major leaguers has often been published, you don’t normally see the reverse—how individual major leaguers performed against “other” teams. The Havana newspaper La Lucha is the source.
November 12: Cincinnati 3, Habana 1: Bob Spade defeated Luis Padrón. Habana scored their only run when Grant “Home Run” Johnson drove in Pete Hill in the bottom of the first. According to the English-language page of La Lucha, “[The Cincinnatis] made a few errors yesterday [actually only two], but they are nearly all to be attributed to their not being used to playing on the kind of infield which composes the Almendares park.”
November 15: Almendares 1, Cincinnati 0: José Méndez, referred to by La Lucha’s English page as “the human cannon,” shut out Cincinnati on one hit, striking out nine. La Lucha expressed astonishment (in the Spanish account), saying that while it was generally thought that Cuban players could compete honorably with the Americans, nobody expected this sort of result.
Holway gives two accounts of this game: Méndez entered the ninth with a no-hitter, and got the first two batters (pitcher Jean Dubuc and center fielder John Kane). Then Miller Huggins “hit a slow roller between first and second, which neither infielder could reach. José pounced on it and raced Huggins to the bag but arrived too late.” (Blackball Stars, p. 50). Holway gives a slightly different account in The Complete Book (p. 59): “Lead-off man Miller Huggins hit a slow roller between first and second. Both Méndez and first baseman Roginio went for the ball, and, with no one covering first, it went as a hit.”
Interestingly, La Lucha does not mention this dramatic occurrence, neither in Spanish nor English, and says nothing about Méndez being only one out from a no-hitter. The first baseman, by the way, was Regino García, normally a catcher; I’m guessing that at least the second account came from an American newspaper, given the misrendering of his name.
November 16: Cincinnati 8, Habana 0: A three-hit shutout by Billy Campbell. “The Havanas,” said the English Lucha, “did not have its best team out, or it would likely have done better.”
November 19: Almendares 2, Cincinnati 1: This time the lefty Andrés Ortega held the Reds to three hits and Azul scored the decisive run in the bottom of the ninth on a throwing error by Cincinnati pitcher Bob Spade. When shortstop Alfredo Cabrera was taken ill early in the game, Méndez replaced him, and was charged with the only Almendares error of the game.
November 20: Brooklyn Royal Giants 9, Cincinnati 1: The Royal Giants had played a series against Almendares and Habana prior to the Reds’ arrival. Pete Hill, Grant Johnson, and Frank Earle were playing for Habana in this series, but the rest of the Royal Giants were still in Cuba, and they reconstituted for this game. It wasn’t close. Harry Buckner held Cincinnati to six hits and pounded out a triple, while Hill homered. The English page of La Lucha remarked that “the Giants had a new sensation by receiving square treatment from the umpire, which is something entirely new to them in Havana.”
November 22: Cincinnati 11, Habana 4: The American Reds knocked around Julián Pérez and Luis Padrón for 12 hits, and drew six walks. Pete Hill got three hits for Habana including a triple and “old man Grant Johnson” (as La Lucha dubbed him) added a triple of his own.
November 23: Almendares 4, Cincinnati 3: José Muñoz had his “tantalizing in-shoot at work,” and beat Cincinnati’s Bob Spade for Almendares’s third straight victory. “The game of baseball as exhibited by the local team yesterday,” said La Lucha, “changes the name of the sport from the ‘great American game’, to the ‘Cuban cinch’.”
November 25: Cincinnati 5, Habana 1: “Mitchell of the Cincinnatis knocked one of the longest hits ever made on the Almendares field, the ball bumping up against the score board.”
November 29: Cincinnati 3, Almendares 2: The American Reds’ first win over Almendares, despite Rogelio Valdés’s five hits and Méndez’s seven shutout innings in relief. “The principal feature was the jaw work of the players, and it was more of a jawing match between the players and the umpire [an American named Setley, who umpired all the games]…The players accused the umpire of trying to make himself solid with locals to get further work, and the umpire retorted that the players ought to learn to play the game before they posed as ball players. One might have imagined he was witnessing a contest between the Cubs and Giants, so fast and furious were the hot words thrown back and forth.”
November 30: Habana 6, Cincinnati 4: The Cuban Reds won their first game behind the pitching of Royal Giant Frank Earle and a home run by right fielder Luis González, normally a pitcher. Before the game the Cincinnati players protested against the umpire Setley, but wound up playing anyway. “The only excuse that can be given by the visiting players is that they have stacked up against a harder proposition than they expected, with the result that they are now playing the baby act. It was generally supposed that the National clubs were composed of men.”
December 3: Almendares 3, Cincinnati 0: The wheels were really coming off for the Reds now. Méndez tossed his second shutout, giving him 25 consecutive scoreless innings in the series, and allowed five hits (young Dick Hoblitzel getting three of them).
On December 4, the Havana city council debated a measure to award silver medals to the winners of the series, but several councilors opposed it on the grounds that the Cincinnati Reds had proved to be such a poor club that a victory by one of the Cuban teams would not be worthy of such an honor.
December 5: Cincinnati 13, Vedado Tennis Club 3: The Cincinnatis found some relief against an amateur club.
December 6: Cincinnati 4, Habana 1: Three Habana errors helped the American Reds win over Luis González.
December 8: Cincinnati 6, Almendares 6: Azul scored three runs to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, only to see it called on account of darkness after the tenth. La Lucha called the Reds “the invalid Cincinnati basebawl club.”
December 9: Almendares 6, Cincinnati 2: José Muñoz scattered nine hits and got three himself as Almendares won despite committing five errors.