In the October 30, 1915, Chicago Defender, the sports page carried the headline, “Figarola Killed by Accident---Hit by Mendez in Practice Game”:
Here’s the article appended to it:
The Indianapolis Freeman ran exactly the same item, although Cuban papers for October and November, 1915, carry no mention of any such incident.
Two weeks later (November 13, 1915), the following story appeared in the Defender:
As that image is a little light, here’s a transcription:
JOSE FIGAROLA STILL ALIVE
Havana Sporting Writer Visits Family – Finds Little Cuban Catcher Enjoying Life – Catcher’s Enemies Started Report.
(Special to Chicago Defender.)
Havana, Cuba, Nov. 12.—Jose Massaguer, the best sporting writer on a Havana paper, says Jose Figarola is not dead. According to the report that came to us three weeks ago Figarola was killed by a pitched ball while in a game at the Almendares baseball park, and that he was struck by Mendez, the star of the Cuban twirlers. Massaguer says: “I was mortified to see an item relative to the death of Figarola, one of the best catchers in Cuba. There was quite a stir when the article reached here. As Jose was on a visit to his folks it was taken for granted to be true. However, I visited his family and found that he was in the best of health and enjoying himself. He will be seen in in action against the leading American teams when the tourist season opens next month. The only reason for such a report is that Figarola has a few enemies, who are jealous.”
The initial story about Méndez killing Figarola still gets repeated occasionally today, and Figarola is commonly referred to in U.S. sources as “José” (this story may be one of the primary sources for that name). James Riley’s updated edition of his Biographical Encyclopedia gives us two Figarolas: José (career 1904-1915, when he was supposedly killed), and Rafael (1916-1918).
For the record, there was only one well-known Cuban professional ballplayer named Figarola during this era. In Cuban sources (and U.S. passenger manifests), he is universally known as Rafael Figarola; his career as a catcher (and sometime pitcher) lasted from the 1900s into the early 1920s. Jorge Figueredo’s Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball has Rafael Figarola’s Cuban League career lasting from 1906 to 1918/19; Patrick Rock’s research in passenger manifests shows Figarola (listed every time as Rafael) traveling to the U.S. to play ball 14 times between 1904 and 1923. I don’t know where the “José” comes from; it’s conceivable that it’s his real first name, and that he ordinarily went by his middle name.
Immediately before this story ran in the Defender and Freeman on October 30, a special series between Habana and Almendares was taking place in Almendares Park. Four games were played from October 21 through October 28 (Habana won two games to one, with one draw); Méndez never appeared, while Figarola started behind the plate for Almendares in game three on October 25 (Pedroso pinch-hit for him in the sixth inning of a seven-inning game). Méndez was scheduled to pitch against José Junco in a special benefit game on October 24, but I couldn’t find a report of the game.
The next appearance by Figarola in Cuba I could find was on November 13 for Almendares vs. the Indianapolis ABCs. So there is a gap of about two and a half weeks around October 30, which matches Massaguer’s statement that Figarola was on a “visit to his folks” (presumably not in Havana) when the article reached Cuba. (On a 1915 passenger manifest, Figarola’s next of kin is listed as his mother, Florencia Figarola, of Cienfuegos.) One would think that Méndez would have had something to say about the whole situation, but perhaps he wasn’t in town either; he didn’t play in the ABCs series until November 25.
By the way, the incident described—Figarola being killed by a pitch that struck his chest over his heart—echoes precisely something that was reported in the Indianapolis Freeman several years earlier, when John Chenault of the French Lick Plutos was killed during a game (Freeman, July 17, 1909):
Note the slight differences between the first two accounts: the letter from the Evansville club reports that it happened on July 10, and that Chenault “was struck over the heart by a pitched ball, walked ten steps and fell dead.” The second piece, a report from French Lick, has it occurring on July 9, and says that he “was hit by a ball and killed instantly.”