When Patrick Rock and I were searching for Negro Leaguers and Cuban ballplayers with World War I draft cards, one player we didn’t find at the time was José Méndez—even though he was in the United States in September, 1918, when a man of his age would have been required to register, citizen or not. At the time he was playing for the Chicago American Giants, having been brought in to replace the shortstop Bobby Williams, lost to the draft. (This was during the period when Méndez did very little pitching, and made his living as an infielder.)
I’ve continued research on the World War I cards over the past year, making occasional finds, but Méndez was always a low priority, as I assumed we pretty much knew everything there was to know about him. Then, a few weeks ago, it dawned on me that I had seen several full names given for him:
“José Méndez Ramos,” from a roster list published in La Lucha (January 26, 1912);
“José de la Caridad Méndez Arco de Tejada,” from Roberto González Echevarría’s The Pride of Havana (p. 130);
“José Méndez Baez,” from James Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia (p. 545).
“José de la Caridad Méndez Baez,” from his Hall of Fame plaque.
So I went looking for Méndez in the World War I draft again, to see what name he used there. Of the 211 men named José Méndez who registered, only three lived in Chicago. Of them, two were listed as white (one a Mexican citizen); the other, the only black man named José Méndez to register for the draft in Chicago, was this one:
So we have José del Valle Méndez, born January 2, 1885, whereas the official birthdate for the Hall of Famer José Méndez is March 19, 1887. He is listed as “negro” and a Cuban citizen. His occupation, cigar maker, is in fact the one tradition assigns Méndez (see González Echevarría, p. 131), and one that’s given for him on some early passenger lists to the United States (in 1910 traveling with the Stars of Cuba, for example). He is not listed as a professional ballplayer, but then neither were José Méndez’s teammates Pete Hill and Bruce Petway, who registered on the same day in the same city and who had been professionals for many years (both Hill and Petway listed themselves as civilian workers for the Army, as it happens). General Crowder’s “work or fight” order had classified sports as a non-essential occupation and led to the suspension of organized baseball on September 2. Independent and semipro baseball continued (Hill, Petway, and Méndez were all playing for the American Giants on days surrounding the September 12 registration day), but the players who had to register at that time often (though not always) put other occupations (as did some major league players, for example Burt Shotton, Hal Chase, and Jack Coombs).
José del Valle Méndez may have been a cigarmaker, but his employer looks very much like…Rube Foster. The microfilm from which the Ancestry.com scan was made, however, was flawed and streaked, so it could be “Robt. Foster,” or something else. The employer’s address is 3242 Vernon Ave., although the “Vernon” is obscured by another streak. Rube Foster’s address on that same date (September 12, 1918), as well as in the 1920 census, was 3242 Vernon Avenue.
Returning to the Méndez card, it appears that in the box reserved for checking one’s “native born” status, he wrote “Cardenas, Cuba,” probably misunderstanding the purpose of the box. Cárdenas, of course, is where José Méndez was born.
(I love it, btw, that Méndez’s physical condition is, like the werewolf’s hair, pronounced “perfect.”)
So, what do you think? If my interpretation of the handwriting on the card is correct (it would be immensely useful to see the actual card), and this José Méndez worked for Rube Foster at 3242 Vernon Avenue, Chicago, then we have both a different birthdate and a different name for Méndez than any we have seen before—and in his own handwriting, which would grant it a particular authority.
UPDATE 8:06 p.m. I think I can add another strong point in favor of José del Valle Méndez being our man. On the card his nearest relative is one “Marcelina del Valle,” living on Factoria street in Havana. José Méndez’s mother, as evidenced by a number of passenger lists on which she was listed as his relative or contact in Cuba, was named Marcelina, and in 1917 at least she lived at No. 38 Factoria street in Havana. Her name was evidently Marcelina Méndez Lugones; she appears under both last names and also at least once as “M. Mendez Lugones.”