Adjusting one’s age is nothing new in baseball. Consider the case of Ramón Herrera (known as “Mike” or “Paito”), a Cuban infielder for both the Boston Red Sox (in 1925 and 1926) and the Cuban Stars of the Negro National League (in 1920 and 1921). Herrera is supposed to have been born on December 19, 1897. This would have made him 27 and 28 during his time with the Sox.
Herrera’s first professional appearance (as far as I know) was at third base for Almendares against the Brooklyn Dodgers on November 8, 1913—when Herrera would supposedly have been only 15. He played his first Cuban League game on December 11, 1913, still eight days before his sixteenth birthday, and then went on to be Almendares’s regular second baseman as the club won the 1913/14 pennant.
Fast-forwarding to the other end of his career: Herrera’s last appearance as a professional (again, as far as I know) was in the 1929/30 Cuban League. He would have turned 32 about two-thirds of the way through the season.
But check out the ages given on passenger manifests for Herrera’s travels to the United States. Assuming that his birthday—December 19—is accurate, even if the year isn’t, here are the years of birth implied by each entry:
7 March 1915: 22; thus December 19, 1892
2 June 1915: 22, thus December 19, 1892
5 April 1916: 23, thus December 19, 1892
(Herrera played for the Cuban Stars in 1920 and 1921, but I haven’t yet found him on any passenger lists for those years.)
5 April 1924: 30, thus December 19, 1893
11 April 1924: 30, thus December 19, 1893
7 April 1925: 32, thus December 19, 1892
28 February 1926: 33, thus December 19, 1892
14 March 1927: 34, thus December 19, 1892
23 April 1928: 33, thus December 19, 1894
19 March 1929: 34, thus December 19, 1894
It should be emphasized that I’m not offering absolute proof that Herrera’s official age is wrong, just a strong suspicion based on both his career shape and the passenger lists. It’s hard to know how to interpret ages on passenger lists, because we don’t always know what the source of the information is. I tend to assume that most of the time it is the passenger himself, simply being asked how old he is. But this information, as you can see, varies from year to year for the same person. On any given list, the age could represent a guess, or could have been supplied by a club or customs official or somebody else who may or may not have known how old the person in question was. Although it should be pointed out that one piece of evidence that the ages generally come from the passengers themselves is that (surprise surprise) as the years go on, ballplayers tend to shave years off.
In Herrera’s case, it seems significant that every single age given on the passenger lists is considerably older than his official baseball age. Even the ages reported in 1928 and 1929 are still three years older than what we thought before. It’s hard to think of any explanation other than the obvious one: his baseball age was wrong. Herrera (or perhaps somebody else) slashed five years or so off his age.
If we take the most common implied birthdate here—December 19, 1892, which appears on 8 of 13 passenger lists—then Herrera was already 30 (rather than 25) when he joined organized baseball in the U.S. (with Springfield of the Eastern League in 1923), and 32 (rather than 27) when he finally made the Red Sox in 1925. It isn’t exactly a mystery why it would have helped his career to lie about his age. In fact, it probably made his career possible in the first place. In addition, such an adjustment obviously alters any evaluation of Herrera as a player, since he was almost certainly in decline by the time he reached the majors, rather than at his peak.
Using this revised birthdate would also have made Herrera eight days shy of 19 21 when he played his first game in the Cuban League, and 36/37 during his final season there. This age progression just makes a lot more sense to me than one where he started his career at 15 and ended it at 32. In the end, of course, it would probably take research in Cuban sources to establish whether I’m right or not.
You can make similar cases for a couple of other early Cuban players, which I’ll get to in the next few days.