(This piece was originally published in the Outsider Baseball Bulletin, Volume 1, No. 4, June 30, 2010.)
On a balmy late afternoon in February (February 22, 1912, to be exact), the Almendares and Habana clubs of La Liga Nacional de Base Ball de la República de Cuba faced each other in a regularly scheduled game. A contest between “los eternos rivales,” the Yankees and Red Sox of the Cuban League, was always a big draw. Several thousand fans packed the palm tree-lined Almendares Park, cheering, booing, gambling openly and constantly. But it was not a playoff game or a key contest at the end of a tight pennant race. It was not a no-hitter. It didn’t even end with a decision, as it was called for darkness at the beginning of the tenth inning with the score knotted at 1 to 1.
It was, simply, a tense, exciting, and extremely well-played game that showcased the best baseball talent from outside organized baseball, along with some talent from within it. Taking the mound for Almendares was the biggest star in Cuban baseball at the time, José Méndez, “El Diamante Negro.” Working for Habana was Cyclone Joe Williams. They formed quite a contrast. Méndez, then 27, was not a large man, a wiry 5’10” with a powerful right arm, a brilliant fielder who could also play shortstop or third base when not pitching. His opponent, Williams, was 26, and would at 6’3” or 6’4” have towered over Méndez. He had emerged from the Texas Colored League only two years previously.
They were the two best pitchers in the Cuban League that winter:
W-L ERA G ST CG ShO IP H HRA BB K
Méndez 9-5 1.91 19 13 13 2 136.7 114 5 43 92
Williams 10-7 1.68 21 16 12 0 155 117 3 66 80
Both were in their primes; both would, of course, end up in Cooperstown, as would two of Williams’s teammates, shortstop John Henry Lloyd and left fielder Pete Hill. Matty McIntyre, the longtime Detroit Tigers outfielder (though currently with the White Sox), was in left field for Almendares.
What follows is simply a play-by-play description of the game, translated (freely, with a few embellishments and some additional information) from a Spanish account printed in the Havana newspaper Diario de la Marina (February 23, 1912).
Armando Marsans of the Cincinnati Reds leads off with a base on balls. Minor leaguer John Burke follows with a sacrifice, advancing Marsans to second. Matty McIntyre of the Detroit Tigers triples, scoring Marsans. Longtime minor leaguer Juan Violá strikes out. Four-time Cuban batting champ Regino García grounds to John Henry Lloyd, who throws to first baseman Bill Pettus for the out.
Carlos Morán belts a line drive over the shortstop for what looks like a sure triple, but the Almendares left fielder, Rogelio Valdés, races over to cut it off and hold Morán to a single. Morán immediately steals second. Pete Hill strikes out. Home Run Johnson walks, and on ball four Morán takes off for third, sliding in safely when García throws high. Lloyd lofts a foul fly which Valdés drifts over to take, but Morán tags up and scores, tying the game. Luis Padrón grounds out to short.
Manuel Cueto (future Cincinnati Red) grounds to Williams, who tosses him out at first. Valdés strikes out looking, never lifting his bat from his shoulder. Méndez grounds out to the pitcher.
Ricardo Hernández pops up to Marsans at first. Bruce Petway strikes out. Williams grounds toward third base; the Almendares shortstop, Tomás Romañach, makes a beautiful play to his right and fires to first for the out.
Romañach works Williams for a walk, but he’s stranded on first as “Cíclon” fans Marsans and Burke, and McIntyre flies to Hill in left field.
Méndez fans Pettus. Morán strikes out with a vicious swing. Hill does no better, and Méndez has struck out the side.
Violá knocks a roller to “Quijada” (Lloyd; the nickname comes from a musical instrument made from a donkey or horse’s jawbone, and refers to Lloyd’s very prominent chin), who throws him out at first. García hits a comebacker to the mound, and Williams throws him out. Cueto grounds out to Lloyd.
Grant Johnson dribbles a grounder to Romañach, who muffs it, Johnson getting to first safely. Lloyd singles over second, Johnson stopping there. Padrón, a power hitter, drops a sac bunt, advancing the two runners to second and third. Ricardo Hernández slaps the ball to Méndez, who looks Johnson back before throwing to first for the out. Petway grounds to Romañach, who tosses him out at first.
Rogelio Valdés grounds out to Johnson. Méndez singles to right field. Romañach pops up, García gathering it in behind the plate. Marsans pops up to Morán at third.
Williams flies out to left. Pettus grounds out to Méndez. Morán singles to right for his second hit, but Méndez catches him napping off first to end the inning.
Burke swings and misses three straight times. McIntyre grounds back to the pitcher for the second out. Violá hits the ball on the nose, but lines straight into the glove of the center fielder Hernández.
Hill grounds to the third baseman Violá, who throws him out. Johnson works Méndez for a pass. Lloyd lines to center, but Burke makes the catch and holds Johnson at first. Padrón flies to center for the third out.
Regino García grounds out to Williams. Cueto walks on four straight pitches. Williams punches out Valdés. On the third strike Cueto takes off for second, and Petway guns him down.
Ricardo Hernández leads off with a walk. Petway lays down a bunt. Méndez grabs it, whirls, and gets Hernández at second. Williams swings and misses three times. With Petway on first, Pettus smashes a line drive, but third baseman Violá spears it.
Méndez tries to get on base with a bunt. Williams dives for it and throws him out while still sprawled on the ground, prompting an ovation from the fans. Then he strikes out Romañach and Marsans.
Morán beat out a grounder to short, his third hit of the day. Hill bunts down the third base line. Méndez pounces on it and throws him out at first, Morán getting to second. Johnson grounds out to Romañach, advancing Morán to third with two out and the lefty-hitting John Henry Lloyd coming up. Méndez walks him intentionally to get to the right-handed-hitting Luis Padrón, whom Méndez promptly fans to snuff out the threat and earn his own ovation.
Burke walks. Williams strikes out Matty McIntyre. Violá hits a roller back to Williams, who fumbles it, but recovers in time to get the runner at first. In the meantime Burke has motored all the way to third base, putting the winning run ninety feet away with two out and Regino García strolling to the plate. He’s 37 and a somewhat pudgy 5’6”, but still dangerous with the stick, and Williams decides to walk him. Minor leaguer Marty Krug, who will debut for the Red Sox in the spring, bats for Cueto. Williams strikes him out, his tenth K of the game.
Méndez sets down Ricardo Hernández on strikes. Petway knocks what should be a hit into center field, but Burke makes a great catch to deny him. Williams follows with another solid blow to center, and once again Burke snares it, saving another hit and sending the game into extra innings.
Rogelio Valdés comes to bat. Williams throws one pitch for a ball and another for a strike before the umpire Eustaquio Gutiérrez calls the game due to darkness.