One hundred years ago today, Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans debuted for the Cincinnati Reds against the Cubs in the first game of a doubleheader at West Side Park, Chicago. The Cubs won, 8 to 3, but both Cubans hit 1 for 2.
The significance of the Cubans’ appearance is sometimes only vaguely understood. They were not the first players of Latin American heritage to appear in the big leagues, or the first Cubans (Esteban Bellán and Chick Pedroes were both born in Cuba, and Louis Castro was born in Colombia). They were the first products of a Latin American professional league, the Cuban League, to get to the majors.
Cuban Leaguers had been appearing in the North American minors regularly since Juan Violá joined the Jacksonville Jays of the South Atlantic League in 1904, and of course Cuban professional teams that included black players had been a standard feature of the barnstorming circuit for even longer. Luis Padrón had very nearly beaten Almeida and Marsans to the punch by two years, trying out for the White Sox on July 22, 1909.
While the arrival of white Cubans in the majors was a major event, it was not as earthshaking as some hoped it would be. Here’s Lester Walton of the New York Age (September 28, 1911), outlining a strategy for stealth integration that resembles Dave Wyatt and Charlie Grant’s scheme back in 1901:
Of course it did not turn out this way. However - just the previous summer the Indianapolis Freeman had printed a rumor concerning Pete Hill being approached by a major league manager to pass as an Indian or Cuban.
As it happens, on the very same Fourth of July, 1911, while Almeida and Marsans were playing on Chicago’s West Side, the South Side witnessed another doubleheader between professional teams—Frank Leland’s Chicago Giants versus Rube Foster’s brand-new Chicago American Giants, at the old White Sox Park, only recently rechristened Schorling’s Park. Batting third and playing center field for the American Giants was none other than Pete Hill, who grabbed a home run, a double, and a single in the second game.
Hill, like Almeida and Marsans, was a veteran of the Cuban League, having at this point played four full seasons there. Here’s how Almeida, Marsans, and Hill hit in the Cuban League from 1906/07 (Hill’s first season) through 1910/11:
•Almeida: 111 games, .211/.242/.242
•Marsans: 126 games, .245/.326/.295
•Hill: 117 games, .307/.411/.404
Here’s how the trio hit against major league teams in Cuba from 1908 through 1910:
•Almeida: 25 games, .286/.343/.308
•Marsans: 26 games, .194/.262/.235
•Hill: 24 games, .351/.462/.468
Combining Cuban League and major league exhibitions, here are their full batting lines in Cuba against roughly similar opposition from the 1906/07 through 1910/11 winter seasons. Keep in mind that all games counted here were played in the same ballpark, Almendares Park:
And Hill was not the only black American player who was clearly superior to Almeida and Marsans at the time, based on their records in Cuba. In fact, nobody who knew anything about Cuban baseball would have thought that Almeida and Marsans were even the best Cuban players or prospects. Certainly in 1911 José Méndez, Julián Castillo, Carlos Morán, Regino García, Eustaquio Pedroso, and Gervasio González, at the very least, would have been ranked ahead of them. But they, like Hill and the other Negro league stars, were all too dark to be considered for organized baseball in the U.S. So, while Fourth of July 1911 can be considered a milestone of sorts, it also stands as a monument to opportunities lost and denied, and injustice perpetuated.
NOTE: Images of the 1909 Cuban baseball cards for Almeida, Marsans, and Hill are from Cubanball.com’s fantastic page showing the cards from the Cabañas set commemorating the Detroit Tigers’ visit to Havana that fall.