During the 1921/22 Cuban winter season, the Cuban League could only field two teams, and when Almendares totally dominated, winning 4 out of the first 5 games played, fan interest plummeted. The league called it quits even before the New Year. Deprived of their expected income, most of the players were hired by the Central and Cuba clubs of Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern end of the island. The two teams promptly arranged their own lengthy series, the Campeonato de Oriente, or Championship of Oriente province.
On January 30, 1922, in the eighth inning of one of the games, a controversy erupted over a close play at home. Players from both teams argued with the umpires and with each other. It went on and on. The crowd grew restless, and the argument more heated. José Leblanc, a pitcher for Cuba playing right field in this game, squared off against Antonio Susini, Central’s shortstop. They exchanged harsh words. Suddenly Susini lost it. With the bat he held in his hands, he struck a brutal blow to Leblanc’s head and knocked him senseless to the ground.
The crowd poured onto the field, and only the intervention of the police already on hand kept more violence from breaking out. Leblanc was taken to a nearby hospital where doctors drilled holes in his skull to relieve the pressure from swelling. In the meantime, the police handcuffed Susini and took him away.
Leblanc had suffered a serious fracture in his left frontal parietal region. That night doctors operated on him, extracting several pieces of bone from his brain with tweezers. He never regained consciousness, and died the following afternoon.*
News of the event spread through Cuba and beyond. A brief Associated Press item was reprinted in many U.S. newspapers, such as the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
(Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 31, 1922)
Susini was charged with murder. According to secondary sources, he was convicted, and sentenced to a term that I’ve seen described as either 13 years in prison, or 10 to 15 years. And, until now, that’s pretty much where he exited baseball history. He killed another player on a baseball field. Surely nobody would want him back in the game.
As it turns out, despite much deserved condemnation for his horrific act, there was a lot of sympathy for Susini. By 1924 a group of fans had banded together to ask for a presidential pardon for Susini. I haven’t been able to find much more on that effort, or whether it was successful or not. I tend to think, though, that Susini served out his full sentence—because he next enters the historical record 14 years after he murdered Leblanc. Amazingly, it appears that he did indeed return to play professional baseball again.
Prior to the Leblanc incident, Antonio Susini had played in the United States once, in 1921 with Abel Linares’s All Cubans. Along with the other All Cubans players, Susini appears on a passenger list aboard the steam packet Governor Cobb, which departed Havana for New York on April 21, 1921:
Susini is listed here as 19, which is crossed out and replaced with 20.
Fast-forward 15 years. Here’s a passenger list showing players for the eastern Cuban Stars (a different team from Pompez’s New York Cubans, by the way), traveling from Havana to New York aboard the SS Florida on May 14, 1936. On line 11 is one Antonio Susini, now aged 35:
Here’s a box score showing “Suseni” appearing as a pinch-hitter for the Cuban Stars against the Black Yankees at Dexter Park on May 30, 1936:
(Long Island Daily Press, May 31, 1936, p. 17)
Moreover: in 1937 and 1938 a first baseman named Antonio Susini hit .297 and slugged .411 in 50 games for the Santa Rosa club of the Mexican League.
It would appear that, after serving a prison sentence for murdering a fellow player on the field, Antonio Susini was able to come back and play professional baseball for a few years in his mid- to late thirties.
From this distance, it’s impossible to say why. That the crime was certainly not premeditated, and was probably the result of a moment of madness, likely played a role. Susini, though not yet an established star, might have been popular with fans and/or players.
For what it’s worth, José María Fernández, the veteran catcher and player-manager, the man who (as I pointed out in my last post) said in 1927 that witnessing Susini’s murder of Leblanc was the “greatest displeasure” in his baseball career, was Susini’s teammate on the 1936 Cuban Stars (as he had been on the 1922 Central club, as well as the 1921 All Cubans). He witnessed Susini’s crime, and yet he was able to play on the same team with him again, albeit 15 years later.
There’s a single photo out there that purports to show Antonio Susini (I don’t know the original source.)
Though some doubt has been cast on this player’s identity as Susini, that doubt is rooted in the fact that this photo shows a Cuban Stars uniform from the late 1920s or 1930s, whereas Susini was only known to have appeared in the U.S. in 1921, and then for the All Cubans.
In fact, Susini played for the 1936 Cuban Stars. And the uniform shown above is identical to the one shown in this photograph of none other than José María Fernández.
* - My account of Leblanc’s murder is drawn from two January 31, 1922, articles from the Santiago newspapers El Cubano Libre and La Independencia, reprinted in El Mundo, February 3, 1922, and from a January 31 article in Diario de la Marina.
UPDATE 7:08 pm I should add that according to newspaper accounts of his death, Leblanc’s full name was José Leblanc Vargas, he was born in Cienfuegos, and he was 28 years old. These details do not match anybody I have found in passenger lists yet.
UPDATE 9/9/2014 According to this article, the longtime Cuban player Cheo Ramos, a teammate of Susini on the 1921 All Cubans, claimed that Susini was a rumba dancer (of the fast-paced “Columbia” style) and an “Ekobio Abakuá” or “Ñañigo,” a member of the Abakuá secret society, an Afro-Cuban fraternal organization.
Also, Mark Aubrey tracked down an exchange between a couple of old Cuban baseball fans in the Spanish edition of the Miami Herald in 1982, in which one of them remembers that Susini served his sentence on the Isla de Pinos (the Isle of Pines; now called the Isla de Juventud). There he played prison baseball, and occasionally took the field against teams that visited from Havana—which might account for how Antonio Susini remained in the consciousness of the Cuban baseball community.