On the morning of Friday, May 23, 1919, Tinti Molina brought his Cuban Stars across the Mexican/U.S. border at Laredo, Texas. His team announced their presence in the United States that afternoon with a 22 to 2 walloping of the local club at Caliche Park. The Cuban pitcher, one “LeBlanc,” twirled “a fine game.” Meanwhile in St. Louis fans were looking forward to the Cubans’ arrival for a three-game series in the brand-new Giants Park starting on Sunday, May 25. The Cubans, as you can see in their border-crossing records, gave St. Louis as their destination in the U.S. But Giants rooters were disappointed to hear that Molina’s team “had been held up by emigration authorities and could not reach St. Louis in time for the big series” (St. Louis Argus, May 30, 1919). Evidently, the “emigration authorities” were forcing the Cubans to play a further three games in Laredo on Saturday and Sunday.
Charlie Mills, the Giants’ business manager, either bought the excuse, or didn’t care. He released the Cubans from their obligations, and the Cuban Stars passed through St. Louis on Tuesday, May 27, on their way to Chicago, where they were scheduled to meet the American Giants on Friday.
With them would go the guy we’re really interested in here, the pitcher Leblanc. He had been a journeyman catcher in Cuba before pitching a half-dozen games for Molina’s team in the Cuban league during the 1918/19 season. The 1919 North American season would be something of a breakthrough for him, as he would establish himself as the Cuban Stars’ ace.
There are two interesting points about Leblanc. First, his greatest successes as a ballplayer were really in the United States. His Cuban League record over three seasons as pitcher amounted to a meager 4-7. But in the U.S., he would go 32-24 against top black competition for a team that went 89-93 overall. For two of those years, 1919 and 1920, the Cubans were exclusively a road club; Leblanc’s 17-12 in those seasons was his road record. By 1921, Leblanc was one of the top pitchers in the Negro National League.
The other thing about Leblanc is that we know very little about him. We know his primary pitch was a spitball, and we know that he probably threw right-handed. Other than that….virtually nothing. I haven’t been able to find a team photo of the western Cuban Stars in 1919-1921, and I am reasonably certain I’ve never seen a photo of Leblanc. We don’t even really know what his name was. He appears as “Julio LeBlanc” in reference books, but I’ve so far seen him called only “José Leblanc” (with a small “b”) in Cuban sources (which is the usage I’ve adopted in the Seamheads DB).* Passenger lists or border-crossing records are not a help in his case. I’ve located the Cuban Stars teams traveling to the U.S. in each of Leblanc’s three seasons—but nobody named anything like Leblanc accompanied them, nor can I find any reasonable candidates traveling at different times or on different ships.
Twelve players are known to have appeared for the Cuban Stars in 1919. There are border-crossing records for ten of them (along with manager Molina)—everyone except Leblanc, and the young catcher Eufemio Abreu.
But Latin names, which include both the father’s and mother’s surname, can be complicated. For example, “Jose I. Casanova” (at the top right) is actually the pitcher known as José Junco—Junco was his father’s name, Casanova his mother’s. Similarly, “Francisco Toledo” here is the player known as “Tatica” Campos. It’s quite possible for a Cuban player to be known by one name, but appear in some official records with both a different surname and a different given name.
And it turns out that there were two more men who traveled with the Cuban Stars to the United States in 1919, 1920, and 1921, all three of the seasons Leblanc was with the team. Their names were Manuel Barros and Isidro Valdés, and neither is a name known from a baseball context.
Since both Barros and Valdés (how the name is spelled in the 1920 and 1921 passenger lists) crossed the border with the Cuban Stars at Laredo on May 23, and since we know Leblanc pitched for the Cuban Stars later that same day, it seems virtually certain that “Leblanc” is really one of these men. And the other could well be Abreu (who also played for the Cubans for those three seasons, before first appearing on a 1923 passenger list under the name Eufemio Abreu). But which is which…there’s no way to tell yet.
Playing in an independent league in Santiago de Cuba in February, 1922, Leblanc was hit on the head with a bat by the infielder Antonio Susini during a game. His skull was fractured. He lingered in a coma for a few days before dying, leaving only slippery traces in fading box scores.
*-The only mildly famous “Julio LeBlanc” I’ve found in Cuban history was a notorious member of the secret police during the Gerardo Machado regime. This LeBlanc also came to a violent end, beaten and kicked to death by a mob during the uprising that ended Machado’s rule in 1933.
(NOTE: This piece was originally published in the Outsider Baseball Bulletin on September 22, 2010.)
UPDATE 9/6/2014 Since this article is nearly four years old, I should add a couple more notes about his name that I’ve come up with since then. In 1927 the catcher José María Fernández remarked in an interview published in Diario de la Marina that his “greatest disgust” in baseball was “the day that the player Susini killed the pitcher ‘Cheo’ Leblanc, in Santiago de Cuba, with a blow to the head.” “Cheo” is a nickname for José. But I’ve also run across a few references to Leblanc as “Jules” (not Julio) while he was still alive, most notably in Diario de la Marina on December 12, 1921, where he’s called “Monseñor Jules Leblanc” and said to have “manos ducales” (a duke’s hands) and a “pose aristocrática” (an aristocratic pose). He was also sometimes called “Count” Leblanc.
UPDATE 9/7/2014 See here for an account of Leblanc’s murder and to find out what happened to his killer.