When baseball debates turn to the selection of the greatest Cuban player of all time, one name consistently surfaces: Martin Dihigo. He was an outstanding hitter and pitcher and it said that he could play every position on the field like an all star.
While in the United States, he spent his career entirely in the Negro Leagues, but he reached legendary status in Cuba and Mexico. In 1938, while playing in Mexico, he went 18-2 with an 0.90 ERA, pitched a perfect game and led the league in hitting with a .387 average. His career numbers for the Cuban League are 107-56 as a pitcher with a .298 batting average.
Dihigo has been inducted into five baseball hall of fame's Cooperstown, New York, Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela. He went by the nicknames, "The Immortal" and El Maestro , or "The Master."
This is what those who played against him, those who watched him and those who studied him have to say about Dihigo:
Armando Vazquez , who was born in Cuba, played in the Negro Leagues for the New York Cubans and later was a teammate of Hank Aaron's on the Indianapolis Clowns: "Martin Dihigo was a friend of mine. He was my favorite ballplayer. He helped me a lot. I played against him in Cuba and I played for him when he was here for the New York Cubans. He was a heck of a ballplayer. Never seen no other ballplayer like Martin. He was a good pitcher, a good catcher, good at second base. Martin played everywhere. He knew a lot of baseball. He had so much experience. He would tell me about playing in Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. He called me chiquito , little boy, he would say, chiquito , do this, do it this way. He could teach you anything, first base, pitching, third base. He was the most popular player in Cuba. He did everything. There was no one like Martin Dihigo."
Stanley Glenn was a catcher for the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues who spent several winters playing for Almendares: "I was fortunate enough to play winter baseball in Puerto Rico and Cuba, before Castro went crazy. Cuba was the best Latin nation that I have ever been in. They love their baseball. Maybe the second best ball player that I had ever seen play was an old man at that time but he could still play and his name was Martin Dihigo. He's in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Let me tell you something, there are nine positions on a baseball field. He could play all nine and he was an All Star at each one. That's the kind of ballplayer he was."
Bobby Bragan played seven seasons in the major leagues and also managed Almendares in the Cuban League: "Dihigo was regarded as the greatest player to ever come out of the Caribbean area. He could pitch and he could play just about any other position. He was beloved in Cuba."
Hank Izquierdo played for the Havana Sugar Kings and later played for the Minnesota Twins: He's from my hometown, Matanzas, Cuba. A lot of professional ballplayers are from there. Well, Dihigo is on the best to ever come out of Cuba. You have to consider Adolfo Luque. He won 194 games in the major leagues, which is different than pitching in the Negro Leagues. But Dihigo, he was very versatile. He could play every position on the baseball diamond. He was a great player."
Minnie Minoso was born in Cuba and came up through the Negro Leagues playing for the New York Cubans. He played in the major leagues from 1949-64: "Martin Dihigo, very elegant and a great, great baseball player. He could play any position. Martin used to be my favorite, my idol before I played baseball professionally. I remember when I was a kid, I used to go buy a newspaper for three cents to see what happened in Havana, because I'm not from Havana. I used to live 60, 80 miles from Havana, so I used to buy this newspaper to see what Martin Dihigo did the day before. He was a pitcher and I used to root against Almendares all the time, I used to be a Havana Red. And funny, I never played for Havana, when I came back I only played for one team, Mariano. I used to spend one penny to buy a sweet coconut, one penny for salt crackers and that used to be my lunch and the other pennies to buy the newspaper to see what happened with Martin. When I was a rookie, I remember one time I got a hit off him when he was manager and still pitching. I'll never forget it, with the bases loaded I hit one between right and center, a three-base hit. We scored about seven or eight runs off him and I said to myself, 'That was my idol.' But what could I do? He was one of the best ballplayers Cuba made. Some people try to include me in that group, I said, 'No way you will never hear me put myself together with this guy.' "
Connie Marrero was a pitching legend who took the mound for every great Cuban baseball team before pitching five seasons in the majors for the Washington Senators:
Marrero, who is 96, was asked who is best Cuban baseball player? He thinks hard for a second and says, Cuando , When?
He is told, of all time.
Si. For me, in the era I played, and even a little bit more, it was Martin Dihigo. He was a very good pitcher, (Marrero says this sternly and with the respect of a man who clearly knows what it is to a good pitcher.) Dihigo played any position and was a very good hitter as well.
Mickey Vernon played 20 seasons in the major leagues: "I saw Dihigo play when I was kid, in Darby, Pennsylvania. He played for the the Hilldale team. I remember he was outstanding. He was considered the Joe DiMaggio of the Negro Leagues."
Pedro Sierra was born in Cuba and pitched for the Detroit Stars in the Negro Leagues and in the Washington Senators minor league system: "To me, the best Cuban baseball player of all time is Martin Dihigo. No question about it. I knew all about him growing up. But you have to also mention Cristobal Torriente and Jose Mendez. I think in my time, the best Cuban ballplayer was Minnie Minoso. But the thing about Dihigo was that he could play all positions. And he had a great sense for baseball, a great baseball mind."
Kit Krieger runs a baseball tour, "CubaBall," to the island once a year. He is an expert on Cuban baseball and once pitched in the Pacific Coast League: "Every year I take a group of baseball aficionados to Cuba and we visit the grave of Martin Dihigo in the town of Cruces, near Cienfuegos. Martin Dihigo Jr., the great one's son and a former player in the Cincinnati Reds organization, joins us in a tribute at his father's gravesite. Dihigo was undoubtedly the greatest all-around player in baseball history, playing eight of nine positions and excelling at four or five of them. Folks comment that it is a shame that the great black stars of the pre-integration era never got to play in the major leagues and show what they could do. I look at it another way: it's a shame that Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Lefty Grove didn't get to play against Martin Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and others. I remember meeting Buck O'Neil at the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City and I told him of my travels to Cuba and my visits with Dihigo's family. O'Neill, of course, managed the Kansas City Monarchs and played against Dihigo often. I asked Buck where he would play Dihigo if he had him for only one game. Buck mused for about a minute before he said that he would put him on the mound. Dihigo's son says without hesitation that his father preferred playing center field."