By Glen Sparks
He was El Immortal, The Immortal. Other fans called him “the Maestro.” He is one of baseball’s greatest, and most overlooked, stars. Unfortunately, he toiled at a time when skin color was a big deal; his was dark brown. He played for nearly 30 years, but he never belted a home run or struck out a batter in the major leagues.
Instead, Martin Dihigo ripped line drives and hurled fastballs from inside steamy ballparks in Latin America and in loud bandboxes in the Negro Leagues. The Cuban-born phenom competed against “Cool Papa” Bell and “Satchell” Paige. He could play every position on the diamond.
Bill James, in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract, rated Dihigo the No. 1 right-fielder in Negro league history. He was “fast, graceful, blessed with a powerful arm,” James wrote. On this date in 1977, a special committee voted Dihigo into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Former players talked about Dihigo slamming 500-foot home runs and crushing line drives that nearly decapitated wary infielders. Some experts insisted that Dihigo possessed a stronger arm in the outfield than even the great Roberto Clemente. Buck Leonard, also a Hall of Fame player from the Negro Leagues, once said, “You could take your Ruths, Cobbs and DiMaggios.” Leonard would take Dihigo.
Dihigo, born in 1906, began his career in 1922 in the Cuban Winter League. The 16-year-old batted just .179 for the Cuban Reds. Pitchers baffled him with sharp breaking stuff. The word got out. What would become of the teenage prodigy? Could Dihigo conquer the curveball?
He certainly could. Dihigo soon started crushing curveballs, fastballs, everything. In the United States, he hit at least .300 six times, including .325 in 1926 with a league-leading 11 home runs in just 40 games for the Cuban Stars (East). In 1935, Dihigo led the league with nine home runs in 42 games for the New York Cubans.
Dihigo was more of a dual threat in Lain America. He batted .317 in 10 seasons in Mexican and compiled a 119-57 won-loss record as a pitcher. In 1938, he went .387 with the bat and 18-2 with a 0.90 ERA on the mound. Dihigo enjoyed another big year as a pitcher in 1942. He finished 22-7 with a 2.53 ERA.
The ballplayer’s time in Cuba is a bit more mysterious. We know that he batted over .300 nine times and that he compiled a 93-48 won-loss record from 1935-46. Unfortunately, we don’t have records for every season of Dihigo’s career in his home country. We do know that he competed not just in the United States, Cuba and Mexico, but also in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
Despite only playing half his career in the Negro leagues, he ranks 12th in career home runs. He ended up 255-139 as a pitcher. During one famous game, under the brutal Mexican sun, Dihigo hooked up in a pitching duel against Satchel Paige. The two battled one another for inning after hot inning. The score was 0-0 after six. Finally, Paige gave up a run. Dihigo also gave up a run. In the ninth, Dihigo ripped a home run to win the game.
Buck Leonard, a first baseman in the Negro Leagues and another Hall of Famer, said, “Dihigo was the best all-around baseball player I’ve ever seen.”