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.”
By Glen Sparks
Supposedly, Norman Stearnes sported a potbelly as a kid. The family thought he looked like a little turkey. Another story is that he ran around the bases kind of funny, flapping his arms.
Either way, we know Norman Thomas Stearnes as “Turkey” Stearnes.
Bill James rated him the 25th best player of all time in his Historical Abstract. Which is great. And kind of a shame.
James rated Frank Robinson the 24th best player and Rickey Henderson the 26th best player. We know a lot about those guys. They’re both African-American, but they competed in the era after integration.
Playing in the Negro Leagues, like Stearnes did, probably didn’t get you onto Page 1 of the sports section in too many mainstream newspapers.
Stearns was born May 8, 1901, in Nashville, Tenn. If baseball had been doing the right thing all along, he would have played alongside immortals like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby.
As it was, Stearnes got a lot less attention and far less money to play with and compete against great players from the Negro Leagues such as Josh Gibson, “Satchell” Paige and “Cool Papa” Bell. He traveled on rickety buses from 1920 to 1940 for teams such as the Detroit Stars, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Philadelphia Stars and the Chicago American Giants.
Do you remember Mark Fydrich? He put together a couple of big years for the Detroit Tigers in the mid-’70s before tearing up his shoulder. People loved him because he had a big smile and a mop of curly hair that made him look a bit like Big Bird of Sesame Street fame. Fydrich also had a habit of talking to the baseball.
Well, Stearnes did something like that. He liked talking to his bats. He would sit in the dugout or his hotel room and give a pep talk to his 35-ounce Louisville Slugger. Apparently, the bat responded.
This is what we know of Stearnes’ career stats in the Negro Leagues: .344 batting average, 176 home runs and a .621 slugging percentage. He played in 750 games. Stearnes was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2000, 21 years after his death.
Like many players from the Negro Leagues, Stearnes’ story gets a little foggy at times. We don’t know that much about him. How many books do we have about Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio? Maybe it’s time for someone to tackle a far tougher project—The Life Story of Turkey Stearnes.
Bill Greason hit the beach under enemy fire at Iwo Jima, played major league baseball and now does the work of the Lord. You can read Derrick Goold’s profile of Greason, the St. Louis Cardinals’ first African-American pitcher, in Sunday’s Post-Dispatch and on stltoday.com.
Greason, 90 years old, debuted for the Cardinals on May 31, 1954. He only pitched in three games and a total of four innings in his Major League career. Even so, the Redbirds honored him before Sunday night’s game against the Cincinnati Reds.
Besides pitching for the Cardinals, Greason pitched for several Negro league teams, including the Birmingham Black Barons. These days, Greason serves a church in Birmingham, Ala., and still works with a charity that helps needy youth. Great story.
I had never heard of Willie Wells.
It was a sunny day, and I was in Cooperstown, N.Y., at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Tommy LaSorda, the colorful former manager of the Dodgers, and Phil Niekro, the knuckleball pitcher from the Braves, had been elected into the Hall’s Class of 1997. The Veterans Committee had voted in Nellie Fox, a slick-fielding second baseman with the White Sox. The Committee also voted in Wells.
Who was Willie Wells? He didn’t enjoy quite the instant name recognition of some other Negro league Hall of Famers. Great players like Josh Gibson and “Cool Papa” Bell. People said Bell was so fast, he could turn out the light in his bedroom and be under the covers before it got dark. You didn’t hear that sort of stuff about Wells.
Experts called Gibson, a great Negro league catcher, the “black Babe Ruth” and said he was truly the mightiest home-run hitter of all. Did Wells hit a lot of home runs?