Negro Leagues

‘The Immortal’ Martin Dihigo may have been the best baseball player ever

The Cuban star thrived in the Negro Leagues and has been enshrined in five national halls of fame

Martin Dihigo could get hits off Satchel Paige when it mattered. He was a role model for Minnie Minoso. He is enshrined in five national baseball halls of fame. Before his career as a standout pitcher, genius outfielder and influential manager was over, he was known by the nicknames “El Maestro” and “El Inmortal.”

One hundred years after the founding of the Negro Leagues, it’s worth revisiting the life of the man some Negro League stars considered the greatest player who ever lived.

In the U.S., Dihigo played for the Cuban Stars from 1923 to 1927; the Homestead Grays in 1928; Philadelphia’s Hilldale Giants (also known as Darby Daisies) from 1929 to 1931; and the New York Cubans, whom he also managed, in 1935 and 1936. He led the Negro Leagues two times in home runs. “Only a very small handful of guys are in the conversation for greatest all-around player of all time — Oscar Charleston, Willie Mays, Honus Wagner and Martin Dihigo,” baseball writer Ryan Whirty told The Undefeated.

Martin Magdaleno Dihigo Llanos was born on May 25, 1905, on the property of the Jesus Maria sugar mill in the town of Limonar in the Cuban province of Matanzas. The name of the province means “massacres” and it stems from an incident in which Spanish marauders attempted to cross one of its rivers to attack an indigenous camp. Local lore has it that native fishermen escorted 30 of the conquistadors in their fishing boats and then flipped the boats into the river, drowning all but two of the colonists.

The province was home to numerous sugar plantations. In 1841, nearly 63% of the population was enslaved and more than 104,000 Afro-Cubans were enslaved as late as 1859.

Martin’s father, Benito Dihigo, worked at the Jesus Maria mill, where his parents were said to have labored during slavery. He had been a sergeant for the rebels known as Los Mambises in the 1895-1898 war of independence against the Spanish. (The rebels were named in honor of Juan Mamby, a black Spanish officer who defected to fight with Afro-Dominicans against Spain in 1846.)

The guerrilla efforts of the Mambises contributed to U.S. apprehension about control of Cuba, and the risk to U.S. business interests there, which led to the Spanish-American War in 1898. Matanzas was bombarded by U.S. Navy ships at the beginning of the war.

Alejandro Oms (left) and Martin Dihigo (right) were teammates from Cuba who played in the United States for the New York Cubans in 1935. Dihigo also managed the Cubans in 1935 and 1936.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Fourteen years later, in 1912, the Cuban military killed several thousand Afro-Cubans in El Doce (“The Twelve”), also known as Guerrita de Raza or the Little Race War. Some of the victims were members of the West’s first black political party outside of Haiti, the Independent Party of Color.

Young Martin grew up amid intense Afro-Cuban pride and the constant specter of violence, just as his eventual teammates in the U.S. Negro Leagues grew up during mass racial attacks on black communities in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Atlanta; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Springfield, Illinois, between 1906 and 1910.

Dihigo dropped out of school in sixth grade to work at the sugar mill. As a child, he played often at nearby Palmar del Junco ballpark. At 13, he joined the youth league team Oriente, and later one called Las Piratas. Every time Palmar del Junco’s park supervisor visited the diamond, Dihigo was there.

According to a 1999 biography of Dihigo by his youngest son, Gilberto, Dihigo’s father hoped that his interest in baseball was just a phase. “A man without a trade is nobody,” Benito Dihigo told his son, according to an interview that Gilberto, a journalist, gave the Dallas Morning News. For a time, Dihigo took up woodworking to please the former freedom fighter. A cousin and a family friend encouraged Benito to let the boy play. And while father and son disagreed about the value of his pursuit of baseball, Dihigo was quite proud of his father’s participation as a liberator with the Mambises, according to Gilberto Dihigo’s book.

In the 1922 province championships, Dihigo went 11-for-20 for the Piratas, his .550 average the second-best in the series. A right-hander, he made his pitching debut for the Piratas on Oct. 16, and limited the opposition to five hits. That November, Havana Reds manager Mike Gonzalez, a former catcher for the Braves and Reds, added Dihigo, then a lanky 16-year-old, to his roster.

There, Dihigo sat for two months until he debuted as a pinch hitter. According to Peter Bjarkman’s 1994 book, Baseball With A Latin Beat: A History of the Latin American Game, he batted only .179, although he did display flashes of defensive prowess playing third base. Negro League veterans John Henry “Pop” Lloyd and Charleston (who today are enshrined in Cooperstown, New York) took a liking to him and gave him pointers. But in the early 1920s, Cuba was experiencing a financial crisis and baseball attendance was down. Being well-stocked with U.S. and Latino talent, Havana did not pick Dihigo up for the following season.

“He was the only guy I ever saw who could play all nine positions, manage, run and switch-hit.” — Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, according to the 2010 book, I Was Right On Time, by Buck O’Neil as told to David Conrads

Then came a piece of good fortune. Gilberto Dihigo wrote that his father’s greatest wish at that time was to play in the Negro Leagues. And in April 1923, Cuban baseball promoter and part-time New Yorker Alejandro Pompez brought Dihigo to the U.S. to play for his team, the Stars, in the newly formed Eastern Colored League. This league was founded when the Hilldale Club of Philadelphia and the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, New Jersey, left the Negro National League to join forces with the Stars, Baltimore Black Sox, Brooklyn Royal Giants and Lincoln Giants.

In June, five members of the Stars were ill, and Pompez inserted Dihigo at second base. He appeared in 33 games that season, batting 116 times, with 23 hits and 17 runs. Pompez noticed that, although the teen was a light hitter, no balls got by him in the infield due to his quickness and range.

Dihigo’s transition to black baseball was hampered by his inability to hit a curveball. He asked his own pitchers to throw him a steady diet of curves during batting practice. By 1925, he demonstrated a marked improvement and in 1926 batted .421 and led the league in homers. In 1927, he batted .370 and tied for the home run crown.

He had matured to 6 feet, 4 inches and 190 pounds. In 1928, owner Cumberland Posey signed Dihigo to the Grays of the Negro National League. The following year he was dealt to Hilldale, where his 18 home runs placed second in the league. Dihigo played again for the Stars in 1930, and was back with Hilldale in 1931. That season he also posted a 6-1 record as a pitcher. Posey said Dihigo’s “gifts afield have never been approached by any man — black or white.”

Others offered similar accolades. Veteran Negro Leaguer Ted Page said Dihigo had a better throwing arm than Roberto Clemente. Hall of Famer Charleston named Dihigo the right fielder on his all-time team.

He hit for plenty of power. Former Grays star first baseman Buck Leonard (a Hall of Famer) told author John Holway in the 1988 book Blackball Stars that Dihigo hit a homer at Pittsburgh’s Greenlee Field that traveled more than 500 feet, finally landing on the rooftop of a nearby hospital. Pitcher “Schoolboy” Johnny Taylor told Holway that Dihigo once hit a drive that rocketed past a shortstop so fast, it crashed against the outfield wall before the infielder could raise his hands in self-defense. “A foot lower and it would have killed [him].”

In Havana Stadium in the early 1930s, Dihigo put on a throwing exhibition witnessed by Negro League great and future Hall of Famer Judy Johnson. Dihigo had a pregame throwing contest against a professional jai alai player who used his cesto to hit the center-field fence on one hop. According to Holway, Dihigo responded by hurling his ball over the outfield wall.

Dihigo was cagey, too. According to Gary Cieradkowski’s 2015 book, The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes, Dihigo once jogged in to confer with his shortstop after an outfield putout. He asked the runner on second to readjust the base. When the baserunner complied, he absentmindedly took his foot off the bag and Dihigo tagged him out.

Martin Dihigo’s baseball card, circa 1945. Dihigo batted .311 in 12 Negro League seasons or partials, in 492 games with 385 RBIs and 361 runs.

Collection of the Simthsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Dihigo’s first stint as a player-manager was with Concordia in Venezuela in 1934. Looking back in 1960, he wrote of those days in the Cuban newspaper Hoy: “[Col.] Gonzalo [Gomez, the team owner] enjoyed sports. There on [his estate] Quebrada there were all types of athletes: bullfighters like Romero Frey, Mexicans, the Valencia brothers, tennis players like Leopoldo Marquez, Venezuelan champion, soccer players and baseball players, of these last there were two teams, the amateurs, and us the professionals … The colonel felt a deep affection for Cuban players. He sent us to Cuba and the Dominican Republic for two years carrying Venezuelan baseball to those countries.” According to Gilberto Dihigo’s book, Dihigo pitched a no-hitter for the colonel in Puerto Rico in an exhibition before which his wife, Maria Aurelia “Africa” Reina, said Dihigo was downing beers with his buddies until game time.

In 1935 and 1936, Dihigo managed the New York Cubans (still operated by Pompez), who featured Silvio Garcia, Johnny Taylor, Dave Thomas and Rabbit Martinez. They went 33-7-5 in 1935 and 28-26-1 the next season. As a manager, Dihigo was known for his generosity. For instance, in 1935, Dihigo found former Cuban slugger and Negro Leaguer Cristobal Torriente struggling with alcoholism and poverty in Chicago and hired him as a coach for the Cubans.

Hall of Famer Johnny Mize said that in the Dominican League, pitchers would intentionally walk Dihigo to pitch to him. “He was the only guy I ever saw who could play all nine positions, manage, run and switch-hit,” said Mize, according to the 2010 book, I Was Right On Time, by Buck O’Neil as told to David Conrads.

Sports publicist and Fordham University professor John Cirillo said to The Undefeated, “My dad was born in 1912 and passed away in 1985. … He saw Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Johnson, Feller, just to name a few. He once told me of a doubleheader he saw when the Negro Leaguers were barnstorming in the Northeast. He said he saw the greatest exhibition by one baseball player that day. Martin Dihigo played every position except catcher over the two games. Whenever anyone asked my dad, ‘Who was the greatest baseball player you ever saw?’ my dad, without hesitation would say, ‘Martin Dihigo.’ ”

Dihigo’s on-field heroics were the stuff of legend in the Latin American leagues, too, including a notable face off with pitching great Paige. The winter that Dominican president Rafael Trujillo signed Negro League stars Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Paige to his Trujillo All-Stars to boost his candidacy, the rival Aguilas (Eagles) Cibaenas contracted Dihigo. Paige’s club once faced Dihigo’s in Santiago, Dominican Republic. With the game scoreless in the bottom of the third, Dihigo batted against Paige. Paige worked the count to 0-and-2. Dihigo then looked at two curves, both balls. Paige delivered again and Dihigo belted a two-run homer to right. The runs stood up for an eventual victory.

In 1937, pitching for Veracruz, he threw the first perfect game in Mexican League history. He hit .351 that season. In 1938, he hit .387 to win a Mexican League batting title and was 18-2 with a 0.90 earned run average as a pitcher.

All-Star Minoso, in a 2008 Newsday profile of Dihigo, said, “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.”

Minoso, the first Afro-Cuban to play in the major leagues, told Bjarkman, “Dihigo once let me carry his shoes and glove and that’s how I got into the ballpark down there when I was a kid. He was a big man, all muscle with not an ounce of fat on him. He helped me by teaching me how to play properly.”

Gilberto Dihigo described his father as always impeccably dressed and a skillful communicator, as well as a gifted chef. “I inherited my father’s passion for history. My father would play trivia games with me … If I got it right, he would reward me with money.”

Dihigo bristled at the indignity of Jim Crow segregation. In 1999, Gilberto told the Dallas Morning News, “Hotels and restaurants sometimes shut him out because of the color of his skin. He despised that. He thought it was ridiculous and humiliating for blacks.”

He recounted to his youngest son that when he was with the Stars, in the rare instances when white hotel operators admitted him, they forbade him from using their bathwater. He also spoke of bad food, and ballparks where teams had to pass a hat in the stands to collect their pay.

Dihigo batted .311 in 12 Negro League seasons or partials, in 492 games (equivalent to three MLB seasons) with 385 RBIs and 361 runs. His final season in black baseball was spent with the New York Cubans in 1945, when he batted .330 at age 39.

Dihigo followed baseball long after his playing and managerial days, and was critical of one aspect of it back when pro football was encroaching on its popularity and changes were contemplated to maintain fan interest. “One of the things that my father complained about was the pace of the game. He said something had to be done. For example, pitching changes add to the length of the game. This is something my father talked about for years,” Gilberto Dihigo told writer Danny Torres for the 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame publication Memories and Dreams in an article titled A Cuban Revolucion.

Averell “Ace” Smith noted in his 2018 book about Paige, The Pitcher and the Dictator: Satchel Paige’s Unlikely Season in the Dominican Republic, that Dihigo (the grade school dropout) wrote sports columns for Hoy in the late 1940s. In the early 1950s, he was a popular, highly critical radio baseball announcer in Cuba for Union Radio, and Cadena Oriental de Radio (Eastern Radio Network) until he left the country in protest after dictator Fulgencio Batista rose to power.

In 1953, he skippered the Caracas Leones to a Venezuelan Winter League title, and thus the Caribbean Series, an annual championship tournament featuring the pennant winners from Puerto Rico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela. He also managed Veracruz in the Mexican League in 1956 and 1957, the latter year at age 51. In 1958, he played in his final game, a benefit by the Mexican team Torreon, to raise funds for the rebel movement in Cuba.

Dihigo did not return home until February 1959 as Fidel Castro (whom Bjarkman says Dihigo reputedly helped fund) was establishing a new government to replace the Batista regime. After the revolution, Dihigo worked part time as an instructor for the national sports federation, helping establish nationalized amateur baseball on the island.

For a time, he was the federation’s minister of sports under Castro. In 1960, he again had a regular column in Hoy.

Around this time, Dihigo’s older son, Martin Jr., played in the Cincinnati Reds’ system from 1959 to 1962, ending up at Geneva in the New York-Penn League, where he was a teammate of Atanacio “Tony” Perez and Pete Rose. (Martin Jr. died on June 19, 2019. He was 76.)

After the elder Dihigo turned 65, his health declined. Living near Cienfuegos in his wife’s hometown of Cruces, he suffered from cerebral thrombosis, and was hospitalized multiple times. After a false report of Dihigo’s death in February 1969, Cuba’s national poet Nicolas Guillen dedicated a poem to Dihigo.

On May 20, 1971, Dihigo died, five days shy of his 66th birthday. A period of national mourning was declared and public ceremonies were held, some of which were attended by Castro.

Dihigo’s legacy as a national hero, showman, superstar in several countries, manager and pitcher-slugger, sets him apart in baseball history. He is enshrined in the U.S., Mexican, Venezuelan, Cuban and Dominican halls of fame. (Willie Wells is the only other such honoree.)

Leonard told Holway for Blackball Stars in 1988, “If he’s not the greatest, I don’t know who is. You take your Ruths, Cobbs and DiMaggios. Give me Dihigo.”

Bijan C. Bayne, a frequent contributor to Andscape, is the author of Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How A Resort League Defied Notions Of Race & Class.