It’s interesting to read baseball historians debate the issue of the finest Negro League player. Some declaim long and hard for Oscar Charleston. Others spout on and on about Josh Gibson. Pitching fanatics clamor for Satchel Paige. Maybe some of them are right, or maybe they’re all a little nutty. But there does seem to be a general consensus that the most versatile was Martin DiHigo (pronounced Marteen Deego–no H). He’s also one of a handful of players who made an impact off the diamond.
DiHigo was born in either 1905 or 1906, depending on who you believe, in Western Cuba. By 1922 he was playing first base for the main team in Havana. For his career he became a nomad, wandering between Cuba, Mexico, and the US. That makes it sound like he was unwanted, but with Latin teams being able to play in the winter, and seasons that only partially overlapped, the much in demand DiHigo was able to play ball almost all year. Over the course of a 30 year career he managed to star in three leagues, manage in two more, and find his way into the Halls of Fame in Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the US, and according to one source Venezuela (although that seems to be in doubt).
He remained in Cuban baseball through 1932, then returned in 1935 and remained there through 1947. He played every position except catcher. Although the statistics are incomplete, what is available is sufficient to conclude he was a heck of a player. He compiled a batting average of .296, slugged .408, had 17 home runs, 53 stolen bases, and scored 356 runs in 2093 at bats. As a pitcher he was 107-56 with strikeout, walk, and ERA totals unavailable.
When not playing in Cuba, DiHigo played in other places. He spent much of 1937-1944, 1946-1947, and 1950 in the Mexican League. Again he shifted positions a lot. And again the statistics are not complete (although better than in Cuba). Information is available for 577 games. His triple slash numbers are .317/420/,490 for an OPS of .910. He 327 walks, 185 strikeouts, and 57 stolen bases. He hit 55 home runs, 110 doubles, and had 370 RBIs in 1970 at bats. His pitching was even better. He went 119-57 with an ERA of 2.84 along with 1066 strikeouts and 460 walks. In 1938 he was 18-2 with an ERA of 0.92 in 167 innings.
But of course he is mostly famous among Americans for his Negro League work. In 1923, at age 18, he joined the Cuban Stars (East) remaining there through 1927. He spent 1928 at Homestead, 1929 at Hilldale. With the death of the Negro Leagues in the Depression, He played independent ball with the Cuban Stars and Hilldale before returning to Cuba. He was back in the US in 1935 and 1936 and again in 1945. In 1354 documented plate appearances his triple slash numbers were .304/.354/.499 for an OPS of .852. He had 32 documented stolen bases, 57 home runs, 58 doubles, scored 279 runs, and had 17 triples. RBI totals are unavailable. As a pitcher 22-19 (his ERA is also unavailable) with 69 walks and 158 strikeouts. He led the Negro Leagues in home runs in both 1926 and 1935.
Those are the bare, and incomplete, stats on DiHigo, but they tell us little about this fascinating man. He managed in Venezuela, thus helping to popularize baseball in South America. He taught and mentored numerous black Latin ball players, particularly in the Dominican Republic and his native Cuba. He opposed the repressive (at least to him) government of Cuba, becoming one of the men who helped finance Fidel Castro in his 1950s revolution. As is common with DiHigo there is some dispute about how heavily he was involved with the revolution, just as there is a question about whether he became a Communist or not. After Castro came to power, DiHigo was made Minister of Sport, a job he took seriously. He held the position until his death in 1971 and is credited with expanding opportunities for Cuban League players by improving fields, working to get better equipment, and for supporting other sports (like boxing). In 1951 he was elected to the Cuban Hall of Fame. The Mexican Hall called in 1964, and Cooperstown enshrined him in 1977, the Dominican Republic’s Latino Baseball Hall of Fame put him in 2010. Although his Wikipedia page indicates he is in the Venezuela Hall of Fame, Baseball Reference (which has a list of members) does not list him as a member.
DiHigo is a fascinating ball player. He is versatile, he is very good, he is a great teacher. But he is more than a ball player, something most players aren’t when you really get down to it. DiHigo made an impact on his society away from his sport. Not a lot of that going on in sports. It’s part of what got him his nickname, “El Maestro” (the Master).