Posts Tagged ‘Martin DiHigo’

Oisk,

June 10, 2014
Carl Erskine

Carl Erskine

If Don Newcombe was the most storied pitcher of the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers, Carl “Oisk” Erskine was easily second.

Erskine was born in Indiana in 1926. He played sandlot and high school ball and was good enough that he was noticed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. While in the Navy, Erskine signed with the Dodgers, but had his contract voided by the commissioner when it was learned he was still in the Navy (there was a rule against that). Despite other and bigger offers, he resigned with Brooklyn  and joined their minor league team at Danville in 1946. He pitched two years at Danville before transferring to Fort Worth in 1948. He stayed two years in Ft. Worth before playing one final minor league season in Montreal in 1950. He also played winter league ball in Cuba where he shared the field with black players and was managed by Martin DiHigo.

His Major League career began in 1948 when he was called up in 1948. He went 6-3 in 17 games (nine starts), tore a muscle in his back (it never healed properly and would bother him for his entire career), then began 1949 in the minors. Again he came up at the end of the season, went 8-1 in 22 games (three starts), and helped Brooklyn to the National League pennant. He got into two games in the World Series going 2.1 innings, giving up three runs, and posting an ERA north of 16. The Dodgers lost the Series in five games and Erskine had no decisions.

With the torn muscle still a problem, he started his last minor league campaign in 1950. He was called up early this time getting into 22 games, winning seven and losing six. After 1950 he would remain in the Major Leagues for the remainder of his career. The 1951 season saw him become a regular in the Dodgers rotation. He went 16-12, and helped lead Brooklyn to one of the more famous playoffs in MLB history. The Dodgers lost a three game playoff to the Giants (Bobby Thomson’s home run being the most famous moment). Erskine did not pitch in the playoff series.

He had a terrific 1952, going 14-6 with an ERA of 2.70. In June he pitched a no-hitter against the Cubs, walking only one man (the opposing pitcher). The Dodgers were back in the World Series at the end of the season. He lost game two of the Series on 2 October (his wedding anniversary), then won game five in 11 innings.  He also pitched the last couple of inning of a game seven loss without taking the decision.

In 1953, Erskine went 20-6, set a career high in strikeouts, and was the Dodgers ace. He started three games in the World Series, taking a no decision in game one, then came back to win game three and set the all-time record for strikeouts in a World Series game by fanning 14 Yankees, a record broken by a later teammate, Sandy Koufax (and later broken by Bob Gibson).  He started game six, but was not around when New York won the game 4-3 to clinch the Series.

Still in pain, Erskine would produce three more good years: 1954-56. In 1954 he would finally make an All Star team (his only one). In 1955 he would help his team win its only World Series. He started game four, took a no decision as the Dodgers won late, then didn’t pitch again for the remainder of the Series. In 1956, he would pitch his second no-hitter, this one at home against the Giants. He would get into one last World Series, losing game four as the Yankees took revenge for 1955.

Still hurting in 1957, he began slipping badly. By 1958 both he and the Dodgers were in Los Angeles, and he was given the honor of starting the first West Coast game. He got the win. It was easily the highlight of a forgettable year for both pitcher and team. In 1959, he started the year with LA, but retired during the season. The Dodgers made the World Series that year, winning in six games, but I’ve been unable to determine if he got a Series share.

For his career he was 122-78 with an ERA of 4.00 (ERA+ of 101). He gave up 1637 hits in 1718.2 innings, had 14 shutouts, walked 646, struck out 981, had two no hitters, and a WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) of 16.6. He never recovered from the muscle tear and finished his career at age 32.

In retirement he coached baseball at Anderson College winning four championships in 12 seasons. He also served as an insurance man and was chairman of the Indiana Bankers Association. Not a bad legacy for a sore-backed pitcher.

And for those curious, “Oisk” is a Brooklyn corruption of “Ersk”, the first part of his name.

 

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El Maestro

February 22, 2013
Martin Dihigo

Martin Dihigo

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).

Deceptive Advertising

February 5, 2013
New York Cubans logo

New York Cubans logo

From the beginnings of  segregation of the Major Leagues a certain amount of deception went on. There were those owners and managers who recognized there were black players who were well qualified to play in the big leagues. But custom determined they couldn’t join the party. Creative owners and managers, of which John McGraw was one of the best, tried to find ways around the color barrier. Black players were passed off as American Indians (tribe to be determined if it came up), as Mexicans, and most frequently as Cuban. It never quite worked, but it did lead to the Negro Leagues adopting “Cubans” as one of their more famous names.

There was a “Cubans” as early as 1899. By 1916 there were two of them (known unofficially as “Cubans (West)” and “Cubans (East)”. They spent time in the Negro National League (Cubans West) and the Eastern Colored League (Cubans East). But the Great Depression crippled the already struggling Negro Leagues and both teams folded in the early 1930s. By 1935 the economy was  better, the fans had at least a little more money, and the Negro Leagues were reviving. Alex Pompez (now in the Hall of Fame),  former owner of the Cubans East, resurrected the Cubans styling this team the “New York Cubans.” In 1935 they joined the Negro National League.

The “Cubans” name was always something of a misnomer. Although there were Cubans on the team, the roster generally included Black Americans and players from a number of Latin American countries. For example, Pedro Cepeda, father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, was a member of the team. The Cepeda’s were Puerto Rican. Tetelo Vargas was from the Dominican Republic.  Easily the best Cuban on the “Cubans” was Martin DiHigo who played the outfield, second base,  and pitched. So essentially if you were too dark for acceptance in the Major Leagues, and a good ball players, the Cubans would take you.

As a brief aside I should point out that Cubans were allowed into the Major Leagues. As early as the 1870s and 1880s, Esteban Bellan played in the National League. During the 1920s and 1930s such players as Bobby Estalella (father of the recent catcher), and Dolf Luque played Major League baseball. The difference was that each of these players was considered “light” enough to play while the players active with the Cubans were too “dark” to get a chance at the big leagues.

In 1935, the Cubans finished third of eight) in the NNL, six and a half games out of first. In 1936, the fell back to fourth (of six). In 1937 and 1938 they were inactive due to the legal troubles of their owner. By 1939 they were back in the NNL finishing last (of six). Between 1940 and 1942 they finished in the middle of the pack, finally taking second in 1943. In 1944 and 1945 they were back in the second division, finally getting back to second in 1946. They broke through in 1947, winning their only NNL pennant by seven and a half games.

The 1947 pennant winners included 40-year-old Luis Tiant (father of the 1960 and 1970 American League pitcher) who went 10-0 on the mound with Lino Dinoso and Pat Scantlebury as the other primary pitchers. Both Tiant and Dinoso were Cubans, Scantlebury was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Pedro Pages, Claro Duany, and Cleveland Clark were the outfield, with Lorenzo Cabrera, Rabbit Martinez, Silvio Garcia, and Minnie Minoso holding down the infield from first around to third. The catching duties were divided between Ray Noble and Louis Louden. Jose Maria Fernandez managed the team. They squared off against the Cleveland Buckeyes in the best of  seven Negro World Series. With game one ending in a tie, they lost game two then came back to win four in a row, thus giving them their only Negro World Series title.

It was the high point for the Cubans. In 1948 they finished second and at the end of the year the NNL folded. the Negro American League took in some of the NNL teams, including the Cubans. They finished fourth (of five)  in the NAL  Eastern Division (the NAL went to two divisions in 1949) in both 1949 and 1950. That was all for the team. It ceased playing after the 1950 season, a victim to lost revenue, lost fans, and the integration of the Major Leagues.

The Core of the Hall: Notes

July 6, 2012

The post just below this one touches on the 50 people who I think most belong in the Hall of Fame (of those already enshrined). The public comments have been positive, but I’ve also received a handful of private comments (and emails) with questions about the list. This is an attempt to answer those.

1. SportsPhD in his comment below notes a paucity of 19th Century players and speculates that I’m purposefully leaving off players who were active primarily before the advent of the mound. He is correct. I think the change in pitching distance and motion have so effected the game that players before and after those changes must be viewed in entirely different categories. And, yes, there is a certain amount of justice in placing Campanella above Anson.

2. A number of comments have asked why so many Negro Leaguers, especially Turkey Stearnes and Martin DiHigo. I am entirely comfortable in believing that five Negro League players are among the 50 finest players ever. Look at the National League in the 1950s and you’ll note that guys like Aaron, Mays, Clemente, and Frank Robinson are on my list. I don’t think it unreasonable to believe that five players from the period 1920-1950 who were Negro League stars should be included. If you can find four in ten years, surely you can find five in thirty. As to DiHigo I placed him here because of his playing ability, his versatility, and his impact on the game among Latin players. He is instrumental on growing the game in Latin America (as is Clemente) and when coupled with his skills that puts him on my list. Stearnes is a little harder to justify and frankly was one of the last people I included. Most sources claim he is the leader in home runs among Negro Leaguers. That probably is worth adding him, even at the expense of guys like Buck Leonard and John Henry Lloyd.

3. Most people, including those who made public comment on the first Core post, indicate they might have changed a half dozen or so. Actually I think that’s really good. It means that, at least among those people who read this blog, there is a fairly solid consensus as to the top 40 or so players.

4. Someone asked if I was sorry to have to leave off current players or Hall eligible (or in the case of Joe Jackson and Pete Rose ineligible) players. Yes, I was. I’d love to put Albert Pujols on the list as well as Greg Maddux and possibly Rose although I’d have to think long and hard about Charlie Hustle. I’m not sure I see him as a top 50 without reference to the gambling issue. Maybe, maybe not.

5. I was asked “If Campanella was the last man on, who was the last man off?” The answer is Eddie Murray. I really miss putting Murray on the list and I have to admit that a personal prejudice may have gotten in the way here. I always liked Murray, but I loved Campy. I guess in the end that made a difference.

6. Someone asked “If you could cut it down to 10 who would you pick?” Pass.

All this typed for the information of those who asked. This way I don’t have to write up a dozen different responses to a dozen different emails.

My Best Negro League Roster

February 28, 2011

A friend of mine who reads this blog called me up the other day. He suggested I post what was, in my opinion, the best Negro League team. I went into a long discourse about why that wasn’t possible because of lack of stats and collaborating info and anything else I could come up with to get out of it. He finally cut me off with a simple, “Wing it.” So for the edification of anyone who happens to run across this, and to cap a long group of Negro League posts, here’s my list of the best Negro League players, with appropriate caveats (You knew those were coming, didn’t you?).

First, I took only guys who played the majority of their careers in the Negro Leagues. In other words guys like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were out, as were Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. Second, I did a 25 man roster with a manager and an owner, and a couple of special add ons. I included 2 players at each infield position, 6 outfielders, 3 catchers, and 8 pitchers (at least two of which had to be left-handed). I know that almost no Negro League team ever actually had 25 men on its roster and that if they did they weren’t aligned as I’ve aligned my team. But this is the way I wanted to do it. I have an aversion to comparing players in the pre-mound era with those whose career is mostly after the advent of the mound and the 60’6″ pitching distance.  I simply think the game is so different you can’t compare players (feel free to disagree). That led to a real problem for me, Frank Grant. I think he is probably one of the half-dozen or so greatest black players ever, but that’s unquantifiable to me. So I had to leave him out, and wish I didn’t.

So here we go. All players are listed alphabetically by position. That means there is no indication that I think the guy listed first is better, although he may be a lot better. Don’t expect a lot of surprises, and keep the snickers to yourselves.

Catcher: Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop. This was actually pretty easy. There seems to be a consensus between statheads, historians, and old Negro League players that these three were head and shoulders above the other catchers in Negro League play. Fleet Walker was also a catcher, but I don’t think he was the quality of these three and he also fails to meet the post-mound criteria. Sorry, Fleet.

1st Base: Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles. There were two problems here. The first was the necessity of leaving out Buck O’Neill. I don’t suppose there is a more important Negro Leaguer (except for Jackie Robinson), but the information on him makes it evident that he wasn’t really at the top of the line of Negro League first basemen. The second problem is that Mule Suttles spent a lot of time in the outfield. But it was common for Negro League players to do “double duty” in the field, so Suttles at first isn’t actually a bad idea.

2nd Base: Newt Allen, Bingo DeMoss. I think I had more trouble settling on the second basemen than on any other position (OK, maybe pitcher). First, I wanted to put Grant in, but just couldn’t because of the problems mentioned above. I also think it might be the weakest position in Negro League play. The list of truly great players here is awfully short. I think these two are probably the best, but I could be talked into someone else.

3rd Base: Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson. Again an easy pick. There seems to be universal agreement that Dandridge was a fielder unlike any other in the history of the Negro Leagues, and that Johnson could outhit anyone who played the position. Who am I to argue with universal agreement?

Shortstop: John Henry Lloyd, Willie Wells. Lloyd was an easy pick. If Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop who ever shortstopped, says he’s pleased to be compared with Lloyd, I’m gonna take him at his word. Wells was also pretty easy. Again there seems to be a consensus among the sources that he was a terrific shortstop.

Outfield: Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown, Oscar Charleston, Martin DiHigo, Turkey Stearnes, Christobal Torriente. First, I didn’t worry about getting two each Right, Center, and Left. I ended up with two Right Fielders (Brown, DiHigo), one in Left (Stearnes), and the rest are Center Fielders. One of the things about studying and researching for this list is how quickly you find out Bell is seriously overrated. Now I don’t mean to imply Bell wasn’t a heck of a ballplayer; he was. He may have been the very best Negro League outfielder ever. But there seems to be this idea that he was just head and shoulders above the others (Charleston and Torriente). From what I read, I just don’t see that. Maybe he was better, but if so not by much. Certainly he wasn’t better by the amount a lot of people seem to want to think. It reminds me of what I call the “Derek Jeter Aura”. Is Jeter the best shortstop who started his career in the last 15 or so years? Yes. Is he the  greatest since the position was invented (as some would have us believe)?  Not even close, but try telling that to legions of his fans. And Bell seems to be running through that same situation. Personally, I think Charleston was better (and again that’s a personal opinion, not bolstered by much in the way of facts) and I’m not sure that DiHigo wasn’t the finest Negro League outfielder of the lot (or maybe he wasn’t, it’s tough to tell). I am fairly sure that DiHigo is the most under appreciated of the lot.

Pitcher: Ray Brown, Andy Cooper, Leon Day, Bill Foster, Luis Mendez, Satchel Paige, Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith. This may have been the hardest of the lists to determine. First, there aren’t a lot of really good left-handed pitchers in the Negro Leagues, so finding two (and one-quarter of the list being left-handed didn’t seem unreasonable) became a pain. Next, there were more than six righty’s that had to be considered. I hated to leave any off, but this list is my best guess.

Manager: Rube Foster. OK, he had to be here somewhere. He seems to have been a better pitcher than manager and a better manager than executive, but the founder of the Negro Leagues ought to be here.

Owner:  Cum Posey. I said that both second and pitching caused me the most problem. That’s true of players, but finding the best owner to put on the team was almost a nightmare. Who do you take? J.L. Wilkinson owned the most famous team (the Monarchs), Effa Manley of Newark was probably the most famous owner, Gus Greenlee owned the best team (the Crawfords). I looked at all of them and chose Posey, the man who owned the Grays. I think the Grays were the most consistantly successful team in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. I decided that made Posey the owner.

One of a kind: Double Duty Radcliffe. Radcliffe was known to pitch one game of a double-header, then catch the other game. You have to be kidding me. 

Post Negro League Career: Charley Pride. One of the great things about being married to my wife is that every morning I get to “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Now I may be wrong about this, but “Just Between You and Me,” as far as I can tell, Pride had the best non-sports related career of any Negro Leaguer.

A Charley Pride baseball card

The musical information shown here tells me this card is a fake, but I just couldn’t resist putting it up for show and tell.

Here’s hoping you’ve learned something from this sojourn into the Negro Leagues and black baseball in general. Failing that, I hope you enjoyed them. With the end of Black History Month, I’ll think I’ll take up something else.