Posts Tagged ‘New York Cubans’

The Character Clause

February 7, 2013
Alex Pompez

Alex Pompez. Love the tie

As most of you know, baseball’s Hall of Fame has a character clause. Basically it says the voters have to take into account the man’s (and except for Effa Manley it’s always been a man) character when electing him to Cooperstown. There’s been a varied history of enforcing this clause. Some notable rogues have gotten in despite the clause. As my son pointed out when we talked about this post, most of them have taken at least a couple of elections before being enshrined among the baseball immortals.  But it seems to be more baseball foibles, rather than actual “character” issues that have kept players from the Hall. Whitey Ford and Gaylord Perry, both noted for doctoring a ball or two, took a while to get in. Roberto Alomar was surely hurt by the spitting incident. And of course the steroids controversy which currently dogs the Hall should be noted. But if your problem is away from the diamond, like, say a Ty Cobb, well, you have less problem. Case in point, Alex Pompez.

Alejandro Pompez was born in South Florida in 1890 to Cuban parents. His dad was a member of the Florida State Assembly and ran a cigar factory. When the father died in 1896 he left his estate to the Cuban independence movement, leaving the family penniless. By 1902, the family was back in a now independent Cuba. Pompez returned to the US, played a little ball, the moved on to New York to work as a cigar roller. He did well, finally opening a cigar store in Harlem.

It’s here that the character clause kicks in. The cigar store made money, but not a lot. Pompez began running numbers, eventually rising to control much of the numbers racket in Harlem. A friend of Nat Strong (who is worth a post by himself), he became instrumental in helping funnel Latin players to the Negro Leagues. By 1916, with help from Strong and his numbers racket, Pompez formed the Havana Cuban Stars baseball team, stocking it with Latin American players.

In 1923, The Cubans, now known as the New York Cuban Stars, joined the Eastern Colored League. Although the team never won a ECL pennant, Pompez became a major player in both the league management and in Negro League baseball in general. In 1924 he led ECL negotiations for setting up the first Negro World Series against Rube Forster’s Negro National League. Until the ECL collapsed in 1928, Pompez was one of its most influential members (although never league President).

He kept his team afloat during the early 1930s by barnstorming. In 1935 he joined the newly reformed Negro National League, renaming the team the New York Cubans. For the first time, he added local Black American talent to his Latin players.

But Pompez was having legal troubles. In the late 1920s the mobster Dutch Schultz was moving into the numbers racket. In 1932 he and Pompez met and the Pompez network was absorbed (probably at gunpoint) into the Schultz mob. It cut into Pompez’s money and at the same time drew attention to him from federal prosecutors who wanted Schultz. In 1935 Schultz was killed and Pompez regained control of his numbers route. But by now he was a federal target. Pompez fled to Europe, returned, was indicted on racketeering charges, fled to Mexico. Eventually he was picked up by Mexican authorities and returned to New York. He made an agreement with the prosecution team (led by future New York governor and Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey) and turned states evidence against the rackets. For his trouble, he received probation only and promised to stay clear of the number route in Harlem.

Now free to run the team again, Pompez led the Cubans to their sole pennant in 1947 and saw his team win the Negro World Series that year. But the club, and all of black baseball, was in trouble. Integration was killing the fan base and taking the best players into white leagues. The Cubans hung on through 1950 before folding. But Pompez was not through with baseball. He’d made an earlier arrangement with the New York Giants that gave his team use of the Polo Grounds and the Giants first call on his players. With the team gone, the Giants hired Pompez as both a scout and as a mentor for their black and Latin players. As the team’s Director of International Scouting, he was instrumental in finding Latin talent, especially in the Dominican Republic, for the Giants.

In 1971 he retired from the Giants. He still wasn’t through with baseball. The Hall of Fame chose him to serve on the special committee designed to choose Negro League players for the Hall. He remained in the position until his death in 1974. In 2006, he was chosen for the Hall of Fame as a Negro League executive.

Without trying to condone Pompez’s foray into the world of racketeering and the mob, I would remind you that options for black entrepreneurs was limited in the first half of the 20th Century. Many of them turned to what “the better element” in American society labeled ‘shady’ or worse. Black baseball was no exception to that. Pompez is not the only owner who made his money in ways that might offend some of that “better element.” Of course that can be true of people in a lot of professions.

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.

Negro Leagues World Series, Round II

February 10, 2010

After a 13 year hiatus, the Negro Leagues restarted a postseason series. The old Eastern Colored League was gone, replaced by the Negro American League. The Negro National League had been revived and by 1942 the two leagues agreed to work together, at least enough to play a World Series. Unlike the 1920’s series’ the new set would be four games out of seven for victory. The series’s ran from 1942 through 1948. The premier American League teams were the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, and the Cleveland Buckeyes. In the National League, the New York Cubans and Newark Eagles each had good seasons, but the league was dominated by the Homestead Grays, who played in 5 of the 7 World Series’. Ironically both the Cubans and Eagles won their series’ while the Grays went 3-2. Below is a short summary of each series:

1942: Kansas City Monarchs defeat the Homestead Grays 4 games to none. Timely hitting by players like Buck O’Neill and Newt Allen, coupled with Hall of Fame pitching by Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith shut down the Grays power in a sweep. Grays players Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Sam Bankhead, Jud Wilson couldn’t get timely hits, while pitcher Ray Brown was vulnerable.

1943; The Grays win a seven game series against the Birmingham Black Barons 4 games to 3. The power hitting Grays, supplemented by an aging but still fast Cool Papa Bell squeak out a victory against a Barons team that featured Double Duty Radcliffe still playing after starring in the 1920s World Series.

1944: The Grays pound the Barons again, this time winning in five games.

1945: The Cleveland Buckeyes win their first pennant and stun the Grays in a four game sweep. Buckeyes stars Quincy Trouppe,  future National League Rookie of the Year Sam Jethroe, and Arch Ware proved you could beat the Grays without great power.

1946: The Newark Eagles dethrone the Grays to win the Negro National League title. With future Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Biz Mackey (yes, he was still around), and Leon Day, the Eagles take on the Kansas City Monarchs of Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Buck O’Neill, Chet Brewer, and Hank Thompson. The Eagles and Monarchs battle for the full seven games before Leon Day wins game seven making the Eagles champs. It was a unique series for two reasons. It was the only Word Series won by a team with a female owner, Effa Manley, and the last series before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1947: The New York Cubans make the series for the only time in their history. Their Latin based roster includes Luis Tiant (father of the later American League pitcher), Minnie Minoso, Jose Fernandez, and pitcher Dave Barnhill. They face off against the Buckeyes who had won it all two years previously. Trouppe, Ware, and Jethroe were still around and were joined by pitcher Toothpick Sam Jones. The Cubans won 4 games to 1. The season had been rocked by the arrival of Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn and the departure of the first black players to the white leagues.

1948: The Grays returned to the series for the first time since 1945. Gibson was gone, but Leonard and Bankhaead were still around. They were joined by power hitting outfielder Luke Easter. They took on the Black Barons, also returning to the series, for the first time since 1944. Most of their old gang was gone, but they had a new outfielder named Willie Mays who looked promising. Despite Mays, the Barons lost 4 games to 1, thus giving the Grays the last Negro League World Series title.

After 1948 the Negro Leagues floundered. The National League folded, the American League hung on as nothing much more than a minor league. Many teams took to being independent and went back to barnstorming. The era of the great Negro League teams was over. So was their World Series.