Whether it was the appreciation for hard work he gained working those fields, or the dignity with which he earned the respect of the baseball world, it was obvious that Mendez was much more than a guy who threw hard. Nicknamed "El Diamante Negro," or, "The Black Diamond," Mendez is regarded by many as Cuba's first baseball legend, and he made an impact in the U.S. as a pitcher, position player and manager in the Negro Leagues.
In the 20th century's first decade, Mendez was ready for the baseball world, even if it wasn't ready for him. In a photo taken around that time, he had a look of a player from the 21st century, with close-cropped hair, a faint mustache on an otherwise smooth face, and a cap with the bill slightly cocked. When the Cincinnati Reds came to the island in 1908, the only way they could have caught up to his fastball was with a time machine.
He dominated them in a one-hit, 1-0 shutout, threw seven shutout innings against them two weeks later and just four days after that blanked them in another complete game, 4-0. According to reports, he went on a barnstorming tour -- pitching twice in what might have integrated baseball's debut in the state of Florida against a semi-pro team and once in a Cuban League game -- and compiled another 20 straight scoreless innings.
More strong work against the Detroit Tigers and the New York Giants solidified Mendez's reputation. Giants manager John McGraw compared Mendez to his own ace, Christy Mathewson.
The oddity that while Cuba was not perfect in race relations, integrated teams were part of the baseball culture, and there was nothing segregated about the opposition when the Major League teams came over. It's been widely reported that McGraw said if Mendez were white, he'd have paid the princely sum (at the time) of $50,000 for his release from his Cuban baseball employer.
But the U.S. would nonetheless see Mendez. In 1909, he won 11 games in a row twice and compiled a reported 44-2 record against teams of all levels. He barnstormed with J.L. Wilkinson's All Nations team from 1912-17, playing mostly shortstop the final two seasons because of an arm injury. The whole time he was a star in Cuba, going 76-27 from 1908-20.
In the U.S., he played for the Kansas City Monarchs (1920-26), developing good enough English skills to serve as player-manager and lead the team to pennants (1923-25). In the '24 Negro League World Series, he put himself back on the mound for in four games, winning two including a shutout in the deciding-game victory over Hilldale.
Respect followed him. Often when he'd enter a restaurant in Cuba, diners would give him a standing ovation. Mendez enjoyed a status no other Afro-Cuban athlete held, paving the way for Kid Chocolate, the world featherweight boxing champion, to enjoy a similar respect that transcended race.
During the time that Mendez was denied his chance in the Majors, a light-skinned fellow Cuban, Dolf Luque, was signed by Boston in 1914 to begin a 20-year career. Luque, who dealt with discrimination on and off the field throughout his career, never forgot the star pitcher left behind because of color. After Mendez won 27 games for the Reds in 1923, he returned to Havana for a celebration and spotted Mendez in the grandstand. Luque approached Mendez. Wording differs in various accounts, but the message that Luque conveyed is consistent:
"This parade should have been for you. Certainly, you're a far better pitcher than I am."
On Oct. 31, 1928, two years after his last game, Mendez was gone, felled by illness, tuberculosis according to most accounts. But nearly 11 years after his death, he was inducted into the first class of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame.
Nothing could contain Mendez's talent. Not the island, not a segregated professional baseball world, not even disease.
Only the highest halls of honor can hold "El Diamante Negro."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less