“I say he was the best player of all-time, black or white.” – Buck Leonard
Martin Dihigo is a Cuban baseball legend. He is also considered one of the greatest - if not the greatest – 2-way players in baseball history. Dihigo accumulated 250 pro wins as a pitcher and won 2 batting titles as a position player. He was a 5-tool stud and a fine defensive player. “Terrible” Ted Page has said Dihigo’s throwing arm from the outfield was better than that of Roberto Clemente.
Dihigo was born in Matanzas, Cuba – about an hour and a half drive east of Havana. At age 17 Dihigo began his pro-career in the Cuban Winter League. The year was 1923. Since the Negro League teams had such slim profit margins, often teams carried only 14 to 18 players. The most valuable player to a team was usually the one who could play several positions adequately. Although Dihigo started out as a strong-armed light hitting outfielder, his value grew considerably since he grew up playing every position on the diamond except for catcher. Not only could he play all positions, but he was a star in each and every one of them. In other words he was the ultimate utility player.
Martin Dihigo’s career lasted well over 20 years and each season he played year-round. The 6’4″ 210-pound Dihigo dominated leagues in three different countries. He played in the Cuban Winter League, the Negro Leagues and the Mexican League. He also dabbled in the Dominican Republic and Venezuelan baseball.
- In 1935, assumed the role of player-manager of the New York Cubans. That season he hit for an average of .355 with 9 ding-dongs. His 9 homers tied Oscar Charleston for third in the Negro National League behind only Josh Gibson and Mule Suttles and his 4 triples tied him for 4th. He was also fifth with six stolen bases, tied for fourth in winning percentage and fifth in ERA.
- In his first full season in the Cuban Winter League in seven years, Dihigo was the player-manager for Santa Clara in 1935-1936. Dihigo led the Cuban Winter League in most hitting and pitching categories. He led the league in average (.358), runs (42), hits (63, tied with Willie Wells), triples (8), RBI (38, tied with Bill Perkins), winning percentage (.846), complete games (13), victories (11) and shutouts (4). He won his second MVP award. He guided Santa Clara to the title with a 34-14 record.
- With the New York Cubans in 1936, he hit .331, went 7-4 and guided the club to a 22-23 season. His 13 homers were fourth behind Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles and Josh Gibson and his 9 doubles led the league. His 35 strikeouts were fifth-most among pitchers.
- Dihigo spent most of the 1937 season with the Aguilas Cibaeñas club in the Dominican League. He tied for the league lead in homers, hit .351 (third) and went 6-4 (second in wins to Satchel Paige). He also pitched for the Veracruz Eagles of the Mexican League, going 4-0 with a 0.93 ERA, a .78 WHIP and 51 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings and threw a no-hitter against Nogales on September 16, the first no-hitter in Mexican League history. He hit .357/~.419/.643 in Mexico that year, driving in 12 runs in 7 games. That winter, he went 14-2 in Cuba to lead the league in wins by six, though he hit only .253. He threw two separate no-hitters in Puerto Rico and Venezuela following his Mexican no-no.
- Dihigo was 18-2 for Veracruz with a 0.92 ERA in 1938, allowing only 104 hits and 32 walks in 167 innings, striking out 184. Among pitchers with over 100 innings, it remains the lowest ERA in the history of the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (LMB aka the Mexican League) and his .900 winning percentage would not be matched for 50 years. Dihigo twice beat Hall-of-Famer Satchel Paige that year, including one game in which Dihigo helped his cause by going 6 for 6 with a homer. The six-hit game came on September 18 and was the first time a Mexican League player had that many hits in a contest. On June 4, he struck out 22 batters in a 13-inning contest. Dihigo also won the batting title after a .387/~.482/.599 turn at the plate.
- In 1938/1939 Dihigo returned to Havana, Cuba and had his 4th straight season of double-digit wins- tying the record. Dihigo was 14-2 but only hit .255 with one homer. He easily led the Cuban Winter League in both winning percentage and victories, 3 ahead of Ray Brown, Alex Carrasquel and Cocaina Garcia.
- In 1939, Dihigo batted .337/~.429/.508 for Veracruz and went 15-8, 2.90 on the hill. He completed 20 of 23 starts and whiffed 202 batters (a league record at that point) and walked only 42 in 202 innings. Dihigo hit .291 and was 6-4 for Cienfuegos in 1939-1940. One of his losses was against 19-year-old Early Wynn, a future Hall-of-Famer. He managed the team part of the season and they finished in second place.
- Back in the Mexican League in 1946, the 40 year old Dihigo hit .316/~.427/.441 for Torreon. He out-hit all the white big-leaguers who came south that year lured by large contracts offered by Jorge Pasquel (organizer of the Mexican League). He did not lead the league in average as Mexican Bobby Avila and fellow Cubans like Claro Duany and Nap Reyes fared even better at the plate. Dihigo went 11-4, 2.83 on the mound for Torreon and led the league in winning percentage, beating out the likes of Sal Maglie and Max Lanier (two prominent major leaguers who had come to Mexico with the high salaries offered that year).
- Overall Dihigo was 107-56 in Cuba and ranks as the all-time Cuban Winter League leader in wins (one ahead of Dolf Luque) and complete games (120). He was only tenth in losses despite his lead in wins. He was fourth in games pitched (248), second in seasons pitched (trailing Luque, 22 to 19) and fourth in winning percentage. He was 8th all-time in runs (356), 9th in doubles (100) and tied with Silvio Garcia for 4th in triples (44). Dihigo won four Cuban Winter League MVP awards, the most of any player.
- He was 119-57, 2.84 in the Mexican League and hit .317/~.420/.490 over his career. He is seventh all-time in the Mexican League in ERA among pitchers with between 1,000 and 2,000 innings and first with a .676 winning percentage.
- In the Negro Leagues Dihigo was 29-26 as a pitcher and hit .299 with 69 homers. Despite only spending less than half of his career in the Negro Leagues, he is 12th all-time in homers. Overall, he was 255-139 as a pitcher, not including his time in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.
Upon retiring from baseball Dihigo became a radio broadcaster for Cuban League Games. In 1952 he fled Cuba as a protest towards the government of Fulgencio Batista. His playing days were over, but as it turned out, he had not yet had his greatest impact on Cuban baseball. In 1952 Dihigo met someone whom he would later describe as a “smiling young man in a Prussian-blue suit” at a restaurant in Mexico City. It was Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Subsequently Dihigo gave modest financial support to the Granma expedition, which launched Fidel Castro’s over throw of Batista.
Dihigo returned to Cuba after Castro’s successful revolution in 1959. He became minister of sports under Castro’s new communist regime. He also spent time developing an interlocking system of amateur baseball leagues for all levels from grade school youths to the best adult players in the country. He then taught baseball in Matanzas, and created national standards to be established for the technical aspects of the game.
Martin Dihigo was inducted to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1951, the Salon de la Fama (Mexican Hall of Fame) in 1964, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1977 (by the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues – featuring Buck O’Neil). He was the first person to be part of all three Halls; Monte Irvin later followed. Dihigo was later inducted into the Venezeulan Baseball Hall of Fame.
Dihigo is buried in Cruces, Cuba and there is a bust depicting Martin Dihigo at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana Cuba where he is known as “El Immortal.”