Adolfo “Dolf” Luque de Guzman was a former Cuban baseball icon. The Havana native pitched in both the Cuban winter league and Major Leagues from 1911-1945.
A polished right-hander with a superb down-breaking curve, Luque was the best pitcher in the National League in 1923, when he was 27-8 with a 1.93 ERA for the Cincinnati Reds. His greatest glory in American baseball came a decade later, when as a New York Giant he threw four innings of shutout ball against the Washington Senators in the final game of the 1933 World Series. (Mel Ott’s eleventh-inning homer won it for the Cuban and his fellow Giants.)
Luque made his debut for the Habana Leones in 1911, but moved to the crosstown rival Almendares the following season. He spent most of his career with the team. Like fellow compañero Martin Dihigo, Luque also served as player-manager. Unlike Dihigo, however, he did it for most of his Cuban league playing career.
As a pitcher in the Major Leagues, he was able to slip through baseball’s colour barrier by being light-skinned with blue eyes. Writer Gonzalez Echavarria said of Luque: he was a “snarling, vulgar, cursing, aggressive pug, who, although small at five-seven, was always ready to fight.”
These traits served Luque well in the racist United States of the early to mid 1900s. Despite being fair, as soon as Luque opened his mouth the jig was up.
Opposing teams would relentlessly fire racial taunts aimed at Luque whenever he toed the pitching rubber. In retaliation, Luque would fire nasty beanballs at opposing hitters. Once during a game vs. New York, Giants player Casey Stengel allegedly screamed “Cuban Nigger” at Luque from his dugout while Dolf was pitching. Dolf placed his glove and ball on the mound and ran into the Giants dugout – punching Stengel in the face.
This wasn’t the first or the last that Luque had lost his temper in his career. In fact he was notorious for it.
While with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a heckler in the stands hollered “Lucky Luque! Lucky Luque!” repeatedly. Luque went over to the dugout and told manager Wilbert Robinson, “I tell you, Robbie, if this guy don’t shut up, I’m gonna shut him up.”
“Aw, come on, Dolf,” said the manager. “He paid his way in–let him boo.” Just then the heckler spotted the rotund Robinson and yelled, “Hey, fat belly!” Robinson said, “OK, Dolf–go ahead and clobber the jerk.” Luque obliged his manager’s request.
On one occasion Luque threw a fastball into his own team’s dugout Kenny Powers-style and chased a teammate with an icepick.
As manager, his players both respected and feared him. During a playoff series, Luque insisted that his star pitcher Terris McDuffie pitch on 2 days rest. McDuffie refused.
Luque: You gotta pitch McDuffie! I need you!
McDuffie: I told you, I will not.
L: I need you!
M: I am not pitching today.
L: Step into my office.
As McDuffie followed Luque back to the manager’s office, all of the players shook their heads, worried. Since both men were quite heated they knew nothing good could come of it. They knew the temperament of Luque and knew that his fiery temper was partly responsible for his success in America. When Luque shut the door of his office, the players huddled around the door to listen to what would happen.
Luque yelled at McDuffie to sit down. McDuffie sat while Luque went to the desk and drew a pistol from a drawer. Pointing the gun at McDuffie, Luque said: “Now, motherfucker, are you going to pitch or not?”
McDuffie walked out of his office and didn’t say a word to any of his teammates. He only approached his catcher and said “let’s warm up.” That day McDuffie pitched a complete game 2-hitter and led Almendares to victory.
As manager, Luque was at the helm for one of the most memorable pennant races in the history of Cuban baseball.
It was the 1946-47 season. With less than a month remaining, the Habana Leones had a commanding 6 1/2-game lead over Almendares and looked poised to coast to yet another league pennant.
Almendares had a different idea. They reeled off 13 victories in their final 14 games to edge Habana for the league’s championship. The Leones faltered down the stretch, finishing with a 5-8 record in their final 14 games. Six of Habana’s losses came against Almendares when they played head-to-head. Of those six, a critical 3-game sweep in the final 3 games occured thanks largely to the efforts of Almendares pitchers Max Lanier and Agapito Mayor.
With Almendares needing to win each of their three games against Habana, Max Lanier pitched the Alacranes (Scorpions) to a 4-2 victory in the first game. Mayor took the hill the next day as Almendares won 2-1, setting up the winner-take-all finale.
Fans began lining up outside El Gran Stadium early that Tuesday morning, hours before the gates opened at 10 a.m. With the stadium filled to capacity, some fans dared to climb the light towers beyond the outfield walls for a glimpse of the historic game.
“It was bedlam,”’ Felo Ramirez, who called the series over Cuban radio as a 22-year-old broadcaster, recalled during a 1994 interview. “Cuba was paralyzed. The country shut down. … No one worked that day.”
In the Almendares clubhouse, a scene reminiscent of Luque’s “negotiation” with McDuffie took place. Adolfo Luque approached Lanier about pitching in the decisive game on one-day’s rest. Lanier, during one of several interviews in the mid-1990s, described the negotiations this way:
Luque: “We’ll give you $500 if you pitch the third game and win it.”
Lanier: “I won’t pitch it that way. I’ll pitch it for $500, win or lose because I only have one day’s rest.”
Perhaps softening in his old age, Luque agreed and Lanier went on to strike out seven as Almendares cruised to a 9-2 victory and won the league championship.
After the game, jubilant Almendares fans paraded a stuffed lion in a small, makeshift casket for a funeral procession through the streets of Havana as wild celebrations erupted throughout the city.
Buck O’Neil, the legendary Negro Leaguer and baseball ambassador, played only one season in Cuba and it was for that 1946-47 Almendares team. He remembered the baseball championship that season launched the game’s most memorable celebration on the streets of Havana:
“Whew, they turned it out,” famed Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil, who played first base for Almendares that winter recalled during a 1999 interview. “Everybody was excited. They had people riding all over the streets in cars, hanging onto streetcars, blowing horns, with ribbons and banners and everything. Oh, Havana was outstanding, really.”
In 30 seasons as a manager in Cuba, Luque compiled a 705-641 record, winning 11 pennants, mostly with Almendares.
In 20 major-league seasons as a pitcher, The Pride of Havana, compiled a 194-175 career record with a 3.24 ERA. When his major league playing career was over, Luque was a pitching coach for the New York Giants and a title-winning manager in the Mexican League. For more on Dolf Luque, check out Roberto Gonzalez Echavarria’s The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.
Dolf was loved by famous American writer Ernest Hemingway, a Cuban baseball fanatic. Luque even is mentioned in Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea:
“Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez? — I think they are equal.”
Luque’s career statistics: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/luquedo01.shtml
Here is a video showing Luque coaching third base: