Images of Béisbol in Mexico: Star Negro Leaguers, House of David, and More Photo Rarities from Mexico, Part IV

The Babe Watches Béisbol (ca. 1952, Mexico City) (Via Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México).

This project is arranged into four installments (this being the final installment) to better manage the wide span of years and the archival finds that cover a wide range of baseball subjects. That includes anonymous players, some of whom are mere boys and girls, as well as Hall of Fame baseball legends.

As it stands, these photographs represent a significant piece of history—a history of the international game that is baseball. The following photos provide insights into early Mexican baseball, including the Mexican Baseball League (or Liga Mexicana de Béisbol). The photos date back at least as far as 1915 and continue on through the 1940s.

Historic Images of Béisbol in Mexico: 1940s, Continued

Veracruz Ballplayer (ca. 1940-45, Mexico City,)
Catalog Title: Jugador de Veracruz muestra su brazo, retrato

Machismo aside, players certainly had to be tough in the Mexican League. In Jugador de Veracruz muestra su brazo, retrato, an unidentified Veracruz player flexes his muscles. He appears to be a member of the Azules de Veracruz or Veracruz Blues—as opposed to the Veracruz Reds or “Reds of the Eagle,” as goes a literal translation of Rojos del Águila de Veracruz, whose uniforms sometimes featured Águila spelled out or a large, cursive “A” ornamented by a pair of eagle’s wings. However, with this uniform, the Veracruz Blues historically preferred a more direct branding as the eponymous team of the city.

While the Veracruz Reds managed to operate in Veracruz until recently (relocating to Nuevo Laredo for the 2018 season), the Blues had a comparatively brief run in the Mexican Baseball League from 1940 to ’51. Though their existence may have been short-lived, for a time the Veracruz Blues featured some of the biggest stars of the Negro Leagues, including “Cool Papa” Bell, Josh Gibson, “Double Duty” Radcliffe, and Monte Irvin, among others.

Looking Out from Dugout (ca. 1940-45, Mexico City)
Catalog Title: Beisbolista del equipo San Luis en la banca, retrato

The title Beisbolista del equipo San Luis en la banca, retrato, together with the uniforms pictured, confirms that these unidentified players were members of the Tuneros de San Luis, of the city of San Luis Potosí. The Tuneros, or Cactus Pear Growers (tuna being what the cactus pear is commonly called), are a well-documented team, albeit one with a sporadic record of success throughout much of the Mexican Baseball League’s history, according to Baseball Reference. During their early years, Negro League player and Hall of Fame inductee Martín Dihigo was perhaps the most notable ballplayer for the club when he served as a player-manager for the 1947 Tuneros.

Martín Dihigo, with boy (ca. 1940-45, Mexico City)
Catalog Title: Martín Dhigo y niño, retrato [sic]

A sharply attired young boy stands at the side of Martín Dihigo. Dihigo, also known as “El Inmortal,” looks on with a narrowed, determined gaze. This historical artifact raises more questions than it answers. Is the boy just another fan, or is he a relation to Dihigo? Is he perhaps Dihigo’s own son? If the photograph’s attributed date is accurate, the boy pictured would be far too old to be Dihigo’s eldest son, Martín Dihigo Jr. But perhaps the date is incorrect; at least one other error exists in the misspelling of Dihigo’s name, thereby obscuring the artifact from initial catalog searches.

Cuban baseball historian Peter C. Bjarkman also notes in his SABR article on Dihigo that Martín Jr. was, in fact, not born until 1943. Meanwhile, the photo’s attributed date in the catalog is circa 1940-45. To complicate the matter further, Dihigo played for the Veracruz Reds in 1937 through ’39—but again in 1950. Not only does Dihigo appear older and in the later stages of his career in the photo, close inspection of the jersey and cap reveals a possible match to the Veracruz Reds’ winged A insignia, for Águila. In light of these variables, the boy pictured could be Dihigo’s son.

Kin or not, it might be more fitting that the boy in the photo stands in for all of Dihigo’s youthful fans from the many places where he played on tour: the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and the U.S. Actually, Dihigo’s career has been honored with enshrinement in the respective Hall of Fame for each of those latter four countries. After all, here is a player revered by the likes of Minnie Miñoso, another Cuban diamond legend.

In Nick Wilson’s Early Latino Ballplayers in the United States, Miñoso fondly recalls his fateful encounter with Dihigo. Miñoso was a youngster given the privilege, upon asking, to carry his hero’s shoes and glove en route to the stadium, whereupon arriving, Miñoso was rewarded with a free ticket to the game and even private instructions later. From that day on, “‘Dihigo was my idol.’”

Dihigo earned his status as a baseball idol throughout much of Latin America during his career, although it was not until his election to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1977 that many others learned of him for the first time. But some accomplishments can only be overlooked for so long. In the Negro Leagues alone, “he won three home-run crowns and hit .370 or better six times, including breaking the .400 level twice,” none of which would intimate his simultaneous success on the mound with a pitching record of 30-21. On top of that, there is the playing time to consider from various leagues in Latin America, where the achievements become even more staggering.

Bjarkman provides a colorful introduction to Dihigo in a game with the 1938 Mexican League pennant at stake. Dihigo pitched opposite the consummate showman Satchel Paige. Bjarkman illustrates Dihigo’s stunning, multifaceted talents on the field:

Thus Spoke Baseball: Another Look at the Language of the Game
In other words, baseball gets the glossary it deserves.

Paige’s formidable opponent that day would eventually amass an 18–2 record with a microscopic 0.92 ERA (and a league-best 184 Ks) before the wrap-up of that same summer season.

Both aces dueled for eight innings of a 1–1 deadlock before Paige…[succumbed]. In the ninth frame[,] the league’s leading hitter brought his .387 average to the plate against yet another imported Cuban hurler, Ramón Bragaña, who had just relieved the wilted Paige. The tension was quickly erased when the star batsman [of team Águila] crushed one of Bragaña’s best offerings over the distant center field wall for a dramatic walk-off homer [against team Agrario].

If one were to spice this story by announcing that the league-leading pitcher and the league-leading hitter were twin brothers, a reader could not be blamed for dismissing the veracity of the tall tale. And yet the truth in this case is even more incredible than almost any imagined Hollywood-style plot. The star Cuban hurler and the .387 hitter—not to mention the pennant-winning manager—were in fact all one and the same remarkable athlete.

Most accounts of Dihigo’s playing days read like myth-making anecdotes—and maybe rightly so, given the skill and flair for drama Dihigo is said to have brought to the sport. These stories are supported by his exceedingly impressive career numbers: for pitching, a combined 218–106 winter-league and Negro league record; while batting, 5,496 at-bats, 1,660 hits, 134 home runs, and a .304 batting average.

And those are just the known figures. What of the unknowns, the seasons of data lost, the white pages left blank in the history books, as is so often the lamentable case with this era and its marginalized players and teams. But still Dihigo’s legacy stands and continues to grow.

One tale that is atypical of Dihigo anecdotes and is rarely included in biographical pieces about “El Inmortal” reveals some degree of mortal awareness. Discussing the era’s aggressive style of play, outfielder and first baseman Ted Page remembered the rough “‘Ty Cobb slider’” days of old. In a markedly jovial tone, Page shared one memorable episode of the great Cuban beisbolista:

I remember one day when I was with the Brooklyn Royals, Martín Dihigo was playing shortstop. I slid into him, and you know how I slid, I undressed him. The ball went into center field; Dihigo, I don’t know what way he went. Next day Dihigo pitched. He threw at me—I don’t mean he threw high, I mean he threw at me…So I drug the ball down first base so Dihigo would have to cover first. That was the only way I could get back at him, and [he knew] that I was after him. There was nobody but him and I there…You know where he went? He went into right field. He didn’t go near the bag! Straight to right field.

While not the most heroic moment of his career, it does offer a glimpse of a spirited Dihigo, who in the face of such hazardous adversity played baseball like the game it was intended to be.

Of course, the somber truth about Dihigo’s era again hangs over both his comical and laudable performances. It’s the same sinister, shameful practice that for decades kept some of the greatest athletes out of major league baseball. Like so many of the talented, dedicated black ballplayers who shared the field with Dihigo, the inescapable shroud of racial segregation looms. Few baseball historians express this sentiment better than Bjarkman as he reminds readers of Dihigo’s other celebrated moniker, “El Maestro”:

Yet “the Maestro” would sadly never have a chance to work his artistry on the grandest stage of all—an American League or National League ballpark. He had played a rich diamond music that was doomed to fall upon the deaf ears of a white-oriented sporting press up north. His concert halls simply always lay too far off the beaten baseball paths.

Ultimately, the real tragedy of Dihigo’s exclusion from the white major leagues is today impossible to dismiss—legendary status and much-delayed hall of fame enshrinements aside…There was the lamentable absence of a smoke-tossing Dihigo on the major league mound, in legendary combat with Lefty Grove or Bob Feller or Dizzy Dean; or perhaps an agile Dihigo roaming the same outfield with the young Joe DiMaggio…Dihigo himself never would know the sweet taste of glory that might have been his in a true big-league venue. And for a game so rich in historical records and fed by statistical documentation, the unarguable numbers by which each hero is measured are, in his case, simply not there…

The two Georges (Jorge Pasquel, right, misattributed as Bernardo; ca. 1940, Mexico City)
Catalog Title: Bernardo Pasquel y Babe Ruth dialogando con un beisbolista [sic]

To this day, one baseball player’s legendary status stands above all others. This remains true despite the sport’s expansive history and geography. In his relentless quest to heighten the Mexican League’s visibility and reputation, baseball impresario Jorge Pasquel aimed to enlist the help of that same legend. Pasquel pinned many high hopes and dollars on the idea. But things did not go according to plan.

Pasquel spoke of baseball’s then-neglected hero who was deeply pained never to have won a spot as a manager in the majors after such an illustrious playing career. “I believe he definitely would be a big drawing card as a manager in any league.” Pasquel was speaking of none other than Babe Ruth.

In the hopes of luring baseball’s biggest star from the U.S., Pasquel invited Ruth and his family for a two-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Mexico in May of 1946. Pasquel spared no expense in his efforts to entice the home run king. Ruth arrived in Mexico City and made a prompt but brief appearance before a ballpark crowd at Delta Park. He spoke a few words and soon after left the field. During a trip where he spent much of his time between golfing and visiting Acapulco, Ruth finally returned to Mexico City on May 30 for what was supposed to be his marquee appearance in front of Mexican League fans. Apart from one merciful break for Ruth near the end of a supposed hitting exhibition, the episode on the whole was a disaster, according to John Virtue:

Dressed in street clothes and wearing his golf shoes for traction, Ruth faced pitcher Ramón Bragaña…who was instructed to throw hittable balls. But the Babe kept fouling off the pitches or completely missing them—more than 30—and the crowd of 22,000 was getting impatient…Ernesto Carmona, the Mexico City manager who was standing along the third base line, accused Bragaña in Spanish of trying to make Ruth look bad.

Carmona and Bragaña would argue and come to blows over the matter in the clubhouse later. In the meantime, as the quarreling moved to the sidelines, a replacement came in to throw in Bragaña’s place. This time:

Ruth promptly hit a 390-foot homerun into the right center-field stands…[But] Pasquel did not offer any job to Ruth as he soon realized this 51-year-old, overweight man was in poor health. Ruth died in 1948 of nose and throat cancer.

Still, Pasquel and Ruth remained on friendly terms during the short remainder of Ruth’s life, and they would meet again during one of Pasquel’s not infrequent trips to New York. Although Pasquel’s plans for the Babe did not materialize, the occasion of Ruth’s visit to Mexico was nevertheless one of the most memorable moments for a man determined to garner the recognition he felt Mexican baseball deserved. According to Virtue: “For Jorge Pasquel, introducing Babe Ruth to Mexico’s fans was his greatest and most satisfying moment in baseball.”

The Babe Watches Béisbol (ca. 1940, Mexico City)
Catalog Title: Babe Ruth en instalaciones deportivas, retrato de grupo

A review of the baseball history literature, as well as baseball-specific digital image collections and archives available to the public, indicates these photographs rarely have been seen—and seldom published. Much deserved credit to go to the Fototeca Nacional del INAH for archiving these important artifacts in digital form and making them freely accessible. In addition, to encourage open-source research, I welcome informed reader feedback to clarify, improve, and add to our knowledge of the subjects depicted in these images, including dates, locations, teams, and players.

Unfortunately, I cannot make any claims of expertise in the realm of Mexican baseball history. One curious and striking attribute among the reviewed photos seems obvious: There are comparatively few recognizable, professional Mexican ballplayers. Clearly, many accomplished Mexican players participated in the Mexican Baseball League during this extended period. Researchers reviewed herein like Nick Wilson and John Virtue are useful sources to learn more about these individuals.

Also, the caveats about player identification are important to re-emphasize: Many identifications for the unattributed photos were necessarily achieved by sight comparisons with other known images published. However, much of the identification information was aided by and confirmed with the help of fellow baseball history enthusiasts.

Those limitations aside, I still hope readers and viewers find these images evocative and enlightening. These scenes remind us once more about the powerful global quality baseball possesses. In 1947, Jackie Robinson confronted spectators as well as fellow players with the fact too long overlooked about the talent brewing in the Negro Leagues: excellence in baseball, as in life, should be a racially diverse pursuit.

Indeed, baseball has proven itself to be a multicultural, multinational enterprise. Historians and archaeologists have discovered evidence of precursors to baseball in stick and ball games played across many civilizations, in courts of antiquity, and on far-flung fields. With this history, this plurality, comes a unique and transcendent beauty that baseball holds, one that is owned by no one–and everyone.

Notes:

INAH and its web servers are presently undergoing maintenance. As such, links to INAH and INAH’s own hosted files of these photos may be unavailable.

Photo catalog titles appear exactly as they are listed in INAH’s archive, including spelling errors or omissions of diacritics. All photos D.R. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México. All photos were accessed on January 5, 2018.

References and Resources

  • >Baseball-Reference
  • Peter C. Bjarkman, Society for American Baseball Research, SABR Bio Project, “Martin Dihigo.”
  • John Holway, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, Rev. ed., Dover, 2010.
  • SABR Baseball Biography Project, Society for American Baseball Research
  • John Virtue, South of the Color Barrier, McFarland, 2008
  • Nick C. Wilson, Early Latino Ballplayers in the United States: Major, Minor and Negro Leagues 1901-1949. McFarland, 2005.


M. G. Moscato’s work has appeared in CineAction, Spitball, Sports Collectors Digest, Aethlon, Stymie, Harpur Palate, among others. Read his blog Pulp Ephemera and follow him on Twitter @PulpEphemera.

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3 Comments on "Images of Béisbol in Mexico: Star Negro Leaguers, House of David, and More Photo Rarities from Mexico, Part IV"

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GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

The date of the second babe Ruth picture, showing him watching from the stands, could not have been 1952 as attributed since, as you say in the article, he died in 1948.

Jim
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Jim

All four segments were very interesting. Thanks.