September 7, 1999

Cuban baseball great pushed for lacks' rights

By Tracey Eaton / The Dallas Morning News 09/04/99

MEXICO CITY - Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues, Cuban baseball player Martin Dihigo already was speaking out against prejudice.

Considered by some to be one of the finest baseball players of all time, Mr. Dihigo wasn't just another great but unheralded Cuban athlete. He was a thinker, an idealist, a fierce nationalist who backed Fidel Castro's revolution of 1959. He spoke out against discrimination and stood up for black players like himself long before it was fashionable.

And, his son said, he was tough yet compassionate.

"He taught me a lot of things, like how to eat soup. 'Don't move your head toward the spoon,' he used to say. 'Move the spoon toward your head,' " said Gilberto Dihigo, 47, a Cuban journalist who lives in Mexico City.

Martin Dihigo, who died of heart trouble in 1971 just days shy of his 65th birthday, pitched like Satchel Paige and hit like Babe Ruth. He paved the way for other black players in the 1930s and '40s, his son said. And he was among the few players ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in three countries - Cuba, the United States and Mexico.

The Florida Marlins on Saturday plan to honor the late Mr. Dihigo and five other Latin American baseball players. Gilberto Dihigo will be there.

"My father was a man who spoke his mind. He wasn't the kind to beat around the bush. He had convictions."

Mr. Dihigo, who moved to Mexico six years ago, has just finished a book about his father. The book, yet to be published, contains new revelations about Martin Dihigo. He wasn't a cheerful, happy-go-lucky player, as some baseball historians have described him. He was serious and thoughtful and fought against the kind of prejudice black players saw before Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues in 1947.

"When he played in the Negro leagues in the United States, he was a victim of discrimination," his son said. "Hotels and restaurants sometimes shut him out because of the color of his skin. He despised that. He thought it was ridiculous and humiliating for blacks."

Martin Dihigo was born May 25, 1906, near the Cuban town of Matanzas. By 13, he was already playing baseball with grown men. His father, Benito, strongly disapproved.

"He said, 'A man without a trade is nobody,' " Gilberto Dihigo said, quoting his grandfather.

So Martin Dihigo began to learn wood-working. But the lure of baseball was too strong and by 1923, at just 17 years of age, he was playing professional baseball in Cuba.

He quickly distinguished himself as a pitcher, but he was incredibly versatile, playing at one time or another all nine positions.

Martin Dihigo, affectionately known as El Negro, soon traveled to the United States to play with the Cuban Stars.

He made $100 to $125 per month and played as many as 143 games a season.

"The pay was miserable, and the working conditions were terrible," Gilberto Dihigo said. "Players back then passed the hat after games to collect money."

But if there weren't many fans, the players went hungry, he said.

Despite such conditions, Martin Dihigo excelled, playing 21 seasons in Cuba, the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico, and batting 10 times over .300.

"Players then had no television, no videos of their games, of their opponents. They had no doctors. If they had an injury, they treated it themselves," Gilberto Dihigo said.

Martin Dihigo left Cuba in protest after Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista's coup in 1953. He returned to the island just days after Fidel Castro's 1959 peasant revolt, "full of hope" and eager "to join the fledgling Cuban revolution," his son writes.

"He admired Fidel Castro at first. But in the end, I think he was disappointed with the revolution," Gilberto Dihigo said.

In 1977, Martan Dihigo became the first Latin American player to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

John Holway, author of Blackball Stars, writes that Mr. Dihigo "had an arm like a jai alai player - in fact, better. Once, a jai alai player using a basket-like cesta flung the ball and hit center field wall with one bounce. Dihigo wound up his bare arm and sailed the ball over the wall."

"He loved to throw out baserunners, chiding them, 'You no run on me, boy, you no run on me!'"

The five other players to be honored Saturday by the Marlins will be:

Juan Marichal, a Dominican who won 243 games during 16 seasons with the San Francisco Giants; Orlando Cepeda, a Puerto Rican who was one of the best-hitting first basemen of the 1960s; the late Roberto Clemente, also of Puerto Rico, an outfielder who topped the .300 mark 13 times; Rod Carew, of Panama, called a "wizard with the bat" who lined, chopped and bunted his way to 3,053 hits; and Luis Aparicio, a graceful Venezuelan shortstop who still holds the record for most games, at 2,581.

Gilberto Dihigo said he's proud. "My father fought to make things better for black players," he said. "It's important to remember people like him because without knowing what happened in the past, there is no future."

©1999 The Dallas Morning News



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