Is it just me, or does Leo Cardenas’ head look unusually large on his 1973 Topps card? Perhaps it’s just a bad angle, or maybe it’s the awkward way that his cap sits atop of his head. Whatever the case, the size of his head so caught my attention that I decided to look at his other Topps cards as a means of comparison. Sure enough, Cardenas’ head, particularly his forehead, does look oversized on those other cards, too. It’s not quite of Hideki Matsui or Bruce Bochy proportions, but it does seem a little large in relation to his rather lithe 155-pound build.
Perhaps more significantly than that triviality, Cardenas also looks rather advanced in age—like he’s pushing his mid-60s—in this photograph. In actuality, he was only 33 when this photo was taken, and while that’s hardly ancient for a ballplayer, the reality is this: Cardenas was nearing the end of a long and productive professional career that had begun in the late 1950s. It’s a career that has been so overlooked and become so forgotten that some readers might be surprised to learn that Little Leo was one of the best shortstops of the 1960s. Granted, it was not a great era for shortstops, but Leo Cardenas stood out as the rare shortstop who combined legitimate power with slickness in the field.
Growing up in a massive family of 15 children, Cardenas was the son of former Negro Leagues player Rafael Cardenas. As one of the last ballplayers to escape Cuba prior to the rise of Fidel Castro, whose decision to close Cuba’s borders prevented athletes from leaving, Cardenas began his professional career playing in independent minor league ball. He was only 16 years old, but he lied about his age, claiming he was 17, to make himself eligible to play.
The teenaged shortstop debuted in 1956 for the Tucson Cowboys of the Arizona-Mexico League and played so well, clubbing 23 home runs and hitting .316, that he drew serious interest from the Reds. After the season, the Reds made a deal with the Cowboys, purchasing the contract of the allegedly 17-year-old Cardenas and assigning him to Savannah of the SALLY League.
Cardenas put up decent numbers for Class-A Savannah over the next two seasons, but they were hardly overwhelming. Still, the Reds decided to have him skip Double-A ball completely and have him jump all the way to Triple-A in 1959. As it turned out, the Reds had a working agreement with the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League. Cardenas could not have asked for more. “When I was a boy growing up, that was my dream, to play for the Sugar Kings,” Cardenas told John Erardi of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
As an added bonus, Cardenas had the chance to play for Preston Gomez, a Latino manager who understood the problems that young Spanish-speaking players faced in coming to the United States.
At times, Cardenas appeared overmatched playing for the Sugar Kings. He struck out 113 times and walked only 26 times, a terrible ratio at any level. He also played erratically in the field. On the plus side, he showed power, hitting 13 home runs and piling up 28 doubles.
And oh by the way, he also was shot during his first season with Havana! Some overzealous supporters of Castro began firing off rifles in the grandstand of the Havana ballpark. One of the stray bullets inadvertently struck Cardenas. Fortunately, he did not sustain any serious long-term injuries.
In 1960, Cardenas returned to Havana to continue his Triple-A indoctrination, but he and the rest of the Sugar Kings ran into an unprecedented road block. In the middle of the season, Castro announced that he would nationalize all U.S-owned enterprises located in Cuba, and that included the Sugar Kings. Under pressure from the U.S. Secretary of State, Commissioner Ford Frick announced that the Sugar Kings, in the middle of their season, would move to Jersey City.
Amidst the swirl of upheaval and an unwanted move out of Cuba, Cardenas showed improvement in his second go-round in the International League. A few weeks after the Sugar Kings relocated to Jersey City, the Reds promoted their young shortstop to Cincinnati.
A sub-500 team, the 1960 Reds needed plenty of help. In the middle of the season, starting shortstop Roy McMillan sustained a broken finger. The Reds called up Cardenas as a replacement. He impressed the Reds with his superior range if not with his .232 bat.
By 1961, the Reds were ready to make a change at shortstop, but it did not involve Cardenas—at least not yet. Instead they moved third baseman Eddie Kasko to shortstop, keeping Cardenas on the bench to start the season. Cardenas played sporadically over the first three months of the season, but by late July, the Reds realized a change needed to be made. They made Cardenas their regular, everyday shortstop, keeping him there through early September.
Not only did Cardenas bring far more range to the position than Kasko, but he also hit .308, reached base 35 per cent of the time, and slugged a highly respectable .485. With Cardenas solidifying shortstop, and Frank Robinson, Gordy Coleman, and Gene Freese fortifying a powerful offensive attack, the Reds took the National League pennant by four games over the Dodgers.
Yet, the stretch run of the regular season saw Cardenas yield the starting position to Kasko once again. Cardenas became a late-inning defensive caddy, even though his offensive numbers outshined Kasko’s.
The trend continued in the postseason. Cardenas received only three at-bats, doubling once, in the World Series, leaving him helpless to assist the overmatched Reds against the mighty Yankees. The Reds lost a one-sided Series in five games.
In several ways, it was a bitter ending to a breakthrough season, but the stop-and-go pattern of playing would end in the spring of 1962. Reds skipper Fred Hutchinson moved Kasko back to third base and made Cardenas his shortstop, unequivocally. Leo responded with a fine season. He batted .294, drew 39 walks, and hit 10 home runs. He also gave the Reds a strong defensive presence in the middle infield, where he teamed with veteran second baseman Don Blasingame.
Cardenas also brought a large degree of superstition to the Reds’ clubhouse. He sometimes showered in his full Reds uniform, claiming that it was a good way to stave off evil spirits. He also displayed a strange fear of the letter X. Some particularly cruel opponents would scratch an X in the dirt near shortstop, with the intent of throwing him off his game. And once, when Cardenas struggled through a deep batting slump, he locked all of his bats into the trunk of his car.
Superstition didn’t help him in 1963, when his offensive game fell off badly. He walked only 23 times as his batting average fell off to .235. The 1963 season also saw the arrival of a new second baseman, a rookie named Pete Rose. Cardenas became the young switch-hitter’s first double play partner.
The following season, Rose and Cardenas formed one of the league’s better middle infields, at least offensively. Cardenas committed a career-high 32 errors, but he regained some of the hitting prowess he had shown in his first two seasons. In making his first All-Star Game, Cardenas lifted his batting average to .251, hit nine home runs, and collected 69 RBIs. He also played in all 163 games, as the Reds finished second during a whirlwind pennant race.
Though Cardenas played well, the second-to-last game of the season produced two infamous incidents that he would come to regret. With the Reds leading the Phillies, 3-0, and on the verge of taking over first place, Philadelphia left-hander Chris Short hit Cardenas with a fastball in the back. Overreacting, Cardenas began walking toward Short with his bat in his hand.
The incident awakened the Phillies, who rallied to win the game. Cardenas compounded his lack of judgment by allowing an easy pop-up to fall between him and Rose.
After the game, Reds pitcher Jim O’Toole angrily confronted Cardenas. Leo again overreacted, grabbing an ice pick. Thankfully, other Reds players intervened before any real damage could be done.
The two incidents would not mark the last time that Cardenas’ fits of temper betrayed him. But in the short term, he put aside his anger and put his game completely together in 1965. He reduced his errors, increased his batting average to .287, drew 60 walks (25 of the intentional variety), and hit 11 home runs.
Cardenas’ defensive play also took a step up. For the first time in his career, he won the Gold Glove. “Cardenas has proved that he is almost the indispensable man,“ write Si Burick of the Dayton Daily News. “He makes the difficult play routine, and he makes the routine play.” Now known as “Mr. Automatic,” Cardenas seemed to convert every ground ball toward short into an out.
Cardenas also picked up another nickname, one that was attached to several Latino ballplayers of his era. Members of the media called him “Chico,” the Spanish word for little boy. Even Cardenas’ baseball cards listed him as Chico. Cardenas never expressed much resentment, but some baseball historians considered it an insulting nickname for a grown man.
While Cardenas would never match the all-around productivity of his 1965 season, he did manage to increase his power output in 1966. Practically doubling his home run total, he reached the seats 20 times and again led the league in intentional walks. While most of the shortstops around the league represented easy outs at the bottom of the order, Cardenas remained a legitimate and frequent power threat.
Over the next two seasons, injuries limited Cardenas’ playing time and his production. In 1968, he feuded with Reds manager Dave Briston, leading to speculation that Cincinnati might leave him unprotected in the expansion draft. Instead the Reds made a trade. Reds general manager Bob Howsam, concerned that Cardenas had lost too much range as he approached his 30th birthday, made a one-for-one deal with the Twins. Needing some pitching, Howsam and the Reds sent Cardenas to Minnesota for left-handed starter Jim Merritt.
The trade proved to be a perfect fit for the Twins and Cardenas. Needing a veteran double play partner for Rod Carew and a rangy shortstop to take pressure off Harmon Killebrew at third base, the Twins had tried everybody from Jackie Hernandez and Ron Clark to Rick Renick and Cesar Tovar. All were found wanting at shortstop. The Twins found their answer in Cardenas. He played brilliantly in the field, as he posted a career-high range factor of 5.44 per nine innings. He was no slouch at the plate either, hitting a lively .280 with a career-high 66 walks.
Placing 12th in the MVP race, Cardenas put up two more productive seasons as a Twin. Even at 32, he appeared to have plenty left in the tank. But the Twins wanted to make room for their top shortstop prospect, Danny Thompson, so they traded Cardenas to the Angels for hard-throwing young left-hander Dave LaRoche.
In retrospect, the Twins traded Cardenas at just the right time. His hitting for the Angels declined badly, both in terms of his ability to make contact and hit for power. The Angels brought him back for spring training in 1973, but Leo didn’t make it through to Opening Day. Just before the start of the season, the Angels shipped him to Cleveland for journeyman outfielder Tom McCraw and minor league infielder Bob Marcano.
Cardenas’ days as an everyday shortstop had ended. The Indians made him a backup shortstop and third baseman, but he didn’t hit in his new role and headed to Texas for journeyman catcher Ken Suarez. After an unproductive season as a Rangers utility man, Cardenas received his release, ending his career.
As he moved from baseball to the next phase of his life, Cardenas did not adapt well. Since he had grown up poor, he had little sense of saving his money or investing it. He tended to spend what he earned. He worked a variety of irregular jobs, including work pumping gas and mowing lawns. He also never became an American citizen, despite twice marrying women from the states.
In 1998, Cardenas reached rock bottom. One day, he became jealous when he noticed his wife sitting in a car and having lunch with one of his co-workers. Becoming enraged, he took a baseball bat and promptly smashed in the windows of the car. As the co-worker ran from the car and began making his way toward the police station, Cardenas took another swing with the bat and broke the man’s arm. Convicted of felonious assault, he had to spend three months in jail, followed by five years of probation, and also had to agree to pay restitution to the injured man.
Cardenas has done his time and now makes regular appearances for the Reds at Great American Ballpark and at the annual FanFest event. After so many struggles, his life appears headed in a better directions. His friends say that he is basically a good-hearted man and fun to be around, but that his temper sometimes interferes.
Hopefully, as he moves into his seventies, his temper will become less of a problem. It would be nice for him to find some inner peace, especially after he played for so long without receiving much money or acclaim. That would be a fitting way to enjoy retirement for the man known as “Mr. Automatic.”