The Greatest Of Them All

He was as versatile as Pete Rose, but with a slick glove wherever he played. Indeed in a poll conducted in the early 80s among ex-Negro Leaguers and various experts on black baseball, Dihigo garnered votes both as the best outfielder and third baseman of all time. Ultimately he was voted to the first team all-time black all-star team as a second baseman. He was an ace pitcher, a switch hitting batting champion, and an MVP who often played every position on the diamond during games (although various sources disagree whether he saw time at catcher). As a pitcher he had superb control; as a hitter, he had incredible plate discipline. Those that saw him play remarked:

“Dihigo was one of the greatest I ever saw. He was tremendous hitter, had great power, could hit for an average, everything.” —Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, Brooklyn Dodgers

“Dihigo was the best all around baseball player I’ve ever seen.”—Hall of Famer Buck Leonard

The greatest player I ever saw was a black man. He’s in the Hall of Fame, although not a lot of people have heard of him. His name is Martin Dihigo. I played with him in Santo Domingo in winter ball in 1943. He was the manager … I thought I was havin’ a pretty good year myself down there and they were walkin’ him to get to me.” —Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants and New York Yankees

He was inducted into four separate baseball Hall of Fames: America’s, Cuba’s, Mexico’s and the Dominican Republic’s—in baseball history he’s the only player to hold this distinction. Granted, statistics are sketchy for the old Negro, Mexican and Cuban Leagues (although we have some which we’ll deal with later) but what is known is impressive.

He was a lifetime .305 hitter with 142 home runs in 6119 AB. As a pitcher he went 261-143. These numbers don’t include the three seasons he played in Venezuela between the ages of 26-28.

Not surprisingly he was known as “El Maestro” in Mexico and “El Immortal” in Cuba.

Martín Magdaleno Dihigo was born May 24, 1905 in Matanzas, Cuba. He began his career in the Cuban Winter League in 1923 playing first base at age 18. Later that year he debuted in America as a second baseman for the Cuban Stars in the Eastern Colored League. Five years later he moved on to the Homestead Grays and spent time with the Philadelphia Hilldales (where he hit 18 HR, 21 SB while batting .386 in just 65 games and went 4-2 on the mound in 1929), the Baltimore Black Sox, and the New York Cubans.

During his time in the Negro Leagues, there are records of DiHigo’s statistics for the 1923-31, 1935-36, and 1945 seasons. Topping the .300 mark six times in those 12 seasons, he hit .325 and lead the league with 11 home runs in just 40 games in 1926, and in 1935 he hit .333 and lead the league in home runs again, with 9 in 42 games. His overall Negro League numbers show a .295 career batting average and a 6-1 record as a pitcher in 1931. Dihigoalso played in Cuba from 1922-29 and 1931-46 for a total of 24 seasons. Like his Negro League history, the record of his Cuban career is sketchy, but for the seasons that were documented (1922-29, 1931, 1935-46), he topped .300 nine times and ended up batting .291. He was 93-48 as a pitcher from 1935-46.

Other highlights from the Cuban part of his career:

  • 1927-28: Won league MVP award
  • 1935-36: Lead league in following categories: Pitching wins (11-2), CG (13), ShO (4). Batting (.358), Runs (42), Hits (63 – tied with Willie Wells), Triples (8), RBI (38) … suffice it to say, he won the MVP again
  • 1936-37 won third league MVP
  • 1938-39: Went 14-2, setting the league record for consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins (four)
  • Won fourth league MVP
  • 1943-44: 8-1, 2.23 ERA

Probably the best documented part of Dihigo’s career was his time in the Mexican League. During his tenure there, Dihigo played with and against such luminaries as Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Josh Gibson, Double Duty Radcliffe, Willie Wells, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, and Lyman Bostock Sr.

How did he fare against such competition? Here are his pitching totals—bear in mind that he was 32 years old in 1937:

Yr     W    L    ERA   G  CG    IP    H   BB    SO
1937   4    0   0.93   5   4   38.7   22   3     8
1938  18    2   0.92  22  16  167.0  104  32   184
1939  15    8   2.90  23  20  202.0  169  42   202
1940   8    6   3.54  17   8  109.3  106  48    65
1941   9   10   4.01  23   9  157.0  177  43    93
1942  22    7   2.53  35  26  245.3  244  77   211
1943  16    8   3.10  26  18  194.3  181  64   134
1944  12   10   3.14  31  18  212.3  207  88    90
1946  11    4   2.83  20  11  140.0  134  49    63
1947   4    2   4.37  10   3   55.7   77  13    16
Tot  119   57   2.84 213 133 1523.7 1422 465  1109

Not bad for an old-timer. However when he wasn’t pitching, he was playing somewhere on the infield or outfield. How was he with the lumber during those times?


Yr      G   AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB   SO   SB    AVG     OBP    SLG          
1937    7   26   7  10   1   2   1   12    3    0    0   .357    .448   .643
1938   42  142  37  55   8   2   6   27   26    4    9   .387    .482   .599
1939   51  187  32  63  11   3   5   31   27   13    5   .337    .429   .508
1940   78  302  60 110  17   6   9   73   17   25    9   .364    .402   .550
1941   92  329  74 102  25   4  12   59   57   53    7   .310    .412   .520
1942   85  279  56  89  12   4   8   51   74   21    9   .319    .466   .477
1943   75  238  35  66  14   3   7   50   51   24    5   .277    .407   .450
1944   60  189  34  47  10   2   4   29   33   17    5   .249    .369   .386
1946   66  177  27  56   9   2   3   32   32   21    8   .316    .429   .441
1947   20   46   4   9   3   1   0    6    7    6    0   .196    .302   .304
Total 577 1917 366 607 110  29  55  370  327  185   57   .317    .420   .490     

So based on a 600 AB season, DiHigo’s typical season would look like this …

 
 AB   H   R   2B 3B  HR   RBI   BB  SO  SB  AVG  OBP  SLG
600  190 115  34  9  17   115  102  58  18 .317 .420 .490

… which isn’t too shabby for a player past his prime. Consider that between the Cuban and Mexican Leagues, Dihigo went 47-12 in 1938-39 at ages 33-34 and 36-19 in 1943-44 at ages 38 and 39. Considering Dihigo’s age and level of competition, imagine what he must have been like in his prime—especially the undocumented three seasons he played in Venezuela between the ages of 26-28. Also, take note of 1938:

.387/.482/.599 … 18-2, 0.92 ERA, 167.0 IP ,32 BB, 184 K

and

1942:

.319/.466/.477 … 22-7, 2.53 ERA, 245.3 IP, 77 BB, 211 K

He almost walked (74) as often as he walked others (77).

Another tidbit is that in his first year in Mexico, one of his four wins was the first no-hit shutout thrown in Mexican professional baseball history.

As mentioned, numbers are sketchy but we do know the following about Dihigo:

  • He won three Negro League home run crowns and tied Josh Gibson for another
  • He won four MVP awards in Cuba
  • As a pitcher, he went 93-48 in Cuba
  • He voted to the first team all-time black all-star team as a second baseman. He also received votes as an outfielder and third baseman
  • His career in the Mexican League began at 32 and he went 119-57, 2.84 ERA in 1523.7 IP as a pitcher and .317/.420/.490 in 1917 at-bats as a hitter
  • He set the Mexican League record for most consecutive seasons with 10+ wins (four)
  • The three years of his career that’s unaccounted for was probably during his prime (age 26-28)
  • He had at least 17 seasons where he batted at least .300
  • He was named to the baseball Hall of Fame in four different countries

As to the man himself, Dihigo was known as a fun-loving goofy man. An anecdote from Latino Sports Legends that illustrates this occurred when he was on third base during a game and yelled at the pitcher: “You balked! You balked!” He kept yelling this as he walked toward home while everyone stared at Dihigo as if he had suddenly lost his mind. The pitcher stood on the mound, ball in hand mesmerized. When he crossed home plate and cagily walked into the dugout the fans began to laugh and cheer.

Dihigo played occasionally while serving as player-manager for the New York Cubans in 1945 and did likewise in Cuba and Mexico until the early 1950s, when he returned home to Cuba to stay. When Castro took power, Dihigo was appointed as Minister of Sports until he passed away in 1971 at age 65 and was buried in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Was Dihigo the greatest player of all time? He was probably the best all-around player to play the game. He was certainly the most versatile; indeed his talents may have been as unique as any player to ever grace the diamond. Wherever he played he was considered to be among the very best by those who saw him. Indeed, being inducted to Halls of Fame in four different countries speaks volumes as to his greatness.

This much is certain—there will never be another quite like him.

References & Resources
Negro League Baseball

Latino Sports Legends

Nation Master

Hickok Sports

Wikipedia

Negro League Baseball Players Association

Baseball Library

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