By Marty Appel
To baseball fans, the first two electees to the Hall of Fame by the special committee chosen to honor the Negro Leagues’ legacy were familiar names – Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. You had to be a fan who knew Negro League history to know those who immediately followed – Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston and Pop Lloyd. But when Martin Dihigo’s turn came in 1977, even the memories of Negro League devotees were tested. Dihigo, a Cuban, had barely touched ten seasons in the US, enjoying most of his success in Mexico and Latin America. That made him the first – and still the only – Hall of Famer whose success was largely accomplished outside US soil.
“He was very tall and he was very regal,” recalled Monte Irvin, who recently turned 90 and who remains a treasure chest of memories about the Negro Leagues. “As a pitcher, there was very little difference between him an Satchel, plus he was a good hitter who could play any position except catcher. When he wasn’t pitching, he was hitting third or fourth in the lineup and playing somewhere out there. Like a high school star who played everywhere and batted in the middle of the lineup even when he pitched.”
Martin Dihigo (pronounced di-HEE-go, with Cubans calling him mar-TEEN and Americans MAR-tin), was born in 1905 or 1906 and became a professional player at age 16, in Cuba’s professional league. In 1923, he ventured into the US to play for the Cuban Stars, a team that played only road games, and was owned by Alex Pompez. Between 1923-36 (and briefly in 1945) he played in the Negro Leagues, but his hold there was always fragile.
“ Pompez could never pay him what he could make in Mexico,” says Irvin, speaking of the leading Negro Leagues promoter, and himself now a Hall of Famer. “So he’d usually play in Mexico in the summer, and Cuba in the winter, and he made a really good living.”
In 1938, Martin was 18-2 with a 0.90 ERA and a .387 batting average in the Mexican League, an unimaginable combination of hitting and pitching. His lifetime record in Mexico was 119-57, with a .317 average. Unlike Babe Ruth, who abandoned pitching when he became an outfielder, Dihigo was in the lineup every day, whether on the mound or in the field. He truly was a unique talent on the ballfield.
“He had a great personality and was a showman, too” recalled Irvin, noting that he spoke English and was a fan favorite wherever he played. “What a star he would have been in the U.S. if he’d played here fulltime.”
Martin Dihigo played his last pro game in Mexico in 1950, and died in on May 20, 1971, where he was treated as a national hero. Like Irvin, he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame in the U.S., Cuba and Mexico.