Meet Martin Dihigo, The Best Baseball Player You've Never Heard of

Illustration: Eric Barrow

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

The National League will be using a DH in its games when — IF — it returns to play this season, and it’s expected to keep it going forward. Thus ends a nearly century and a half tradition of pitchers hitting in the major leagues.

It’s ironic that MLB will be going to a format that doesn’t include pitchers hitting while one of the best two-way threats in decades has emerged in the Angels’ young star Shohei Ohtani. There have been plenty of pitchers who could hit, like Dontrelle Willis, and players who switched from hitter to pitcher or vice versa, but there hasn’t been someone who could do both to the level that Ohtani does since Babe Ruth in his pre-Yankees days.

That is, of course, in the major leagues. Then there’s Martin Dihigo, one of the most unique and talented players in the history of baseball.

Image for article titled Meet Martin Dihigo, The Best Baseball Player You've Never Heard of
Graphic: Eric Barrow

Dihigo, standing a muscular 6-foot-1, was like the superstar on your Little League team, or the ringer on your adult-beverage consuming softball squad who was the best at everything.

Most baseball fans know of the legendary careers of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston. Many have heard the mythical exploits of Cool Papa Bell, who was so fast he could turn off the lights and be under the covers before it got dark. But very few know much about the legendary career of Martin Dihigo, who is on a short list of the greatest all-around players to ever grace a diamond.

Born in Cuba in 1906, Dihigo was brought stateside to play in the Negro Leagus by owner Alejandro Pompez in 1923. He joined the Cuban Stars, a traveling team. He struggled for two years as a youngster before coming into his own as a 19-year-old, hitting .352. He followed that up by hitting .369, .355, .333 and .320, establishing himself as one of the best hitters in the league. He hit for power, slugging between .551 and .694.

His primary position was second base, but he shifted all over the field and was notably a great outfielder with a rifle arm, which he also displayed as an occasional pitcher.

New York Cubans teammates Alejandro Oms (l.) and Martin Dihigo.
New York Cubans teammates Alejandro Oms (l.) and Martin Dihigo.
Photo: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

In his mid-20s, seemingly bored with dominating as a right-handed hitter, he experimented with switch-hitting. It took him a couple years to master it, but in that time, he had also developed into a dominant pitcher. On top of that, he managed the New York Cubans in 1935-36, managing fellow countrymen Alejandro Oms, Silvo Garcia and Cristobal Torriente, as well as Puerto Rican and American players.

What was it that drove Dihigo to try to excel at every aspect of the game?

“I think it was his desire to win,” Adrian Burgos Jr, professor at the University of Illinois, told Deadspin. “He was a classic five-tool player. He was always looking for ways to get an edge. His most important attribute was his intelligence, he was a manager for many years.”

Burgos is the author of two books: Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line and Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball, about Pompez.

In a way, Dihigo’s career is like a reverse of Babe Ruth’s, who started as a pitcher before becoming an outfielder. But Burgos points out that Ruth never got the chance to manage, and tells a story of Dihigo that reveals his competitive nature.

Johnny ‘Schoolboy’ Taylor was a phenomenal hard-throwing pitcher. He had been scouted by the Yankees in the 1930s. He was very light-skinned, but they found out that he was (African-American).

“Game 7 of the World Series, and “Schoolboy” Taylor is pitching, and Dihigo is the manager and puts himself in. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.”

Dihigo is known as “El Immortal” in Cuba, still revered as the island’s greatest player. In Mexico, they called him “El Maestro.”

The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) highlights in its biography of Dihigo the story of a pitching duel he won against the great Paige in the Mexican League in 1938. Locked in a 1-1 tie, Paige was lifted for a reliever after eight innings. Dihigo hit a game-winning home run in the 9th. Dihigo would finish the year as its top pitcher with a 18-2 mark and a 0.92 ERA, and was the leading hitter with a .387 average.

The Mexican League was a very strong league. It featured many of the best Negro Leaguers of all time, including Paige, Josh Gibson, Willie Wells, and Ray Dandridge. In the early 1940s, Mexico had as many as three dozen Negro League stars. Sal Maglie left the New York Giants in 1946 in a controversial decision to play in Mexico (for more money). He went 20-12 and 20-13, with ERAs of 3.19 and 3.92 while pitching south of the border. Impressive numbers, but he actually fared better when he returned to the majors at age 33, going 18-4 with a 2.71 ERA, followed by a 23-6, 2.93 the next season.

Johnny Mize, a Hall-of-Fame first baseman who had a .312 lifetime batting average and led the league in home runs four times, says Dihigo was the greatest player he had ever seen. According to the legendary Buck O’Neil in the book I Was Right On Time, Mize said pitchers clearly feared Dihigo more than him.

“He was the only guy I ever saw who could play all nine positions, manage, run and switch-hit,” Mize said. “I thought I was having a pretty good year myself down there and they were walking him to get to me.”

As a hitter, Burgos likened Dihigo to Roberto Clemente, the great Latino superstar of the next generation. “He had strong wrists and power, hit to all fields. He wasn’t a pull hitter.”

Dihigo played in Mexico until 1947, when he was 41, the year Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the United States. Writer John Brattain lists Dihigo’s Mexican League totals as 119 wins and 57 losses with a 2.84 ERA as a pitcher; .317 average with a .420 on-base percentage as a hitter. All this after the age of 31.

Brattain puts his cumulative numbers in the Negro Leagues, Cuba and Mexico at hitting: .305 with 142 home runs in 6,119 at bats, and a 261-143 won-loss record as a pitcher. Incredibly, that doesn’t even include three years in his prime when he played in Venezuela (starting at age 26).

Among his other accomplishments: Four MVP awards in Cuba; the first no-hitter in Mexican history; and four home run titles in the Negro Leagues.

After his playing career, he was a mentor to Minnie Minoso, the first Black Cuban star of the major leagues. When Fulgencio Batista rose to power, he left his homeland in protest, managing in Venezuela and Mexico. He returned to Cuba after Fidel Castro’s revolution and served as a government official in charge of sports.

Dihigo died in 1971, just five days before his 65th birthday. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1977. He is also a member of the Cuban, Mexican, Dominican and Venezuelan Halls of Fame.