Dark-tempered and great

Of all of baseball’s overlooked, undervalued and misunderstood figures, perhaps none looms larger than baseball’s first major Latino star, Cuban pitcher Adolfo “Dolf” Luque. Before players from the Caribbean started arriving in bigger numbers in the early 1950s, there was no other Latino interloper with greater big league impact.

Nor was there any who, due to his foreign roots, flew further under the radar. The résumé borders on eye-popping, if not downright spectacular. A fireplug right-hander who stood 5-foot-7 and possessed a blazing fastball, he debuted with the Boston Braves in 1914 and was already a mainstay with the Cincinnati Reds when the infamous 1919 Black Sox World Series rolled around. Luque put the big leagues on the map in his homeland and assured a special spot in the hearts of island fans for nuestros queridos rojos, our beloved Reds.

Unfortunately, this light-skinned, but reputedly dark-tempered Cuban with matinee idol looks who loved to drink, gamble and chase women maintained a reputation with big league fans and ballpark scribes alike that was never quite as “fair and balanced” as history might have demanded or that the home crowd in Cuba might have wished.

A Man of Many Firsts

Let’s start with Luque’s on-field achievements, both substantial and attention-grabbing. His notable historical catalogue includes the following:

  • First Latino pitcher.
  • First Latino to appear in and win a World Series championship (1919).
  • First Latino pitcher to earn a World Series victory, clinching the championship for the New York Giants in the fifth game by pitching 4.1 innings in relief at age 43 (1933).
  • First Latino pitcher to lead either the National or American Leagues in wins, ERA, winning percentage, shutouts and losses.
  • First Latino pitcher to 100 career victories.

His 27 victories in 1923 — including both ends of one twin bill — still stand as the modern-day Cincinnati high-water mark, a record tied by Bucky Walters in 1939. That 1923 season was remarkable by any measure: Luque finished 27-8 with a 1.93 ERA and six shutouts. His 201 ERA+, a metric adjusted to the player’s ballpark, was double the league average.

Outstanding by any measure

Luque was a true pioneer, born in Havana before the Spanish-American War on August 4, 1890. He was not the first Latino ballplayer, nor even the first modern-day Cuban, but the first Latin American to fashion an enduring and outstanding major-league career.

Luque played 20 MLB seasons and missed 200 wins by a mere half dozen. For those enamored of today’s sophisticated sabermetrics, his 1923 season WAR is calculated by Baseball-Reference.com at 10.6. Luque’s career WAR of 43.2 ranks him 142 on the all-time list, just ahead of Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean and Lefty Gómez. His 3.24 ERA is better than Bob Feller’s, Catfish Hunter’s and Randy Johnson’s, to name a few others in Cooperstown.

And while he suffers the same fate of other great pitchers who have not been enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, a bigger issue is Luque’s name recognition among fans or even serious baseball scholars. He’s arguably never received proper due for being a trailblazer, or for his whole body of work, which included many more years as a pitcher and a manager in Latin America.

Luque played and managed in the Cuban winter league for 34 seasons, starting in 1912 with Club Fe of Havana. As a manager, he won eight Cuban league titles and across the Caribbean Basin prepared players such the Mexican Roberto “Beto” Ávila — the first Latino to win a batting title — and Cuban pitcher Camilo Pascual — the first Latino to lead either league in strikeouts — to succeed in the Big Show.

Those who followed in his footsteps are remembered with more reverence. Martín Dihigo, the fabled Negro League star and the first Cuban player enshrined in the Hall of Fame, is called the Latin American Babe Ruth for his prowess as a hitter and pitcher. Fellow countryman Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso is for many the Cuban Jackie Robinson.

Unfair legacy

Rather, Luque’s legacy is in large part based on an inexcusable and damaging stereotype, one that is all too often yoked to other early Latino stars in the major leagues, even those who made it to Valhalla, the Hall of Fame.

We’re talking about the image of the combative hothead. In Luque’s case, it was clinched if not born from a memorable incident at Cincinnati’s Redland Field in mid-summer 1923, when the Cuban — weary of endless bench-jockeying and racial slurs flung from the New York Giants sideline — placed his glove and ball on the mound, charged the enemy bench and by mistake slugged one Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel, who happened to be next to the primary instigator, outfielder Bill Cunningham.

Luque was undeniably a fierce competitor. For some, though, he was a headhunter on the mound who, later, as a Mexican League skipper, would teach Sal “The Barber” Maglie the brushback pitching technique for which his disciple ultimately became famous. Luque’s image was further tainted as a manager by tales (possibly apocryphal though perhaps linked to reality) of his occasional pistol-wielding clubhouse and dugout displays during his lengthy tenure as a no-nonsense and hard-nosed Cuban winter league bench boss.

One circulated flap reportedly featured clubhouse shots fired over the head of imported Negro League star Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who had enraged his skipper with lackadaisical effort. Another involved Negro League hurler Terris McDuffie, who due to a hangover refused to accept the game ball on a day he was slated to pitch until his exasperated skipper began threatening him with a loaded six-shooter.

Lingering hot-blooded stereotypes

Like the celebrated Juan Marichal-John Roseboro bat fracas four decades later, or the Rubén Gómez knife-wielding pursuit of hulking slugger Joe Adcock in the early ’50s, the various Luque incidents appear to encompass events and details infrequently, if ever, properly reported.

The resulting stereotype was to a degree an exaggeration and something of a delectable cartoon, no matter how close it might have overlapped historical reality. The unfortunate fallout for both Luque and many of his Latin American successors was the degree to which the legend always took precedence over a celebration of actual achievement. The stereotype of Latino players as “hot-blooded” or “unrestrained” lingers even today, with another Hall of Famer pitcher, Pedro Martínez, being one recent example.

It’s a worthy debate whether Luque deserves a bronze plaque in Cooperstown. But he certainly deserves a more elevated status among the legions of pre- and post-integration Latino big leaguers.

This was a pitcher, let it never be forgotten, whose numbers for decades stood unmatched by any of his Latin American countrymen, one who today still remarkably stands above all Latino pitchers, with perhaps a mere half-dozen exceptions — Marichal, Luis Tiant, Dennis Martínez, Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Martínez and Mariano Rivera.

To quote the oft-times falsely attributed phrase of the same Casey Stengel who was the recipient of one of Luque’s knockout pitches: “You could look it up.”

The full Adolfo Luque story and additional details of the Casey Stengel and pistol-waving incidents can be found in Peter C. Bjarkman’s biography of the pitcher published on-line at the SABR BIOGRAPHY PROJECT. (www.SABR.org)

Featured Image: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Inset Image: Peter C. Bjarkman