With four Latino managers in the major leagues this year, let’s look back to almost 100 years ago and remember José Méndez, who was hired as manager in 1920 by the Kansas City Monarchs of the newly formed Negro National League.
That opportunity was created by a team owner who saw in Mendez the leadership qualities and baseball intelligence required to be team manager. Méndez was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 as part of a special election on the Negro Leagues.
The Monarchs of the mid-1920s dominated Black baseball in a manner similar to the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball. When Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson needed to name a manager in 1920 there were plenty of potential candidates in the Black baseball circuit. He chose the talented Afro-Cuban pitcher Méndez as Monarchs manager.
Wilkinson’s choice likely surprised observers, and it clearly remains a bold decision to those who study history.
Other Latinos had managed teams in the Black baseball circuit before Méndez. However, teams such as the All Cubans and Cuban Stars were composed almost exclusively, if not entirely, of Latinos. The 1920 Monarchs were different.
The Monarchs’ roster was almost entirely African American. Twenty-one of the 25 players who appeared in the regular season for the Monarchs that season were African American, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Méndez was a familiar face for those in the Negro Leagues. He participated in the U.S. Black baseball circuit since he toured with the All Cubans team in 1908. Yet, as a managerial candidate he faced what might have been a significant challenge. English was his second language.
Wilkinson looked beyond this to the reputation that Méndez had established within the circuit as a fierce competitor and smart baseball man.
The Black Diamond
Méndez established himself as a dominant pitcher in the Cuban league before he ventured north to play in the United States. The Afro-Cuban acquired several nicknames that reflected his masterful pitching in the Cuban league. He was 76-28 while earning several nicknames, including “el diamante negro,” the Black Diamond.
His performance in exhibition games against barnstorming teams of white major leaguers in Cuba and across the United States also won him acclaim. Some referred to Méndez as the Black Matty, which was a reference to Washington Senators ace Christy Mathewson.
Notably, Méndez compiled a 25-inning scoreless streak against major league teams touring Cuba in 1908 and 1909.
Méndez’s reputation was such that in November 1911, the Chicago Defender reported on the praise Cuban sportswriter Pepe Conte had lavished on Méndez.
“American baseball fans can talk all they want about their Benders, Mathewsons, Walshes and Browns,” Conte wrote, “but down in our country we have a pitcher that none of the best batters in the country can touch. This is the famous black tornado, Mendez.”
There was more to Conte’s report. The Cuban scribe described how Méndez dominated major leaguers in exhibition games during winter tours of the island. While Conte celebrated Méndez’s talents he also acknowledged that baseball’s color line in the United States limited Méndez’s professional opportunities.
“Mendez has more curves than any pitcher in America, and if some inventive genius could produce a whitening process whereby we could get this fellow into the big leagues, he’d win a pennant for either tail-end team in either league,” Conte wrote.
Negro League Champs
Méndez had well established himself as an exceptionally talented player in the U.S. Black baseball circuit by 1920. What Wilkinson gave him that season was the opportunity to serve as player-manager. Méndez and the Monarchs would enjoy resounding success over the following seasons.
The first Negro World Series was organized in 1924, pitting the pennant winners of the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League. Méndez’s Kansas City Monarchs prevailed over the Hildale Darby Daisies in that first match-up.
The two teams faced off again the following year with Méndez’s team once again defeating Hildale. The Monarchs went for a three-peat in 1926, but they fell to the Chicago American Giants.
Méndez led the Monarchs to one of the more formidable three-year runs in Negro League baseball history. Just as compelling is the bold decision Monarchs owner Wilkinson made in entrusting the fortunes of his team to Méndez.
Wilkinson did not let cultural difference become a barrier to his hiring a Latino. He placed his faith in Méndez as a leader who could communicate with his players. In so doing Wilkinson revealed he was well ahead of his time, hiring an Afro-Latino manager nearly half a century before a major league organization hired a Latino manager.