Santa Clara's Leopards, an immortal team

Dr. C. Félix Julio Alfonso López*

Starting from the debate on social networks about Villa Clara's name and mascot for the next baseball season, several readers asked us for the story of a team that was considered by many to be the best of the first half of the last century.

Santa Clara's Leopards were a franchise created in 1922 to expand the Cuban League to other cities on the Island. Their performance of almost two decades in the main professional baseball tournament in the Caribbean, led them to conquer the title four times. The most memorable of all was in the 1923-1924 tournament, when their advantage forced them to stop the championship because it lacked interest.

A constellation of Cuban black stars headed by Alejandro «el Caballero» Oms, José de la Caridad Méndez, Pablo Champion Mesa, Esteban «Mayarí» Montalvo, Julio Rojo and Eustaquio Bombín Pedroso, along with other sacred monsters from the Independent Color Leagues such as Oscar Charleston, Oliver Marcelle, Frank Duncan, Dobie Moore and Bill Holland, formed one of the most powerful and complete teams that have ever been seen in the history of Cuban baseball.

They had their headquarters in the disappeared Boulanger Park, the first ball stadium that Santa Clara had in the late nineteenth century. Its first director was the legendary baseball player and promoter Agustín Tinti Molina, who, being a youth, congratulated José Martí for a home run on one of his visits to Key West.

The Leopards disappeared from the competitive island scene during the years 1925 to 1929. In that baseball hiatus another team from the center of the country made its appearance, the Cienfuegos Club, in 1926, but then they were Oil Tankers and not Elephants, nicknamed the one that would achieve great fame and remarkable results in the years of the 1950s.

During the 1929-1930 season Cienfuegos and Santa Clara were the rivals of Almendares and Habana. That year, the Leopards had in their ranks the great pitcher Basilio Brujo Rosell, the young serpentine player Ramón "the Professor" Bragaña debuted, then a brilliant star in Cuba and Mexico, and there was also the revelation of the Black Leagues, Leroy Satchel Paige. At bat Alejandro Oms and first baseman George Mulo Suttles stood out.

The pilongo team had a four-year absence, from 1931 to 1934, years of great political turmoil, and in 1935 they returned in pursuit of lifting the crown that, more than a decade ago, was unquestionably theirs. The great Martín Dihígo, already a living legend, took the reins of the champions of 1935-1936 and in what way.

Manager-player, Dihígo not only won the tournament six games ahead of Almendares, but was also the leader of hitters with 358 and led the pitchers with a record of 11 and two, and also commanded hits with 63, the Scored with 42, triples with eight and RBI with 38, tied with teammate Bill Perkins. Additionally, he completed 13 challenges and delivered four grouts. It was truly amazing, out of the ordinary, fantastic.

Dihígo was accompanied on that memorable campaign by pitchers Heliodoro Yoyo Díaz and Marino Rodríguez, with 15 victories between them. Catcher Bill Perkins hit for 323, shortstop Willie Wells hit 356 with five homers, and Alejandro Oms, now 40, averaged 311, with 56 hits, ten doubles and 30 RBIs.

The following year, 1936-1937, Dihígo repeated the feat leading the Marianao, in a sensational final in which the tigers erased a disadvantage of three games against Santa Clara, hanging from the arms of Don Martín and Silvio García, and in the extra tiebreaker series beat the pilongos by two games to one.

Santa Clara led by Julio Rojo reached the runner-up with a virtuous task by the pitcher Raymond Jabao Brown who won 21 challenges and only lost four, in addition to averaging 311 with eight extra-bases. On November 7, 1936 Brown pitched a no-hitter, no-run game against Habana in Santa Clara and batted 4-2. That game barely lasted an hour and 40 minutes, and the three Havana players on base went ball-based. Second baseman Harry Williams with 339 and the trio of outfielders made up of José Tetelo Vargas, Santos "el Canguro" Amaro and Tony Castaño also stood out on the offensive.

Then came two consecutive titles from the hand of the star player and manager Lázaro Salazar, the Prince of Bethlehem. In 1937-1938 shortstop Sam Bankhead was the big offensive star of the tournament and led the hitters with 366, the scored (47), the hits (89), the triples (5) tied with Salazar and the RBIs (34). In the Santos Amaro outfield produced for 326, Manuel Cocaína García not only pitched, but also hit for 304, with 32 RBIs and the incombustible Alejandro Oms averaged 315 with 19 trailers and two home runs. In that season Santa Clara won 44 and lost 18, for an astronomical 710 average.

The following year, 1938-1939, the triumph was repeated, this time with less slack (34 and 20), but again it was the Santa Clara players who showed the greatest offensive power: Tony Castaño hit more than anyone with 371, the immense slugger Black Joshua Trucutú Gibson (356) led the runs scored with 50 and the home runs with 11 - it is said that he dispatched a mythical home run in Boulanger Park that measured more than 700 feet -, Santos Amaro (366) gave 78 hits and drove 49, and Lázaro Salazar, in addition to winning six games, connected 12 doubles. The team's leading pitchers were Manuel Cocaína García and Raymond Brown with 11 wins per capita and the former threw three shutouts.

The last two seasons of Santa Clara's Leopards were those of 1939-1940 and 1940-1941, directed by José María Fernández, Pelayo Chacón and Julio Rojo. Once they were third and in what would be their last campaign they were second.

Ten Leopard players played on the Leopards team and were later inducted into the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, and that number is similar to that of historic franchises in that circuit, such as the Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, and Boston Red Sox. . The players of the Santa Clara Leopards in Cooperstown are: Cubans Martín Dihígo (1977) and José de la Caridad Méndez (2006) and Americans Leroy Satchel Paige (1971), Joshua Gibson (1972), Oscar Charleston (1976), Willie Wells (1997), Norman Turkey Stearnes (2000), Hilton Smith (2001), George Suttles (2006) and Raymond Brown (2006).

This great story belongs to all of us who love baseball in Cuba, and there is no reason to forget it, much less deny or belittle it. Four of the greatest Cuban players of all time: Alejandro «el Caballero» Oms, José de la Caridad Méndez «the black Diamond», Martín «the immortal» Dihígo and Lázaro Salazar, the Prince of Bethlehem, were outstanding figures in the history of the Leopards of Santa Clara. They were all black, poor, humble and decent people. Méndez and Oms (the only player in our country whose name bears a street in his hometown) died in absolute poverty; Salazar, while directing on a ball court in Mexico; at the same time that Dihígo, who was a man of the left, abacuá and a mason, died in Cuba embracing the Revolution and carried the memory of his slave grandfather and his mambí father like a star on his forehead.

How beautiful it would be to see the emblem of the Leopards rise again in the city of Marta Abreu and Che Guevara; and that his ball team carry on his chest, like a bell of glory, that memorable name. That the fierceness and chivalry of the Leopard come down from that "dry and brown" mountain that guards the city of Santa Clara, and that the noble and gallant performance of his players pay him the best of the tributes on the playing field.
                 /Text taken from Juventud Rebelde newspaper

* Academic of Number of the Academy of History of Cuba