By Robert Dominguez
He was considered the best two-way player not named Babe Ruth.
And if times had been different, Martin Dihigo — the Cuban-born star who excelled as both a pitcher and position player but never got to strut his stuff in the U.S. major leagues — would have likely been the Roberto Clemente of his era as the biggest Latin American-born star to grace an MLB ballfield.
On this day in béisbol, May 20, 1971, Dihigo died in Cienfuegs, Cuba, a few days before his 65 birthday, a proud and seemingly happy man revered in his homeland, lauded by historians but generally forgotten by the average fan.
Yet there’s much to remember in a long career that personified the hardscrabble life players of color, especially Latinos, led in the first half of the 20th century before Jackie Robinson broke the color line and the MLB began accepting, and later embracing, black and mixed-raced players from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America.
Like most of his contemporaries who didn’t play in the Majors, Dihigo went wherever the game — and a paycheck — took him. He played professional ball in the Cuban League, U.S. Negro leagues, and the Mexican, Dominican and Venezuelan leagues throughout the 1920s into the 1950s — often competing on teams in two and even three leagues in the same year.
While records are incomplete, it’s generally accepted that he hit .302 lifetime with at least 130 home runs — and won more than 250 games as a right-handed pitcher when all his stats are combined.
His Babe Ruth-like versatility on the mound and in the field — and the fact he played into his early fifties — earned Dihigo the nickname El Inmortal (the Immortal One).
Dihigo, though, has the Bambino beat in one major category: He’s enshrined in the American, Cuban and Mexican baseball halls of fame.
Robert Dominguez is co-author of “Bronx Bummers: The Unofficial History of the New York Yankees’ Bad Boys, Blunders and Brawls” and writer of the upcoming “El Salón: The Trials and Triumphs of Baseball’s Latino Hall of Famers.”