Nicknames: Joe, The Black Diamond
a.k.a. José Mendez Baez (his real name)
Positions: p, ss, 3b, 2b, of, manager
Teams: Brooklyn Royal Giants (1908), Cuban Stars (1909-1912), Stars of Cuba (1910), All Nations (1912-1917), Chicago American Giants (1918), Detroit Stars (1919), Kansas City Monarchs (1920-1926)
Height: 5' 8'' Weight: 160
Born: March 19, 1887, Cardenas, Matanzas, Cuba
Died: October 31, 1928, Havana, Cuba
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (2006)
A lean and rangy right-hander with a smooth delivery, this wiry Cuban had tremendous speed that was deceptive. A smart pitcher who changed speeds, his rising fastball, coupled with a sharp-breaking curve, made him one of the greatest black pitchers of his time. Mendez had long arms and exceptionally long fingers, enabling him to get more spin on a ball. Some observers considered him to be faster than Smokey Joe Williams, and the graceful hurler threw with a deceptively easy motion that created havoc with batters' timing. He also utilized a quick release that was legal during the time he played but that is now ruled an illegal delivery.
Born in Cuba in 1888, he made his baseball debut in 1903 at age sixteen. Five years later he was pitching with Havana, the top team in Cuba, and that same year, 1908, he made his debut in the United States, recording a 3-0 ledger with the Brooklyn Royal Giants. The next season he was credited with a 44-2 record with the Cuban Stars, including a pitching gem on July 24, 1909, when he hurled a perfect game for 10 innings. In 1910 he pitched in Cuba, posting an 18-2 mark.
During this same approximate time frame he posted records in the Cuban League of 7-0, 15-6, 7-0, 11-2 and 9-5 for 1908-1912 and 10-0 in the winter of 1913-1914. His win totals were tops in the Cuban League for three consecutive years, 1908-1911, with 15, 7, and 11, respectively. During his prime years, the Cuban hurler faced America's best teams and best pitchers, black and white. In his native country he out-pitched Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Eddie Plank in exhibition games.
In 1910, he engaged in a classic pitcher's duel with Rube Foster that ended in an 11-inning 4-4 deadlock. In general Mendez had some hard luck pitching against Rube Foster's Leland Giants, easily the best black team of the era, winning only 3 games while losing 6. That winter in his homeland, pitching with Almendares against Ty Cobb's Detroit Tigers, he wielded a potent bat, hitting an even .300, but was unlucky on the mound, posting a 0-2-1 mark in 3 games as a pitcher, despite yielding only 21 hits in 28 innings pitched and striking out 10 batters in the series. When Connie Mack's world champion Philadelphia A's came to town, he fared better, winning both decisions, including a victory over Eddie Plank. Altogether, pitching against major-leaguers over a six-season span (1908-1913), he fashioned a 9-11 record.
In 1911, pitching for Almendares, he faced Smokey Joe Williams of the New York Lincoln Giants at New York's Highlanders Park for the colored championship of the world. The game matched the United States' best against Cuba's best. Williams was superb, allowing no hits for 9 innings, but Mendez allowed only 2 hits, and the game remained scoreless after regulation play. Mendez won the game in the tenth inning, 10, when the Cubans bunched three hits off Williams to push across a run.
The following year, pitching against John McGraw's New York Giants, fortified with some Dodgers added to the roster, Mendez defeated both Christy Mathewson (4-3 in 10 innings) and Nap Rucker (2-1) over a three-day span, with only a day of rest between games. McGraw proclaimed Mendez to be "sort of Walter Johnson and Grover Alexander rolled into one" and, appraising his value to a club to be worth $30,000 a year if he were white, would have welcomed his presence on the Giants' pitching staff alongside Mathewson.
Going into the 1914 winter season, Mendez had logged a seven-year 62-15 record when, after developing arm trouble, he dropped out of regular pitching rotation. Returning to the States, he joined J.L. Wilkinson's All Nations club as a shortstop, playing with the team in 1916-1917. The next season he joined his old nemesis Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants, but failed to experience a large measure of success as he split 2 pitching decisions while hitting only .189. The next season he was among several veteran players who signed with the Detroit Stars. Frank Wickware, John Donaldson, Pete Hill, and Bruce Petway were all on the team, and Mendez played shortstop, in the outfield, and pitched while batting in the sixth slot. The Stars proved to be a top ballclub, beating Foster's American Giants in a showdown series. He was still hanging on as an everyday player and taking an occasional turn on the mound, which he did in the winter of 1921, when he played with the Los Angeles White Sox.
But the event that shaped his future was when he was signed by J.L. Wilkinson as playing manager of the Kansas City Monarchs, Wilkinson's entry in the new Negro National League in 1920. He played shortstop and still pitched occasionally, and under his leadership the Monarchs won pennants in 1923, 1924, and 1925. In the first of these three campaigns Mendez fashioned an 8-2 pitching record, followed by league ledgers of 4-0, 2-0, and 3-1 for the next three seasons. In the latter two seasons Mendez led the Monarchs into the World Series against the Eastern Colored League champion Hilldale ballclub. In the 1924 World Series victory over Hilldale, Mendez rediscovered his old-time magic as he pitched in 4 games, including a shutout in his only start, and picked up 2 victories without a loss to go with an impressive 1.42 ERA. In his last season, 1926, the Monarchs lost a hard-fought playoff league championship series to the Chicago American Giants.
The great John Henry Lloyd, who had faced most of the greats, said that he had never seen a pitcher superior to Mendez. The quiet, unassuming hurler compiled a composite mark of 20-4 with 7 saves during his years with the Monarchs, 1920-1926. In the winter of 1923 he pitched with Santa Clara in the Cuban winter league and fashioned a 3-1 work sheet, and in 1924 he was classed with Pedrosa and Padrone to form a triad of the greatest Cuban pitchers ever to come out of Cuba. His lifetime Cuban stats show a 74-25 ledger, good for a .747 winning percentage, with 40 percent of his losses coming after 1913. He was a power pitcher, with a deadly fastball having such velocity that he accidently killed a teammate when Mendez hit him in the chest with a fastball in batting practice. His lifetime totals also indicate impressive strikeout and walk ratios, striking out 5.17 batters per game while walking only 2.67 batters a game. As impressive as his pitching stats are, he batting totals are equally unimpressive, with only a .186 batting average to show for fourteen years interspersed between 1908 and 1927.
Mendez died from bronchopneumonia in the autumn of 1928, at forty-one, barely two years after his last game with the Monarchs. In 1939 he was in the first group of players elected to the Cuban Hall of Fame. In 2006, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.