I recently learned something about the Reds I had never heard of before: A black man played for the Reds in 1944, three years before the Dodger’s Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line. The black man was from Cuba and his name was Tomas de la Cruz. He was a pitcher who went 9-9 with a 3.25 ERA in 191 innings for the Reds in 1944.
In no way does this diminish the monumental achievement of Jackie Robinson, who officially broke the color line in 1947 by becoming the first African-American to openly play for a major league team since the 1880’s. He faced tremendous racism and abuse throughout his career but endured it bravely and triumphantly. Robinson won the very first Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and he took home the MVP award in 1949. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 at the height of the civil rights movement.
In the earliest days of professional baseball there were a few black players. Moses Fleetwood Walker of the Toledo Blue Stockings is pictured on the left. As time went by it got harder and harder for the black players to continue on. Some towns would not allow teams with any black players to play the local team. Some prominent players, particularly Cap Anson, began agitating for black players to be banned. Some stars refused to play in games when a black player was on the field. Eventually the team owners capitulated to the pressure and came to a “gentlemen’s agreement” that black players were no longer welcome. There was never an official written rule that banned blacks. Once the color line was established it specifically affected black players only. Native American players, Hawaiian players and some white Hispanics were allowed to continue playing. Even the few black players already in the league were grandfathered in and allowed to play a couple more years.
Earlier I said Jackie Robinson was the first player to “openly” break the color line because there were a few other players of African ancestry who managed to appear briefly in the majors in prior decades by disguising their ethnicity. Several of them played for the Reds. The most famous was Adolfo “Dolf” Luque, whom I nominated as one of the six best pitchers to ever play for the Cincinnati Reds (read that article here). Luque was also from Cuba and had at least a trace of black ancestry. He was what we would call a Hispanic player today. But Luque was light-skinned and had blue eyes and could pass as an American white person most of the time, although he was often heckled during games for his dark complexion (and he did play briefly for a Negro Leagues team). Luque played for the Reds for 12 years from 1918-1929, winning 154 games with a 3.09 ERA.
Prior to Luque the Reds had signed two players from Cuba in 1911, causing quite a stir around the league. The players were outfielder Armando Marsans (.300 AVG in four seasons with the Reds) and third baseman Rafael Almeida (.270 AVG in three seasons). Both had played Negro League baseball but their appearance was mostly Caucasian. The signings stirred questions and outrage around the league, to which the Reds’ owners replied that Marsans and Almeida “were as pure white as Castile soap”. The New York Age, an African-American newspaper, opined “Now that the first shock is over, it will not be surprising to see a Cuban a few shades darker breaking into the professional ranks. It would then be easier for colored players who are citizens of this country to get into fast company.” This was the start of a very slow and gradual blurring of the color line in baseball. There were a small number of players for other teams over the next three decades that pushed the limits of the color line, with their teams passing them off as descended from swarthy Mediterannean heritage rather than black or Hispanic. The most extreme example was Alejandro “Alex” Carrasquel of Venezuela. He was a Senators pitcher from 1939-1945 who has been described as “the first man of recognizable African ancestry to play Major League Baseball in the US.” But by and large major league baseball was still a whites-only place until the late 1940’s.
In 1901 the Baltimore Orioles tried to bring a black man into the league, but they conspired to pass him off as a Cherokee Indian. The man’s real name was Charlie Grant, but the Orioles called him Charlie “Chief” Tokahama. You see, it was semi-OK for American Indians to play baseball but not blacks. But the ruse was quickly discovered before spring training was completed. Outrage ensued and the Orioles were forced to dispose of Charlie Grant before he could play an official game.
The Reds signed Tomas de la Cruz out of Cuba during the height of World War Two. Baseball went on pretty much as normal for the first years of the war, but by 1944 well over half of the league’s players had joined the armed forces, including most of the All Star caliber players. Pretty much the only players left were too old for military service or were classified as 4-F, which meant they could not meet the physical, mental or moral standards of the Army and were disqualified from military service. That was the year the 15 year old Joe Nuxhall pitched for the Reds. Teams were desperate for talent and often had to look in places they had not looked before. One of those places was Cuba.
De la Cruz had started his career in the Cuban League, which at that time was affiliated with Organized Baseball. Organized Baseball is a term describing the constellation of baseball leagues that are affiliated with Major League Baseball. Today we would just call them the minor leagues, but back in those days there were all sorts of pro and semi-pro baseball leagues. Some of them were affiliated as part of Organized Baseball and some were independent. There are still some independent leagues today. In those days the Cuban League was part of Organized Baseball, and major league teams could purchase the contracts of their players much like promoting a player from Louisville or Dayton today. Many American pros played in Cuba in the winter. One side effect of this was that all players in an Organized Baseball league had to follow the rules of major league baseball, and that would come back to bite de la Cruz soon enough.
Tomas de la Cruz was good enough in the Cuban League to attract the attention of teams in the United States. He was brought to America and bounced around in the minor leagues for several years. They changed his name to Tommy de la Cruz to hide his heritage as a black Hispanic player. When he was 30 years old in 1944 the Reds needed another pitcher and decided to take the risk of bringing de la Cruz to Cincinnati. When the inevitable hue and cry emerged about de la Cruz being black the Reds returned to the same strategy they had used with Marsans and Almeida. The Reds said de la Cruz was not black, but rather was descended from Castillian stock. Castille is a region of Spain. They said de la Cruz was dark because of his Hispanic heritage rather than being African. The term “Hispanic” refers to people descended from the people of Hispania, which was the Roman name for what we now call Spain. Of course we know now that Hispanic people are descended not only from Spanish ancestors but from many ethnic groups, including Native American and African as well as French, English, Dutch, Portuguese and the other colonial powers. But most people of the 1940’s didn’t know that. So the Reds’ ploy worked for the most part and de la Cruz was allowed to play.
Tomas de la Cruz pitched quite well for the Reds in 1940. He wasn’t the ace of the staff, but he held his own. He won 9 games and lost 9 games and put up a 3.25 ERA with an ERA+ of 108, meaning his ERA was 8% better than average after being adjusted for league, era and ballpark. That is solidly good. He even threw a complete game one-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That was the first one hitter ever thrown in the major leagues by a Hispanic pitcher. He started 20 games and pitched in relief 14 times. He pitched 9 complete games and also finished 10 games in relief, garnering one Save. His performance was certainly good enough to be invited back to play for the Reds again in 1945, but he ran into some trouble first.
During WW2, Cuban citizens who were living or working in the United States were eligible to be drafted into the US Army alongside everyone else. To avoid being drafted de la Cruz decided to enlist in the Cuban army instead. That did not go over well. After hearing that he would not be allowed to return to the United States until after the war, Tommy opted to play pro baseball in Mexico. That caused even more problems because the Mexican League was not part of Organized Baseball. In fact, the Mexican League was positioning itself as a strong rival to the Major Leagues and was trying to lure many of the game’s best players to play there instead of in the USA. Players didn’t make much money in those days, so they could often make as much cash playing in Cuba or Mexico in the winter as they pulled in from their major league club in the summer. Major League baseball took the threat from the Mexican League very seriously, so they decided that any player who played in Mexico would be banned from Organized Baseball for five years. By this time de la Cruz was either 31 or 34 years old (there are conflicting dates of birth on record). So by signing to play in Mexico in 1945 he effectively ruined his chances of ever returning to the major leagues.
Perhaps if he had been able to continue his career in the majors de la Cruz could have made a larger impression on the American populace and gone down in history as a civil rights hero nearly as important as Jackie Robinson. But de la Cruz played only one season, and that one season came in Cincinnati instead of New York City, where he would have received infinitely more attention from the press. De la Cruz was also not a star player, but rather a run-of-the-mill type of player that not too many people noticed, especially considering the games were not on television. That one season also came during a time when the nation was devoting all of its attention to defeating the Nazis and the Japanese. The war was the one and only national obsession of the day. So de la Cruz’s pioneering stint as a black baseball player went almost entirely unnoticed. I am sure however that it helped the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey feel just a bit more confident in going ahead with his plan to find a genuine African-American star to break the color line.
When Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers brought Jackie Robinson to the big leagues three years later they did not merely try to pass him off as a dark-skinned foreigner of European descent. The Dodgers made it quite clear that Robinson was a black American man. They were throwing the gentlemens’ agreement to the curb. They were allowing an African-American to play alongside white ballplayers as an equal. It was an historic moment. It is hard for us sixty years later to comprehend just how world-shattering that was to most people at the time. It was not only a great moment for baseball it was a great moment for the American nation.
The SABR Baseball Biography Project was invaluable when researching this article. I highly recommend you visit their website for some great information you may not have seen before.