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Column: Raisel following steps of Dolf Luque

Posted: 7:00 AM, Apr 03, 2016
Updated: 2016-04-03 11:00:31Z
Column: Raisel following steps of Dolf Luque
Column: Raisel following steps of Dolf Luque

CINCINNATI -- Raisel Iglesias can't be expected to know everything about Dolf Luque, the last Cuban pitcher to have taken the Opening Day mound for the Reds, way back in 1928.

But rest assured that Iglesias, tabbed to get the Opening Day start here, knows something.

And that is good, because in a way, with Cuba so much in the news these days, Iglesias is resurrecting the memory of Luque in Cincinnati.

Not so much in Cuba, where Luque's name still resonates, but in the States, and especially Cincinnati, where he's been forgotten by all but the deepest aficionados of Reds' history.

These aficionados can tell you that Luque's 1923 season of 27-8, league-leading 1.93 ERA and six shutouts, was one of the truly great pitching seasons in baseball history and tops in Reds lore. They can tell you that Luque was remarkably durable over 20 big league seasons, going 193-179, pitching his last game at age 44 in 1935.

And, also, that he pitched in two World Series – 1919 with the Reds, and 1933 with the New York Giants.

On the other hand, in Cuba every baseball fan knows of Luque.

Yes, every Cuban baseball fan – young and old – that I talked with during an eight-day trip to Cuba last December knew of Luque who, as good as he was a pitcher in the major leagues, was an even better manager back home in Cuba.

“Sure, I know of Luque,” said our 43-year-old cabbie, Daniel Maiza Valdes, at Jose Marti International Airport.

“Everybody who's a serious baseball fan here knows Luque. Just like everybody knows Martin Dihigo Sr., who you call the black Babe Ruth. There are monuments to Luque and Dihigo in the Estadio Latinoamericano, where my team, the Industriales play.”

Player and Manager

If you want to imagine Luque, think of a slightly shorter Johnny Cueto , every bit as much as the bulldog, who goes after hitters with confidence and control.

But Luque was even more than that.

Cueto would have go on to manage 20+ seasons in the major leagues to equal the stature of Luque.

Pick any one of these, and you'll have a good analogy as any to Luque's impact on baseball:

  • A cross between Tom Seaver and Christy Mathewson (but with way more managerial pedigree), and the durability of Pete Rose.
  • John McGraw (yes, Luque was that good of a manager.).
  • Joe Torre (had Torre done it 50 years ago).

Although the 5-7, 160-pound Luque made “only” two Opening Day starts (1921 and 1928) – he was 2-0 – he probably would have made more had he been a little sharper in the spring. He lost a series of Opening Day nods to fellow starting pitcher Pete Donohue, a stylish 6-2, 185-pounder who was a master of the changeup, including five straight seasons' worth (1923-27).

“Opening day starts were not that big of a deal before the 1940s or so," explained Reds historian Greg Rhodes. "The manager picked who looked best in spring training -- who he thought was ready, not who was the 'ace.'"

I don't know if the writer William Faulkner knew of Luque (Ernest Hemingway certainly did; in “The Old Man and the Sea,” he quotes the old man as asking, “Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?”), but one of Faulkner's most-often quoted lines applies:

“The past is never dead. It's not even past."

In Cuba, that is especially so.

Interrupted by History

In a way, everything there stopped on Jan. 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro came out of the mountains. And it's never really caught back up, exhibited by the vintage 1950s American cars that still grace the streets. So little new has been built, and so much old hasn't been kept up.

Even the great history made in Havana in recent weeks was made in places that would have been familiar to Luque, who died 59 years ago.

  • Estadio Latinoamericano, where the Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuba national team as Pres. Obama and Raul Castro watched? Luque managed there.
  • Ciudad Deportiva, where the Rolling Stones gave a bravura performance? That was under construction and only a year from opening when Luque died in July 1957.
  • Hotel Nacional, the first stop of the major league baseball contingent of mostly Cuban defectors last December? Luque himself attended functions there many times.
  • Estadio Pedro Marrero (“La Tropical”), where player-manager Luque, he of the 1919 World Champion Reds, pitched several innings against the 1940 Reds, the World Champions-to-be. Luque was 50 years old. La Tropicala is a track-and-field facility today.
  • The Vedado Tennis Club, for whom Luque played baseball, is now named something else, like so many other places in Cuba. (Castro even renamed Tony Perez's hometown.) The tennis club building is still there.
  • El Presidente Hotel, where Jim Bunning stayed while playing winterball for the Marianao Tigers in 1956-57, is still a top hotel in Havana.

Dolf Luque never had to endure the transition of Cuba from exporter of sugar, cigars and baseball players to the U.S.

The economic stresses of that, along with the repression of human rights, are the truest legacies of Castro's reign, in my opinion, based on what I saw and felt in Cuba.

Basically, if you hadn't gotten out before the Missile Crisis in October of 1962, you weren't getting out for almost another 20 years. And if you got out, you probably didn't go back, because you knew you'd be stuck there for quite awhile. I talked to Tony Perez at length about this at the end of his playing career, and I've since added Cuban greats Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva and Bert Campaneris, among others, in the past eight months.

Since the notable defections of the Hernandez half-brothers, Livan and Orlando, in the mid-to-late 1990s (the lesser-known, Rene Arocha, defected in 1991 and by April 1993 was making his major league debut in St. Louis against the Reds with Reds manager Perez watching), the floodgates have opened.

There is no doubt in my mind that Luque, who was determined to be the best at his craft, would have defected had he been around today.

That he didn't have to – and that he didn't live to see the havoc Castro wreaked on his his people – was a blessing.

Cuban Appreciation in Cincinnati

For those of us in the States, especially in Cincinnati where baseball has such high regard, it is our blessing to have the Cincinnati game so enhanced by the infusion of Latino talent.

Nowhere do we appreciate it more than from Cuba, because we know what the Cubans risked to get here, and what they sacrifice to stay.

That Luque didn't have to give up either – and that someday other Cubans hopefully won't have to – is the point.

And that, for me, is what Iglesias' Opening Day start represents.

Here's hoping Iglesias takes a little bit of Luque out to the mound with him Monday.

Here's hoping we get to see a little bit of Luque in Iglesias.

In the 1920s, there is no place Luque would rather have been, knowing that he would be able to go back home to Cuba after the season ended.

May that be true for Iglesias this year.

May he get to go home a hero.

This is John Erardi's 32nd season covering baseball in Cincinnati. He has authored or co-authored six books on the Reds, including "Big Red Dynasty" and "Crosley Field." His latest book, a fishing memoir titled “The Mud Daddy Chronicles,” is available at  amazon.com . He is working on a book about the Reds and Cuba.