Cristóbal Torriente Bests the Bambino
Torriente, a hard-hitting center fielder who heralded from Cienfuegos, Cuba, was one of the first Cuban baseball stars to play in the United States. A founding member of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame’s first class of 1939, Torriente was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, by a Special Committee on the Negro Leagues.
For a player who was proclaimed to be the “Babe Ruth of Cuba,” his fame would only go as far as the Negro Leagues – until the Great Bambino himself came to Torriente’s homeland, under the promise of $1,000 per exhibition game, to play against the Havana Reds and Cristóbal’s Almendares Blues. In a game which has gone down in Cuban baseball lore as a David and Goliath story of sorts, Torriente upstaged Ruth on his home soil, bursting onto the baseball scene and capturing the attention of fans worldwide.
But years before Ruth ever set foot in Cuba, Torriente was rapidly developing as a coveted young player. While there isn’t much in the written record about Torriente’s baseball upbringing, it is widely believed that he started playing at an early age for the sugar mill baseball teams in the Cienfuegos area.
“The important thing about the Cienfuegos area, was that the sugar industry was made for baseball,” explained Roberto González Echevarría, a professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale University, and author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball. “The sugar mills developed smaller company towns, and these small company towns around the sugar mills had baseball teams that competed against each other. He probably got his start there. Cuban blacks could only get their start in sugar league baseball and in the amateur leagues.”
After his tenure in Cienfuegos, Torriente would begin his pro career with the Cuban Stars, in 1913. He would play for them until 1916, when he briefly joined the Kansas City Monarchs. His career would take off soon after that, when he began playing under Hall of Fame manager Rube Foster with the Chicago American Giants – the powerhouse of the Negro National League. Torriente was so highly touted and anticipated that fellow Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston was relocated from center field to left upon the Cuban’s arrival. The Babe Ruth of Cuba would help the Giants capture their first three Negro National League pennants from 1920 to 1922.
During his 17 seasons in the Negro Leagues, Torriente moved around quite a bit, as was characteristic of the time. After his six year stint with the Chicago American Giants, he returned for another year with the Kansas City Monarchs, a year with the Detroit Stars, and a year with the Cleveland Cubs. During that time, he compiled a .331 batting average, and hit as high as .432 in 1920 – the year in which he won the league’s batting title. Stacked up against other Negro Leaguers, he ranks 11th all-time in RBI with 309, 12th in slugging percentage with .517 and 16th in total bases, with 1,055.
He could even perform on the mound, posting a pitching record of 16-5 during his career in the Negro Leagues.
“Torriente batted cleanup for Rube [Foster] through 1925, but he was much more than a power hitter,” an unnamed scout in the Ashland Collection wrote. “Unlike Louis Santop, Mule Suttles, and Heavy Johnson, all top sluggers of that era, Torriente was also a master at bunting, base running and defense.”
A five-tool player, Torriente could dominate the game with his bat, his arm, his legs and his glove, but was unfortunately playing at the wrong time. Prejudices of the era were alive and well, and prevented the Afro-Cuban Torriente from advancing to the big leagues, even though other white Cubans of the time did.
Why did the major leagues ignore the light-skinned Cuban, during a period when Latins Dolf Luque, Mike González, and Armando Marsans all went to the big time? He was a little lighter than I am, but he had real rough hair.
“Why did the major leagues ignore the light-skinned Cuban, during a period when Latins Dolf Luque, Mike González, and Armando Marsans all went to the big time?” a scout named “Gardner” hypothetically asked in a report from the Ashland Collection. “He would have went up there, but he had real bad hair. He was a little lighter than I am, but he had real rough hair. He would have been alright if his hair had been better.”
It meant that a man who had drawn comparisons to Ruth and other standout talents was relegated to the Negro Leagues for the entirety of his career – a fact that made a 17-day stretch in the fall of 1920 perhaps the most memorable time in his career.
That fall, the New York Giants played a series of exhibition games against the Havana Reds and the Almendares Blues. The brainchild of the ever-economical mind of Abel Linares, the owner of Almendares, the games were a huge attraction in baseball-crazed Cuba. Torriente, playing winter ball for the Blues at the time, had a chance to play against the Babe.
While Ruth wasn’t a member of the New York Giants, he was interested in making an ‘easy’ $20,000. And Linares was interested in drawing a big crowd.
“Linares searched his mind for the most compelling (way) to promote an exhibition that a year earlier had been reduced to second billing by a soccer match that received special attention because it was supported financially by Spain,” says Yuyo Ruíz in The Bambino Visits Cuba. “The soccer match was held in the afternoon, while Linares was forced to stage his exhibition in the morning. To make up for that Linares, who had developed a knack for giving Cuban fans what they wanted, knew he had to do something special. So he approached the game’s biggest star, George Herman “Babe” Ruth, and ultimately convinced him to come to Cuba.”
Recently, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has begun digitizing photos via its Digital Archive Project for public use. One of the many images now available at collection.baseballhall.org depicts Babe Ruth batting in Havana, Cuba, at the same exhibition game Torriente played in on Nov. 6, 1920.
However, Ruth didn’t travel alone. Lured by the money Linares was offering, the New York Giants went down to Cuba in mid-October, led by manager John McGraw and then assistant manager Johnny Evers. While the entire team didn’t make the trek – the Giants were quite short on starting pitching, a factor which would not play out in their favor when facing Torriente, in particular – about a dozen of them did. Ruth would arrive in late October, accompanied by his then-wife Helen, and would stay for a number of weeks.
Already an iconic player who had just come off of a historic 54-home run season, Ruth’s arrival was proclaimed far and wide, in both American and Cuban newspapers.
He did everything well, he fielded like a natural, threw in perfect form, he covered as much field as could be covered. As for batting, he went [from] being good to being something extraordinary.
“Babe Ruth is playing winter ball in Cuba,” read the Daily Illinois. “Reports have it that boats going from the U.S. to Havana are putting on armor plates to escape being torpedoed by stray homers.”
“[Ruth’s] feats were touted in the papers,” González Echevarría said. “But Cuban baseball was not home-run centered. Black baseball was very prudent, very tactical. At this time, Cuba was enjoying an economic bonanza because of the post-World War I period, and the prices of sugar had gone up. And so, they could afford for an American team to come and play.”
Because Cuban baseball was more driven by small-ball style of play, bombastic hitters like Babe Ruth and Cristóbal Torriente were exciting and different. Expecting to see a show, people paid high ticket prices set by Linares – high enough to pay off the $20,000 that would eventually make its way into Ruth’s pocket.
With high expectations awaiting him, Ruth arrived at Almendares Park on Oct. 31, to play in his first exhibition game of the tour. He singled and tripled, but hit no home runs. Varying newspaper accounts from the time list his home run total somewhere between zero and three during his time in Havana, a disappointment for fans who had expected to see the home run king.
But the real shock came on Nov. 6, Ruth’s third game on Torriente’s turf. Because the roster was limited, John McGraw opted to put in George “High-Pockets” Kelly as a starting pitcher, even though Kelly traditionally played first base. Cristóbal reportedly smacked a two-run home run to left-center field, and came back for more in the third with another solo round tripper.
While the New York Giants would narrowly defeat the Almendares Blues in the series 5-games-to-4, the Blues would take that game in an 11-4 win, led by the offensive prowess of their own Bambino.
Feeling pride in their hometown hero, the Cuban fans threw money onto the field for Torriente, as a way of showing their admiration. Some, newspapers reported, even went as far as throwing cigars and gold watches. But what Torriente received in money that day was far exceeded by the high compliments he would earn from all who had witnessed the game.
But regardless of what the media was printing and how the fans were reacting, Torriente insisted his feat was small when sized up against those of the Great Bambino.
“In summary, Torriente recovered quite a bit of change and 300 cigars,” reported the Cuban newspaper Horacio Roqueta. “Interviewed by journalists over his three home run performance, he said it was purely an accident: ‘Ask the Bambino what he does every day.’”
While these sensationalized newspaper articles gave varying descriptions of the game, a similar message seemed to ring true in most accounts – Cuba had found its Bambino, a hard-hitting slugger that it could tout as its own. Yet it’s important to note that today’s historians have presented conflicting opinions on the level of competition during these games.
Echevarría, for instance, is of the mindset that this almost-mythical performance by Torriente could be accounted for by a number of factors, like the dearth of starting pitchers the Giants had to choose from.
“It became an iconic game, although it was really not a serious game,” explained Echevarría in a phone interview. “It was an exhibition game. And so the Cubans wanted to best the Americans at anything they could, and were very proud of the fact that [Torriente] had bested Babe Ruth.”
Even El Diario de La Marina questioned the legitimacy of the game, comparing it to batting practice -- “resulto una practica al bate del club almendares” – and implying that certain players might have been drunk during the game.
Jorge S. Figuerdo, a historian who specializes in Cuban baseball, insists in his brief essay November 4, 1920: The Day Torriente Outclassed Ruth, that the myth is not only true but was an important part of Cuban history. “…he had the most unforgettable game of his career and surely one of the most memorable games in the history of Cuban baseball as he outclassed the incomparable Babe Ruth.”
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Regardless of the competition level, it was clear that by the end of his time in Cuba, the Bambino was ready to get back to his normal self.
The day after he returned to the United States, the Tulsa Daily World published a photo of Ruth grinning, with a caption below it which read “Mr. George Ruth, known in ball-dom as Babe or the Bambino, returned yesterday from Cuba, radiating ambition and declaring he will establish a mark of 75 home runs next season.”
Cristóbal Torriente, of course, did not have the fabled career that Babe Ruth did, as segregation-era baseball, sadly, did not make that an option. But for at least one game, he upstaged the great Bambino and gave a glimpse, amid the palm trees of Almendares Park in Havana, of the power and talent that would one day make him a Hall of Famer.
Alex Coffey is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame