Cuban-born baseball players have been playing in the majors since at least 1870, and they’ve helped shaped the history of the sport throughout its entire existence. To celebrate Cuba’s contribution to baseball, we’ve crafted a list of the ten-best Cubans to ever do it.
As a caveat, we’re only including players born in Cuba or have represented Cuba in international competition. Functionally, this only excludes Luis Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado, who both would have cracked the top ten.
Dozens of Black Cuban players barred from MLB until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier dazzled audiences in the Negro Leagues for decades. Because of imperfect scorekeeping, we’ll never know how truly great these players were, but we need to shout out Cristóbal Torriente and especially Martín Dihigo, who some believe was the greatest baseball player ever.
We also need to shout out Jose Fernandez, who was arguably the best young pitcher in baseball before he tragically died in 2016 at the age of 24. Had his career continued as projected, he might have ended up the greatest Cuban pitcher ever.
And of course, we need to look to the future. At no point in MLB’s history has there been a greater collection of Cuban talent as there is right now, with two players in particular creating a bright future for Cubans in the big leagues. The first is Luis Robert, who hasn’t quite lived up to his Mike Troutian-hype but is still only 24 years old, and the second is Yordan Álvarez, who rarely plays the field but might already be the best hitter in baseball.
To the list!
10. Liván Hernández/Orlando Hernández
Which Hernández brother had the better career? Liván pitched in eight more seasons than his older brother, but Orlando was the better pitcher at his best. Liván won a World Series MVP in just his second season, but Orlando might be the biggest Cuban phenomenon ever and easily the most influential Cuban pitcher of all time.
Let’s just go with both and call it a day. Liván’s longevity looks truly remarkable in the modern game, but no pitcher ever captivated New York quite like El Duque. However you slice it up, these two are Cuban baseball royalty and fittingly share a place in baseball’s pantheon.
9. José Abreu
Only three Cuban players have ever won an MVP award, and the only one to do so since 1988 has been José Abreu. And though Abreu got a late start to his MLB career winning the AL Rookie of the Year at age 27, he’s been nothing but a rock-solid power hitter for the White Sox in his nine years in Chicago.
And maybe that 2020 MVP can come with the caveat of the shortened season, but his 19 home runs and 60 RBI in 2020 looks like a perfectly respectable 150-game season, much less over the 60 games in which he put up those numbers. Cuban players over the past decade have brought home-run power to MLB, and no one has swung it as well as Abreu.
8. Jose Canseco
At this point, fans might know Jose Canseco for a whole bunch of other things than for being good at baseball. But he was also really good at baseball and needs to be mentioned amongst his other escapades.
And sure, Canseco may be the poster-boy of the steroid era, but it doesn’t make sense to punish players who took performance-enhancing drugs back when MLB didn’t seem to care what players put in their bodies. And even amongst his peers, many of whom were juicing as well, Canseco still managed to win Rookie of the Year, an AL MVP, four Silver Sluggers, and six All-Star appearances. Not to mention, he sent this ball to damn Manitoba. Dude could bash.
7. Dolf Luque
Adolfo Luque was not the first Cuban to play in the majors, but he’s widely considered to be the first Latino pitcher in MLB history, and with that distinction comes a lot of notable achievements. He’s the first Latino to win a World Series game, the first Latino to lead the league in wins, and the first Cuban player to become a renowned manager outside of Cuba.
He also happened to be a pretty solid pitcher. Amongst all Cuban MLB players, Luque ranks second in wins (194), second in innings pitched (3220), and first in complete games (206). His 27 wins in 1923 mark the most in any single season for a Cuban pitcher, and his two World Series wins are the cherry on top of a groundbreaking career.
6. Bert Campaneris
Dagoberto Campaneris did two things incredibly well: Stay healthy and steal bases. His 649 career stolen bases rank fourteenth in MLB history, and though he never hit for much power, he holds the A’s franchise records for hits and games played.
Despite hitting his peak in the era of the pitcher of the late 1960s, Campaneris still played a very good shortstop for an excellent A’s franchise that won three World Series titles during his career. Many considered him a franchise cornerstone, and to this day he trails only eight players in rWAR in over 120 years of the franchise.
5. Tony Oliva
So what if he was inducted through the Golden Era Committee? Tony Oliva is now a Hall-of-Famer after decades of waiting, and he greatly deserves it.
Though it took him a few years to break into the big leagues, he did so in a big way. Oliva became the first player ever to win a batting title in his rookie season, and he topped it by winning another batting title in twelve fewer games the following season. Oliva won one more batting title in his career and led the American League in hits five different times.
A lifelong Twin, Oliva’s knees finally gave out on him when he turned 33, turning him into a designated hitter full-time. And though his advanced metrics don’t pop amongst his peers, his superb talent carried him to eight All-Star appearances and even a Gold Glove in right field. It’s a testament to Oliva that he built a Hall-of-Fame career while fans still wonder what could have been.
4. Rafael Palmeiro
It’s hard to talk about Rafael Palmeiro without talking about the finger. Palmeiro continues to deny knowingly taking steroids despite conflicting testimony from Jose Canseco and a positive test only days after he recorded his 3,000th hit. It might be a lie, but much like Canseco, it doesn’t make much sense to punish Palmeiro retroactively when MLB barely punished him when he tested positive.
Beyond the juicing, it’s easy to call Palmeiro the greatest Cuban hitter of all time. Palmeiro is one of only seven hitters to reach both the 500 home run and 3,000 hit milestones, and he did it all while finishing in the top-5 in the MVP race only once in his career. He also played in 150+ games in sixteen of his twenty major-league seasons and even attempted a comeback in independent ball at the age of 53.
Sharing the spotlight with other sluggers like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr., and Sammy Sosa almost certainly muddled his promotability. Playing the majority of his seasons in Texas and Baltimore certainly didn’t help, either. But Palmeiro desperately needs some good public relations, because his numbers are critically undervalued in the baseball pantheon.
3. Minnie Miñoso
Orestes Miñoso was known for a lot of things. Like how he started his career in the Negro Leagues and became the first Afro-Latino in the majors when he joined Cleveland in 1948. Or how he’s one of only three major leaguers to play in five different decades. Or how he got a hit at 52 years old. But all of that wackiness distracts from his accomplishments, where he was simply one of the most electric Cubans to ever play.
Standing at only 5’10”, Minnie could hit for power, recording 20+ home runs in four different seasons. He could also run, leading the league in stolen bases and triples in three different seasons. At the age of 36, he led the league with 184 hits and finished fourth in the MVP race for the fourth time in his career. It’s no wonder he played five games in his fifties.
But maybe most impressively, Minnie kicked off a trend of Cubans succeeding on the South Side. Even now, the White Sox are the de-facto Cuban MLB team with four starters on the roster and have hosted Cuban players consistently since Miñoso left. It’s that sort of legacy that makes Minnie one of the biggest figures in baseball history, Cuban or otherwise.
2. Luis Tiant
El Duque may have inspired Nestor Cortes, but he wasn’t the original Cuban with a wacky windup. That was Luis Tiant, whose ever-changing windup threw hitters off balance for nearly twenty years. It was for style, sure, but it was also a weapon to disrupt timing where timing is everything. And while Tiant was absolutely a novelty throughout the sixties and seventies, he was also inarguably the greatest Cuban pitcher in MLB history.
Tiant leads all Cuban major league pitchers in most of the important statistical categories, including innings (3486), starts (484), wins (229), strikeouts (2416), and shutouts (49). He won 20+ games four different times and pitched for a sub-2.00 ERA twice in his career. That he only made the All-Star team three times in nineteen seasons seems a bit absurd.
Even more absurd is how Tiant still hasn’t made the Hall of Fame. Only Palmeiro exceeds Tiant’s 66 career rWAR amongst Cuban players, while dozens of less-productive pitchers have plaques in Cooperstown. Tiant at 81 years old is still alive, and it should be a sincere priority of the Golden Era Committee to get Luis Tiant and his handlebar mustache into the Hall of Fame. Anything less would stand as a huge disservice.
1. Tony Pérez
There’s no black ink on the back of Tony Pérez’s baseball card. His career numbers, while great, don’t look that impressive, as he amassed essentially the same rWAR as Campaneris and Miñoso. If he had played anywhere outside the Big Red Machine, we may not be talking about him as the greatest Cuban player ever.
But the point of the game is to win, and no one won quite like Pérez. On a Reds team that featured Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Dave Concepción, many people considered Pérez the glue that held it all together. He also earned the nickname “Mr. Clutch” for his consistent late-inning production, most especially hitting a key home run in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series.
Pérez played in five World Series with the Reds, winning twice. He also finished top-10 in the MVP vote four times and made seven All-Star teams in his 23-year career, making the Hall of Fame in 2000. He didn’t quite have Palmeiro’s strength or Tiant’s flair, but no Cuban player ever built a Hall of Fame resume quite like Tony Pérez. He is the greatest Cuban baseball player of all time.