The Cincinnati Reds have historically been heavily involved with Cuban baseball players, from current All-Star Aroldis Chapman, to top prospect Raisel Iglesias, to Hall of Famer Tony Perez. But the list of important Cuban players in Reds history starts with Armando Marsans, not just the first Cuban born player in Reds history, but the first Cuban born impact player in Major League history.*
Armando Marsans was born in 1887 to a wealthy family in the city of Matanzas. He learned baseball in New York City after his family emigrated there in 1898 to escape the Spanish-American War. After the war ended, the family returned to Cuba and Marsans continued to play. In 1905 he turned professional, joining the Almendares, one of the best teams in the Cuban Winter League. Marsans helped the Almendares to the pennant in 1905 and 1907.
In 1908, the Cincinnati Reds toured Cuba playing exhibition games against top Cuban teams, including the Almendares. Marsans by that time was under contract with an American minor league team, but he participated in the exhibition games with his old teammates. The Almendares won four of the five games against the Reds, and Marsans played well, including one game where he scored the only run in a 1-0 Almendares victory. A few years later, the Reds purchased Marsans and another fellow Cuban player, Rafael Almeida, from the minor leagues. The deal came about because Frank Bancroft, who was working in the Reds front office, remembered seeing the two play in Cuba and thought they were worth taking a chance on.
It’s important to remember that at that time, any non-Americans were considered oddities in organized baseball, no matter what country they came from. There were, of course, accusations from some quarters that both Marsans and Almeida were of African descent, which sadly was an important consideration in baseball (and pretty much all other aspects of American life) at the time. The Reds were forced to defend their players, insisting that both men came from European descent, and even bizarrely and condescendingly calling them "two of the purest bars of Castilian soap ever floated to these shores."
Marsans and Almeida** both made their major league debuts on, ironically enough, the Fourth of July, 1911. The Reds lost to the Cubs 8-3, although Marsans went one for two after entering the game as a late inning defensive replacement. Marsans spent the rest of that season as a backup outfielder, but later won the starting center fielder job. Marsans had a reputation as a "speed merchant" and strong defensive center fielder. He was also a good baserunner and was praised for his knowledge of the game. He never hit for power, with only two home runs in his entire major league career, although that’s certainly at least partially due to the pitching-dominated era he played in. Despite that, he spent at least some of his Reds career batting fourth in the lineup.
Off the field, Marsans was said to have carried himself with class and dignity. He came from family money back in Cuba, and it was believed that he didn’t rely on his baseball salary for money to live on, which made him very unusual for his era. He dressed well, spoke perfect English, and was every inch a Cuban aristocrat. He even owned a tobacco factory in Cuba, and opened a cigar shop in Cincinnati, which was apparently very successful.
Unfortunately for Marsans, in 1914 his career took a dramatic turn after a heated argument with his manager, Buck Herzog. Herzog had a reputation for fighting with everyone, including his own players and front office. After the argument, the origins of which seem to be unknown, Herzong suspended Marsans. Marsans responded by demanding to be traded, a demand the Reds denied. So Marsans left the team and signed with the St. Louis Terriers of the fledgling Federal League. In an era before free agency and the players’ union, this was a violation of the terms of the incredibly one-sided contract all players were required to sign. The Reds sued Marsans, and the court issued an injunction, barring Marsans from playing for the Terriers or any other team in any other league besides the Reds. Marsans returned to Cuba and played under an assumed name. In August of 1915, a judge finally overturned the injunction and Marsans was allowed to return to the Terriers, but the Federal League folded soon after.
Marsans was then picked up by the American League St. Louis Browns, but injuries began to take their toll, exacerbated by the fact that, due to the Federal League legal maneuverings he had been involved with, he had played in less than a hundred games over all of 1914 and 1915. His career quickly declined. He spent a year and a half with the Browns, then another year and a half with the New York Yankees, and his major league playing career ended after the 1918 season.
Marsans remained involved in American baseball. He briefly played for a minor league team in Louisville, and then joined a team called the Cuban Stars of the Eastern Colored League, making him the first player to play in both the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues. But that wasn’t the last first Marsans achieved in baseball: by becoming the player-manager of the minor league Elmira Colonels in 1924, Marsans became the first Cuban born manager in organized American baseball. Marsans lasted one season with Elmira, and it was his last in the United States.
After leaving the American minor leagues, Marsans returned to Cuban professional baseball and played a few more seasons before retiring as a player in 1928. He then managed several teams, both in Cuba and in Mexico, and had considerable success in that role. He finally left baseball for good in 1947 after a 43 year career as a player, coach and manager that spanned multiple leagues and three different countries. In honor of his long career, Marsans was among the first ten inductees into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame.
Marsans died in Havana on September 3, 1960.
* Strictly speaking, Marsans can’t be called the first Cuban major leaguer. He was actually the third. The first, Steve Bellan, appeared in just 60 games and had 286 plate appearances across three seasons between 1871 and 1873 in the National Association, which predated the National League. The second, Chick Pedroes, appeared in only 2 games, both in 1902, for the Chicago Cubs. Marsans was the first Cuban player to accumulate over 400 plate appearances, and certainly the first to have a real impact on his team.
**Almeida played parts of three seasons, never as an everyday starter. His American baseball career ended in 1913 with him having appeared in 102 games, all with the Reds.