Branch Rickey is well known for being the Dodgers general manager who broke baseball’s color barrier by bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. What is less known is that Rickey was the Cardinals general manager who made Mike Gonzalez the first Cuban manager in the major leagues.
Long before that, Gonzalez, a Havana native, helped form a connection between the Cardinals and Cuba.
A catcher, Gonzalez had three stints with the Cardinals as a player: 1915-18, 1924-25 and 1931-32. He also played for the Braves, Reds, Giants and Cubs.
During his 17-year playing career in the majors, Gonzalez developed a reputation for his baseball savvy. It was while scouting for the Giants that Gonzalez wired a report to manager John McGraw about a prospect: “Good field, no hit.” The phrase became part of baseball’s lexicon.
In 1934, Gonzalez became a coach on the staff of Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch. Four years later, when Frisch was fired on Sept. 11, 1938, Rickey named Gonzalez as manager of the Cardinals.
Though it was a stopgap measure _ most reports indicated Rickey would hire someone from within the minor-league system to manage the 1939 Cardinals _ the move was significant.
In reporting that Gonzalez, 47, was the first Cuban to manage in the big leagues, The Sporting News described him as “a shrewd diamond strategist, a keen judge of talent and a capable instructor.”
Frisch called Gonzalez “a great guy, loyal and true and one of the smartest birds I ever knew.”
Citing his stellar reputation as a coach for the Cardinals, The Sporting News wrote of Gonzalez, “The athletes who have played under his coaching direction have learned to respect his judgment and to take his orders implicitly.”
Gonzalez also had the ability to decode the signs flashed by opponents. “One year, the Cardinals won almost all their games with one of the second-division clubs, largely because Gonzalez was able to call virtually every pitch and tell exactly when the enemy was going to hit-and-run or try to steal,” The Sporting News reported.
Gonzalez made his debut as Cardinals manager on Sept. 14, 1938, in the first game of a doubleheader at Philadelphia. Despite yielding nine runs and 13 hits, starter Max Macon pitched a complete game and got the win in a 12-9 Cardinals victory. Boxscore
The Cardinals swept the doubleheader, winning the second game, 3-2, behind starter Mort Cooper, who pitched a complete game three-hitter while walking eight in his big-league debut. Boxscore
Gonzalez led the Cardinals to wins in his first five games as manager, then lost six in a row. He finished with an 8-8 record.
Ray Blades became manager of the 1939 Cardinals and Gonzalez remained as a coach.
In June 1940, Blades was fired and Gonzalez was named to his second stint as Cardinals manager. Again, it was an interim role. The Cardinals were 1-5 under Gonzalez. Billy Southworth took over as Cardinals manager and he kept Gonzalez as a coach.
The Cardinals would win two World Series titles and three pennants under Southworth, who would earn election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1946, Southworth left the Cardinals to become manager of the Braves. He was replaced by Eddie Dyer, who maintained Gonzalez as a coach.
The 1946 season would be the 13th and final season for Gonzalez as a Cardinals coach. It ended memorably. In Game 7 of the 1946 World Series, Enos Slaughter scored the winning run on a mad dash from first base on a hit by Harry Walker. Slaughter ran through a stop sign from Gonzalez, who was coaching third, and later claimed he thought the Cuban had yelled “Go, go, go” instead of “No, no, no.”
Gonzalez was the first of seven Cubans who managed in the majors, according to baseball-reference.com. The others:
_ Preston Gomez: 1969-72 Padres, 1974-75 Astros and 1980 Cubs.
_ Marty Martinez: 1986 Mariners (one game).
_ Cookie Rojas: 1988 Angels and 2001 Marlins (one game).
_ Tony Perez: 1993 Reds and 2001 Marlins.
_ Carlos Tosca: 2002-04 Blue Jays.
_ Fredi Gonzalez: 2007-10 Marlins and 2011-14 Braves.
Previously: The top 5 Cubans to play for the Cardinals