I recently appeared on the Tigers Radio Podcast to discuss Cuban baseball at large. We did discuss a few connections between Detroit and Cuba but didn’t go full bore on Cubanos that have played in the D. It got me to thinking about the lineage and the history. I decided to take a look at the collective Cuban Detroit Tigers and their contributions to baseball in the Motor City.
When Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947 it opened the doors for black baseball players from all over to finally compete in the Majors. Perceived white Cubans had competed in America sparingly until this seminal leap forward.
The 1950s though saw an influx of black and non-black Cubans into the biggest professional league in the world. Special thanks to Baseball Reference it would not be possible to sort through this history without their fantastic database. Lets look at what I believe is the definitive list of all Cuban Detroit Tigers.
Ossie Álvarez SS 1959
The first Cuban to suit up for the Tigers received exactly 2 at bats in 1959. He can say he hit a robust .500 during his time in the Motor City though. Álvarez only appeared in parts of two Major League seasons and was finished before he turned 26. He would ply his craft for 10 Minor League seasons before moving on for parts of five seasons in the Mexican Pro-League.
Chico Fernández Short Stop 1960-1963
The Detroit Tigers wouldn’t welcome their first Cuban regular until 1960 though. Chico Fernández would appear in 133 games that season. He would spend 4 years in Detroit hitting .243 and swatting 20 of his 27 total home runs in 1962.
Sandy Amoros OF 1960
The gap between the 2nd and 3rd Cuban Detroit Tiger would be even smaller. Sandy Amoros had spent most of the previous decade with The Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers. At 30 years of age, Amoros was closer to the end and his move to Detroit mid season was his last stop in the Majors. He hit an underwhelming .149 with 1 HR in 67 at bats but that undersells the fact he hit .260/.366/.443 in 7 partial seasons for The Dodgers as a 4th outfielder and pinch hitter.
Manny Montejo Pitcher 1961
Manny Montejo was the first Cuban to toe the rubber as a Cuban Detroit Tiger. He appeared in just 12 games and 16 innings as 25 year old righty. He would spend multiple years in the minors and wrap up his pro career in Mexico.
Orlando Peña Pitcher 1965-1967
Peña spent three years as an effective piece out of the Tiger’s pen. He would appear in 86 games pitching to a 3.01 ERA in 167 innings. Orlando was a veteran of 14 seasons overall in the Majors and take the ball in 427 games overall.
Orlando McFarlane Catcher 1966
McFarlane isn’t a common Cuban name but does point to some of the British heritage on the island. He would be the first Cuban to don the pads and protect the dish in Detroit. I can’t confirm if he and Orlando Peña formed an all Orlando Battery though.
Tony Taylor 2B/3B/1B 1971-1973
Taylor would play 19 seasons in The Show. He is better known for his time with the Phillies. His three seasons in Detroit all came after he turned 35 and in the twilight of his distinguished career. He is considered one of the top pinch hitters of his era.
Tito Fuentes 2B/SS/3B 1977
Not to be confused with Tito Puente the famous musician, Tito Fuentes did play harmoniously in his one season in Detroit. At an advanced 35 years of age he slashed .309/.349/.397 in 615 at bats. His game was predicated on contact as his power numbers and 61 strike outs would attest. It would be a short stop for the short stop. Fuentes would play 13 more game for Oakland in 1978 before hanging it up.
Barbaro Garbey 1B/OF 1984-1985
Garbey’s story might be the most well documented. He represented a high profile defection as part of 1980’s Mariel Boatlift. Many determined undesirable by the Cuban Government were allowed to flee. He would sign with Detroit and win the World Series as a rookie in 1984. That Tigers team might be the most popular in Detroit. This vaults Garbey’s stating in the eyes of most fans who were alive for that title.
Álex Sánchez CF 2003-2004
There was close to a two decade gap between Garbey and the next Cuban to suit up for the Tigers. Sánchez would spend parts of two seasons with a rebuilding Detroit squad. In 180 games he hit a solid .304 and swiped 63 bases. He would be out of the Majors by 2005 but would spend parts of several seasons playing in Mexico and Venezuela.
Leonys Martín CF 2018
Martín might be one of the bigger names on the list. He was a member of the vaunted Cuban World Baseball Classic squads before sining a large bonus with Texas. Unfortunately he never had the Major League Success projected for him. He has gone on to be a premiere slugger in Japan though.
Brayan Peña Catcher 2013
Peña only played 71 games in a Tiger’s uniform but he must have made an impression. He would retire as part of the Detroit organization and has been head coach of multiple lower level Tiger’s squads. Peña will man the helm of The West Michigan White Caps of High A. 2022 will represent his third season as skipper.
José Iglesias Short Stop 2013-2018
Iglesias had one of the longer and more distinguished tenures in Motown. He was a key piece in a three way trade with Boston and the White Sox which included Jake Peavy. ‘El Candelita’ was regarded as a defensive wizard at Short but his bat typically lagged. He slashed .268/.312/.364 but is still in the Majors to this day acting as a serviceable utility piece.
Yoenis Céspedes OF 2015
The Cuban Detroit Tiger with perhaps the most tools. He would only play 102 games for Detroit after being the key piece in return for future Cy Young Rick Porcello. The Tigers would swap Céspedes to the Mets at the 2015 deadline. That move would vault New York to a World Series appearance that year.
The Detroit Tigers are still looking for their first Cuban baseball superstar. However, we can see they have had a number of contributors from the Island. Who do you think is the best Cuban to play in the D?
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