Figuring out the best team in the history of Cuban baseball often leads to a heated debate. Baseball in Cuba has been played for well over a century and there are a handful, if not more, of teams who fans will ardently support in any sort of contest to determine who had the best team of all-time. I’ve never really joined in any of those debates. However, they are very fun to observe and it is thanks to one of the very first debates I stumbled across that I know about the 1923-1924 Leopardos de Santa Clara.
For as much as I love the present-day Serie Nacional de Béisbol, the era of Cuban baseball I would most love to experience live is the 1920s-1940s when the island nation was chock full of Negro Leagues stars. The one team from the days of Liga Cubana de Profesional Base Ball that I would need to see is the Leopardos mentioned above. So many Negro Leagues/Cuban baseball historians, and regular fans, have talked up that team in particular that if I was forced to pick the best team in Cuban baseball history it would be them.
Where does one start with a team that featured Dobie Moore, Frank Warfield, Alejandro Oms, José Méndez, Rube Curry, and Oscar Charleston? To say that the Leopardos were stacked would be an understatement. They were, in every possible way, a dream collection of both Negro Leagues and Cuban star ballplayers. If you want great hitting; it’s here. Great pitching; take your pick. Aggressively fun baserunning; there is no shortage of that on this squad. Slick fielding; you bet ya. In terms of being a complete baseball team, there isn’t a single thing this Leopardos club is missing.
Knowing that it’s easy to see why they have become a legend in both Cuban and Negro Leagues circles. It helps that they ran away with the league title, finishing 11.5 games ahead of the second-place Leones de Habana. Teams that arrived at Boulanger Park to oppose the Leopardos had to, at some point during the season, realize how futile their efforts were? At least that’s what I tell myself when I look at the Leopardos 36-11-1 record. Or, when I take a quick look at the team statistics and see that they were first in the four-team league in Batting Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, Isolated Power, Earned Run Average, K%, and the list keeps going.
The three-headed monster that paced the offense consisted of Moore, Charleston, and Oliver Marcell. Moore slashed .386/.398/.540 in 197 plate appearances for an OPS+ of 146. Charleston was his usual self, more than ably patrolling center field while compiling a .456 wOBA and a minuscule K% of 3.8. Marcell wasn’t as big of a name, but his 158 OPS+ nearly bested Charleston while his 2.0 K% easily beat out the future Hall of Famer. The three of them had sWAR’s of 3.5, 3.4, and 3.3 respectively. Not too far behind was Olms (his 1.1 sWAR would have been much better if not for his struggles in the field), who would have equaled his teammates’ offensive production if only he hadn’t missed ten or so games on the season.
On the mound, it was the Dave Brown and Bill Holland show. Each threw exactly 96.1 innings and they paced one another rather well while staying atop the league pitching leaderboards. The two starters played well off of one another. Holland was a squat righty and Brown a lanky lefty. Holland was the slightly better of the two with a 1.8 sWAR to Brown’s 1.3. Their periphery numbers were evenly matched. Holland put up a 2.71 ERA, Brown came in at 2.06. Brown struck out 43, Holland was better at 55. Holland sported an ERA+ of 140, while Brown clocked in at 184. The only area where either pitcher was clearly better was with a bat in their hands as Holland was serviceable and Brown was awful. The rest of the rotation was solid, and the team even had Méndez on board as a long reliever (which carried a different connotation back in 1923-1924) who managed an ERA+ of 104 even as his career was nearing its end.
No matter how you pick them apart the Leopardos were one hell of a ballclub. Watching this all-time team, regardless of league, do their thing must have been something special. It’s not too often that one team is demonstrably and verifiably better at every facet of the game than every other team they play against. In 1923-1924 Leopardos de Santa Clara was such a team and it’s for that reason they deserve to be remembered as one of the best teams to ever play the game of baseball.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Unknown