Former Chicago Cubs player Jose Cardenal was an innovator in the game

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

A recent game against the Minnesota Twins featured a mention of one of my all-time favorite Chicago Cubs players, Jose Cardenal. One of the last Cuban players to emmigrate before the island was locked down, Cardenal came to the U.S. in 1960. He was signed by the San Francisco Giants as a prospect for a $200 bonus.

That $200 was the impetus for a long career. He played 18 years in the big leagues for a variety of teams. Six of those years, in the middle of this career, were spent on the North Side of Chicago.

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Traded to the Cubs from the Brewers in 1971, Cardenal instantly endeared himself to Chicago fans in 1972 by hitting a career-high 17 home runs, knocking in 70 runs and playing solid defense, mostly in right field.

Cardenal did even better in 1973. Though his homers dropped to just eleven, he led the team in several categories: batting average at .303, stolen bases with 19 and doubles with 33. Cardenal finished with 68 RBI, and was named the Cubs’ Player of the Year by the baseball writers of Chicago.

Cardenal averaged 137 games a year during the six seasons he spent calling the “Friendly Confines” home. Though he never repeated the successes of 1972 and 1973; Cardenal received some MVP votes in both years, (he finished 28th and 23rd in voting, respectively), he remained a solid ballplayer.

The Cuban native was listed as 5’ 10” and 151 pounds. While I don’t dispute the weight, I figure they added the height of his afro to his height. When the World Series champion Cubs visited the White House in 2016, former First Lady Michelle Obama towered over him. She famously said that as a child she wore her Cubs cap on top of her hair in tribute to Cardenal, her favorite Cub.

Chicago Cubs: A personality with a preference of cupped baseball bats

Watching him approach the plate, his explosion of hair sticking out neither side of his cap, I was always struck by the size of the bat he carried. It looked to be as tall as he was, and yet he wielded that beast deftly. Cardenal batted above or near .300 for the Cubs until 1977, his last year with the club.

I didn’t find out until recently that Cardenal, like Cubs catcher Randy Hundley, was an innovator in the game. His bat featured the cup in the end that many players still use today. Cardenal is credited with being the first American baseball player to employ the ‘cupped bat’.

The idea came from another former Cub, George Altman, who finished his long career playing in Japan. He gave Cardenal a Japanese bat and he liked it so much he decided to use it. At first MLB was not pleased, fining Cardenal $70 for using an unauthorized bat. Later, though, they backtracked after realizing there was no competitive advantage – aside from player preference and feel.

Throughout his career, Cardenal was an object of speculation because of his ‘attitude’ and he often made news with his antics. Billy Williams shared another ‘quirk’ of Cardenal. He said his former teammate would stash balls in the ivy in right field before games and pull one out when he needed it.

After his playing days were over, Cardenal continued to be a mainstay in baseball, in various capacities, including being a coach for several teams, until 2009. He also made goodwill trips to various countries as an ambassador for American ball even returning to his homeland, Cuba in 1982.

Next. . dark

Despite being labeled as a ‘problem’ by several of his managers, Jose Cardenal made a long career out of his association with professional baseball and he cannot be ignored in any discussion of the Cubs’ lengthy history.