October 30, 1918: Tony Ordeñana
Nowadays, it's common for Cuban-born players to reach the major leagues, but when Tony Ordeñana was born in Guanabacoa, Cuba on this day 101 years ago, there wasn't any reason to believe he'd eventually be playing ball in the States. The eventual 5' 9" 158-pound shortstop's journey to the major leagues can be found in more detail here where editors Jesse Russell and Ronald Cohn actually put together a 42-page book about Ordeñana's life and career.
By his 20s, Ordeñana had moved to Miami and was ready to sign a professional contract. He did just that in 1942 when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, but he only lasted a year in that organization. In 1943, he batted .249 and impressed the Pittsburgh Pirates enough to take a flyer on him for a game very late in the season.
On the final day of the regular season, his Pirates hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at Forbes Field. More than 5,000 were on hand to watch yet another war season come to an end. The level of play between 1941-45 was markedly lower as star athletes were called upon to help defend their country. As a result, "replacement players" lined major-league rosters and noticeably lowered the league's quality of play.
Whether Ordeñana considered himself one of those "replacement players" matters not. The shortstop who had earned the nickname Mosquito thanks to his small stature and persistent, pesky play, was finally in a starting major-league lineup. He was positioned at shortstop where one of the all-time greats, Honus Wagner, had been stationed for the Pirates less than half a century before.
Surprisingly, Ordeñana was batting leadoff in his major-league debut. So, in the first inning, he faced Roger McKee and on the first pitch, grounded out to shortstop. He came up again in the bottom of the second inning with his team trailing 2-0. Philly had walked the bases loaded and it was up to Ordeñana to come through with two outs. The rookie was unfazed and tattooed a single to centerfield, which tied the game at two. His stat line read 1-for-2, single, two RBI.
His third time up, he continued to prove clutch, lining another single back up the middle, this time driving in a run to tie the score at three. Now, he was 2-for-3 with two singles, 3 RBI and was feeling it. Once again in the seventh inning, he crushed a ball, but he lined it right at the third baseman, who threw over to first to complete a double play. Had he hit the ball just a foot further away in any direction, he likely would've been 3-for-4 with two singles, a double, and 4 RBI. As it was, he was still 2-for-4 and having a solid day.
Sharing a dugout with Vince DiMaggio, the lesser-known brother of Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Ordeñana never got another chance to bat. Philly had put the finishing touches on an 11-3 win in what seemed like a promising start to a big-league career for Ordeñana. The powers that be felt otherwise. It had been the final game of the season and they wouldn't be making any decisions based on a small, four at bat sample size.
While he never got particularly close to the majors again, Ordeñana had an extraordinarily long career in the minors and Mexican League, especially given the time period in which he played. He jumped between the Mexican League and organized baseball in the States and in 1950, he even played for the Havana Cubans, a team that competed in the Florida International League and was stationed in Cuba.
In 1951, he played for three different teams in what seemed like it would be his last professional season. However, after two years off, he returned in 1954 at the age of 35 to play 47 games for the Class-C Morristown Red Sox. It was clear that time had passed him by when he batted just .170 that season. That stretch told him he finally had to call it quits. Unfortunately, Fidel Castro's Communist Party took over in Cuba in 1959 and until recently, that had kept the country closed to the United States.
It appears Ordeñana remained in Miami for the rest of his life and it was in South Beach where he died in 1988 at the age of 69. He was one of the more successful one-game players and one of the more unique given his Cuban heritage. Modern baseball fans know many Cuban players in the big leagues, but they should also know the story of a guy like Ordeñana who on one 1943 afternoon, batted lead-off for the Pittsburgh Pirates and took the position in the field of one of the all-time greats.