Leonardo Lazaro Cárdenas Alfonso (born December 17, 1938) is a Cuban former professional baseball player. He played as a shortstop in Major League Baseball from 1960 to 1975. Nicknamed "Mr. Automatic" and "Chico", he was a five-time all-star and one of the best fielding shortstops of his era.
Cárdenas in 1974
|Born: December 17, 1938|
|July 25, 1960, for the Cincinnati Reds|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 26, 1975, for the Texas Rangers|
|Runs batted in||689|
|Career highlights and awards|
Cárdenas was born in Matanzas, Cuba, one of 15 children of Rafael and Roberta Cardenas. He came to the U.S. in 1956 at age 16 (although he claimed to be 17, the minimum age to be signed by a Major League team) and received a $500 signing bonus. He was among the last of the Cuban players to make it out of Cuba before the borders were sealed. He batted .316 for the Arizona–Mexico League's Tucson Cowboys in 1956, and signed with the Cincinnati Reds the following season. While playing for the Havana Sugar Kings in the International League in 1959, Cárdenas was inadvertently shot by raucous Fidel Castro supporters firing off rifles in the grandstand in celebration of the 26th of July Movement. The Havana team was moved to Jersey City the following July and renamed the Jerseys.
Cárdenas was called up to the Reds in 1960 to fill in for an injured Roy McMillan. He made his Major League debut on July 25, 1960, starting and batting eighth and playing shortstop in a 6–5 Reds win over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. After grounding into a double play and later lining out, he notched his first career hit with a seventh-inning run-scoring single off Cubs pitcher Bob Anderson. For the season, he batted .232 with one home run and 12 runs batted in. After the season, McMillan was dealt to the Milwaukee Braves for pitchers Joey Jay and Juan Pizarro.
Reds Manager Fred Hutchinson's original plan heading into the 1961 season was to platoon Cárdenas and utility infielder Eddie Kasko at short, with Cárdenas being the better fielder and Kasko being the better hitter. Cárdenas, however, surprised his boss with a .308 batting average. He also clubbed five home runs to Kasko's two in 271 fewer at-bats.
He was awarded the full-time starting shortstop job in 1962, and responded with a .294 average, 10 home runs and 60 RBIs. He remained the Reds' starting shortstop for seven seasons, earning All-Star nods in 1964, 1965 and 1968, and being elected to start in 1966. He had eight RBIs and belted four home runs in a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs on June 5, 1966 on his way to setting a club record for home runs by a shortstop with 20 (later broken by Barry Larkin). Following the 1968 season, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Jim Merritt.
The Twins had something of a revolving door at short in 1968 with Jackie Hernández, Rick Renick, Ron Clark and Cesar Tovar all manning the position at one point or another. Bringing in Cárdenas for 1969 solidified the Twins at their weakest position, and helped turn around the team's fortune. They went from 79–83 and seventh place in the American League to 97–65 and winning the American League West the first year of divisional play. For his part, Cárdenas batted .280 with 10 home runs and 70 RBIs at the bottom of the Twins' batting order. He tied an AL record for assists by a shortstop with 570.
Cárdenas was batting .285 with 11 home runs and 46 RBIs at the 1971 All-Star break to be named to his only AL All-Star team; however, he did not appear in the game. He ended the season with 18 home runs and 75 RBIs and a stellar .985 fielding percentage to receive the Calvin R. Griffith Award given each season to the Twins' Most Valuable Player. His 1971 fielding percentage was the highest recorded in the American League since records began in 1901.
At the 1971 Winter meetings, the California Angels acquired Cárdenas for relief pitcher Dave LaRoche. The acquisition marked former All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi as trade bait. He would go to the New York Mets for Nolan Ryan a week later.
At 33 years old, Cárdenas was clearly on the decline by the time he joined the Angels. He batted only .143 in the month of June, and ended the season with a .223 average, six home runs and 42 RBIs. During Spring training 1973, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for Tommy McCraw and minor leaguer Bob Marcano to make room for Bobby Valentine at short, whom they had recently acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Cárdenas found himself in more of a back-up role for the first time in his career with the Indians. He made his first major league appearance at third on August 16, and committed an error. Following his only season in Cleveland, he was dealt to the Texas Rangers in a controversial deal for catcher Ken Suarez. Suarez had just filed for arbitration a week before the February 12, 1974 trade. He filed a formal grievance against the Rangers claiming that he was traded in retaliation. He never appeared in a game with the Indians, retiring instead.
Cárdenas, meanwhile, appeared in 34 games for the Rangers, 21 of which were at third base. He spent one more season with the Rangers as a third baseman before retiring.
Cárdenas led NL shortstops in fielding percentage in 1963 (.972) and 1966 (.980), and the AL in 1971 (.985). He won his only Gold Glove award in 1965. The five time All Star also appeared in back to back Champion Series with the Minnesota Twins in 1969 & 1970 and the World Series against the New York Yankees in 1961. During his career he powered six home runs off of Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal. He led the NL in intentional walks in 1965 & 1966 (25 & 18, respectively). He was voted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1981.
Despite having come to the United States in 1956, and twice being married to American women, Cárdenas never got around to applying for American citizenship. He has eight children. In 1998, Cárdenas was sentenced to three months in jail and five years' probation for felony assault after breaking out the windows of a car that his wife and a male co-worker were sitting in, and breaking the man's arm with a bat.
- "Bullets Fly & Game is Cancelled". Gettysburg Times. July 27, 1959.
- Red Thisted & Lou Chapman (December 17, 1960). "Braves Get McMillan in Three-Way Deal". The Milwaukee Sentinel.
- Fred Hutchinson (February 1, 1961). "Adding Freese and Jay Should Help Cincinnati". St. Petersburg Times.
- "1966 Major League Baseball All-Star Game". Baseball-Reference.com. July 12, 1966.
- Mike Rathet (June 6, 1966). "Cárdenas, Stargell Find Hitting Range". The Tuscaloosa News.
- "Leo Cárdenas". Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame & Museum.
- "Cincinnati Gets Pitcher Merritt". Reading Eagle. November 24, 1968.
- "1971 Major League Baseball All-Star Game". Baseball-Reference.com. July 13, 1971.
- Ken Rappoport (December 1, 1971). "Dalton Trades Dave LaRoche for Cardenas". The Nashua Telegraph.
- "Cardenas Goes to Indians". The Portsmouth Times. April 3, 1973.
- "Cleveland Indians 10, Kansas City Royals 4". Baseball-Reference.com. August 16, 1973.
- "Ken Suarez Files Suit". Bangor Daily News. March 1, 1974.
- John Erardi (October 27, 2002). "Cardenas mastered baseball; now, life is a different story". The Cincinnati Enquirer.
- Dan Horn (March 28, 1998). "Former Reds Star Hits Low Point". The Bowling Green, Kentucky Daily News.
- Kevin Pierson (June 25, 2009). "Cardenas a fixture at Reds Legends baseball camp". Parkersburg News and Sentinel.