C. 1922 ROMEO AND JULIETA CIGARS JOSE MENDEZ (HOF) CSG 2.5 GOOD+ (RICHARD MERKIN COLLECTION).
Presented here, for the first time to the hobby, is surely one of the most significant offerings in the history of early Cuban baseball tobacco cards. This and the next four card lots are identified on back as "Romeo Y Julieta." These include the immortal "Black Diamond", Jose Mendez, a future Cuban and National Baseball Hall of Fame selectee along with his 1910-11 Amendares teammate, Heliodoro Hidalgo, as well as three amateur Cuban ballplayers: M. Santamaria (Criollos), R. Ramos and E. Espineira (Progreso Luyano). While both the 1909 Cabanas and 1910 Punch Merkin Collection cards garnered lots of attention (deservedly so when offered for the first time by Hake's beginning in 2011) an even rarer issue of Cuban baseball cards would be produced and distributed a dozen years later. Shrouded in mystery for many years have been these Merkin Collection Romeo y Julieta cards. Each is 1.5x2.5" with glossy silver gelatin photo fronts. Further adding to the allure of these amazing relics is the fact that all of the known professional card backs include a date of either 1911 or 1915 along with statistical information for various baseball performance categories while their amateur counterparts display a date of 1922. When matching up the stats with known records, it appears that all of the professional ballplayer card backs should have read 1911 but some were incorrectly printed with the 1915 date for unknown reasons.
Although scarce in their own right, Romeo y Julieta issued examples of boxing cards from the 1920s era have long been known and documented, although different series were produced during this time period. The key to the puzzle here was determining how the baseball issue, with so few examples, compared to its boxing counterparts. Obviously, there were a number of similarities in the layout and presentation of both sports on the card fronts of the 1922 cards but the different dates on back of the baseball series raised many questions. However, the eventual discovery of a 1922 Romeo y Julieta sports card album, designed to house the cards, displays areas for both boxing as well as baseball subjects to be collected.
Further adding to the intrigue of these amazing rarities is the fact that all of the known professional ballplayers hailed from the famed 1910-11 Almendares ball club with the Romeo y Julieta card photos matching those of the 1910 Punch series. One possible theory is that this baseball card series was originally planned for production as early as 1911 but the printing of the cards never took place or, if they were issued, quantities were so miniscule that no surviving examples have ever surfaced. Thus, the tobacco company now had a stock of these Almendares player photos on hand and likely never followed through with actual production until 1922 when they produced the interesting mix of then-current amateur ballplayers along with past professional greats, many of whom were still active in Cuban baseball during the early 1920s. To the best of our knowledge, no professional players from any other team besides Almendares have ever surfaced, making Jose Mendez the only possible Hall of Famer to obtain as he was the only future selectee on the 1910-11 Almendares roster. Additionally, a review of the other known examples documented online reveals that no more than one surviving example of each ballplayer remains a century later.
Born on March 19, 1887 in Cardenas, Matanzas, Cuba, Jose Mendez made his debut in organized baseball in 1903 at age 16 and, five years later, was hurling for the Almendares baseball club (he is shown in their uniform on this card), the top team in Cuba at that time. Mendez was dominant during a six year stretch from 1909-1914, leading the Cuban League in wins three times while helping his club to three league championships during that time frame. Among Jose's grandest accomplishments for Almendares were two historic pitching duels where he bested future Hall of Famers, Eddie Plank and Christy Mathewson. During the 1908 season, Mendez also made his US debut for the Brooklyn Royal Giants, followed by a four-year stint with the Cuban Stars from 1909-12, fashioning a 44-2 record against all levels of competition in 1909. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Jose would continue to star on the mound in both the US as well as his homeland of Cuba. Mendez was also an integral part of the famous All Nations ball club teaming with fellow pitching great, John Donaldson to form a nearly unbeatable pair. Jose would later go on to star for the Kansas City Monarchs team that dominated Negro League baseball during the mid-1920s.
Having been authenticated and encapsulated by CSG and designated as being from The Richard Merkin Collection, this amazing rarity has been assigned a grade of 2.5 Good+. Although the grade is technically accurate due to left/right centering and light handling wear, you couldn't ask for a nicer card presentation at this level. As mentioned previously, with Jose Mendez likely to be the only National Baseball HOF'er to ever surface from this incredibly rare series, this could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pick up one of the most important cards in Cuban baseball history and the only example extant. From the Richard Merkin Collection and comes with Hake's COA.