Versalles' name is forever ingrained on our minds, such was his importance during the Twins' earliest years. Most importantly, Zoilo was the shortstop for our pennant-winning team in 1965. My, Zoilo was named American League MVP in 1965, so no wonder he's enshrined in our thoughts.
Versalles went into a sad decline. Did he have problems with self-discipline or basic mental stability? I recall reading that he abused "greenies," those pills I learned about when reading Jim Bouton's "Ball Four." I read a book that quoted Vic Power saying Versalles was "crazy."
Whatever difficulties Zoilo had, they were unfortunate. So in 1968, the Twins tried patching things up without Versalles. At shortstop we tried Jackie Hernandez, Rick Renick, Ron Clark and Cesar Tovar. I recall Hernandez as a hopelessly anemic batter, and Renick as one of those guys who'd go back and forth between AAA and the majors. (Andy Kosko was another.)
I remember what Ron Clark looked like, but little more about him. As for Cesar Tovar, he would become the quintessential big league utility player, but he apparently wasn't up for day-to-day shortstop duties. The shortstop position is hugely important. That's why our trade for Leo Cardenas was so significant and helpful.
Had the Twins been able to win the pennant in '69 or '70, Leo would be remembered far better today. We were stopped in the playoffs by Baltimore both years. Not only that, Twins fans were in an overall glum frame of mind, for reasons that weren't especially clear to me. The atmosphere was nothing like what it was in '65. Nevertheless the Twins won the West Division in the first two years of the divisional format.
Cardenas was an essential contributor. He was nicknamed "Mr. Automatic." He was already well established when he came here. His tenure with the Cincinnati Reds was so substantial, he's probably best remembered as a Red. That could have been remedied by a Twins pennant in '69 or '70. The baseball gods wouldn't allow that.
We wouldn't know anything of him, if he hadn't made it out of Cuba before Castro closed his vise. Cardenas was one of the last players to make it out. "Chico" Cardenas was a native of Matanzas, Cuba. My, he grew up in a family of 15 children! He claimed to be 17 years old when coming to the U.S. in 1956. He was actually 16. Age 17 was the minimum required to be signed by a major league team. He played for the Tucson Cowboys in 1956. He signed with the Cincinnati organization the next season. He played for the Havana Sugar Kings (International League) in 1959, a stint that had him get inadvertently shot by raucous Castro supporters who were 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.
Cardenas came on board with the big league Reds in 1960. July 25 saw him appear in a big league batter's box for the first time. He drove in a run with a single in the seventh inning, in a 6-5 Reds victory. Manager Fred Hutchinson was going to platoon Cardenas with Eddie Kasko in 1961. Cardenas hit better than expected. Therefore he became full-time shortstop in 1962. He batted .294 with ten home runs and 60 RBIs. His glove was his main attribute. He was the Reds' starting shortstop for seven seasons and was an All-Star in four of those. He was elected to start in the '66 All-Star showcase. In a doubleheader against the Cubs on June 5, he hit four home runs and drove in eight runs. He set a club record for home runs by a shortstop in that season, with 20.
Cardenas didn't get along well with Cincinnati manager Dave Bristol in 1968. I can't imagine a manager having a problem with "Mr. Automatic." Such discord does emerge at the highest level in athletics, so the Reds accepted a trade opportunity with our Twins, with pitcher Jim Merritt offered from our end.
At his best here in Minnesota
Cardenas would bat sixth in the order for our '69 division-winning team that had Billy Martin as manager. The numbers show '69 to be Leo's finest season of his career. We were blessed. He complemented Rod Carew at second and helped Carew ascend to his first truly stellar season.
I have suggested in this post that Leo offered greater mental stability than Zoilo Versalles. In most respects that was true. To the extent Leo had an eccentricity - he did - it didn't seem to impact his play. His eccentricity was superstition. Early in his career, he showered in his uniform to ward off evil spirits. Opposing players knew he had great fear of the letter 'X', so they'd scratch it in the dirt near him whenever possible.
His teammates couldn't resist having a little fun with him, based on his tic of superstition. They knew he had a thing about chicken feathers. So, sometimes they'd place one near his infield spot in the spirit of "prank." Once when he was trying to fight his way out of a slump, he locked his bats in the trunk of his car. He vowed not to let them out until they "got better." (There have been times when I should have handled my typewriters like that!)
The end comes for even the finest big league stars. For Leo the signs of decline emerged in1972. He was able to hang around with some other big league teams. The end came with the Texas Rangers when "Chico" was 36 years old. Age 36 was considered quite advanced in those days. Leo had had a very full career. In my opinion, he looked best in a Twins uniform. I seem to recall Halsey Hall sometimes referring to him as "Little Leo." Leo was somewhat diminutive but his bat could pack a wallop, whether it had been in a trunk or not.
A quick review of Leo's Minnesota years:
1969: a .280 batting average, ten home runs, 70 RBIs.
1970: a .247 batting average, eleven homers, 65 RBIs.
1971: a .264 batting average, 18 home runs, 75 RBIs.
Leo was an ironman at his demanding position of SS. He played 160 games in both 1960 and 1970, and 153 in '71. The sheer stability he brought at SS gave us a sigh of relief. Here's a salute to "Little Leo."