A rare Cuban issue
The Billiken Cigarettes set of 1923-24 was a Cuban-issued set that featured 2×2 5/8″ cards depicting 60 players from the Cuban Professional League. Each black and white glossy photo contains an ad on the reverse, either for Billiken or La Moda Cigarettes. One of the more popular Cuban League sets, this issue includes many stars of the American Negro Leagues, including Oscar Charleston (perhaps the key card in the set), Pop Lloyd, Andy Cooper, and this card of Jose Mendez.
Jose Mendez was a Cuban pitcher and manager in the Negro Leagues, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. Mendez’ notoriety began in the summer of 1908, when he pitched 25 consecutive scoreless innings in three appearances in Havana against the visiting Cincinnati Reds. In addition to being a standout in the Cuban League, Mendez pitched with various Negro League teams, notably finishing his American playing career with the Kansas City Monarchs, where he played and also managed from 1920 through 26.
On his Billiken card, he is depicted with the Santa Clara Leopards, a team loaded with American Negro League players and often considered the most dominant team in the Cuban professional league. Mendez was a legend, the author of a 10-inning perfect game in 1909. His dominance against American teams in Cuba made him the first internationally-known Cuban star.
The Billiken issue remains very scarce (as are most Cuban card issues), and extraordinarily difficult to find in top condition. The cards are printed on photographic paper and are subject to significant wrinkling and creasing. Much like American N172 Old Judge cards, the photos are often found faded, similarly making the numeric grade less important than the image quality and contrast. While this card has been graded POOR by SGC, less due to the minor staining and wrinkling and more to the two small circular holes in the card itself, the image quality is fantastic, with sharp contrast and very clear definition to the image itself.
Cards of Hall of Famers in the Billiken set are extremely desirable, and extraordinarily scarce. Aside from the 1910 Punch Cigars card of Menedez, no earlier issue of the player exists, and just six card sets featuring Mendez during his playing days – all Cuban issues – are known. An outstanding collectible from an international Cuban and Negro League Hall of Famer.