The Glove Club: Leo Cardenas
For most of the 1960s, the shortstop position in Cincinnati belonged to a slender Cuban native named Leo Cardenas. He was a good hitter and outstanding fielder, with surprising power for his size (his playing weight was 150 pounds).
Cardenas was signed by the Reds in 1957 and was called up to the major league team in 1960 when starting shortstop Roy McMillan was injured. Cardenas batted .232 in 48 games filling in for McMillan, who was traded that winter to the Milwaukee Braves.
That same winter, the Reds acquired Eddie Kasko, who became the Reds’ starting shortstop during their championship season of 1961. Kasko won the starting job because of his superior hitting. But Cardenas, clearly the better defensive player, also proved to be a better hitter in 1961. As Kasko’s back-up and late-inning defensive replacement, Cardenas batted .308 in 1961, and won the starting shortstop job for 1962, when he batted .294 with 10 home runs and 60 RBIs.
Cardenas remained the Reds’ starting shortstop for the next six seasons. His most productive offensive season with the Reds came in 1966, when he batted .255 with 20 home runs (setting a team record for a shortstop) and 81 runs batted in. From 1962 through 1968, Cardenas hit a combined .260 and averaged nine home runs and 54 RBIs per season. He also won a Gold Glove in 1965 and was named to the National League All-Star team four times.
After the 1968 season, Cardenas was traded to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Jim Merritt. He hit .280 for the Twins in 1969 with 10 home runs and 70 RBIs, shoring up the Twins’ infield as Minnesota won the West title in the inaugural year of divisional play. Cardenas hit 18 home runs with 75 RBIs for the Twins in 1971, the year he was named to the American League All-Star team.
Cardenas was traded to the California Angels in 1971 for pitcher Dave LaRoche. He batted .223 in his only season with the Angels, and then was traded to the Cleveland Indians in a deal that included first baseman Tommy McCraw. At this point in his career, Cardenas had become a utility infielder, excellent with his glove but no longer as serious a threat with a bat. He was traded to the Texas Rangers before the 1974 season, batting .272 in a part-time role and then hitting .235 for the Rangers in 1975, his final season in the majors.
Cardenas finished his 16-season major league career with 1,725 hits and a career batting average of .257. Regarded as one of the surest glove men of his era, Cardenas led National League shortstops in fielding percentage in 1963 and 1966, and set an American League record with a .985 fielding percentage in 1971. He led the National League in putouts from 1964-1966, and led the AL in both putouts and assists in 1970.