Cardenas has proved that he is almost the indispensable man. He makes the difficult play look routine; and he makes the routine play. At a spot as important as shortstop, doing this on a consistent basis often is the difference between a winning and losing game.
- Sportswriter Si Burick
Born in Cuba in 1938, Leo Cardenas was signed by the Reds at age 17 in 1956. The son of an accomplished player in the Cuban professional leagues, Leo spent 4 1/2 years working his way up through the Reds minor league system, arriving in Cincinnati in 1960. Cardenas appeared in 48 games for the Reds late in the 1960 season, and while he struggled at the plate, he demonstrated the defensive excellence that would become his trademark for the balance of his career. The Reds' incumbent shortstop, Roy McMillan, had set the standard for defensive play at the position for nearly a decade. But the promise shown by Cardenas, coupled with the Reds' need to add pitching, prompted the club to trade McMillan to the Milwaukee Braves in the winter of 1960. In return, the Reds received pitchers Joey Jay and Juan Pizarro. Both players proved critical to the Reds' 1961 pennant run as Jay led the club in victories and Pizarro was packaged in a trade that netted the Reds Gene Freese, who became the club's staring third baseman.
Splitting time at short with Eddie Kasko, Cardenas hit .308 and belted five home runs in 198 at-bats and continued to shine defensively. Named the starting shortstop for the 1962 season, Cardenas would remain at the position for the next seven seasons, during which time his play ensured that the standard of excellence at short set by McMillan would be maintained. Christened "Mr. Automatic" for his defensive reliability, Cardenas lead National League shortstops in fielding percentage twice and was the league's Gold Glove winner at short in 1965. Far from being the "good glove, no-hit" shortstop that was typical of the era, Cardenas regularly demonstrated pop in his bat. In 1966 Cardenas broke Eddie Miller's 1947 club record for home runs by a shortstop when he belted his 20th of the season. Cardenas's mark remained the club record until Barry Larkin hit 33 in 1996 (Larkin had tied the record in 1991).
Following the 1968 season, the Reds were once again in need of pitching (the 1968 staff was, statistically, the worst in the league) and, with a young Dave Concepcion waiting in the wings, the club traded Cardenas to the Minnesota Twins for starting pitcher Jim Merritt. The trade proved to be beneficial to both clubs with Merritt posting a 20-win season in the Reds' 1970 pennant-winning year while Cardenas helped the Twins to back-to-back division-winning seasons as that club's starting shortstop.
Perhaps the most significant byproduct of Cardenas's departure was the space it created for Concepcion. Similar in many respects to his predecessor, Concepcion quickly established himself as the premier shortstop of the 1970s and was one of the most important components of the Big Red Machine clubs that dominated the decade. Concepcion's emergence also continued the almost unbroken line of superior play by Reds shortstops. From Roy McMillan in the 1950s to Cardenas in the 1960s to Concepcion in the 1970s and 1980s to Barry Larkin in the 1980s and 1990s, the Reds boast an unprecedented history of sublime performance at the infield's most challenging and important position.
Indeed it is no coincidence that the high level of play demonstrated by Reds shortstops has coincided with some of the best seasons in Reds history. Commenting on the play of Cardenas, Si Burick of the Dayton Daily News could have been writing about any one of the great Reds shortstops when he wrote, "Cardenas has proved that he is almost the indispensable man. He makes the difficult play look routine; and he makes the routine play. At a spot as important as shortstop, doing this on a consistent basis often is the difference between a winning and a losing game."
Leo Cardenas retired from baseball following the 1975 season. He was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1981 and has made Cincinnati his adopted home.