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Cuban Baseball
by Bruce Brown

THE joke that flying baseballs are the greatest pedestrian hazard in Havana is only partly whimsical. On a stroll from the Havana Riviera to Old Havana last year I counted dozens of pickup baseball games, involving players of all ages, and I was nearly beaned twice. Balls were flying off the trunks of royal palms, onto apartment-house roofs, across moving lanes of traffic, and against the pastel iron gates of old mansions like the one occupied by the Albanian Embassy.

Passionate discussion of pelota (which means simply "ball") is an afternoon staple of establishments like the Pelota Café on Havana's 23rd Street, and in the evening the fanáticos gather at Havana's 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano to drink thimbles of sweet Cuban coffee and watch the game. Here, on a well-kept natural-grass field with brick-red base paths, Cuban players compete in the top two levels of Cuba's rigorous elimination tournament, the National Series and the Selective Series. Out of the Selective Series comes the Cuban National Team, the apex of Cuban baseball and one of the most successful athletic organizations in modern memory.

During the past twenty years Cuba has dominated world amateur baseball in somewhat the way Taiwan has dominated world Little League baseball and the United States has dominated world professional baseball. The Cuban National Team has won ten World Series of Amateur Baseball and the past four gold medals for baseball at the Pan-American Games. These triumphs have been particularly gratifying for Fidel Castro, whose government has made success in baseball a priority. An opportunity for further gratification will come in July, when the Cuban National Team will appear in the United States for the first time. The Cubans will play a series of exhibition games at the Los Angeles Olympics, from July 31 to August 7.

Cuban baseball, whose organized league play began in 1878 (just two years after the birth of the National League, and twenty-two years before the birth of the American League), has always differed from American baseball in several respects, such as racial attitudes. During the sixty years when black baseball players were banned from America's major leagues, blacks and whites competed freely in Cuba. Many of the greatest interracial games of the era took place in Havana, rather than in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, pitting Ty Cobb against John Henry Lloyd, and Carl Hubbell against Luis Tiant, Sr. The Cubans proved that the game could be integrated and ultimately played a role in breaking the American "color line" by providing the Brooklyn Dodgers with a place where they could bring Jackie Robinson to spring training in 1947.

More overtly political than the American sport, Cuban baseball has been closely linked with the causes of national independence and revolution since the days of José Martí. Castro has proven particularly adept at using the sport for political ends. The Cuban National Team plays all over the world and has helped Cuban foreign policy in Nicaragua (where it played exhibition games to benefit flood victims) and Japan (where it has helped to cement the relationship that has made Japan one of Cuba's most active trading partners).

Although Americans complain that the Cuban National Team is really a professional squad in amateur disguise, none of the players is paid for his performances in the sport. Instead, all players receive "sports leave" pay at the same rate they get from their off-season jobs as engineers, sports instructors, handymen, or whatever. Many Cuban baseball stars make less than $2,000 annually, or one half of one percent of the average New York Yankee's salary. Because of these modest salary levels, every baseball game in Cuba is free.

The Cuban players themselves continually endorse the noncommercial approach engendered by pelota revolacionaria in the Havana sports pages. For instance, after winning virtually every hitting title and leading the Cuban National Team to victory in the 1980 Intercontinental Cup, Pedro José "Chieto" Rodriguez said, "The love of my countrymen means more to me than dollars, and if anyone is dreaming that I would go to the big leagues, they should wake up." Privately, however, some players express dissatisfaction with the Cuban game's financial rewards. Twice in the past five years the Cuban government has expelled players and coaches for gambling and fixing games for money. The second time, in 1982, the Cubans permanently banned nearly two dozen people from the sport.

On the field the Cuban game has a few quirks (aluminum bats are allowed, and the umpire puts strikes before balls when he gives the count), but it closely resembles American baseball in both style and level of accomplishment. American baseball scouts say that the Cubans have developed a number of players who could go directly to the major leagues. The level of play in the Selective Series is AAA or a little lower, but the Cuban National Team is probably on a par with teams currently playing in the American and National Leagues. Preston Gomez, a coach with the California Angels, speculated in 1982 that the Cuban National Team could defeat a major-league team in a short series. "They are very tough to beat, and they have some really first-rate talents."

Few Americans have ever heard of Pedro Jova, Víctor Mesa, Antonio Muñoz, or any of the many other stars of post-revolutionary Cuba. The Cubans that American baseball fans remember are members of the last group to arrive on these shores, in the early 1960s: the Twins' Tony Oliva and Zoilo Versalles; Tony Perez, of the Reds; Oriole ace Mike Cuellar; Luis Tiant, of the Red Sox; and Bert Campanaris, of the Oakland A's. During their prime years members of this group won virtually every offensive and defensive award available to major-league players -- Rookie of the Year, Golden Glove, Batting Champion, Most Valuable Player, the Cy Young award -- but no one followed them after the Cuban Revolution. Today only Tony Perez remains in the big leagues, and the Cuban presence in American baseball is at its lowest point of the century.

This summer, however, Barbaro Garbey, who is twenty-seven, and who came to the United States in 1980 among the Mariel refugees, became the first Cuban to break into major-league baseball in almost twenty years. A former member of the Cuban National Team, Garbey now figures prominently in the Detroit Tigers' plans as a designated hitter, according to the Tigers' general manager, Bill Lajoie. If Garbey is successful, and if the Cuban National Team plays as well as expected, a new era in baseball relations between Cuba and America seems certain.

CUBAN Baseball apparently was born in June of 1866, when an American ship anchored in Matanzas Bay to load sugar. One day the U.S. sailors invited the Cubans to play a game they called baseball. Cubans joke that the Americans were motivated at least in part by a desire to sell baseball equipment; nonetheless, they helped build a baseball diamond at Palmar del Junco, where the first baseball games in Cuban history were played.

In December of 1874, eight years after the ship had sailed home, Matanzas, known as the "Athens of Cuba," played Havana in the first organized game between Cuban teams. This contest, which Havana won by a score of 51-9, provided a showcase for Cuba's first great baseball figures, Esteban Bellan and Emilio Sabourín. Bellan, a black, had learned the game from students returning to Cuba from college in the United States. He showed such a gift for it that he was able to travel to America himself and play third base for the Troy Haymakers in 1871, the first year of the old National Association, baseball's first professional league.

Although Sabourín played for Havana (and scored eight runs in that 51-9 game), he is remembered today more as a sports potentate and a patriot. He organized Cuba's first professional baseball league in 1878, and ardently promoted the sport throughout the nation. A staunch supporter of Cuban independence as well, Sabourín funneled money he made from baseball into the hands of revolutionaries, among them the poet and journalist José Martí. The Spanish retaliated by banning baseball in some areas and imprisoning Sabourín, who died in the Spanish fortress Castillo del Hacha in 1897.

Following the defeat of the Spanish in what Americans call the Spanish-American War, American big-league baseball teams toured Cuba with increasing frequency, playing clubs composed of American blacks and Cubans of all shades. The Cubans were enthralled with the likes of Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson, but the gringos also came away with a newfound respect for their opposition -- as in 1910, when the American big-league batting champion Ty Cobb was outhit in Cuba by three American blacks: John Henry Lloyd, Home Run Johnson, and Bruce Petway.

The best Cuban player of this era was Matanzas-born José Méndez, the pitcher whom John McGraw called the "Black Diamond." Although barred from the American big leagues by the color line, Méndez was clearly as good as anyone in the game. Playing against topflight black Americans on a U.S. tour with the Cuban Stars in 1909, he posted a record of forty-four victories and two defeats, according to Robert Peterson's Only the Ball Was White. In Cuba, where whites and blacks played in the same games, Méndez beat Jack Coombs and Eddie Plank, of the Philadelphia Phillies, and split two games against Christy Mathewson and John McGraw, of the New York Giants. A slight right-harder with a fluid motion, Méndez had a fastball that his contemporaries compared to the heat of another slender blade, Smokey Joe Wood.

Light-skinned Cubans began to infiltrate white baseball in America, and soon complaints arose that the racial purity of the American sport was being sullied. In 1911 the Cincinnati Reds had affidavits prepared to "prove" that only Caucasian blood flowed in the veins of Cubans Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, who were referred to by the Cincinnati press as "two of the purest bars of Castille soap that ever floated to these shores." A native of Matanzas who had played with Méndez on the Cuban Stars, Marsans hit .317 for the Reds in 1912 and led the first big wave of Cubans into the major leagues. Foremost among this generation were Mike Gonzalez, who became the first Cuban to manage in the big leagues, and Dolf Luque, the "Pride of Havana."

A polished right-hander with a superb down-breaking curve, Luque was the best pitcher in the National League in 1923, when he was 27-8 with a 1.93 ERA for the Cincinnati Reds. Probably his greatest glory in American baseball came a decade later, though, when as a New York Giant he threw four innings of shutout ball against the Washington Senators in the final game of the 1933 World Series. (Mel Ott's eleventh-inning homer won it for the Cuban and his fellow Giants.

Only one Cuban player exceeded Luque and Gonzalez in popularity prior to the Second World War. This was a black man from Matanzas who may have been the best baseball player of all time. They called him the "Black Babe Ruth" (because he was both a fearsome hitter and an overpowering pitcher) and the "Team Man" (because he could play all nine positions with flourish). His name was Martín Dihigo, and he is the only player honored in the baseball halls of fame of four nations: the United States, Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela. Dihigo made his professional debut as a sixteen-year-old shortstop in 1923, and by 1926 he had established himself as one of the best pitchers in black baseball, having outdueled Luque 1-0 in a highly publicized game at Almendares Park, near Havana. Over the next twenty years Dihigo wandered from the United States to Mexico, Cuba, and other points. Along the way he led various leagues in home runs, batting average, number of victories, and lowest ERA. Twice he led his league in both hitting and pitching. In 1938 he paced the Mexican League with a .387 batting average, an 18-2 pitching record, and an ERA of 0.90. Not until the very end of Dihigo's playing days was the color line broken, whereupon black ballplayers began to see increases in salary and status.

In the 1940s, when the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, started thinking about bringing a black player to the major leagues, he initially considered the star Cuban shortstop of the day, Silvio García. According to Edel Casas, the noted Cuban baseball historian, Rickey met with García in Havana in 1945 to explore the possibility of bringing the excellent right-handed hitter to the Dodgers. In the course of the interview, Rickey asked García, "What would you do if a white American slapped your face?" García's response was simple and sincere. "I kill him," he said. García never did make it to the majors, but by the early 1950s a dozen Cubans were playing in the big leagues. This wave included Sandy Amoros and Sandy Consuegra, but the best of the lot was probably Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Armas ("Minnie") Minoso.

Minoso, a black outfielder, got his start playing with a team called the Ambrosias in Matanzas, and played primarily for the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. He was an extremely fleet fielder (for example, he saved the 1957 All-Star game with an outstanding catch of a line drive by Gil Hodges in the ninth) and one of the best hitters of his era (an eight-time .300 hitter, he led the American League in hits, doubles, triples, and stolen bases at various times from 1951 to 1960). Minoso's quickstarting, hard-sliding style was as distinctive as a signature. Once, years after he left Matanzas, Minoso returned and played unannounced. Nobody noticed him at first, but the second time he came up to bat, the people in the stands stood up shouting, "Orestes, take off your mask."

During the early 1950s, while Cuba and the United States were drawing closer than ever before in baseball (as in virtually every other aspect of society), and while Minoso was burning up the American League, another famous black ballplayer from Matanzas was settling into a much less grand existence in Mexico. A political exile from the right-wing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Dihigo was by now well past forty. His playing days were over, but as it turned out, he had not yet had his greatest impact on Cuban baseball. In 1952 (a year when Minoso led the American League in stolen bases) Dihigo met someone whom he would later describe as a "smiling young man in a Prussian-blue suit" at a restaurant in Mexico City. It was Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Subsequently Dihigo gave modest financial support to the Granma expedition, which launched Fidel Castro's over throw of Batista.

Castro himself pitched with some distinction at the University of Havana during the late 1940s, and frequently attended baseball games at the stadium in Havana. Not surprisingly, he showed enthusiasm for baseball from the very first days of his rule, pledging to underwrite the debts of the Havana Sugar Kings in 1959. With the Sugar Kings perched at the top of the International League standings (on their way to an eventual victory in the Little World Series), Castro made it clear that he wanted this capitalist enterprise to continue, "even if I have to pitch."

On July 24,1959, he did pitch for Los Barbudos ("The Bearded Ones") in an exhibition contest prior to a Sugar Kings-Rochester Red Wings game attended by 26,532 fans, the largest crowd of the year for the International League. The Sporting News reported that Castro pitched one inning and struck out two, partly with the aid of the umpire. "When the arbiter called the batter out on a high, inside pitch, Castro dashed to the plate and shook hands with the ump."

The honeymoon lasted less than a year. Midway through the 1960 season relations between Cuba and the United States ruptured; the International League removed the Havana Sugar Kings to Jersey City, and Cuba was deprived of its best young ballplayers (who departed with the Sugar Kings and quickly graduated to the American big leagues). It was also without a source of new baseball equipment (the U.S. embargo that year cut off access to most foreign goods) and without an established alternative to professional baseball.

With surprising speed, however, the Cubans learned to make respectable baseballs, bats, gloves, and shoes, under the government brand Batos, which takes its name from a ball game that Cuban Indians played well before Christopher Columbus discovered the island. The Cubans also organized an interlocking system of amateur baseball leagues for all levels from grade school youths to the best adult players in the country. Martín Dihigo returned from Mexico to teach baseball in Matanzas, and national standards were established for the technical aspects of the game.

BY 1963 the Cubans had things well enough in hand to upset the U.S. amateur team at the Pan-American Games. John Curtis, the California Angels left-hander, who pitched against the Cubans at the 1967 Pan-American Games, recalls the Cuban National Team of this period well. "They were without a doubt the best talent I ever saw at the amateur level," Curtis says. "There wasn't any big difference in their style of play -- the big difference was that they were a much more talented club. They could hit, hit and run, steal, and execute all the fundamentals very well. If I had to type them, I'd say they were a team of good fastball hitters and very good curve-ball pitchers." Before the first Cuban-American contest at the 1967 Pan-American Games the Cuban players came over to the American dugout and gave their opponents small gifts of friendship. "It was a nice gesture, and I remember it caught us kind of flat-footed since we didn't have anything to give them back," says Curtis, who was also surprised that the Canadian crowds (the games were played in Edmonton that year) "were cheering the Cubans, not the Americans."

Rising to the occasion, Curtis and Ray Blosse each beat the Cubans once that year, and the American amateurs took the title. Larry Gura also beat them once the next year, but the Cubans regrouped and defeated the United States at the 1969 World Series of Amateur Baseball. At the next World Series of Amateur Baseball Burt Hooton started off by pitching a no-hitter against the Cubans. As fate would have it, the Cubans met Hooton and the Americans once more. This time the Cuban ace José Huelga matched zeros with Hooton, and the Cubans finally won the game in extra innings by a score of 3-1. Afterward Castro called Hooton "the best pitcher the U.S. ever sent into a competition of this sort." Hooton may also have been the best that the United States was to send for years to come: his 1970 no-hitter was the last major American victory over the Cubans during the 1970s.

Just how good the Cuban National Team was during this period is difficult to determine, since it was never able to play an American major-league team. But one clue is that the year after losing his famous duel with the Cuban National Team, Burt Hooton was unbeaten in the majors, posting a 2-0 record with a 2.14 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 21 innings of pitching for the Chicago Cubs. Preston Gomez, a Cuban who managed the Sugar Kings and three major-league teams, says of the Cuban National Team: "The caliber of play is superior to the minor leagues, and can probably be compared to some major-league teams. One on one, I think the Cubans could beat you any day in an exhibition game. They might also do well in a short series, but a 162-game season might be another story."

THE current Cuban-baseball lineup features Pedro Jova (an infielder whom Rod Dedeaux, the U.S. Olympic baseball coach, has compared to Ozzie Smith, of the Cardinals), Víctor Mesa (called by fans "the Orange Explosion," and perhaps the most gifted of the Cuban outfielders), Antonio Muñoz (the huge first baseman, who has hit more homers in Cuba than anyone else since the Revolution), Rogelio García (a right-handed power pitcher who has led the league in strikeouts seven times), Braudilio Vinent (another right-hander, whom many consider Cuba's best since the Revolution, owing to a career record of 118-52 with a 2.03 ERA), Wilfredo Sánchez (who has a sixteen-year batting average of .332, or one point better than Rod Carew's average over the same period), and Luis Casanova (an outfielder with home-run power who hits .325). Crowding around the experienced core are a host of talented young players like relief ace Lázaro de la Torre, Agustin Arias, Lázaro Junco, Amado Zamora, Ramón Otamendi, Pablo Bejerano, and Omar Linares (who played second base in the National Series at the age of fourteen). If the team has any weaknesses these are probably pitching and -- surprisingly -- base running.

Drugs do not appear to be as much of a problem as they are in the United States, but gambling is perhaps more of one. In the late 1970s the Cuban authorities permanently banned several players for accepting bribes to fix games in internal Cuban play. One of the players was Barbaro Garbey, who had been the young designated hitter on the 1976 Cuban National Team. On March 20, 1982, Granma reported that seventeen additional top players and coaches had been banned from the game and their names expunged from the records, and that their actions were liable to prosecution under anti-gambling statutes. A Reuters account described a network of "bankers, bookies, and middlemen" operating inside Cuban baseball. Subsequent testimony by Garbey has implicated at least one Cuban manager in gambling schemes, although Cuban officials deny this.

Garbey was signed by the Detroit Tigers in 1980, within days of his arrival at a detention camp for Cuban refugees. He batted .364 in his first season in professional baseball. In 1981, playing for Birmingham, he was hit in the face by a pitch, and was in the hospital for a week. In 1982 he made the Southern League All-Star Team, and last year he starred for Detroit's AAA farm club, the Evansville Triplets, and seemed by early summer a likely candidate for promotion to the majors. In July, however, the Miami Herald revealed that Garbey had fixed games in Cuba. The source for the story was Garbey himself, who said of the run-shaving bribes that he had accepted as a teenager, "I know I did right, because I had to [do it to feed my family]. A lot of people say it was wrong. I still say it was right."

Six days later the president of the American Association, John H. Johnson, commended Garbey for his "candor and openness" concerning his experiences in Cuba, but added, regretfully, that he was placing Garbey on probation for the remainder of the year. This, of course, meant that the Tigers could not call him up in 1983.

Garbey continued to play well (he ended up with a .321 average), but he was temporarily suspended on July 25 after an incident that seemed to reflect his growing frustration with the turn of events: allegedly, he hit a fan of a rival club across the back with a bat.

Garbey was buoyed by his selection by The Sporting News as one of the top six American League rookie prospects for 1984. Despite the tension between his spotted past and major-league baseball's passion for propriety, this could be his year.

This could also be a year of triumph for the Cuban National Team, which comes to Dodger Stadium in Los Angcles seeded numero uno among the world's amateur baseball teams.

Regardless of the outcome of thc Olympics, however, the Cuban team's games in this country offer an opportunity to glimpse intimate aspects of their national character, in all its complexity and contradictions. Although both the United States and Cuba might prefer to present the sport as an unalloyed endorsement of their respective systems, baseball is too true a receptacle of human emotion to lend itself to such politization: the truth will out, like the ball trickling away from a catcher and a base runner tangled in the dust at home plate.


Copyright © 1984 by Bruce Brown. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1984; Cuban Baseball; Volume 253, No. 6; pages 109-114.

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