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Cuban Baseball

Teddy Tannenbaum
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

(continued from page 1)

It wasn't always this way, according to reputable Cuban baseball historian, Angel Torres. In 1865, young Cubans who had learned the sport at universities in the United States began to introduce the game to their countrymen. In 1866, American sailors loading sugar in Matanzas invited the Cubans to play a game called base ball. Their boat was docked in the bay long enough for the Americans to help build a baseball diamond at Palma de Junco. Less than three years later, the first organized game between two Cuban teams took place.

U.S.-Cuba relations improved toward the end of the nineteenth century. The Cuban patrons of baseball supported the revolution against the Spanish, and in fact, funneled money they made promoting the game into the hands of the revolutionaries. After the defeat of the Spanish (in the Spanish-American War), American Major League teams began touring the island regularly to take on teams made up of American black players--who were denied spots on Major League rosters in that era--and Cuban players.

The Detroit Tigers were one of the first teams to travel to Cuba to play in a series of exhibition games. Without Sam Crawford and Ty Cobb, the team's biggest stars, Detroit lost seven of 12 games. Coming on the heels of a Cincinnati ball club's four-and-seven record the previous year, against teams composed of Cubans and players from the Negro leagues up north, people began to take notice. Cincinnati had run into 20-year-old Cuban fireballer José Méndez, who shut them out 1-0, giving up only a ninth-inning single. The "Black Diamond," as he was known, also had another complete game shutout in the series. The Major Leaguers simply couldn't catch up with his fastball.

The Tigers were American League champs from 1907 to 1909. In the winter after their third straight championship season they faced Bombin Pedroso, who promptly no-hit them for ten innings. The next year they brought Sam Crawford with them, and Pedroso no-hit them again--this time over 11 innings. This took place during a 12-game series against two of Cuba's storied ball clubs, Havana and Almendares. After seven games the series stood deadlocked at three victories each with one tie. That's when Ty Cobb showed up ready to play in the last five games.

Baseball was in Cuba's blood by that time, and the fans were very familiar with the American ballplayers, having followed their seasonal exploits closely in the newspapers. The Cubans knew who Cobb was and they packed the Havana ballpark for his first appearance. He didn't disappoint, hitting two singles and a home run to lead the Tigers to victory. His team ended up winning seven of 12 games.

Cobb's Cuban visit was memorable for another incident that took place during that series, an incident that baseball historians recall whenever Cuba and Cobb are mentioned together. In one game at Almendares Park outside Havana, he was thrown out stealing second; not a routine occurrence for this quintessentially aggressive ballplayer. Cobb jumped up and disputed the umpire's call, charging that the distance between first and second base was longer than between home and first. To placate the fiery American, the umpire had a tape measure brought out, and sure enough, the distance between the bases was three inches longer than the standard 90 feet. You're right, the umpire told Cobb as they moved the base up, but you're still out!

Cobb wasn't happy in general with his visit to Cuba. Three of the Negro League ballplayers, including Hall of Famer John Henry "Pop" Lloyd, topped Cobb's .370 average during the series. Cobb swore after that experience he would never again play against black men--and he didn't.

Over the next few years, big-league managers like Connie Mack and John McGraw barnstormed with teams through Cuba and competed against the best Cuban and Negro League stars. Méndez and Pedroso dueled with the likes of Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, and Christy Mathewson. McGraw toured with his New York Giants after the 1920 season and added newly acquired Yankee slugger Babe Ruth to his roster. Ruth, who had learned to roll cigars at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, had a life-long love affair with the puro. It was said that some of the initial balking he did over his sale from the Red Sox to New York was because he didn't want to leave his cigar factory in Boston.

Babe loved the idea of going to Havana and he gambled and smoked incessantly. He gained 25 pounds and had a good time. On the field it was a different story. José Méndez struck out "the Bambino" three times in one game. Meanwhile, Cuba's Cristóbal Torriente, who bore a physical resemblance to the Babe and had established himself as one of the top hitters in Cuba, hit three home runs for Almendares. This prompted Ruth to say: "Tell Torriente and Méndez that if they could play with me in the Major Leagues, we would win the pennant by July and go fishing for the rest of the season." To which McGraw added, "If we could paint Méndez white, he'd be the best pitcher in baseball."

Neither man would ever have that chance because of their skin color, although both excelled for years in Cuba, Mexico, and on barnstorming tours in the United States. One who did play early on in the Major Leagues was light-skinned Adolfo "Dolf" Luque. His success with the Cincinnati ball club in 1923 (he pitched a league leading 27-8 with a 1.93 ERA) earned him the nickname "Pride of Havana." The Cuban people extolled his feats with "Beloved Cincy" and, in the course of following his exploits, cemented their love affair with American baseball.

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