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Cuban Baseball

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

(continued from page 3)

With all four teams located in or around Havana, there was no need to travel, and teams played round-robin-style from October through February. Some of the players changed clubs year to year but great rivalries, especially between the Havana team (known as the Reds or the Lions) and Almendares (the Blues or Scorpions) drew the passion of the fans across the country, three-quarters of whom were loyal to the Havana ball club. If, at the end of the brief season, their team was victorious, the fans would include in their celebration a funeral for the opposition club, complete with draped casket, funereal music, and a procession to the cemetery where the losing team would be laid to rest.

During this period, baseball also filtered into the galleries of the big cigar-rolling factories in Havana. In addition to the works of literature recited daily by "readers," the rollers also heard newspaper accounts of the previous night's games, complete with box scores. During the World Series, they would listen to the voice of Buck Canel, sponsored by Gillette, announcing the play-by-play. His patented "No se vayan que esto se pone bueno" ("Don't go away, this is getting good") only served to enhance their enjoyment and appreciation of the games.

It was during this time that the seeds were planted for Cuba's closest connection with the Major Leagues. The Havana Cubans joined the Florida league in 1946 and the Cuban Sugar Kings started playing Triple A ball in the International League ten years later. American players began coming to the island regularly now.

While all was right with baseball in Cuba, it was a different story in politics. Fidel Castro, a former right-handed pitcher for the University of Havana, was also a left-handed thinker as he sat in the stadium stands taking in the action. Castro, who seized power early in 1959 was, by most accounts, a second-string pitcher at the university during the mid-'40s. Scouted by Joe Cambria, Castro was told he didn't have a Major League arm. (To be sure, the same can be said for many of the 280-plus pitchers on Major League rosters today.)

Castro did have a chance to pitch, however, in an exhibition game later that summer. As recounted in The Sporting News--Castro, playing for Los Barbudos ("The Bearded Ones"), pitched a scoreless inning on July 24, 1959, prior to an International League contest between the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings. He struck out two, and to show his appreciation, he rushed down to shake hands with the umpire after a dubiously called third strike retired the side.

As relations with the United States began to falter in 1960, Castro tried unsuccessfully to change the national sport from baseball to soccer. Baseball was an American game, and in the antigringo climate of that time, that seemed reason enough. The people, however, wouldn't stand for it. So while the last wave of Cuban-born-and-raised players to play in the Major Leagues (Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris, Tony Perez, Luis Tiant Jr., etc.) made their way north in the early '60s, the government began organizing the game at every level at home. With the United States embargo in full swing, the Cubans started to manufacture their own equipment, set up amateur leagues for every age group, and took advantage of players like Martín Dihigo, who returned to teach and coach in his hometown of Matanzas.

Castro began to copy other nations that used sports for international recognition. His national team began to train and play together regularly and in 1963 they defeated the United States in the Pan American games. The United States turned the tables in 67', upsetting a superior Cuban team. It was about this time that U.S. coaches and scouts who saw the Cuban players firsthand in international competition recognized that although the pipeline of Major League players had been cut off, the quality was still there.

While the top Americans competed for no more than a few years on the amateur level before they turned professional, the Cuban ballplayers put together impressive career records in one international tournament after another. In a 1971 rematch of the 1967 Pan Am games, the average age of players on the victorious Cuban team was 29 and included (future "Marielito" refugee and Detroit Tiger) Barbaro Garbey and a young outstanding hitter by the name of Wilfredo Sanchez. Sanchez was still around for the 1984 Olympics, compiling a lifetime .330 average in between.

Top hitters like Augustin Marquetti and Armando Capiro shone on the 1971 team and remained forces until 1977, when they were joined by ace right-handed pitcher Braudilio Vincent. Vincent was still playing on the 1984 Olympic team where he was teamed with center-fielder Victor Mesa, a young slugger named Luis Casanova and 17-year-old bench warmer Omar Linares, who had played second base in the National Series when he was just 14.

Just how good were some of these ballplayers? Not having a chance to compete against American Major Leaguers on a professional level creates a certain mystery around the issue. Knowledgeable big-league scouts have been impressed with what they've seen. Cuban-born San Diego manager Preston Gomez, after a return visit to his homeland in early 1970, told sportswriter Jack Murphy that the left-hand hitting Sanchez was the best of the lot and he would love to have him for his ball club.

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