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Cuban Baseball

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

(continued from page 2)

This was in the midst of a period known as the golden age of baseball in Cuba. In the late '20s, while the New York Yankees put together one of most fabled ball clubs of all time, the Leopards of Santa Clara boasted a team composed of Negro League stars Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige playing alongside Cuban greats Alejandro Oms, Lazaro Salazar, and perhaps the greatest Cuban ballplayer of them all, Martín Dihigo.

Dihigo played all over the Western Hemisphere from 1923 to 1946 and is the only man elected into the Hall of Fame in four countries: Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and the United States. His bust in Cooperstown takes its title from the large statue of his likeness in front of Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano--"El Inmortal." For all his exploits, Dihigo was never considered the best at any one position. According to Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell, that's because he played all nine with superior results. Hitting and pitching, often in the same game, he earned the nickname, "the Black Babe Ruth."

Said to be Satchel Paige's toughest opponent, he often outdueled Major League stars. In 1938 he batted .387 to pace the Mexican League, won 18 of 20 decisions, struck out 184 in 167 innings, and had an ERA of .90. In effect he won the "triple crown" of both hitting and pitching in the same year. Not content, he returned to Cuba for the winter league and won 14 of 16 for a yearly pitching total of 34-4.

While Martín Dihigo and others like him were not able to play in the Major Leagues, Dolf Luque carved out a 20-year career with Cincinnati, Brooklyn, and New York. Perhaps the greatest impact he had came toward the end of his career when, in a relief role, he won the final game of the 1933 World Series for the New York Giants over Washington, D.C. Luque's four innings of shutout ball to clinch the series so impressed Senators' owner Clark Griffith that he sent scout Joe Cambria to Cuba on a full-time basis.

By this time, the Cuban fan was almost as knowledgeable as his American counterpart. The mania for American baseball was especially pronounced in the late 1920s. At that time, Cuban President Gerardo Machado tried to alter the Constitution and stay in power; he was president until 1933. At the outset of his power grab, however, violent protests cut communications with the island for a week. When communication was finally reestablished, the first request to the outside from El Mundo, Havana's leading newspaper, was for the week's baseball box scores.

By the Second World War, Cuban fans were lamenting the lack of immediate and complete information about the United States baseball leagues. They listened to radio broadcasts to get the results. In June of 1939, on the brink of the war, one fan from the city of Camaguey wrote to The Sporting News, describing his nation's fascination and priorities:

We are all familiar with Major League baseball in the United States and believe it or not, you hear more talk about the game than you do about international and national politics. We like to talk more about who was the winning pitcher and who hit home runs than we do the European situation--Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Chamberlain's umbrella.

We Cuban fans want to hear the play-by-play of the games through stations like Pittsburgh, Schenectady, and others. Baseball is not only for the United States, as so many think. It belongs to us, too. Over 80 percent of the people in Cuba are fans.

With the arrival of scout Cambria, or "Uncle Joe" as he was known, Cuban fans who followed the United States baseball leagues finally began to get more than just box scores. Cambria funneled Cuban players to the majors (primarily to the Washington Senators), and he supplied some of the best talent of the postwar era. Led by Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso, the list included Camilo Pascual, Willie Miranda, and Sandy Amoros from the early 1950s through Pedro Ramos, Miguel "Mike" Cuellar, and Zoilo Versailles, all of whom appeared in the majors by the end of that decade.

During the winter, dozens of Major Leaguers played on the island. Historian Angel Torres recalls how the Cuban and American players enjoyed themselves on and off the field while maintaining a caliber of play often equal to that of the big leagues. In addition to Havana and Almendares, there were two other teams in the league: Cienfuegos and Marianao.

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