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Cuban Baseball

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

The pitcher for the local team is throwing a perfect game--no hits, no walks--through three innings. His Pinar del Rio teammates have jumped all over the opposition, Los Agropecuarios, for six runs in the first inning and five more runs in the second inning. Luis Casanova, one of Cuba's greatest sluggers, has already hit one out.

In the stands, the scene is extraordinary. Every fan is making noise. Everyone. Some have brought things to bang on; others improvise as best they can. And here in this town in the heart of some of the greatest cigar-tobacco-growing country in the world, everyone appears to be smoking a puro, or cigar. Bands from Montecristo and Partagas cigars litter the stands.

That's it, however. No ticket stubs lie on the ground because admission is free. There are no ushers or concessions and none of the following: programs, scorecards, public-address announcers, commercial advertisements, promotional giveaway nights, or vendors hawking their goods in the crowd. This is baseball at its most basic level--played outdoors on grass by men who don't get paid a salary and are officially considered amateurs with "other jobs," although for many that job is year-round training.

A foul ball is hit into the stands. It is caught, dropped and caught again. Everyone is clapping and laughing. The fan throws it back on the field, and it is returned to the umpire to be put back into play.

Scarcity is a way of life. The Revolution isn't thirty-five years ago. It is a living, everyday thing for the baseball fanaticos who make the short walk from the downtown center for the afternoon games. Night games ended with the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, which had kept the petrol flowing and electrical generators operating.

A spectator returning a foul ball is just one example; everyone sacrifices for the Revolution. Even in the stadium, fans are reminded of their past and present. Some of the country's ubiquitous slogans--Revolution O Muerte (Revolution or Death)--are inscribed on the outfield fence.

Omar Linares, known as "El Niño," comes up to bat for Pinar del Rio. The third baseman with world-class hitting power has been walked twice so far--out of respect. His stance is wide, his hands back, the bat head cocked forward. The outfield is deep and straight away. Linares gets ahold of one and sends it out. High and deep down the left-field line. A home run out of any park, even though the modern, single-deck Pinar del Rio stadium is small by U.S. Major League standards: 360 feet in the power alleys and 390 feet to straightaway center. The left fielder takes one step back and then turns and stops. Pinar del Rio's lead is one run wider.

For the inhabitants of Pinar Del Rio as well as the rest of Cuba's 10 million-plus population, the Revolution includes something uniquely American: the game of baseball. While Havana cigars, especially those rolled with tobacco from the nearby Vuelta Abajo, have made their mark throughout the world and cultivated their own folklore, at home the Cuban people have embraced la pelota (the Cuban term for baseball) every bit as much as cigars. Baseball is more than the national sport, it is the national obsession. And with good reason. Cuba was the first country outside the United States to play the American game and they have been doing it successfully for more than 100 years.

The game between Pinar del Rio and Los Agropecuarios is part of a playoff series to determine who will advance in the Serie Nacional. Later in the year will come the Serie Selectiva, an elimination tournament that will pit the best players against each other in a six-team national World Series. And from that will come players who tour with the Cuban national team.

This demanding and challenging process has been eminently successful over the past 30 years. Prior to Cuba's victory in the 1992 Olympic competition, the national team had won seven of the previous eight world championships (Cuba did not compete in 1982). In its last seven international tournaments, Cuba's record is 72-1, the only loss to the United States in the 1987 Pan Am Games. They have been Pan American Games champions since 1963, won the Intercontinental Cup in seven of eight tournaments since 1979, and five of eight World Youth Championships (ages 16 to 18) since 1984.

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.

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.

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.

That, of course, was not to be. There were no professional leagues in Cuba, and no formal avenue existed for players to compete on a Major League level in the United States. Defection, however, is another story. In the summer of 1991, pitcher Rene Arocha became the first ballplayer to defect since Castro took over. Unlike three defectors who arrived later in December 1992, a special draft was held for Arocha's services.

Arocha is now with the St. Louis Cardinals and after some time on their Triple A club in Louisville, he made his Major League debut at the start of this season. After a good start and a short stint on the disabled list, he has been pitching well. And what key, if any, does Arocha's success tell us about his contemporaries back home? How good are the Cubans? Can an answer to the question asked by all baseball insiders and fans be gleaned from Arocha's performance?

To start with, Arocha was not Cuba's top pitcher. Cuba didn't participate in the 1988 Olympics, but the 27-year-old right hander pitched against the United States and lost in the World Championships that same year. Cuba won the tournament, but it was lefty Jorge Valdés who was their ace.

Los Angeles Dodgers vice-president Ralph Avila, who runs the club's Dominican Republic training facility, Campo Las Palmas, has seen firsthand the current crop of Cuban ballplayers. The 1984 Olympian Luis Casanova has had a long and distinguished career. When Avila saw him during the Intercontinental Cup in Edmonton in 1981, he thought he was ready for the big leagues. Casanova led the tournament with a .407 average and could have been a 30-30 man (home runs and steals) in the majors. Though he no longer plays on the national team, he still competes in Cuba.

Victor Mesa has also been a remarkable player for Cuba in recent years. Possessing Major League arm strength and good accuracy, Avila thought he was ready to play in the majors when he saw him in Barcelona last year. He had power and, at 32, was still in his prime. His only drawback was that he was sometimes a "happy player," meaning that he lacked some of the desire to execute the fundamentals (relays, cut-off man, etc.) on a regular basis. He now plays left field on the national team.

German Mesa, Victor's younger cousin, also gets rave reviews from scouts and opposition players. A similar body type to St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith, the 26-year-old Mesa can make all the plays in the field. He knows how to play the hitters and handles ground balls and bunts well. He has excellent speed and is a line-drive hitter. According to Avila, with a little seasoning, the younger Mesa is less than a year away.

And if the embargo is lifted? And the ballplayers want to come? And if Fidel will let them? A lot of ifs. According to Avila, there would be some outstanding ballplayers on the way. The pitches of right-hander Orlando Hernandez have been clocked at 90-plus miles per hour ("on the slow gun"). He has a great slider, good change of pace, and is consistent in his velocity over nine innings. The Cubans also have a 20-year-old catcher, with the last name Garcia, who has great hitting power and a tremendous arm--in other words, he's a really good catcher. With a year in spring training, he could be a superstar candidate.

The one kid who's already "there," or ready for Major League playing time, is third baseman Omar Linares. The same Linares who played in the national series at 14 is now just shy of his 26th birthday and has at the tools. He is what is referred to as an impact player. He can win a game in many different ways. He hits for power, runs well, has great hands, great range, and a strong accurate arm. Players who have opposed him use words like "genuine" and "the real thing." Avila sums it all up when he says, "he's a smart kid--knows how to win."

With players like these, Cuba's national team continues to impress in international competition. This past summer the national team toured Japan winning eight of nine (including three against a professional league all-star team and four against the Japan national squad) and then went on to Italy to play in the Intercontinental Cup competition. From there another Cuban team (not the national) played in Buffalo in the World University games. And so it goes.

Back on the island, the passion for this game still runs deep, and the pride perhaps even deeper. There is a saying in Cuba--"Cada Cubano tiene de medico, de jugador de pelota, y de politico" ("Every Cuban is a doctor, a ballplayer, and a politician"). It is so true. The teams ms have different names than in the glory days, but fans still gather (much like the soccer fans along the Ramblas in Barcelona) on Las Esquinas Calientes (The Hot Corners) to discuss, challenge, argue, and kid each other over their favorite teams and players.

The conversations continue long into the night.

Teddy Tannenbaum is a baseball folklorist and cigar aficionado.

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