Major Leagues, Cuba Share a Baseball Connection
New Book Explores Island's Exodus of Talent
Ex-pitcher Fidel Castro, the Casey Stengel of Cuba, returned to the
dugout recently to direct an exhibition victory over a visiting team from
Venezuela. Then, like Red Auerbach in fatigues, he probably lit a cigar to
There is little Castro enjoys more these days than puffing away on Cuban
stogies and watching the continuing success of his country's baseball
program. Frequent Olympic and Pan American Games winners--Cuba is
defending champion in both those competitions--the country has long been
a bonanza for baseball talent.
Outfielders Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida were the first ones in
this century, arriving from the island together in 1911 to play for the
Cincinnati Reds. Marsans spent eight years in the majors and Almeida
stayed for three.
They began a proud if sometimes limited exodus of talent, all of it examined
in a new Total Sports book, "Smoke, The Romance and Lore of Cuban
Baseball," by Mark Rucker and Peter C. Bjarkman.
The arrival in America of the two Cuban outfielders was not without
controversy, coming at a time when baseball was still an all-white
operation, systematically turning its back on players of color.
There is the story in "Smoke" of how Cincinnati officials, moving carefully
to avoid any controversy, demanded evidence from Cuba that these two
mysterious players were not black.
"We will not pay any Honus Wagner price for a pair of dark-skinned
islanders," Reds president Garry Herrman cheerfully declared.
Satisfied that their origins met his standards, Herrman sent for the players.
Imagine his shock when he went to meet them at the rail station and the
first persons to hop off the train were a pair of porters, both of them very
dark-skinned. Much to his relief, the Cubans turned out to be acceptably
A year later, catcher Mike Gonzalez arrived with the Boston Braves. Like
Marsans and Almeida, he was light-skinned enough not to offend
baseball's tenuous status quo. Gonzalez put in time with Boston, Cincinnati,
St. Louis, Chicago and the New York Giants, sticking around for parts of
He was also a savvy enough baseball man to coach third base for the St.
Louis Cardinals in 1946. This is significant because Gonzalez is the guy
who, quite sensibly, held up a stop sign for Enos Slaughter in the seventh
game of the World Series. Slaughter, taking off from first base on a single
by Harry Walker, ran right through the stop sign to score the Series'
The Cuban exodus remained rather constant, never a torrent of players but
enough of them to leave an impression. Among the exports was Adolpho
Luque, who pitched for 20 seasons in the majors and was 27-8 with a
1.93 earned run average for Cincinnati in 1923. Luque, working in the
Mexican League, taught expatriate New York Giants pitcher Sal Maglie
that close shaves did not occur only in barber shops.
The best Cuban player of his time was Martin Dihigo, whose dark skin
relegated him to baseball's Negro Leagues, but whose accomplishments
there earned him a place in the Hall of Fame.
By 1949, with baseball's color line shattered by Jackie Robinson,
Cleveland had no problem importing Orestes "Minnie" Minoso, who unlike
the early Cuban imports, was not close to white.
Minoso played for 17 seasons and appeared in four decades, although his
cameo appearance in 1976 was more a token than anything else.
Because baseball loves nicknames, Minoso quickly became Minnie. It
seemed like a sensible play off his last name, but like so much else
connected with Cuban baseball, it comes with a story and, in fact, several
First, teammate Joe Gordon and then manager Lou Boudreau were
credited with attaching the name to Minoso. The player, however, offered
a more intriguing origin to it.
In his autobiography, Minoso claimed he was in his dentist's office when
heard the doctor call out for Minnie. That must be me, he thought, heading
straight for the chair.
Only afterward did Minoso learn that the office receptionist's name was
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press