Cuba relives big-league baseball ties
By BOB RUBIN
Herald Sports Writer
A Cuban pitcher will wind up and deliver to an American batter Sunday in
a ballpark in
Havana to start an exhibition baseball game that carries the weight of history and stirs the
passions of people in both nations.
The Baltimore Orioles face a team of Cuban all-stars in the first appearance
major-league baseball in Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power 40 years ago. It's a
moment that, for some, recalls the time when the United States and Cuba played ball
together in harmony. Tony Perez, a Camaguey native, is among them.
``People were crazy about baseball when I was growing up,'' said Perez,
front-office official, best known for his 23-year major-league career, including
World Series titles in Cincinnati in 1975 and '76. ``We followed the majors closely
through the newspapers and by watching the Game of the Week on television. I
heard and read about Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and others all the
time. Baseball was our No. 1 sport.''
The games between the Orioles and the Cuban teams will be an opportunity
gauge just how good current Cuban players are. Major-leaguers knew well the
high quality of Cuban ball from decades of pre-Castro exhibitions and participation
in the winter league.
After his Red Sox lost to a Cuban amateur team in 1941, Boston manager
Hall of Famer Joe Cronin said, ``They may be amateurs, but many are better than
He wasn't the first to figure that out.
A group of major-leaguers visited Cuba for a series of exhibitions after
season, and one big, moon-faced, spindly-legged American outfielder had a hard
time against a Cuban pitcher named Jose Mendez, striking out three times.
In contrast, a Cuban hitter named Cristobal Torriente feasted on U.S. pitching,
hitting three home runs.
The American outfielder was impressed.
``Tell Torriente and Mendez that if they could play with me in the major
we would win the pennant by July and go fishing for the rest of the season,'' Babe
Ruth said at the time.
The U.S. government and Major League Baseball have permitted today's game
and the Orioles invitation to the Cubans for May 3 -- as a gesture of goodwill to
the Cuban people. But the games have provoked strong emotions in both
Cuban fans, long deprived of news of the major leagues by a Castro-mandated
media blackout, were eagerly awaiting the return of big-league baseball after a
four-decade absence. But many Cubans in the United States, including
major-league players and former players, are opposed.
And the protests go beyond the exile community. Los Angeles Dodgers vice
president and former manager Tommy Lasorda isn't Cuban, but he did play ball in
Cuba through much of the 1950s. He loves the island and its people but is strongly
against the Orioles' visit.
``I have many, many Cuban friends in Miami, people who were persecuted
stripped of their property and wealth by Castro,'' Lasorda said. ``I don't want to
play baseball over there against the wishes of these people. I also don't want to
play over there as long as Castro has the sanction against letting his players come
here to play in the United States. I was asked to give clinics in Cuba, and I
An imported sport
It's believed that the first game in Cuba took place in June 1866, when
a U.S. ship taking on sugar invited Cuban longshoremen to play. Two years later,
El Club Habana was formed and beat a team from Matanzas in the first organized
game between Cuban teams.
Two years after that, a small professional league was formed, and the game
off in popularity with the growth of summer and winter leagues in which many
major-leaguers and future major-leaguers played. Cuba was a baseball melting
pot, where blacks and whites played together long before Jackie Robinson
integrated professional baseball in the United States in 1947.
The year 1911 brought one ferociously aggressive American, the premier
runner of his time, on a barnstorming tour through Havana. The runner tried to
steal second base but was gunned out by a Cuban catcher named Gervasio
``Strike'' Gonzalez. Embarrassed and angry, the U.S. player said the base path
between first and second was too long and demanded that it be measured.
It was measured and found to be three inches too long. But the call stood.
runner, Ty Cobb, was still out.
Judging by the way Cuban teams have dominated international amateur
competition over the years, the talent level on the island is still formidable.
Therefore, it's hardly a stretch to say a number of the current Cuban players could
probably be in the major leagues if Castro permitted them to leave.
But he hasn't and there's no sign he will soon, leaving defection, with
all its risks
and painful partings, the only way out. Some have dared and a few succeeded in
spectacular fashion, most notably the Hernandez pitching brothers -- Orlando ``El
Duque,'' now with the Yankees, and Livan, with the Marlins.
Lasorda has vivid and warm memories of baseball in Cuba.
``It was baseball at its best,'' he said. ``The Cuban players were outstanding
many who played winter ball were in the major leagues. And the fans were the
greatest you'd ever hope to see. They loved the game, they knew the game and
they were fiercely loyal to their teams. They all dressed for the game in the colors
of their team and rooted like crazy. But they never went too far, never got out of
hand, never threw things.''
Lasorda recalled that the island's biggest rivalry was between Almendares
Havana. ``It was said that if a father was an Almendares fan and his son liked
Havana, the father would kick the son out of the house,'' Lasorda said. ``I heard
dozens of stories like that. I mean those fans were passionate.''
Teams in minor leagues
Cuba was part of American organized ball for 14 years, with teams in two
leagues composed largely of home-grown players. Owned by Roberto Maduro
and affiliated with the now defunct Washington Senators, the Havana Cubans
were members of the Florida International League from 1946 through 1953,
winning four pennants and two league championships. Miami had a team in that
league, the Sun Sox, and so did Miami Beach, the Flamingos, and the Cubans
would visit both periodically.
But the Florida International League folded in 1954, and Maduro purchased
franchise in the Class AAA International League, naming the team the Havana
Sugar Kings. A farm club for the Cincinnati Reds, the Sugar Kings also visited
Miami to play the Marlins, a franchise that moved here from Syracuse in 1956.
The Sugar Kings won the International League championship, known as the
World Series, in 1959. That team was sparked by the outstanding pitching of
Mike Cuellar, a native of Las Villas in Cuba, who would go on to win 20 games
four times for the Orioles, and Luis Arroyo, a Puerto Rican who would star in
relief for the famous Maris-and-Mantle 1961 Yankees.
Hailed as a patriarch of Cuban baseball, Maduro fled Castro-ruled Cuba
came to Miami, where he served as special assistant to then baseball
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Maduro's stature was recognized in 1987 when the
City Commission voted to change the name of Miami Stadium to Bobby Maduro
Not long after the Sugar Kings left Havana, baseball relations between
countries were severed, denying Cuban players the chance to play in the United
Color barrier broken
It wasn't the first time they were prevented from fulfilling their baseball destiny.
Before Castro, the barrier was institutional racism. Until Robinson broke
line, darker-skinned Cubans were not permitted to play in the major leagues,
though they could and did play with distinction for teams such as the Cuban Stars
and New York Cubans in the U.S. Negro League.
Robinson's breakthrough gave Cubans of all hues the opportunity they sought,
they took maximum advantage of it. By the late 1950s and early '60s, as many as
40 populated major-league rosters. Since there were only 16 teams in the majors
until expansion in 1961, it meant that perhaps as many as 10 percent of all
major-leaguers were Cuban. Stars such as Minnie Minoso, Bert Campaneris,
Tony Oliva, Perez, Cuellar, Zoilo Versalles, Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos and
Luis Tiant earned Cuba the reputation as mother lode of the Caribbean for
A dwindling number of players of Cuban heritage remain in the majors today,
including such standouts as Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Fernandez and
Rolando Arrojo, but they either came to the United States at an early age or were
born here of parents who fled the island. The pipeline is nearly empty, the
inevitable result of a ban that has now lasted for decades.
Earlier era recalled
The games Sunday and May 3 serve as reminders of a time when baseball helped
unite the United States and Cuba. Though he's hardly a fan of Castro, Oliva sees
benefits to playing.
``These games will let Cubans see the best players in the world and let
see how good Cubans are,'' said Oliva, a native of Pinar del Rio and a three-time
American League batting champion who now serves as minor-league instructor for
the Minnesota Twins. ``I've seen the Cubans play all over -- in Mexico, Canada
and the Dominican Republic -- and there is a lot of talent there.
``I wish they had a chance to play professionally in the United States.
some could play in the major leagues. Will they get the chance? I don't know. It's