Separating baseball from politics
Separating baseball from politics
DIMAS CASTELLANOS | La Habana | 13 de Abril de 2017 – 13:13 CEST.
The decline of Cuban baseball and the formation of a unified team with
athletes from the Island and the Big Leagues have sparked much
discussion since the fiasco at the 4th World Baseball Classic. These
issues are difficult to understand without looking back at history,
which, rather than being irrelevant, is more pertinent than ever before.
In spite of the decline suffered, baseball is still our national sport
and, as such, it concerns us all.
Professional baseball debuted on the Island in the last decade of the
19th century. Beginning in 1907, teams in the US’s Negro Leagues started
playing with Cuban squads, and the following year the Cincinnati Reds
played against Cuban teams.
In 1908 Cuba’s Luis Padrón played on the Chicago White Sox during the
preseason, and in 1911 Cubans Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida played
in the Big Leagues. Starting in 1931 US teams played games in Cuba,
including practice series with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati
Reds, in 1959. This series of exchange was reflected in the increasing
quality of Cuban baseball.
In 1939, three months after the inauguration of the famous Baseball Hall
of Fame in Cooperstown, the Cuban equivalent was opened. Of the five
amateur world series held in Havana between 1939 and 1943, the Cubans
won four. Also, in the 1940s the major stadium in Cerro became the
cathedral of Cuban baseball, and the Cuban League was founded, with
teams from Havana, Almendares, Cienfuegos and Marianao. In 1949 the
Caribbean Series was inaugurated in Havana, and of the 12 seasons in
which Cuba participated, it won seven, the last five in a row.
In 1954 the Cubans Sugar Kings played half the time at the Cerro
stadium, and the other half elsewhere. In 1960 the Island had 98 players
in the Major Leagues, and 68 had been named to the National Hall of
Fame. The Cuban League was the premier destination for players in Latin
America, and the second best in the world. That ascent, promoted by
radio and television, made baseball a passion for Cubans.
The absence of a unified team
Here I point to “He who hides the bats”, an article published in the
Juventud Rebelde paper on Sunday, March 26, 2017. According to its
author, Norland Rosendo: “Rather than focusing the debate on why Cuba
did not show up to the Classic with a unified team, one should be asking
why Cubans cannot play in the Major Leagues without being forced to
abandon their country.”
The author goes on to argue that: “If it were not for the economic,
commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States on our
country, Cuban athletes of any sport could take part in the competitive
leagues of that nation without being subject to any special regulations.”
The writer conveniently simplifies the problem and, once having done so,
reaches the conclusion that the blockade is the culprit; i.e. “He who
hides the bats.”
Two facts cannot be ignored in this analysis: 1- Relations between the
governments of Cuba and the United States began to deteriorate in 1959,
severely strained by the nationalization of American properties in Cuba,
and the breaking off of diplomatic relations; 2- That professional
baseball was run by private companies, independent from the State.
The General Directorate of Sports, which had been created in the 1940s,
did not control what was a field handled by entrepreneurs and
franchises. But the institution came to be directed, in 1959, by the
captain of the Rebel Army, Felipe Guerra Matos.
On July 25, 1959 – on the eve of the anniversary of the assault on the
Moncada barracks – the International League game, played at the Estadio
del Cerro between the Cuban Sugar Kings and the Red Wings, was
interrupted at midnight to celebrate the anniversary. The lights were
turned off, a Cuban flag was unfurled on the infield, and the national
anthem was played. When they were turned back on a crowd invaded the
place, and celebratory shots were fired. Bullets fired hit Frank Verdi,
the third base coach, and Leo Cardenas, of the Sugar Kings. The game was
suspended while the manager and general manager of the Red Wings
transferred their players to the National Hotel.
Cuban officials denied that the situation had gotten out of control, but
apologized for the incident, and offered guarantees for the games. The
management of the American team refused to resume the game or to play
the following day.
This incident – as explained Peter C. Bjarkman in Fidel Castro and
Baseball – was the beginning of the end for the International League on
the Island. The following year (1960), the expropriation of American
properties definitively severed the connection, just when the Island was
on the verge of landing its own Major League franchise. The
International League granted Frank J. Shaughnessy, its president, the
authority to transfer franchises and alter the calendar. On July 8 of
that year the Cuban Sugar Kings were relocated to the city of Jersey,
precipitating subsequent events.
As a result of this decision by baseball businessmen, Cuban players
signed could not continue to play on Cuban teams, as had been the case
in the 1940s, when the agreement between the Cuban League and the Major
Leagues entailed a loss of control over the players, who were subject to
the rules of Professional Baseball, as happened with Orestes Miñoso,
who, when signing with Cleveland, could not continue playing in Cuba.
But negotiations prevailed and turned the situation around, as Cuban
demands forced modifications to the agreement, after which Cuban stars
were able to return every year to the Cuban League.
On February 23, 1961, after Almendares and Cienfuegos played the final
game of that season, the Government created the National Institute of
Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) under the direction of
José Llanusa Gobel. A month later the INDER issued National Decree
Number 936, which prohibited professional sports. Thus began a battle
between so-called “free ball” vs. “slave ball,” American professional
baseball broadcasts were suspended, all those attempting to participate
in US baseball were tarred as traitors, Cubans playing “slave” ball were
no longer mentioned, and the history of professional baseball in Cuban
was condemned to oblivion.
These measures had a boomerang effect. The only party hurt was Cuba.
Cubans continued to head for the Major Leagues: Santiago’s Bárbaro
Garbey, who left from the Port of Mariel, and Havana’s René Arocha, led
a growing flight. Dozens and dozens of young talents participate in the
Major and Minor Leagues, prevented from comprising a team made up of
Cubans who play on the Island.
The absence of an objective approach, of a negotiable problem, remains
tied to politics. At the end of March 2017 Cuba’s national director of
baseball, Yosvani Aragón stated that “there will be no unified team
until the United States lifts the rules of the blockade affecting
players,” as if the United States were the entity harmed. And, echoing
the epithet attached to them as traitors, he stated that: “There will be
no concessions … to those who spurned their country or left teams that
counted on their efforts.”
The preceding reveals that among the obstacles to restore the quality of
Cuban baseball and the formation of a unified team is an end to the
subordination of baseball to politics and the implementation of freedoms
to defend athletes’ interests. Then we will have to recover the quality
of a sport that had been on the rise for seven decades before 1959,
something that will not be achieved overnight.
 In 1946 the businessman George P. Foster established a franchise in
Cuba with the name Havana Cubans, playing in the Florida International
League. In 1954 Bobby Maduro bought this franchise and changed its name
to the Cuban Sugar Kings, or Havana Sugar Kings, to participate in the
Triple-A International League, affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. In
1959 the Cuban SugarKings won the International League against the
Minneapolis Millers in the Cerro Stadium, and were then crowned
champions of the Junior World Series.
Source: Separating baseball from politics | Diario de Cuba –