Martes, 19 de Marzo de 2019
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Separating baseball from politics

Yoenis Céspedes, José Abreu and Alexei Ramírez. (MLB)

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.

The decline

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[1] 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.


[1] 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.