Winters in Cuba

Written by: Matt Kelly

Future Hall of Famers received training experience of a lifetime during Cuban Revolution

Beginning with Esteban Bellán's inclusion on the Troy Haymakers in 1871, the nation of Cuba has shared an inextricable link with the origins of American baseball.

In turn, a handful of America's greatest baseball figures found their footing in Cuba – even during some of the most tumultuous times in the island nation's history.

Tracing back to its first game on Dec. 29, 1878 (when Bellán served as manager for the home Habana side), the Cuban League was one of the oldest and most storied baseball associations anywhere in the world. While the American major leagues kept black players off their rosters, Cuban teams fully integrated their benches beginning in 1900 after the Spanish-American War.

Future Hall of Famers including Rube Foster, Pete Hill, Pop Lloyd and Smokey Joe Williams flourished in the Cuban League's early days, marking the first of several waves of future enshrinees who enjoyed playing time in Cuba.

Cuban natives, meanwhile, proved they could hold their own with big league players.

Cuban pitcher José Méndez gained fame in 1908 when he shutout the visiting Cincinnati Reds for 25 consecutive innings, while Cristóbal Torriente earned himself the moniker “The Black Babe Ruth” after he upstaged the Great Bambino, touring with the New York Giants, by hitting three home runs in one game in 1920 in Havana. Both players are now enshrined in Cooperstown.

Major Leagues come to Cuba

Economic depression and the overthrow of Cuban President Gerardo Machado tested the financial resilience of the Cuban League in the early 1930s, but the association rose again with a new wave of Hall of Fame talent that included Cuban native Martín Dihigo and Negro League stars Ray Brown, Ray Dandridge, Josh Gibson and Willie Wells. The league was already competitive by 1947, when it reached an agreement with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, American clubs sent their top prospects across the Gulf of Mexico for more seasoning in winter ball. Soon, the combination of young Cuban stars like Minnie Miñoso, Camilo Pascual and Zoilo Versailes, Negro League stars like Monte Irvin and Don Newcombe and fresh-faced American prospects including future Hall of Famers Jim Bunning, Tommy Lasorda and Brooks Robinson created one of the most stacked collections of baseball talent anywhere in the world.

“The fact is, it was a memorable experience pitching in Cuba, to know when you came back you were ready because you had faced major league hitters,” Bunning stated in his 2011 autobiography.

“Good major league hitters. There were four or five on each team.”

Fans fill the stadium during a game between Villa Clara and the Industriales at the Estadio Latinoamericano on January 18, 2014 in Havana, Cuba. The stadium, formerly known as Gran Estadio de La Habana, was built in 1946 and played host to legendary Cuban Winter League games throughout the 1950s. (Jean Fruth / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Dangerous Days

Legendary games were played up to five times a week between the Winter League's four clubs – Almendares, Cienfuegos, Habana and Marianao – at the capital's beautiful ballpark, Gran Estadio de La Habana. But while Cubans, blacks and whites coexisted in harmony on the diamond, violent change was occurring all around them amidst the Cuban Revolution. Beginning first with the accession of Fulgencio Batista to dictator in 1952 and continuing through the overthrow of his regime by Fidel Castro, playing baseball in Cuba could often times be dangerous.

“We heard bombs going off and we knew (Fidel) Castro was in the mountains, and Bautista was there,” said Brooks Robinson, a member of Cienfuegos in the winter of 1957, in an interview with the Hall of Fame, “but we would have a bomb go off in the city and then one went off behind the ballpark one time, so we knew there were some things happening.”

The tumult reached a fever pitch on New Year's Day 1959, when the 26th of July movement led by revolutionaries Castro and Che Guevara ousted the U.S.-backed Batista.

Lasorda was a young southpaw for the Brooklyn Dodgers who was en route to leading Alemendares to a pennant that winter when the political coup took place.

“When Castro took over the city on the first of January, me, Art Fowler and Bob Allison came out of a New Year's party with our wives, and it was 3:30 in the morning and I look up and three planes were flying overhead,” said Lasorda. “I said ‘Geez who in the world is flying at this time at night?’”

The planes were carrying Batista and his cabinet as they fled the country. Then, Lasorda ended up having his own brush with Castro, when the new leader – a noted baseball aficionado – asked for a meeting with Almendares' star pitcher.

“Howie Haak, the scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was with me at the time,” Lasorda recalled in a 2008 interview with Newsday, “So I said, ‘Come on Howie, you come with me.’ When we went into the Havana Hilton into his suite, Howie couldn't believe it. Castro was waiting to talk to me. We talked baseball. And Howie enjoyed that, as I did too. Everybody thought that he was the savior of the country.

“When Castro came in, the people were celebrating because they thought he would be good for the country, and so did I,” Lasorda continued. “I found out I was wrong. I wanted to get out of there, but we continued playing baseball after the strike was over. It was a gorgeous country, until Castro took over.”

Castro's rise to power signaled the introduction of Communism to Cuba, and a tense freezing of relations between the island and its American neighbor. The Cuban Winter League – a melting pot for the game – became one of many casualties of the new political reality, when Castro abolished professional baseball and created his own amateur league for Cuban natives only in 1961.

Long way from home

Unfortunately, the native-born players paid the biggest price for the new policy. Many Cubans who had already found spots in big league organizations were suddenly cut off from traveling to America. Stars like Tony Oliva and Tony Prez were able to escape, but success in the major leagues was coupled with isolation from their homeland. As part of the ongoing tension between Cuba and the U.S., Cuban defectors were not allowed to return to the island without special permissions.

“It was hard for me when I left Cuba because there wasn’t any professional baseball there anymore, and I had to leave my family behind,” Pérez told the Hall in 2008. “It meant leaving my dad, my mom, my brothers and sisters, and the whole family, because on my mother’s side I had a big family.”

While he won two National League pennants and played in four All-Star Games from 1964-72 with “The Big Red Machine,” Pérez would have to wait 10 years to see his family again. He returned to visit his ailing father in the winter of 1972 after the Reds helped him obtain a special visa.

“The first thing I did was to go see my father,” Pérez said. “He had a good recovery after that, when he saw me, and I was very happy about that. And seeing my brothers, my mom and my sister, the whole reception was incredible. The entire town came into my house to see me and greet me, and congratulate me for having succeeded in the Major Leagues, and for having given my town - my tiny town - a good name.”

The hope moving forward is that improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba will eventually eliminate the dangerous defections and familial separations that have marked many Cuban players' lives over the last half-century. Chicago White Sox stars Jose Abreu and Alexei Ramirez, who both left Cuba to play in America, made their long-awaited returns to their former homeland. Abreu was able to see his son Daniel, who he was forced to leave behind in 2013, while Ramirez made his first visit home after Cuba's mandatory eight-year waiting period.

“I have no words to tell you,” Abreu told press members when he landed in Cuba. "I'm just thankful."

Matt Kelly is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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