Winters in Cuba
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
Matt Kelly is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum