Cuba, Sí! Yankees, Sí!
Just as Americans visit the famous battlefields of the Civil War, Cubans, too, have their memorials. In 1999, twenty U.S. healthcare activists and union members took time from our tour of hospitals and clinics to view the site of one of Cuba's most famous battles. We were in Santa Clara, where Che Guevara led the successful attack on an armored train designed by the dictator Batista to defeat Fidel's guerrillas.
A young policeman was guarding the small plaza filled with old bullet-riddled boxcars and an abstract piece of iron artwork that represented an explosion. We struck up a simple conversation --neither of us really spoke the other's language-- about his former work as a teacher (cops make more money).
Then Gerado's tone became quiet, almost conspiratorial. I was half-expecting some criticism of the harsh realities of Cuban life. "Don't tell anyone, I really shouldn't say this around here," he whispered. "But my favorite team is the Industriales in Havana."
The Industriales came into existence just a few years after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. They dominated the game for five of the first six years as the island's national baseball teams expanded from four to the current sixteen province-based clubs. The Industriales' uniform color is blue, reminiscent of the old Almendares team, one of four legendary baseball rivals.
Yanqui Fans of the Big League
After some intensive lobbying of our hosts from the Cuban Federation of Trade Unions, members of our delegation were able to go to a major league game at the Latin American Stadium on Tuesday, November 30th. This was the same field where the Baltimore Orioles had recently played the Cuban National Team. Tickets for our game cost three pesos (about 12 cents U.S.). On the way in, a billboard across the street proclaimed "El Deporte Derecho del Pueblo." Sports, the right of the people.
The Metropolitanos (in red) were playing the Industriales this night; both are Havana teams. Our guide, Eddie Brown, had secured our tickets. Eddie works for the National Trade Union College. Although he had never been to the U.S., he spoke English with an accent that was precise and showed no trace of Spanish. After we had settled into our seats behind home plate, Eddie disappeared for a few innings. When he returned, he showed us an autographed ball and informed us he had been visiting the Metropolitanos' dugout. As it turns out, Eddie had played for the Mets and this trip to the stadium doubled as visit to old friends.
No hot dogs or beer were on sale at the ball park, but we were able to purchase small paper cups of coffee from vendors who sold the drink from a thermos, as well as pork rinds sold from wooden cones. Anxious to bring back some souvenirs of the game, we swept up the posters and statistics books being sold just before we entered the stands. One of us came away with a ball signed by Cuban players. The brand is Batos, manufactured in Cuba and named after the game played by people of the island even before the first baseball game was recorded in 1874.
The Mets led the Indies with a score of 11-1 when the rain began in the 8th inning. The Cuban national baseball season runs from October to May but it's always baseball weather on the island. Games are played year 'round, with municipal teams and clubs at all levels participating in the Cuban national pastime.
The morning of our big game in Havana, we visited the Hospital Psiquiatrico de la Habana, a 4,100-bed psychiatric facility. Just before leaving the grounds, we noticed a ball field. When we asked if the field was regularly used, we got an unexpected answer. The field was not only active, it had been home to Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez. Hernandez had worked at the hospital before he left for the States. The hospital workers we spoke with loved the Yankees, loved El Duque, and they weren't shy about letting us know.
Baseball and Revolution
Baseball and revolutionary politics have always been partners in Cuba. In 1878, Cuba's first professional baseball league was organized by Emilio Sabourín, who advocated independence from Spain. Sabourín provided financial support to José Martí and other Cuban revolutionaries.from the money he earned from baseball. He was eventually arrested by Spanish authorities and sent to a prison in North Africa where he died.
Cuban baseball broke the color barrier long before the U.S. did. Island baseball was multi-racial, as Ty Cobb found out. By 1910, Cobb and the Detroit Tigers were traveling to Cuba in the off-season to face local teams including the Havana Reds (or Leones). The Reds featured African-American players including John Henry Lloyd, Grant "Home Run" Johnson, and Bruce Petway; all talented men who were forbidden to play their white counterparts back home.
In 1923, 16 year-old Martín Dihigo began his baseball career in Cuba. Denied the ability to play on American major league teams, he barnstormed throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba for twenty years. He moved to Mexico in the 1950's, where he met Ernesto "Che" Guevara just before Che, Fidel, and their supporters sailed on the Granma to begin the Cuban revolution. Dihigo donated funds to the group, just as Sabourín had backed Martí.
Dihigo, known as "El Maestro," returned to his homeland in 1960 at Fidel's request to head the Ministry of Sports. Martín Dihigo is the only player ever to be inducted into four Baseball Halls of Fame: U.S., Mexico, Venezuela, and Cuba.
In 1959, professional (that is, profit-making) baseball in Cuba was abolished. The Havana Sugar Kings, poised to join the American big leagues, moved out of Cuba. Critics wondered if the game could survive without the capitalist spirit. It has survived and thrived, but at a price. For forty years, players have defected to join professional U.S. teams with varying degrees of success. Their desertions, including El Duque's reportedly harrowing trip, are supposed to be evidence of the failure of Cuba's socialist experiment. But are they?
The lure of fame and fortune is irresistible for many. Who doesn't Want To Be A Millionaire in this day and age? But the Cuban people --after centuries of colonial rule by the Spanish, sixty years of U.S. "paternal" domination, and most recently the forty-year U.S. economic blockade-- were determined to create new men and women. This transformation has been vigorously and violently opposed by the mightiest nation on earth, but it too survives.
Stories have been written about those players who have left Cuba. Maybe one day, someone will write about the ball players who decided to stay.