Squeeze play: For decades, Castro maintained a grip on Cuba’s sports scene
BY GASPAR GONZÁLEZ
The magnitude of Fidel Castro’s impact on society and politics in Cuba
also extended to the island’s sporting life. It is difficult to name
another national leader who so completely identified — and encouraged
others to identify him — with the games his people played. For nearly
five decades, Castro enthusiastically trumpeted the achievements of the
national baseball and boxing teams (both long considered among the best
in the world), the national women’s volleyball team (Olympic gold
medalists in 1992, 1996 and 2000) and various track and field stars as
proof that the future belonged to socialism.
It was baseball, though, that was closest to Castro’s heart, and image.
It was rumored that, as a young pitcher in the late 1940s, Castro failed
a major-league tryout. The anecdote has always been particularly popular
in the exile community, where it is usually presented as evidence that
not only Fidel, but fate itself conspired against Cuba; the assumption
being that Castro was much more interested in dominating big-league
hitters than his homeland.
The truth is Castro was never a pitching prospect. In fact, the only
indication that he ever played baseball at all prior to the revolution,
according to Cuba scholar and Yale University professor Roberto González
Echevarría, is a single newspaper box score from 1946 showing that a
certain “F. Castro” pitched in an intramural game at the University of
Havana. (He lost, 5-4.) “There is no record that Fidel Castro ever
played, much less starred, on any team,” writes González Echevarría in
“The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.”
Castro’s lack of baseball prowess did not stop him from indulging in
diamond theatrics. On one such occasion — in July 1959 — he donned a
uniform for an exhibition game in Havana’s Gran Stadium. Pitching for a
team that called itself “Los Barbudos” (The Bearded Ones), the maximum
leader struck out two batters in an inning’s worth of work. The Sporting
News, though, couldn’t help but notice that Castro was the recipient of
more than a little help behind the plate: “When the [umpire] called the
batter out on a high, inside pitch, Castro dashed to the plate and shook
hands with the ump.”
No event, however, more closely tied together Castro, politics and
sports than the removal of the Havana Sugar Kings from Cuba in 1960. The
Sugar Kings were the defending champions of the International League, a
top-tier minor league circuit that also included the original Miami
Marlins. Troubled by Castro’s increasing belligerence — the Cuban leader
had begun his seizure of American assets — and citing concern over the
safety of visiting players, the league pulled the team out of Cuba in
mid-season, moved it north and rechristened it the Jersey City Jerseys.
Castro characterized the decision as “one more aggression against our
people by the United States government” and branded Napoleon Reyes, who
had agreed to manage the team in Jersey City, a “traitor to the
revolution.” When two plainclothes detectives were assigned to guard
Reyes during the Jerseys’ home opener, few were surprised. “In those
days, everybody was scared,” former major-leaguer Octavio “Cookie” Rojas
— at the time, a young second baseman on the team — told the Herald in 2005.
The cold war custody battle over the Sugar Kings marked the beginning of
the end of professional sports in Cuba. One last season of pro winter
ball was played in 1960-61 before Castro closed the door: Ballplayers
and other athletes, prized for their symbolic value to the revolution,
would no longer be allowed to emigrate.
With that decision, Castro not only altered the history of Cuban sport,
but the history of sport in this country as well. Cuban athletes had
been prominent in the U.S. since at least the 1920s, when pitcher Adolfo
Luque starred for the Cincinnati Reds and boxer Kid Chocolate (born
Eligio Sardiñas) ruled the ring in New York.
By the 1960s, the boxers and ballplayers who were among the last to
legally leave Cuba had become some of sports’ prime performers. On the
baseball side, they included Hall of Famer Tony Pérez, three-time
American League batting champ Tony Oliva, 1969 Cy Young Award winner
Miguel “Mike” Cuellar and 229-game winner Luis Tiant. In boxing, Luis
Manuel Rodríguez, José (Mantequilla) Napoles and Ultiminio (Sugar) Ramos
all won world championships in the 1960s.
Hence the riddle that has hung over the sporting world for more than
five decades: How many more professional athletes of that caliber might
Cuba have produced? The answer to that question has turned into one of
our great sporting obsessions, a kind of perpetual fantasy league fueled
by the Olympics and other international competitions and the dramatic
defections of numerous Cuban ballplayers and boxers.
For years, many dreamed of a matchup between Olympic champion Teófilo
Stevenson and then-heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. It almost
happened: Stevenson reportedly was offered millions to defect following
his victory at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the second of three
consecutive gold medals the fighter would win. “I wouldn’t exchange my
piece of Cuba for all the money they could give me,” Stevenson declared.
For his loyalty, he was lauded as a national hero.
If Castro, to some, was a tireless champion of athletics on the island,
he also denied generations of Cuban athletes the chance to perform on
the largest possible stage, to reap the full benefit of their gifts.
Perhaps, in the end, it is those games that were never played and the
cheers that were never raised that are the most fitting monument to a
man and a revolution whose promises — on so many fronts — went unfulfilled.
GASPAR GONZÁLEZ IS A DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER AND THE CURATOR OF THE
HISTORYMIAMI EXHIBITION (ON DISPLAY THROUGH JAN. 15) BEYOND THE GAME:
SPORTS AND THE EVOLUTION OF SOUTH FLORIDA.
Source: Squeeze Play: For nearly five decades, Fidel Castro maintained a
tight grip on Cuba’s sporting scene | Miami Herald –