New York—Although it is impossible to review nearly 150 years of history in a single day, the nine hours of the conference between the honoring of Esteban Bellán at 9 AM and the tribute to Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso at 7 PM at Saturday’s X Congress of the Centro Cultural Cubano de Nueva York at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus made a sincere effort to comprehensively view Cuban baseball history.
Part I-Morning program
The keynote address delivered by Roberto González-Echavarría was entitled “The Origins of Baseball in Cuba: A Historical Context”. The distinguished professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale University traced the game from the 1860’s and spoke of Bellán’s importance in its development within Cuba.
The professor told of baseball’s growing popularity in Cuba in the late 19th century based upon its connection to the modernistic United States as opposed to the sport of bull fighting that many in Cuba considered a symbol of the backwardness of the mother country, Spain.
He also explained that baseball was intricately tied to other forms of culture in Cuba. Unlike baseball in the U.S., literature recitals and dance programs followed directly after ball games concluded. He spoke of a shortstop on the Almendares club who was a minor novelist and then quipped, “How many novels has Jeter written?” The literature scholar described baseball as a “mock war in which heroics are performed” and as being vastly “different than back and forth sports such as football, soccer and lacrosse.”
Professor González-Echaverría, who wrote an award winning volume on the history of baseball in Cuba in 2002, summarized major events in the sport’s history far beyond its beginnings in his discourse. He concluded his address on baseball within his homeland by discussing the changes in the sport made by Fidel Castro, “Castro revolutionized Cuban sports to their detriment. Cuban baseball endures. It runs deep in the Cuban’s soul. It came with the promise of democracy and, I believe, it will be there when democracy returns.”
The keynote address was followed by the morning panel at which five papers were presented detailing several diverse topics regarding Cuban baseball history. The moderator of the panel, César Brioso of USA Today, read a statement of greeting from Conrado Marrero. Marrero is presently hospitalized in Cuba with a broken hip suffered in a fall. The former pitcher is the oldest living former major leaguer at the age of 100. Marrero’s doctor emailed a message in which he said Marrero is lucid and is expected to be able to leave the hospital. The former pitcher, an idol in Cuba, sent his greetings to the conference and offered “his compatriots a fraternal embrace.”
The first panelist to speak, Manuel Márquez-Sterling, a professor emeritus at Plymouth State University, discussed the two conflicting schools of baseball offense in Cuban history. Scientific baseball or little ball was typified by Ty Cobb and the prodigious long ball by Babe Ruth. Both barnstormed in Cuba, but Ruth’s appearance in Cuba did not have the effect upon the game as it did in the U.S. He explained that Dick Sisler, a major leaguer in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, helped popularize the home run in Cuba. He explained the convergence of factors that led to the change in Cuban baseball strategy, “Political stability and economic prosperity grew the Cuban middle-class and lessened the resistance to smaller parks and home runs. Social, cultural, economic and political changes in Cuba together with Dick Sisler led to the baseball changes.”
Marino Martínez, a newspaper reporter from El Nuevo Herald in Miami spoke of the La Liga de la Uniόn Atlética (Cuban amateur baseball) that ran from 1914 through 1960. The speaker detailed a number of successful teams and star players of the various eras and locales within the nation. He, like all of the others who addressed the gathering, made ample and effective use of photos to bring the times and people of the past to life and create additional interest. Audio visual materials, including films were quite effective supplements to the spoken word at the conference.
The topic of amateur baseball in Cuba was brought to the present by Rogério Manzano of Univision, who explained the changes instituted by Castro, after assuming control of the Cuban government. He cited the Cuban National Team’s record in international competition during this era to exhibit the ups and downs. He believes amateur baseball is in a crisis situation today and that Raúl Castro, a more pragmatic leader than his brother may institute needed changes.
Gary Ashwell, a young baseball historian, used statistics displayed on the large sized-screen behind the speaker’s platform to help inform the audience of the marks achieved by Cuban players during the Negro leagues epoch. Interestingly, the first back team (1885) was called the Cuban Giants, although none of its members were Cuban. Ashwell highlighted the records of pitcher José Mendez and slugging outfielder Christóbal Torriente, both of whom excelled during their years in the Negro League.
Leslie Heaphy of Kent State University discussed a much neglected topic of Cuban women in baseball. She talked on the history of women’s baseball with emphasis on Cuban women who played in the AAGPBL (All American Girls Professional Baseball League) during the 1940’s and 1950’s. One of the women, Luisa Gallegos, was in the audience. Gallegos was a teenager when she and several of her countrywomen joined the league in 1948. She did not fear going to a new land to work as she was not alone. The youngster found the experience interesting and appeared pleased that people asked her to reminisce about that time in her life.
Part II-Afternoon program
After a delightful almuerzo, the afternoon session began with an interesting and entertaining documentary, “Greener Grass: Cuba, Baseball and the United States”. The film, produced in 1999, focused on two nations in conflict, two economic and political systems and one sport loved in both lands, baseball. The film focused on the reaction on the island to the first visit of a major league team, the Baltimore Orioles, since the Castro era began. The many interviews with people on each side of the 90 mile shoreline showed the wide diversity of opinions and feelings. Many telling facts were given that produced greater understanding of Cuban baseball history and are worthy of further study. In the years 1911-1947, before the color barrier was broken, only 58 Cubans played in the majors, yet 223 played in the Negro Leagues during those same years. In 1991, Luis Arocha became the first baseball defector from Castro’s Cuba, but in the next decade, 40 baseball players defected from Cuba.
The speakers at the afternoon panel were all former big league players who were born in Cuba. Tony Pérez, the only living former player in the Baseball Hall of Fame born in Cuba was the first guest. The first baseman and the players that followed were interviewed by José Roig of Uniivision and also responded to questions from the audience. Pérez modestly gave credit to managers Dave Bristol and Sparky Anderson and to the pitching staff for the success of the Big Red Machine of which he was an important component. Despite belting 377 homers, Pérez said he never considered himself to be a home run hitter. When asked why there are so few Cubans in the HOF, he replied, “I think there’s a person sitting here who should be in [he pointed to Luis Tiant].”
Julio Bécquer, 79, was the next player to join the panel. Bécquer was one of the many Cubans signed by scout Joe Cambria for the Washington Senators in the 1950’s. He played in the American League from 1955-1963. He recalled the glory days of the Marianao club he played for in his native land as well as his experiences in the majors.
“Cookie” Rojas, born in 1939 in Havana, began his lengthy time in the majors in 1962. He has been successful as a player, coach, manager and currently as a broadcaster in a variety of venues in the bigs. In addition to very intelligently responding to perceptive questions from members of the audience, Rojas recounted his experiences as a member of the Havana Sugar kings in its final years of existence.
Jose Cardenal, the youngest of the former players present had a fine big league career from 1963-80. After his playing days ended, he coached for five teams. Cardenal was exceptionally good humored in his responses.
A big favorite of baseball fans everywhere, Lusi Tiant was interviewed by Grammy winning jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera. The second generation baseball great openly replied to questions on many of his experiences. When speaking about his visit to Cuba several years ago, Tiant broke down into tears after talking about his family.
The program ended with a festive reception held in the Fordham Law School Atrium. The entire long day’s proceedings were an educational treasure. The CCCNY certainly fulfilled its mission of being an “organization devoted to the preservation, advancement and dissemination of Cuban and Cuban-American culture with this superlative 12 hour conference.