Thursday, February 25, 2010

On this date in 1947: Almendares sweeps Habana to win the pennant

It remains the greatest season climax in Cuba's baseball history.

With less than a month remaining in the season, the Habana Lions, having forged a seemingly insurmountable 6 1/2-game lead over Almendares, were cruising to another league pennant.

But Almendares reeled off 13 victories in its final 14 games to win the league’s championship, as the Habana stumbled to a 5-8 record down the stretch. Six of Habana’s losses came against Almendares.

Included among those was a three-game, three-day sweep in the final three meetings between the two teams thanks largely to the efforts of pitchers Max Lanier (left) and Agapito Mayor.

Born on the same day, August 18, 1915 — Lanier in Denton, North Carolina; Mayor in Sagua La Grande, Las Villas, Cuba, — their names will be forever linked for their exploits on the field at El Gran Stadium of Havana.

On Feb. 23, with Almendares needing to win each of their three games against Habana, Lanier pitched the Scorpions to a 4-2 victory in the first meeting. Mayor took the hill the next day as Almendares won 2-1, setting up the winner-take-all finale on Feb. 25.

Fans began lining up outside El Gran Stadium early that Tuesday morning, hours before the gates opened at 10 a.m. With the stadium filled to capacity, some fans dared to climb the light towers beyond the outfield walls for a glimpse of the historic game.

"It was bedlam,"' Felo Ramirez, who called the series over Cuban radio as a 22-year-old broadcaster, recalled during a 1994 interview. "Cuba was paralyzed. The country shut down. ... No one worked that day."

In the Almendares clubhouse, a deal was brokered to determine the game's starter. Manager Adolfo Luque approached Lanier about pitching in the decisive game on one-day's rest. Lanier, during one of several interviews in the mid-1990s, described the negotiations this way:

Luque: "We'll give you $500 if you pitch the third game and win it."

Lanier: "I won't pitch it that way. I'll pitch it for $500, win or lose because I only have one day's rest.''

Luque relented and Habana never had a chance.

Lanier struck out seven as Almendares cruised to a 9-2 victory and the championship.

After the game, jubilant Almendares fans paraded a stuffed lion in a small, makeshift casket for a funeral procession through the streets of Havana as wild celebrations erupted throughout the city.

Buck O’Neil, played only one season in Cuba, but he still remembers the baseball championship that season launched the game’s most memorable celebration on the streets of Havana.

“Whew, they turned it out,” famed Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil, who played first base for Almendares that winter recalled during a 1999 interview. “Everybody was excited. They had people riding all over the streets in cars, hanging onto streetcars, blowing horns, with ribbons and banners and everything. Oh, Havana was outstanding, really.”

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