Friday, February 26, 2010

Coming soon: Cuban League stats online

Fans of baseball statistics have something to look forward to.

From my colleague Bob Kimball, on USA TODAY's Game On! blog, came word recently that two historians -- Chicago limousine dispatcher Scott Simkus, 39, and North Carolina book editor Gary Ashwill, 42 -- are combining on a four-year project to put Negro League statistics from 1900 to 1948 on

As part of that project, the pair also hopes to have Cuban Winter League stats from 1904 to 1913 posted by the end of the year, including what was dubbed "The American Series," which included major league teams and stars such as Ty Cobb (right in 1910) and Babe Ruth playing in Cuba.

In his 2007 book, Who's Who in Cuban Baseball, 1878-1961, Jorge S. Figueredo compiled player-by-player statistics for Cuban, Negro League and "North American" players who participated in Cuba's Winter League over the years.

But Simkus and Ashwill's project would provide the first sortable online statistics from baseball in Cuba.

Can't wait.

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.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

This week in history: Jackie Robinson arrives in Havana

Sixty-three years ago this week, a ship carrying members of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their minor league team, the Montreal Royals pulled into Havana Harbor for spring training.
Among the passengers were former Negro League players Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Roy Partlow. With Dodgers president Branch Rickey intent on having Robinson break baseball's color barrier, he moved the Dodgers' spring training site in 1947 to Havana.

Cuba, Rickey reasoned, would provide a better atmosphere in which to smooth Robinson's transition to the major leagues than Jim Crow Florida, where the Dodgers had trained in 1946.

The irony was that even though Cuba had seen black and white players share baseball fields since before the turn of the 20th century, Robinson and his black Royals teammates found themselves segregated not only from the Dodgers but from their white Royals teammates.

While Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe and Partlow stayed at the Hotel Los Angeles -- a fleebag that the New York Sun at the time described as a "musty third-rated hotel" -- their white Royals teammates stayed and trained at the Havana Military Academy on the outskirts of Havana. The Dodgers, meanwhile, stayed at the opulent Hotel Nacional.

During a 1997 interview, Newcombe relayed this story about the separate, but hardly equal accommodations:
"I wasn't even allowed to go in the lobby of the Nacional to see Mr. Rickey on baseball business. I had to bet permission from the bellhops. In fact, one [white] bellhop put me out of the lobby."
And yet, despite such uninspiring circumstances, that spring training paved the way for Robinson to break baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Monte Irvin at the bat ... in Cuba

Hall of Famer Monte Irvin turns 91 today. Happy Birthday.

The former Newark Eagles and New York Giants star outfielder was also a star in the Cuban League from 1947-49, earning induction into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

In the 1948-49 season, Irvin led the Cuban League with 10 home runs, while driving in 53 runs. He helped lead an Almendares team, which also included then-Brooklyn Dodgers farmhand Chuck Connors of The Rifleman fame, to the pennant by eight games over arch rival Habana.

Irvin also was instrumental in Cuba's Caribbean Series victory following the winter league. He batted .389 and led the Series with two homers and 11 RBI as Almendares, presenting Cuba, went 6-0 to win the inaugural Caribbean Series against Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Panama.

Using the 11 still photos of one of Irvin's swing from this cover (top left) of Fotos magazine, Cuba's version of Life/Sports Illustrated, check out this "slide show" of a much younger Irvin in action from his playing days in Havana.

Here is Irvin talking about Havana's night life during an interview in the early 1990s.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cuban League mottos to live by

Of the mottos used by teams in Cuba's now defunct professional winter baseball league, perhaps none stood out more than that of the Almendares Scorpions:

"El que le gane al Almendares se muere," or "Whoever defeates Almendares dies."

It spoke to the intensity of the competition among the four traditional teams -- Almendares, Habana, Cienfugoes and Marianao -- and particularly between "Eternal Rivals" Almendares and Habana.

That motto was by no means the only colorful one.

The Habana Lions' motto was "La leña roja tarde pero llega," or "The red beating arrives late but is inevitable."

The Cienfuegos Elephants' motto was equally forceful: "El pase del elefante es lento pero aplastante," or "The elephant's pace is slow but crushing."

Only the Marianao Tigers' motto lacked flair: "Ciudad de progreso," apparently borrowing from the city of Marianao's actual motto, "City of Progress."

Unlike the other mottos, it didn't convey Cuba's passion for baseball. Cuba was a country defined by that passion as much as by its language, music, culture and history.

Like New York of the 1950s -- where labels such as Yankee fan, Dodger fan or Giant fan carried as much weight as Irish, Italian or Jewish -- Cuba had it's own ingrained system of identification. You were either Almendarista or Habanista. You rooted either for Cienfuegos or Marianao.

And the team mottos -- for the most part -- spoke to the intensity of the rivalry among those teams.

Friday, February 12, 2010

'Mr. Baseball' Bobby Bragan was a central figure in Cuban baseball

Bobby Bragan as Almendares' managerWhen Bobby Bragan died last month at age 92, he was remembered as a popular and beloved former major league player, manager and executive who earned the nickname "Mr. Baseball."

An infielder and catcher for the Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers who later managed the Pirates, Indians and Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, Bragan also was a central figure in Cuba's now defunct winter baseball league.

So much so that he was elected into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame by the Miami-based Federation of Professional Cuban Baseball Players in Exile in 1997.

Bragan, who managed Almendares of the Cuban League for four winters between 1952-58, was the winningest American manager, leading the Scorpions to 164 victories and is the only American manager to win two Cuban League pennants (the 1953-54 and 1954-55 seasons).

Bragan also had another connection to baseball in Cuba. He was a member of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers team that brought Jackie Robinson to spring training in Havana as a prelude to his breaking of baseball's color barrier.

In writing about the 50th anniversary of that historic spring training for The Miami Herald, I interviewed Bragan in 1997. He was very candid about the tensions Robinson's presence raised among the Southern Dodgers players, including himself, the rumblings of a player revolt among those Southern Dodgers.

"I was born and raised in Birmingham [Ala.]," Bragan said of his attitude that spring training. "Any time a black came to my house, he went through the back door. If he drank water at a bus station, he drank from a black fountain and I drank from a white fountain. If he went to the men's room, he went to a black [men's room]."

For that article, Bragan gave this account of a meeting with Dodgers president Branch Rickey:

Rickey: "Not you nor anybody else is going to tell me who to play. It doesn't make any difference whether a guy's skin is purple, white, green, black or blue. He [Robinson] is going to play if he's going to do more than the other guy. Do you understand that?"

Bragan: "Yes sir."

Rickey: "Would you rather be traded, or would you rather play with him?"

Bragan: "I'd rather be traded."

Rickey: "Are you going to play any different because he's here?"

Bragan: "No, I'm not."

Bragan wasn't traded and eventually came to change his views on Robinson.

Playing with Robinson "was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," Bragan said. "Those people like myself who might have been a little slow joining Robinson at the breakfast table, we were fighting to see who would eat with him. It was a real transition."