Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Chapman likely to start in minors; Reds have history of Cuban debuts

Looks like the back injury Aroldis Chapman sustained this spring will force him to start the season in the minors, delaying the 22-year-old Cuban defector's debut with the Cincinnati Reds.

As potentially important as Chapman's debut could be for the 2010 Reds, the team was involved in a more historically significant debut ... in 1911.

That was the season Armando Marsans (top row, second from left) and Rafael Almeida (bottom row, first from left) debuted in the major leagues, playing their first games on July 4 for the Reds.

Marsans and Almeida (shown with the 1913 Reds in this Library of Congress photo) were the first Cuban-born players to play in the majors during the modern era (Esteban Bellan first played for the Troy Haymakers of the National Association in 1871).

The debut of Marsans and Almeida, of course, was before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. But despite their light skin, the Reds had to assuage doubts about the pair's racial heritage, insisting that Marsans and Almeida were "two of the purest bars of Castilian soap ever floated to these shores."

Marsans and Almeida aren't the Reds' only Cuban connection. Among them:

  • Cuban Baseball Hall of Famer Adolfo Luque, whose 194 victories ranks second behind Luis Tiant among Cuban-born major league pitchers, played for the Reds from 1918-29 during his 20-year career.

  • The International League's Havana Sugar Kings were the Reds' Triple-A affiliate from 1955-60.

  • Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez was a key cog in The Big Red Machine teams that won the World Series in 1975 and 1976.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

March 19, 1887: 'El Diamante Negro' Jose Mendez was born

On this date in 1887, one of the greatest pitchers in the Cuban baseball history was born in Cárdenas.

Jose Mendez, El Diamante Negro, would go on to star in Cuba -- mostly playing for Almendares along with one-year stints each with Santa Clara (below), Matanzas and Habana -- and in the Negro Leagues with teams, such as the Kansas City Monarchs and Cuban Stars.

A look at the year-by-year breakdown of Mendez's first nine seasons in the Cuban League with Almendares -- as listed in Jorge S. Figueredo’s book, Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1878-1961 -- gives a glimpse at how dominant he was:

1908: 9-0

1908-09: 15-6

1910: 7-0

1910-11: 11-2

1912: 9-5

1913: 1-4

1913-14: 10-0

1914-15: 2-0

1915-16: 1-1

But don't just believe the numbers. Mendez consistently defeated major league teams visiting Cuba since 1908.

When the New York Giants of manager John McGraw and Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson visited the island for a series of exhibition games against the local nines, Mendez split two decisions against Mathewson, prompting McGraw to say he would pay $50,000 for Mendez ... if he were white.

"Mendez is better than any pitcher except [major league star] Mordecai Brown or Christy Mathewson," McGraw said at the time. "And sometimes, I think he's better than Matty."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Best Cuban pitchers in history

The hype surrounding Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman continues to ratchet up after his first spring training start for the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday.

After hitting 102 mph on the radar gun in his Cactus League debut on March 8, the 22-year-old lefty -- after allowing a home run to the first batter he faced -- was "almost untouchable," striking out five batters in three innings in his first spring training start on Wednesday.

Whether Chapman will become the next star Cuban major league pitcher remains to be determined. While we wait to find out the answer, here's my top 5 pitchers who were born in Cuba:

1. Martin Dihigo: Because of baseball's color barrier, Dihigo (right), born in Matanzas in 1906, never played in the majors, but the Negro League star is enshrined in the Halls of Fame in the United States, Cuba and Mexico.

A versatile player who played multiple positions, Dihigo -- known in Cuba as El Inmortal, The Immortal One -- compiled a 104-56 record in 18 seasons in Cuba pitching for Habana, Marianao Almendares, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos, according to Jorge S. Figueredo's book, Who's Who in Cuban Baseball, 1878-1961.

2. Jose Mendez: Born in Cárdenas in 1887, El Diamante Negro, the Black Diamond, also was denied a career in the majors because of the color of his skin, but he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by a special election of Negro League players in 2006.

In 13 seasons in Cuba, pitching for Almendares, Santa Clara and Matanzas, Mendez compiled a 76-28 record, according to Figueredo's research.

3. Luis Tiant: The four-time 20-game winner leads all Cuban-born pitchers with 229 career major-league victories (229-172) to go with a 3.30 ERA and 2,416 strikeouts.

Tiant's best season came in 1968 with the Cleveland Indians, when he went 21-9 with an American League-leading 1.60 ERA and nine shutouts, while striking out 264 batters.

4. Adolfo Luque: In 20 major-league seasons, The Pride of Havana, compiled a 194-175 career record with a 3.24 ERA.

His best season came in 1923 with the Cincinnati Reds. After losing 23 games despite a 3.31 ERA the previous season, Luque (left) led the National League with 27 wins (eight losses), a 1.93 ERA and six shutouts.

5. (tie) Mike Cuellar and Camilo Pascual: Cuellar was a four-time 20-game winner, posting a career 3.14 ERA in 15 major-league seasons while winning 185 games with 130 losses. His best season came in 1969 when he went 23-11 with a 2.38 ERA with the Baltimore Orioles.

Given his 3.63 career ERA, Pascual, a two-time 20-game winner, deserved better than his 4-games-above .500 174-170 record in 18 major-league seasons. His best season came in 1963: 21-9 with a 2.46 ERA and an AL-leading 202 strikeouts with the Minnesota Twins.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cuba's spring training history

Long before Florida and Arizona came to monopolize spring training, major league teams would set up camp in small towns all across the country to prepare for upcoming seasons.

Occasionally they even ventured to cities beyond America's borders, including Havana, Cuba.

According to Cuban Ball, the Federal League's St. Louis Terriers, with Cuban outfielder Armando Marsans, was the first major league organization to hold spring training in Cuba in 1915.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were the major league's most frequent visitors to the island, training in Havana in 1941, 1942 and 1947. An earlier blog post described the spring of '47, a prelude to Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier and you can view Life magazine photos that chronicled the Dodgers' 1942 visit.

The first major league team of the modern era to call Havana its spring training home was the 1937 New York Giants (right). The then-defending National League champions didn't fare all that well in their games against the local nines, losing to a military team, Habana, Almendares and Fortuna, a local amateur club, according to an online article by David Marasco.

Finally with the Giants' Carl Hubbell matched against Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant Sr., the Giants won 7-3. In their six games against Cuban professionals, the Giants won one game, tied one and lost four as Cuban pitcher Ramon Bragaña held the Giants to two runs in 21 innings.

But however rough things were for the Giants that spring was nothing compared to what the Pittsburgh Pirates experienced when they trained in Havana in 1953, according to an item in a 1967 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The last major league team to hold spring training in Cuba was invited to train on the island by Cuban president Fulgencio Batista at his expense. Branch Rickey, who had been the Dodgers' president during their 1947 trip to Cuba, accepted.

But when slugger Ralph Kiner was held out -- presumably because of an injury -- Cuban fans stopped coming to the games. One game drew 15 fans, including the team's bus driver.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Today's Cuban Series very different from winter league of yesteryear

The 49th Cuban National Baseball Series began earlier this month and already has featured a wild bench-clearing brawl.

But the list of participating teams is a stark reminder of the fight that was lost five decades ago: Industriales, Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, Ciego de Avila.

Yes, the series includes La Habana and Cienfuegos (the team's logo even contains an elephant) but there's no Almendares, no Marianao.

Cuba's four traditional professional teams faded from history in the aftermath of Fidel Castro coming to power on Jan. 1, 1959.

The 1960-61 season was the final professional winter league season played on the island, the relations between Cuba and the United State deteriorating to the point that Major League Baseball commissioner Ford Frick banned Americans from participating.

The Triple-A Cuban Sugar Kings ceased to exist on July 13, 1960. That's when the International League revoked the franchise and gave Cuban owner Bobby Maduro 48 hours to find a city to which to transfer the team.

After 6 1/2 years in Havana, the team had to relocate to Jersey City, New Jersery. The transfer was so abrupt, a strip of flannel with the words "Jersey City" had to be stitched on the uniforms (above, right).

Before that move, many in Cuba and viewed the Sugar Kings as an audition for a possible major league expansion franchise in Havana.

"If Cuba had remained free, Cuba would have a major league team," long-time Almendares catcher Andres Fleitas (left) told me in a 1999 interview. "The franchise in Montreal would have been Cuba's. They were trying to determine if Cuba could support a major league team. And indeed they showed it could because 30,000-35,000 fans would go see Habana and Almendares and Cienfuegos and Marianao."

Alas, it was not to be.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Cuban Sports Hall of Fame honors Dodgers' Tommy Lasorda

That's 16 Halls of Fame and counting.

Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, now a special assistant with the team, was inducted Sunday into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Miami, Fla.

"I am very proud to be inducted into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame," said Lasorda in a statement released by the Dodgers. "I loved my time in Cuba and am very fond of the Cuban people. They are very passionate about their baseball and I was so proud to be a part of it."

Lasorda often has expressed how much he enjoyed playing in Cuba -- for Marianao (right) and Almendares from 1950-52 and 1958-60 -- and he's among the most popular American players in Cuban Winter League history.

As a young lefty in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, Lasorda's best season in Cuba came during the 1958-59 season (left) when he went 8-3 with a 1.89 ERA as Almendares won the pennant by eight games and went on to win the Caribbean World Series.

"He had a curve ball that dropped straight down," my father once told me.

In his 1986 book, Artful Dodger, co-authored with David Fisher, Lasorda devoted an entire chapter to his playing days in Latin America, especially Cuba.

  • On fiery Cuban baseball icon Adolfo Luque, Lasorda's manager in his first season in Cuba: "Luque was the worst human being I have ever known. ... I argued with him practically every day."

  • On being in Havana, for not one, but two coups: "I was in Cuba in 1952 when (Fulgencio) Batista overthrew (Carlos) Prio, and I was there in 1959 when (Fidel) Castro overthrew Batista. ... On New Year's Eve, 1959, (Lasorda's wife) Jo and I, the Art Fowlers and the Bob Allisons were leaving a party at about 3 a.m. when three large planes few low overhead. I wondered who would be flying that late at night. It turned out to have been Batista and his cabinet fleeing the country."

  • On an argument with umpire Amado Maestri after Maestri called three consecutive pitches balls that Lasorda thought were strikes: "That was it. I walked halfway to the plate and really let him have it. ... Maestri listened, then slowly walked about 10 feet in front of home plate and started unbuttoning the jacket he was wearing over his chest protector. 'Lasorda,' he said, the only word I ever head him speak in English. Of course, it was all he needed to say. He pulled open his jacket to show me the biggest pistol I have ever seen, tucked into his belt. That convinced me. 'Maestri,' I shouted, 'you are the greatest umpire I have ever seen in my life.'"

The list Halls of Fame where Lasorda is enshrined also includes the Brooklyn Baseball Hall of Fame, Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame, Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

El Gran Stadium, my uncle once part of a plot to assassinate Batista

This is a baseball story only in its setting: Opening night of the Havana Sugar Kings' inaugural 1954 season.

My uncle and future godfather, René Brioso, sat with conspirators toward right field in the last row of El Gran Stadium of Havana.

But they weren't watching the International League game. Instead they looked out beyond the outfield fences toward the rooftop of a building -- the national police's motorized division -- waiting for a signal that never came.

René -- who after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 would be imprisoned for more than a month at la Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, falsely accused of being a Batista sympathizer and collaborator -- sat in that stadium waiting to take part in an attempted assassination of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Two years earlier, Batista had staged a coup, ousting outgoing president Carlos Prio Socarrás three months before the elections.

As a bus driver and member of El Sindicato de Empleados de Omnibus Aliados union, Rene had helped stage several labor strikes and work stoppages throughout Havana in protest of Batista's coup. When those strikes failed to erode Batista's power, René and his associates escalated their efforts to more dangerous activities.

Among them was their involvement with the Triple A Movement, started by Prio and his onetime minister of state and education, Aureliano Sánchez Arango. The ousted Prio had a cache of arms stored in an apartment beyond center field, and the group had accomplices within the police.

"Batista was supposed to go to a party, a baptism or something," my Padrino once told me. "And the plan was when he left the baptism we would make the attempt on his life. ...

"One of the people involved was the dispatcher. The plan was when he received word that the attempt had been made, he was supposed to go to the roof and with a flash light signal us in the stadium that the president was dead. Then we would storm the station, take weapons, police cars and begin the revolutionary movement. ... We waited and waited and got no signal. Later we found out that Batista didn’t go to the party they couldn’t make the attempt on his life."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Old photo launches interest in Cuban baseball

Many years ago while looking through a box of old family photographs, I came across a black-and-white image of my father (left) from the late 1940s.

In it, he couldn't have been much more than 10 or 11 years old, and I felt as if I could have been looking at a picture of myself at that age were it not for the clothes and the photo's lack of color.

The baseball cap with the serifed "A" on the dome that sat on my father’s head was that of the Almendares baseball club, the professional winter-league team he rooted for as a child in pre-Castro Cuba.

My father would tell me stories of following players like Monte Irvin and Chuck Connors, Agapito Mayor and Max Lanier, Tommy Lasorda and Roberto Oritz.

He would tell me how his uncle, Raúl -- one of my grandfather Rene's 10 siblings -- would take him to El Gran Stadium of Havana to watch games, no easy task considering Raul's disability.

As a young man, Raúl lost both legs below the knees when they were run over by a train as he slept -- passed out after a night on the town -- on a set of tracks.

After the accident, Raúl had to use an elaborate wheelchair (left) -- with handles above the armrests connected to the wheels with what looked like bicycle chains -- to get around. Later he "walked" on his knees using foam pads (right).

Discovering these and other old photos of my father and our family in Cuba launched my ongoing interest in researching the history of baseball on the island of my birth, as well as my family history.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Don Zimmer: A baseball life in Cuba

Don Zimmer was honored earlier this month for his 62-year career in baseball, a resume that includes:

  • 12 major-league seasons as a player, including as a member of the Dodgers' only World Series-winning team in Brooklyn (1955) and as the first of 139 player who have played third base for the Mets (1962).

  • Managing the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs.

  • Bench coach under Joe Torre during the Yankees dynasty of 1996-2000.

A less celebrated aspect of Zimmer's life in baseball came in Cuba's winter league, playing for Cienfuegos and Marianao from 1951-53.

Zimmer was home in the cold and snow of Cincinnati when Al Campanis from the Dodgers called with the offer to play in Havana.

"He said, ‘Do you want to go to Cuba to play the rest of the winter in the Cuban League?’ I said, ‘Yeah, my goodness,’ ” Zimmer said during an interview in the spring of 2008. “I got on an airplane with my wife the next day. Billy Herman, a Hall of Famer, was my manager [with Cienfuegos]. He called me in the office and said, ‘How long will it take you to get ready to play in a game?’ I’m 22 years old. I said, ‘What? I’ll play tonight.’ ”

Zimmer never got to celebrate a pennant in Cuba, helping lead Cienfuegos and Marianao to second-place finishes in back-to-back seasons.

Despite that, Zimmer thought Havana "was heaven. ... It was a resort, I mean, what a gorgeous place. They had beautiful casinos. You wanted to go to the casinos after the game, you went. They had great restaurants. I’ve always said that Cuba, the two years that I spent there, were very special in my baseball life. And playing with and against the guys that I played with, it was special.”