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.

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