Friday, May 28, 2010

Cuban no-hit hurler, 'Limonar' Martinez dies at age 91

The author of the first no-hitter thrown at El Gran Stadium de la Habana has died.

Rogelio "Limonar" Martinez died Monday after a fall at his home in Connecticut. He was 91. Here's the Spanish-language story that ran in Miami's El Nuevo Herald.

A star of Cuba's amateur ranks, Martinez pitched for Almendares, Matanzas, Marianao (left) and Habana in the professional Cuban League.

With Marianao, Martinez threw a no-hitter against Almendares on Feb. 15, 1950. According to Jorge Figueredo's Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961, Martinez retired the first 21 batters he faced, but he lost the perfect game when he hit Roberto Ortiz with a pitch to open the eighth inning.

For the accomplishment, Bohemia magazine gave Martinez a $1,500 check.

Aside from the amateur ranks, Martinez's greatest success came with the Florida International Leagues' Havana Cubans, with whom he went 9-4 with a 1.90 ERA (1957), 19-9 with a 1.86 ERA (1949) and 10-4 with a 1.72 ERA (1950).

He also pitched one season with the Washington Senators in 1950.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cuba well represented in Latino Baseball HOF's inaugural class

Cuba will be well represented in the inaugural class of the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame.

Nine of the 25 to be inducted on May 29 at the Altos de Chavon Amphitheatre in Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic will be Cuban.

All the inductees will be divided into three groups -- Cooperstown Historic, Veterans Committee (active before 1959) and Permanent Induction Committee (active after 1959). Here's the breakdown of the Cuban inductees:

Cooperstown Historic

  • Atanasio "Tony" Pérez, first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds "Big Red Machine" teams of the 1970s. He hit 379 home runs with 1,652 RBI in 23 major league seasons with Cincinnati, Montreal, Boston and Philadelphia before his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

  • Martín Dihigo, a versatile -- he excelled at nearly every position -- star of the Cuban League and Negro Leagues who compiled a 104-56 record in 18 seasons in Cuba pitching for Habana, Marianao Almendares, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos and was the first Cuban-born inductee at Cooperstown.

  • Jose de la Caridad Méndez, a Cuban League and Negro Leagues star who compiled a 76-28 record in 13 seasons in Cuba, pitching for Almendares, Santa Clara and Matanzas. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by a special election of Negro League players in 2006.

  • Cristóbal Torriente, perhaps the Cuban greatest position player of the first half of the 20th Century. The power-hitting outfielder was known as "The Cuban Babe Ruth," and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by a special election of Negro League players in 2006.

  • Alejandro Pompez, a Cuban-American who became one of the most influential figures in the Negro Leagues as owner of the New York Cuban Stars. A Harlem numbers runner with ties to gangster Dutch Schultz, Pompez was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by a special election of Negro League players in 2006.

  • Rafael "Felo" Ramirez, the Spanish-language radio voice of the Florida Marlins, has called baseball games in Latin American since 1945, working many years with Buck Canel on the Cavalcade of Sports. Ramirez won the Ford Frick Award in 2001.

Veterans Committee

  • Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso, the former Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox all-star batted .298 and stole 205 bases in 17 major league seasons. He was also a star in the Negro Leagues with the New York Cubans and in the Cuban League with Marianao.

  • Bobby Maduro (Special Award for Outstanding Latino Baseball Personality) was the owner of the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League and Cienfuegos of the Cuban League. He was part of the corporation that built the Gran Stadium of Havana.

Permanent Induction Committee

  • Camilo Pascual, a two-time 20-game winner who deserved better than his 4-games-above .500 174-170 record in 18 major-league seasons, mostly with the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Happy birthday, Cuban Leaguer Willie Mays

Happy birthday, Willie Mays.

On this date (May 6) in 1931, Hall of Famer Willie Howard Mays was born.

We're used to seeing photos of Mays with the Giants or Mets or even the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues.

But you might not be as used to seeing Mays wearing an Almendares uniform in the Cuban League.

He was on the Almendares roster for the 1950-51 season.

But he he never played because of a leg injury.

Hall of Famer Robin Roberts wrote about teammate Dick Sisler in Cuba

For the second time in less than a 48-hour period, baseball lost one of its legends, and for the second time in that period, I discovered an unexpected connection to Cuban baseball history.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell died on Tuesday night after a long bout with cancer, and then Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts died Thursday morning of natural causes at age 83.

The Philadelphia Phillies right-hander won 286 games in his major-league career.

He never played in Cuba, but he and C. Paul Rogers III wrote a book, The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant, that includes a chapter titled Phenoms, the Hat and the Babe Ruth of Cuba.

In that chapter Roberts wrote about Phillies teammate Dick Sisler (left), who was a Cuban League legend, playing with Habana during the 1945-46 and 1953-54 seasons.

Here's an exerpt from Roberts' book:

Dick proceeded to become a legend in Cuba in three short months (in 1945). He smacked 2 home runs in his first game and a few weeks later hit three round-trippers in one game. On another occasion, he clubbed a homer over a 450-foot barrier, the first ball hit out in that spot in 20 years. The stadium owner thereupon presented him with a $350 watch. ...

Dubbed the Babe Ruth of Cuba, Dick was so popular that he and his wife Dot needed police protection wherever they went. The Cuban president presented Dick with a gold medal and fans showered him with gifts.

And Roberts' book also contained a connection to Ernest Hemingway: "While in Cuba, Dick became acquainted with Ernest Hemingway, a serious baseball fan. Hemingway was so impressed with Dick's exploits that he included him in his Pulitzer-winning novel The Old Man and the Sea." Hemingway's character Santiago, the old fisherman, remembers "Dick Sisler and those great drivers at the old park."

Roberts' book recalls this exchange between Santiago and the boy who fishes with the old man:

The boy: "He hits the longest balls I have ever seen."

Santiago: "Do you remember when he used to come to the Terrace? I wanted to take him fishing but I was too timid to ask him. Then I asked you to ask him and you were too timid."

The boy: "I know. It was a great mistake. He might have gone with us. Then we would have that for all of our lives."

During the 1945-46 Cuban League season, Sisler batted .301 with a league-leading nine homer runs and 27 RBI. Habana finished second to Cienfuegos that year by six game, but the season belonged to Sisler, the son of Hall of Famer George Sisler.

The younger Sisler, after a 37-month stint in the U.S. Navy, played in Cuba to get ready for the 1946 major league season.

On Dec. 11, he clubbed two homers off Marianao's Charlie Cuellar. On Jan. 23, he hit his 450-foot shot off Almendares' Agapito Mayor at La Tropical Stadium, "hitting a wall at the brewery next door," according to Jorge Figueredo's Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961. And the next day, he belted three homers off Sal Maglie, pitching for Cienfuegos.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell lamented never visiting Cuba

Sad news this morning that Ernie Harwell, the former longtime Voice of the Tigers, passed away Tuesday night at age 92 after a year-long battle against cancer.

Harwell had retired from the booth in 2002 and during his final broadcast, according to John Lowe's story in the Detroit Free Press, Harwell lamented having never visited Cuba:

At times during that final broadcast, he reminisced. One story involved a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher named Hugh Casey. "One of my large regrets is that I never got to Cuba," he said. "The Dodgers trained in Cuba one year. Hugh Casey got in a fight with Ernest Hemingway."

Harwell broke into the majors as a broadcaster with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, so he missed the three times the Dodgers held spring training in Cuba -- 1941, '42 and '47 (the year they first brought Jackie Robinson to spring training).

The details of the story Harwell relayed that night are as follows: During one of those Dodgers spring visits to Cuba Casey slugged it out with Hemingway (shown in Cuba in this Life magaine photo, above) at Hemingway's house in Cojimar. A night of dinner and (many) drinks led the pair to put on the boxing gloves.

Hemingway's love of baseball is mentioned in Norberto Fuentes' book, Hemingway in Cuba. Fuentes describes how while Hemingway was recovering from hepatitis in November of 1955, he "enjoyed a rare indulgence."

He would settle himself for hours in front of the TV set to watch the outcome of Cuba's championship baseball games. He was a fan of the Havana club, a professional team whose red uniforms bore the figure of a lion. His impassioned TV viewing and his heated arguments in defense of Havana made (his doctor, Herrera) Sotolongo fear for Ernest's health. There was a certain American pitcher, Wilmer Mizell (whom the Cubans called 'Vinagre' Maicel) who was his special favorite and who broke a record that year, much to Hemingway's delight.

The record Vinegar Bend Mizell set was striking out 206 batters in 179 innings in the 1955-56 Cuban League season.

And of course, Hemingway himself alluded to baseball in his book, The Old Man and the Sea, when the character Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin, asks: "Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez? I think they are equal."

Adolfo Luque and Miguel Angel Gonzalez are the two most iconic baseball managers in Cuban League history. Gonzalez holds the league record for seasons managing (34), victories (851) and pennants (14), all with Habana. In 30 seasons, Luque compiled a 705-641 record, winning 11 pennants, mostly with Almendares.

As a broadcaster, Hawell was one of baseball's great storytellers. Imagine how many more great stories he might have told from the booth had he ever made it to Cuba.