Friday, May 7, 2010

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.

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