June 16, 2021

Winter Ball: A History of Baseball, Cuba, and Race

December 4, 2020 by · Leave a Comment 

In 2020, Cuban baseball players took center stage in the pandemic-shortened season. The Chicago White Sox, a team that won more than half its games just twice in the 2010s and not since 2012, finished the season with 35 wins, good for a .583 winning percentage (roughly a 94 win pace over a 162 game schedule). The club made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and it was propelled by a strong offense headlined by four Cubans: third baseman Yoan Moncada, a former top prospect; catcher Yasmani Grandal, a star offseason acquisition; center fielder Luis Robert, a rookie sensation; and first baseman Jose Abreu, the season’s American League Most Valuable Player (MVP).

Abreu and his hard-hitting teammates represent the latest in a long line of successful Cuban professional baseball players. While Cubans are consistently high achieving performers in MLB, the island nation has its own long history with the sport. Moreover, the breaking of barriers by Cuban players in the US helped to integrate men of color – Black men in particular – into professional baseball in America. Cuban Major League Baseball (MLB) player production waxes and wanes due to the diplomatic dance between the United States (US) and its island neighbor. Before looking into the modern era, however, it is worthwhile to understand the history of Cuban baseball.

The origin of baseball in Cuba has been mythologized a number of different ways. Growing up, I learned – most likely from a broadcast of a game, though I do not recall the specifics – that the sport arrived in Cuba when American soldiers occupying the country brought it with them. In other words, it was a colonial legacy from a predominantly White country to an island of mostly non-White inhabitants. However, in all likelihood, a native Cuban named Nemesio Guillo brought back the first bat and ball with him after his time as a student in Mobile, Alabama. While many scholars chalk the beginnings of Cuban baseball up to “a combination of many Cubans returning from American universities, United States Navy sailors and Army soldiers, and sheer proximity to the United States,” MLB’s official historian John Thorn pushes back on this notion, instead emphasizing the importance of the first of these., Once the game arrived in Cuba, it quickly grew in popularity. Indeed, the island was home to the first organized league outside of North America, the Cuban Winter League, which eventually integrated many Negro League stars during the offseason in the US.

Race and baseball have been inextricably linked since the inception of the latter. In the United States, organized and professional leagues of White players had both overtly and discreetly racist policies to prevent integrated or Black teams from playing alongside them. Cuban players, however, could not be wholly defined as “colored.” Indeed, Keeney references the story of three Cubans who arrived in the United States to play baseball: Rafael Almeida, Armando Marsans, and José Méndez. The three were teammates in a 1908 exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds in Cuba, as the American team sought to build baseball’s brand in the island nation.

Méndez, despite his standout performance against the Reds, was, simply put, too Black to play in MLB. Before he gained national recognition for his talent on the diamond, his nickname was “Congo.” Once he evinced his skill, however, he became “Black Diamond.” The year following the game against the Reds, Méndez joined the Cuban Stars of the (pre-)Negro Leagues as the team barnstormed around the US. Méndez, then at or near the peak of his prodigious pitching prowess, earned the respect of some players on the world champion Philadelphia Athletics after defeating them twice in consecutive starts. A’s veteran catcher Ira Thomas said of the Cuban star, “It is not alone my opinion but the opinion of many others who have seen Méndez pitch that he ranks with the best in the game.” Méndez died in 1928 at the age of 41 (or 43 – his birthdate is disputed) but was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

On the other hand, the Almeida and Marsans, of Portuguese and Spanish descent, respectively, were signed by the Reds in 1911 after a lengthy public relations campaign that sought to establish their Whiteness and “that [the] two players ‘had earned their opportunity to compete against white ball players.’” Keeney adds that the “‘whiteness campaign’ tried to convince the general public that both players were ‘born of the best, and whitest families in Cuba.’” Despite their efforts, some contemporary observers expressed their concerns that baseball’s color barrier was being “lower[ed].” Wrote the unnamed author:

… it has always been understood that no Negro should play in the major leagues… [Reds’ manager Clark] Griffith has signed two Cubans who may or may not be part Negro. These particular Cubans may be of Spanish descent and they may be of African [descent]… the peculiar social conditions of the island making [sic] it mighty hard to determine the exact standings of most of the natives regarding color.

In a sense, the worried columnist may have been justified in his concerns. Cuban players fit into a liminal space: neither Black nor White. Though some, like Méndez, were too dark-skinned to play in professional baseball with White Americans, that “swarthy” players like Almeida and Marsans could play on MLB teams signified the beginning of the drawn-out end of segregation in baseball.

Indeed, the aforementioned liminal space benefitted Cubans (and sometimes their teammates) playing in the Negro Leagues. When dining in restaurants, Cubans and Negro League players who spoke Spanish would begin speaking in Spanish – sometimes the entire team would feign indifference of the English language just to be served. This trick was especially useful in the segregated South, where Negro League teams were frequently turned away.

Fast forward to 1942, and Hi Bithorn becomes the first Puerto Rican to play in the Major Leagues. Per Keeney, “The color line had blurred enough for Bithorn, who was light-skinned but still ‘dark’ by major league standards, to be able to play at baseball’s highest level.” Five years later, Jackie Robinson became the first Black baseball player in a predominantly White league in the United States since the 19th century.

Along the way, there were other Cuban players to make it to the Big Leagues. Dolf Luque became the first bonafide Cuban star in MLB, leading the league in wins once and in earned run average twice, even garnering MVP votes twice. However, it is only after Robinson firmly breaks the color barrier that Cuban players begin to arrive in Major League Baseball, with stars like Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva, Louis Tiant, and Hall of Famer Tony Pérez entering the league before 1965. However, after 1965, Cuban player debuts in the Major Leagues dropped dramatically. Only 23 players debuted from 1966-1995, a 30 year period. In spite of the dearth of new talent, Cuban players still produced at high levels, due to the productivity of the aforementioned stars. Even after they retired, newcomers Rafael Palmeiro and José Canseco helped Cuban baseball players from dropping off the map entirely.

This sudden and lengthy absence of new talent, Palmeiro and Canseco aside, was due to a straining of diplomatic relations between the governments of the two countries. Many players, including established stars in MLB, had to choose between the two countries. Nevertheless, baseball remained popular in Cuba because dictator Fidel Castro liked the sport. Although he banned professionalism in the industry, the Cuban Serie Nacional has kept the sport alive and well at the amateur level. However, once defections from the island by baseball players picked up in the 21st century, the team was sapped of both talent and morale. Players began leaving the island more rapidly in the 1990s because they lost their relatively privileged status in Cuban society. These defections were not easy, with players forfeiting significant portions of future salary to human traffickers in exchange for passage to the United States.

In December 2018, a deal was struck by the Cuban government and Major League Baseball to allow baseball players to play legally in the United States and return home to visit their native country. Unfortunately, the presidential administration in the US nixed the deal, seemingly because a fee equivalent to 25 percent of the player’s signing bonus would go to the Cuban federation. In spite of this setback, Cuban players are enjoying a historic run of success, with more players debuting over the last few years than at any other point in MLB history. Cuban players are seeing more playing time than any period in the last 50 years and are producing in their time on the diamond.

From a fan’s perspective, it is always more exciting to watch a sport when the best players from around the world are competing against each other. Until Jackie Robinson stepped on the field in 1947, no Afro-Cubans could play in Major League Baseball even though they faced less discrimination than their African-American counterparts, though they certainly had the talent to compete. After the dissolution of the color divide, Cubans had less than 20 years in which to reach the Majors before politics erected a new barrier. Once Cuban baseball players lost their relative privilege, MLB benefitted from their defections, risky as they were for the athletes. Politics has again created difficulties for Cubans looking to reach the US, but this fan is optimistic that such challenges can be remediated in the near future.

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