October 18, 2021

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

October 6, 2021 by · Leave a Comment 

Almendares Baseball Team

1922-1923 Almendares Cuban League Team.

In 2020, Cuban baseball players took center stage in the pandemic-shortened season. The Chicago White Sox won more than half its games twice in the 2010s. But they finished last season with 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. The White Sox boasted four Cubans. Former top prospect Yoan Moncada played third base. All-Star catcher Yasmani Grandal, an offseason acquisition, platooned with James McCann. Rookie center fielder Luis Robert was a sensation on the bases and the field. And first baseman Jose Abreu was the season’s American League Most Valuable Player.

Abreu and his hard-hitting teammates represent the latest in a long line of successful Cuban professional baseball players. While Cubans are high achieving performers in MLB, the island nation has a long history with the sport. Cuban players in the US helped to integrate men of color – black men in particular. Cuban Major League Baseball player production waxes and wanes due to the diplomatic dance between the US and Cuba. Before looking into the modern era it is worthwhile to understand the history of Cuban baseball.

Cuba’s baseball origin has been mythologized in many different ways. Growing up, I learned 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 white country to an island of non-White inhabitants. But it’s more likely that a native Cuban named Nemesio Guillo brought back the first bat and ball with him after his time as a student in Mobile, Alabama.

Many scholars chalk the beginnings of Cuban baseball up to a combination of factors. “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 pushed back on this notion, instead emphasizing the importance of the first of these.  Once the game arrived in Cuba, it grew in popularity. Indeed, the island was home to the first organized league outside of North America. The Cuban Winter League integrated many Negro League stars during the offseason in the US.

Armando Marsans

Armando Marsans, seen here with the Yankees, was signed by the Reds in 1911 after they convinced Organized Baseball that he was white enough.

The link between Race and baseball has existed since the inception of the latter. In the US, organized and professional leagues of white players had both and racist policies to prevent integrated or black teams from playing alongside them. Cuban players, however, could not be wholly defined as “colored.” Indeed, Stephen R. Keeney references the story of three Cubans who arrived in the United States to play baseball: Rafael Almeida, Armando Marsans, and José Méndez. They played the Cincinnati Reds in a 1908 exhibition game in Cuba as MLB sought to build a brand there.

Méndez, despite his standout performance against the Reds, was 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.” In 1909, Méndez joined the Cuban Stars of the (pre-)Negro Leagues for a barnstorming tour around the US. Méndez earned the respect of the world champion Philadelphia Athletics after defeating them twice in consecutive starts.

A’s veteran catcher Ira Thomas said of the Mendez, “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 43 and baseball’s Hall of Fame inducted Mendez in 2006.

After a public relations campaign in 1911 that sought to establish their “whiteness,” the Reds signed Almeida and Marsans. The duo, of Portuguese and Spanish descent, respectively, “‘had earned their opportunity to compete against white ballplayers.’” 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. Some, like Méndez, were too dark-skinned to play in professional baseball with white Americans. But “swarthy” players like Almeida and Marsans signing MLB contracts signified the beginning of the protracted end of baseball segregation.

Indeed, the aforementioned liminal space benefitted Cubans (and sometimes their teammates) playing in the Negro Leagues. When dining in restaurants, Cubans and Spanish-speaking Negro League players would use Spanish. Sometimes the entire team would feign indifference to the English language to ensure service. This trick was especially useful in the segregated South, where Negro League teams were frequently turned away.

In 1942, Hi Bithorn became 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.” In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black MLB player in a predominantly white league since the 19th century.

Dolf Luque

Dolf Luque was MLB’s first Cuban star.

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 broke the color barrier that Cuban players began to arrive in Major League Baseball. Stars like Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva, Luis Tiant, and Hall of Famer Tony Pérez entered the league before 1965.

After 1965, Cuban player debuts in the Major Leagues dropped. Only 23 players debuted from 1966-1995. Cuban players still produced at high levels, though, due to the productivity of the stars. And newcomers, Rafael Palmeiro and José Canseco helped Cuban players from dropping off the map.

The diplomatic strain between the US and Cuba caused the lengthy absence of new talent–Palmeiro and Canseco aside. Many players, including established stars in MLB, had to choose between the two. Still, baseball remained popular in Cuba because dictator Fidel Castro liked the sport. Although Castro banned professionalism in baseball, the Cuban Serie Nacional has kept amateur baseball alive and well.

Defections from the island picked up in the 21st century and the team lost both talent and morale. Having lost their privileged status in Cuba, players began leaving the island more in the 1990s. These defections were not easy. Players forfeited significant portions of future salary to human traffickers in exchange for passage to the US.

In December 2018, a deal between the Cuban government and MLB would have allowed players to play in the US. But the US government nixed the deal because 25 percent of players’ signing bonus would go to Cuba. Despite this setback, Cuban players are enjoying a historic run of success. More players debuted over the last few years than at any other point in MLB history.

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. This fan is optimistic that remediation comes soon.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The above is a revised edition of the original, posted in December 2020.)

 

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