Cuba – The Diamonds to Our South
Here’s a “Pitch” and then a Look a Cuban Baseball History
This coming November, Ballpark Tours is planning its third trip to Cuba – where participants will see first-hand the role baseball plays in defining the heart and culture of the Cuban people.
“Baseball is part of the heart and soul of the Cuban people – and at the core of the Ballpark Tours Cuban experience.”
Julian Loscalzo, Ballpark Tours Operator
Ballpark Tours’ past visits to the baseball diamonds of our closest island neighbor were simply a treat and we figured that, since the door was still open, we’d do it again. We keep tweaking our tour as we learn more about how to create the best possible adventure on a visit to this beautiful and lively Caribbean island. One thing is clear, using a baseball lens you can immediately see and connect with the passion and culture of the Cuban people.
For more information on this fan-friendly, baseball-centric Cuban adventure, email Julian@ballparktours.net
In the meantime, here’s a look at the history of baseball in Cuba … to whet your appetite.
—–CUBAN BASEBALL – A PRIMER—–
That the organizing entity for baseball-focused trips to Cuba should be Ballpark Tours – headquartered in Saint Paul, Minnesota – seems more than appropriate. No franchise has deeper ties to the baseball diamonds of Cuba than the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins.
Of the 206 Cuban-born players who have reached the major leagues – according to Baseball-Reference.com – 45 (more than twice as many as any other franchise) made their big league debuts with either the Washington Nationals/Senators or the Minnesota Twins.
The Senators/Twins franchise – in the years it was owned by the Griffith family – had a long-standing relationship with Cuban baseball; led by scout Joe Cambria. Cambria established a Cuban baseball pipeline to the Senators and signed more than 400 Cuban players to contracts with the team. More on Cambria to come, but you should be aware that the Griffith/Cuba knot was being tied even before Clark Griffith acquired the Senators’ franchise. Minnesota fans know the names – Tony Oliva, Camilo Pascual, Leo Cárdenas, Pedro Ramos, Zoilo Versalles, Liván Hernández and Kendrys Morales are just a few of the Cubans to put on a Twins’ jersey. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
THE GRIFFITHS AND CUBA …
Among the first Cubans to play in the U.S. major leagues were Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans – signed by the Cincinnati Reds when future Hall of Famer and future Washington Senators’ owner Clark Griffith was managing the Cincinnati squad. Almeida and Marsans both made their MLB debuts for the Reds on the Fourth of July in 1911 – as Reds’ manager Griffith saw the potential (on the field and in the budget) of bringing Cuban players to the U.S. Almeida, a third baseman, played just 102 games in three seasons with the Reds (hitting .270), while Marsans (and outfielder/first baseman) put in eight major league seasons (hitting .269). Note: Both had played earlier in the U.S. as members of the integrated “All Cubans” and both also played winter baseball in the Cuban League. Almeida and Marsans were elected as part of the inaugural class of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
FIRST CUBAN (AND LATIN-BORN) PLAYER IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES …
Only two Cubans are known to have preceded Almeida and Marsans into the major leagues. The first was Esteban “The Cuban Sylph” Bellán, who played for the National Association Troy Haymakers (1871-72) and New York Mutuals (1873). Bellán – also recognized as the first Latin to play U.S. major league baseball – had played “professionally” since 1868, but the 1871 National Association of Base Ball Players is considered the first professional major league. Bellán attended St. John’s College (later renamed Fordham University) in New York, where he joined the varsity base ball (yes, it was two words back then) team in 1866 at the age of 16. Bellán became a U.S. citizen in 1874 and then returned to Cuba – where he is credited with being one of the pioneers or Cuban baseball. He was inducted into the Cuban baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Also preceding Almeida and Marsans to the major leagues was Cuban-born Charles “Chick” Pedroes, who appeared in two games for the 1902 Chicago Orphans (Cubs) of the National League.
CUBAN BASEBALL IS BORN – ON THE HIGH SEAS (Kind of) …
The birth of baseball in Cuba is generally identified as June of 1866, when sailors from an American ship anchored in Matanzas Bay came ashore, set up a diamond and invited the Cubans to join in a game. However, much of the credit must go to Esteban Bellán (see story above) and Nemisio and Ernesto Guillo. Bellán learned the game while playing at St. John’s College, the Guillo brothers picked up the sport at Spring Hills College in Mobile, Alabama. All three played a role in early Cuban baseball. Nemisio Guillo is credited with organizing the first Cuban team – the Habana Base Ball Club (1868).
In December of 1874, the first organized game between two Cuban teams reportedly was held – with Habana winning (over Mantanzas) by a score of 51-9.
JOSÉ “BLACK DIAMOND “MÉNDEZ …
Perhaps the best-known player in the early era of Cuban base ball was José “Black Diamond” Méndez. In March of 1908, the hard-throwing – but, until then, little known – 20-year-old Méndez went 9-0 in the Cuban winter league. Later that same season, in an exhibition against the Cincinnati Reds, Méndez shut down the big leaguers from the states 1-0 – tossing a one-hitter (nine strikeouts). In fact, in three outings against the big leaguers, he threw 25 consecutive scoreless frames.
While victories against Major League and Negro League squads brought Méndez plenty of limelight, He consistently proved himself in Cuban competition. From 1908-1911, he went 42-8 in league competition. In 1914, Mendez developed arm trouble and, eventually, the all-around athlete moved to shortstop. Méndez played with J.L. Wilkinson’s All Nations team, the Chicago American Giants and Detroit Stars before joining the Kansas City Monarchs as a player-manager in 1920. He won Negro National League pennants with the Monarchs in 1923-24-25 – managing, playing shortstop and taking an occasional turn on the mound. From 1920 through 1926 (ages 35-41), Méndez went 28-12 on the mound for Kansas City.
—————————— CUBAN BASEBALL HIGHLIGHTS —————————
Here are a few additional highlights from Cuban baseball history:
- December 1878 – the Professional Base Ball League of Cuba begins play with three teams.
- October 1891 – First touring major leaguers visit Cuba for winter exhibition games.
- August 1936 – Cuba hosts (and wins) second-ever world amateur baseball championship.
- October 26, 1946 – 31,000 fans attend first game at new Gran Estadio del Cerro (Havana).
- 1962 – First season of new Cuban (amateur) League opens; the league was formed after Fidel Castro banned “professional” sports in Cuba.
- August 1987 – Cuba defeats the U.S. 13-9 in finals of Pan American Games.
- September 1992 – Cuba wins first-ever Olympic Gold Medal in baseball – going 8-0.
- July 1996, Cuba goes 9-0 to win second Olympic Gold Medal in baseball.
- March 28, 1999 … U.S. major leaguers appear in Cuba for the first time since the revolution (40-year absence). The Baltimore Orioles top the Cuban National Team 3-2 in 11 innings in front of 55,000 fans at Estadio Latinoamericano
- December 2018 … MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation reach an agreement – similar to those in place with leagues in Japan and Korea – allowing for release fees to be paid to the Cuban Federation for players signed by MLB and allowing those players to return to Cuba. (If approved, this would mean Cuban players would no longer have to defect to play in the U.S. professionally.)
In 1869, after the first Cuban War of Independence (against colonial Spanish rule), baseball was banned by Spanish rulers and Cubans were “encouraged” to rally behind the Spanish sport of bullfighting. The ban created a backlash of passion for the game among the Cuban population.
CUBAN BASEBALL TODAY …
Today’s Cuban National League is governed by the Cuban Baseball Federation. The Federation oversees several competitions.
The Serie Nacional is comprised of one team from each of Cuba’s 14 provinces, two from Cuidad de La Habana (Havana) and one from the Special Municipality of Isla de la Juventud. The league plays a 90-game schedule that runs from November through April – and is followed by a three-tiered playoff to determine the national champion.
The Súper Liga is basically an All Star competition, usually played in late spring/early summer. It features the Serie Nacional’s top players placed on five teams that compete in a round-robin competition – after which the top two teams play a best-of-three series for the championship. (Note: Players for the Cuban National Team are selected from the Súper Liga.)
LIGA DE DESARROLLO
The Liga de Desarrollo is a developmental league that plays from August to November – with teams from each of the 14 provinces, Ciudad de La Habana and Isla de la Juventud.
There are also Provincial Championships (late July/early August, as well as a host of leagues for players from 9 to 16-years-old.
CUBA’S BEST OF THE BEST – MARTÍN DIHIGO & OMAR LINARES…
Here’s a look at two of Cuba’s greatest ballplayers. Which deserve to be called the best? We’ll let you decide.
MARTÍN DIHIGO … Considered one of the best all-around players of all time – a star at the plate, in the field AND on the mound – Martín Dihigo is in the MLB, Cuban and Mexican versions of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In a professional career that ran from 1922-1950, the Cuban-born Dihigo played all around the diamond – and always with style. By all accounts, he made the phrase “five-tool player” seem inadequate. Not only did he play nearly everywhere on the field, he also was on the diamond nearly year-round (summers in the U.S., primarily Negro Leagues, Mexico and the Dominican Republic and winters in Cuba).
Just how good was Dihigo? In 1935-36, he led the Cuban Winter League at the plate in batting average (.358), runs (42), hits (63), triples (8) and RBI (38). On the mound, he led the league in wins (11), winning percentage (.846), complete games (13) and shutouts (4). Then there was 1937. That year, Dihigo led the Dominican League in home runs – while finishing third in batting average and second in pitching victories. The same season, he moved on to the Mexican League, where he hit .357, went 4-0 (0.93 ERA on the mound). From Mexico, it was off to the Cuban Winter League, where he went 14-2 (no other hurler won more than eight games) and won the first night game in league history.
Just a few of Dihigo’s accomplishments:
- 107-56 as a pitcher in the Cuban Winter League – the league’s all-time leader in wins and complete games (121). In 23 Cuban Winter League seasons, Dihigo put up a .296 batting average.
- 119-57 as a pitcher in the Mexican League – where he also maintained a .317 career batting average.
- 29-26 as a pitcher in the Negro Leagues – where he also ranked 12th all-time in home runs (hit, not allowed).
- Winner of four Cuban League MVP Awards; including the first ever in 1927-28 – when he hit .415 and went 4-2 on the mound.
- Hit .404 for the Cuban Stars in 1930.
- With the Negro League’s New York Cubans in 1935, went 7-3 on the mound and hit .335 – finishing in the league’s top five not only in wins and ERA, but also in home runs, triples and stolen bases.
- In 1938 went 18-2, with a 0.92 Earned run Average for Vera Cruz in the Mexican League – the lowest Mexican League ERA ever for a pitcher throwing more than 100 innings. He also won the League batting title with a .387 average.
We could go on, but you get the idea – Martín Dihigo is a Cuban baseball icon.
OMAR LINARES … Omar Linares was a star third baseman for the Cuban National Team and in the Cuban National Series in the 1980s and 1990s. Linares played 20 seasons in Cuba’s National Series – finishing with a .368 career average, 404 home runs, 1,517 RBI and 246 stolen bases. Linares earned four Cuban League batting titles, led the league in walks six times, RBI four time and triples once. The Society for Baseball Research also notes that Linares both homered and walked more than twice as many times as he struck out.
Linares not only excelled in the Cuban League, he was a force (and a Cuban hero) in international competition. Linares led Cuba’s 1992 and 1996 Olympic Gold Medal squads – and hit three home runs in the final game (against Japan) in 1996. A few other Linares’ accomplishments:
- Hit .512 in the 1994 Baseball World Cup.
- Hit .476 in the 1996 Olympics – with an Olympic Games-leading 20 hits.
- Hit .409 in the 1997 World Port Tournament – with 10 RBI in five games.
- Hit .367 in the 1997 Intercontinental Cup.
- Hit .520 in the 1986 Pan American Games.
Linares chose to decline a number of potential offers to leave Cuba and play in the United States. Thus, other than occasionally on the international stage, his exploits were seldom witnessed outside of Cuba.
BACK TO PAPA JOE CAMBRIA …
Remember, way back when you started reading? We were talking about Clark Griffith and the Reds and Washington Nationals/Senators. To make a long story short (We’re sure you will all appreciate that), Griffith joined the Washington D.C. team as a player/manager in 1912 and bought the franchise in 1919 – winning a World Series in 1924 and American League pennants in 1925 and 1933. A disappointing seventh-place finish in 1933 led to considerable change on the field, in the front office – and in the budget. (Read: Things got tight.) And, thus began the story of Joe Cambria and the Cuban Connection.
In 1934, Griffith added Italian-born Joe Cambria to the Washington staff. Cambria who came to the U.S. as an infant and was raised in Boston had a love for, and experience with, the national pastime. As a young man, he played amateur and semi-pro baseball in in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. At the age of 19, he made his professional debut as an outfielder with Newport in the Rhode Island State League (Independent). He played the 1910 season with Newport and then moved on to Class D Berlin, Ontario in the Canadian League. Cambria played there until a broken leg ended his playing career in 1912.
Cambria had a number of jobs after that (including owning the Bugle Coat and Apron laundering business – where he also sponsored a successful team in the Baltimore Amateur League). Note: Calvin Griffith, nephew of Senator’s owner Clark Griffith, was reported to be a reserve member of the team. To further shorten a long story, coats and aprons were not for Cambria and, in 1929 he purchased the Hagerstown Hubs, the only non-affiliated team in the Class D Blue Ridge League.
Over the next few years, Cambria purchased (and sold) a number of minor league and Negro League teams – and made a reputation for discovering talent and buying and selling players. That reputation and experience played a big part in Clark Griffith’s hiring of Cambria – and Griffith’s past experience with Cuban players helped direct Cambria toward the island nation. Griffith instructed Cambria to concentrate on what he saw as an inexpensive source of hardball talent in Cuba. The rest, as they say, is Washington/Minnesota history.
Cambria was a perfect fit for Cuba – he loved the culture, the food, music and spirit of the people. He also loved baseball, as did the Cuban populace. He had a big “Cadillac and Cigar” personality that made him a celebrity. In nearly three decades scouting for the Griffiths (Cambria died in 1962), Papa Joe signed more than 400 Cuban players – including such future major leaguers as Camilo Pascual, Tony Oliva, Pedro Ramos, Zolio Versalles and Julio Becquer. And, Cambria didn’t just scout Cubans, Cambria also discovered the first Venezuelan major leaguer, Alex Carrasquel, whom he saw playing in Havana in 1938. And, he signed such American players as Early Wynn, Mickey Vernon and Eddie Yost.
Clearly, when it comes to major league baseball, Pape Joe Cambria earned the title of Cuban Connection.
HOW ABOUT AN MLB ALL-TIME CUBAN-BORN ALL STAR TEAM?
C – José “Joe” Azcue
Came up with the Reds in 1960, played 11 MLB seasons (909 games) with the Reds, A’s, Indians, Red Sox, Angels and Brewers. Career: .252-50-304. 1968 AL All Star.
1B – Tony Pérez
Came up with the Reds in 1964, played 23 years with Cincinnati. Career: .279-379-1,652. Seven-time All Star; elected to Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.
2B – Alexei Ramírez
Played nine MLB seasons (2008-18, mostly with the White Sox). Although primarily a shortstop, he played 122 games at 2B. He hit .270, with 155 home runs, 590 RBI and 143 stolen bases. A 2014 All Star, Ramírez’ best season was rookie campaign, when he went .290-21-77, with 13 steals.
3B – Octavio “Cookie” Rojas
Third base was the toughest spot to fill on this squad, so we went with a true utility man here (Rojas played each of the nine positions as some point in his career). Came up in 1962 with the Reds, played 16 MLB seasons (Reds, Phillies, Cardinals, Royals). Career: .263-54-593. Five-time All Star.
SS – Bert Campaneris
Lots of competition here, but Campaneris’ longevity and ability to disrupt a game on the base paths wins out. Came up with the A’s in 1964 and put in 19 MLB seasons (A’s, Rangers, Angels, Yankees). Career: .259-79-646, with 649 stolen bases. Six-time All Star; six-times led league in stolen bases (high of 62 in 1968). Was tempted to go with Zoilo Versalles (two-time All Star and 1965 AL MVP), but his .242-95-471 in 12 seasons didn’t match up with Campaneris. Five-time All Star Leo Cárdenas (.257-118-689) was also in the mix.
OF – Tony Oliva
Came up with the Twins in 1962 (first full season in 1964). Played 15 MLB campaigns, all with the Twins. Career: .304-220-947, 86 stolen bases. 1964 AL Rookie of the Year; eight-time All Star; won AL batting title his first two full seasons (1964-65); won a third batting title in 1971; led league in hits five times and doubles four times; led AL in runs scored as a rookie; 1966 Gold Glove.
OF – Orestes “Minnie” Minoso
Came up in 1949 with the Indians and played in 17 MLB seasons (Indians, White Sox, Cardinals, Senators.) Played in five decades (Cameo appearances in 1976 AT age 50) and 1980 at age 54 with White Sox. Career: .298-186, 1,023, 205 stolen bases. Seven-time All Star; three-time stolen base leader; four times led his league in triples; led AL in base hits in 1960; three-time Gold Glover.
OF – José Canseco (No PED judgment here)
Came up with the A’s in 1985 and played 17 MLB seasons (A’s, Rangers, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays, Yankees, White Sox). Career: .266-462-1,407. AL Rookie of the Year (1986); AL MVP (1988); six-time All Star; four-time Silver Slugger winner; led league in home runs twice and RBI once. If you have a strong PED –aversion, go with José Cardenal here. Came up with the Giants in 1963, played 18 seasons (Giants, Angels, Indians, Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, Phillies, Mets, Royals – Did he ever unpack?) with a .275-138, 775 line, and 329 steals.
SP – Luis Tiant
Some good competition (Dolf Luque, Camilo Pascual, Liván Hernández, Mike Cueller), but we have to go with the only Cuban-born winner of 200+ games. Luis Tiant came up with the Indians in 1964 and pitched in 19 MLB seasons (Indians, Twins, Red Sox, Yankees, Pirates, Angels). Career: 229-172, 3.30 – 2,416 strikeouts. Three-time All Star; four-time 20-game winner; two-time league ERA leader; three-time league leader in shutouts.
RP – Aroldis Chapman
Came up with the Reds in 2010, still active (nine seasons, with Reds, Yankees and Cubs). Career: 30-24, 2.24 ERA, 236 saves – 798 strikeouts in 478 2/3 innings pitched. Five-time All Star.
José Fernández – Special Recognition
Cuban-born Fernández, who died in a boating accident in 2016 (at age 24), seemed on his way to a Hall of Fame career. In just his fourth MLB season, Fernández was a two-time All Star and had accumulated 38 wins (17 losses) and a 2.58 earned run average with 589 strikeouts in 471 1/3 innings pitched.
CURRENT ALL-TIME CUBAN-BORN MLB LEADERS
Games: Rafael Palmeiro (2,831); Tony Pérez (2,777); Bert Campaneris (2,328)
Hits: Rafael Palmeiro (3,020); Tony Pérez (2,732); Bert Campaneris (2,249)
Doubles: Rafael Palmeiro (585); Tony Pérez (505); José Canseco (340))
Triples: Bert Campaneris and Tony Taylor (86); Orestes “Minnie” Minoso (83)
Home Runs: Rafael Palmeiro (569); José Canseco (462)) Tony Pérez (379)
RBI: Rafael Palmeiro (1,835); Tony Pérez (1,652); José Canseco (1,407)
Stolen Bases: Bert Campaneris (649); José Cardenal (329); Tony Taylor (234)
Batting Avg.: Tony Oliva (.304); Orestes “Minnie” Minoso (.298); Alex Sanchez (.296)(minimum 1,000 at bats)
Games: Diego Seguí (639); Pedro Ramos (582); Luis Tiant (573)
Wins: Luis Tiant (229); Dolf Loque (194); Mike Cuellar (185)
ERA: Mike Cuellar (3.14); Dolf Luque (3.24); Luis Tiant (3.30) (minimum 500 IP)
CG: Dolf Luque (206); Luis Tiant (187); Mike Cuellar (172)
Shutouts: Luis Tiant (49); Mike Cuellar and Camilo Pascual (36)
Saves: Aroldis Chapman (236); Danys Báez (114); Diego Seguí (71)
Strikeouts: Luis Tiant (2,416); Camilo Pascual (2,167); Liván Hernández (1,976)
Cuban Players in the U.S. Major Leagues in 2018
José Abreu, 1B, White Sox
Yonder Alonso, 1B, Indians
Yeonis Céspedes, OF, Mets
Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Yankees
Nestor Cortez, Jr., LHP, Orioles
Odrisamer Despiagne, RHP, Angels
Almedmys Díaz, SS/3B, Blue Jays
Yandy Díaz, 3B/1B, Indians
Roenis Elias, LHP, Mariners
José Miguel Fernández, 1B/3B, Angels
Adolis García, OF, Cardinals
Yasmani Grandal, C, Dodgers
Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., SS/2B, Blue Jays
Yuli Gurriel, INF, Astros
Adeiny Hechavarria, SS, Yankees
Guillermo Heredia, OF, Mariners
José Iglesias, SS/3B, Tigers
Raisel Iglesias, RHP, Reds
Yoan López, RHP, Diamondbacks
Leonys Martín, OF, Indians
Aríel Miranda, LHP, Mariners
Yoán Moncada, 2B, White Sox
Kendrys Morales, 1B, Blue Jays
Cionel Pérez, LHP, Astros
Yasiel Puig, OF, Dodgers
Jorge Soler, OF, Royals
Primary Resources: Baseball-Reference.com; The Pride of Havana – A History of Cuban Baseball, by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria; Society for American Baseball Research.