Pan Am Games 2015: Toronto and Havana sporting links

The two cities share a rich and legendary baseball history but since 1959 have traversed radically different paths in the concept and practice of sport

By TONY SEED*

The 2015 Pan Am Games, being hosted by Toronto and with the celebration of friendship amongst the peoples of the Americas and the Caribbean as one of its positive themes, evokes a memory of the sporting links between the cities of Toronto and Havana, which date back to 1954.

During most of the 1950s the Havana Sugar Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs were two of the flagship franchises in baseball’s International League, classified as AAA, a rung below US Major League Baseball (MLB).

Between 1954 to 1960 baseball matches in Toronto between the visiting Sugar Kings and the Maple Leafs were premium events at Maple Leaf Stadium, the classic, long-gone ball park located down by Tip Top Tailors at the southwest corner of Bathurst St and Fleet St (now Lakeshore Blvd) on the Toronto waterfront. The stadium seated 20,000 people and boasted box seats practically on the field, a real dugout, and a fabulously perfect green lawn and infield dirt. “It was the place to be,” notes Toronto historian William Hunter.

Built in 1946, Estadio Latinoamericano is by far the largest ballpark in Cuba, with a capacity of 55,000. The entire grandstand is covered, and there are open bleachers in the outfield. It is the home of Los Industriales and the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame | http://ballparkdigest.com/

Built in 1946, Estadio Latinoamericano is by far the largest ballpark in Cuba, with a capacity of 55,000. The entire grandstand is covered, and there are open bleachers in the outfield. It is the home of Los Industriales and the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame | http://ballparkdigest.com/

The home stadium of the Sugar Kings was the historic El Gran Estadio del Cerro (now Estadio Latinoamericano and sometimes called Gran Stadium), which seated some 30,000 spectators and, since 1971, 55,000. The Sugar Kings wore blue and red, a combination of the colours of the top Cuban league teams of the time, Havana and Almendares. Sugar Kings games grew famous for pregame entertainment that included beauty pageants, fashion shows and clowns, and always live music.

No ordinary minor league teams, both Havana and Toronto were top contenders for the championship during this period and boasted amazing attendance. The Sugar Kings won the Governors’ Cup, the championship of the IL once, in 1959. The Maple Leafs won the cup four times, and played in the championship series eight times. They lost to Rochester in 1955 and 1956, to Montreal in 1958, and won the IL in 1960. [1]

Mple Leaf Stadium-Tip Top Tailors

Maple Leaf Stadium, built in 1926, at the foot of Bathurst Street in Toronto

Although both teams were independently owned – by Roberto “Bobby” Maduro of Miami and the Bacardi family, and Jack Kent Cooke, a radio magnate – in form and spirit, professional baseball in the two cities constituted a farm league that, for all practical purposes, acted as a colonial outpost for the United States, a situation that persisted until 1959 and the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. They were organized as a feeder of talent and revenues for US professional baseball.

The Sugar Kings began life in 1946 as the Havana Cubans in Florida before being purchased and moved to Havana by Maduro in 1954, and were affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. Toronto began play in 1896 and was affiliated with the Cleveland Indians.

Both rosters were stocked with American players, coaches and managers. However, while Canadians were noticeably absent from Toronto’s roster, the Sugar Kings included some talented Cuban players such as Mike Cuellar, who started for the Sugar Kings and later won 185 games and a Cy Young Award in the major leagues, and Leo Cardenas, who played 16 seasons in the majors after wearing the Sugar Kings uniform for a time. (A young Luis Tiant, winner of 229 games in the majors, failed to make the team.) One player, the square-jawed Rocky Nelson, a hard-hitting first baseman with a peculiar batting stance, starred for both the Sugar Kings and then the Maple Leafs.

The Sixties

Both the Havana and Toronto franchises were killed directly or indirectly by US professional baseball. Neither lasted through the 1960s.

Both Havana and Toronto have strong baseball tradition dating back to the 1800s. This postcard how Maple Leaf Stadium, circa 1908.

Both Havana and Toronto have strong baseball traditions dating back to the 1800s. This postcard shows Maple Leaf Stadium, circa 1908.

On January 1, 1959 Cuba made a reality of the enjoyment of their right to self-determination by destroying the foundations of the neo-colonial regime maintained on the island by the United States. That fall the Sugar Kings had their greatest success when they claimed the International League crown. They then faced the American Association champion Minneapolis Millers, a team that included Carl Yastrzemski, in what was known as the Little World Series. The seven-game series, played in Cuba because of the cold in Minnesota, was attended by President Fidel Castro and won by the Sugar Kings in a hard fought, seven games series.

The team began the next season in Havana, but the United States imposed stiff economic sanctions against Cuba with the express goal of causing “hunger, despair and the overthrow of government,” as stated in an official US State Department document dated 6 April 1960.

Three months later, on 8 July 1960 then Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, under pressure from US Secretary of State Christian Herter, ordered the Sugar Kings be moved to Newark, New Jersey, shortly before the ill-famed Bay of Pigs invasion. The order came while the team was on a road trip in the US. They kept eleven of the best young Cuban players with them, who were given the “it’s our way or the highway” alternative. Nevertheless, such players as Asdrubal Baró and Luis Zayas, a second baseman and coach with the Cuban national team until 2012, chose to stay in Cuba. In a 2013 interview with the New York Times, Zayas said: “The door was open to the big leagues, and I had to give that up, which was very, very difficult. But I knew that I could not live anywhere but Cuba.” He added that a Ku Klux Klan rally he witnessed during a season in Savannah, Ga., also weighed on him.

Renamed the Jersey Chiefs, the team folded within a year. The choice of the state was not fortuitous. New Jersey became improbably Miami North, a base for terrorists of Cuban origin financed by rich émigré businessmen. It was from here that the assassination of a Cuba diplomat at the United Nations in 1979, of the Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC, and the raid across the border to bomb the Cuban consulate in Montreal in 1980, were carried out.

The death of the Toronto franchise took another seven years. While owning the Maple Leafs baseball team, Cooke tried to use it as collateral to obtain his own Major League Baseball franchise. He tried to purchase the St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Athletics, and Detroit Tigers when they came up for sale, and in 1959 he became one of the founding team owners in the Continental League, a proposed third major league for professional baseball. The league disbanded a year later without ever staging a game. Within weeks of being turned down for the first private Toronto TV license in 1960, Cooke crossed the border and quickly became a US citizen when both houses of Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a waiver of the usual five-year waiting period. He purchased a number of major US sports franchises – Los Angeles Wolves (United Soccer Association),Washington Redskins (NFL), the Los Angeles Lakers (NBA), and the Los Angeles Kings (NHL) – and cable television monopolies and built The Forum in Inglewood, California and FedExField nearLandover, Maryland.

He would sell the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1964. The franchise folded in 1967, when attendance was only 67,000 – a mere 802 fans attended their last game – due to the prevalence of US televised baseball, the deterioration of the Toronto ballpark, the demand of big capital in Toronto and the sports media for “major league” status, and other factors. [2]

Two different paths

Since then, the two cities of Toronto and Havana and their countries have traveled radically different paths in baseball and the concept and practice of sport – sport as a privilege, or sport as a right.

Take the experience of Toronto. Maple Leaf Stadium was torn down in 1967 for a commercial project, rather than being renovated.  In 1976 MLB awarded an American League franchise to a monopoly group including the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Labatt brewery and the then owner of the Globe and Mail; the Toronto Blue Jays leveraged political and media clout and record attendance at a converted football stadium, Exhibition Park, into the frenzied construction of the SkyDome, a huge facility built with $600 million in public funds, which opened on June 3, 1989. It featured the first retractable roof in the world and a hotel. The design and construction was a great accomplishment for the workers and technical personnel, several of whom were tragically killed and forgotten.

In 1992-93, the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series, the first franchise from outside the U.S. to appear in and win the so-called World Series, and the fastest American League expansion team to do so, winning in their 16th year. The executive, management and coaches were American and all the players were from the United States or Latin America. The Blue Jays have not made the playoffs again since 1993.

On the other hand, taking advantage of a loophole in the MLB draft rules, the Blue Jays were amongst the first franchises to open a baseball “academy” in the Dominican Republic – and now throughout Latin America – to strip mine very young talent. Forming an alliance with agent Epy Guererro, they funnelled north a steady stream of talented youth they were able to sign for a song; shortstops Alfredo Griffin and Tony Fernandez and outfielder George Bell, all natives of San Pedro de Macoris, were followed by some 65 major leaguers from this small centre, including Sammy Sosa. Many were infielders, especially skilled shortstops. The establishment of “academies” – also known as “sugarball” – made the Dominican national baseball leagues superfluous to the needs of US baseball, and were terminated. The ballplayers begin as barely children and sign up contracts with the clubs that invest in their training, hence their future economic conditions in US professional baseball remains tied. Today over 50 per cent of all minor leaguers in the USA are from the Dominican Republic, and the Toronto Blue Jays system is second to none in steroid and illegal drugs tragically used by young prospects, who give up living in their home land to be able to play in the so-called “best baseball of the world.”

Paradoxically, this franchise from a developed country has invested millions in “academies” and an extensive scouting network in Latin America, yet despite cynically marketing themselves as “Canada’s team,” it has fielded only a handful of Canadian players in the past 38 years. Moreover, it does not object when MLB prevents Canadian major league professionals from playing for Canada’s national team in such international competition as the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games.

In November 2004, the Blue Jays, now owned by Rogers Communication, bought the SkyDome for $30 million (Canadian) or US$25 million – a sweet deal indeed for the Rogers investors. That’s a 73 per cent discount from the $110 million that Sportsco (a Chicago-based holding company) had paid in 1999 following the Bob Rae government’s privatization of the SkyDome, and a whopping 95 per cent off SkyDome’s initial $600 million price tag ($913 million in 2012 dollars). Rogers thus gained control of the largest entertainment venue in the city. The outcome of professional baseball in Toronto is a multi-billion dollar stream of revenue being diverted from the public treasury to the vaults of the international financial oligarchy. The Air Canada Centre (NBA, NHL), BMO Stadium (MLS) and the Mastercard Centre (Maple Leafs NHL hockey) are gold-plated assets cut from the same golden fleece. This is exactly the kind of scandalous outcomes the thieves ruling Ontario hope to achieve with their privatization of public services and assets  – not to mention the “legacy” of the Pan Am Games facilities.

By 2003 the number of professional sports teams in the Toronto marketplace overall had increased from four in 1995 to 24. Despite this enhanced breadth, evidence suggests that ownership is dominated by two private monopoly groups: Rogers and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE).

During this period, governments at all levels arbitrarily began demanding a “user pay” approach, a double tax, for the use of public sports and recreational  grounds, fields and arenas and even for for youth to participate in school sports, despite the opposition of amateur sports bodies, teams and families. This anti-social offensive involving billions of dollars transferred to private monopolies and the politicization of public space by the privileged few was never never presented for discussion by the polity. 

Despite the existence of two MLB franchises in Toronto and Montreal (moved to Puerto Rico, then Washington by MLB), and minor pro franchises in such cities as Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver, less than 20 Canadians are competing this year in the “major leagues”; youth and adult registration in organized baseball in Canada has been in steady decline since the 1990s; national competitions in baseball, softball, and fast pitch are few and far between; and success in international competition by the national team, though competitive, has been rare. When Canada defeated the USA at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, an incredulous media dubbed it “the Miracle on Grass.” Successive annexed federal governments and MLB have pressured Baseball Canada to be a mere funnel seeking out and providing raw talent for corporate or commercial sport and the US NCAA. Much needed sports infrastructure is financed not to facilitate mass participation in sport and recreation as a right of the Canadian people, but as part of neo-liberal, pay the rich schemes.

The Cuban route

Photo shows a full-wall mural of Fidel Castro in the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame showing his batting stance in front of a large Cuban flag, with palm trees and white doves. Photo by John Moist

Photo shows a full-wall mural of Fidel Castro in the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame showing his batting stance in front of a large Cuban flag, with palm trees and white doves. Photo by John Moist

The triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 brought about a radical change in the concept and practice of sport, and baseball was no exception. The 14th of January 1962 Resolution 83-A, abolishing the US-style professional league and the buying and selling of athletes, witnessed the rebirth of popular amateur leagues and the beginning of the national series that has become part of the lives of Cubans.

Sigfredo Barros, the longtime baseball writer for Granma, told the New York Times: “The Cuban revolution was a success, and we forgot the professionals. We started to love the National Series.”

The Cuban National League currently consists of seventeen teams, divided into four divisions. Ballpark sizes range from 10,000 capacity to 55,000. Teams sometimes play in alternate parks, some very small and in rural areas, in order to reach more remote fans; in 2011, the 17 teams played in a total of 40 parks.

Not until the abolition of the US-style professional league and mercantilism had Cuban baseball nor any of the other sports achieved the singular quality they have today. Success of the national teams from this small island nation in international competition has been consistent, despite the intensified poaching of athletic talent by the US Major Leagues. Cuba has also provided scores of baseball and other coaches to other countries to assist the development of their sport. Thanks to their Revolution, the practice of sports and participation as spectators are among rights of the people enjoyed by all, and the battle to develop a sound and strong sports movement within everyone’s reach as a patrimony, wealth and right of all human beings was launched.

Today in Havana, Estadio Latinoamericano, constructed in 1946, is the home to one of Cuba’s top teams, Los Industriales, ten time winners of the National Series, and the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame. Tickets cost about five cents. The SkyDome has its videotron, but in Havana “The team has a great band that provides very danceable music when Los Industriales are at bat,” notes the blog, ballparkdigest.com.

2015.Cuba Pan Am TorontoToday, the sporting links and heartfelt friendship between the people of Cuba and Canada continues to be pronounced in baseball. Baseball Canada and the Cuban Baseball Federation maintain concrete links and technical and other exchanges. A few Cuban coaches and players now militate in Canada. A Cuban junior team, called the Canada Cuba Goodwill Tour, is presently touring the Maritimes with the theme for friendship first. Organizer Dennis Woodworth has taken 12 teams from across Canada to Cuba over the last two years and has over 16 teams going in 2016, including teams from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and even a team from the U.S. this winter.

The Pan Am game between Canada and Cuba on Tuesday, July 14th at the new President’s Choice baseball complex in Ajax is virtually sold out.

See you there!

*Tony Seed is co-author with Curtis Coward of The Kids’ Baseball Book (Halifax: New Media Publications, 1994).

Endnote

1 Toronto was so good over the years that Mlb.com has named five Toronto Maple Leafs teams to the 100 greatest minor league teams of all times, 1902, 1918, 1920, 1926 and 1960, when they won 100 games.

2 The Toronto Maple Leafs continues to operate in Pawtucket, Rhode Island as a Boston Red Sox affiliate. Since 1969, the year after the demise of the AAA Leafs, a new Toronto Maple Leafs began play as an amateur team belonging to the Ontario-only Intercounty Baseball League. The team continues to play at Christie Pits to this day.

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