Cuba–US: Baseball and the Cold War

GABRIEL MOLINA on how US Major League Baseball and the Eisenhower administration sabotaged professional baseball in Cuba for counter-revolutionary aims

Built in 1946, Estadio Latinoamericano, the home of the Havana Sugar Kings, is by far the largest ballpark in Cuba, with a capacity of 55,000. Known as the Colossus of Cerro and Gran Stadium, 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, the home of the Havana Sugar Kings, is by far the largest ballpark in Cuba, with a capacity of 55,000. Known as the Colossus of Cerro and Gran Stadium, 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/

Not even organized baseball escaped the many-faceted, relentless undeclared war the U.S. government has been waging against Cuba for the last almost half a century.

An alleged incident in Cerro Stadium on June 25, 1959 served as the pretext for Washington to cancel the island’s franchise for the Cuban Sugar Kings, a team in the Triple-A International League, the doorway to Major League baseball. It was not something that happened by chance or casually.

President Dwight David Eisenhower was no stranger to the attempts of the State Department and CIA to prevent Fidel Castro from completing his successful guerrilla campaign against the tyranny of General Fulgencia Batista and establishing a revolutionary program after taking state power. With his call for a general strike on the 1st of January, 1959 the tenacious Cuban leader frustrated the plan to install a civil-military junta to preserve the established order that had been in place since the beginnings of the XX century by U.S. financial interests linked to the Cuban bourgeoisie that was essentially a comprador bourgeoisie.

In the first months of 1959 the triumphant revolutionaries attempted to carry out their program without provoking hostility from Washington or being complicit with the bloody seven-year rule of Batista. But the conservative streak in the government inclined it to political, economic and social inaction. Nevertheless, the goals of this revolution that was coming both from the city to the countryside and from the countryside to the city developed mainly out of the radical agrarian reform program instituted in May by the group that had been working with Fidel starting on February 13 to take over the leadership of the government from José Miró Cardona, who had been Prime Minister up to that time and went almost immediately over to the opposing side. “The Agrarian Reform was the revolution’s Rubicon. A death sentence for our relations with the United States,” declared Raúl Castro, as President of the Republic, to Sean Penn.

Fidel Castro signs the 1959 Agrarian Reform Law.

Fidel Castro signs the 1959 Agrarian Reform Law.

The Agrarian Reform Law immediately attracted the wrath of the government of General Eisenhower and provoked the first public threats issued from Washington. However, already several weeks before that, in March and April, Vice-President Richard Nixon had convinced the President that Fidel Castro represented a danger to the United States and that it was necessary to commence actions to overthrow him.

Things escalated from there and on December 11, 1959 Richard Bissell, Deputy Director of the CIA wrote a memorandum to the Director, Allan Dulles that he “give serious consideration to the elimination [of] Fidel Castro.”

But Dulles made a crucial change to the proposal: he replaced the word “elimination” – a term that brought to mind assassination – with “removal from Cuba”; then he gave it a green light.”[2]

Starting then, the first subversive plan was devised and the CIA began recruiting people in Cuba and anywhere else to sabotage the revolution. And so began the desertions, explosions and incursions of airplanes from the U.S. dropping bombs from one end of the country to the other.

It so happened that on July 26, 1959, barely six months after the triumphal entry to Havana of the Rebel Army commanded by Fidel Castro, the commemoration of the sixth anniversary of the Storming of Moncada Barracks coincided with a baseball game taking place in the Gran Stadium of Havana between the Cuban Sugar Kings and Rochester Red Wings to decide the championship of the Triple-A International League, a step away from the Major Leagues.

To commemorate Cuba’s recently declared National Holiday, large numbers of peasants had been invited to the capital. Because the Cuban team was suffering financial losses, given that most people were too occupied with the heady events that gave rise to the revolution, Fidel called on the people to attend the game to help out the team and offered assistance to Bobby Maduro, the president of the baseball club that carried the flag for the country.

Barbudos players mingle with the Havana Sugar Kings

Barbudos players mingle with the Havana Sugar Kings

A meeting of the minds: Fidel meets with his battery mate, Camilo Cienfuegos (known as the Hero of Yaguajay)

A meeting of the minds: Fidel meets with his battery mate, Camilo Cienfuegos (known as the Hero of Yaguajay)

On the 24th the series kicked off with a well-attended game. There were 26,532 people in the stadium. Before the match with Rochester, that the Cubans won 4-3, Fidel organized an exhibition game in which the Prime Minister himself, wearing the uniform of the “Barbudos,” [“bearded ones” as the rebel army forces were often called – TS Ed.] pitched the full two-inning game against a team from the military police.

The next day, July 25, on the eve of the National Holiday on the anniversary of the Assault on Moncada Barracks, the Rebel Army purchased ten thousand tickets for its soldiers and peasants to attend the game and fill the stadium.

The game was tied at four runs in the eleventh inning when midnight struck. In the euphoria of the celebration, some soldiers fired shots into the air as part of the celebration. It is believed that a descending bullet nicked Frank Verdi of the Rochester team, who had been acting as third base coach. Many believed that right from the start it was another conspiracy against the young revolution begun six months earlier, since the umpires called the game off right then and there.

The next day, the Red Wings players and umpire Fred Guzetta refused to play, allegedly out of concern for the safety of the U.S. players.

The team’s director general, George Sisler Jr., son of a famous Major League ball player, made a hasty call to Frank Horton, a Republican Party politician, who was the president of the Rochester club and legal counsel for the International League. Horton ordered the players back to the U.S.

Days earlier, on July 20, the daily newspaper, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle had already joined the campaign against Cuba with an editorial titled “Castro’s Downfall” in which it was stated that U.S. tourists and businessmen were distancing themselves from the country. At the same time the newspaper reported that Bobby Maduro, president of the island’s club, was losing money and planning to sell it.

Fidel called Maduro and repeated his promise of two months before to continue providing assistance to maintain the club in the League, covering its debts, because of its importance for Cuban sports and recreation.

The press in the United States did not report this attitude of the Cuban authorities toward the sport that both peoples love, observed Howard Senzel in his book, Baseball and the Cold War. On the contrary, they asserted that they were trying to change the preferences of the Cuban people to soccer, and were bent on propagating the notion that the U.S. players should not continue playing in the Havana stadium because of that. Senzel analyzes it in his book, saying, “When someone has no concept of playing fair, you can’t expect them to clean up their act.”

The U.S. writer spent many hours investigating what happened and is convinced an injustice was committed against the Cuban Sugar Kings team that must be repaired.

A week before the game, on July 21, George Beahon, the Rochester Democrat reporter who covered the games of the city’s International League team, became a suspicious oracle:

“Sunday, July 26, the anniversary of the revolution, promises to be exciting but dangerous. The boss, Castro, has called on 50,000 citizens to invade Havana from the provinces and to bring their machetes. The general feeling of Cubans towards Americans, who they consider to be hyper-critical of the revolutionary government, is such that a handful of peasants armed with machetes and saturated with rum could spark an international incident.”[3]

Later, a media campaign was orchestrated to convince public opinion that it was dangerous to keep the Cuban team in the International League. It fit with the rest of the operation mounted against Cuba. The dispute between the two countries was becoming more acute as a result of the activities of the CIA that culminated in the 1961 invasion of Playa Giron and Playa Larga in the Bay of Pigs. The executives of the six teams in the League – Toronto, Montreal, Miami, Richmond, Columbus and Buffalo – said they did not want to return to Havana. Horton was a key player. On September 5, 1959 after Rochester finished fifth in the Junior World Series and the Sugar Kings won the cup, Rochester announced it would not be coming back to Cuba.

Effectively, the cold war had hit baseball. On July 8, 1960, after consulting with the Secretary of State, Christian Herter, and Ford Frick, commissioner of the Major Leagues, Mr. Frank Shaughnessy, president of the International League decided to transfer the franchise from Havana to Jersey City “to protect our ballplayers, given the situation there.”

When a reporter asked the flamboyant official what situation he was referring to, he replied: “Well, what they say is going on in Cuba.”

The Cuban government, newspapers, civil institutions, the owner of the club all protested in Cuba what Bobby Maduro called robbery, when it was Cuba’s presence that ensured the League’s truly international character. But it was of no use. This was obviously the culmination of a plan that would later be sealed with the decree saying no Cuban could play in organized baseball unless he repudiated his government, a prohibition that still applies.

Notes

  1. Brett Story & VideoNation, New York City, November 2008.
  2. Howard Senzel. Baseball and the Cold War, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, USA, 1977. Page 76
  3. Tim Weiner. Legacy of Ashes, The History of the CIA, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Random House Mondadori, Barcelona 2007. Page 158
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