In 1868 the Habana Baseball club formed. Before the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Cubs or the Red Sox they were enthusiastically playing league ball on the island of Cuba. And twice in the history of that place baseball has been an integral part of a revolution. Just after the civil war two Cuban Brothers found themselves released from jail in Mobile where they'd been put as part of the attempt to catch blockade runners after that city fell to the dreaded Yankees. And it was there they learned to play the game they took back with them. That and one bat and one ball and by 1898 the game was a mania that had a major part in the Spanish American War. The Spanish occupiers felt that the pointless playing of ball interfered with the pointless attending of Bull Fights, surely part of the Colonial Spanish Heritage. The Cubans felt otherwise and could see in a bull ring enough room for a baseball diamond . And then the Maine blew up, the war was quickly won by the United States and baseball was now their national sport. (Bull fighting virtually disappeared.) Leagues were formed and, at one point, the first “international” game was played when the team from a visiting American Naval Vessel played a local team. It was quite a social event, the home team won and a fine time was had by all. But even before that Cuban players, usually those attending university in the states were playing for semi pro teams. After graduation these players returned to their island with the newly developed plays they'd learned and formed leagues. By the late nineteenth century, three quarters of the male population played baseball on a fairly frequent basis. (It's easy to understand how the Spaniards, who'd gone to great difficulty to import Matadors, Picadors and, usually, the bull, were upset that this piece of imagined heritage wasn't accepted.)
From then until the mid thirties there was no evening and no free afternoons in which a game wasn't being played. Baseball, like soccer, has the simplicity of place and equipment. Not every bat has to be a Louisville Slugger and so what if the glove worn in the outfield was the same one used in the sugar cane field. There were always enough players for two sides and, thanks to the machetes used in the fields, a flield, if there wasn't one, could be easily made. But perhaps the most unusual thing was their determination to keep this an amateur sport. Even in the larger cities with ten to twenty thousand spectators, they were watching amateurs. However correct the uniforms, the equipment and the diamond, they remained amateurs. Even after prohibition in the United States ended, Cuba remained a popular destination. It was close, very inexpensive and there was lots to do. Gambling was legal, the casinos were large and welcoming and it was easily accessible to the whole Eastern Seaboard. Indeed until the great hurricane of 1935 you could take the train to within 90 miles of Habana and then the newly formed Pan American Airways could fly you the rest of the way.
Habana had the pleasantly shady reputation of Las Vegas in the fifties. (About which Debbie Reynolds once said, “Nobody got shot who wasn't supposed to.”) The hotels were deluxe, the tables only occasionally fixed, the Jai Alai Frontons were the craze and, if you felt like a taste of home, there was baseball seven days a week. Good baseball even if amateur. Sufficiently good that gamblers bet on the games, the casinos drew up odds on the local teams-as well as some that weren't so local-and you could not only place a bet but go see your team win or lose. In short, it was the proverbial “Sunny place for Shady People”. During World War Two it became THE place to go for a vacation-almost every other overseas destination was “unavailable”-and it had no competition. Please remember that it's not until the late 1940's that Las Vegas bloomed and, even then, Vegas was a long, long way from New York, Boston or Philadelphia. Habana was not. The party was non-stop, the rum delicious and the government only slightly crooked, rather like the games of chance in the casinos.
It was too good to last and it didn't. The last “freely” elected government under Fulgencio Batista was easily the worst. If it had only been corrupt in the usual ways things might have gone on a bit longer but between ties to organized crime, their attempt to shake down every legitimate business and legislation aimed at the poor and provinces, it was too much. Fidel Castro was a populist leader with leftist leanings who, finally, brought down the government and quickly established a communist regime with ties to Moscow and not Washington. Suffice to say the long existent “Open Door” policy slammed shut and Cuba went into a fifty year enforced coma. But one that almost, but not quite, included baseball.
That Cuban players had not gone to the United States in droves in the preceding thirty years had everything to do with segregation and nothing to do with their very real abilities. Easily 80% of Cubans were of anything from Black to Mestizo to multi-racial. (The only country that even approached the level of integration was Brasil.) This was anathema to American teams who had no black players, very few Hispanic players and none from the islands. That last, of course, changed but for all save one island, Cuba. Still, the racial question was a large one that had not really been completely resolved at the time of the Cuban revolution. Even the nation's capital was segregated as Southern Alabama. Legally no but in practice yes. The Cubans who might have come would have been very uncomfortable. And on two fronts. There's no winter on Cuba. For a people who lived a largely agrarian life, with an emphasis on being outdoors, even early fall would have been very uncomfortable
Just a quick bit of history. In the United States we'd like to believe that Castro was a bully, a demigod who came down from Oriente Province and repressed the people after the Batista Government was thrown out. The opposite is true. For a time the people were better off had more freedom and a higher standard of living than before. However, it didn't last. Poverty is the norm today and it may be the only place in the world where a De Soto is still a much prized car. While literacy is high, the people are not free to leave the island. Tourism provides much needed hard currency and one of the things to see is the excellence of Cuban baseball teams.
As with many other Eastern Bloc Nations, it was felt that the window through which the world would see them was that of sport. What had once been a pleasure now became mandated. In world competitions Cubans did well at basketball, boxing, gymnastics and, of course, baseball. But that's all they could do was look. For at least twenty years scouts from many teams have thought how nice it would be to have some of their players in, at least, their farm systems and probably in the major leagues. But recruitment was impossible. The few players who did defect worried about the fate of whatever families they'd left behind. As happens with most communist states, it goes from being a putative workers paradise to something that must be hidden as the realities are so far from the proclaimed virtues. Even before the (former) Berlin Wall was built one was acutely aware of being taken where others wanted one to go and seeing what was being shown, not what you might like to see. So it was in Cuba. The resorts and casinos set up for tourists (and their money) in no way reflected the general aspect of Cuba. Science and the Arts were emphasized but with no money to support them they foundered.
Until just now.
About two weeks ago Castro conceded that the “experiment” had failed. It may be the most stunning declaration since Lincoln freed the slaves and quite in that spirit. The Cuban government is now left without Soviet support as there's no Soviet Union or their satellites. Even the most ravening of countries that still practiced communism, Albania, gave it up. The market for their sugar cane is marginal and they have nothing much else to sell to a world economy. Castro disliked factories and so there are few. With little industry there is little economy.
Just when the door will finally open cannot be known but that they will is a given. And, among the first to leave will be the many, many fine players. Castro regarded anyone who played professional baseball as a “Baseball Slave”. Why they wouldn't prefer to stay in his “workers paradise” eluded him. After all, they were paid, and, by local standards well. 2,000 pesos a year.
What we can know is that Cuba will provide the next big influx of players following a tradition that has evolved over the past decades of island players coming to the United States. It will be interesting to see which agent first opens an office in Habana. It's rumoured that certain persons already have a rotating staff of people who are there as “tourists” but ones who love baseball and wander all over the island-at least as far as they're allowed to-seeing games. Lists of names are being made and circulated through the teams. What remains is to find out how Cuba is going to relax, inhale and let the world back in. There are some interesting problems to be overcome. For one, two generations have now grown up believing that the world (and in specific the United States) was their enemy. In the cities this may be an idea easily killed however in the villages and fields it will be more difficult. This isn't the sort of place where just the suggestion of more money will produce a client. These are a deeply loyal people who would be hesitant about leaving home to go places they've only vaguely heard of. State controlled media has kept knowledge of anywhere at a minimum. They may have heard of the Chicago, perhaps even the Cubs but it's as foreign to them as the Taj Mahal is to the average American.
One of the first problems is going to be the teams themselves. Suddenly they are going to be faced with a large number of players who will immediately form their own tight clique. They will not speak English, just baseball. You will have the forced march of two cultures that are in every way polar opposites.
It will be interesting to watch and, undoubtedly, will improve the game. But it will also provide another sport that comes to be dominated, or perhaps even more dominated, by an ethnic group. Even though it has stabilized since the strike and the steroid controversy, baseball does not occupy the beloved position it once held with the public. Will this infusion of players from one place help? Who knows but it does solve one problem; The next time expansion is on the table, Habana is a clear favourite.