Monday, April 14, 2014

The First Cuban Wave

The April 15 anniversary of Jackie Robinson's big league debut is a reminder that breaking the color barrier also opened the door to the major leagues for Cuban players--most of the best of whom were black.  The first wave of Cubans in major league baseball that began in the 1950s effectively ended in the mid-1960s as a result of Castro's slamming shut the exit door for Cubans less than enamored with his dictatorial rule.

The First Cuban Wave

At the time the Brooklyn Dodgers went to spring training in Havana in 1947 with Jackie Robinson certain to make their opening day roster, Cuba already had a long history of highly-competitive leagues dating to the early twentieth century that produced outstanding players clearly capable of playing at the major league level. Unlike in the United States, however, the Cuban leagues were not segregated, and the fact that many of the best Cuban players were "colored" put them off the map as far as major league baseball was concerned. The color of their skin meant that Cuban-born Martin Dihigo, Jose Mendez and Cristobal Torriente never played in the major leagues, but went to Cooperstown entirely on the basis of terrific careers in the Negro Leagues that were over before Branch Rickey took his shot at integrating (white) organized baseball with Robinson.

By the time Jackie stepped foot onto the Ebbets Field diamond in 1947, only 40 of the 8,039 players who had played in the big leagues had come from Cuba.  Given that they were born into a society where interracial couplings were neither unusual nor ostracized, it is quite likely that at least a handful of those 40 Cuban-born players were at least partially black; they would not, however, have been able to play in the Big Time if they could not pass for white.  If in the pre-integration era major league teams may have been willing to overlook the "swarthy" complexions of some of those Cuban players, they also gave them relatively short shrift in their opportunities to make good.  Of the 40 Cubans who played before Robinson got his chance, only two had appreciable time in the major leagues:  outfielder Armando Marsens, who played 655 games over eight years between 1911 and 1918, and right-hander Dolf Luque--the most prominent Cuban player the big leagues had yet to see, celebrated as "The Pride of Havana"--who had a 20-year big league career that ended in 1935 with a lifetime 194-175 record and a career value of 43.2 pitching wins above replacement.  When he pitched for Cincinnati, Luque was arguably the second-best pitcher in the National League after Dazzy Vance in the first half of the 1920s.

Major league integration proved the catalyst for an unprecedented influx of players from Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Minnie Minoso who made it for good as an outfielder with the Chicago White Sox in 1951. One of baseball's premier players over the next ten years, Minoso had a borderline Hall of Fame career; he was reconsidered by the Veterans Committee for enshrinement as recently as 2012. Certainly once Minoso became a star, Cubans quickly emerged as a new talent pool for the major leagues. The original Washington Senators--the one major league club that scouted Cuban players before integration--were ahead of the field in bringing to the major leagues talented players from the island nation, including pitchers Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos (neither was black), shortstop Zoilo Versalles and outfielder Tony Oliva, who they signed the same year the franchise moved to Minnesota and became the Twins.  Pascual was one of the best right-handers of his generation, leading the league in strikeouts each of the first three years the team played in Minnesota; Versalles won the MVP award in 1965 when the Twins went to the World Series; and Oliva led the American League in batting average in each of his first two seasons--1964 and 1965 (not including 16 cups of coffee before that)--before debilitating leg and knee injuries ultimately derailed a career that seemed destined for Hall of Fame honors.

By the mid-1960s there were about 30 Cuban-born players in major league baseball in any given season, making them the dominant foreign nationals in the game.  Pascual, Oliva, shortstops Bert Campaneris and Leo Cardenas, southpaw Mike Cuellar and right-hander-with-the-funky-delivery Luis Tiant took their place among baseball's best players that decade and the next.  Second basemen Tony Taylor, Tito Fuentes and Cookie Rojas; outfielders Tony Gonzalez and Jose Cardinal; catchers Joe Azcue and Paul Casanova; and pitchers Ramos, Diego Segui and Orlando Pena had long and distinguished big league careers.  And then there was Tony Perez of Big Red Machine fame, who broke in with the Reds in 1964 and is so far the only Cuban-born player in the Hall of Fame to have played in the major leagues.  It should be noted that all of these players were signed as free agents and had left Cuba for American diamonds before or in the first chaotic year or two after Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution.

Castro's crackdown on political opposition and Cuba's vibrant (albeit with a big dose of corruption) private sector, suppression of civil rights and liberties, and imposition of stringent travel restrictions making it difficult to leave the island nation led to a lost generation of Cuban players for major league baseball.  The Cuban generation most affected, because they came of age in the years when the Castro regime was most repressive and political tensions with the United States at their highest, were those born between 1950 and 1970--only 17 of whom played in the major leagues.  That compares to 49 born between 1930 and 1950 who wore big league uniforms.  After peaking with 32 Cubans playing in the major leagues in 1968, by 1975 there were only 14, only 8 in 1980, and a mere 3 Cubans in the big leagues in 1985.  After Tiant and Perez retired, Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro--both of whose big league careers started in the mid-1980s--were next as the first prominent post-Castro Cuban-born players in the major leagues, but both grew up in the States after their families had fled Castro's Cuba on "freedom flights" organized by the US and accepted by the dictator as a way to defuse dissent.

It would be more than two decades after the early years of Castro's crackdown, however, before a second wave of Cuban-born players began to make their way into the major leagues.  While players in the first wave found themselves cut off from returning home and became exiles--often separated from their parents and extended families--the second wave of Cuban players had to chance the risks of defection where a failed attempt could cost them their baseball careers in Cuba (certainly on the national team that traveled abroad), their freedom, and even their lives--and they too were separated from their families, in some cases wives and children. There are currently 16 Cuban-born players in the major leagues.  Two of them, Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes and the White Sox' Alexei Ramirez hit late game-winning home runs for their teams on Sunday, April 13.

No comments:

Post a Comment