Ex-pitcher Fidel Castro, the Casey Stengel of Cuba, returned to the dugout recently to direct an exhibition victory over a visiting team from Venezuela. Then, like Red Auerbach in fatigues, he probably lit a cigar to celebrate.
There is little Castro enjoys more these days than puffing away on Cuban stogies and watching the continuing success of his country's baseball program. Frequent Olympic and Pan American Games winners--Cuba is defending champion in both those competitions--the country has long been a bonanza for baseball talent.
Outfielders Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida were the first ones in this century, arriving from the island together in 1911 to play for the Cincinnati Reds. Marsans spent eight years in the majors and Almeida stayed for three.
They began a proud if sometimes limited exodus of talent, all of it examined in a new Total Sports book, "Smoke, The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball," by Mark Rucker and Peter C. Bjarkman.
The arrival in America of the two Cuban outfielders was not without controversy, coming at a time when baseball was still an all-white operation, systematically turning its back on players of color.
There is the story in "Smoke" of how Cincinnati officials, moving carefully to avoid any controversy, demanded evidence from Cuba that these two mysterious players were not black.
"We will not pay any Honus Wagner price for a pair of dark-skinned islanders," Reds president Garry Herrman cheerfully declared.
Satisfied that their origins met his standards, Herrman sent for the players. Imagine his shock when he went to meet them at the rail station and the first persons to hop off the train were a pair of porters, both of them very dark-skinned. Much to his relief, the Cubans turned out to be acceptably olive-skinned.
A year later, catcher Mike Gonzalez arrived with the Boston Braves. Like Marsans and Almeida, he was light-skinned enough not to offend baseball's tenuous status quo. Gonzalez put in time with Boston, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago and the New York Giants, sticking around for parts of 17 seasons.
He was also a savvy enough baseball man to coach third base for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1946. This is significant because Gonzalez is the guy who, quite sensibly, held up a stop sign for Enos Slaughter in the seventh game of the World Series. Slaughter, taking off from first base on a single by Harry Walker, ran right through the stop sign to score the Series' winning run.
The Cuban exodus remained rather constant, never a torrent of players but enough of them to leave an impression. Among the exports was Adolpho Luque, who pitched for 20 seasons in the majors and was 27-8 with a 1.93 earned run average for Cincinnati in 1923. Luque, working in the Mexican League, taught expatriate New York Giants pitcher Sal Maglie that close shaves did not occur only in barber shops.
The best Cuban player of his time was Martin Dihigo, whose dark skin relegated him to baseball's Negro Leagues, but whose accomplishments there earned him a place in the Hall of Fame.
By 1949, with baseball's color line shattered by Jackie Robinson, Cleveland had no problem importing Orestes "Minnie" Minoso, who unlike the early Cuban imports, was not close to white.
Minoso played for 17 seasons and appeared in four decades, although his cameo appearance in 1976 was more a token than anything else.
Because baseball loves nicknames, Minoso quickly became Minnie. It seemed like a sensible play off his last name, but like so much else connected with Cuban baseball, it comes with a story and, in fact, several versions.
First, teammate Joe Gordon and then manager Lou Boudreau were credited with attaching the name to Minoso. The player, however, offered a more intriguing origin to it.
In his autobiography, Minoso claimed he was in his dentist's office when he heard the doctor call out for Minnie. That must be me, he thought, heading straight for the chair.
Only afterward did Minoso learn that the office receptionist's name was Minnie.