Kit Krieger went to visit an old friend last month. He boarded a plane, landed at José Martí International Airport in Havana and made his way to a colorful and compact neighborhood called Cerro, where he found the familiar three-bedroom apartment on the second floor.
Inside, there he was, wearing a Washington Nationals cap, a big cigar poking from his mouth. The same but different.
“It was Connie,” Krieger said. “I mean, he looked like Connie.”
But the old man seated in the wheelchair didn’t show any signs of recognition. There was 102 years of life there, a man who spawned superlatives in two languages and in two countries, who struck out Mantle and Williams and all the rest, who Life magazine once called the “most implausible ballplayer in the U.S.,” who lived through a revolution and inspired generations of Cubans.
Connie Marrero, the oldest living former major league baseball player, had withered to maybe 80 pounds. He no longer smoked the cigar, Krieger said, just moistened it and let it roll around between his lips, letting the flavor take him somewhere else. He couldn’t see and couldn’t talk.
“But it was Connie,” Krieger said.
Washington in the 1950s was a time when the newsprint and the televisions were black and white but the prose was colorful. The writers held nothing back when it came to Conrado “Connie” Marrero, a squat right-handed junk pitcher who came to the Washington Senators as a curiosity and left as a fan favorite.
They called Marrero “the Cuban cutie,” a “muscle-bound little gnome,” “the ageless Cuban,” “a real pixie,” and Chico — coined “by sportswriters who had trouble spelling Corrado [sic],” according to one newspaper account. They often quoted him phonetically in an exaggerated cartoon-like dialect (“Me peetch gude”) and seemed infatuated with the big cigar, thick accent and unusual physique. Shirley Povich, the Washington Post columnist, compared him with a fire hydrant — “as easy to step over as step around.”
“He was a chubby guy, not very tall,” Bob Wolff, the Senators’ broadcaster from 1947 to 1960, recalled recently. “He looked like anything but a pitcher. But he sure threw like a pitcher.”
Marrero was a bright spot on a bad team. He didn’t reach the majors until he was just a few days shy of 39, an age most ballplayers were well into retirement. The Washington journalist Bob Addie once wrote that Marrero “might have become a Hall of Famer had he been plucked at a younger age.”
In just his fifth big league game, Marrero struck out Boston’s Ted Williams with a dancing knuckleball. According to specious news accounts, he patted himself on the chest as he walked off the mound, saying, “Gude. Me want more money.”
Three decades later, a Post reporter visited Cuba and talked to Marrero about facing Williams. He told one of his favorite stories, about another game in which Williams went deep twice. The old pitcher would never forget: once off a slider, once off a knuckler.
“After the game, he put his arm around me under the stands and said, ‘This was my day,’ ” Marrero recalled. “I told Williams, ‘Every day is your day.’ ”
The respect was apparently mutual. Not a lot of pitchers back then taught the ball to do the jitterbug en route to the plate. “That guy throws you everything except the ball,” Williams reportedly said.
Marrero closed his rookie season with a six-hit shutout that knocked the Red Sox out of the American League pennant hunt. The next April he struck out nine and pitched a one-hitter against the Athletics. He opened that 1951 season, in fact, with five straight complete games and went the distance in 12 of his first 14 outings. He was named an all-star that year, at the time the oldest player to make his all-star debut. Then in 1952, he tossed 16 complete games in 22 starts. With barely any run support and an unimpressive supporting cast, Marrero compiled a 39-40 record with a 3.67 ERA in five seasons with the Senators.
They talked for years about Marrero’s stuff, not his stats. He had a herky-jerky pitching motion that drove hitters batty. The delivery was unlike anything baseball had seen before — “he resembles an orangutan heaving a 16-pound shot,” wrote Life magazine.
And the pitches were hard to describe. Journalists would ask him what he was throwing and Marrero reportedly told them, through an interpreter, “Everything but my cigar.”
American reporters coined his fanciful pitch El Curvo and predicting the movement was pointless. He liked to shake off the catcher’s signs, refusing to throw a fastball and pointing a finger at his chest, as if to say, Leave it to me. Marrero tossed a three-hit shutout his rookie season against the Tigers in which his catcher claimed Marrero didn’t throw a single fastball.
Opposing managers and hitters all had different strategies for facing such an unorthodox pitcher.
“You got to wait that little runt out because he likes to work fast,” Dizzy Dean once said.
“That junk he gives you to swing at on his first pitch is a helluva sight better than his next pitch,” countered Casey Stengel. “And if he gets two strikes on you, you just might as well be using a newspaper to bat with because you ain’t gonna do no good with your bat.”
It might not have really mattered.
“He wouldn’t give his mother a good pitch to hit at,” his teammate Pete Runnells once said.
Krieger was a retired teacher working on behalf of the teachers union in British Columbia when he first visited Cuba in 1997. He was fascinated — and hooked.
He’s also a longtime member of Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), a devoted group of seamheads with a passion for the game’s numbers, details and nuances. In 1999, he opened a phonebook, found Marrero’s name and in a poor attempt at Spanish, connected with the former Senators pitcher.
Two years later, he began leading tour groups, largely consisting of fellow SABR members. Visiting with Marrero was a staple of the trip. Every year, the old pitcher would wear his guayabera shirt, chomp on his cigar and charm fans with his near-perfect recall of games that were a half-century old.
Perhaps trying to save money, perhaps trying to unearth hidden talent — likely both — Senators owner Clark Griffith led the majors in Caribbean ballplayers. In Washington, Manager Bucky Harris was initially wary of Marrero, but according to Life, “the guy was worth keeping, Harris decided, as a mascot if nothing else.”
From a 1950 wire service story: “The Korean war is getting hotter and so might be the Washington Senators . . . Bucky Harris will use this summer seven draft-exempt, safe, sound and sane Cubans. . . . Bucky is delighted with Marrero, Moreno, Consuegra, Pascul, Ullrich, Ramos and Miranda even if their names are hard to spell.” (These were the times, jingoism was interchangeable with patriotism. Another wire service story noted that one Cuban player “is said to understand several English words like “money,” “eat” and “more money.”)
The first Cuban-born player reached the majors in 1911, but in the early 1950s, many in baseball were still getting accustomed to players of a darker shade. According to one Post account, by way of a compliment, pitcher Bob Feller described Marrero as “something you’d expect to see under a sombrero in Mexico, not pitching in the major leagues.”
Fidel Castro wouldn’t rise to power until 1959 and by all accounts, Marrero and the Senators’ fellow Cubans encountered few troubles. “We never had any problems in Washington, D.C.,” said fellow Senators pitcher Camilo Pascual, originally from Havana.
Players like Marrero and Pascual, in fact, were among the best parts about showing up to Griffith Stadium in the ’50s. Wrote Povich: “Eef Conrado Marrero, the Nats bully boy from Havana, never wins another major league game, the good people of Cuba should nevertheless erect some kind of a plaque in his honor as their finest goodwill ambassador.”
Still, there were questions about Marrero from the day he arrived. The team initially said it signed a 34-year-old pitcher from its Havana club in the Florida International League, where Marrero had gone 25-8 in 1949. But the Senators knew he was older, and pitched only once every seventh day.
When asked his age, he often pointed to his uniform number: 22. “Me old enough but not yet too old,” he told the Post’s Morris Seigel in 1951. In his third season, the Saturday Evening Post said he was “positively thirty-five, absolutely thirty-seven, indisputably forty-three, and definitely forty-two.”
Marrero’s background was similarly a mystery. The language barrier prevented reporters from delving too deep. If they had — and if Marrero engaged — they’d have learned that he was born to a struggling farmer in a small town on the island’s northern coast, the fourth of eight siblings. He stopped attending school when he was 12 to work, driving ox-pulled carts that carried raw sugar cane from the fields to processing mills.
He was a standout baseball player in his teens and in his 20s, even while still running his father’s farm, he blossomed into one of Cuba’s most recognizable players. They called him El Premier and also El Guajiro (The Hillbilly), and he starred on the Cuban national team that won the amateur world championship in 1939 and ’40.
“He was a national hero,” said Pascual, a seven-time all-star himself.
Marrero didn’t sign his first professional contract until his mid-30s, and posted a 71-26 record in three seasons with his Florida International League team before the Senators invited him to their 1950 spring training in Orlando.
He hid his age, worried the Senators would balk if they knew the truth. As Marrero’s career wound down, The Post’s Povich dedicated nearly an entire column to the mystery. It began: “The past, which there is plenty of in the case of Conrado Eugenio Ramos Marrero, the Nats’ favorite Cuban, began catching up with him today.”
A Cuban man came through town, Povich reported, and told the Senators that Marrero was actually 42. Harris, the manager, confronted Marrero, who insisted the man was lying. He was 43.
The Senators released him in January 1955, to the chagrin of the sports literati in town. “The Nats, since he has been with them, never were as good a ballclub as he was a pitcher,” Povich wrote.
The stories never got old, but Krieger would return from his Vancouver home to Havana at least once a year and could see his friend, well into his 90s, aging bit by bit. Marrero clearly cherished his time in the majors so Krieger began reaching out to Marrero’s contemporaries, asking them to write letters and share their old memories.
Every year Krieger would show up and read them aloud, kind words from Tommy Lasorda, Yogi Berra, George Kell, Whitey Ford and Harmon Killebrew, among others. Mickey Vernon remembered Marrero giving his newborn daughter a bracelet. Mel Parnell recalled how his Boston teammates would return from the batter’s box openly lamenting Marrero’s slider. Duane Pillette wrote that he remembered Marrero as a “a little guy with a heart shaped like a baseball.”
The old pitcher toed the rubber one final time. He was 87 years old, and the opponent of the Cuban national team was the Baltimore Orioles. Marrero was tasked with opening the historic 1999 exhibition game in Havana with a ceremonial pitch.
Unlike many of his Cuban contemporaries, Marrero returned to the small island nation when Major League Baseball was done with him. “I stayed here because my parents were here and they were old,” he once explained.
He did not hang up his glove until age 46. He worked as a scout and coach, staying on the island through the 1959 revolution and serving as a pitching instructor well into his 80s. He taught thousands of young players. When Livan Hernandez was younger, Marrero was the one who fixed his curveball. That same day Hernandez threw a no-hitter, and it was the same pitch that would help keep Hernandez in the majors for 17 seasons.
“In Cuba, everybody knows this guy,” Hernandez says. “He’s like the god of pitching.”
Before the Orioles faced the Cubans, Marrero technically was tasked with throwing only the first pitch. But a showman likes the stage. He fired the first pitch. Then a second. And then a third. Those were just warmup tosses because he dared Baltimore slugger Brady Anderson to step to the plate. Marrero had everyone’s attention, including Fidel Castro, Orioles owner Peter Angelos and baseball commissioner Bud Selig, seated together in a box just a few yards away.
Anderson looked confused as Marrero threw a curveball for a strike. Then came a pair of fastballs. Finally, Anderson lifted the bat off shoulder and tried to bunt Marrero’s curve. It was fouled back. Marrero’s last out.
Krieger last visited Havana in February and doesn’t know if he’ll see Marrero again. The pitcher turns 103 next month. After years in which Marrero lived on a meager pension from the Cuban government — less than $8 a month — Krieger began making phone calls. Eventually, after a variety of hoops and hurdles, players union officials agreed to give Marrero a special stipend, and he now receives $10,000 annually.
In recent years, Marrero fell and broke a hip, underwent an unsuccessful cataract surgery and just four months ago suffered a stroke. He’s on a liquid diet, and a caring grandson named Rogelio keeps close watch to make sure he doesn’t accidentally swallow bits of tobacco from the ever-present cigar.
As a young boy, Marrero used to swipe his father’s cigars and began partaking daily at 18. By time he reached Washington, it was practically part of his uniform, as essential as his glove. “I don’t think I ever saw him without one in his mouth,” recalled Wolff, the Senators’ broadcaster.
Long after his career ended, Marrero told a Post reporter, “I smoke these cigars to keep my arm young.” But that can’t be the secret, right? Something so simple, so counterintuitive?
“He was asked that question once and he answered: ‘I was never a saint and I’ve smoked tobacco since I was 18,’ ” his grandson explained in an e-mail. “ ‘Maybe the best way to reach my age is knowing how to live and do it in the best way possible, without hurting anyone and without getting involved in other people’s business. Everyone has to plow with your own donkeys.’ ”
On that last visit, Krieger, 65, read aloud from the latest batch of letters. Marrero didn’t respond. Krieger returned the next day, sat next to Marrero and squeezed his old friend’s hand. It felt like Marrero squeezed back.
“I think he knew I was there,” Krieger said.
In another room are old photos, plaques and mementos, including his original Senators contracts — he made $6,500 his first season and topped out at $18,000 annually. He wears a ballcap each day, baseball shirts and can still grip the ball with his index and middle fingers spread wide.
“Baseball is my life,” he once said. “It’s in my soul.”
Only one man has ever played in a major league game and lived longer — Red Hoff, who pitched four seasons and was 107 years old when he died in 1998. There have been plenty of others who might have thought they were immortal — think Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens — but none has come as close as Marrero. He’s been ducking death for decades, dancing about like his fanciful pitches, still fooling ’em all at every turn.
Adam Kilgore in Viera, Fla., contributed to this report.