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The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball / Edition 1

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Overview

From the first amateur leagues of the 1860s to the exploits of Livan and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, here is the definitive history of baseball in Cuba. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria expertly traces the arc of the game, intertwining its heroes and their stories with the politics, music, dance, and literature of the Cuban people. What emerges is more than a story of balls and strikes, but a richly detailed history of Cuba told from the unique cultural perch of the baseball diamond.
Filling a void created by Cuba's rejection of bullfighting and Spanish hegemony, baseball quickly became a crucial stitch in the complex social fabric of the island. By the early 1940s Cuba had become major conduit in spreading the game throughout Latin America, and a proving ground for some of the greatest talent in all of baseball, where white major leaguers and Negro League players from the U.S. all competed on the same fields with the cream of Latin talent. Indeed, readers will be introduced to several black ballplayers of Afro-Cuban descent who played in the Major Leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier once and for all. Often dramatic, and always culturally resonant, Gonzalez Echevarria's narrative expertly lays open the paradox of fierce Cuban independence from the U.S. with Cuba's love for our national pastime. It shows how Fidel Castro cannily associated himself with the sport for patriotic p.r.—and reveals that his supposed baseball talent is purely mythical. Based on extensive primary research and a wealth of interviews, the colorful, often dramatic anecdotes and stories in this distinguished book comprise the most comprehensive history of Cuban baseball yet published and ultimately adds a vital lost chapter to the history of baseball in the U.S.

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Editorial Reviews

Alejandra Bronfman
Using a wide array of sources including newspapers, interviews, and written memoirs, Mr. Gonzalez has reconstructed a remarkably rich and detailed narrative of the history of baseball in Cuba; from its earliest versions, in the mid-19th century, to its recent triumphs in international competitions.
The Washington Post
Jeff Turrentine
Echevarria eschews the hokey mysticism that afflicts so many other baseball writers and also manages to avoid miring his observations in tendentious political or economic analysis. He provides appropriate context, to be sure; but this is a book about baseball, not about baseball-as-metaphor. It has been written by a man whose love for the sport is matched, fortunately, by his acumen as an historian and facility as a stylist.
Forbes FYI
Library Journal
Echevarria, a literary critic and professor of Hispanic and comparative literature at Yale, has written a definitive cultural history of Cuban baseball from 1860 to the present. A former semi-pro catcher born and raised in Cuba, he currently plays in the Connecticut Senior Baseball League. According to Echevarria, baseball filled a void when Cuba rejected bullfighting and other Spanish influences. Despite all the political turbulence, the game has survived to become as much a part of Cuba's social fabric as soccer is for Brazil. The study features an excellent bibliography plus detailed notes for each chapter. The research is exhaustive, based on primary sources and interviews that include numerous anecdotes, making this an engaging read. Although this book is not for everyone, purists and historians of baseball will enjoy it. Buy where demand warrants.--Larry Little, Penticton P.L., B.C.
Alan Schwarz
Decidedly anti-Castro...Eschevarria clearly believes that under new conditions Cuba would quickly regain its baseball prominence, and his walk through the history of Cuban baseball is written in this prideful key.
The New York Times Book Review
Marty Linsky
...[Serves] up a tureen of politics and baseball, with a little foreign affairs to spice the mix....a massively detailed chronicle...written with the passion of a fan of the country and of the game.
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Kirkus Reviews
From the sugarmill leagues to the World Series impact of defectors like Livian Hernandez and "El Duque," this is a catcher's-mask view of Cuban culture and history. González Echevarría (Hispanic and Comparative Literature/Yale; editor, The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories,1997) is a former semi-pro catcher who grew up with amateur baseball in Cuba's sugarmill country, where it is the local religion. Even Castro couldn't dampen Cuba's passion for baseball, which developed there into a patient, artistic game that disdained the American penchant for the beefy slugger and the specialist. Cultural ties with the US were tighter and international issues just as complex in pre-revolution days, when the nations were but a ferry ride apart. The name alone of a Negro League team, the New York Cubans, speaks volumes about the long influence of Cuban baseball, and the race issue, on America's pastime. Cubans of African descent were often barred from the more professional Cuban leagues before the revolution. González Echevarría will surprise fans with the salaries and Hall of Fame names of American ballplayers who played in Cuba (especially as minor leaguers) as early as the 1950s. By the '70s, the Cuban national team often dominated international competition. One solution by rivals was to deny them visas as Communists: "If you can't beat them, don't let them play." Politics and baseball are stitched together here, and fans will find history and sports well served in a solid text covering most of this century, buttressed by research including interviews with sportscasters, managers, and players. Whether or not the author's predicted "avalanche" of Cubanplayers follows any political thaw in US-Cuban relations, his point about Cuba's impact on the game—and vice versa—is strongly made. (20 b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195146059
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 804,118
  • Product dimensions: 8.70 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Born and raised in Cuba, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria is Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale University, where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1970. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories and Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review. A former semi-pro catcher, he plays for the Madison Ravens of the Connecticut Senior Baseball League.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1 First Pitch 3
2 The Last Game 14
3 From a House Divided to a Full House 44
4 A Cuban Belle Epoque 75
5 The Golden Age 112
6 The Great Amateur Era 189
7 The Revival of the Cuban League 252
8 The Age of Gold 298
9 Baseball and Revolution 352
Notes 407
Bibliography 423
Index 441
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First Chapter

Chapter One


First Pitch


Alonso de Ojeda, one of the first conquistadors to rush to the Caribbean in the wake of Columbus, was a man of great physical strength and skill. Lore has it that one of his favorite feats was to stand at the base of the Giralda Tower in Seville, which is a full 250 feet high, and hurl an orange clear over the statue on top of it. Almost 500 years later, in 1965, Pedro Ramos, a Cuban pitcher with the Yankees at the time, tried to reach the ceiling of the Houston Astrodome (208 feet) with a baseball before the first game ever played there. Ojeda's stunt uncannily anticipated that throwing a round object would become a passion of the variegated progeny he and others were to leave in the Caribbean. It is among the first things a boy learns in the region.

    In the provinces of Cuba I grew up throwing stones at cans, bottles, trees, fruits, and animals. Some of my friends routinely killed birds by picking them off trees with stones. Their accuracy or puntería was, as I recall it now, truly remarkable. A good deal of worth was attached to how well one could throw, and how far. We often engaged in battles using the entire cornucopia of tropical fruits or mudballs, which when laced with a stone caused real damage. We could throw even before a baseball entered our lives. And it did early. Middle- and upper-class boys could expect baseball equipment as Christmas gifts, particularly because the professional baseball season coincided with the holidays. Baseball was literally in the air, broadcast by several radio stations throughout the island, and later by television. Poorer boys made their own balls and bats using various materials, or got their hands on equipment in a variety of ways (including, of course, stealing it). We played baseball, which in Cuba is familiarly known as pelota or ball, all year. But we were in a baseball frenzy during the winter because of the professional season, which polarized us mostly into Habanistas (followers of the Habana Leones or Lions), whose color was red, and Almendaristas (followers of the Almendras Alacranes or Scorpions), whose color was blue. There was a smattering of followers of Marianao (the Tigers), who wore orange and black, and of Cienfuegos (the Elephants), who wore green. I should confess from the start that I was, that I still am, an Habanista.

    As young boys we played anywhere: in open fields, in roads and city streets, in schoolyards. We also played in a variety of ways to adjust to the number of players available, the size of the field, and the time available. We sometimes played to a given number of runs, or more conventionally to a set number of innings. I have played hundreds of games with only two bases and home plate, and quite a few with only one base and home. It was slow-pitch, a la floja, for the most part, and the number of bases off a hit depended on the kind of field. Equipment was apportioned according to ownership, ability, and position. The first baseman, not to mention the catcher, had to have a glove to catch the throws if we were playing a la dura, or hardball. Outfielders often had no glove. We used many kinds of balls; some we made ourselves wrapping twine around a small rubber ball and covering the finished product with adhesive tape. But we often had a real baseball, which we called pelotas poli, "poli" being a deformation of Spalding, which was the most popular brand early in Cuban baseball. By my time the ball we coveted was the Wilson, used by the professional league, which I will always call here the Cuban League. Although we played mostly pickup games, we took them seriously, particularly if they attracted a crowd of idlers and passersby. I remember games in which the spectators (a taxi driver taking a break and a few loafers) placed bets, adding to the pressure. At school we divided into several squads and later joined neighborhood teams.

    Adult supervision at this stage was minimal or nonexistent. We organized the games, later the teams, with undisguised ruthlessness. If one was afraid of the ball, could not field, or struck out often, these weaknesses were brought up loudly and without mercy whenever it came time to choose up sides or to make up a team. It was survival of the fittest all the way. We did not learn baseball the way kids do in Little League. We were like artisans learning a craft: We watched and imitated others with more skill. We had no special drills and no formal instruction. One just had to learn to do things the right way. An older boy might tell you if you did something wrong, but most likely he would make fun of you.

    Nobody gave a thought to baseball being American or Cuban. We revered the great players we heard about and whose pictures we saw in newspapers and magazines, no matter what their nationality or race. The pickup games we played and the neighborhood teams we organized may have been poor in supervision and equipment, but they were rich in experience: On a good week I might get fifty at-bats, whereas many a kid in the U.S. Little League comes to the plate two or three times in the same period. Later we moved up in baseball through different channels. Some might make the school teams and then move up to the Juveniles (under-twenty league), and later the amateurs, the teams in what I will always call here the Amateur League. Others might play for a sugarmill team, or one sponsored by a store or factory in a semipro league. Race would then enter into the picture. But childhood baseball in the Cuba of the fifties and earlier was truly a child's world, stratified by skill, strength, and bravado, not by color or class. This was the world I left behind with the advent of the revolution in 1959, when we came as exiles to Tampa, Florida. It remains pristine and self-enclosed in my memory, along with recollections of the Cuban League and my beloved Habana Lions (I will write Habana when referring to the baseball club).

    This book is an attempt to recover those feelings and memories, inevitably filtered through the mind of the literature professor I have become in the interim. I have tried not to disguise the clash between personal memories and the academic discourse that has allowed me to fully evoke them. I have often hesitated to continue my research for fear that learning too much about Cuban baseball would destroy the pleasure of my intimate reminiscences. Yet I cannot still the voice that learned to write history in libraries, graduate seminars, professional conventions, and teaching undergraduate classes. Hence I have tried as best as I can to get it right, by going to the newspapers, talking to participants, and reconstructing a cultural and socioeconomic context. I have attempted to write a history of Cuban baseball from its inception in the 1860s to the present, trying to figure out, using the full array of my intellectual equipment, the significance of the game in the nation's culture. This is the part of baseball about which I had no interest or clue as a child but that beckoned now as a mystery, a huge historical irony to be analyzed: that my country's political evolution, fueled by intense anti-Americanism, had continued to embrace the most American of games as its own. But I have not left myself, or the child I was, out of this research project, as one often pretends to do in academic writing. On the contrary, I have tried to weave my personal memories as a witness and participant (both as player and as fan) into the narrative.

    The dialogue between the professor and the child is not the only one at the center of this book; a more intense debate within myself has been about whether to write it in English or Spanish. In English there is a certain style of writing about Latin American baseball that involves much condescension and humor of questionable taste. The differences of attitude, rituals, and customs are portrayed by sportswriters who think themselves quite free of prejudice, as being funny, or as instances of the zany spirit of Latin people. All this is written from an implicitly supercilious position that assumes that in the United States there is an order in what is, after all, Organized Baseball, that would not allow for any shenanigans. I believe that in most cases the writers or broadcasters who are most guilty of this are simply covering up their own ignorance and sense of uncanniness at seeing a game they consider theirs played by strangers. Writing in English, I sometimes feared, would inevitably contaminate my discourse with this built-in racism. Another apprehension was to write too much in an effort to correct the distortions of Cuban, and by extension Latin American, baseball in the United States. In a polemic, one's emphases can be dictated by the opponent's biases, and this in itself can lead to distortions. Spanish beckoned because I could write for my own audience, without need for explanations. The solution was to write in both. There are pages of this book that I first wrote in Spanish and later translated into English to avoid a certain point of view imposed by the language in which one first thinks of something. I realized that I was also an American baseball fan and that I had to let both the Cuban and the American sides of me speak.

    I have written a book that I hope will correct some of the views Americans and others have of Cuban baseball. To me, the most vexing example of how lightly and condescendingly the history of Latin baseball is dealt with in the United States involves a story about Fidel Castro that I would like to set straight here once and for all. Every time I mentioned that I was writing a book about Cuban baseball, the first thing Americans said had to do with Fidel's (which is how we Cubans call him, never "Castro") alleged prowess in the sport, and the irony that, had he been signed by the Senators or the Giants, there would have been no Cuban Revolution. This story even worked itself into a book by eminent historian John M. Merriman, one of my closest friends and batterymate in the Yale Intramural Baseball League. The whole thing is a fabrication by an American journalist whose name is now lost, and it is never told in Cuba because everyone would know it to be false. Let it be known here that Fidel Castro was never scouted by any major-league team, and is not known to have enjoyed the kind of success in baseball that could have brought a scout's attention to him. In a country where sports coverage was broad and thorough, in a city such as Havana with a half-dozen major newspapers (plus dozens of minor ones) and with organized leagues at all levels, there is no record that Fidel Castro ever played, much less starred, on any team. No one has produced even one team picture with Fidel Castro in it. I have found the box score of an intramural game played between the Law and the Business Schools at the University of Havana where a certain F. Castro pitched and lost, 5-4, in late November 1946; this is likely to be the only published box score in which the future dictator appears (El Mundo, November 28, 1946). Cubans know that Fidel Castro was no ballplayer, though he dressed himself in the uniform of a spurious, tongue-in-cheek team called Barbudos (Bearded Ones) after he came to power in 1959 and played a few exhibition games. There was no doubt then about his making any team in Cuba. Given a whole country to toy with, Fidel Castro realized the dream of most middle-aged Cuban men by pulling on a uniform and "playing" a few innings.

    Even well-meaning writers distort Cuban and Latin American baseball when they plea for the acceptance of its exuberant, flashy, and carefree style of play, which they often liken to their (also faulty) understanding of Latin music and dance. In other words, they argue in favor of allowing the Latin players to live up to American stereotypes about them. The fact is that Cuban (and most Latin) baseball has always been conservative, highly strategic, and has frowned on flamboyant players, who are derisively called postalitas. The word means "little post card," I presume because it is thought that the player is posturing, as if posing for a picture. As the reader will discover here, Cuba's style of "inside" baseball, consisting of bunting, slapping a grounder past a charging infielder, almost no base-stealing, and patience at the plate was derived from the pioneers of Negro Leagues baseball, who had much influence in Cuba during the early part of the twentieth century. With exceptions, Cuban players have been small, not the slugger type; hence the game adopted a patient strategy, and there was even a snobbish disdain for the home-run mentality. Pitching, because of the general lack of overpowering speed, depends on guile, junk, and much control. Given the pervasiveness of betting at all levels of Cuban baseball throughout history (to the present), it has never been prudent to jeopardize somebody else's money by being reckless. Like baseball everywhere, Cuban baseball is not lacking in amusing anecdotes, so there is no need for fabrication. I have told or retold some of these, but my aim has been to stick to the truth, or as close to it as I can get by going to the written record and oral sources.

    Another reason for writing the book, a powerful incentive for someone like me trained in philology and literary criticism, was to undo some of the abuse visited on the names of Cuban ballplayers over the years by American sportswriters, broadcasters, and even sports historians. Three kinds of errors mar the historical record. First, the American press has simply misspelled the names of countless Cuban (and other Latin) ballplayers. I have seen Cristóbal Torriente's rather elegant name appear as Cristebal Torrienti, to take just one example. Second, the names of Cuban players have often been truncated by American teammates, or even the front offices of the teams they played for, perhaps because Americans find long names pretentious. In Spanish it is common practice (even a legal requirement) to have two surnames, as I do; the first is my father's, González; the second, my mother's maiden name, Echevarría. In informal situations it is the second surname that would be dropped. Thus the late Cuban infielder Hiraldo Sablón Ruiz was known as "Hiraldo Sablón" by his countrymen. Americans, however, bewildered Cuban fans by referring to him as "Chico Ruiz," adding insult to injury by giving him a generic nickname.

    The nicknames given to Latin players are the third kind of offense, in this case both to historical accuracy and to their dignity. They have typically combined ignorance and condescension. "Chico" or "chica" is one way Cubans (and other Spanish speakers) might familiarly call for each other's attention, somewhat like "buddy" or "mac" in American idiom. Naming a player "Chico" because one of his teammates used the word would be like calling the Yankee star "Buddy" Mantle because someone said, "Way to go, buddy!" when he hit a homer. Yet this nickname has stuck to many Latin American athletes, from Chico Fernández, known in Cuba by his rather serious name Humberto Fernandez, to the Panamanian Chico Salmón, and to countless others. There was even a "Chica." Other nicknames infantilize athletes: Orestes Miñoso, with his proud classical name, became "Minnie" Minoso in the United States; Edmundo Amorós, "Sandy" Amoros; while that patriarch of Cuban baseball Miguel Angel González was reduced to "Mike" Gonzalez (or worse, Gonzales). The list of indignities, the worst of which was perhaps calling Luis Tiant "El Tiante," could go on and on. In this book I have preserved the names of all players in the original Spanish form (as they were known in Cuba, or other Latin country of origin), but included in parentheses, the first time he is mentioned or when relevant, the nickname in the United States. I could not have written a whole book referring to Orestes Miñoso as "Minnie."

    But the most powerful reason to write the book was to preserve and exalt the memory of Cuban, Latin American, and American players who played in Cuba and performed feats worthy of remembrance. This is the epic side of my work, and the reason for the Homeric lists that sometimes appear in it. Given the recent history of Cuba, including the diaspora and the separation of Cubans inside and outside the island, preservation of a common memory such as baseball is an important, even urgent endeavor. In Cuba itself, the effort to bolster the achievements of the revolution have led to an erasure of our baseball memory, a sort of cultural lobotomy. Foreign historians of Cuban sports have often bought into the idea that Cuba's sports history begins in 1959 and mouth the propaganda churned out by bureaucrats and ideologues. But the fact is that Cuba has a rich sports history and that the country's emphasis on sports is something derived from its proximity to the United States. While touting its achievements and triumphs, the current Cuban regime has really profited from the strength of Cuban sports before 1959, and the importance Cubans attach to sports, particularly to baseball. The regime, as in the arts (ballet, literature, painting, music), has really been invested in Cuba's strengths as far back as the nineteenth century. Rather than a break, as they claim, Cuba's achievements in these areas after 1959 are really continuities and retentions. My aim is to preserve the common memory.

    Naive social scientists who study Cuban sports in an intellectual and cultural vacuum only see the games for their educational or health benefits, and are wont to focus excessively on issues of social justice. It is easy to criticize pre-1959 sports in Cuba not only because of the country's indisputable failings, which were not exceptional, but also because the past appears as inert and absolute, disconnected from the present. In other words, Cuba's flaws up to 1959 would have continued unimproved until today had the revolution not taken place. This is a very facile sort of speculation not supported by the facts or by common sense. Besides, as stated, the revolution profited from much of that past's projection into the future. More importantly, one need not accept the doctrine that turns sports into healthy, pedagogical activities aimed at producing more perfect citizens according to the models provided by the state. This idea, which fueled the Nazi, Soviet, and Cuban sports apparatuses, ignores deeper aspects of sports. Games involve eros as well as heroes, ignite the group-bonding impulses in all of us, and release them in mock wars, generating the kind of adoration of exceptional individuals commonly expressed in epic poems as well as in sacred texts. People do not play games to get healthy but to feel good in the performance of physical acts. And feeling good involves defearing an opponent in a physical contest fraught with real as well as fake violence, sparked by sublimated hatred and lust at various levels of symbolization. Feeling good also involves being idolized by others. The memory of athletic feats, like that of wars and other heroic activities, is an essential component of the nation.

    This book encompasses both the history and the lore of Cuban baseball. The history is, as accurately as I can get it, what happened, when, and in what political, social, and economic context. The lore is made up of two kinds of stories: a sort of "official" history, which is often tied up to national myth-making; and then the stories about deeds and dudes—great feats, wacky anecdotes, hyperbole, and gossip.

    The Cuban League's last game was in February 1961. The league has been dead for thirty-seven years. Because its heroes have not been extolled in newspapers, magazines, radio, or television on the island, the history of the Cuban League dies a little every day as those of us who lived by it pass. In Miami, journalists such as Fausto Miranda, collectors such as Charles Monfort, and others have kept the lore of the Cuban League alive, and through word of mouth many ordinary Cubans have done the same. But memories fade, and the will to go through crumbling newspapers or grainy reels of microfilm is rare. With the fading memory, a valuable component of Cuban—of human—culture is lost. I have done my best here to salvage as much as my abilities, time, energy, and resources have allowed me. There will be some in the future, I hope, better equipped than I to complete the task.


* * *


Playing hardball again for the past five summers in an over-thirty league (I qualified amply) brought me back in touch with a process that can serve as metaphor for my method in writing this book: breaking in a new glove. A new glove is stiff. It is made for an abstract hand, and the leather is slick and hard. A new glove is broken in by the blows of baseballs caught with it and by pounding your own fist against it; by punching, as it were, your own hand while it is in the glove. Some oil and water help, but it is mostly your own body warmth, your sweat and spit that begin to mold the leather to the contours of your hand, and to the spot where you prefer to catch the ball. The glove becomes almost a part of you, but not quite; it is shaped by your hand, but it mediates between you and the ball. I have done something similar in writing this book. I have bypassed learning the proper ethnographic techniques to interview informants. I have devised my own questionnaires to suit my interests and let the conversations take their course. I have written to some informants who have been kind enough to reply, often at length. I have dealt with their responses as documents and evidence, according to my own understanding of both. I have consulted friends and family members and have become the friend of some of my informants. My interests have shaped all of these investigations, but the very process has also shaped my interests. Like the ball hitting the glove and leaving an imprint, which is in turn molded by the shape of my hand and my own secretions, the history, my history, and the story of my work itself have converged as an interplay of forms to yield the book. There has been joy and pain in the process, as there is exhilaration and sometimes hurt in catching a ball. Some of my informants have died, others have told me very moving stories about their lives, yet others are so physically diminished by time and the relentless decay of the body that I have felt their pain as my own.

    A glove is not a hand, no matter how much you try to break it in. It is still a form between your hand and the ball. Writing history, particularly cultural history, has its patterns and procedures as well as a narrative shape. My forays through libraries, particularly Yale's, the Cuban National Library in Havana, and the New York Public Library's extraordinary Cuban collections have been guided by years of academic training. I have pursued facts with as much care as I have in other books of mine, but here the discrete boundaries of my field of study have been widened. I have been as interested in the advertisements in journals as in the articles, and followed leads not only about politics but also about radio broadcasting. In a sense cultural history has no discrete limits; presumably anything can be relevant in a nonhierarchical way. I have let my narrative focus dictate the boundaries, more as if I were writing a novel about Cuban baseball than a treatise about it. If the reader and I are interested in the history of Cuban baseball, then there is only so much that we really want to know about its relationship to Cuban popular music or Afro-Cuban religion. I have delved into politics, labor and racial problems, or financial scandals only insofar as they impinged unambiguously on baseball.

    My method, then, ultimately is literary: the narrative flow of the book, which contains both epic elements, with heroes, fables, and lore, and more analytic components that weave in and out, trying to tease out the hidden, prime mover of history. The epic part is as crucial to my story as it is to baseball everywhere. Baseball is very much a male ritual involving fathers and sons. It is a modern way in which men reenact military exercises, a form of civilized, mock warfare with its ceremonies, physical training, and lore. It has to do with physical and moral prowess and its collective recall, and with the actual or vicarious enjoyment of ritualized violence. These are the reasons why sports, particularly team sports, can be absorbed into a national mythology, and its champions confused with military heroes, or its coaches with statesmen. But my book has more of the novel than the epic because it has a critical component that refuses to slide into hero-worship, or become moralistic about evil and evildoers. My story is full of the ambiguity and complexity of life itself. Even when accounts of deceit, political corruption, or any other manifestation of the human condition appear, they are not intended to pass judgment.

    I have avoided theorizing or tying down my story to a master narrative, such as economic history or the history of American imperialism. These factors are present as a backdrop. But I have not wished to belabor the obvious or to make Cuban baseball appear entirely dependent on them. The problem with much cultural history today is that it is still informed by the Marxist dogma that every single phenomenon of social life can be traced back to economic factors. Hence much history has been written in a spirit of sleuthing for the guilty parties of what inevitably turns out to be a major conspiracy promoted by one principal evil force, be it capitalism or the United States or both. This kind of pious approach does not appeal to me because I am bored by the predictable, but above all because I am too agnostic to believe even in the devil.

    Having said this, I must add that in some important ways this book includes the history of the United States, too. Though an island, Cuba is really a frontier. In colonial times it was the first border between the Old and the New Worlds, later the embattled line between the Spanish Empire and the other European powers. Since the nineteenth century, and most poignantly in the past forty years, it has been either a bridge or a wall between itself and the United States. Crossings in either direction have always entailed a more or less radical transformation, at times to sharpen the differences, at others to erase them, or, more often than not, to mask them. Though this play of transformations, fueled by powerful feelings of attraction and rejection, finds a stage in politics, literature, and the arts, its most visible and telling exhibition is found in popular culture and sports, particularly baseball and music. This book, therefore, is the partial history of a border, an account of the transformations that occur in that border.

    The overall thesis of this book is that American culture is one of the fundamental components of Cuban culture, even when historically there have been concerted and painful attempts to fight it off or deny it. I mean that even in periods, such as after the revolution, when Cuban culture tried to separate itself from American culture, it was being defined by it. Baseball is the clearest indication of this, but not the only one. It is a process in which the antagonist is absorbed instead of repelled, which shows that in any relationship of cultures, even rejection is mutually influencing, because cultures are dynamic ensembles.

    Cuba's culture is one in which the clash of the modern and the premodern took place most recently and fruitfully. Slavery in Cuba was legal until 1886 (when baseball was already present on the island), with large numbers of Africans from various regions of that continent having been brought to toil in the production of sugar. Neo-African cultures in Cuba learned to adapt and adopt what they found around them, including the beliefs and practices of other neo-African cultures, but mostly the ways of the mainstream Spanish, or Spanish-origin hegemonic class. This process made them permeable to the alien in ways most traditional cultures, in situ, are not. The most profound and enduring contribution of neo-African cultures to Cuban culture as a whole is that capacity for absorption of the foreign, even the hostile. Traditional cultures are conservative, retentive, creating meaning through repetition. The repeated becomes familiar, the familiar becomes tradition. Cuba faced the most aggressive of modern capitalist cultures: the expanding United States of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. The absorptive quality of Cuban culture assimilated this element, which clashed with the conservative element of traditional cultures that is also part of its makeup. But these had already been dominated and molded by the process of adaptation and adoption mentioned.

    The most combustive meeting of the traditional and the modern is at the level of popular culture, where economic forces, technology, and social mixing promote mutual contamination. By virtue of being a collective activity baseball is also, like all sports, a ritual that retains an aura of sacredness. Players perform prescribed motions in which the timeless enigmas and the perplexing human predicaments interpreted by religion are literally in play: chance, fate, providence, the struggle against evil, victory, shameful defeat, human weakness, bodily prowess, and physical limitation. Repetition of expected gestures lends the spectacle of the baseball game a greater religious inflection. Some of the plays, such as the "sacrifice," even have religious names. But since we live in modern, secular societies, this sacredness is sublimated or deflected into nationalism; contests often involve flags, parades, national anthems, and the presence of political leaders at the stadiums. Sacredness wanes, however, as the game is incorporated into popular culture and becomes spectacle, entertainment, fun. In this, Cuban baseball loosely follows the model of Afro-Cuban music, though much of this music does have a true liturgical function and hence is even more sacred to begin with. Afro-Cuban priests, musicians, and other keepers of the tradition released secrets and adulterated practices to conform to the needs of mainstream society, particularly as this became dominated by foreign influences brought in by tourism. But before anyone laments the loss of purity, one should not forget that it was this desacralized, contaminated music that became what is known as Cuban music. The process was aided by the mass media: the gramophone, the radio, the movies, and more recently television. Cuban culture, perhaps all modern cultures, are the unholy sites of sacrilege, defilement, and profanation. Ojeda's tossing an orange over a church spire in the sixteenth century also uncannily anticipated the pleasures of impiety. There is no turning back.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2006

    fun, insightful, and comprehensive

    I grew up watching the Phillies of the 1960s. Three Cubans played on that team at the same time: Tony Gonzalez, Cookie Rojas, and Tony Taylor. My favorite Phillie was Cookie Rojas, who was great with the glove and always into the game with his heart and soul. That's the spirit of Cuban baseball as conveyed by Gonzalez Echevarria's 'Pride of Havana.' The book is a thorough, enjoyable read. You feel like you've gone back in time, to the various leagues in Cuba. Echevarria knows his subject well, and he brings the insights of a baseball mind and a historian's accuracy to the presentation. Viva Almendares!

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