Last Seasons in Havana explores the intersection between Cuba and America’s pastime from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, when Fidel Castro overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. César Brioso takes the reader through the triumph of the revolution in 1959 and its impact on professional baseball in the seasons immediately following Castro’s rise to power.
Baseball in pre‑Castro Cuba was enjoying a golden age. The Cuban League, which had been founded in 1878, just two years after the formation of the National League, was thriving under the auspices of organized baseball. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, players from the Major Leagues, Minor Leagues, and Negro Leagues had come to Cuba to play in the country’s wholly integrated winter baseball league. Cuban teams had come to dominate the annual Caribbean Series tournament, and Havana had joined the highest levels of Minor League Baseball, fielding the Havana Sugar Kings of the Class AAA International League. Confidence was high that Havana might one day have a Major League team of its own.
But professional baseball became one of the many victims of Castro’s Communist revolution. American players stopped participating in the Cuban League, and Cuban teams moved to an amateur, state‑sponsored model. Focusing on the final three seasons of the Cuban League (1958–61) and the final two seasons of the Havana Sugar Kings (1959–60), Last Seasons in Havana explores how Castro’s rise to power forever altered Cuba and the course of a sport that had become ingrained in the island’s culture over the course of almost a century.
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The House That Bobby Built
Opening nights for the Havana Sugar Kings often were elaborate affairs, replete with celebrities, foreign ambassadors, and other dignitaries. One year, beloved Cuban child actor Rolando Ochoa might serve as master of ceremonies. The next International League season might open with French actor Maurice Chevalier throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. But this particular opening night included something entirely different, unbeknownst to the vast majority of fans packed into El Gran Stadium in Havana.
As fans streamed through the gates, Joaquín Cordero stood outside the stadium, handing out tickets to fifty to sixty men who joined the crowd, sitting scattered throughout the highest row of the grandstand. They paid little attention to the baseball game on the field. Instead their eyes remained transfixed on a building beyond the outfield fence, awaiting a signal from a rooftop flashlight that would indicate the assassination of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had succeeded. Upon seeing the signal, they were to leave the stadium, retrieve the cache of arms stored in a building across the street, and storm the nearby police armory. If everything went as planned, they could begin restoring deposed democratically elected president Carlos Prío Socarrás to power.
The men awaiting their signal at El Gran Stadium were members of AAA (Triple A), the Asociación de Amigos Aureliano (Association of Friends of Aureliano), so named for Aureliano Sánchez Arango. The former lawyer and university professor had served as minister of education and then as foreign minister under Prío, who was elected president of Cuba in 1948. Batista, who had served as Cuba's elected president from 1940 to 1944, won a seat in the Cuban Senate the same year Prío was elected president and chose to mount another presidential campaign in 1952. Facing certain electoral defeat, Batista staged a bloodless coup d'etat on March 10, three months before the election. Batista, former head of the Cuban Army, took over the military headquarters at Camp Columbia without firing a shot, and Prío fled Cuba. While in exile in Miami, Florida, Prío started supplying arms through the AAA Movement to anti-Batista efforts back home in Cuba.
Among those efforts was a plot to assassinate Batista, planned to coincide with a season-opening game of the Sugar Kings, according to conspirator René Brioso, who was Cordero's nephew. "The arms were in a building that was [beyond] right field of the stadium," René recalled years later. "[Prío] had rented apartments in a tall building that was eight or nine floors high. ... He gave the money to buy tickets for all us who were organized because it was believed we could kill Batista that night."
René was no stranger to political activism. Born in 1928 in the sugar mill town at Central Niágara, he became involved with the Partido Auténtico (Authentic Party) in 1951. As a conductor and then a bus driver for Omnibus Aliados, René worked to keep Communists from controlling the bus drivers' union. His first anti-Batista action came the year after Batista's coup, helping to organize a strike that shut down bus service throughout Havana. Those involved had to meet clandestinely at night at Havana's famed Colón Cemetery out of fear of being arrested. Once Batista assured there would be no reprisals, the drivers returned to work and bus service resumed the next day without incident.
The latest action in which René was involved, however, was far more dangerous. The night of the Sugar Kings' opening game, Batista was supposed to attend a party. "We were going to intercept him on the road," René said. "There was a conspiracy, and one of the guys who was with us was with the police. He worked [as a dispatcher] in the radio section in the police station, where the motorcycles were kept, the motor pool. That station, the motor pool, was close to the stadium. And when he received the news by radio that they had killed Batista, he was supposed to go to the roof of the building and signal us with a flashlight. There were about sixty of us. They gave us the tickets so we could enter and sit in the last row of the stadium, not low, but high up because from there you could see the police station motor pool."
Because the conspirators didn't know when the signal might come and because of the grave nature of what that signal would mean, it would have been difficult to focus on the game, let alone enjoy it. By the end of the game as the vast majority of fans celebrated victory, the several dozen conspirators were left to wonder what went wrong. "The time passed and passed and passed, and we never saw a light [signal]," René said. "The Sugar Kings game ended, and we left, and then we got the news that [Batista] didn't take the route he was expected to take to the party he was going to, or wherever he was going. We knew he was going there, but then he took a different route. He didn't go by the route we were expecting, where people were holed up waiting to kill him, to assassinate him. That's how that ended."
Although the plot was abandoned, the seeds of Cuba's latest revolution continued to be sown among multiple groups resisting the Batista regime. One was led by a young radical named Fidel Castro. His failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, had launched the 26th of July Movement. Despite imprisonment on Cuba's Isle of Pines, Castro continued to coordinate revolutionary activities via correspondence. One day, he would transform Cuba, as well as the sport that had become so ingrained in the country's culture.
The inaugural game of the Sugar Kings' existence opened to great fanfare. Ribbons adorned all the box seats. Cuban, American, and Canadian flags draped the front of the press box. A highly choreographed first pitch included a pair of foreign ambassadors and the president of a United States–based Minor League. A new era dawned for baseball in Cuba on Tuesday, April 20, 1954. El Gran Stadium would play host to the first game of Cuba's entry in the Class Triple-A International League. Roberto "Bobby" Maduro had built the stadium in 1946 to be the new, modern home of the Cuban League, the country's professional winter circuit. But Maduro's stadium was about to become home to Havana's fledgling Minor League team, which he owned as well.
In almost every measurable way, El Gran Stadium was a superior baseball facility to its predecessor, La Tropical, which had housed the Cuban League from 1930 to 1946. Built in Havana's working-class El Cerro neighborhood, El Gran Stadium was about half the distance from La Tropical to downtown Havana. It seated more than thirty-five thousand fans, fifteen thousand more than the previous stadium had. Unlike La Tropical, with its space for a soccer field and Olympic track, as well as beer gardens and a dance hall, El Gran Stadium was designed specifically for baseball. Eight light towers allowed for night games.
But upgrading the Cuban League's accommodations wasn't Maduro's only goal when he and Miguel "Miguelito" Suárez, his partner in La Compañía Operadora de Stadiums, built El Gran Stadium with backing from the Bacardi Rum Company. Maduro's ultimate goal was to bring a Major League team to Havana, and the Sugar Kings were the next step in accomplishing that aspiration. The team's motto alluded to just that: "Un paso más y llegamos" ("One more step and we're there"). Maduro would celebrate the Sugar Kings' first game in keeping with the significance of such an accomplishment. The Havana daily newspaper Diario de la Marina proclaimed the preparation for opening night "gives the impression that what will be witnessed will be a spectacle superior to the World Series."
Indeed, a festive atmosphere permeated the stands before the scheduled 8:30 p.m. start time. Throughout the stadium, twenty-three thousand roaring fans waved white handkerchiefs. The raucousness subsided only when Monsignor Alfredo Müller, the Catholic archbishop of Havana who had presided over the benediction of El Gran Stadium when it opened in 1946, blessed a Sugar Kings banner during a ceremony at home plate.
Players from the Toronto Maple Leafs stood along the first base line. Sugar Kings players flanked the third base line, debuting their home-white flannels with "Cubanos" in red script across the chest ("Sugar Kings" would appear only on road gray uniforms throughout the team's existence). After the ceremony, Rolando Ochoa, a child actor of radio, film, theater, and television, presented the team with a large sack of sugar with a crown, which would be the team mascot, symbolizing "los Reyes de Azúcar"— the Sugar Kings.
Then came the elaborate opening-pitch ceremony. U.S. ambassador Arthur Gardner, wearing a dark suit, would play the role of umpire, donning a chest protector and mask. Canadian ambassador Harry Scott would throw the first pitch, to Roberto Fernández Miranda, Cuba's director of sports, stationed behind home plate. And International League president Frank Shaughnessy would stand in the batter's box. But first, Scott made a show of calling Fernández to the mound to get their signs straight. Gardner then walked out to break up the mound conference while exaggeratedly gesturing that they no longer delay the game. The only thing not as easily choreographed was Scott's pitch, which was so off the mark it struck a photographer in the head as he positioned himself near home plate to capture the proceedings.
The pregame festivities complete, home plate umpire Augie Guglielmo yelled out, "Play ball!" And when Havana starting pitcher Emilio Cueche threw the first pitch, the inaugural season of the Sugar Kings was officially under way. The Maple Leafs were considered one of the strongest teams in the International League, boasting former Negro leagues star Sam Jethroe, Cuban League star Héctor Rodríguez, and future New York Yankees catcher Elston Howard. But the Sugar Kings were never in danger of losing their first game in the circuit.
Havana batters hit Toronto starting pitcher Ed Blake early, scoring runs in four consecutive innings starting in the second frame. Cueche, Havana's Venezuelan-born starting pitcher, was the "undisputed hero of the night," going three for four and driving in the first run of the game in the second inning on a rocket shot to right field. Cueche also scored once. After scoring a run in both the third and fourth innings, the Sugar Kings broke the game open with three runs in the fifth, one scoring on a single by Cueche. Havana rapped fifteen total hits and beat Toronto 7–2.
Traditionally, Cuban baseball fans had been largely divided by their allegiance between Habana or Almendares, the "Eternal Rivals" of the Cuban League. But on that night, fans "witnessed the birth of a mystical new national baseball," René Molina wrote in the next day's Diario de la Marina. "Before now, the Creole people were divided into habanismo and almendarismo. ... That traditional division has allowed us to experience unforgettable moments. ... However, it must be accepted that last night a new, different horizon was seen in the crowd that packed the stadium, a unanimous reaction, a collective sense of support for the team that represents the country."
Long before opening night, Bobby Maduro was confident Havana could support not only a Triple-A team but also a Major League team. "In many ways, Havana is a big-league town," Maduro said in 1953 as he was lobbying to have the Cuban capital admitted into the International League. "Its new stadium seats 35,000. The players can stop here at first-class hotels, where American meals are served at all times, and almost everyone speaks English." And it was with Havana's potential in mind that Maduro pursued his plan to bring a Major League team to Cuba.
Born in Havana on June 27, 1916, Roberto Maduro de Lima came from a family of Sephardic Jewish origin, having migrated from the Netherlands to the Caribbean. Maduro's paternal grandfather S.E.L. Maduro founded Curacao's oldest company in 1837. Maduro's father Salomón Mozes Levy Maduro was born in Curacao in 1890 and moved the family to Cuba in 1914 as the country's sugar industry expanded following independence from Spain. The Maduro family was not observant and converted to Catholicism after migrating to Cuba.
"Momón" Maduro worked as a sugarcane planter for the American Sugar Refining Company in Cunagua, in Camagüey Province. In 1926, Momón went into the insurance business, eventually working his way up to president of the Compañía Cubana de Fianzas, the Cuban Fidelity Company. As was common in wealthy Cubans families, Bobby was sent to school in the United States, attending the Asheville School in North Carolina and then studying engineering at Cornell University. But after completing his sophomore year, he left Cornell in 1936 to help his father operate the family sugar plantation following the death of an uncle.
When he wasn't studying abroad or working in the family businesses — which included insurance, cattle, and the Flecha de Oro bus line — Bobby Maduro played first base for the Vedado Tennis Club's amateur baseball team, los Marqueses, the Marquis(es). Maduro's early baseball experience no doubt sparked his lifelong passion for the sport. That passion drove him to build a baseball stadium, buy Cuban League and Minor League teams, help launch a countrywide youth baseball system known as los Cubanitos, and aspire to bring a Major League team to Havana. "When I was a boy, to be able to share in my father's dream, which was that the Sugar Kings could become a Major League franchise, it's an extraordinary memory," Maduro's son Jorge said. "That's what consumed him."
Jorge Maduro was the fourth of eight children born to Bobby and his wife, Isolina Olmo Fernández Garrido, who was known as "Fufila." They were married on January 28, 1940, and by the time Jorge was born on July 22, 1947, the Cuban League had completed its first season at El Gran Stadium. It remains perhaps the most memorable season in league history thanks to a dramatic three-game series to determine the championship. Almendares had to win thirteen of its final fourteen games, including that season-ending series against Habana. Almendares pitcher Max Lanier, a two-time All-Star with the St. Louis Cardinals, won the decisive game on one day's rest, igniting a wild celebration that spread through the streets of Havana and across Cuba. "As far as I'm concerned," Almendares catcher and league MVP Andrés Fleitas recalled years later, "it was one of the greatest series, one of the greatest championships Cuba has ever seen."
It was a spectacular way to christen the new stadium Bobby Maduro had built with key help from others, such as Miguelito Suárez, promoter Emilio de Armas, and the Compañía Ron Bacardi S.A. "The stadium always looked as if Bobby was the owner," recalled Maduro's longtime friend Rafael "Ralph" Ávila, who went on to preside over the Los Angeles Dodgers' successful Latin American scouting program for more than twenty years during the 1980s and 1990s. "Bobby was the one with the idea, ... but in reality, if you went to the stadium, everything was advertisements for Bacardi. Since I also worked for Bacardi, I know that 51 percent of the action in the stadium were Bacardi's. That's why in the stadium there was only signage for Bacardi and Hatuey [the company's beer brand]."
Born on March 25, 1930, in Camagüey, Ávila started working for Bacardi at age sixteen during the construction of the Cervecería Modelo brewery in the Havana suburb of El Cotorro. He worked in everything from bottling to sales to public relations. He also organized internal company baseball tournaments, managed the amateur Bacardi team, and helped organize the Liga Intermunicipal de Béisbol Amateurs Libre, a winter amateur league commonly known as the Liga de Quivicán. And Ávila, whose son Al would go on to become general manager of the Detroit Tigers in 2015, would play a role in a future revolution that would forever alter the course of Cuba's history.
Unlike Almendares and Habana, which had been members of the Cuban League since it was founded in 1878, the Cienfuegos Base Ball Club had a shorter, less storied, and more sporadic history. The franchise first played during the issue-plagued 1926–27 season but withdrew from the league on November 13 as it struggled to pay travel costs. Cienfuegos did not participate in the 1927–28 season but returned to action for 1928–29 before disappearing again after the 1930–31 season.
During the early half of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for teams to join the league for brief periods before withdrawing, never to return. The league finally stabilized with four teams — Almendares, Habana, Cienfuegos, and Marianao — beginning with the 1943–44 season. Cienfuegos had become a fixture in 1939 under the control of Luis Oliver and Francisco Curbelo, who immediately sold the team to Florentino Pardo Galí. Under his ownership, the Elefantes (Elephants) won their first Cuban League championship in 1945–46, the league's final season at La Tropical.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Last Seasons in Havana"
Copyright © 2019 César Brioso.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. The House That Bobby Built,
2. Winds of Change,
3. Golden Age,
4. "This Was a Shipwreck",
5. Year of the Pitcher,
6. New Year's Revolution,
7. Caribbean Spice,
8. "Bullets Were Falling ... Like Hailstones",
9. Title Town,
10. Regarding Cienfuegos,
11. The Last Series,
12. International Tensions,
13. The Last Season,
14. Casualty of the Revolution,