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Fidel Castro—Ballplayer

By Tim Wendel, November 8, 2016
Fidel Castro, circa 1960s

Sixty years ago, aboard a Gilligan’s Island–style cabin cruiser, 82 would-be revolutionaries somehow made it from Mexico to the Cuban coast. They landed in a swamp, where government troops had been tipped off to their arrival.

Pinned down in a sugar-cane field, only 21 rebels made it into the surrounding mountains. From such an inauspicious start, Fidel Castro and his ragtag crew somehow grew in power, taking control of the country three years later and turning the Cold War world on its ear.

I had heard about Castro’s baseball skills, his love for the game, when I first visited Cuba in 1992. They’re easy to dismiss, even deride, but then one remembers what he overcame to become the island’s dictator—El Jefe—through 11 U.S. administrations.

So let’s step back and try to tease out the man from the myth. We know for sure that Castro was a good athlete growing up. He excelled in track, basketball, table tennis, and baseball. Reportedly, he formed his own neighborhood team when he was a kid, insisting that he be the guy on the mound. At the age of 18, leaving the eastern end of the island for prep school in Havana, he was considered to be an outstanding schoolboy athlete.

In the Cuban capital, Castro first attended Belen College, a Jesuit school. Determined to be the school’s top pitcher, he routinely practiced until dusk, throwing a ball against a wall when nobody else was around to catch him, wrote Tad Szulc in Fidel: A Critical Portrait.

Castro told Szulc that he “succeeded in becoming outstanding” in basketball, soccer, baseball, track “and almost all the other sports from the moment I arrived there.”

After four years at Belen, Castro moved to the University of Havana law school, and there his sports exploits, even his interest in baseball, become more difficult to determine. After being uninterested in politics at Belen, he became caught up in the growing revolutionary movement and soon drew crowds with his fiery speeches against the corrupt Batista regime. Revolution had trumped sports, especially his first love, baseball. Or had it?

Castro talks with baseball great Minnie Minoso during a Cuban Winter League ballgame at El Gran Stadium in December of 1959.

Castro’s file at the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York, is pretty thin. Only a few articles and most focus on his more recent run as the de facto general manager of Cuba’s successful national team. Between 1992 and 2008, the Cubans won the gold medal three times in the Olympics and silver twice, and Team Cuba was the runner-up to Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

In 1964, though, Sport magazine ran an account by former Major Leaguer Don Hoak about Castro’s pitching prowess. Hoak spent 11 years in the Major Leagues as a third baseman with the Dodgers, Reds, and Pirates. He was playing winterball in Cuba in 1950–51, soon after Castro received his law degree.

Winterball games in Havana during this period were often interrupted by student protesters. The would-be rebels came out of the stands and demonstrated on the playing field. According to Hoak, on one such night a skinny student wearing a formal dress shirt, black pants, and black suede shoes took the mound, with Hoak awaiting his turn at bat.

The Major Leaguer stepped into the batter’s box, with the kid pitcher eager to throw to him. As the crowd roared, Hoak fouled off two pitches before the home-plate umpire ordered for the security detail to clear the field. In the Sport piece, Hoak claimed that the demonstrator-turned-hurler had to be Castro.

“Left-handers as a breed are eccentric, but Castro, a right-hander, looked kookier than any southpaw I have known,” Hoak later wrote.

Since then many in baseball have dismissed Hoak’s account. But sometimes a story, no matter how far-fetched, refuses to go away. Decades later, my friend Milton Jamail was talking with fans at the Esquina Caliente or “Hot Corner” in Havana’s Parque Central, where the topic is baseball almost every day of the year.

Baseball superfan Fidel Castro shakes hands with a member of the Havana Sugar Kings, circa 1959-60.

An old man claimed to have played ball with Castro when they were boys in Biran, not that far from where the small cruiser, loaded down with the greenhorn revolutionaries, landed 60 years ago. The usual questions about Castro’s hometown and school were asked of the old-timer as we tried to catch him in a white lie. But all of our queries were fielded flawlessly, leaving only the last question: what did Castro throw?

“So-so fastball, sneaky slider at the knees,” was the reply. “But his best pitch was a curveball. Fidel had a great curve.”

I couldn’t get that answer out of my head, and it became the starting point for my novel, Castro’s Curveball. What if Fidel Castro had decided to pursue baseball instead of revolution? The world as we know it would have been markedly different. No decades-long embargo with a nation only 90 miles from our shores. No Cuban missile crisis.

Before Castro rose to power and declared that the island would ban professional sports—and allow amateurs only—Cuba was the main supplier of foreign baseball talent to the Major Leagues. Such stars as Tony Perez, Luis Tiant, and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso came from Cuba. José Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro grew up in the United States, but their families fled Cuba in the early 1960s as Castro embraced socialism and allied his country with the Soviet Union.

So did Castro sign a big league contract somewhere along the way? Perhaps with the Washington Senators, who were so adept at scouting the island for low-cost talent? Searches at the Hall of Fame library turned up no such deal, and Castro, through a spokesman, has said he never signed on the dotted line. Still, the possibilities make the mind reel.

Soon after Castro’s Curveball came out, I began to receive letters about how my novel was truer than I realized. Several new pen pals recalled stories from their grandfathers or uncles who had played in the Cuban winter league. Some claimed to have seen Castro hanging around the ballpark. Some even said the future revolutionary occasionally threw batting practice. Some sent along photographs. Unfortunately, the various backstories for many of these images have been lost to time.

Castro—pitching legend turned revolutionary dictator—with the Los Barbudos team, circa 1959.

What we do know for sure is that Castro realized how important baseball was, and still is, to the Cuban people. Soon after gaining power, Castro and members of the revolutionary army went on a tour of the island, playing pick-up games in various locales. The people adored that Los Barbudos team.

“They wormed their way into our hearts,” another old-timer at the Esquina Caliente once told me. “And they did it by showing how much they loved the game of baseball, too.”

Now, 60 years later, Fidel Castro is an old man, who perhaps still dreams of baseball glory. With his brother, Raul, now in charge, Cuba perhaps finds itself on the threshold of a new age.

One afternoon at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, a few of us fell into a conversation with several high-ranking Cuban sports officials. We asked them, “What would happen if the embargo was lifted and, as a goodwill gesture, Wilson or Rawlings or Spalding brought a freighter filled with sports equipment to Havana and began to give away gear?”

“What would happen?” one official answered, his voice growing low and serious. “What

would happen is that the world as we know it would change forever.”

That’s where things continue to linger on the island so close to the American shore. A star-crossed place where its aging former leader cherishes the game as much as anybody who ever reached Major League Baseball in the United States.

Tim Wendel has visited Cuba three times. His books include Far from Home: Latino Baseball Players in America, Habana Libre, and Castro’s Curveball.

Courtesy of Tim Wendel

 

 

 

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