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Baseball In Havana The Year Jackie Robinson Arrived

Nov 7, 2015

  The 2015 Major League Baseball season is history.

And as we wait for Spring Training to arrive, let's look into baseball's past -- to  1947. That's when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

In the months before that historic moment, Robinson played in Havana, Cuba -- intersecting with another nation's rich sports tradition. The rosters of Cuban teams like Almendares were filled with its own roster of stars, such as Agapito Mayor - a player who spent many of his final years living in West Tampa.

Florida Public Radio's Luis Hernandez speaks about that season with Cesar Brioso , a sports journalist at USA Today. Brioso was born in Havana and grew up in South Florida, hearing the tales that make up his new book: 'Havana Hardball - Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and The Cuban League.'

Cesar Brioso
Credit University Press of Florida

  What did the game, both the Cuban game and the American game, mean to you?

In a lot of ways it meant a connection with my dad.  He's the one who, when I was a kid, would tell me the stories about the American players who would come to Cuba to play. I'd hear these stories as a kid and then I grew up and became a sports writer. So I guess that's the main connection for me, the connection to my dad.

Major League teams had played in Cuba regularly, but there was a rival league that was trying to get its share of the wealth that was in Mexico. Tell us who Jorge Pasqual was and why did American baseball officials despise him?

He had decided he was going to try and lure major league players; to break their contracts and play in Mexico. He also went out and started going after big names. He tried to lure Ted Williams and Stan Musial, Bob Feller. They all rejected his offers, but just the fact that he was going after big-name stars like that, [Major League Baseball] Commissioner Happy Chandler decided enough was enough.

And so he had declared that any player who had jumped their contract would be ineligible to play organized baseball for at least five years. And he also declared that anyone who played with or against those ineligible players were themselves going to be ineligible, so that impacted the Cuban league.

A lot of those players in the Cuban league had either played with those jumpers in Mexico or in the Cuban league and were now at risk of losing their status in organized baseball. And there were American players who did take the deal and go down to Mexico.

Was the Mexican league that attractive to players compared to playing in Major League Baseball?

Well, they offered big contracts, much bigger contracts. But Pasqual was a millionaire. He had lots of business interests. He and his brothers owned or had controlling interest in a lot of the Mexican league teams, but he ended up kind of reneging on those contracts, which were pretty substantial compared to what they were making in the majors. And even after the first year he started to try to renegotiate those contracts with the players who had jumped.

There were Cuban players already playing in the major leagues for years before Jackie Robinson showed up. Some of them had to deal with race issues because the tone of their skin was a bit dark and American fans had a problem with it.

The Cuban players who had played in the majors were white. But I think American fans had questions. Newspapers basically rushed to try and declare that they were white to try to convince American fans that they weren't black. They were referred to as the purest bars of Castilian soap ever. Floated to the shores. There were all sorts of references like that in newspapers trying to assure fans that, 'Hey these guys are white; they're OK.'

Major League Baseball wanted to have control over the Cuban leagues. Why did they want that and why did they fail?

Well the control issue I think was born out of the Mexican league. The Cuban league was an independent league. But they were working in pretty good harmony with Major League Baseball. They played in the winter so that was never any issue in terms of not having players available. But because of all these ineligible players, the Cuban league was essentially a rogue league. So the people who organized the Cuban league wanted to be in the good graces of organized baseball. They worked out an agreement with Major League Baseball and became part of organized baseball. And that sort of set up rules for how they would sign players.

An Excerpt from 'Havana Hardball'

The Giants played nine more games with Ruth, going 6–2–2 against Cuban teams. But only the fifth game, on Saturday, Nov. 6, became etched in Cuban baseball lore. First baseman George "High Pockets" Kelly started at pitcher for the Giants, while Almendares sent Isidro Fabré to the mound.

After the Giants scored three runs in the first inning, Torriente began his home run barrage. In the second inning he homered off Kelly, a blast that cleared a distant fence in right field as Almendares took a 4–3 lead. Torriente added a solo home run in the third over the fence in left-center.

In the fifth, Torriente didn't hit a homer but drove in two runs—both off Ruth, who had come in from the field to pitch when Almendares loaded the bases against Kelly.

Before he became baseball's most prolific power hitter, Ruth was a dominant pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. In 1916, Ruth led the American League with a 1.75 earned run average and won 23 games. The next season, he won 24 games. And Ruth had tossed a then-record 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in World Series play.

But Torriente ripped a vicious line drive off Ruth and past Frankie Frisch. The Giants' third baseman vividly remembered the hit years later. “It wasn't in my glove...And I'm glad I wasn't in front of it." Frisch recalled. “Torriente was a hell of a ball player. Christ, I'd like to whitewash him and bring him up [to the majors].”

Of course Torriente, like other black players of his era, never got that opportunity. The major leagues' color barrier would last a quarter of a century longer. But against this team of white major leaguers, Torriente clubbed his third home run of the game in the seventh inning as Almendares beat the Giants 11–4. Torriente went 4-for-5, while the Sultan of Swat had gone 0-for-3. Reaction in the Cuban press varied. "Yesterday, Cristóbal Torriente elevated himself to the ೪st heights of glory and popularity." Historian Yuyo Riaz quoted El Día newspaper. “His hitting will enter Cuba" baseball history as one of its most brilliant pages."

But Roberto González Echevarria noted a story in Diario de la Marina that suggested the game was like batting practice and some of the Giants were in no shape to compete because they were drunk.” In its coverage of the game, the Los Angeles Times called Torriente “the Babe Ruth of Cuba.”

The Babe was far less generous to his Cuban counterpart or Torriente's teammates.

“Them greasers are punk ballplayers," Ruth derided. “Only a few of them are any good. The guy they calls after me because he made a few homers is as black as a ton and a half of coal in a dark cellar.”