"It’s a symbol. I’d
say like the flag, like the coat of arms, like the national
anthem. Baseball has been a symbol of nationalism for
more than 120 years."
- Carlos Rodriquez Acosta,
Commissioner of Cuban baseball
Béisbol and Cuba have been synonymous
for more than a century. The sport grew rapidly after being
introduced to Cuba in the 1860s by U.S. sailors and Cubans
returning to their country after studying in the United States.
In 1869, during the Cuban First War of Independence, Spaniards
banned baseball in Cuba, where the natives preferred baseball
to watching bullfighting. As a result, baseball became known
as a symbol of freedom and defiance to the Cuban people.
During the baseball ban, Esteban Bellán became the
first Cuban and Latin American to play professional baseball
in the United States, which he learned while a student at
Fordham University. From 1869 to 1872, Béllan played
a flashy third base for the Troy Haymakers, which later became
the New York, and now, San Francisco Giants. The New York
club joined the National Federation in 1871, the first professional
baseball league and predecessor of today’s National
In 1878, the Professional Baseball League of Cuba began,
only two years after the National League was organized as
the first professional league in North America. By the 1890s,
Cubans had spread baseball all over Latin America, including
Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. In the early
1900s, Cuba imported a number of stars from the Negro Leagues
to play on integrated teams in its professional league. The
Cuban teams held their own in numerous exhibition matches
against Major League teams throughout the first half of the
Before the revolution in Cuba in 1959, Cuban baseball had
strong ties to professional baseball in the U.S. , with many
major leaguers playing winter ball in the Cuban league. In
1946, the Havana Cubans joined the Florida International League
as an affiliate of the A.L. Washington Senators. In 1954,
the team was renamed the Cuban Sugar Kings and became an “AAA”
minor league team of the Cincinnati Reds. The Sugar Kings
won the Minor Leagues’ World Series in 1959, prompting
speculation that it might soon become a major league franchise.
After the revolution, Fidel Castro disbanded the Cuban Winter
League and replaced the professional league with a new amateur
league in 1962. In the amateur Cuban League, sixteen teams
play a 90 game schedule from November through April, culminating
in a seven-game Cuban championship series with the winners
of the North versus the South divisions.
In 1991, René Arocha, a pitcher on the Cuban National
Team, shocked his country by defecting to the United States
while playing an exhibition game in Tennessee. In the next
decade, approximately 80 Cuban players defected to the U.S.
In 1995, the Cuban government responded to the mass defections
by instituting a “retirement program” that allowed
its best athletes and coaches to “retire” from
their Cuban teams and play in other countries, as long as
they returned 80% of their salaries to the Cuban government.
That year, 50 Cuban baseball players took this “retirement”
and approximately 1,000 athletes and coaches left the country.
Many Cubans believed the retirement program led to a decrease
in quality of play and an incentive to play poorly so that
players would be allowed to “retire” to higher
pay outside of Cuba. In 1998, Cuba ended its retirement program,
and the number of defections again escalated.
Historical Signifance: On December 25, 1879, Carlos
Macía of the Almendares club in Cuba, was credited
with the first attempt of a bunt for a base hit rather
than a sacrifice, twelve years before John McGraw instituted
the same strategy with the Baltimore Orioles.
The Cuban National Team has long been a powerhouse in international
competition. Between 1949 and 1960, Cuba won the annual Caribbean
Series seven times, before Fidel Castro dissolved the Series
in 1961 after converting baseball in Cuba to an amateur system.
(The Series returned in 1970 without Cuba.) In the Pan American
Games running every four years beginning in 1951, Cuba won
the gold medal in 1951, 1963, and in every Pan-Am Games from
1971 through the most recent one in the Dominican Republic
in 2003. Since baseball became an official Olympic sport in
the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Cuba has won gold medals
in 1992, 1996, and 2004, with their only defeat a second-place
finish to the United States in Sydney, Australia in 2000.
In the inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic, Cuba made it
to the finals before losing 10-6 in the Championship Game
Over 150 Cuban natives have played in the Major Leagues,
including such stars as Jose Canseco, 1969 Cy Young Award
Winner Mike Cuellar, Livian Hernandez, Minnie Minoso, 3-time
batting champion Tony Oliva, Rafael Palmero, Camilo Pascual,
Tony Perez, and Luis Tiant. Tony Perez, the third baseman
for the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine in the 1970s,
was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. A 7-time
All-Star, Perez finished his Major League career batting .279,
with 379 HRs, and 1,652 RBIs.
In 1977, Cuban legend Martin Dihigo was inducted into the
National Baseball Hall of Fame after a career spanning thirty
years in Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Negro
Leagues. Possibly the greatest all-around ballplayer of all
time, Dihigo played all nine positions. In the Mexican League
in 1938, he posted an 18-2 record, while unbelievably winning
crowns in both pitching (ERA 0.90) and batting (.BA .387).
He finished with a 119-57 won-loss record and .317 BA in the
Mexican League and 107-56 with a .298 BA in the Cuban League.
He is a member of the Hall of Fames in the United States,
Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.
In 2006, the National Baseball Hall of Fame also inducted
Cuban and Negro Leagues star Jose Méndez. Although
he starred as a pitcher and later a shortstop in the Cuban
(76-28 W-L record) and Negro Leagues from 1907-27, El
Diamante Negro gained notoriety early in his career,
when in three appearances against the visiting Cincinnati
Reds in 1908, he notched 25 scoreless innings, giving up only
8 hits and 3 walks while striking out 24.
For more information about Cuban baseball, see the excellent
on-line PBS documentary,
Stealing Home: The Case Of Contemporary Cuban Baseball.
Available for Sale
Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball, Roberto Gonzalez
Count: Inside Cuba Baseball, Milton H. Jamail
Players Born in Cuba