For all its apparent lawlessness, its rough-and-tumble, Cuba was a dream getaway for the American players. This was long before free agency, a time when many major-leaguers took jobs during the off-season to make ends meet. Cuba was a pleasant place to pick up some extra cash. It was like a working vacation in Las Vegas, only instead of cactus and the prime rib specials, you had the beach and the women and the finest cigars in the world. In 1951, Don Zimmer, then an infielder in the Dodgers’ farm system, was sitting at home in Cincinnati with his wife, Jean, when he got a call from Al Campanis, the Dodger scouting director. “It was fifteen degrees above zero with about four feet of snow on the ground,” Zimmer recalled. “Campanis says to me, ‘You want to go to Havana, Cuba, and play for the rest of the winter?’ I say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He says, ‘How soon can you get there?’ I say, ‘Tomorrow.’ ”
Zimmer, arriving from Ohio via Miami, took over at shortstop the following night for Cienfuegos, which had a working agreement with the Dodgers. He made $500 a month, and another $500 under the table. He recalls less about the games than he does about the lifestyle. Jean brought over the family Ford on the overnight ferry from Miami. The team set up the recently married couple at Club Nautico, a group of luxury apartments on a beach with sand the consistency of powdered sugar. The team played just three times a week, always in the same packed stadium, and, better yet, there was never any travel. “We lived right on the water,” said Zimmer, smiling at the memory in the Yankee dugout one afternoon. “When we’d get up in the morning, the salt would be on our car. We had a maid—something that I never really believed in—but for just a dollar a day she would come in and clean for you. It was just a great, great place. I’ve been to Puerto Rico. I’ve been to the Dominican Republic. I’ve been to all the winter leagues. But there was nothing like Cuba. It was a resort.”
For the Cuban ballplayers, particularly blacks, it was an entirely different story, of course. Luis Tiant, the Red Sox star, grew up in Havana as the son of one of the finest pitchers the island has produced: a lefty also named Luis Tiant. The son went on to win 229 games in the majors, only to have people tell him: “You’re good, but your father was better.” But the elder Tiant came up before Robinson broke the color barrier. He made so little playing in Cuba—50 cents a game, at one point, a buck for a doubleheader—he tried to persuade his son to give up the sport. Tiant said his mother saved his career: “She said, ‘Hey, leave him alone, if he wants to play, let him play.’ ”
Tiant’s first baseball was a rounded piece of cork with nails hammered into it, the entire sphere then covered with tape. He fashioned his first glove out of a cigarette carton. “One time a friend of mine—he’s dead now—one time I hit him in the back with one of those nail balls,” said Tiant. “About forty-five minutes before, we had been eating bananas behind his house, and then we went to play. I hit him in the back with that nail ball and he started to puke. That’s the way we played when I was growing up.” Tiant was so skeptical about his future as a ballplayer that he studied for a year to be a mechanic. He reasoned that he had a lot working against him: “I’m black and I’m Hispanic: I’m fucked both ways.” His color prevented him from even setting foot inside Club Nautico, where Zimmer and his wife had spent their Havana winter. But Tiant clung to the dream. “That was your only chance to be somebody,” he said. “You don’t give a shit how much money you’re making, you just want to get out.”
The Indians offered Tiant $150 to pitch for Mexico City, which had a working agreement with the Tribe. I noted that $150 wasn’t much of a signing bonus. “Bonus? Are you kidding me, what fucking bonus?” railed Tiant. “I had to live on that shit. I used that hundred and fifty dollars to pay for the hotel, for the food, to send money to my mom and dad. If I had something left, I used it to buy a cigar.” In 1962, the Indians sent Tiant to pitch for their minor-league team in Charleston, South Carolina. In Cuba, Tiant had lived with segregation, but he was stunned with the racism he encountered in the States. “It was worse,” he said. “Most of what you saw in Cuba at that time, it was more of a society thing. You had rich people, and they had their clubs and all that bullshit. But the regular people, we lived together, white and black. I didn’t have any problem. When I got here, forget it. It don’t make no fucking difference whether you are high class or low class, you go back! You go back to where you fucking belong and don’t come in here, don’t eat here. You can’t go to any bar. You can’t go to any club. It makes you feel like you’re not human. When the other blacks would come in with the other teams, the fans ate their asses alive: It was, ‘Nigger, go back to the jungle, go back to Africa, you don’t belong here, monkey,’ all kinds of shit. And you couldn’t do shit about it, either. You go over there to fight, they kill your ass.”
Not long after he was in the States, Tiant received a message from his father: Don’t bother coming home. The Tiants had been among the thousands of working-class poor who had flooded the streets of Havana on January 1, 1959, when Castro came to power. Tiant himself had been there, awaiting Fidel’s triumphant arrival. “We were all shouting, ‘Castro’s coming! Batista’s gone!’ We were thinking that it was going to get better.” But things were changing fast. In 1961, the year that Castro announced his conversion to Marxism-Leninism, the government also declared the end of professional baseball in Cuba. Players would no longer be bartered like merchandise. The entire sports system would be taken over by a National Institute of Sports, Education and Recreation (INDER). The new system would be modeled after one that had turned the Soviet Union into a powerhouse in international “amateur” competition. Children would be screened for their athletic potential, then groomed in special schools for the day when they would demonstrate the superiority of socialism to the rest of the world. Baseball, the national sport, would be no different. The players would not go on to serve the major leagues or entertain Americans. Rather, they would stay in their own country to entertain their own people—admission would be free—and the very best of them would venture forth to demonstrate the fallacy that baseball was the American game.
Tiant never went back. He didn’t see his father again until the old man came to Boston for the 1975 World Series. When I met with him, Tiant’s distinguished career in baseball was winding down in Savannah, Georgia, of all places, where he was head coach at the Savannah College of Art and Design, a Division 3 school better known for churning out historical preservationists and graphic artists. Tiant, nearly sixty, liked the job. He enjoyed teaching baseball, and the weather allowed him to play golf year-round. But the players, with their cars and their inflated egos and their limited work ethic, bewildered him. “They think everything is coming from the sky,” he said. “Nothing comes from the sky.” Some even complained about him swearing in the dugout.
One chilly spring morning Tiant sat by an empty ballfield, puffing on a Dominican cigar the size of a small branch. His famous Fu Manchu mustache had turned white, as if covered by frost, and he wore a black-and-yellow baseball cap with the school mascot, an agitated bumblebee. “I’m not really a politics person,” he said. “I don’t care about all that bullshit. I never really cared too much about politics at all. But I never went back, and I don’t even know if I can go back. It’s just hard. I lost seventeen years of my life with my father. People don’t understand. Only Cubans can understand.”
From The Duke of Havana by Steve Fainaru and Ray Sánchez.
Copyright © 2001 by Steve Fainaru and Ray Sánchez. Reprinted with permission.