19to21: August 1, 2007
The Cuban Connection
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many players were shot on July 27, 1959, it’s
Baseball...Then and Now
News Item: July 27, 1959: The Triple A game between the Havana Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings is called a 4-4 tie after 11 innings.
What do Bronson Arroyo, Danys Baez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Vinnie Chulk, Jose Contreras, Yunel Escobar, Ryan Freel (though not Farney), Luis Gonzalez, Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Raul Ibanez, Mike Lowell, Henry Owens, Orlando Palmeiro and Jorge Posada have in common? They’re all major league players of Cuban heritage. Dating back to Esteban Enrique “Steve” Bellan, baseball has been as much the national game of Cuba as it has been of the U.S. Born into a Cuban family in Havana in 1850, Bellan came to America, apparently to further his education at Fordham University, though maybe to get away from first Cuban war of independence. By 1868, proving he had learned more than the three R’s at Fordham, he was playing for one of the top NABBP teams, the Unions of Morrisania. The first Latin American to play at the highest level of American baseball, Bellan was only fair player by the day’s standards. Nonetheless, he lasted for six years at the top level of the sport before returning to Havana and, in effect, taking the game with him. And from there, it took off.
Not surprisingly, Cuba eventually returned the favor, and started exporting professional players to the U.S., starting with Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida of the 1911 Cincinnati Reds. Through Adolfo Luque, Minnie Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Mike Cuellar, Tony Taylor, Luis Tiant and many others, Cuba had a significant presence in the major leagues for decades. Then came December 31, 1958, when a frustrated former pitcher named Fidel Castro took over the Cuban government, and the pipeline from Havana to the majors slowly dried up. After the Tony Oliva/Tony Perez generation of players, very few native-born Cubans broke into the majors in the decade of the 70s. There were just four between 1970 and 1978, and then a fifth in 1980. And you probably don’t remember any of them – Rigoberto Mendoza, Oscar Zamora, Orlando Gonzalez, Bobby Ramos and Leonardo Sutherland. You see, Fidel wanted to keep all the good Cuban players at home, the better with which to dominate Caribbean professional and amateur baseball. That’s why it was such a big story when Barbaro Garbey landed on U.S. shores in 1984 – it had been four years since a Cuban had broken into the majors, and 20 years since a good Cuban (in this case, Tiant, Perez and Bert Campaneris) had “come up.” Of course, Garbey turned out to be both overrated and a bad egg as well, but that didn’t stop baseball executives from coveting Cuban stars.
A.G. (After Garbey) things loosened up a little, as Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro (don’t draw any unwarranted conclusions from the convergence of these three) and a few others made the majors, although the next big wave of Cuban players, led by the Hernandez brothers and Rey Ordonez of The Ordonez Line fame, really didn’t hit for another 10 years A.G. By 2007 though, you could make up a pretty good active All-Cuban team, led by Posada, Ibanez, Lowell (Cuban heritage, as opposed to born in Cuba) and the Hernandez’. Still, the high point of Cuban participation in Organized Baseball was really in the late 1950s. No less than 17 Cuban-born major leaguers broke in between 1958 and 1960. And, in fact, Havana had its own Triple A minor league team, affiliated, or at least largely stocked with, players from those same pioneering Cincinnati Reds. (In fairness, it should be noted that the Washington Senators also led the way in bringing Cuban players to the majors.) A team that eventually, through no fault of its own, basically ended up being located behind the Iron Curtain. And in a Latin country still ablaze with revolutionary fervor. And thereby hangs a tale. The story of the only baseball game ever called on account of gunfire. Here’s what happened, 48 years ago today, courtesy of one of SABR’s finest, Brian Engelhardt.
Writing in the current edition of “The National Pastime,” Engelhardt (who is also the foremost expert on baseball in Reading, PA) tells the story of the July 26, 1959 game between the Cardinals’ Rochester farm club and Havana. The Red Birds started former White Sox pitcher Bob Keegan along with a lineup that included at least two other former major leaguers, Luke Easter and Bill Harrell. For a Triple A team, the Sugar Kings were loaded… no fewer than seven Havana players who appeared in the game would have (or had) major league careers… Jesse Gonder, Elio Chacon, Chico Cardenas, YoYo Davalillo, Luis Arroyo, Tony Gonzalez and Carlos Paula. And that doesn’t even include Mike Cuellar, Lou Skizas, Cookie Rojas and Raul Sanchez, none of whom got in this particular game. Although the Sugar Kings scored a run in the bottom of the first, the Red Birds scored two in the second and one in the third to take a 3-1 lead that they carried into the bottom of the ninth inning, when the home team scored twice to tie it.
The hometown fans were already excited enough, partly because Fidel himself was present at the game – in fact he’d even pitched in an exhibition before the regular game started -- and partly because it was the sixth anniversary of the storming of the Moncada Barracks by Castro and his supporters. It was an act that got the Cuban revolutionary thrown in jail, but then again, Hitler and Lenin also spent time in the hoosegow for failed uprisings, and this particular unsuccessful putsch led to the formation of the 26th of July Movement, Castro’s organization that eventually took over Cuba at the end of 1958. Despite Castro’s somewhat, from a U.S. point of view, checkered resume, OB decided to keep the Sugar Kings in the International League and in Havana after the communist leader took over. Maybe they didn’t know how Cubans (and Latins in general) celebrate big occasions… they have a tendency to fire guns in the air.
So, that’s where things stood in the top of the 11th when Harrell hit an unexpected home run (he was a middle infielder, not a power hitter) to give Rochester a 4-3 lead. The Sugar Kings came back to tie it up again in the bottom of the inning, on a disputed play, the dispute centering around whether or not Gonder missed a base. In the ensuing brouhaha, Red Wing manager Cot Deal was tossed from the game, possibly the only time in the history of the sport that an ejection saved someone’s life. That’s because midnight struck shortly after Deal’s departure and, along with it, gunfire erupted both outside and inside the stadium as soldiers and civilians started celebrating the anniversary of July 26. At this point, now in the top of the 12th, Red Wing coach Frank Verdi was coaching third base in place of Deal. In the ensuing gunfire, he was struck on his helmet liner by a bullet… a bullet that, as Jim Brosnan later noted in “The Long Season,” might well have gone in Deal’s ear if he’d still been on the coaching lines… Deal was several inches taller than Verdi. Sugar King shortstop Cardenas was also grazed by a bullet, after which the umpires – no fools they – pulled both teams off the field and called the game.
A major flap erupted after the game, with name calling by both the Cardinal and Sugar King management, since the next day’s doubleheader was also cancelled with the permission of International League President Frank Shaughnessy. Paul Miller, GM of the Sugar Kings, had the incredible gall to be quoted as saying there was “no justifiable reason” for cancelling the next day’s DH. Maybe he should have talked to his shortstop first. Eventually, the baseball incident became an international incident, and Red Wings President Frank Horton had to call the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba to get the Red Wings out of the country ASAP by something other than a rowboat. Maybe even more incredibly, the Sugar Kings continued to play out their season in Havana (possibly because July 26th only comes once a year), winning the 1959 Junior World Series (talk about a home field advantage…), and then even started the 1960 season in Cuba, before the franchise was moved, hopefully not under fire, to Jersey City in July 1960, never to return. Thus did Organized Baseball leave Cuba, never to return… at least, not on July 26 or July 27.
- John Shiffert