Squeeze play: For decades, Castro maintained a grip on Cuba’s sports scene

A jubilant Jose ‘Mantequilla’ Napoles waves a hat high in the air as he is hoisted onto the shoulders of fight fans in Los Angeles April 18, 1969, after beating Curtis Cokes of Dallas, Texas.
A jubilant Jose ‘Mantequilla’ Napoles waves a hat high in the air as he is hoisted onto the shoulders of fight fans in Los Angeles April 18, 1969, after beating Curtis Cokes of Dallas, Texas. AP

The magnitude of Fidel Castro’s impact on society and politics in Cuba also extended to the island’s sporting life. It is difficult to name another national leader who so completely identified — and encouraged others to identify him — with the games his people played. For nearly five decades, Castro enthusiastically trumpeted the achievements of the national baseball and boxing teams (both long considered among the best in the world), the national women’s volleyball team (Olympic gold medalists in 1992, 1996 and 2000) and various track and field stars as proof that the future belonged to socialism.

It was baseball, though, that was closest to Castro’s heart, and image. It was rumored that, as a young pitcher in the late 1940s, Castro failed a major-league tryout. The anecdote has always been particularly popular in the exile community, where it is usually presented as evidence that not only Fidel, but fate itself conspired against Cuba; the assumption being that Castro was much more interested in dominating big-league hitters than his homeland.

The truth is Castro was never a pitching prospect. In fact, the only indication that he ever played baseball at all prior to the revolution, according to Cuba scholar and Yale University professor Roberto González Echevarría, is a single newspaper box score from 1946 showing that a certain “F. Castro” pitched in an intramural game at the University of Havana. (He lost, 5-4.) “There is no record that Fidel Castro ever played, much less starred, on any team,” writes González Echevarría in “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.”

Castro’s lack of baseball prowess did not stop him from indulging in diamond theatrics. On one such occasion — in July 1959 — he donned a uniform for an exhibition game in Havana’s Gran Stadium. Pitching for a team that called itself “Los Barbudos” (The Bearded Ones), the maximum leader struck out two batters in an inning’s worth of work. The Sporting News, though, couldn’t help but notice that Castro was the recipient of more than a little help behind the plate: “When the [umpire] called the batter out on a high, inside pitch, Castro dashed to the plate and shook hands with the ump.”

No event, however, more closely tied together Castro, politics and sports than the removal of the Havana Sugar Kings from Cuba in 1960. The Sugar Kings were the defending champions of the International League, a top-tier minor league circuit that also included the original Miami Marlins. Troubled by Castro’s increasing belligerence — the Cuban leader had begun his seizure of American assets — and citing concern over the safety of visiting players, the league pulled the team out of Cuba in mid-season, moved it north and rechristened it the Jersey City Jerseys.

Castro characterized the decision as “one more aggression against our people by the United States government” and branded Napoleon Reyes, who had agreed to manage the team in Jersey City, a “traitor to the revolution.” When two plainclothes detectives were assigned to guard Reyes during the Jerseys’ home opener, few were surprised. “In those days, everybody was scared,” former major-leaguer Octavio “Cookie” Rojas — at the time, a young second baseman on the team — told the Herald in 2005.

The cold war custody battle over the Sugar Kings marked the beginning of the end of professional sports in Cuba. One last season of pro winter ball was played in 1960-61 before Castro closed the door: Ballplayers and other athletes, prized for their symbolic value to the revolution, would no longer be allowed to emigrate.

With that decision, Castro not only altered the history of Cuban sport, but the history of sport in this country as well. Cuban athletes had been prominent in the U.S. since at least the 1920s, when pitcher Adolfo Luque starred for the Cincinnati Reds and boxer Kid Chocolate (born Eligio Sardiñas) ruled the ring in New York.

By the 1960s, the boxers and ballplayers who were among the last to legally leave Cuba had become some of sports’ prime performers. On the baseball side, they included Hall of Famer Tony Pérez, three-time American League batting champ Tony Oliva, 1969 Cy Young Award winner Miguel “Mike” Cuellar and 229-game winner Luis Tiant. In boxing, Luis Manuel Rodríguez, José (Mantequilla) Napoles and Ultiminio (Sugar) Ramos all won world championships in the 1960s.

Hence the riddle that has hung over the sporting world for more than five decades: How many more professional athletes of that caliber might Cuba have produced? The answer to that question has turned into one of our great sporting obsessions, a kind of perpetual fantasy league fueled by the Olympics and other international competitions and the dramatic defections of numerous Cuban ballplayers and boxers.

For years, many dreamed of a matchup between Olympic champion Teófilo Stevenson and then-heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. It almost happened: Stevenson reportedly was offered millions to defect following his victory at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the second of three consecutive gold medals the fighter would win. “I wouldn’t exchange my piece of Cuba for all the money they could give me,” Stevenson declared. For his loyalty, he was lauded as a national hero.

If Castro, to some, was a tireless champion of athletics on the island, he also denied generations of Cuban athletes the chance to perform on the largest possible stage, to reap the full benefit of their gifts. Perhaps, in the end, it is those games that were never played and the cheers that were never raised that are the most fitting monument to a man and a revolution whose promises — on so many fronts — went unfulfilled.

Gaspar González is a documentary filmmaker and the curator of the HistoryMiami exhibition (on display through Jan. 15) Beyond the Game: Sports and the Evolution of South Florida.