Cuba, the U.S., and Baseball: A Long If Interrupted Romance
Before there was a United States, beginning in 1776, there was baseball. And before there was a Cuban Republic, beginning in 1868, there was baseball. Today, even after decades of diplomatic hostility—never shared by the two peoples—the game older than either nation continues to be the tie that binds.
Until the Revolution of 1959, Cuba sent the most players to the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues. Its tournaments attracted players from both the U.S. and the Caribbean Basin. Four Cuban-born players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (Martín Dihigo, José Mendez, Tony Pérez, and Cristóbal Torriente); others are stars of the first magnitude today; and then there is Minnie Miñoso, about whom this entire essay might be written.
Many of the modern tales of Cuban-American baseball relations have been accompanied by misery—defection, human trafficking, fractured families, broken bonds with a national heritage. This is a story amply documented in today’s news outlets, so there is little point in my summarizing it here. Instead, let’s look back to how baseball began in this island nation, the role that the U.S. has played, and some alternative views of Cuba’s baseball paternity.
Friendliness between the nations began with the sugar business and the counting houses that lined Manhattan’s waterfront, mercantile establishments that typically had offices in Havana and Matanzas. The counting houses forged links between Cuba and New York that went beyond the realm of commerce, facilitating not only the exchange of goods and money, but also of people and culture.
By the mid-nineteenth century, boys and young men from wealthy Cuban families were sent to New York for an education or for work experience, and the counting houses had a direct role in bringing them from Cuba. As Lisandro Pérez notes, “The New York merchants would make arrangements for the sons of their Cuban clients to be enrolled in boarding schools in the New York area, meeting them at the dock, buying their winter clothing and other necessities, paying for tuition and board, and even disbursing periodic allowances.”
This rite of passage was common practice among middle-class Cuban families at the time not only because of vital trading relations but also because the Cuban independence movement had prompted a violent crackdown by Spanish authorities, making Cuba a dangerous place for the impressionable young. Esteban Bellán was one such Cuban boy sent from Havana to New York at age thirteen with his brother Domingo to be educated at the preparatory school of St. John’s College (today’s Fordham University). There he played ball for the Rose Hill club, and upon his graduation in 1868 went on to play for the powerful Union of Morrisania club; for nearly 150 years thereafter, he would be regarded as the first Cuban-born player to perform at the top level of the game, the National Association of Base Ball Players.
Bellán (1849-1932) went on to play in baseball’s first professional league, with the Troy Haymakers and the New York Mutuals in 1871-1873. In the winter of the latter year he returned to Cuba and started up the Club Habana baseball team. He played in the first organized baseball game ever played in Cuba, on December 27, 1874, at Palmar del Junco Field. Club Habana beat Club Matanzas by 51-9. For this reason he is regarded in the U.S. as the “Father of Cuban Baseball.”
Cubans, however, might put forward another candidate. Also playing for Club Habana in the aforementioned game are two other early giants of Cuban baseball: the patriot Emilio Sabourín and the little-known (in the U.S.) Ernesto Guilló. Sabourin was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1941; Guillo’s brother Nemesio in 1948; and Bellán not until 1984, in a ceremony held in Miami.
Nemesio Guilló Romaguera (1847-1931) was sent to the U.S., like Bellán, by a father who was in the sugar trade. Along with his brother and Enrique Porto, he was sent to Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama—a private, Roman Catholic school founded in 1830—in 1858. Many other Cuban boys joined them there over the next two years. From the newspaper Diario de la Marina in 1924:
In 1864, seven years later, they returned to Cuba on a ship as grown men with strong necks, broad chests, athletic and ready to support in any way the rights of men, so unknown to the colony of those days. One of the three lads had in his trunk a bat and ball, completely unknown objects in Cuba, scarcely known in the United States itself, where “town ball,” which later would be called baseball, was in its beginnings. Nemesio, the younger of the two Guilló brothers, brought the precious gadgets. Having spent the day in La Machina, the three boys were already playing with the bat and the ball in El Vedado.
What was likely the first ballgame in Cuba with local participation occurred in June 1866, when sailors of a U.S. ship taking on sugar invited Cuban longshoremen to play. While Ernesto did not continue as a player, Nemesio did, playing with Havana in 1879-1880 and in 1882-1883 with the Ultimatum club, for whom he served as “right shortstop,” a position between first and second base. Following the suggestion of Henry Chadwick, rejected in the U.S., Cuban baseball in this period was played with ten men to the side.
In recent years I discovered, ith help from Peter Morris and César González, another candidate for a “father of baseball” that might be celebrated in both Cuba and the U.S: the previously unnoted Rafael Julian de la Rúa of Matanzas (see: http://goo.gl/wgsnkR). In 1860, at the age of twelve, he is listed in the U.S. census, living in Newton, Massachusetts, a student at R.B. Blaisdell’s school in Newton. A classmate of Bellán’s at Fordham from 1864-1867 (it is unclear whether he played ball with the Rose Hills), he transferred to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for 1868, and in that year joined the Troy Haymakers, a first-class National Association club, pitching in twelve games. A lefthander with a peculiar screwball pitch, Rúa was so effective against the New York Mutuals on August 4 that the Troy Times observed, “Rúa’s pitching was the acme of perfection—not too swift to be unreliable, and with just enough of the ‘twist’ to prevent the Mutuals from making their heaviest batting.”
Because Rúa played in National Association games before Bellán left Fordham to join the Unions of Morrisania, it may be said that he and not Bellán was the first Cuban national to play high-level ball in the States.
Rúa did not graduate from RPI, nor did he continue to play ball after 1868. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 1874, while living in New York City. He traveled to Cuba on separate trips in 1874 and 1875, but there his trail goes cold.
Looking back at the stories of Bellán, Guilló, and Rúa, it becomes evident that American colleges were the most important agents in the proliferation of the game in Latin America, even more than the military and its multiple occupations, as we had long supposed.
By 1879 American players from the National League were playing winter ball in Cuba. By 1886, El Sport, a Havana weekly, declared: “Baseball is today, without distinction of classes, age and sex, the preferred diversion of all [Cubans].”
And so has it ever been.