Even the most casual baseball fan knows that Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball that spring. But at the same time, Major League Baseball was being threatened by the outlaw Mexican League and the Cuban League was in danger of being blackballed by organized baseball.
Meanwhile, the most exciting pennant race in Cuban League history came down to the final weekend, as Almendares rallied past Habana in a battle of “The Eternal Rivals.”
It’s complicated to combine these elements and create a cohesive story, but César Brioso is more than equal to the task in “Havana Hardball” (University Press of Florida; hardback; $24.95; 302 pages).
A veteran sportswriter who was born 50 years ago in Havana, Brioso works as a digital producer at USA Today Sports. His newspaper experience includes stops at USA Today, the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Tampa Tribune and the Ocala Star-Banner. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida in 1988, and is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.
He also has a very informative blog about Cuban baseball at http://cubanbeisbol.com/.
Brioso, who is passionate about Cuban baseball, introduces the readers to characters like Adolfo Luque, who managed Cienfuegos. The “Havana Perfecto,” Luque was a 20-year pitching veteran who led the National League in wins (27), ERA (1.93) and shutouts (six) in 1923 with the Cincinnati Reds, who finished second behind the New York Giants.
In Cuba, Luque taught a young Sal Maglie the importance of owning the inside part of the plate, even if it meant a high, hard pitch aimed at the batter.
Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, Max Lanier, Martin Dihigo and Agapito Mayor were other players who made an impact. Miguel Angel Gonzalez, who managed Habana, had been a longtime third base coach for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Dihigo and Mayor never made it to the major leagues, although Dihigo would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame. In Cuba, all of these men were equal, regardless of race or ethnicity. That created a rich mixture of players, and some exciting baseball, too.
In the hotly contested pennant race in the Cuban League, Lanier and Mayor combined to win nine of Almendares’ final 13 victories at the end of the 1946-47 season. Think Yankees-Red Sox, and you can understand how passionate both teams (and fan bases) were about winning the pennant.
There was prejudice in Cuba, too, but it wasn’t as intense as it was in the Deep South. That was the reason Branch Rickey brought his team to Cuba for spring training in 1947, hoping to ease Robinson into the Brooklyn organization and eventually into the Dodgers’ major-league lineup.
It did not go as smoothly as Rickey had hoped, but the experiment received less antagonism than it would have in Florida’s Grapefruit League.
Brioso also charts the outlaw Mexican League, adding more detail to a chapter in baseball history that normally gets hardly more than a footnote or a passing nod. The Mexican League was a viable threat in 1947, and the players in the majors and the Cuban League had some hard choices to make.
During the course of his research, Brioso finds some great nuggets.
There is a fascinating story of a boxing match during spring training in 1942 between a drunken Ernest Hemingway and Dodgers reliever Hugh Casey at the writer’ farm outside Havana. Casey was reluctant to lace up the gloves until Hemingway sucker-punched him. Casey then battered the famous author until Hemingway ended the fight by kicking him in the crotch.
Hemingway offered to resume the bout the next day in the form of a duel, but Casey’s teammates dragged the pitcher away before that could be arranged.
Dixie Walker may be remembered as one of the ringleaders in circulating a petition to protest Robinson joining the Dodgers, but another action he took is just as far reaching, although much more subtle. Walker, seeing first baseman Lou Ruchser hit in the jaw with a line drive during batting practice, created a wire screen in a frame and positioned it in front of first base.
Manager Leo Durocher called it “the greatest idea in the world.” The screen idea would become popular among all major-league teams.
Despite his research, Brioso does make a few minor errors. He refers to Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Jack Coombs as Combs, and spells the last name of journeyman outfielder Josh Devore as “DeVore.”
Those do not detract from the flow of the book.
“Havana Hardball” is a nice addition to a baseball history fan’s library. It provides context to one of baseball’s greatest moments, and also reveals the talent of baseball in Cuba and the fervor of its fan base.
It’s a clear, concise look at baseball’s Cuban connection.