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One thing is ruthlessly clear about Fidel the baseball player. The oft-presented tale of his large prowess as a potential big-league hurler simply isn’t true as normally told. It is an altogether attractive supposition – one we can hardly resist – that baseball scouts might well have changed world history by better attending to Fidel’s potent fastball. It makes perfect filler for Bob Costas during a tense World Series TV moment when or mans the October mound. It makes tantalizing fiction in sportswriter Tim Wendel’s fast-paced novel (Castro’s Curveball, 1999), but fiction it nonetheless remains. As Bob Costas once pointedly reminded this author in personal correspondence, in this case the full-blown fiction is far too delectable ever to be voluntarily abandoned by media types who exploit its seductive appeal.

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The New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates also somehow frequently make their way into the story. And in a scandalous article in the May 1989 issue of Harper’s Magazine, journalist David Truby provides perhaps the most egregious elaboration of the myth by adding the New York Giants to the list of purported Castro suitors. (Truby’s piece was actually a reprint, lifted from his monthly column in the short-lived journal Sports History.) Truby reports that was also hot on the trail of the young Castro, a “star pitcher for the Havana University baseball team,” and quotes from supposedly extant Giants scouting reports (that no one else has apparently ever seen) as his proof. Yet Truby is not alone in falling for (or in this case manufacturing) the delightful story. Reputable baseball scholars, general sports historians, numerous network news broadcasters (and even former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy in an obscure 1995 journal article) have been taken in by the myth of Castro as a genuine major-league pitching prospect.

 

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Lockwood, Lee. Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel (New York: Vintage Books, 1969.) (Best English source for Fidel’s personal comments on sports and athletics in socialist society)

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Castro, Fidel. Fidel Sobre El Deporte (Fidel on Sports). Havana, Cuba: INDER (National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation), 1975. (Containing excerpts from speeches and publications by the Maximum Leader, providing the most comprehensive source on Fidel’s own comments regarding sports and athletics in socialist society)


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Fidel was later often rumored to have a heavy hand when it came to micro managing the successful national team that from the late ‘60s on dominated international competitions such as IBAF (International Baseball Federation) world championships, Pan American Games and Central American games tournaments, and (after 1992) gold medal competition Olympic Games baseball tournaments. There is sufficient evidence that these claims were more than rumors. All doubt of Fidel’s influences over the Cuban national team were erased for this author when I was actually on the immediate scene for one phone call that seems to verify Fidel’s role as apparent national team “pseudo general manager.”

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Fidel’s influence on Cuban baseball nonetheless remained enormous after the successful military takeover by his July 26 Movement in January 1959. It was the already deteriorating relationships between Washington and the Cuban government during that very year, and the one that followed, that more than anything led to the sudden relocation of the Cuban International League franchise in July 1960 from Havana to Jersey City. In turn, that decision to strip Cuba of its professional baseball franchise may – as much as anything else in the early stages of the Cuban Revolutionary regime – have worked to sour Fidel Castro on the United States and its (at least from the Cuban point of view) blatant imperialist policies. After the folding of the Havana professional ball club Fidel reestablished baseball on the island (in 1962) as a strictly amateur affair, and under his revolutionary government a new “anti-professional” baseball spirit soon came to dominate throughout Cuba.

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While umpires next desperately tried to phone league president Frank Shaughnessy back in New York for a ruling on the chaotic situation, manager Deal and his general manager, George Sisler Jr., had already decided on their own immediate course of action. It was to get their team safely back to the downtown Hotel Nacional and then swiftly onto the next available plane routed for Rochester (or at least Miami). But some Cuban fans in attendance at the packed El Cerro Stadium that night (a few have been interviewed over the years by the author in Havana) today hold very different memories of the event, perhaps colored by the changing perspective or fading recollections of several passing decades. They remember few shots, little that was hostile in the crowd’s festive response to both the patriotic celebration and the exciting ballgame, and hardly any sense of danger to either the ballplayers or the celebrants themselves. And Cuban baseball officials at the time also had a slightly different interpretation, vociferously denying that the situation was ever truly out of control and pressing the Rochester manager and general manager to continue both the suspended match and the regularly scheduled game on tap for the following afternoon.