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Buena Vista Baseball Club
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #13 - Autumn 2003
Written by Mike Ross   

In case there is some doubt, baseball and antique American autos are doing just fine in Cuba. The Cubans generally appear to love Americans and it is quite certain that baseball has been our charm, despite the fact that Cuban politics has been prickly toward us, and vice versa.

My first adventure was in the main square situated between the old city and central Havana, within view of the National Capitol. There I came across a heated baseball discussion by a large ruckus of Cuban men, a majority of whom acted as Lou Piniella taking up a rules complaint with an umpire. To a stranger, with the apparent rage and gesticulations, there was cause for alarm – but not really. I learned that this was talking baseball Cuban Style and an alarming style of debate for a most simpatico of people. A few baseball cards did not go amiss with these good folk either.

Going to Cuba as a baseball envoy and handing out baseball cards as seeds of friendship helped make the trip purposeful and honourable; the kids were overjoyed with their Palmeiro’s and Canseco’s. Although I went to the island blind, not knowing what and where to find the baseball genie, four events tied up my short visit nicely: 1. Walking the city and seeing the kids invent ways of playing baseball was a treat. Action on every block. 2. Got to a big league ballgame at the Havana ballpark. 3. Discovered the exact room in Havana which housed Babe Ruth on his 1921 tour of the island, and later, in an antiquarian bookshop, found an English/Spanish booklet commemorating the tour. 4. Lastly, visiting the main cemetery I found a pantheon for baseball players, dated 1942. Whether this counts as serious conclusive SABR research I wonder; however my hope is that the findings open up other avenues and assist another researcher in perhaps turning a double play.

STREET BALL

Ill equipped with sticks and paper cups, the children somehow managed, reinventing foul and fair territory depending on the lay of the land, just like it was in America with stick ball when few inner city playing fields were available. Walking through the main parts of Havana, you will come across all sizes of children playing with sticks and a paper cup ball, and in some locales one or two will have a glove and a real wooden bat or a rubber baseball. Each had his particular stance, that of Julio Franco being most obvious but clearly those kids knew what they were doing and who they wanted to be. It was interesting to observe that nowhere in Havana Central did they play lengthwise in the street, rather across ways. Or in alley spaces between streets, mostly with scrub rules with a first base only; make it to first and back and you stay at bat. Countless times passers-by will be obliged to retrieve the ball and toss it back. Of course trying to look cool. My wearing a White Sox cap for protection from the sun was a sure-fire way of winning friends and unsolicited exchanges of conversation, the first question always being "Are you American?" The Cuban people love Americans. On the ride back to the airport I asked my driver to go via the Buena Vista district. With its newly acquired fame it was worth a look, maybe to find The Buena Vista Social Club, though it turned out to be terribly poor and run down. A game was going on, softball, flat pitch, tricky pitching, played longways because the streets were wider and there was less street activity in this suburb. Four kids, all with gloves, were at it; the batter looked good choking up on a big wooden bat. He had his glove down for home plate. A vital detail was that there was an adult man umpiring and calling pitches. The driver stopped to let me take a quick snapshot. I was unable to communicate my desire to find out how the game worked with the added complexity of balls and strikes - And so another research chore lingers.

BALLPARK

Politicos and propaganda go hand in glove with sporting events in Cuba: "Our freedom is non negotiable" is the motto boldly written on the front of Havana’s modern stadium, built for the most recent Pan-American Games. Unfortunately, the big league games are staged in a ballpark of a much more modest calibre. I had wanted to witness Cuban baseball since reading a Roger Angell article many years earlier; he reported his pleasure when the baseball stadium was shipshape. On this occasion things were not as good: and the state of the structure was dilapidated, peeling paint, poor lighting, and the facilities were rough and dirty. There were no programs. As for the ballpark food: if Cubans can afford it, you do not want it. They are on an average wage of about $20 a month, and for them tickets are virtually free. For us $3.

I was partly distracted but amused as my newly acquired companion, a Canadian who made arrangements, spent the middle innings of a thrilling contest negotiating with an usher for a signed jersey by the home team, as well as a ball and whatever else 20 dollars could buy, which was a great deal for him and for the players who would have joyfully received probably a buck and a half each. The game was the most exciting one could devise if inclined to invent it. Angell had mentioned the fervour of the fans. So, it was bad luck when the visiting team scored four runs in the first and took the fans out of the game, aided by the Havana first baseman dropping a routine pop-up. The fielding looked sloppy until suddenly the quality transformed and Havana started playing big league ball. The crowd came alive as gradually the home team clawed back to tie in the seventh, take a one run lead in the eighth, and win in the top of the ninth on a play from deep left for the final out on a close call at the plate. You root for the home team and when they win you share in the joy of the crowd.

THE RITZ

I was in the market for a room change in case my current reservation could not be extended. I walked across the square to the Ritz, now in decay since its days of glory. The one available room was enormous. I saw there were two foldout cot beds which nixed the place for me. I turned to leave and found the reason the baseball gods had placed me in that particular room; upon examination I was faced with what I would describe as a shrine to Babe Ruth. It was set up on one wall just inside the main entrance, explaining why I did not see it on entering. Four large framed photos of the Babe in action hung on the wall in front of a raised glassed enclosed display case holding a bat, various articles and a ball with indications that Babe Ruth had indeed slept there. I was not at once aware of the significance until a few days later. I have reason to believe that Cuban baseball fans are not aware of this shrine to the Babe. In fact my first reaction was "These Cubans really are baseball crazy". I did not realize the significance until a few days later. While preparing to leave for the airport I strolled into Chinatown for lunch (where else?). Afterwards just down the street I spied a street stall selling antiquarian books. This is where research does the work for you: As I was searching through a pile of old baseball cards (hoping to find the Honus Wagner big ticket), the vendor handed me a yellow booklet which was of course was nothing less than English/Spanish account of Babe Ruth’s 1921 tour of the Island conducted and promoted by none other than John McGraw. Muggsy’s picture along with a shot of the Ritz Hotel was a main spread.

The text was confusing and shabbily edited. Nonetheless I telephoned the author Yuyo Ruiz in Puerto Rico when I got back to London. I told him about the Ritz shrine. He said, surprised if not shocked, "I didn’t know about that". He had credited Cuban baseball sources in his book and they too were obviously unaware of the shrine. Yuyo was not forthcoming or of a generous nature, and I suppose the shrine is still our secret.

NECROPOLIS CRISTOBAL COLON

Again by chance, on the outskirts of Havana, I found yet another baseball shrine described in Spanish as a "pantheon" situated outside the up-market central placements of this grandest of graveyards. It is laid out as a little ‘city of the dead’ with a grid of streets. In fact to get to the placement indicated in the guide map, which I spotted simply by the word baseball, I was obliged to take a taxi from the entrance. It was an astonishing edifice, perhaps 14 feet at its highest point, with an effigy of a ballplayer in uniform towering over. The bigger-than-life figure is truncated a foot below the crotch, with his left hand resting on the knob of a bat. Before him, just where the three-quarter length statue ends, is a ball in a catcher’s glove laying flat, above eye level. It is fronted on its pedestal by an unidentifiable round moustached head carved as part of the overall piece. Below on a granite supporting pedestal, about 8 feet high, are two bronze crossed bats with a catcher’s mitt and ball in the middle, surrounded by a laurel with a large round bronze portrait beneath, engraved "Emilio Sabourin - annos 1878-1895". It is not clear as to whether this inscription relates to the main figure, however it is clear that a representation of a catcher is intended as a featured detail.

On the main supporting base of the edifice, probably 200 square feet, upon which all the sections stand, are several raised stone graves, and beneath centred at the bottom is the main inscription: "ASSOCIATION CRISTIANA DE PLAYERS UMPIRES y MANAGERS DE BASE-BALL PROFESSIONAL, 1942" Without an acute grasp of Spanish it is still clear the grave honours an Association of Christians, and the various names listed are of those who sponsored and financed the site. Above, on the front of one of the raised stone graves off to one side is a prominently displayed white stone plaque carved in black letters the heading: "SECUNDARON EFICAZMENTE LA CONSTRUCCION DE ESTE PANTEON", followed by 14 names. Loose translation: Pantheon built by for these gentlemen: "Los Senores: Horacio Alonso, Jose Sosa, Antonio Mosa, Antonio Ma de Cardenas, Alfredo Suarez, Paul J. Miller, Pedro M. Bauza, Rafael Inclan, Miguel Angel Gonzalez, Euslaquio Gutierrez, Alfredo Menendoz, Manuel Alonso, Tomas Miguillon, Jose Ma Fernandez." On the end of the main platform is another white and black plaque with a list of men inscribed: "ESTE PANTEON SE CONSTRUYO POR INICIATIVA DE" (and below in smaller letters): Los senores: Alberto Azoy, Manuel Alonso, Gonzalo Sanchez, Antonio Chavez, Emilio Hernandez, Jose Castener, Manuel Padron. This would represent and earlier sponsorship. What is obviously a much later addition is a plaque with a bust carved in relief, beneath which is the name "Dr. Antonio Mesa, 1959". This plaque is positioned on a raised pedestal portion of the grave, level with the crossed bats of the centrepiece. On the plaque itself inscribed beside the bust is the inscription: "Dr. Antonio Mesa Valdes". With the inscription: "FUE GRAN CUIDADANO Y DE BUEN DE DEPORTISTA. GRAN ABOGADO Y HONORABLE PRESIDENTE DE LA ASS. C. DE U. Y M. DEL BASE BALL PROFESSIONAL" translates as: "A good citizen and sportsman... a lawyer and honorable president of the Association [C.de U. y M ] of professional baseball." On the raised portion on the other side of the crossed bat centrepiece is a round bronze plaque with a portrait inscribed "ANTONIO MARIA DE CARDENAS".

This amazing site sadly has been vandalized and it appears that at least two plaques have been removed. Various pieces of salvaged stone have been assembled informally on or beside the graves. With only token searching, I have indication that many of these names are typical of northern Spain, where many emigrated to Cuba in the 19th century. The name of Rafael Inclan, perhaps by coincidence perhaps relates to a well known Spanish writer, Suarez Inclan (could he be a Cuban Roger Angell?). The conclusion is: There is much to be discovered with to baseball in Cuba.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 April 2009 22:05