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Monday, May 21, 2012

Fidel Castro and Major League Baseball

“Lots of enthusiasm, not much of an arm. Suggest he go into another business.”

That quote is reportedly from Tom Callahan’s major league scouting report on Fidel Castro. In his early rabble-rousing days, Castro fancied himself quite a pitcher. This isn’t too much of a surprise, as baseball in the nineteen forties and fifties, as it is today, was hugely popular in Cuba. Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans are recognized as the first Cuban born players to appear in a major league game, and that was for the Cincinnati Reds all the way back in 1911. And in 1923, Dolfe Luque won 27 games for the Reds, while former Cincy slugger Tony Perez is in the Hall of Fame.

The Cuban Fireballer on the  mound in 1959*.
It has been widely reported that Fidel Castro was given a major league tryout (either by the Yankees, or the Senators, or both) and was found wanting. Yeah, not so much. In a baseball crazy country, Castro was like many other young men and fancied himself a ball player. He may well have played intramural baseball while a law student at the University of Havana. In fact, there is one box score that has “F Castro” pitching. However, there is no sign, ANYWHWERE, that he played at any higher level and it’s pretty unlikely he was given a tryout.

Callahan’s quote can’t be entirely discounted, but it certainly seems like a fabricated story. However, back in 1950, future major league infielder Don Hoak had an on the field encounter with Castro that is probably true.

Hoak (#43) was at third for an
injured Jackie Robinson when
Johnny Podres clinched the
only World Series title in Brooklyn
Dodgers history in 1955.
Hoak played in the majors from 1954 to 1964, mostly at second, third and the outfield. He was a career .265 hitter with 89 homers and 64 stolen bases. He was primarily known for his hardnosed approach to the game and playing hurt. His standout season was in 1960, when he finished second to teammate Dick Groat in the MVP voting. Hoak was on two of the most famous World Series championship teams: the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.

During a winter league game in 1950 or 1951, Hoak was playing for the Cienfuegos club when a group of law students took over the field and Fidel Castro took to the mound. Hoak recounts the experience that he wrote with legendary Pittsburgh Steelers announcer Myron Cope in The Day I Batted Against Castro.

*Shortly after assuming the Presidency, Castro founded a barnstorming baseball team, 'Los Barbudos' (The Bearded Ones), consisting mostly of rebels who had fought with him. They played games to raise money for the Havana Sugar Kings**, who played in the AAA International League from 1954 to 1960 as an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. On July 24th, 1959, Los Barbudos played an exhibition against the Cuban National Police prior to a Sugar Kings – Rochester Red Wings game. 26,532 fans saw Castro pitch one scoreless inning, striking out two (no doubt with a generous strike zone from the umpire).

**In 1960, after Castro had nationalized all US owned enterprises in Cuba, baseball Commissioner Ford Frick moved the Sugar Kings to New Jersey, where they became the Jersey City Jerseys. That team eventually moved to Norfolk, VA and became the Tidewater (now Norfolk) Tides.