Despite rifts, US and Cuba share baseball ties

Despite deep political and ideological differences over the years, Cuba and the United States always have shared a love of baseball.

From the Negro Leagues to the current crop of Cuban stars, the communist island and the U.S. are linked by century-old baseball ties. It was during spring training in 1947 in Havana that the Brooklyn Dodgers got an extended look at Montreal Royals star Jackie Robinson, who later that year became broke the major league color barrier.

Major league teams regularly held spring training camps in Cuba and played exhibition games there, and the Cincinnati Reds even had a Triple-A affiliate in Havana before Fidel Castro banned professional sports.

Cuban Hall of Famers Jose Mendez, Martin Dihigo and Cristobal Torriente were some of the biggest stars in the Negro Leagues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and eventual Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella played in Cuba in the 1930s and 40s as parts of careers that led to Hall of Fame induction.

President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that the U.S. is restoring diplomatic ties with the island nation could usher in a new era in U.S.-Cuba baseball relations, which were strained after the Fidel Castro-led revolution and the U.S. economic embargo. If Congress lifts the trade embargo, American-owned teams might one day return to Cuban soil, and Cuban players could sign with major league teams without defecting.

Some key moments in the history of U.S.-Cuba baseball ties:

-1864: Baseball is introduced in Cuba by Cuban students returning home from the U.S.

-May 1, 1871: Cuban Esteban ''Steve'' Bellan becomes the first Latin American player in U.S. baseball, making his debut with the Troy Haymakers of the National Association.

-Dec. 29, 1878: First official baseball game in Cuba, between Habana and Almendares. Bellan coached the Habana team, which won 21-20.

-1937: New York Giants hold spring training camp in Havana.

-1941-42, 1947: Brooklyn Dodgers hold spring training camps in Havana.

-1953: Pittsburgh Pirates hold spring training camps in Havana.

-1954-60: The Havana Sugar Kings, a Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, play in the U.S. minor leagues. The team was born in 1946 as the Havana Cubans in Class C.

-March 21, 1959: Less than three months after Castro's revolution, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds play what would be the last game between major league teams in Cuba for the next four decades.

-Jan. 14, 1962: Castro bans professional sports in Cuba.

-September 1995: Pitcher Livan Hernandez leaves the Cuban national team during a training camp in Monterrey, Mexico, one of the first in a series of high-profile players to defect and sign multimillion dollar contracts with MLB teams.

-March 28-May 3, 1999: Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team play a two-game series in Havana and Baltimore. Game 1 in the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana was the first time a major league team played in Cuba in 40 years. It was attended by Castro, and Baltimore won 3-2 in 11 innings. Cuba won the second game 12-6 at Camden Yards, led by future Yankees starter Jose Contreras.

-Sept. 27, 2000: The U.S. beats favored Cuba 4-0 in the gold medal game at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

-2012: For the first time since 1996, a Cuban national team and U.S. college players meet in an exhibition series in Cuba.

-Nov. 11, 2013: Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez is voted the NL Rookie of the Year, the first Cuban to win the award in either league since Jose Canseco in 1986. Jose Abreu wins the AL Rookie of the Year in 2014.

-Aug. 23, 2014: Rusney Castillo signs a $72.5 million, seven-year contract with the Boston Red Sox, the largest baseball agreement for a Cuban defector.

-Dec. 17, 2014: President Barack Obama announces plans to restore U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.