A Cuba libre may be a rum deal, but White Sox Cuba fiebre sure isn't
The White Sox have now set a Cuban record of sorts — the first major league lineup to have four players raised on ropa vieja at the top of the card:
Luis Robert, cf
Yoán Moncada, 3b
José Abreu, 1b
Yasmani Grandal, c
Having four native Cubans on a team is nowhere near a record — the 1944 Washington ("first in war, first in peace, last in the American League") Senators had nine on their roster at one point or another. But unless things go terribly wrong, the Sox will field the best group of Cuban players in MLB history. And Cuba and MLB have a long history.
Let's go back. Way back
Baseball in Cuba goes back to the '60s — not the 1960s, when Fidel Castro's love of the game brought a big expansion in Cuban leagues, but the 1860s, when students returning home from U.S. colleges brought baseball with them. According to Wikipedia (which, of course, is never wrong), the first Cuban team was formed in 1868, as baseball became a symbol of freedom from Spain.
The first league, with three teams, came a decade later. The teams were all-white until Cuba broke the color barrier in 1900, a mere half-century ahead of the U.S. Major growth came toward the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th, as the United States found Cuba a handy place to invade and occupy, and American soldiers played ball in the nice Caribbean weather:
- 1898-1902: The Spanish-American War, to help William Randolph Hearst's newspaper circulation ("Remember the Maine!")
- 1906-09: After a government collapse, to make sure our guy took over, during which 10% of US soldiers got an STD ("Remember the Pain!")
- 1917-22: Because oil wasn't a big deal yet, an invasion to ensure U.S. corporate control of another energy source, sugar ("Remember the Cane!")
The first Cuban player to come north to the major leagues was in 1902, when Chick Pedroes joined the Cubs long enough to go 0-for-6. Perhaps the Pedroes example put teams off, because he wasn't followed until 1911, when the Reds signed Armando Marsans, who had a solid U.S. career, and Rafael Almeida, who had an OK one. They were able to do that because the Cincinnati Enquirer assured the fans the players carried "no ignoble African blood."
And on we move
All told, there have been 213 major league players who were born in Cuba, according to Baseball Almanac. Only a quarter of them played before 1950, thanks to good old American racism. Most of those were during war years, mainly World War II. At that time teams, especially the Senators, realized Cuban players weren't subject to the American draft — the Uncle Sam one.
But even in times of war, racism took precedence. Of the four Cuban natives enshrined in Cooperstown, only one — the Big Red Machine's Tony Perez — ever played in the majors. The other three, including the legendary Martin Dihigo, were relegated to the Negro Leagues in U.S. play.
Dihigo, called by Buck Leonard and many others who saw him "the greatest player of all time, black or white," was both a pitcher and regular, mostly as a slick-fielding second baseman, but able to play anywhere. "El Immortal" hit as good as .415 in Cuba, .387 in Mexico, and even .326 with no K's (attention, Sox Cuban players!) in 11 exhibitions against major league teams and .311 in 12 years in the Negro Leagues. In 1942, at the age of 37, he won 30 games combined in the Mexican and Cuban leagues, while hitting a combined .302.
Incidentally, while Perez is the only Cuban-born major leaguer in the Hall of Fame, most rankings, either subjective or by WAR, place Luis Tiant and Rafael Palmeiro as the best-ever Cuban major leaguers.
The White Sox finally enter the picture
The Sox were devoid of Cuban players until 1951. That's when an incredibly complicated three-team deal brought one Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso Arrieta from Cleveland.
Minnie Minoso is No. 6 on mlb.com's list of best Cuban MLB players, and about that high on the list of White Sox all-time greats. Of his 17 years of major league play, 12 were on the South Side, including not only six of his All-Star years, but also the 1980 Bill Veeck hype return at the age of 54, when he went 0-for-2 (but didn't strike out — please note again, current Sox players).
Meanwhile, back in the mountains
The '50s saw a growth in Cuban players in the majors, from six in 1949 to 17 in 1959 (including pitcher Rudy Arias, who won two games for the AL champion Sox), but circumstances were about to change. When Castro brought his revolution out of the mountains in 1959, the U.S. didn't take kindly to a change from a right-wing dictatorship to a left-wing one that didn't let American companies own the sugar plantations and the mob own Havana casinos. That didn't initially stop the flow of Cuban players to the north, but the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 (No. 4 on our invasion of Cuba list if you're counting, though carried out by Cuban expatriates, and a failure on the occupation front) led Castro to terminate that possibility.
A year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis led to an agreement between the U.S. and USSR that rendered Cuba essentially harmless to the U.S. Ever since, it has been a battle to see which government could out-stupid the other.
Cuban baseball grows, your scribe gets to watch
My interest in Cuban baseball goes back more than half a century.
Given he was a communist, Castro changed the Cuban league and players from professional to amateur in 1961, but he also grew the sport during the next decade. That's the decade during which I got to watch some of the teams on TV.
From 1966-68, I was stationed on the USNS Sgt. Joseph E. Muller, spending two years sailing back and forth six miles off Havana. Officially, we were doing some sort of oceanographic research, but you had to be an idiot not to know we were what the Cubans called us — "the Yankee spy ship."
That was a pretty dangerous time for some of our sister ships — the USS Liberty suffered a coordinated air-sea attack by Israel in 1967, which murdered 34 U.S. sailors and injured 171, and the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea a few months later with one sailor killed in the attack and the rest horribly mistreated during 11 months of captivity. But the biggest conflict we had was the occasional exchange of middle-finger salutes when a Cuban patrol boat sailed by. Even that was rare — we usually just waved to each other. Our only actual danger was when the old tub's engine froze during a big storm and we came within a few hundred yards of smashing onto the rocks east of Havana, saved only by lines tossed from a destroyer which had been sent to watch out for us after the Pueblo was taken.
Our mission was more paranoia than real, and life was pretty boring, except for the when a few Cuban Bautista-supporter counter-revolutionaries decided to actually stage a landing, which usually consisted of setting fire to some sugar crops, and then either fleeing or getting caught. One typical night shift, since the Cuban military was sensible enough to get some sleep, I spent hours listening to and transcribing a naval operator in Mariel teaching his cohort in Santiago the lyrics to "En El Centro de la Ciudad," the Spanish version of the Petula Clark hit "Downtown." The Santiago guy was a dreadfully slow learner.
However, we did have a small black and white TV in the enlisted lounge. If the weather was just right we could catch a show from Miami — once in a giant inversion layer we even watched TV from Cleveland and Detroit — but mostly we just had Havana. That was largely propaganda, telenovelas, and, in season — hallelujah! — beisbol.
That happened to be a period of big expansion of the top Cuban league, from six to 12 teams, so we saw a lot of action. We also heard a lot of action, in the Spanglish that has become standard baseball vocabulary.
You could go straight Spanish, with "lanzador" for pitchers and the outfielders as "jardineros," or go "piche" and "queche," and the announcers liked to switch around. One play I've remembered for more then 50 years was a tie game, bottom of the ninth, one down, man on third — I think it was for Oriente, but don't quote me. The announcement went (I'm making up the names):
El piche. Ramirez bate un flai al jardin izquierdo! A la pista, posiblemente suficiente! Martin lo tiene. Amoros tage. El corre! Martin tire! Amoros deslizarse! Es saaaaaaf!!! Es un sacrifeeeeees flai!!! Oriente gana! Oriente gana!
That's a little flat in print, but if you've ever heard a Spanish World Cup announcer call a goal, you'll get the idea. It was the "sacrifeeeeeeeeees flai" that stuck the play in my memory, even if that's not the official way to say it in Spanish, since "elevado de sacrificio" lacks the same oomph (and, no, I'm not sure I got all the other phrasing right).
It was fun baseball to watch, with a lot of good defense, not too many homers, limited strikeouts (attention again, Sox Cuban — and other — players!), great speed and a lot of action. Of course, American baseball was more fun to watch back then, too.
But I digress.
The northward trek slows, then accelerates
Very few players were able to make the journey to the U.S. for decades. While there were 27 Cuban-born major leaguers in 1969, almost all had left the island before 1961. The number dwindled to four each in 1979 and '89, and the four in '79 — Tiant, Perez, Bert Campaneris and José Cardenal — had all been in the States since the early '60s. The four in '89 had all come north as children.
The '90s saw an increase in international play by Cuban teams. Baseball became an Olympic sport in 1992 and in its six appearances, Cuba has won four gold medals and two silver, perhaps helped by the fact the Olympics conflict with the MLB season. Cuban results in the WBC, with major leaguers playing, have been good, but not great.
That led to a huge increase in defections, many taking the easy route of just walking away while away from home, others going the hard way by dead of night departure. Wikipedia lists dozens of defections in the 1990s alone. MLB rosters carried 11 Cuban-born players in 1999, and one of them — El Duque, Orlando Hernandez — became a solid part of the White Sox 2005 championship team, after a complicated and difficult departure from Cuba via small boat, the Coast Guard and the Bahamas in 1997, two years after his brother Livan had come north.
By 2009, MLB rosters carried 13 Cuban players, including White Sox star Alexei Ramírez, who had taken an unusual matrimonial route to Chicago. His wife is Dominican, so he was allowed to freely to go to the Dominican Republic, then turned north from there.
Also on the 2009 list was José Contreras, 15-game winner for the Sox in 2005, plus three postseason victories, including Game 1 of the World Series.
Traffic really has accelerated in the past decade. Diplomatic relations were re-established in 2015, tensions eased, legal movement flowed, to the point there were 30 Cuban-born major leaguers last year.
Not all was easy movement, though, especially early in the decade. Abreu was one of those whisked out by a speedboat at night in 2013, then making a tortuous journey that included eating the first page of a false Haitian passport so he wouldn't arrive in the U.S. under a fake name. At least his trip wasn't as hazardous as that of Yasiel Puig, which resulted in one of the men who smuggled him out being killed by Mexican kidnappers.
Those who smuggled the players usually claimed 30% of future earnings, and weren't necessarily kind about collecting. That, among other things, led to the two men who brought Abreu and others out being convicted of human trafficking in Miami in 2017.
Not everyone decided to follow the dollar signs north. Omar Linares, perhaps the greatest Cuban player since Dihigo (he had a .368 lifetime BA), chose patriotism over pelf and played on the island until a Cuban-supported journey to a Japanese team very late in his career.
For the majority who wanted to try for the big time and bucks, not only did tensions ease on the diplomatic front, they also improved on the baseball front. Easing was gradual, until the illegal activity was made moot by an agreement between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation in 2018 that put Cuban players under essentially the same circumstances as other international free agents.
Four different roads to Bridgeport
The four key White Sox players in 2020 came via very different routes. Abreu's was the only path that was both difficult and dangerous.
Grandal had the smoothest route. When he was 10, his mother applied under a Cuban lottery program for legal emigration and won, so the whole family got to move to Florida. Grandal is actually a product of Miami Springs High School and the University of Miami.
With the easing of tensions during the Obama Administration, Moncada had a relatively easy journey in 2014, though one that involved a stopover or two, including Guatemala. Since he had no interference from the Cuban government, he isn't listed by Wikipedia among Cuban defectors, and he returns to Cuba freely on occasion. A few months after arriving Stateside, he was signed by the Red Sox, who, of course, sent him to the right-colored Sox in the Chris Sale trade.
Robert is listed as a defector, but that may be a dramatic interpretation. With travel restrictions much lighter in 2017, he simply left, to be signed by the White Sox a few months later under the old international signing rules. In our interview with Luis Robert earlier this month, Robert admitted he knew of the White Sox's history with Cuban players and specifically steered his way to the club because of that.
When Grandal and Robert became the 21st and 22nd Cuban-born players in Sox history. Some of the more recent ones not already mentioned were, for better or worse, John Jay, Yonder Alonso and Dayan Viciedo. That's nowhere near the most of any team — the Twins, largely because of all those war-year signings back when they were the Senators, have had 51.
Back to the bad old days
The Trump Administration, never wanting to miss a chance to harm international relations, especially when they can also suck up to right-wing ex-pat Cuban Florida voters, killed the agreement between MLB and the Cuban Federation last April. The pact was similar to those MLB has with several other countries, giving the host federation a cut of the signing fee, and politicians of a certain ilk can't stand that idea, calling it an embargo violation. So it could be back to the fun and games of human trafficking, midnight boat rides and hiding out while gunfire is rattling around.
But we got our guys first.
Now, if only they'd improve the Cuban sandwich at the GuRF. Or have a season when they can sell Cuban sandwiches.