Eli B. Canel, a cheerful, beefy, sixtyish resident of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., leads a double life. At home in northern Westchester County or at work in Manhattan, he is largely unnoticed and unsung. He is, to all outward appearances, merely one of the thousands of faceless commuters who throng in and out of Grand Central Terminal.
But to millions upon millions of Latin Americans, Eli B. Canel, better known as Buck Canel, is one of the great figures of the age. In Spanish Harlem in New York, billboard posters featuring Canel exhort passersby to "pida Schaefer," ask for Schaefer, a brand of beer. Should Canel get a cab with a Cuban or Puerto Rican driver, the ride is on the house. Whenever any Latin baseball player or boxer sees Canel, he will throw his arms about him in warm embrace. "He ees tops," says Jose Pagan, the Giants' shortstop. "In Puerto Rico leetle keeds make believe they are Buck Canel." Buck Canel was the best man at Luis Aparicio's wedding. Canel introduced Manolete to Joe Louis. Canel, so a former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil once remarked when presenting him to John Foster Dulles, is "the best-known American in Latin America."
Canel is celebrated and venerated in Latin America for any number of reasons. He is a sort of one-man band of journalism and broadcasting. For almost 30 years now, he has been doing shortwave broadcasts in Spanish from the U.S. of La Serie Mundial (the World Series), El Juego de Estrellas (the All-Star Game), championship matches of el box and other sporting events. This month's Series between los Yanquis de Nueva York and los Esquivadores de Los Angeles was Canel's 27th, a record for a broadcaster, and fanaticos de beisbol could be depended upon to hang on every word, especially when Canel exclaims, "No se vayan, que esto se pone bueno!" Which means, "Don't go away, this is going to get good!" Throughout Latin America the saying is famous—politicians have been known to shout it at restive mobs—and Canel is hailed, to the amusement of his U.S. friends, as "el as de los locutores deportivos," the ace of sports broadcasters.
In addition to his status as el as, Canel is also noted for being a follow-me-if-you-dare journalist. He works in the New York bureau of Age nee France-Presse, the worldwide French wire service. He is their Latin American news editor, and whenever a big story breaks south of the border he is off with typewriter and trench coat. So far, Canel has covered half a dozen revolutions and emerged unscratched. Being el as, he is immune to bullets and bombs.
October 13, 1963
A couple of years ago, for example, when the Trujillo regime was overthrown in the Dominican Republic, Canel and a swarm of other correspondents entered the capital city of Santo Domingo in a caravan of cars. When the first car appeared, a mob formed and began throwing rocks and shouting at the imperialists to go home. Canel, who was in the middle of the caravan, had thoughtfully written his name on the side of his car. When he drove by, the members of the mob dropped their rocks and applauded wildly. When he had passed, the mob resumed stoning the caravan. A short while later, as if to demonstrate his hold over the public, Canel left his hotel for the cable office with copy. At once, street firing ceased, and a crowd fell into line behind Canel chanting, "Back Canel para presidente!" Asked recently what would have happened had he accepted the offer, Canel said, "I don't think they would have made me president—but I do think I could have led one helluva parade."
Even the high and the mighty are entranced by Canel. When Juan Peron heard that Canel was in Buenos Aires to cover the Pan American Games, he promptly invited him to his country estate, where he insisted that they spar with one another in the presidential gym. Later on, Evita presented Canel with a lovingly inscribed copy of her autobiography. "Peron was in pretty good shape," Canel says. "He was a sport. The last time I saw him he was in exile. He had some dame and a French poodle with him, and all he wanted to do was talk about boxing."
Until Fidel Castro became annoyed by stories dealing with Communism in Cuba, he was a great admirer of Canel. He listened to him regularly while holed up in the Sierra Maestra. The day Fidel took over, Canel and some British newsmen in Havana hired a car and drove 50 miles to find him as he advanced at the head of his army. They met up with Fidel in Matanzas at a wild celebration in the city hall, and when Castro saw Canel he rushed over, gave him a huge hug and babbled away in Spanish. "What's he saying? "the British reporters asked excitedly. "He wants to know," said Canel, "why Haney pitched Spahn instead of Burdette in the sixth game."
Canel learned his Spanish while growing up on New York's Staten Island. His father, an export-import man, had come to this country from Asturias in Spain. Canel's mother was American of Scotch-Irish extraction. They raised seven children, of whom Buck is the eldest. The nickname Buck comes from his middle name, Buxo. In high school Canel was a fair athlete, and in his spare time he worked as a correspondent for the Staten Island Advance. He always felt a pull toward writing. His paternal grandmother, Eva Canel, who lived with the family from time to time, was a well-known playwright and novelist who had left Spain to go to South America and lecture against divorce. For these efforts she was decorated by the Roman Catholic Church.
During Canel's senior year in high school his father died, and upon graduation he went to live with his grandmother, then in Cuba. He worked briefly for a sugar company, and on the side he managed a winter league baseball team that had as one of its members Oscar Charleston, the great American Negro outfielder. "We beat everyone in sight," Canel says. In 1931 Canel went to work for the Associated Press in Havana. There he met his wife, the former Colleen Park, a Texas girl who was society editor for the English language Havana Post.
Canel had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in Cuba, including an obscure stenographic sergeant in army general staff headquarters, Fulgencio Batista. The members of the general staff could not be bothered with coming to the office every day, so they would check in by telephone with Batista to find out what was going on in the army. It soon dawned upon the sergeant that he, in a manner of speaking, was really running the army, and that he did not need any advice by telephone. With the help of some other disgruntled noncommissioned officers, he overthrew the general staff and eventually made himself president.
On the day of the coup, Canel scored a notable scoop when Batista and his followers surrounded the Hotel Nacional, where some of the general staff officers were living it up. The officers barricaded themselves in the hotel and shot it out with Batista's men. During a brief truce, Canel slipped inside the hotel where, his wife reports, "he spent all his time riding up and down in the elevator getting interviews."
When Batista became president, he went on the radio to deliver a pronunciamiento to the Cuban people. After he finished, he turned to Canel. who was in the studio, and said, "Here, Buck. Do my speech in English. They're probably listening in Florida." This was Canel's introduction to broadcasting.
After four years with the AP in Havana, Canel returned to New York. There, with the help of a couple of influential admirers—Drew Pearson, the columnist, and Sumner Welles, the former Ambassador to Cuba—he got a job with Havas, as Agence France-Pressewas called before the war. In 1936 Canel learned that the National Broadcasting Company was planning to start shortwave broadcasts to Latin America in Spanish. With permission from Havas, he applied for a job as a broadcaster and was accepted. One of his first assignments was the Yankee-Giant World Series. Thus Canel got his two careers, one with the French wire service, the other as a broadcaster. It has worked out very well for all concerned. When Canel finishes broadcasting a ball game or a fight over shortwave for Gillette, his sponsor since 1939, he then writes two different stories for the wire service, one in Spanish for Latin American clients, another in English for newspapers in the Far East. Neither story is a translation of the other. "I have two different personalities," Canel explains, "one Spanish, the other English. If Hector Lopez gets a hit, I lead with that in Spanish. In English, I write that Whitey Ford pitched a shutout for the Yankees."
In his early days at NBC, Canel did a bit of everything. For years he was Franklin D. Roosevelt in Spanish, and once he was even Churchill. Most of the time, however, Canel did sports. He broadcast the University of Havana-Long Island University basketball game from Madison Square Garden (surprisingly, Havana won), and he did the only Army-Navy football game ever done in Spanish. On one occasion he even broadcast the military funeral of a Chilean horse named Chilena that had been killed during a practice jump for the National Horse Show. In appropriately somber tones, Canel described the sad scene at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, where officers of the Chilean army, resplendent in grape-colored capes and black boots, stood at attention while the horse, covered with roses and wrapped in the Chilean flag, was lowered into the ground. (While covering the World Soccer Championships in Chile last year, Canel was invited to dinner by Chilena's owner, Eduardo Yanez, then a captain, now a retired lieutenant general and former minister of war. After brandy and cigars were passed, the general ceremoniously played a recording of Canel's funeral oration. "I gathered," says Canel, flattered, "that he had played the record a number of times.")
When France fell, Canel left Havas. He did not return to the wire service until 1950. During the war he worked for NBC, mostly under the direction of the Office of War Information. He resigned in 1947, and for the next three years devoted himself solely to broadcasting. For two years, he lived a good part of the time in Puerto Rico, where he ran a radio station and did the winter-league games. He also did games in Venezuela, and in 1948 he went to Nicaragua to broadcast the Amateur World Series in Managua. The highlight of the series occurred when General Tacho Somoza, the dictator of Nicaragua, was enraged by his country's failure to win a game. The general not only fired the manager, but locked him up in jail and took over the running of the team himself. "Somoza," Canel says, "was the only manager I ever saw in a dugout wearing a four-star general's hat. What is more, he didn't win a game either."
Returning to the States, Canel did the Brooklyn Dodgers in Spanish over a local station for a season, and then he later broadcast the Chicago White Sox games to Latin America. At the time, the White Sox—Los Medias Blancas—were a big attraction because of. the presence of Minnie Minoso and Chico Carrasquel on the Go-Go-Go team. One listener wrote to ask Canel if it were true that Shortstop Carrasquel and Third Baseman George Kell were brothers.
As a sports broadcaster, Canel has great appeal to Latins. He has a rich bass voice that combines authority and virility, a combination that they find irresistible. "I tell 'em something, they believe it," Canel says. Even so, there are problems. Canel, for instance, cannot do a baseball game using the Spanish words for catch or throw. In some countries these words have a rather risqué connotation. As a result, the players, as reported by Canel, are forever grabbing or snagging the ball when not tossing, hurling or flinging it. It would be scandalous to translate the catcher literally as catcher. Canel solves this problem by calling him el catcher. "That's all right," he says. "Half of the baseball lingo in Spanish I invented anyway." By the same token, the names of some U.S. players are off color when given a Spanish pronunciation. Such is the case with Don Blasingame. His first name is a title of respect in Spanish, the first syllable of his last name is a proper name and the last syllables form an imperative that would make Fidel Castro blush. Thus he is always referred to briefly and simply as Bla.
In Spanish a foul is un foul, a walk una base por bolas, a bunt un toque (literally "a touch"), first base la primera base, second base la segunda base, third la tercera base and a home run un jonron. The names of teams are literally translated. The Athletics are los Atleticos and the Cardinals los Cardinales. (In the last All-Star Game, the National League had Cardinals at first, second and short and Ron Santo of the Cubs at third. Canel told his listeners that the American League did not have a chance, what with the National League having three cardinals and a saint in the infield. "They eat up stuff like that," he says.) One team, however, does have a special name in Latin America, and that is the Cincinnati Reds. Since the Reds were the first major league club to use Cuban players, the team is known as el querido Cinci, the beloved Cincy. In 1961 it was Canel's sad duty to report every unfortunate move as the beloved Cincy was soundly trounced by los Yanquis, four games to one, in La Serie Mundial.
Names are a perpetual problem with Canel. Some Latin players are known by one name in their home countries and another name here. The real name of the three Alou brothers, for example, is Rojas. Apparently the Giant front office was confused by the Spanish practice of placing a man's family name in the middle and his mother's maiden name last. Now, however, the Rojas brothers have become so publicized as the Alous with los Gigantes that Canel refers to them as Rojas-Alou. It was the same case with Luis Olmo, whose family name is Rodriguez. But this did not matter so much, because Rodriguez, or Olmo, was invariably called by his nickname, El Jibaro, Puerto Rican slang for hick. Similarly, Ruben Gomez is known as El Loco Divino, the divine crazy one, and Orlando Cepeda is Peruchin, the diminutive of Perucho, which is his father's nickname.
Besides the Series, the All-Star Game and important fights, Cane! has two local programs in New York. Once a week he does a sports show, El Panorama Deportivo Schaefer, and he does the television commentary for winter-league games of the week from Puerto Rico. The games are videotaped the day before and flown to New York, where Canel broadcasts two minutes of play-by-play in Spanish and one in English. "Last year we had a higher rating than the Mets," he notes with some pride.
In his off hours, Canel loafs around his home in Croton, reading Sherlock Holmes or playing chess—for two years, he did a radio program with Capablanca, the great Cuban master. In New York he usually lunches at El Rancho Grande, a Latin American restaurant on West 44th Street. There he reminisces with Patsy Alvarez, the proprietor, who once boxed as The Patent Leather Kid. They talk about such characters as Vicente Six Cylinders, a fighter, and Martin Dihigo, a Cuban ballplayer who, Canel says, was one of the greatest he ever saw. El Rancho is a gathering place for Spanish-speaking ballplayers and boxers, and during lunch Canel is likely to cut up touches with Al Lopez, whose father also came from Asturias, Juan Marichal, Camilo Pascual, Zoilo Versalles, the Rojas-Alous or anyone else who happens to be in town.
What with his crushing schedule, Canel is at last unable to take on any more jobs. A couple of weeks ago Tachito Somoza, the son of the old general and the current boss of Nicaragua, made Canel an attractive offer to come down to broadcast ball games this winter. Canel decided that he was too busy to accept, but he likes to tell friends that Gillette made him turn it down. The name of the man fronting as president of Nicaragua is Schick.