Although there was a time when major league clubs regularly played exhibitions in Havana, the last professional baseball game there involving teams from the U.S. and Cuba was the nightcap of a doubleheader between the minor league Rochester Red Wings and Havana Sugar Kings 15 years ago. A local curfew forced the game to end in a tie, and soon thereafter worsening diplomatic relations between the two countries compelled the Kings to move to the U.S. They completed the 1960 season uninspired and unwanted in Jersey City, N.J.
For weeks now reports have been circulating (SI, Oct. 27) that a group of major-leaguers would fly to Havana next March to play two games against a Cuban all-star team, and that at least the first game would be televised in this country over ABC. Last week these reports were confirmed; now only administration approval is required to make the visit official. That is expected soon, perhaps this week.
Almost as surprising as the prospect of the game itself is the fact that the trip was neither conceived nor organized by the State Department, baseball or the network. It was put together by a pair of 31-year-old independent TV producers, Barry Jagoda of New York and Richard Cohen of Dallas. They worked on the project for more than a year, spending about $10,000 of their own money in the process.
Jagoda was with CBS from 1969 until 11 months ago and received an Emmy Award as one of the producers of Watergate: The White House Transcripts. Cohen, a friend of Jagoda's since the two were roommates at the University of Texas, is a former Rhodes scholar who is fluent in Spanish and currently works as a free-lance writer and producer.
November 24, 1975
While Jagoda was vacationing at the Austin home of Texas Monthly Senior Editor Paul Burka in 1974, he and his host watched TV news films of Senators Jacob Javits of New York and Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island on a visit to Cuba. They reacted to the telecast in different ways. Since there are no regular flights from Havana, television man Jagoda wondered how the film had been transported to the U.S. Burka said, "Aside from cigars, the big impact if we ever reopen relations with Cuba will be in major league baseball." An intense fan, Burka expressed the opinion that there were as many as 15 players on the island good enough to make big-league clubs.
Jagoda next discussed the notion of a Cuba-U.S. game with Cohen, but the trip remained in the talking stages—a telephone call to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had drawn mild interest in their project—until Jagoda returned from producing the networks' joint coverage of President Ford's November 1974 trip to Japan, Korea and the Soviet Union. When Jagoda left CBS early this year, he and Cohen decided to head for Havana and make an attempt to interest the Cubans in their idea. A member of Javits' staff told them the way to get to the island was through the Czechoslovakian embassy, and Jagoda and Cohen met with Czech Second Secretary Rudolph Hramadka. They had a 45-minute discussion of sport in Cuba, then Hramadka excused himself and left the room. He returned with a seven-month-old copy of Granma, Cuba's national newspaper. In it was a picture of Fidel Castro attending the 1974 boxing matches between amateurs from the U.S., Russia and Cuba. Circles had been drawn around those nearest Castro in the photo, and Jagoda and Cohen were told those were Cuban officials they should see.
Jagoda called Havana and was surprised at the ease with which he got one of the circled men on the phone. The official quickly gave Jagoda and Cohen permission to fly to Havana. Before they left, the two men again talked to Kuhn. Although he remained interested, the commissioner still did not authorize Jagoda and Cohen to say that they represented the major leagues.
When Jagoda and Cohen arrived in Havana, they found the Cubans wanted to see something in writing. They borrowed a typewriter, sat down under a palm tree at the Hotel Nacional and wrote a proposal off the top of their heads. The Cuban government reacted favorably to it, but gave no firm commitments.
Frustrating months of letter-writing and delays followed before Kuhn flew alone from Pittsburgh one October morning to Mexico City. While the Pan-American Games went on nearby, he met with Jagoda, Cohen and Cuban sports officials in a hotel room, and an agreement was reached to play ball. Kuhn allowed Jagoda and Cohen to offer the games to all three networks; only ABC was interested enough to pay $165,000 for the rights. As organizers of the event, Jagoda and Cohen will pay the expenses of the U.S. team. They will not receive any gate receipts, even though crowds of 60,000 are expected to attend each game. Spectators are not charged admission to sporting events in Cuba.
The only previous games in which top pros have met the best so-called amateurs from a Communist country were the 1972 and 1974 series between the U.S.S.R.'s national hockey team and Team Canada. While those were dramatic events, they had only minor political impact; they were played long after a warming in relations between Russia and North America. The Cuban contests should also be first-rate affairs, but the diplomatic advances that evolve from them may be far more significant.