Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos before playing in a baseball match c. 1959. Their jerseys say "Barbudos" (the bearded ones).
This year’s baseball season arrives with the thaw, after almost sixty years, of the two most baseball-mad nations on Earth: these United States and Cuba. The USA has been isolated from the Cuban people for so long that our ignorance runs particularly deep. Yet Cuba’s baseball history is fascinating, and far more extensive than just the exploits of current players like Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Céspedes who defected in search of Major League millions.
The first country on Earth to adopt the game of baseball, following its codification in the United States, was Cuba. It’s been written that the sport was sent there by the United States as part of an imperial cultural agenda. Or as the late, great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano put it, “Marines shouldered bats next to their rifles when they imposed imperial order in a region by blood and fire.”
This is true for much of the Caribbean, particularly the Dominican Republic. But Cuban baseball even dates back to before the sport’s post-Civil War boom in the United States. It was 1864 when elite Cuban students, after attending college in the United States, returned home to play this new game. Their efforts were aided by U.S. commercial sailors who would port regularly in the island nation. The first games were between the Havana Base Ball Club and sailor teams in the island capital.
At this time, Cuba was the colonial property of Spain and Spanish rulers who saw the popularity of the sport as a threat to their cultural dominance. They outlawed baseball and attempted to spread their own sporting love, bullfighting. Soon, and ironically, given what would come, baseball—that All-American sport—became a symbol of Cuban nationalism and independence.
To play baseball and shun bullfighting was to express a distinct new world identity. After the Spanish American War and Cuban independence, the sport flowered and became inextricable with our own baseball history. The first all-Latin American team to tour the United States was the All Cubans in 1899. The Negro Leagues in the United States had two teams, the Cuban Stars and the New York Cubans, both of whom were loaded with Latin American talent.
The first Latin American to ever play major league baseball was Estevan Bellán, who was from Cuba. He had white skin, a requirement to play in the United States at the time. In Cuba, the amateur teams stayed segregated—by both race and class—until the Cuban Revolution yet in the Winter Leagues, when Major League and Negro League players would travel to Cuba during the offseason black and white would play together. This allowed both sides to see that Negro Leaguers were not somehow playing an inferior brand of ball.
All this ended, sadly, after the Cuban Revolution. Imagine if, instead of decades of hostility, baseball had been able to remain a bridge between the two countries, aided by a failed pitcher named Fidel Castro and a Red Sox fanatic named John Kennedy. Instead we had isolation and, for us, an inability to learn from the world of béisbol.
To watch a baseball game in Cuba is to see a level of excitement and flair from which the drudgerous Major Leagues could learn a great deal. Cuba has developed its talent in a way that is far less mercenary and exploitative than the baseball “academies” that populate the Dominican Republic, where players are signed for pennies and then thrown on the scrapheap if they don’t make it.
Hopefully, we are going to see a new chapter in the twenty-first century, where the best players from Cuba can come freely to play in the Major Leagues and the development of baseball throughout the Caribbean will look more like it does in Cuba and less like a sporting sweat shop.
Dave Zirin is the host of the popular Edge of Sports podcast and the sports editor of The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.