Showing posts with label Cuba. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cuba. Show all posts

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Ed Bauta, Cuban Pitcher With The New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, Dies At 87


Ed Bauta, a former Cuban pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets died July 6, 2022, at Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin, New Jersey. He was 87. With Bauta’s passing and the recent deaths of Leo Posada and Cholly Naranjo, only a few players remain who played in the Cuban Winter League prior to Castro’s takeover. 

The 6’3” right-handed pitcher grew up in the town of Florida in Cuba’s Camagüey province. He caught Pittsburgh Pirates scout Howie Haak’s attention at a 1955 tryout in Camagüey and was later signed to the Pittsburgh Pirates with a $500 bonus. 

Toiling in the low minors, Bauta returned home to Cuba, but couldn’t latch on with one of the four major teams. “I tried out, but they sent me home,” Bauta said in 2011. 

He trained with Marianao as a reserve, but never saw any regular season action. Finally, after a strong showing in A-ball in 1958, he earned a spot on the team. He pitched the final three seasons of the Cuban Winter League, finishing the 1960-61 season with Havana. 

“I finally played with Marianao for two years and then ended up with Havana,” he said. “Everybody’s salary was cut in two to help the revolution [the final season].” 

Sadly, Bauta had to make the decision, like many of his Cuban brethren to leave his family behind in Cuba after the 1960-61 Winter League season. 

“My family house was gone,” he said. “I had a few dollars in the bank and that was gone too.” 

Stateside, Bauta continued to make strides towards the major leagues. When the Pirates traded Bauta in 1960 to the Cardinals with Julian Javier, it opened the door for Bauta to make his major league debut. He stayed with the Cardinals for the rest of the 1960 season. 

He shuttled between the majors and the minors the next two seasons with the Cardinals, before being traded to the New York Mets for Ken MacKenzie in August 1963. The late-season acquisition allowed Bauta to be a part of Mets history, pitching in the final game at the Polo Grounds on September 18th. The game was played to little fanfare and Bauta didn’t recall much about the game during our 2011 conversation.

Bauta was also connected to another bit in Mets history, as he was the losing pitcher in the first game at Shea Stadium. He came in relief of Jack Fisher in the 7th inning, but couldn’t hold the 3-2 lead, giving up both the tying and go-ahead runs. Less than a month later, Casey Stengel sent Bauta to the minor leagues. It didn’t sit well with the Cuban reliever. 

“In 1964, I only pitched eight games,” he said. “They sent me down to Buffalo. I went 8-4. They didn’t send me back up. I got pissed off and quit.” 

Bauta never reached the majors despite pitching in the minors and the Mexican League until 1974. He worked in the moving business until 1988 before retiring due to knee problems. In retirement, Bauta kept close contact with fellow Mets and Cardinals pitcher Craig Anderson. 

“He knows everything about baseball,” he said. “He’s a hell of a guy.” 

At the time of our talk in 2011, Bauta also shared the news of his MLB annuity payments. The union agreed to make annual payments to non-vested players who were on MLB rosters at least 43 days before 1979. While Bauta played in parts of four seasons, he did not play long enough to vest for a pension. He welcomed the extra money. 

“We’re really happy about it,” he said.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Cholly Naranjo | A Tribute To My Best Friend 1933-2022



It was a call I knew was coming, but I didn’t want to take. A week ago, one of Cholly Naranjo’s family members called to tell me he was hospitalized with COVID and was on a ventilator. I somehow hoped he could summon his mighty curveball to foil the toughest hitter he ever faced; however, at 9PM on January 13, 2022, they came and took Cholly from the mound for the final time.

I often write these memorials for other players I’ve met in my baseball travels, but this one is different. Cholly Naranjo was my best friend. How does someone who is almost 50 years your senior become that close?

It was an innocent meeting at a 2009 Cuban baseball reunion in Philadelphia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the Cuban Winter League, but I was very familiar with Minnie Miñoso. I decided to make the two hour drive from New York to interview the Cuban Comet and meet the others as well.

Sitting quietly at a table with not much fanfare was Cholly Naranjo. I did some scant research about his lone 1956 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but didn’t know the depths of his career. While the line was quite long for Miñoso, I decided to talk with Cholly. He was so vibrant and excited to share his memories. He told me he lived in South Florida and I should visit him the next time I go to see my mother, who also lived there.

First trip to Paul Casanova's home in 2009 / N. Diunte
 
I took him up on his offer a few months later, and that’s how our friendship began. At the time, I was still playing competitive baseball. Knowing that I loved the game, he took me right away to Paul Casanova’s home. Waiting there was Casanova, Jackie Hernandez and Mike Cuellar. Cholly introduced me as his friend and they immediately welcomed me. We spent an hour talking baseball (actually I just mostly listened) and Casanova invited me back for hitting lessons.
 
Soon the wheels started turning. I found there was this corner of baseball I didn’t know; the Cuban Winter League's rich history. Cholly was the key. He knew everybody and had a story for seemingly everyone that played in the 1950s, as well as the decade before. He learned by watching his uncle Ramón Couto, who was a star catcher in Cuban winter league, Negro Leagues and minor leagues in the 1930s and 1940s.
 
Ramón Couto and Luis Tiant Sr. / Couto Family

I leaned into Cholly for his encyclopedic knowledge. On almost a dime he could recall exact instances of players, games, and hilarious stories surrounding them. At the same time, he knew I was good with technology, so he would ask me to retrieve artifacts from his career. I later discovered just how much revisiting these stories kept him energized.

Cholly (l.) in high school with Chico Fernandez (r.)

We would talk weekly, sometimes about baseball, sometimes about life, relationships and everything else in between. As our trust increased, Cholly reached out to me to handle many of his other personal dealings, as he said I had the, “American style of communication.”

Some reading this might think as a former major league baseball player, Cholly was swimming in financial riches; however, this was far from the truth. Due to Cholly being in the majors when baseball players needed four full seasons to earn a pension (now it is 43 days), he didn’t receive one. He figured out how to live his best life on a small social security check with help from some baseball organizations. I was often tasked with organizing the necessary correspondence to make sure everything was running smoothly.

In 2010, he visited my home in New York for a few days. He was invited his cousin‘s wedding, who was Daniel Boggs' son, the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. It was the first time Cholly visited New York since he returned from Cuba. We took the subway to the MLB offices to visit and personally thank the B.A.T. staff for their help. The trip to the MLB offices gave him so much validation behind his big league career.

2010 Wedding / N. Diunte

The day before the wedding, he told me he wanted to go to the park to have a catch. I thought it was going to be a short session, but he just kept telling me to move back the longer we threw. Eventually, we were throwing from at least 120 feet apart. Mind you, Cholly was 77 at the time and he made the throws with ease! He finally said his arm was loose and as he shortened the distance, he showed me how to throw his famous curveball, the one Branch Rickey courted him for.

Branch Rickey's 1956 Scouting Report

After that trip to New York, I made it a point to visit 2-3 times per year. It was easy to visit my mother and then also spend a day or two with Cholly. I would meet him in Hialeah, and he would drive. It was on these winding card rides through Miami’s back streets where we bonded. He had story after story and told them with such clarity. He would take me to different Cuban restaurants, one’s that he thought I would enjoy. Every meal was “outstanding” in his words, and he was often right.

He had this little black book filled with telephone numbers. He would ask me who I wanted to see, and we would go. Every player he called said yes. They knew Cholly was genuine and took me in as the same. Everyone was relaxed, because as they all said, “it was family.” As I started to look around, I was slowly not only being accepted as part of that family, but his family as well.

Cholly with Almendares 

Cholly’s major league stats don’t tell the whole story. It was deeper than that single season in Pittsburgh. He was a star pitcher in the Cuban Winter League from 1952 until 1961, primarily with Almendares. It’s hard to sit here and write down all the legends he encountered either as teammates or opponents. He loved discussing the 1954-55 Carribbean Series where his team had to face the Puerto Rican Santurce team with Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente in the same outfield (and the fight between Roger Bowman and Earl Rapp after Rapp misplayed a ball)! 

He lit up talking about Jim Bunning who he faced in Cuba, who then later welcomed Cholly into his office in Washington D.C., or a young Brooks Robinson who played second base his one year in Cuba. Then there were Tommy Lasorda's hijinks after they won the championship in 1959. He told stories about Martin Dihigo, Satchel Paige, and his good friend Minnie Miñoso, who was also another tremendous gentleman.

He almost made the majors in 1954 with the Washington Senators. He made it through all of spring training and they took him up north for Opening Day; Cholly even made the official team photo. A few hours before the first pitch, manager Bucky Harris informed Cholly they would be sending him to the minors on a 24-hour recall. He was disappointed, but he still stayed with the team for that day.

1954 Washington Senators

President Eisenhower threw out the first pitch, and launched his throw into the crowd of ballplayers. Cholly ended up with the ball and had a historic catch with the President for a photo-op chronicled in Time magazine. The catch also earned him a spot on the TV show, “I’ve Got A Secret” the next morning.

He played with the Hollywood Stars in 1955 and 1956, when his team was the city’s main sports attraction (this was before the Dodgers and Giants moved). Famous entertainers would come to watch them play. Cholly regaled me with stories of his dinners and even dates with these luminaries. I wish I could remember them all, but the names have evaded my memory too.

He finally made the majors in 1956, coming up from Hollywood with his roommate and future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. Cholly saved his best performance for his final game, pitching 8 2/3 innings in relief for his first and only MLB victory. He told me how that win also kept Robin Roberts (whom he faced that day) from winning his 20th game of the season.

Cholly Naranjo with Roberto Clemente 1956 Pirates 

Paul Casanova called me one afternoon in 2017, as MLB wanted to honor the Cuban players at the All-Star Game in Miami. He asked me to work as a liason for a group of players to help with the paperwork, negotiations and logistics. Cholly was one of the players in the group selected to be a part of the festivities, and without hesitation, he took me along for the ride.

Cholly (r.) with Dr. Adrian Burgos (l.), Jose Tartabull (center) 2017 All-Star FanFest / N. Diunte

For three days, Cholly was in heaven. MLB rolled out first class treatment, as did his peers. On the day he appeared at the FanFest to sign autographs and speak on a panel, MLB gave us a private SUV ride back and forth from the hotel to the convention center. They provided us both (yes me!) a private security detail that followed us through the FanFest. He was so excited to interact with the fans, as well as tell his stories on stage with José Tartabull and Dr. Adrian Burgos.

We spent the extended weekend with Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris and Orlando Cepeda. It didn’t matter that Cholly wasn’t an All-Star or a Hall of Famer; not only was he readily accepted into the group, I found out they all looked up to him, as he was the senior member. Cepeda remarked how tough his curveball was on the rookie in winter ball. Tiant said he was a veteran influence on him as a rookie in the Cuban Winter League, and Oliva went out of his way to talk to B.A.T. to make sure Cholly was taken care of.

Tony Oliva, Cholly Naranjo, Juan Marichal / N. Diunte

We stayed up each night until 2AM talking about the game. The brotherhood was evident. Not only were they all there in the majors, they all faced the same challenges playing through the segregation in the United States. Every night, Cholly insisted at 84, to drive us back to my apartment in Fort Lauderdale. I was amazed how easily he navigated driving that late at night.

Things slowly started to change for Cholly after that wonderful weekend, and unfortunately, not in a good way. Paul Casanova died shortly after the Fan Fest (it was his last public appearance). Cholly worked with Casanova at the batting facility at Casanova’s home. He no longer had a place to go and interact. The young baseball players kept Cholly alive and the money Casanova paid him kept a little something extra in his pocket to enjoy life.

Paul Casanova, myself, Cholly / N. Diunte

Around 2019, Cholly stopped driving. He got into three accidents in a year and as he said, it was God’s way of letting him know he needed to get away from the wheel. I started noticing Cholly's once sharp mind started to show some cracks. He would lose his phone, or start to miss details in our conversations. Despite those missteps, when we sat down for a formal interview in 2019, he was amazed at how good he felt. 

“I’ve got my health at my age,” he said. “I got this far, and I’m better than when I was playing ball. Can you believe that? Sometimes I think, well, give me the ball; I’m going to get somebody out. 

“It makes me feel well that I can be a normal person and do all the things necessary to live in the United States and travel. … To me, it’s like a prize that I have proven that it can happen to anybody. ... I’ve lived over there and over here, and I’m clean in both of them. I have lived long enough to show everybody what is what. I feel proud of that inside. … I say Cholly, how old are you? Well, I’ve got more miles than Pan American Airlines!"

I saw Cholly early in 2020, right before the pandemic. We met for dinner, and he told me he walked for over 18 hours in a day just to prove to himself he could do it. I was amazed, but also feared for his safety, as the area in Miami where he lived wasn’t a walking city.

Our last meeting July 2021 / N. Diunte

Last year, he moved in with his nephew to be closer to the little family he had. I visited him in July 2021, as the pandemic put a huge wedge in my ability to travel. I could see the early stages of dementia from the time we spent together. A few months ago, Cholly had to be put into a nursing home, as he just couldn’t take care of himself any longer. Physically, he was in good shape, but he needed the care that comes with a nursing facility.

We would still talk on the phone a few times a week. When I called, it was always, “Coño! Nick! I am better than expected!” even as he struggled with recall. We kept the conversations short, but he always asked when I was coming down. I was aiming for the Christmas holiday to visit for a few days, but I came down with COVID on Christmas Eve. By the time I found a possible window to travel, his family let me know he also contracted COVID and wasn’t doing well in the hospital. I thought Cholly would miraculously find a way to pull through, but when the big man comes to get you off the mound, as Cholly would say, “You have to give up the ball.”

I am going to miss my friend. Cholly said he looked at me as a son, as he never had any children. I feel honored I was able to be a part of his life for so long and learn so much about his history, his culture and life story. I hope I can continue to elevate Cholly’s memory, as it was much greater than those 17 games he pitched with Pittsburgh in 1956.

QDEP Lazaro Ramón Gonzalo Naranjo Couto - November 25, 1933 - January 13, 2022.

Books Featuring Cholly Naranjo -

Last Seasons in Havana by Cesar Brioso

Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer

Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History by Jorge Figueredo

 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Why Tommy Lasorda Once Used A Rifle To Protect His Cuban Teammates

Tommy Lasorda celebrating the 1958-59 Almendares championship

Tommy Lasorda’s mighty curveball took him many places during his 14-year playing career, including Canada, Panama, Puerto Rico and Cuba. The tenacious southpaw’s fiery personality played right into the spirit of the Caribbean Winter League, making him a popular choice among the fans. 

During the 1958-59 Cuban Winter League season, Lasorda’s 8-3 record helped propel Almendares to the championship. They dominated in the Caribbean Series, going 5-1 with their pitching staff completing five of the six games. Lasorda was the lone starter not to go the distance, throwing 3.1 scoreless innings against Panama. 

While Almendares’ near-flawless championship would have been the highlight of any baseball season, another event during the 1958-59 campaign dominated anything that happened on the baseball field. 


On New Year’s Eve in 1958, one American baseball player noticed there was an uncomfortable quiet during the day. As John Goryl rode to the ballpark with Cienfuegos teammate Bob Will, there was an eerie silence on the road. 

“We were driving into Havana,” Goryl said during a 2011 interview. “We lived eight or nine miles outside of the city. We were driving down this main thoroughfare, and it was New Year’s Day. We were driving down the highway and not a soul in site. No traffic. All the windows when we got close to town were boarded up, curtains were down, and shutters were down.” 

When they arrived at the stadium, his Cuban teammates quickly updated Goryl on what was happening. There was a drastic change coming. 

“When we got to the ballpark, all of the Cuban ballplayers were gathered in one corner in the ballpark,” he said. “I took Pedro [Ramos] aside and he told me, ‘They think Batista left the country, and Castro will be coming in.’ I asked, ‘Are we gonna play?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t look like it, but they haven’t made that announcement.’ About 30 minutes later, an announcement was made, and we would be told when we would be able to play again.” 

With the inevitable change of power from Fulgencio Batista to Fidel Castro, chaos ensued. It was a long ride back to their protected beach compound at Club Náutico where the foreign players stayed. 

“All hell broke loose when we left that ballpark,” he said. “People tore down parking meters to get money, looting, and everything else.” 

Goryl thought his family was safe at the compound; however, one American player thought otherwise. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he looked out his window and saw Tommy Lasorda out front armed with a rifle. 

“We were living in a compound that was completely surrounded by water with guards,” he said. “I had a wife who had a small baby and was pregnant. I looked out the window one morning down to the street and there was Tommy walking around with a .22 rifle trying to protect everybody. It was the damndest thing I'd ever seen.”

Monday, January 14, 2019

Cookie Rojas explains Rey Ordoñez's incredible 1999 New York Mets season

Cookie Rojas should know a thing or two about judging infielders. A five-time All-Star who led his league in fielding on three separate occasions, Rojas made a strong case for Rey Ordoñez’s 1999 season as one of the best ever for a major league shortstop.

Cookie Rojas (r.) makes a powerful statement about Rey Ordoñez / N. Diunte
Rojas was in New York City last weekend as part of the Cuban Cultural Center of New York’s “History of Cuban Baseball” program at Fordham University. Speaking as part of a player panel which included Hall of Famer Tony Perez, Minnie Miñoso, Luis Tiant, Julio Becquer, and José Cardenal, Rojas was asked about Ordoñez’s place amongst the all-time defensive shortstops. He put on his manager hat and responded swiftly and succinctly.

Rojas joined the Mets as a coach in 1997, one year after Ordoñez debuted at Shea. Coming off a season where he [Ordonez] committed 27 errors, Rojas knew things had to change.

“So, after joining the Mets I looked at his record and I called him over to talk," Rojas said during the panel. "I said, 'Rey, there is something wrong for you to make 38 (sic) errors. A guy with your ability, that's impossible. There is no way I will accept that. We have work to do, in many areas. You will see that little by little you will improve and get a positive outlook.'”

Ordoñez improved quickly, committing only nine errors the season Rojas arrived. Nineteen-ninety-seven was the first of three consecutive Gold Glove campaigns for the Cuban shortstop. Rojas explained how he helped Ordoñez to improve by getting him to forget his struggles at the plate while he was in the field.

“The cause of most errors committed by major league infielders is that they do not know how to separate the offensive aspect of the game from the defensive,” Rojas said. “They go out to the field still thinking about their last at-bat, the slider that fooled them, the fast ball blown by them. They do this instead of thinking ahead to the fielding part, to think if the next batter is a fast runner or not, or what to do according to the speed of the hit ball.”



Involved in professional baseball for over 50 years as a player, coach, manager, and his current position as the Spanish Language broadcaster for the Florida Marlins, Rojas had many opportunities to analyze the top defensive shortstops in both leagues.

After a careful pause, Rojas offered the following about how Ordoñez’s magical 1999 season where he made only four errors ranks among the cream of the crop.

“Let me say I knew a great defensive shortstop who played for Almendares [in Cuba], his name was Willy Miranda, a defensive all-time great. But what I saw Ordoñez do that year, I have never seen a shortstop do in my whole life, anywhere, not even one of the all-time greats [Ozzie] Smith, a Hall of Famer,” he said. “How Ordoñez played that year was incredible. It was ... to see a defensive shortstop do what he did, one of the best that I have seen in my whole career."

A special thank you to fellow SABR member Tito Rondón for his translation of Rojas’ interview from the player panel.

* This was originally published for Examiner.com August 27, 2011.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Martin Dihigo rare pitching video in Cuba emerges

Rare pitching footage of Cuban baseball legend and Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo has emerged. In this short clip from the late 1950s, the Hall of Famer makes a public appearance alongside a group of youth players.

Martin Dihigo / Cubabeisbol.com
Dihigo pitches as part of a promotional shoot, and even though he is in his early 50s, one can get a sense of his style and grace by both his smooth pitching motion and sharp dress.

If you enjoy the Martin Dihigo video, click here to subscribe to the Examinebaseball Youtube channel.



Friday, May 19, 2017

Why Martin Dihigo is remembered as a 'God' by one Cuban ballplayer

Martín Dihigo is widely regarded as one of the most talented and versatile players in the Hall of Fame. Whether he was on the mound, in the field, or at the plate, Dihigo stood out among the mere mortals that played alongside him.


Cholly Naranjo, a star pitcher for Cuba's Alemendares ball club in the 1950s who later made the major leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956, had a special connection with Dihigo. Naranjo is the nephew of Ramon Couto, Dihigo's catcher both in Cuba and with the Cuban Stars of the Negro Leagues.

The now 82-year-old Naranjo is one of a handful of players alive that saw Dihigo up close and personal. Speaking with Naranjo in May 2017, he explained what it was like to have contact with "El Inmortal," at an early age.

"Man you should have seen that guy, he looked like a God!" Naranjo said.

In the rest of the interview, which is linked below, Naranjo discusses watching Dihigo play as a youngster and how he was a top line player as both a pitcher and a batter. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jose 'Tony' Zardón, eldest living Cuban major leaguer passes away at 94

Jose Zardón, a native Cuban who was the last living member of the 1945 Washington Senators, passed away March 21, 2017 in Tamarac, Florida. He was 94.

Affectionately nicknamed "Guineo" for his blazing speed that was akin to the local hen in Cuba, he first played in the United States in 1944 when the legendary scout Joe Cambria signed him to the Washington franchise. After playing one season in the minor leagues, the Senators minted the fleet-footed outfielder as a major leaguer in 1945, seeking to take advantage of his ability to cover the vast depths of Griffith Stadium. 

Jose Zardon at his home in 2012 / N. Diunte
With major league rosters depleted due to World War II enlistments, Zardón and his Cuban teammates with the Senators became pioneers of sorts, giving the club in the nation's capitol an integrated team a year prior to the Brooklyn Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson. While there were other Cubans who preceded Zardón in the major leagues, their solid performance further opened the pipeline for his countrymen to follow.

In his only major league season, Zardón batted .290 in 131 at-bats, while making some tremendous catches in the outfield. Throughout the remainder of the 1940s and early 1950s, he spent his winters playing for the Almendares and Havana clubs in Cuba, as well as two seasons in Venezuela. He remained active in the minor leagues, spending another ten seasons as both a player and a manager before retiring in 1955.

Great detail of Zardón's career is profiled in the SABR book, "Who's on First: Replacement Players in World War II." In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Zardon at his Florida home to discuss his career, where in his jovial fashion, he shared a story about how he stole first base after a famous Cuban sportswriter doubted his hitting abilities. The video, which is linked below, is a taste of Zardon's warm character which was appreciated by all who met him. 

* Ed Note - In the above SABR interview, Zardon admitted that his birth year was 1922, not 1923 as listed in the official baseball database.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Classic Minnie Minoso one hour interview from 1993

In this 1993 interview with Minnie Minoso, Tom Weinberg talks with the Cuban great for an hour at the site of the Old Comiskey Park about his lengthy career in baseball. A relaxed Minoso speaks with his trademark candor that made him a fan favorite during his then six-decade involvement in the game.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Clyde King recalls a mound visit from Fidel Castro

On April 20, 1960, Rochester Red Wings manager and former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Clyde King stood inches away from Fidel Castro as he threw out the first pitch of the International League season. Some fifty-six years after their encounter, the Cuban leader passed away November 25, 2016 at the age of 90. Little did King know at the time that the man he once squared off in an exhibition game would become one of the vilest dictators in modern history.

Fidel Castro (l.) throws out the opening day pitch in 1960 as Clyde King (r.) watches
“I think it was 1960 when I got to meet Castro,” King said from his North Carolina home in 2008. “We opened the season there and Castro threw out the first ball. We didn't know he was a bad guy at the time. We went out the mound and he said, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said, “Yes, I remember you.’ He said, ‘I'm Fidel Castro, do you remember going to the University of Havana one Sunday afternoon?’”

King quickly harked back to an exhibition the Dodgers played in Havana during 1947 while Branch Rickey was preparing Jackie Robinson to join the big league club. Castro proudly reminded the Red Wings manager that he suited up against the Dodgers squad that day.

“When the Dodgers were training, one club stayed in Havana and the other went to the University so we could get more players in action,” King recalled. “Castro said, ‘Do you remember who you pitched against?’ I said ‘No.’ He said, ‘Me!’ I asked him if he remembered the score, he said he didn’t. You know what the score was? 15-1!”

King acknowledged Castro’s support of baseball as Cuba’s flagship sport and his failed attempts to play professionally; however, whatever affection Castro had for the sport was overshadowed by the terror of his reign.

“We found out later he wasn't such a good guy,” King said. “He was terrific baseball guy. He tried to work out for a pro team but he couldn't do it. We sort of wore him out that day.”

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Evelio Hernandez, former Washington Senator pitcher passes away at 84

Evelio Hernandez, a Cuban-born pitcher for the Washington Senators in the 1950s, passed away Friday December 18, 2015 at his home in Miami, Florida, just days shy of his 85th birthday. The reporting of his death was confirmed by former Almendares teammate Cholly Naranjo.





Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hector Maestri, Cuban pitcher for both Washington Senators teams, dies at 78

Hector Maestri, one of only nine major leaguers to ever play for both versions of the Washington Senators, passed away Friday February 21, 2014 in Miami according to his former teammate Jose Padilla. He was 78.

Born April 19, 1935 in La Habana, Cuba, Maestri was originally signed as a shortstop to the Senators organization in 1956 by the legendary scout Joe Cambria. Excited with the opportunity to follow in the Senators pipeline of rich Cuban talent, Maestri’s world was turned upside down only a few weeks into his professional baseball career.

“I played three [sic] games in Fort Walton Beach and they released me,” said Maestri in a 2012 interview with the author.
Hector Maestri Card / N. Diunte

Even though Maestri was deeply disappointed by the lack of a time the Senators gave him, he did not want to return to Cuba. Instead, he went to Houston to live with his uncle and work. It was there that he had a second chance at his baseball career.

“My uncle introduced me to a Mexican-American who had a baseball team out there,” he said. “The guy wanted me to play with him, so they gave me a job and I played baseball.”

While he was playing on the semi-pro circuit in Houston, he was approached by Senators scout Joe Pastor who offered him another shot with Washington. Maestri had his reservations about re-signing with the organization.

“I told him I was very angry because they didn’t give me a chance,” he said. “Fifteen days wasn’t enough.”

After Pastor reassured him that he would get a longer look, Cambria signed Maestri during the off-season in Cuba. Blessed with an exceptional arm, Maestri still fancied himself as a shortstop, but the Senators had other plans. Maestri split time between pitching and the infield in 1957 with Class D Elmira, N.Y., but when he was asked to pitch an impromptu bullpen session for Senators Vice President Joe Haynes during spring training in 1958, management made it very clear what his permanent role would be.

“The bullpen was near the clubhouse,” he recalled. “Anytime you threw the ball, there was a big echo. When I threw the ball, I looked [over] at him and he was smiling.

“The people in the clubhouse came out and said, ‘Dammit, who was throwing that ball?’ I was throwing very, very hard. We didn’t have radar guns, but they told me I was around 95. Mr. Joe Haynes came to me and said, ‘If I see you in the infield, I will throw you out. You are a pitcher.’”

Maestri spent another season at Elmira honing his craft on the mound, and it paid off. He finished with a 16-11 record, broke the league record for strikeouts and earned MVP honors for the team.

“I broke the strikeout record of Sal Maglie,” Maestri said. “He had 198 and I put [up] 210 in 156 innings.”

In 1959, he inched his way closer to the majors, playing at Class B Fox Cities where he was pared up with player-manager Jack McKeon. His 11-7 record earned him a AAA contract with Washington’s affiliate in Charleston.

He went home that winter and pitched for Cienfuegos in the Cuban Winter League, leading them to not only the league championships, but a sweep of the 1960 Caribbean Series.

It was the beginning of a year filled with highlights for the hard-throwing Cuban pitcher; however, it wasn't a straight rise to the top. Coming off of his championships in winter ball, he hit a bump in the road at the end of spring training in 1960. Just as the season was about to start, Charleston sent him down to Charlotte in the Class A Sally League. He wasn’t pleased with the decision and set out to prove to management that they made a mistake demoting him.

“I go to Charlotte, and on the first day our manager Gene Verble, told me I was going to be in short relief,” he recalled.

Verble summoned Maestri to close the game, and he delivered the goods.

“I threw nine pitches and struck out all three guys,” he said.

Nineteen-sixty was a banner year for Maestri. He was cited in the August 28, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated for pitching a perfect game in relief during the course of the season.

“Hector Maestri, Charlotte (N.C.) South Atlantic League relief pitcher, did not give up a walk, a hit or a run in hurling nine consecutive innings of perfect baseball over a five-game span, went 16 consecutive innings before yielding his first hit.”

Cut from the organization only a few years earlier, Maestri made good on his second calling, earning a promotion to the major league club when rosters expanded in September. Biding his time in the bullpen, he finally was put into action on September 24, 1960 in relief against the Baltimore Orioles.

“I pitched two innings and didn’t allow any runs,” he said.

Maestri carried that momentum into winter ball, winning another championship with Cienfuegos. Along with his second championship came another career altering event, the 1961 Expansion Draft.

The original Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins and Washington created a new team to represent the nation’s capital. The new Senators paid Clark Griffith $75,000 for the rights to Maestri. He saw this as an opportunity to negotiate for a higher salary.

“At that time the big league contract was $6,000,” he said. “I was so fresh, I said, ‘If you don’t give me $15,000, I don’t go.’”

To further complicate matters, relations between Fidel Castro and the United States went sour, leaving the future of all of the Cuban players, including Maestri in doubt. Luckily for Maestri, tensions eased up and he was able to negotiate a raise to $11,000.

Unfortunately, all of his negotiations didn’t account to much because Maestri couldn’t curry enough favor with manager Mickey Vernon to make his way up north with the team to start the season. Vernon thought Maestri needed more seasoning and sent him back to the minors for most of 1961.

Once again, determined to show he belonged, he burned up the Sally League with a 10-1 record for Columbia. This impressive performance forced the Senators and manager Vernon to take another look at the Cuban fireballer.

“I was a relief pitcher all my baseball career,” he said. “Mickey Vernon came to me and said, ‘You are pitching tomorrow, starting against Kansas City.”

Not used to starting, Maestri soldiered on anyways. He took the ball and went six strong innings against the Athletics.

“I lost 2-1 and that was it,” he said.

He wouldn’t get back to the major leagues for the remainder of his baseball career, and almost didn’t get back to the United States. After the 1962 season, he returned to Cuba to see his newborn son. At the time, Castro wasn’t letting anymore players freely leave the country.

“When I got in Cuba, they didn’t let me get out," he said. "That ruined my career.”

Maestri was done at 27, or so he thought. A call from a Mexican League team gave him a new lease on his baseball career.

“I had taken a few years off when I got a call from the Mexican League to play ball,” Maestri said. “Veracruz called me. They asked what I wanted. I told them I wanted a visa for my wife and my two sons. They told me, no problem. That’s how I got out of Cuba, [through] Mexico, in 1965.

“When I finished the league in Mexico, I went to the United States embassy in Veracruz and I asked for asylum. They didn’t give it to me, but they gave me a chance to talk to a wonderful guy, Phil Howser. (The general manager of the Charlotte minor league team.) I told him that I didn’t want to go back to Cuba anymore. He said, ‘Stay right there in the embassy, let me talk to the ambassador.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. The guy came to me and told me to go back to my apartment and come back tomorrow morning. I got my visa and jumped.”

Charlotte signed him for the 1965 season. He played one more year in the United States for the Wilson Tobs in 1966. Citing the lack of pay and burdensome travel schedule, he moved on from professional baseball.

“If you have a family, you have to do something because you can’t travel with your family,” he said. “My two sons had to go to school, so I said to my wife let’s go. I bought a car up there and came to Miami.”

Maestri had his own business career in Miami and his wife worked for the telephone company. Both of his sons grew up to be engineers, something he was very proud of.

“I owned my house and my kids got their education," he said. "It was wonderful.”
 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My Cuban Florida baseball experience - Part One - Paul Casanova's baseball academy

Last week marked my semi-annual pilgrimage to South Florida to spend one last week in the sun and soak up the rich baseball culture in the area.

A favorite destination of mine is the baseball academy of ten-year major league veteran Paul Casanova, who delivers his instruction in the backyard of his house.
T-Shirt from Paul Casanova's Baseball Academy

I previously wrote about my 2010 visit, and every time I return, I pick up something new, whether it is an adjustment on my swing, an anecdote from his playing day, or meeting the next up-and-coming prospect out of the Hialeah area.
One of the many Walls of Fame

His students praise his ability to instruct and build their confidence, using his watchful eye from his over fifty years of professional baseball experience to keep their swings on-track.

Hank Aaron wall
His home also serves as a mini Hall of Fame of Cuban baseball history, the walls lined with photos of his Cuban contemporaries in the major leagues, as well as the legendary winter league teams prior to Fidel Castro closing off the league to professionals in 1961.

One one wall facing the batting cage, he pays tribute two of the biggest baseball legends he was associated with during his career, Hank Aaron and Ted Williams.

Casanova spent three seasons with Aaron on the Atlanta Braves from 1972-74, and was one of the first teammates to greet Aaron as he crossed the plate for his 715th home run. He refers to Aaron as, "the best," and often references Aaron's strong wrists when instructing the young hitters. Displayed on the wall are photos and articles on the wall about his Hall of Fame teammate.

Ted Williams wall
From my 2010 visit
The other side of the wall is dedicated to his manager Ted Williams, whom he played three seasons for as a member of the Washington Senators. His face lights up when speaking about the Splendid Splinter and how enamored he was with him. He felt very fortunate to visit Williams at his home shortly before he passed away. He proudly displays the photo of him with Williams on the wall of his facility.

Everything about the facility screams baseball, from the bats outside of the house, the games playing on the television, the constant crack of balls being battered, the endless baseball chatter and the photos that line the walls everywhere you walk.

As for what keeps the 71-year-old Casanova going, he says the game is a part of him.

"Baseball is in my blood. It's what I do."




 

Casanova's career in pictures
Batting Cages




Soft Toss Stations
Another Wall of Fame
Historical Cuban Baseball Photos
Historical Cuban Baseball Photos
Historical Cuban Baseball Photos

Baseball Bobble Heads








 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Andres Fleitas | Cuban baseball great dies at 95 (1916-2011)

Andres Fleitas, one of the last remaining links to Cuba’s pre-World War II glory days, died Sunday afternoon in Miami according to a report from one of his former minor league teammates. He was 95.

The veteran Almendares catcher was the MVP of the 1946-47 winter league season, where he helped to guide major leaguer Max Lanier to complete a three-game sweep of Havana on only one day of rest.

Andres Fleitas (r.) pictured with his brother Angel in Chattanooga
Before his professional career in Cuba, he won two Amateur World Series in 1939 and 1942, earning MVP honors in the latter victory. He joined Almendares during the 1942-43 campaign and stayed with them for almost ten seasons. He battled with Mike Guerra for catching duties while also playing first base.

Fleitas entered the United States that summer, playing for the New York Giants Triple-A farm club in Jersey City. After playing two seasons with the Giants, he was well on the path to the major leagues before an offer of $20,000 from Jorge Pasquel lured him to Mexico for the 1945 season.

He spent three seasons with Monterrey, batting over .300 each year. While the tremendous salary increase allowed Fleitas to purchase a home in Santa Fe, his time in Mexico effectively nixed any chance he would have to play in the majors.



Commissioner Happy Chandler banned all players for five years that left the United States for the Mexican League who did not return before his deadline. Only when Danny Gardella threatened to sue Major League Baseball, the owners relented and lifted the ban. The policy change did not help Fleitas, who at 33, was well past prospect status.

He continued to play at the Double and Triple-A levels through 1954, finishing his career with Cienfuegos during the 1954-55 Cuban Winter League season. He was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.

Baseball was a family affair for Fleitas. His brother Angel was an infielder for the Washington Senators in 1948. Ironically it was the first of two seasons which they played together in the United States, serving as teammates on the Chattanooga Lookouts from 1948-49.



Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bill Tosheff, first NBA rookie of the year, moonlighted as a strong armed pitcher

Bill Tosheff, the 1951-52 NBA Co-Rookie of the Year, passed away this weekend due to complications from rectal cancer at the age 85 according to a statement by his daughter on his Facebook page.

Tosheff showing off his bling
“Tosh,” as he was affectionately known to seemingly everyone, actually left his burgeoning basketball career for another sport, baseball. For someone that didn't make the major leagues, during his seven-year minor league career, he was party to more than anyone could imagine.

A three-sport star at the University of Indiana, Tosheff helped lead the Hoosiers to a Big Nine title in 1949. Blessed with a strong arm and a powerful bat, Tosheff drew considerable attention playing semi-pro baseball during the offseason.

Playing for the Lafayette Blue Sox in 1952, Tosheff threw a no-hitter during the first game of a doubleheader and smacked two home runs during the second game. That was enough for Hall of Famer and Cleveland Indians scout “Red” Ruffing. After the game, Ruffing told Tosheff to write his own ticket to the show.

“He said, ‘What is it going to take?’ I said, ‘Well, give me a number.’ We kind of played around a bit and we came to $20,000 which was pretty good in those days,” Tosheff said during a 2009 interview via telephone.

A signing bonus of $20,000 would have gained considerable press at the time; however, there was one person standing in between the money and him, Indians General Manager Hank Greenberg.

“There was a battle going on in Cleveland between Hank Greenberg and a guy named Egan," he said. "Greenberg refused my salary and Indianapolis wanted to sign me. I think I signed for $2,500 per month which wasn’t bad.”

Three days after his signing, he was the starting pitcher for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. One step away from the major leagues, Tosheff found himself surrounded by legends in the twilight of their careers, as well as stars on the rise. His catcher that evening was the legendary Negro Leaguer, Quincy Trouppe. A 20-year veteran, Trouppe had a cup of coffee earlier in the season with the Indians, forming the first black battery in the American League with Sam Jones. Ironically, both played with Tosheff in Indianapolis. Tosheff shared his memories of his debut with Trouppe as his battery mate.

“He was my catcher the first time I pitched," he said. "Let me tell you about the experience. I was the starting pitcher against Louisville on July 4th. They brought my parents in from Gary. When I got on the mound to throw the first pitch, it looked like the home plate was three miles away from me. It was one of those excitable things.”

At the age of 25 and a veteran of World War II, Tosheff was in the unique position as a rookie to serve as a mentor to the younger players on the club. One of the fellow pitchers he took under his wing was Herb Score. Tosheff would later use his experience with Score to serve as an advisor to current Colorado Rockies third baseman and fellow Macedonian Kevin Kouzmanoff.

“When I was there, Cleveland signed another kid for $75,000 [sic], his name was Herb Score," he recalled. "This guy was throwing aspirin tablets as a left-hander. We lived in the same apartment and I kind of mentored him because I was older. He had no father image. He was raised with his mother. We had a check on the table for $12,500 and he didn’t know what to do with it. I sent it to his mom in Florida.”

Incredibly, in the same league, Tosheff wasn’t alone as an NBA player trying to crack a major league baseball roster. In 1952, The American Association was loaded with NBA stars. St. Paul had Boston Celtic and future Hall of Famer Bill Sharman. Milwaukee had Sharman’s Celtic teammate Gene Conley and another future Hall of Famer Andy Phillip played with Tosheff briefly in Indianapolis. In addition, Milwaukee first baseman George Crowe was a professional basketball player for the New York Harlem Rens.

Released after the 1952 season as per the terms of his contract, Tosheff played the next three seasons at the Class B level, where he posted consecutive 20-win seasons. While with the Tampa Smokers, another stop in Tosheff's baseball odyssey occured in Cuba. It was there he rubbed elbows with author Ernest Hemmingway. After a chance meeting at Bar Cristal, he offered Hemmingway tickets to the ballgame. Sparking a conversation, the author invited him to imbibe, urging him to, “Sit down and have a taste.”

Running around Cuba with Tosheff was a second baseman from Detroit who would be better known for his pizza than his exploits with his glove. Mike Ilitch, the founder of the Little Caesar’s Pizza chain and owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, was Tosheff’s teammate in Tampa. At the end of the season, Tosheff was offered an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of Ilitch’s operation; however, he was occupied with leaving the country.

“I had a brand new Olds 98 convertible," he said. "After the season was over, I said, ‘Well, look I’m going to go to South America, I quit the NBA, take my car to Detroit."

Before they parted company, Ilitch posed him an offer.

"Before he left, he said to me, ‘Tosh, there is a guy who has a little bar in Detroit and my mom gets this great sauce and the secret is in the sauce. You and I will be partners.'”

Tosheff, who focused on the prospect of playing baseball out of the country, just wanted to leave as soon as possible.

“I said, ‘Mike take the car and go to Detroit. I want to go to South America.’ I went to Cartagena, Columbia and played baseball. A year later I came back and got my car; he got married.”

Chance would reunite them thirty years later. After watching Ilitch being interview by Howard Cosell on television about his purchase of the Detroit Red Wings, Tosheff picked up the phone.

“I get to his secretary and I say, ‘Don’t tell him who I am.’ So he gets on the phone and goes, ‘Yeah?’ and I said, ‘The secret’s in the sauce!’ He starts laughing.”

After his playing days were over, he became an advocate for the forgotten old-timers of his era.

In the wake of the current NBA labor struggles, Tosheff was a driving force in helping the players who played in the NBA prior to the formation of the players’ union in 1965 to receive pension benefits. The group of players dubbed the “Pre-65ers” became Tosheff’s fighting cause for over 30 years.

Due to his efforts, in 2007, the NBA finally raised the pension amounts for those that had at least five years of service and expanded the benefits to include those with three or four years of service. Similarly, MLB followed suit this fall, making payments to those who fell into a similar pension gap. One can only think that Tosheff’s work had some level of influence on their union.

As he stated in the interview, he ended every talk and public appearance he made with the following bit of advice.

"The clock is always running on us," he said. "In the end result, all you have left are your memories. If they are not good ones you’ll have a hard time sustaining the rest of your life. So pull out the good ones, show ‘em the bad ones if you have any, and get after it and talk about them because someone might be interested."



Sunday, August 28, 2011

Carl Erskine explains how he composed his curveball in Cuba

On the verge of his 21st birthday, fresh off his first full season in professional ball, Carl Erskine found himself in a place that was in stark contrast from his hometown of Anderson, Indiana.


In the winter of 1947, Erskine was sent to Cuba to play with the Cienfuegos team at the urges of Branch Rickey. Erskine would quickly be introduced to a different climate that had nothing to do with the weather.





Monday, April 25, 2011

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rogelio Martinez, 91, Cuban baseball legend and Washington Senator

Former Cuban pitcher and Washington Senator Rogelio "Limonar" Martinez died Monday at his home in Connecticut at the age of 91 after suffering a fall that caused severe internal bleeding.

A legend in the Matanzas province, Martinez was just the seventh pitcher in Cuban baseball history to pitch a no-hitter, spinning the gem while a member of the Marianao club in 1950 against Almendares.

He briefly made two appearances for the Washington Senators in 1950, posting an 0-1 record with a 27.00 ERA. Martinez at the time was plagued by knee injuries which would affect him for the rest of his career and into retirement.

He lived for many years in Queens, New York after moving from Cuba in 1962 with his family. He was inducted into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. He spent the last few years of his life living in Connecticut with his daughter.

More Information -
He died a legend of Cuban Baseball - El Nuevo Herald (Translated)


Limonar Martinez Dies - Jesus Alberto Rubio (Spanish)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Aroldis Chapman signs with the Reds

MLB.com reports that Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman has signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Chapman made headlines at last year's World Baseball Classic where he routinely hit 100 mph on the radar gun. The lefty fireballer was able establish residency in Andorra after he defected from the Cuban National Team in July. Since that time, he has switched agents and been a coveted target for many teams, with the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Marlins all making offers to Chapman in the winter months.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Minnie Minoso And Others To Be Honored In Philadelphia April 25, 2009 For Their Cuban Sports Hall of Fame Induction

Pioneering baseball legend Minnie Minoso will be appearing in Horsham, PA alongside Cholly Naranjo, Forrest "Spook" Jacobs and Tony Taylor starting at 10AM on Saturday April 25, 2009 to be honored for their recent induction into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame. Minoso is a legendary figure in both Cuban and American professional baseball, and was a finalist for the 2006 Negro League inductees for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Taylor was an All-Star in 1960, playing 19 seasons in Major League Baseball. Jacobs, one of the last surviving members of the Philadelphia Athletics, played 11 years in the Cuban Winter Leagues. Naranjo was a curveball specialist who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 and 9 seasons in the Cuban Winter Leagues.

Admission is free and the festivities are sponsored by the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society. There will be an autograph signing and silent auction will follow the festivities. You can register online for the auction via the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society website.

The proceeds from the auction and silent auction will benefit the Historical Society which is composed entirely of volunteers. They maintain an excellent museum in Horsham, PA which chronicles Philadelphia's vast baseball history.

Stay tuned to Baseball Happenings, as we will bring you photos from the event and interviews with the legends who are being honored.

Autograph Session Details
April 25, 2009 10AM-2PM - FREE Admission
In-Person Prices
Minnie Minoso (Only 7 decade player in baseball) - $20 any item
Tony Taylor (1958-76 Cubs, Phillies, Tigers) - $20 any item
Spook Jacobs - (1954-56 Philadelphia / KC's A's, Pirates) $10 any item
Cholly Naranjo - (1956 Pirates) One free item, $6 extras

Mail Order (Orders accepted until April 24th) - For mail order inquries, contact the Philadelphia A's historical society
Phone: (215)323-9901 Toll Free Phone: 1-800-318-0483
Email - yorkroad6@aol.com

Minnie Minoso:
Our signed baseball - $35, Our signed photo - $25, Your signed item - $25
Tony Taylor:
Our signed ball - $35, Our signed photo -$25, Your signed item - $20
Spook Jacobs:
Our baseball signed - $25, Our signed photo - $12, Your signed item -$10
Cholly Naranjo:
Our baseball signed - $15, Our signed photo - $8, Your signed item -$6