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Culture In Cuba – Baseball Mania
Esteban Bellan
Esteban Bellan

The Beginning
In the 1860s, baseball was introduced to Cuba by American sailors on trading vessels that ported in the country and by Cubans who studied in the U.S. and returned tools of the game, like bats and balls. Cubans quickly adopted the sport and leagues started all over the island. By 1869, after the first Cuban War of Independence against colonial Spanish rulers, the game was banned and Cubans were expected to dutifully embrace the Spanish pastime of bullfighting. These efforts to ban the sport quickly gave baseball a deeper significance to the Cuban people and the game itself became symbolic of freedom from their Spanish oppressors. The ban also prompted the first Cuban players to join semi-pro and major league teams in the United States. In 1871, Esteban Bellan became the first Cuban player to play in the American major leagues.

Illustration: Amilkar Feria

Metaphor for Life
At the end of the revolution against Spanish dominance, baseball became a big part of Cuban life and continued to be an expression of resistance. Identified with the struggle for independence from Spain, baseball continues to this day to be synonymous with Cuban identity and nationalism. In literature and song lyrics Cuban writers have pondered the concept of baseball as a metaphor for life. Buena Fé, Cuba’s Latin pop band, sings: Rise up against the onslaught of a cruel offensive or stay trapped in a game of strikeouts. Could it be that baseball resembles life? Is it possible that without it, we could not dream?

Esquina Caliente (Hot Corner)
To say that Cubans are passionate about baseball is an understatement. If you visit Havana and have a chance to pass by Parque Central, don’t miss the opportunity to check out the group of men huddled under the shade trees near the statue of Jose Martí, engaged in intense banter. Stand back and watch as the mood of the mob ebbs between heated discussion and full-on argument; as tensions escalate, arms are waving, men screaming, surely a fight is about to ensue. Then suddenly an uproarious belly laugh from the crowd changes the ambiance and the heated discussion temporarily lulls, but only to start back up again with the same fervor.  This is a daily ritual at what is fondly called Esquina Caliente (or “Hot Corner”), the unofficial gathering site of self-proclaimed Cuban sports experts.
Check out Esquina Caliente on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ja8baH6IN6Y

The Cuban League, 1878 – 1961

In late 1878, the official Cuban League was organized, consisting of three all-white amateur teams—Almendares, Habana and Mantanzas. The best players were becoming celebrities by the mid 1880s, and baseball began the journey to becoming a professional sport, mimicking the history of American baseball and the creation of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players.

The Cuban league remained a segregated, all-white organization until 1900, when the league yielded to pressure for integration in the aftermath of the Cuban War of Independence, where Cuban blacks and whites fought together for a common purpose. This was the year the league admitted the all-black club, San Francisco, and accepted non-white players to some of the other teams. By this time black Cubans had developed a variety of skills playing on semi-professional and sugar mill teams. When San Francisco easily won the pennant, other Cuban professional clubs began scrambling to recruit top black players. During the first half of the 20th century, the Cuban league admitted many African-American players who were still banned from playing on U.S. major league teams. In the United States, segregation remained the rule in professional baseball until Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field in April 1947. In the early 1900s, Cuban teams loaded up with black American stars and with their own top players—even some white U.S. major leaguers—Cuban teams became serious competitors against American professional baseball teams.

The Cuban League operated from 1878 to 1961 and was one of the earliest and longest lasting professional baseball leagues outside the United States. Since the Cuban season was played during winter months, the league was sometimes called the "Cuban Winter League." Many American teams sent their players to play in Cuba in what was the U.S. “off-season,” to increase their skills or to recover from injury. In 1947, the Cuban league entered into an agreement with U.S. major league baseball and was officially used for player development.

The American Series, 1891 – 1959
Cuba started the American Series with the first competition between an American and Cuban team in 1891, with the arrival of the All Americans. Between 1900 and 1959, many American major, minor and “negro” league teams toured the island. The games were very competitive and the series so popular with Cuban fans that the Cuban league games were scheduled around the American Series. Some of the most talented American players in history made appearances in Cuba, including Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, John McGraw and John Henry Lloyd, and many other stars and Hall of Famers.

Cuban National Baseball System (Post-Revolution)
In 1961, the government created the National Institute of Sports and announced an end to professional baseball and plans to start a national amateur championship in its place. The system was designed to provide entertainment to the public and develop the island’s athletic talent by recruiting children with promising athletic ability in sports—including baseball—to special academies for competitive training and development. Few players are able to move up the ranks of the sport without attending one of the specialized sports schools. Players are considered amateur since Cuba has no “professional” sports leagues, but stipends and incentives are given for participation in the programs, and achievement is accompanied by fame and adoration by Cuban fans.

Cuban National Series, 1961 to present
The first National Series was played in 1961-62 with only four teams: the Occidentales, Orientales, Habana, and Azucareros. The next season there were six teams and by 1967, there was an increase to 12 teams and a separation into divisions. Baseball expanded to the provinces and stadiums were built in rural areas bringing nationwide accessibility to the sport from city to countryside. The National Series has now grown to 16 teams in two leagues (east and west), with a team representing each provincial area of the country. The season consists of about 90 games played between November and April, culminating with a playoff series and championship. In recent years two teams have dominated the series, the Industriales of Havana and the Santiago de Cuba team. The 2007-2008 season crowned Santiago de Cuba as the champion for the second year in a row. In 2008-09, for the first time in years, the championship went to Habana, the other team from Havana province, while the 2009-10 season again yielded the Industriales as the winning team.

Click logo below for information on the 2008 National Series final championship with Santiago winning over Pinar de Rio

 

Super Series
Teams are selected from the best players in the National Series and about 28 games are played between May and July. The series culminates in a playoff between the two best teams and the Cuban National Team is chosen from players in the Super Series.

Orestes Kindelan
Cuban National Team
Pedro Luis Lazo


The team is made up of the most talented amateur players from the National Series teams, most of them coming up through the ranks since childhood as part of the national baseball program. This team represents the country in international competitions. Cuba has always ranked high in international games and in the last 20 years has had even more opportunities to compete and show their talent in the International Cup, Olympics and World Baseball Classic. Since becoming an official sport in the Summer Olympics in 1992, Cuba has had the most success, winning the gold in three of the four tournaments and otherwise taking second-place silver. The 2006 World Baseball Classic created an opportunity for Cuba to play against the best professional players in the world, where the Cuban National Baseball Team reached the finals, losing in a chilling upset to Japan, 10–6.

Go to Wikipedia for more information about the Cuban National Team record in international competitions, including the Olympics, World Baseball Classic, Pan American Games, World Cup, International Cup and Central American and Caribbean games.


Resources:
Internet Sites
Cubanball.com
Cuba’s official baseball website, www.baseballdecuba.com/
Cuba’s Radio Coco website, www.radiococo.cu/cocobeisbol/ingles/principalsite.htm
Books
The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball. Roberto González Echevarría, (1999). Oxford University Press
A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864–2006. Peter C. Bjarkman (2007). McFarland Publishing

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