Playing ball in Cuba

The Pirates skulked away to the Caribbean after stinking in 1952, but they didn't stay for long, recalls baseball historian JOE GUZZARDI


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Shortly after the Pittsburgh Pirates completed their dismal 1952 season, general manager Branch Rickey phoned his old friend Lorenzo Nodarse, Cuba’s sports commissioner. Rickey’s mission: to relocate the Pirates’ 1953 spring training site to cosmopolitan Havana and as far away as possible from local fans’ scornful eyes. The Pirates’ woeful 40-112 record was the worst since 1890, when the then-Alleghenys went 23-113.

Rickey had befriended Nodarse in 1947 when he took the Brooklyn Dodgers to baseball-mad Cuba, where American sailors had introduced the sport in 1864. Rickey wanted to shield Jackie Robinson during spring training from the taunts that Major League Baseball’s first black player had to endure the previous year in Daytona Beach. The ugly confrontations had disrupted the Dodgers’ routine. But in Cuba, blacks had been playing professionally in the Winter League since 1900. Some of the greatest Negro League stars had excelled in Cuba. To Rickey, Havana was familiar turf with a passionate, tolerant baseball following.

Rickey also felt that, after having switched training sites five times since World War II, Cuba would be a refreshing change for his players, who sorely needed revitalization. No wonder; a previous spring destination — Muncie, Ind. — even had an average high temperature in March of 45 degrees. Travel agents advertised Havana as warm and sunny, with miles of pristine beaches, casinos and modern hotels, as the Caribbean’s Monte Carlo.

Rickey and Nordarse quickly struck a three-year deal that seemingly would benefit both parties. Cuba would pay for transportation to and from Pittsburgh for up to 75 people, lodging, meals and ground transportation. In exchange, the Pirates would turn over gate receipts for all exhibition games played between the Bucs, the Cuban All Star teams and the Philadelphia Athletics, an American League perennial also-ran.

Once in Cuba, Rickey chose housing near the beach and only a few miles from three potential work-out sites — Tropical Park, the University of Havana and the historic Gran Estadio.

Back in Pittsburgh, the Pirates’ new manager, Fred Haney, promoted from the minor leagues to replace the embattled Billy Meyer, spent most of his winter defending the Buc’s chances. Haney told carping sportswriters that, because the Pirates would be “a perfect blend of youth and experience,” his task of fielding a better team didn’t appear to be “hopeless.” He wouldn’t have taken the job, Haney insisted, if he didn’t think the Pirates had the nucleus of a winner.

Haney’s primary concern was the mounting threat that seven-time home-run champion Ralph Kiner would sit out in 1953. Kiner and Rickey were locked in an acrimonious salary dispute, with the penurious GM threatening to cut the slugger’s pay from $90,000 to $76,000 and then, if he didn’t report to camp on time, to slash it further to $67,000. Kiner said Rickey’s offer “hurt and baffled him” and suggested that he’d be perfectly happy to stay in his Palm Springs home to help his wife, tennis star Nancy Chafee, run their gift shop.

Rumors also had Kiner contemplating a movie career. Kiner had great Tinseltown connections. He had dated Elizabeth Taylor, hung out with Frank Sinatra and played golf with Pirates co-owner Bing Crosby. Rickey and Kiner finally reached an $80,000 compromise in mid-March, by which time spring training was well underway.

Haney had ordered his team to report to Havana by March 1. The players settled uncomfortably into their apartments with four players squeezed into each room. They complained about the food, the bottled-water-only rule, the mandated three-hour midday siesta and, to accommodate the night-life-loving Cubans, the 9 p.m. starting time for games.

Once the exhibition season kicked into high gear, the Pirates’ deal with Cuba showed immediate signs of cracking. Unlike Rickey’s 1947 Dodgers, the Pirates had no big-name stars except Kiner. Since the Pirates played for the first two weeks without the slugger, Cubans stayed away in droves. They kept asking, “Where’s Ralph Kiner?” Fans weren’t willing to pay for mediocrity. Four straight games had fewer than 1,000 in the stands; one drew 30, another, 15.

Cubans loved baseball, but they also loved to bet. But the way spring training worked made wagering a risky proposition. The starting lineup was on the field for three or four innings, pitchers even less. Not knowing who would play or for how long complicated betting and further depressed attendance. In the end, the anticipated lucrative gate receipts promised to the Cuban government fell far short of its costs of bringing the Pirates to Havana.

The government was not happy. And neither were the Pirates.

Haney complained that the weak spring competition made it impossible to realistically evaluate his team’s talent. After the early March games against the Athletics, the Pirates didn’t face major league competition until the New York Yankees came to Forbes Field for two April preseason games (when Mickey Mantle hit a 500-foot homer onto the right field roof). Just before Opening Day, Pirates’ president John Galbreath unofficially declared the Cuba experiment a bust when he promised that in 1954 the Pirates would return to Florida for training.

The Pirates lost nine of the season’s first 12 games and slowly sank into the cellar where they finished 50-104, a staggering 55 games behind the Dodgers. In June, Rickey traded Kiner to the Chicago Cubs. Haney’s early promise of an improved Pirates team was technically correct, though — the Bucs had won eight more games than in 1953.

Unfortunately, the modest improvement didn’t impress Pirates’ devotees. Like the Cubans, they too stayed away. Attendance averaged 7,438.

Although the Pirates trained in familiar Florida for the next several years, the team continued to struggle at the gate and on the field. In 1956, Joe L. Brown and Bobby Bragan replaced Rickey and Haney. Finally, in 1958, after nine consecutive sub-.500 seasons, the Bucs posted a winning record. Two years later in 1960, the Pirates were World Series champions.

Coincidentally, Cuban professional baseball ended the same year the Pirates became champs. The Cuban revolution nationalized baseball, and Fidel Castro soon dissolved the historic Winter League. Then, for safety reasons, the successful AAA International League Havana Sugar Kings transferred to Jersey City.

Players who had traveled to Havana during the early tumultuous Castro years welcomed the change of venue. Random gunshots, fired jubilantly from the grandstands by Castro and his lieutenants during Sugar Kings’ games, had unnerved them. As one player recalled 25 years later, “We were just happy to get out with our hides.”

Joe Guzzardi, a retired teacher, is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association (guzzjoe@yahoo.com). He lives in Bradford Woods.


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