The Baseball Game
Baseball might be the first and most enduring of many bonds that have formed between the United States and Cuba. Born in the US in the middle of the 19th Century, the sport gained popularity during the rest of the century to become our “national pastime.” Cuban students returning from studying in the US, along with American sailors on shore leave in Cuba introduced baseball there. Under Spanish rule at the time, Cubans were expected to be fans of Spain's national sport, bullfighting. But as a subtle act of protest against their colonial masters, Cubans began to favor baseball over bullfighting. The Spanish attempted to ban the sport in Cuba, which only served to increase its popularity. Bullfighting was seen as a metaphor for the Spanish oppression from which Cubans longed to escape, while baseball represented the American values of freedom and democracy to which they aspired.
During the early 20th century when baseball was still racially segregated in the US, black, white, and mixed-race athletes played as equals on Cuban teams. According to an article in Atlantic Magazine, “many of the greatest interracial games of the era took place in Havana, rather than in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park...” In 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training in Havana to help Jackie Robinson prepare for the upcoming season and break the color barrier in American baseball.
Perhaps because of its association with freedom from Spanish rule, baseball remained extremely popular in Cuba even as it was being eclipsed by football and other sports in the United States. In addition, Fidel Castro loved the game and was an aspiring, if ultimately unsuccessful, pitcher. Capitalizing on the nationalistic pride in the game, he banned professional baseball in the early days of the Revolution, instituting a league of amateur teams who, as he said, “play for the love of people, not money.” Accordingly, they were paid salaries only slightly higher than the average “wage” of state jobs in Cuba. Poorly paid or not, these players are some of the best in the world: Cuba frequently wins international tournaments, many players who have defected from Cuba are stars in Major League Baseball in the US, and the Cuban National Team has held its own in games against MLB teams.
Baseball games are being shown on practically every TV set in Havana, and I learn that the Cuban version of the World Series is currently underway. I decide to attend a game, so I walk to Estadio Latinoamerica, home of the beloved Industriales. A security guard tells me there is no game today, but there will be one tomorrow. At least I think that is what he says; when I return the next day I discover that there is no game then either. Maybe its that mañana thing: sometimes the word means tomorrow, other times some unspecified point in the future.
Several days later I am walking down the Malecón when I notice some kids playing a pick-up game on a tiny patch of grass bounded by busy thoroughfares. First base is a concrete cover on the sidewalk; other bases are similarly improvised. Balls often roll across the street toward the Spanish embassy or fly dangerously close to cars approaching the tunnel to the other side of the bay. Ill-equipped, the teams trade gloves as each takes its turn in the field. They ignore the Yuma with the camera and play with the same emotion and excitement that I remember from my Little League days, although lack of talent doomed my baseball “career” the same way it did Fidel's. But it is El Comandante's words, not his playing ability, that inspire these kids: they play for love, not money.