Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball
by Matt Welch
Precious little information
Any book about Cuban baseball is a good book.
Havana historian Severino Nieto has written more than a dozen of them, including the island's first-ever encyclopedia, which he and co-author Gabino Delgado lovingly compiled from old newspaper clippings, scorecards and personal notes covering organized Cuban baseball's initial 78 years (1878-1955). It was the first real statistical research ever conducted in the baseball-mad country ... and it was the only one of Nieto's books ever published.
The post-Revolutionary government explanation? A terrible 40-year paper shortage. So, Nieto's cluttered Havana apartment is the only place on earth where you can read the lone copies of such important historical documents as "American Blackball Teams in Cuba, 1900-1938," "Professional Baseball in Cuba 1878-1961," "Martín Dihigo, El Maestro" and "Big League Teams in Cuba." The State – which is Cuba's monopoly paper distributor, printer and publishing house – prefers to use its precious supplies on hagiographies of the country's considerable amateur athletic program, rather than on its professional past.
Like every other corner of modern Cuban society, even the most basic information about baseball is astonishingly hard to come by. I once spent ten days in Havana asking a variety of hardcore fans – including a ranking bureaucrat at the Cubadeportes agency and the director of Cuba's Sports Hall of Fame – where I could get a schedule of upcoming games. No one knew. (The answer, at least in early 1998, was in the Friday editions of the lone national daily, Granma.) The Hall of Fame director, incidentally, did not know how many members were in his own museum.
So any book about Cuban baseball really is a good book.
Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball, a bright new collection of old photographs, illustrations and historical tidbits by photographer Mark Rucker and béisbol specialist Peter Bjarkman, is good largely because it exists.
Most American baseball fans, no matter how enthusiastic, don't know much about the island beyond it being an international powerhouse and font of Major League talent such as Luís Tiant, Tony Pérez and Orlando "El Duque" Hernández.
In fact, Cuba fielded its first professional league just two years after the National League debuted in the north; was largely responsible for spreading the game around the Caribbean; and began a competitive and complicated relationship with U.S. ball soon after 1900 – the year Cuban leagues abolished the color barrier.
Big-league teams such as John McGraw's New York Giants took several winter tours of the island, frequently getting shut out by the very black José "El Diamante Negro" Méndez, and sometimes competing against American Negro stars normally banned from U.S. ballparks.
Fair-skinned Cubans began playing in the majors by 1911, and made the big-time with Adolfo "Dolph" Luque's dominating 27-8 season in 1923. Their dark-skinned countrymen joined Negro barnstorming teams (many of which had the word "Cubans" in their name, even if there weren't any on the team), anddlater provided strong talent to the Negro Leagues.
Babe Ruth played on the island, as did Tommy Lasorda and even (briefly) Willie Mays. When Castro's Revolution hit in 1959, the Havana Sugar Kings were wrapping up a Triple-A pennant, and most people pegged the city as the likeliest first foreign entrant to the Majors.
It is always useful to collect these facts in one place, and "Smoke" is especially commendable for illustrating them with evocative "Cigar-box cards," 1900s magazine covers, and hundreds of interesting photographs.
There are some unforgettable images here: turn-of-the-century team photos with more handlebar mustaches than the '72 A's; several stern portraits of the stocky and meat-faced Luque (who had an important career as a manager in the Cuban League); two incredible shots of 1,000-plus Cuban men – all in neat straw hats and most in ties – crammed on a sidewalk watching the line scores and summaries of an early-century World Series; a suave and defiant portrait of the incomparable 1923 Santa Clara outfield of Oscar Charleston; Alejandro Oms and Pablo Mesa; a spread on the charismatic and barrel-chested '40-'50s star Pedro Formental (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Rickey Henderson); plus dozens of great action shots from the wild and wooly 1950s.
But beyond these pleasures, "Smoke" is a shoddy, deeply disappointing book.
Bjarkman's writing is clumsy, repetitive, and strangled with nostalgic jargon; Rucker's layout is confusing to the point of sea-sickness. More gravely, given the scarce research on the topic (especially in English), the information the authors present is shallow, largely unreferenced, unindexed, and (on occasion) demonstrably false. Compounding this sloppiness is Bjarkman's political enthusiasms, which distort his descriptions and front-load his bitchy arguments to the point of absurdity and even offensiveness.
Bjarkman kicks off the book with an attack against the U.S.’s "treacly big-league fare," "cavorting cartoon-style mascots," "intrusive luxury-box opulence," and "(most thoroughly distateful of all) spoiled-rotten and poorly motivated million-dollar ballplayers."
In Cuba, on the other hand, the game is "surprisingly pure," the "off-the-field distractions are altogether minimal," and watching a game is like taking "a rare fantasy trip straight back into baseball's seemingly lost innocence of a near-forgotten pre-television epoch."
By the third paragraph he's already condemned Diamond Vision twice (establishing a theme of repetition that should get some copy editors fired), and posed the startling thesis that baseball is much better when played in an isolated, poverty-stricken country where the players have zero rights.
"The naive ballplayers themselves seem to compete more out of raw passion for the game than any acquired love of the lucre," playing "with the infectious spirit of schoolboys rather than the haughty attitude of spoiled rock stars," Bjarkman writes, without quoting from so much as a single interview with a Cuban ballplayer.
"Cuban ballparks are a pure delight for the rare and fortunate visitor from North America," he writes. "There are no obtrusive billboards on outfield fences – though there are some outfield political slogans featuring revolutionary wisdom – and there are no ear-splitting electronic scoreboards filling the air with rock music and artificially orchestrated cheerleading."
It is important here to point out a few things that Bjarkman neglects to mention over 257 pages:
Cuba, no matter how pleasant and magical a place, is a police state, almost wholly cut off from the outside world. There is a police cell, literally, on every residential block.
Cuban ballplayers, like most other citizens, typically cannot make international phone calls from home (not even collect), and Internet access costs $200 a month (more than the average annual salary).
Foreign travel is prohibitively expensive (partially because the State charges hundreds of U.S. dollars for the privilege), and rarely approved. The only way for the top ballplayers to test their skills against the world's best is if they are selected to compete in international amateur competition.
Though Bjarkman celebrates the fact that "there are no trades in the Cuban League, a practice consistent with the country's socialist notion that ballplayers are not mere chattel, or so much ballclub property, to be bought or sold at a club owner's whim," players' entire careers are controlled by the "whim" of the Cuban central command – which can and will halt the careers of the island's top stars in their primes, on the suspicion of talking with foreigners. This is what happened to Orlando "El Duque" Hernández before he defected.
Baseball players are, in fact, so beholden to the government that the few dozen who are allowed to play in the professional leagues of Japan, Italy, or other Caribbean countries are required to remit 40 to 70 percent of their salaries directly to the Cuban national treasury. Penalties for misbehavior range from outright bans to more subtle methods such as having your kids removed from the best schools.
This is the fundamental backdrop to the Cuban game today. To ignore it is to write a willfully inaccurate book.
Bjarkman only briefly acknowledges that "through much of the 1990s baseball struggled in Cuba," but then blames it immediately on the "economic squeezing brought on by a reprehensible ongoing U.S. blockade of the island," and on the recent flood of defectors "seduced by ... perhaps-unpure dollars," who "stand justly accused of abandoning a system of sports training that honed their athletic skills and gave them a first opportunity to shine."
This is a repugnantly simplistic, one-sided polemic, not fit for halfway serious discourse. There are other motivations for defecting besides money – the five percent of the population that has applied for immigrant visas to the States probably don't expect multimillion-dollar contracts when they reach Florida.
And there is a much bigger culprit for the 1990s economic crisis: the collapse of the Soviet Union and its huge subsidies.
Lastly, Bjarkman's tribal notions of loyalty could effortlessly be extended to cover top Jewish athletes of Nazi Germany.
This is writing distorted by ideology, and ideology never respects the truth. For instance, he writes that, "Such 'defectors' are considered traitors by perhaps the bulk of fans and fellow ballplayers back home."
I visited Cuba one month after El Duque fled the country, and in the wake of his half-brother Livan's winning the World Series MVP for the Florida Marlins.
The Cuban national team had suffered recent losses, and league attendance was down sharply. I talked to several ballplayers, fans and coaches, some of them diehard revolutionaries, some of them angling for the next boat off the island – and not a single one expressed a sentiment that vaguely resembles Bjarkman's statement.
Most were broadly sympathetic (if saddened) that the players sought a new level of competition, and most were proud that Livan had done so well. The only person who parroted Bjarkman's line was one Cubadeportes official who didn't like baseball – indeed, judging by his acknowledgements, Bjarkman spent most of his time chaperoned by Communist officials.
For all my complaints about Bjarkman's loaded rhetoric (and there are scores of examples more), most of the political mumbo-jumbo is dished out in the introduction and conclusion. The meat of the book, covering the history of professional ball in Cuba and its interaction with America, is largely free of ideology. Instead, it suffers from a suffocating nostalgia, surprising lack of depth, and chaotic presentation.
If you can never get enough of old-fashioned baseball jargon, this is your book. In Bjarkman's universe, seemingly every outfielder is a "flychaser," every catcher a "backstop," every second baseman a "second sacker," every hitter a "batsman," every season a "campaign," and so on. League-leaders "pace the circuit" or "outdistance the field," sometimes by "stroking the ball" to the "opposite pasture." In one memorable paragraph, he uses the word "hurler" no less than three times, in addition to "roundtrippers," "whitewashings," "efforts" (as in "games"), and "sock" (as in "hit"). Even if you fancy such terms, their ritual overuse is enough to make Grantland Rice blush.
Ditto for several of the book's anecdotes. For instance, we discover that John McGraw considered José Méndez in the same class as Christy Mathewson on pages 2, 6eems to want to shout about; he doesn't seem to have faith in the ability of facts to speak eloquently for themselves.
Cuban baseball, like the rest of Cuban life, doesn't need us vs. them propaganda; there has been plenty enough of that the last 40 years, from both sides. It needs depiction and evocation, it needs the recognition it has earned, and above all it needs meticulous, vigorous research. Baseball fans in both countries continue to be poorer for the lack of basic history.