Fidel Castro and Cuban baseball

Hundreds of Cuban students – shouting slogans against then president Fulgencio Batista – storm a stadium in Havana, interrupting a Cuban league baseball game.

Moments later, a young law student by the name of Fidel Castro grabs the ball and takes to the mound.

After throwing out a few practice pitches, he faces off against future American Major Leagues’ slugger Don Hoak, before being kicked off the field.

“Castro gave me the hipper-dipper wind-up and cut loose with a curve. Actually, it was a pretty fair curve. It had a sharp inside break to it and came within an inch of my head,” Hoak recounted in a 1964 Sport magazine article called “The day I batted against Castro”.

The year was 1951, eight years before the Castro-led Cuban revolution would force Batista from power. And while it makes a compelling story, the oft-repeated and lionised baseball standoff never really happened.

“When that notion got started, it was just too attractive to overlook: The idea that this great enemy of the United States was somehow involved in America’s game,” explained Peter Bjarkman, a baseball historian and author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006.

The anecdote – and other debunked accounts of Castro, who died Friday night, as a star pitcher who was heavily recruited to play professional baseball in the US – is “a two-sided coin”, Bjarkman told Al Jazeera.

“The idea [is] that had Fidel continued to pursue baseball, we would have had a very different history in the last 50 years. The other side of it is that even our worst enemies are in love with our greatest passion.”

While he may not have been an outstanding player, El Comandante, like many Cubans, shared an affinity for baseball.

The sport first came to the island in the 1860s, after two brothers, Nemesio and Ernesto Guillo, returned from their studies in the US with a bat and ball.

The Habana Base Ball club was founded in 1868, and that same year, the first organised baseball game was played in Cuba between local players and American marines docked at the port city of Matanzas.

For decades, American players flocked south to join the highly competitive Cuban winter league.

African American players, in particular, left the segregated Negro League in the US to play in Cuba’s wholly integrated, professional games.

Some historians say the African American players influenced Cuban baseball’s conservative style; there, the game favours bunting and strong in-field play over flashy power hitting.

In 1947, when the Los Angeles Dodgers [and the franchise’s farm team, the Montreal Royals] held spring training in Havana, pioneering black ballplayer Jackie Robinson was among them.

When the Cuban revolution forced Batista from power in 1959, Cubans’ affinity for The US’ national sport stood at odds with the revolutionary government’s socialist ideology. But Castro couldn’t do away with a sport that was so beloved.

“This is a regime that is fiercely anti-American, but it could not do away with baseball because baseball is ingrained in Cuban culture, the same as [football] is in Brazil,” explained Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, a Cuban-born Yale University professor and author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.

“You could not, if you had a revolution in Brazil, abolish [football], or hockey in Canada.”

Professional sports

What Castro did, however, was transform Cuban baseball dramatically by suspending the country’s revered winter league in 1961.

At the time, Castro declared baseball an amateur affair – outlawing professional sports of any kind, in fact – and created the National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) to regulate athletics in the country.

“Professionalism meant capitalism. A regime that has styled itself to be communist … had to erase this glorious [baseball] past which had been achieved when Cuba was a capitalist country,” Echevarria told Al Jazeera.

Youth were recruited early and were groomed in state-run sports academies. If they made it to the Cuban National Series, they played for teams in their home provinces, where they were paid meagre state salaries  that matched those of bus drivers.

“Anybody who truly loves sport and feels sport has to prefer this sport to professional sport by a thousand times,” Castro said in 1964 about sports in post-revolution Cuba.

Investing in amateur athletics paid off for Cuba, just as it had for the Soviet Union.

Since baseball was added to the Summer Olympics in 1992, the Cuban national team has won three gold medals and two silver medals.

The team has also had spectacular showings at the World Baseball Classic, winning 25 gold medals in 29 appearances in the tournament.

“Baseball is the greatest ideological tool of the revolutionary government,” Osmel Almaguer, a Havana-based reporter for the Havana Times, told Al Jazeera.

“It is equivalent to the circus of the Roman emperors, and consequently, all the elements that move around the production of the [game] – television production, players, referees, coaches, the public and specialists of all kinds – are subject to great pressure.”

Antonio “Tony” Gonzalez is one of Cuba’s most celebrated shortstops.

He won three national championships in the 10 years he donned the royal blue uniform of Industriales – one of two Havana-based teams – and spent 11 years on Cuba’s national team, competing in international play all over Latin America.

“Fidel Castro’s impact was very important,” Gonzalez, who described Cuban baseball under Castro as a “golden age” for the sport, told Al Jazeera.

“The best players back then used to leave Cuba to go play for the best teams in the US. So, whenever we travelled to play against a professional team, we didn’t actually have professional players because they were all playing for other teams.

“We were world champions several times, Pan-American champions. We even won against strong teams such as the American one, which had very good players.”

Lifting restrictions

Under Castro’s 1960s reforms, baseball players were forbidden from playing for teams outside the island nation.

The government labelled those that decided to make the jump to million-dollar contracts in the American big leagues ” defectors “, and barred them from ever returning to Cuba.

Today, Antonio Castro, Fidel’s son and vice president of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), has eased some of these restrictions in hopes that the move will keep Cuban talent in the country.

Cuban players are now allowed to sign contracts with foreign teams – but not American ones – as long as they continue to play for the national team.

Even though the Cuban Baseball Federation pockets up to 30 percent of players’ salaries , wages have increased by as much as 20 times their previous level.

Cuba played in the 2014 Caribbean Baseball Series in February 2014, marking the country’s first appearance in the tournament in 53 years.

Late last year, Texas Rangers pitcher Jose Contreras was the first Cuban baseball player to return to the island after leaving for the US. “I never thought, I never had hope, that I could go back to Cuba,” he said, upon his return.

“[The policy is] no good. It’s no good for the family. It’s no good for nobody. We lose these players because when they go, they can’t come back to play for the Cuban national team, and why?” Antonio Castro told ESPN in October.

“We are a part of the world. We need to change.”

Follow Jillian Kestler-D’Amours on Twitter: @jkdamours

Source: Al Jazeera