Baseball in Cuba
Outside the Cuban restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops that dot West Tampa, the obituary likely went largely unnoticed across the Tampa Bay area.
“Agapito Mayor, 89 … passed away April 18, 2005,” read the item on Page 8 in the Metro section of The Tampa Tribune. The notice included a reference to Mayor's 40-year baseball career as a player, coach and manager in leagues from Cuba throughout the Caribbean, from South to Central America and in the United States.
Since leaving Cuba in 1961, Eleno Agapito Mayor had called Tampa home for more than 40 years. He and his wife, Gloria, lived in their modest two-bedroom home on West Tampa's Dewey Street, minutes from the stomping grounds of the area's most celebrated athletes: baseball stars such as Al Lopez and Lou Piniella, Wade Boggs and Gary Sheffield, Tino Martinez and Luis Gonzalez. Yet, aside from his obituary, the only other recent reference to Mayor in the local newspapers was a brief mention of him appearing at the Cuban Club in Ybor City during a 1990 benefit for Cuban refugees.
Unlike his more famous Tampa baseball brethren, Mayor never reached the majors. His fame came as a left-handed pitcher during his 14 seasons in Cuba with the Almendares baseball club from 1938-53. It is little wonder, then, that Mayor's baseball career was never fully publicized in his adoptive hometown. Quiet reminders of that career–a framed letter of Mayor's 1978 induction into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame, a team photograph from the 1950s–still dot the walls of the one-bedroom apartment in the West Tampa assisted-living facility Gloria Mayor, 82, now calls home. In one black-and-white photo from his playing days, a young Agapito Mayor, hands raised over his head in the start of a classic windup, stands atop the mound at Havana's El Gran Estadio. He is dressed in the white, flannel uniform of Almendares, a serifed letter “A” over the heart of the jersey.
“He was Almendarista his entire life,” Gloria says as she points to photographs that chronicle her late husband's life. “He got offers from other clubs in Havana, but he always said he wouldn't leave Almendares.” Mayor's love for Almendares was such that he often proclaimed he wanted to be buried in his uniform. “That uniform, it was given it to him one night at a gathering at the Columbia Restaurant,” Gloria said. “They had a uniform with the No. 18, which was always his number with Almendares, made for him. It was exactly like the one he wore with Almendares, identical, with its cap, the socks, everything. … “I had a suit for him, thinking to put it on him [for his funeral]. But my daughter and a long-time family friend said, 'Remember what he always said.' … So I found the suitcase where he kept the uniform and I brought it to the funeral home. And with his uniform he left. And a boy he helped practice baseball when he was little put a baseball in his hand. The boy asked me for permission and he put the ball in his hands, so he left with the baseball as well. Baseball was his life.”
Cuba's 'Greatest Baseball Season'
In that baseball life, Mayor carved his name alongside that of teammate and former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Max Lanier's in the pantheon of Cuba's storied winter league. Born on the same day, August 18, 1915–Lanier in Denton, North Carolina; Mayor in Sagua La Grande, Las Villas, Cuba,–their names forever will be linked by their exploits on the field at Havana's El Gran Estadio.
Lanier, who died in January 2007, and Mayor remained friends long after their playing days. Together during the Cuban winter season of 1946-47, they helped deliver a championship for Almendares in what still is celebrated as the greatest pennant race in the island nation's history.
In the inaugural season of Havana's El Gran Stadium, Habana, one of four teams in Cuba's winter league–Cienfuegos and Marianao were the other two–were comfortably in first place by February 5, 1947. Since the late 1800s, Habana and Almendares–the “Eternal Rivals”- had dominated the league, and it appeared the 1946-47 season would produce an easy championship for Habana. But as Mayor won four games and Lanier two, Almendares won 10 of its next 11 games to set up the decisive final three games against Habana. One loss by Almendares and Habana would win the pennant.
On Sunday, February 23, Lanier took the mound for Almendares, beating Habana, 4-2. Mayor started the next game on Monday and held Habana to four hits in a 2-1 victory. Almendares held a half-game lead going into the winner-take-all finale. Fans began lining up outside El Gran Stadium early Tuesday morning, hours before the gates opened at 10 a.m. Soon, with the stadium's capacity of 34,000 reached, overflow crowds spilled onto the field, cordoned off by ropes along the first- and third-base lines. Some who couldn't get into the stadium climbed light towers just beyond the outfield fence.
In the Almendares clubhouse, a deal was brokered to determine the game's starter. Manager Adolfo Luque approached Lanier about pitching in the final game on one day's rest. “We'll give you $500 if you pitch the third game and win it,” Luque offered. Lanier countered: “I'll pitch it for $500, win or lose.” When it was announced over the stadium's public address system that Lanier would take the mound on less than 48-hours rest, the crowd broke into a deafening ovation.
Among the fans was Gloria Mayor, who had been too nervous to watch the game her husband had won the previous day.
“I heard it on the radio,” she said. “After he [Mayor] won, the next day I went, when Lanier pitched. I was very fond of Lanier, but it wasn't the same as watching Mayor pitch. I said, 'OK, now I'll go, and whatever God wants will happen.' ”
Lanier went on to dominate Habana, giving up just six hits in a 9-1 complete-game victory that touched off a riotous celebration around the country. Jubilant Almendares fans paint a toy lion - Habana's mascot - red and place it in a small, makeshift casket for a funeral procession through the streets of Havana.
“That was, I think, the greatest baseball season in Cuba,” Gloria Mayor said. “The people stormed the streets. We had to lock the doors to the house because we thought the fans would knock down the house from the joy they felt.”
Haven for Interracial Baseball
That outpouring of emotion on February 25, 1947 was indicative of Cuba's passion for baseball, a passion matched only in the United States. After all, the Professional Baseball League of Cuba began in 1878 and played its final game in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro's rise to power, which eliminated professional baseball on the island.
In that time, Cuba also was a destination for barnstorming professional teams from the United States, hosted spring training and was home to two minor league teams: Havana Cubans of the Florida International League (1946-53) and the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League (1954-59).
During the first half of the 20th century, Negro and major league teams visited the island for exhibitions games against Cuban teams, often losing the contests to the local clubs. They were successful against teams such as the Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers and New York Giants thanks to performances by top-notch Cuban pitchers. During the Giants' 1911 visit, Habana's Adolfo Luque beat the Giants 3-2; Jose Mendez split two decisions against Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson, prompting Giants manager John McGraw to say he would pay $50,000 for Mendez if he were white.
Cuba, like other Latin American countries, was a haven for interracial baseball. But because the major leagues would not integrate until 1947, black Cuban players, such as Mendez, Martin Dihigo and Cristobal Torriente–all of whom are now enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York–could only play in the Negro leagues while playing in the United States. White or light-skinned Cubans, such as Luque, Esteban Bellan, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida had no such restrictions. Bellan was the first Latin American to play in the majors, joining the Troy Haymakers of the National Association in 1871. Marsans and Almeida were hailed as “two bars of pure Castilian soap” when they were signed by the Reds in 1911. And Luque posted 193 major league victories, including a 27-8 record with Cincinnati in 1923. But in Cuba, white players and Negro leaguer stars such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell could share the same field in the winter league and in exhibitions.
One famous exhibition in 1920 pitted Babe Ruth against Torriente at Havana's Almendares Park in what became something of a home run derby between the two sluggers. Ruth went hitless in three at-bats, while Torriente hit three home runs. The Almendares center fielder even doubled off Ruth, who had come in from the outfield to pitch an inning of relief. The Los Angeles Times dubbed Torriente “the Babe Ruth of Cuba,” while Ruth described his counterpart as being “as black as a ton and a half of coal in a dark cellar.”
Aside from hosting exhibitions, Cuba also occasionally served as a spring training home to major league teams: the Giants in 1937, the Brooklyn Dodger in 1941, '42 and '47 and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953. The most significant of those spring sojourns came in 1947.
Amid the celebration of the pennant Mayor and Lanier helped Almendares win, Cuba hardly noticed the arrival of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson. Dodger’s president Branch Rickey had moved the Dodgers' spring training camp from Daytona Beach to the less volatile racial climate of Havana. Rickey believed the move would facilitate Robinson's transition from the Triple-A Montreal Royals to the Dodgers, and yet Robinson still found himself segregated.
The Dodgers basked in the opulence of Havana's Hotel Nacional, while Robinson and three other black players, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Roy Partlow, suffered in a seedy Havana hotel. While the Dodgers trained at El Gran Stadium, Robinson and the Royals worked out at the Havana Military Academy, several miles outside the city. There, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, in Havana for an exhibition bout, visited Robinson and joked with his Montreal teammates. “See you Opening Day at Ebbets Field with the Dodgers,” Louis said as he left. Robinson responded: “I hope so. I sure hope so.” Robinson made his debut in a Dodger uniform on April 15, 1947, breaking baseball's color barrier.
'It Was Like Heaven'
Thanks, in part, to the Dodgers' visit to Cuba that spring, Don Zimmer, who is white, was able to call Jackie Robinson a teammate for four seasons in Brooklyn. Zimmer, 77, now a senior baseball advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays, joined the Dodgers organization in 1949–too late for Brooklyn's last spring training in Cuba, but Zimmer got his own chance to play in Havana, for Cienfuegos and Marianao.
It was the winter of 1951-52 and Zimmer was home in the cold and snow of Cincinnati.
“Al Campanis [from the Dodgers] called me one day and he said, 'Do you want to go to Cuba to play the rest of the winter in the Cuban League?' I said, 'Yeah, my goodness,' ” Zimmer said. “I got on an airplane with my wife the next day. Billy Herman, a Hall of Famer, was my manager [with Cienfuegos]. He called me in the office and said, 'How long will it take you to get ready to play in a game?' I'm 22 years old. I said, 'What? I'll play tonight.' ”
Replacing Gene Mauch as the Elephants' shortstop, Zimmer hit .244, with one home run and 17 RBI. With Joe Black, another Dodgers farmhand, winning 15 games and Cuba's Rafael Noble batting .321, Cienfuegos finished second to Habana by just two games.
“They were in last place,” Zimmer said of when he joined the Elephants. “We got hot. If you win nine, 10 games in a row there, you gained on all three clubs because there's only three clubs you're playing.”
Zimmer returned the next winter and was traded during the season from Cienfuegos to Marianao. Among Zimmer's teammates were future major league All-Stars Minnie Miñoso and Camilo Pascual and Negro league star Ray Dandridge. Marianao also finished second to Habana. But playing the entire winter, Zimmer hit .272 with seven homers and 33 RBI.
“At that time, I thought it was heaven, Havana, Cuba, oh, my goodness,” said Zimmer, who after living in Treasure Island for 49 years now lives in Seminole. “It was a resort, I mean, what a gorgeous place. “They had beautiful casinos. You wanted to go to the casinos after the game, you went. They had great restaurants. I've always said that Cuba, the two years that I spent there, were very special in my baseball life. And playing with and against the guys that I played with, it was special.”
Featured in Cigar City - Issue 18- 2008