Havana Hardball

by Eric M. Washington.

Review of Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and the Cuban League by César Brioso. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida. 2015. Print.

Cover of the book Havana HardballI began to read this book on March 1, which was a very snowy day here in West Michigan. Though a bitter winter’s day here, Spring Training Baseball had begun. The Boys of Summer had emerged out of their winter’s sleep to don their uniforms to play a game played in America professionally since the 1860s. Inspired by family photos and stories of baseball in Cuba during the 1940s and 1950s, the pre-Castro years, journalist César Brioso has written a book that opens this period as one in which American Major League ballplayers, white and black, made annual treks to the Pearl of the Antilles. To help his readers identify with Cuban baseball during the 1950s, Brioso likens Cuba to New York City during the first half of the 20th century where one’s baseball team allegiance helped shaped one’s identity. One was born a Dodger, Giant, or Yankee fan.

Brioso tells a unique and fascinating story that weaves the end of the exciting Cuban League season of 1947 with the arrival of the Brooklyn Dodgers to the island for their Spring Training. In this particular Spring Training, one Jackie Robinson was on the Montreal Royals’ squad, which was the Triple A team in the Dodgers’ farm system. Just the year before Robinson had starred for the Royals and led them to win the “Little World Series.” As he trained under the Caribbean sun in the late winter of 1947, the baseball world was about six weeks out from a momentous historical moment. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson would button jersey #42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers and start at first base, breaking baseball’s color barrier. What is key according to Brioso is that Robinson’s Spring Training that year occurred on soil that was a haven for interracial baseball throughout the century to this point. Brioso brings the 1947 season alive to his readers through interviews. His other primary sources included newspaper accounts from The Sporting News, The New York Times, and a couple of Cuban newspapers.

Jackie Robinson batting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1954
Jackie Robinson batting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1954

Brioso’s book is for a baseball fan. If you enjoy baseball, you would enjoy this book. Brioso tells the story of Cuban baseball bit by bit, story after colorful story throughout the pages. There are scores of mini-biographies of Cuban-born baseball heroes who played in the Cuban League and who played in the Majors. For readers who have little knowledge of the Cuban League, or of Cuban baseball players, they may be astonished by the number of Cubans who played in the Majors during the first half of the 20th century. Players like Miguel Ángel González and Adolfo Luque both had solid careers in the Big Leagues. Their Cuban birth failed to preclude their entry into the Majors because they had one indelible advantage over other Cubans: they were considered “white.” Major League baseball, also known as Organized Baseball, operated from a “gentlemen’s agreement” that prevented players of clear African descent from joining a Major League team. This included Cuban-born players of African descent, of which there were many. Brioso includes their stories as well. Stars such as Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, Luis Tiant, Sr., and Cristóbal Torriente. All three Cuban players had good careers in the Negro League, but the younger Miñoso was able to benefit from Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier. Miñoso would play sixteen seasons in the Major Leagues during the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to April 15, 1947 it mattered nothing if a ballplayer was American-born, or Cuban-born; if he was a person of African descent, he was unable to play on any team in the American or National league.

Baseball card featuring African American player holding a bat
Minnie Monoso of the Chicago White Sox on a 1961 Topps baseball card

One of Brioso’s key points in the book is that the Cuban League was a racially-open league from its beginnings in the early 20th century. As Cuba was (and still is) a racially-mixed society, there were no barriers against black and white players sharing the same diamond together on racially integrated teams. Since the Cuban League had American players on the rosters of their individual teams, it was clear that white American, black American, white Cuban, and black Cuban ballplayers played together in the same teams. As Brioso chronicled the 1946-1947 Cuban League season it was obvious how racially-integrated the teams were: there were homegrown Cuban players, both black and white, Negro leaguers, and players from the all-white Major League teams. Such a phenomenon spoke loudly against the racism of Organized Baseball. It was a key argument against the team owners (and players alike) who forwarded the argument that black ballplayers were inferior to white ones, or that blacks and whites could never play together on the same team. They had done so for decades in the Cuban League.

Though the Cuban League was racially integrated, Brioso reveals that Cuba was a racialist society even if there were no Jim Crow laws as there were in the American South. Brioso highlights a seemingly contradictory action committed by Dodger team president Branch Rickey, the man who challenged successfully the so called “gentlemen’s agreement” that barred black ballplayers from the majors. During Spring Training of 1947, Rickey capitulated to Cuban racism by housing the black Royals Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, and Roy Partlow separately in Havana in a shabby boarding house. According to Brioso, Rickey made this decision to avert any racial incident occurring at the Royals’ training camp. This move incensed these players, though their protests were more muted than exclaimed. Nevertheless, this move by Rickey demonstrated that he would accommodate Cuban racism temporarily for the more permanent gain of shattering baseball’s color barrier once and for all.

The beauty of Brioso’s story is that it interweaves the most monumental and significant event in the modern history of baseball with an exhilarating season in the Cuban League that ushered it into its Golden Era before the beginning of the Cuban Revolution in 1953. From an American perspective, April 15, 1947 opened the door for talented black ball players, American-born and those born in Latin America alike, to play Major League baseball. This book allows the reader and student of baseball history to see April 15, 1947 as affirming the Cuban League’s long-standing position of racial openness on the baseball diamond. As Jackie Robinson proved himself worthy to play for the Dodgers during Spring Training of 1947, he did so within the immediate context of a great season in the Cuban League that field racially integrated teams. This perspective is important, and makes this book a significant contribution to the literature on baseball in the Americas.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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