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Today in Baseball History: Fidel Castro, baseball and the Havana Sugar Kings

Fidel Castro Minneapolis Millers

HAVANA - OCTOBER, 1959. Fidel Castro, fresh from his revolution in Cuba, greets the Minneapolis Millers, who, along with the Havana Sugar Kings fled bad weather in Minnesota to play the Little World Series in Havana. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

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On March 26, 1960, there a scheduled exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds was canceled. But it wasn’t banged because of rain. The game -- scheduled to be played in Havana, Cuba, but moved to Miami -- was relocated because Orioles president Lee MacPhail’s fear for his players safety due to political unrest on the island. Political unrest that continued to reverberate -- and would continue to reverberate -- from the Cuban Revolution.

Fidel Castro’s forces toppled the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s eve 1958. The situation on the ground in Cuba -- and the relationship between the new Cuban government and the United States -- was, to say the least, fluid, throughout 1959 and into early 1960. While the United States had backed Batista and, in the words of President Kennedy in 1963, had “created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it” due to its policies toward Cuba in the previous decades, the Castro regime and the U.S. were not yet sworn enemies during this time. The U.S. was willing to recognize Castro as the country’s leader and Castro was still feeling out the two world super powers in an effort to determine whether, political ideology aside, aligning with the Soviet Union or the U.S. would be better for its own interests. Things were tense, but Cuba had not yet fully been swept up into the Cold War as it would later become.

Against that backdrop, minor league baseball continued to be played in Cuba. And not Cuban minor league baseball. It was minor league baseball affiliated with the U.S. major leagues, with the Havana Sugar Kings -- the Cincinnati Reds’ Triple-A affiliate since 1954 -- playing in the International League. They were just like a Triple-A team based in Buffalo, Richmond or Rochester. And speaking of Rochester, a series between the Red Wings and the Sugar Kings that went down in 1959 gives a bit of a glimpse into how chaotic that 1959 season really was.

Castro was himself a Sugar Kings fan and would often attend games, both before and after the revolution. While those stories you sometimes hear about Castro getting a tryout with the Washington Senators are completely bogus, he did in fact play baseball in college and would put together pickup games even after taking power. On on July 24, 1959 he put together an exhibition game between his own pickup team Los Barbudos (“The Bearded Ones”) and a military police team, playing just before a Red Wings-Sugar Kings game. Castro pitched two innings and struck out two. The next night the Red Wings and Sugar Kings played again, and the game went late. When it hit midnight -- making it July 26, which is the anniversary of Castro’s July 26, 1953 attack on the army barracks in Santiago, which gave rise to the name of his political movement -- the crowd went nuts in celebration, with many fans firing guns into the air. Rochester third base coach Frank Verdi and Havana shortstop Leo Cárdenas ended up with flesh wounds.

Somehow, however, the Sugar Kings played out the 1959 season. And they didn’t mail it in: they finished third in the IL with a record of 80-73, which qualified them for the four-team IL playoffs. They upset the second place Columbus Jets and fourth place Richmond Virginians to win the league championship and then beat the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in a seven game Junior World Series to claim the Triple-A championship (see the photo above). Not bad for a team that found itself, quite literally, in the middle of a revolution.

The Sugar Kings would not weather the 1960 season as well. Tensions between Castro and the United States heightened during the year. As Castro made it clear he was leading far more in the direction of the Soviets than the U.S., it was feared that he would nationalize U.S. industries. Which is exactly what he did in August 1960. The owners of the Sugar Kings -- at the direction of MLB commissioner Ford Frick -- had pulled up stakes the month before, however, moving the team to Jersey City in the middle of the season. Soon after the nationalization move, the Eisenhower administration froze all Cuban assets on American soil, severed diplomatic ties, and that was basically that.

The former Sugar Kings would play as the Jersey City Jerseys through the 1961 season before being sold to the Cleveland Indians, who moved them to Jacksonville, Florida, where they became the Jacksonville Suns. After the 1968 season the Suns, by then a Mets affiliate, were moved to Norfolk. The Norfolk Tides, now the top affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.

Those Orioles -- who, again, on this date in 1960, refused to take the field for that exhibition game due to political unrest -- would go on to play a significant role in Cuban baseball once again. That came on March 28 and then again on May 3, 1999, when they played two exhibition games against the Cuban national baseball team. The first game took place in Havana, while the second was held in Baltimore. The March game was the first time a big league had team played in Cuba since 1959. The Orioles won the first game, which was held in Havana, by a score of 3–2 in extra innings. The Cuban national team defeated the Orioles 12–6 in the second game. The series introduced José Contreras to U.S. baseball fans. Contreras, of course, would defect in 2002 and star for the Yankees, White Sox, Rockies, Phillies and Pirates, retiring after the 2013 season.

The series was also highly controversial. It was protested and derided by the Cuban-American community as a propaganda ploy by the Castro regime, aided by Bud Selig and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who sat beside Castro at the games in Havana. MLB umpire Rich Garcia, who is of Cuban descent, opposed the series and the MLB umpire union filed a grievance attempting to block them from being sent to umpire the game in Cuba.

Since then Cuban-American relations have thawed and then frozen, off-and-on, depending on who was president at a given time. On the baseball side, Cuban-American relations have normalized to some degree, with a path to Cuba players in the U.S. being created, primarily as a means of thwarting human traffickers, who have exploited ballplayers and their families for years. The story of baseball in Cuba, as always, continues.

Also today in baseball history:

1955: Yankee manager Casey Stengel is arrested after he allegedly curses at and kicks a newspaper photographer during an exhibition game in St. Petersburg:

1976: The American League votes to expand to Toronto, awarding a franchise to a group led by Labatt Brewing Company. The rights to the team were purchased for $7 million.

1979: The Padres and Giants announce that they will play an exhibition series in 1980 in Tokyo. Giants owner Bob Lurie lets his players decide if they actually want to do it, however, and they reject the idea.

1984: Jackie Robinson is posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. In 2020 President Trump would give the same award to a man who lost his job as a sports commentator due to racist comments.

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