There are many religions practiced in Cuba, but the universal religion is baseball. Baseball and Cuba have an inseparable history. The the game arrived on the island in the 1860’s when returning students brought it home from the United States, and it became an instant hit (no pun intended). On our recent visit to this fascinating country we had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the country’s baseball culture. Being our third trip to Cuba, my wife and I were already aware of the obsession this country has with its national sport, and its heroic admiration for its players.
Beginning in the 1960’s Cuban baseball players began defecting to the US in search of greater opportunities. Since then, over 200 Cuban players have played in the majors in America including many super-stars such as Jose Canseco, Luis Tiante, Rafael Palmeiro, Bert Campaneris, and Tony Perez to name a few. In fact, the US is the only country with more players in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown then Cuba. Which speaks volumes about the quality of baseball talent that this island nation of 11.5 million inhabitants has brought to our shores.
To prepare for the trip I purchased several baseballs, including a blue and red Boston Red Sox collector’s edition ball. Additionally, after an extensive search, I found a sports card dealer that specialized in baseball cards featuring Cuban-born players now playing the US Major Leagues. I purchased 100 cards. We wanted to share our love of the game through these gifts with the people we met along our tour.
Our tour began in the Pueblo Nuevo neighborhood of Matanzas 70 miles east of Havana we visited Palmar del Junco, which is the oldest continually operating baseball stadium in the world, and the birthplace of organized baseball in Cuba. It is here in 1874, that the first official baseball game in Cuba took place. This stadium has been in continuous operation for 144 years! Here we had a discussion with Cuban Baseball Hall of Famer and two-time Olympic gold medalist Jose Estrada. He has been voted one of Cuba’s 100 greatest athletes. I looked up his batting stats and he was one of Cuba best offensive and defensive players throughout the 90’s. He is a handsome man with an infectious smile. At age 50 he is still muscular and fit, and still looks like he could hit a baseball to the moon. I handed him the blue and Boston Red Sox ball I brought from Boston, and 6 baseball cards featuring Cuban stars of his era in Major League Baseball in the US. He recognized all and thanked me.
Howie with Cuban Hall of Fame player Jose Estrada and the Boston Red Sox ball we gifted him AND a baseball card of one of his favorite Cuban born US players (Livian Hernandez).
One of the undeniable successes of Fidel Castro’s tenure is sports. Along these lines baseball is king. A young Cuban can voluntarily enter their baseball program (or any of their sports programs) at age 8 and have full access to the country’s skilled athletic trainers and coaches. These professionals are held in extremely high esteem by the Cuban government and citizens. This opportunity to participate exists in even the smaller towns. Each young man will spend several hours a day in this program developing his skills. This comes at no financial cost, but the student athlete must maintain the same classroom curriculum of the non-sports participant including math, science, languages, music, and the like. A favorable academic average must be maintained to stay in the program. Although a fraction of 1% of these participants will go on to be professional athletes, 100% of them will get an education. Along with developing athletic skills, these boys and young men will learn about respectful competition, conflict resolution, self-discipline, sportsmanship and teamwork, and make many lifelong friends along the way. I spoke to program participants between the age of 8 and 18, and without exception all understood the value of this opportunity and indicated that they were willing to spend as many hours as necessary on their academic studies, to participate in the baseball program.
As part of our tour we visited a field and spoke to coaches and trainers to get a first-hand understanding of the country’s wildly successful baseball program. I watched mesmerized, as a 12th grader slammed ball after ball with surgical precision into a well-worn net backstop, stopping only briefly to allow the batting tee to be reloaded. His coach moved the tee up and down and inch at a time until the hitter had the opportunity to sharpen his swing throughout the entire strike zone range. On the field pitching, fielding, throwing, catching and running coaches worked one-on-one with their young athletes. Members of our group had the opportunity to try our hand at batting. Slow pitches came my way and I managed to barely hit (I emphasize barely) two of the five balls pitched to me. Hitting a baseball pitched at less than a third of the speed that a professional pitcher would throw is not as easy as it looks. The whole experience was wonderful.
Howie takes batting practice at Palmar de Junco (1874) - Oldest continuously operating baseball stadium in the world.
From Matanzas we travelled to Havana, which is the epicenter of the country’s baseball culture. I handed my Cuban baseball cards to taxi drivers, hotel staff, waiters, students, families and people on the street. They were accepted with wild joy, and I was thanked profusely. Students asked us to meet their families, cab drivers displayed the cards on their dashboards, and people on the street invited us into their homes for dinner. In the poorer neighborhoods of Havana Viejo, we watched kids playing ball using a stick and bottlecap, with bases made from scraps of cardboard. Part of the beauty of the game is that no specialized equipment is needed. I handed out 2 baseballs after getting agreement from the children that the balls were to be shared, and the kids went wild. The excitement brought adults out from their homes and many baseball cards were distributed. All were delighted with these and we received countless thank you’ s and hugs.
A young participant in Cuba's baseball program slams ball after ball into a well worn net with surgical precision.
While in Havana the semi-finals of the Cuban Baseball League were underway. Our amazing guide Mily said she could possibly get our group tickets if we were interested. Are you kidding? We were ALL interested. After numerous calls Mily returned with a smile and told us to meet her in the hotel lobby at 6:30 that evening. Mily is a Havana resident, and a professional guide of 17 years. She is a person that can “make things happen.” We arrived at Estadio Latinoamericano (Latin American Stadium) about 15 minutes before the game, and the place was packed. This stadium is the Yankee Stadium of Cuba, and the home team, the Industriales are their New York Yankees. The previous evening’s game hosted a standing room only crowd of 55,000, and tonight would be no different. Additionally, there was a large crowd outside of the stadium, and residents in the high-rise overlooking the stadium were renting their balconies out. The Cuban government’s policy is that Baseball tickets should be available to ALL citizens, not just to the “haves.” Fidel Castro expressed that sports should be “the right of the people, not the right of the wealthy.” As such the price of a ticket is one Cuban Peso. That’s five cents, and this is not a typo friends. Five cents!
We entered the stadium and took our seats in the 15th row. These were great seats by all standards, but Mily was not satisfied. She gathered all 11 of us up and we worked our way as a group through the crowd where she conversed with an usher. A “gift” of 5 CUC’s (less that $6 US dollars) discretely changed hands, and soon we found ourselves in the 4th row directly behind home plate. These seats were exactly 2 rows back from where Raul Castro and then President Obama sat when they attended a game together here in 2016. Wow! Mily – you are amazing!
The Semi-Final game between Havana and Las Tunas shot from seats in 4th row behind home base.
We watched a very exciting game between Havana and Las Tunas with plenty of action on the field. The crowd was part of the show. Unlike in the US when the crown cheers after a play, in Cuba the crowd begins cheering wildly before the game even begins, and non-stop until it ends! A hit, or a play at a base sends the place into hysteria, and when a run scores the earth shakes from the cheering. Cuban fans enjoy the game with a passion that is not rivaled even in the major league baseball games in the US.
So, there you have it friends. Should you find yourself on this fascinating totally unique Island a Cuban League baseball game should be at the very top of your bucket list.
Supposedly baseball is “America’s Game.” Convincing a Cuban of this might be difficult.
Interested in a Cuba baseball tour? Let our private getaways department handle the details for you. Learn more here.
Written By: Howard Axelrod
Written By: Howard Axelrod