Cuban League

The popular national sport of baseball maintained and even tightened its hold on the island nation of Cuba in the aftermath of the 1959 socialist revolution. In fact the national game actually expanded in popularity and elevated in talent level during several decades immediately after Fidel Castro’s midcentury rise to power. Once the four-team professional winter league loosely affiliated with North American major-league baseball was shut down after the 1961 season, the door was finally thrown open for establishing a truly island-wide baseball circuit that would feature homegrown talent rather than imported foreign professionals. And this newly revised version of Cuban League baseball would also launch a five-decade domination of international tournament competitions that now stands as the centerpiece of nearly a century and a half of island baseball history. With its novel brand of post-revolutionary “amateur” baseball, Cuba would also develop throughout the second half of the twentieth century a genuine “alternative universe” to better publicized professional circuits represented by the North American and Japanese professional leagues.

The political estrangement between Cuba and the United States after 1962 not only largely ended the earlier moderate flow of Cuban ballplayers to North American major- and minor-league teams but also cast an aura of mystery over baseball circumstances on the island. North American fans have known precious little over the past five full decades about Cuban baseball developments. Island league stars have thus played in the same virtual obscurity as did the North American Negro Leaguers of the first half of the twentieth century. One obvious result of this isolation from the mainstream North American sporting press is an unfortunate persistence of several widespread myths concerning Cuba’s post-revolutionary baseball era. First and most damaging has been a notion that the level of Cuban baseball diminished dramatically once the professional winter league was scrapped for a new form of “amateur” diamond competition. A related and equally false notion is one suggesting that inferior amateur-level play for the first time replaced superior professional competitions as the central focus of the Cuban national sport.1

Anyone maintaining this latter view overlooks an established historical fact that widespread pre-1950 amateur leagues across the island drew far more interest and produced more native island talent than did the Havana-based pro circuit of the pre-Castro era. The Cuban winter league of the earlier epoch attracted most of its star players from the ranks of imported North American Negro Leaguers, drew a tiny fan following among Cubans living outside the capital city, and produced only a tiny handful of native big leaguers boasting true all-star stature – namely Adolfo Luque (1920s), Orestes Miñoso (1950s), and Camilo Pascual (1960s). It is also indisputable that a half-dozen or more Cuban Leaguers who abandoned the island during the late 1990s and early 2000s for big-league careers in the United States have of late far outstripped the achievements of the small cadre of pre-revolution Cuban major leaguers. Among the new generation of superior Cuban big leaguers originally trained in the post-1962 Cuban circuit we find sluggers Kendrys Morales, José Abreu, Yasiel Puig, and Yoenis Céspedes; flashy infielders Alexei Ramírez, Yunel Escobar, and Adeiny Hechavarría; frontline pitchers Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, José Contreras, Liván Hernández, and fastball phenom Aroldis Chapman. Chapman (recipient of an eye-popping $30 million contract from the Cincinnati Reds in 2010) would launch a heavy recruitment of native Cuban stars (some smuggled off the island by covert human-trafficking operations) that in the second decade of the new millennium produced megadeals for the likes of Céspedes, Puig, Abreu, outfielder Yasmani Tómas, Rusney Castillo, and touted Boston Red Sox minor-league prospect Yoan Moncada.2

The current Cuban League – known as the Cuban National Series – opened its historic 50th season with the first pitch tossed in November 2010. This yearly National Series competition slowly evolved through several distinct manifestations over five-plus decades and has lately undergone further drastic alteration in the past half-dozen winters. While geographically based league teams have always represented provinces (states) or groups of provinces, these league clubs have often changed names from year to year and have only in recent seasons been consistently labeled for a home-base province, with a team nickname attached (e.g., Cienfuegos Elephants, Villa Clara Orangemen, Camagüey Potters). Recent league structure involved 14 provincial teams and two added ballclubs (the Industriales Blue Lions and Metropolitanos Warriors) representing the capital city of Havana.3 There have also been several manifestations along the way of a second (often shorter) Cuban League season. A Selective Series (usually with the 14 provincial clubs combined into eight regional all-star squads) operated in late spring and summer between 1975 and 1995. And an even shorter four- or five-team Super League was staged in June during four early years of the new millennium (2002-2005). Before the idea of the additional Selective Series competition was conceived, a single “Series of the Ten Million” was staged in the early summer of 1970 with six clubs engaged in a marathon 89-game slate. The name for the three-month event was drawn from President Castro’s proclaimed goal of reaching 10 million tons in that year’s sugar-cane harvest, and the series was thus promoted as special entertainment for sugar-industry field laborers.

The Selective Series season played from the mid-’70s to mid-’90s was never considered a true league championship by most island fanatics. It did, however, contribute several highlight moments of Cuban League history and on several occasions provided the longest stretch of the year’s domestic baseball action. During its first nine campaigns the Selective Series was actually longer than the National Series: first 54 games compared with 38 (1975-1977) and then 60 games compared with 51 (1978-1983). Across a final dozen episodes the Selective Series season dipped to 43 contests per team (1984-1985), ballooned out to 60 games (1986-1992), then shrank again to 45 (1993-1995). It was during this competition in 1980 that Cuba celebrated its first .400-plus hitter (Héctor Olivera, Las Villa, .459 – father of the future “defector” and big leaguer of the same name); Omar Linares did not reach that plateau in the National Series until five years later. It was also in the Selective Series that Orestes Kindelán produced the first 30-plus home-run total (30 in only 63 games), with Alexei Bell not reaching that same milestone in the National Series until as late as 2008 (31 in 90 games). The Selective Series also provided seven of the island’s 51 rare no-hit, no-run pitching performances.

The half-dozen even shorter “second” seasons played during the past several decades – after the Selective Series tradition was finally scrapped – proved even less successful and therefore less sustainable. Two Revolutionary Cup campaigns in the 1990s (both won by Santiago de Cuba under manager Higinio Vélez) were memorable for a handful of individual record-setting performances and little else. Both 30-game events produced .450-plus batsmen (Yobal Dueñas, 1996, and Javier Méndez, 1997) and Santiago’s Ormari Romero claimed 14 pitching victories without defeat across the same stretch. The four-year Super League experiment was an even larger failure although it did witness a playoff no-hitter tossed for Centrales by Maels Rodríguez. The idea of having provincial teams combined into a smaller number of regional squads never gained much traction with island fans. Super League games also fell during the hottest (and wettest) part of the year, and most games staged in the month of June were played to empty stadiums and disappointingly sparse television viewership.

Failure of these experimental extra seasons to garner any true fan enthusiasm is largely explained by a unique feature of island baseball that is also the basic strength of Cuban League structure. Since league teams are government properties overseen by a national sports ministry (INDER, National Institute of Sports, Education and Recreation) – not corporate businesses run for profit – there is no trading or transferring of Cuban League players, with all athletes serving on teams representing their own native province.4 Like all Cuban athletes, ballplayers rise through the ranks of regional sports academies, performing for their neighborhoods on various age-group youth clubs and eventually graduating to Developmental League (the Cuban minors) and National Series teams. With the rarest of exceptions, a Cuban League star spends his entire playing career with a single local ballclub. The huge plus sides of this unique system are both the deep-seated loyalties between fans and players and the rabid fanaticism attached to local clubs that truly do represent a fixed geographical locale. (A big-league equivalent would be a Boston Red Sox club employing only players raised and trained in the New England region.) The downside, of course, is that the Cuban League – like the majors in the era before free agency – is not exceptionally well balanced. Larger provinces enjoy heftier talent supplies and thus usually better teams; Havana and Santiago teams (along with occasional inroads by Pinar del Río and Villa Clara) have dominated championship play throughout league history.

Because of such hometown fan loyalties and attachments to local stars, shorter seasons with fewer teams have failed to garner support, if only because the teams playing are not the usual fan favorites. Seeing the local heroes attired in strangely colored uniforms and competing for strangely named squads has little appeal for rooters attached by birthright and home base to Industriales, Pinar del Río, or Sancti Spíritus. What might Boston Red Sox fans make of any two- or three-month season featuring Sox players joining forces with Yankees, Mets, and Phillies stars on a team now relabeled as the Eastern Seaboard Lions? Fanaticism based on long tradition – and in Cuba also on the concept of local neighborhood stars – disappears in a league featuring several months of what are widely perceived as mere all-star exhibition contests.

National Series play was inaugurated in mid-January of 1962 and involved only a handful of teams during its earliest campaigns. Players were drawn from all areas of the island, but the initial clubs known as Occidentales, Azucareros, Orientales, and Habana played the bulk of their first-season 27-game schedule in Havana’s spacious Cerro Stadium (home of the pro winter circuit in the 1950s, rechristened as Latin American Stadium in 1971, and still in use today). The concept initially mandated by the new Castro government was to replace commercial baseball with dedicated amateur play, designed to promote public health rather than financial profit (for either athletes or franchise owners) and thus more in line with a socialist spirit of government at the heart of a revamped societal system. In early seasons the players were indeed true amateurs, and the lower level of early league play reflected that fact. The first few seasons were short, and ballplaying was not yet a full-time occupation for league athletes, who also maintained other professional occupations in the newly minted socialist society.

The historic initial season staged in the spring of 1962 lasted for little more than a full month and followed by less than nine months a clandestine US-backed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs. A future league ballpark in the city of Matanzas (Victory at Girón Stadium) would eventually carry the name of the landmark 1961 invasion that solidified the Fidel Castro-led revolutionary government. An opening set of league games was celebrated in Cerro Stadium before 25,000 fans on Sunday, January 14, 1962. President Castro provided a lengthy speech and then stepped to the plate in his traditional military garb to knock out a staged ceremonial “first hit” against Azucareros starter Jorge Santín. When the actual ballplayers took the field, Azucareros blanked Orientales 6-0 behind three-hit pitching from Santín. In an 11-inning nightcap, Occidentales edged Habana 3-1 with ace Manuel Hernández striking out 17 enemy batters.5 A widely reprinted photograph of President Castro stroking the season’s first base hit delivered by Azucareros pitcher Modesto Verdura (not Santín) actually occurred in the same park on Opening Day of National Series II later in the same calendar year.

Four clubs participated in the initial monthlong season, one managed by former big leaguer Fermín Guerra (Occidentales) and a second (Azucareros) directed by the former skipper of the minor-league Cuban Sugar Kings, Tony Castaño. Occidentales under Guerra captured the first short-season title with the circuit’s only winning ledger, and Occidentales outfielder Edwin Walter reigned as the first batting champion. The popular Havana-based Industriales ballclub was organized for the following second season, which was the first to begin in the month of December and thus the first to overlap two calendar years. Industriales – the longest existing and most successful league team – would immediately launch its proud tradition by claiming four straight league titles in its initial four years of league play.

Early successes of the Cuban national team during the first decade of Fidel Castro’s administration would soon redirect league structure and philosophy toward the development of strong national squads that could use baseball as something of a governmental foreign-policy tool. A string of eight straight Amateur World Series titles in the 1970s demonstrated that Cuban baseball squads could score strong propaganda victories by beating the North Americans (and also the Asians and rival Caribbean neighbors) at their own game. Baseball was, after all, also the long-standing Cuban national sporting passion and therefore very much a national pastime shared with the rival Americans.6 As a result of the new Cuban emphasis on victories abroad in Olympic-style events, government sports academies soon flourished around the island, and Cuban athletes graduating from those institutions became full-time practitioners of their assigned sporting activities. Thus athletes were financially supported – even if at a modest level by North American standards – and they became “professionals” in at least two different senses of the word. Cuban ballplayers are now paid for performance, and consequently they devote all their effort and attention to their assigned profession of ballplaying.7

Over the course of its opening decade the National Series expanded to first six teams (1966) and eventually an even dozen ballclubs (1968). The number of games for each club also surged to 65 by mid-decade (1966) and eventually to as many as 99 (1968). The league reached its full stride once all provinces were represented by the mid-’70s and once postseason playoffs were introduced for the 1985-86 season as a pressure-packed means of determining an eventual league champion. As the ever-changing league evolved in size, it also regularly changed in shape, with a division into two groups or “zones” after 1988, and then four groups after 1993. The two-division structure – with a Western League (Occidental) and Eastern League (Oriente) – was once again adopted with the recent 2007-2008 season, and a 90-game schedule has been the league standard since National Series #37 (1997-98). But with a decision in 2012 to divide the season into two 45-game segments, the league reverted to a single 16-team operation with only eight qualifying for the second-half championship round. Division structure was thus abandoned after National Series #51 (2011-12).

Cuba’s postseason playoffs have now witnessed more than a quarter-century history of their own and in many respects mirror their counterparts in the big leagues. Until the recent split-season transformation, for a decade-plus the postseason featured quarterfinal (five games), semifinal (best-of-seven), and final series (also seven games). But beginning in the spring 2013 the new format eliminated one postseason round since only four second-half clubs were playoff qualifiers. The one major departure from major-league postseason performance derives from the practice in the Cuban circuit of counting a player’s individual statistical record as part of his cumulative career totals. Individual pitching and batting titles are determined before the postseason fray commences, but the record 487 lifetime homers of Orestes Kindelán and the career .368 batting standard of Omar Linares do indeed include playoff numbers. Recent campaigns have featured a host of thrilling seven-game final-round confrontations that have gripped the nation’s television and radio audiences in early springtime. Just as big-league championships match American and National League rivals, the finals in Cuba traditionally included the top surviving clubs representing the eastern and western zones of the island. (That went away once the single league structure emerged in 2012.) The island’s top fan favorites, Havana-based Industriales, squared off in the winner-take-all conclusion with one of their two western-sector heated rivals – either Santiago or Villa Clara – on five different occasions in the first decade of the new millennium.

The new National Series structure of the early 1960s not only spread organized league baseball island-wide for the first time, but it also extended and expanded a tradition of popular “amateur” leagues which had been at the center of the nation’s baseball since its origins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amateur-level baseball had always been the island’s most popular sporting tradition and thus did not suddenly take hold – as popularly misconstrued – only with the Castro-led revolutionary government of the early ’60s. Throughout the century’s first five decades it was not the racially integrated Havana pro circuit but rather the more geographically diverse and all-white amateur league that drew both the largest fan followings and the island’s top athletic talent. Many skilled players choose to remain amateurs since amateur teams ironically offered greater financial rewards (lucrative jobs with sponsoring corporations such as the national electric company or telephone company) and easier playing conditions (games played only on weekends). Today’s government-run Cuban baseball enterprise is admittedly more commercial in nature; yet it now draws its distinctive “amateur” flavor from the complete absence of any profit-motivated corporate team ownerships or ballplayer “free agency” of the type defining pro circuits in North America, Europe, or Asia.

Cuban throwback-style ballparks are today one of the league’s most charming features with their natural-grass surfaces, absence of concession stands, minimalist nonvideo scoreboards, concrete bleachers, and bulky concrete electric-light stanchions. Most parks were built in the ’70s and have a nearly identical appearance; construction crews were drafted from the island’s population of students and field workers to erect these structures as part of the government’s widespread public-works projects of that era. Many stadiums are named for late-’50s revolutionary military heroes or important revolutionary battle sites, but two were christened to honor star league pitchers tragically lost in 1970s-era automobile accidents. The former include Capitan San Luis (Pinar del Río) and Nelson Fernández (San José de la Lajas); the latter are José Antonio Huelga (Sancti Spíritus) and recently abandoned Santiago “Changa” Mederos (Havana). The current 16 league teams are housed in stadiums located in the capital city of each province, but most clubs also play a small portion of their league contests in smaller ballpark venues found in outlying provincial villages.

One historic older venue is Latin American Stadium, housed in the Cerro (“hill”) district of Havana. The park was constructed in 1946 and is thus a holdover from the pre-revolution professional circuit that operated in the capital city through 1961. The last decade of that circuit found almost all league games staged in the building that was then known as Cerro Stadium or Gran Stadium. The structure received a major expansion and renaming in 1971 when the country hosted one of the numerous Amateur World Series events played in the capital city. The Havana Cubans (Class-B Florida International League, 1946-1953) and the Cuban Sugar Kings (Triple-A International League, 1954-1961), two minor-league clubs affiliated with Organized Baseball in the ’40s and ’50s, also called this historic structure their home. Completely enclosed during its 1971 renovation, today’s Latin American Stadium boasts more than 55,000 seats in its slowly deteriorating single-deck structure of covered grandstand and open-air bleachers.

Contemporary Latin American Stadium (familiar dubbed “Latino”) features much the same appearance and aura it offered a half-century back, although the grandstand roof and home-plate area box seats have fallen into more than slight disrepair. The sprawling park has served for several decades as home to both capital city league clubs, Industriales and the now defunct Metropolitanos (more popularly called Metros). By the 2009 season, however, the also-ran and less popular Metros team was playing exclusively at the smaller-capacity Changa Mederos Stadium, located in the Havana Sports City athletic training facilities. Renovations were again done to Latino in advance of a Baltimore Orioles exhibition game versus the Cuban national team staged during late March 1999; MLB-quality outfield wall padding was provided by Major League Baseball as part of that historic exchange. A new scoreboard utilizing solar power and designed to cut usage of precious electricity was also imported from Vietnam and installed for the opening of a historic Golden Anniversary National Series in November 2010. Several mid-2000s seasons in Havana had featured only daylight play due to damaged light towers (at both Latino and Changa Mederos) and an island-wide effort to conserve electricity in the face of the island’s growing economic crisis.

Colorful team nicknames are also today a special feature of the Cuban League scene, although they were rarely used by the Cuban press until the final decade of the twentieth century when they became a regular feature of media coverage on the island. Current teams are actually named for the provinces that host them and not for provincial capital cities, which in most cases carry the same name. This has been the norm since the mid-’80s, but earlier club monikers often differed from provincial labels, occasionally indicated occupations sometimes overlapping with current club nicknames, and sometimes changed rapidly from year to year. The ’60s featured squads called Occidentales, Orientales, Granjeros, and Azucareros (Sugar Harvesters); the ’70s witnessed clubs labeled Mineros (Miners), Oriente, Henequeneros, Constructores, and Serranos; the ’80s introduced Camagüeyanos, Citricultores (Citrus Workers), and Vegueros (Tobacco Harvesters).

Recent-Era Cuban League Team Names and Principal Stadiums
Occidental (Western) League
Team Principal Stadium
Industriales Leones (Blue Lions) Latinoamericano
Pinar del Río Vegueros (Tobacco Farmers) Capitán San Luis
*Habana Province Vaqueros (Cowboys) Nelson Fernández
Sancti Spíritus Gallos (Roosters) José Antonio Huelga
Cienfuegos Elefantes (Elephants) Cinco de Septiembre
Matanzas Cocodrilos (Crocodiles) Victoria de Girón
Isla de la Juventud Piratas (Pirates) ** Cristóbal Labra
Metropolitanos Guerreros (Warriors) * Changa Mederos
Artemisa Cazadores (Hunters) * 26 de Julio
Mayabeque Huricanes (Hurricanes) * Nelson Fernández
 
Oriente (Eastern) League
Team Principal Stadium
Santiago de Cuba Avispas (Wasps) Guillermón Moncada
Villa Clara Naranjas (Orangemen) Augusto César Sandino
Ciego de Avila Tigres (Tigers) José Ramón Cepero
Las Tunas Leńadores (Woodcutters) ** Julio Antonio Mella
Camagüey Tinajones (Potters) Candido González
Guantánamo Indios (Indians) Nguyen van Troi
Granma Alazanes (Stallions) Martires de Barbados
Holguín Cachoros (Cubs) Calixto García