In Havana, Remembering a Minor League Championship


This article by Ben Strauss appeared in The New York Times.

When the Havana Sugar Kings were mentioned to Asdrubal Baró, a smile crept across his wrinkled face, revealing missing teeth. Seated in a wheelchair on the balcony of his Havana apartment surrounded by cactus plants, he said, “I must show you something.”

Baró, 84, reached for a worn green book on the small table in front of him. He opened it to reveal newspaper box scores from each game of the Sugar Kings’ 1955 season, when Baró was one of their stars.

“We were going to be Havana’s major league team,” he said in Spanish, leafing through the yellowed clippings.

Luis Zayas, believed to be the only other former Sugar King living in Cuba, later said, “We had a slogan around the team that said, ‘One step from the big leagues,’ and we believed it.”

No ordinary minor league team, the Sugar Kings were the Cincinnati Reds’ International League Class AAA affiliate based in Havana for six and a half seasons in prerevolutionary Cuba. Though the team’s existence was brief, the Sugar Kings drew a strong following in Cuba and became a springboard for Latin American players.

The Sugar Kings remain a relic of 1950s Cuba, before Fidel Castro took power and an American embargo was put into place. But unlike the Chryslers and Studebakers that still roam Havana’s streets, Baró and Zayas are all that is left of the Sugar Kings’ legacy, vestiges of a time when the United States and Cuba had friendly relations and the major leagues truly seemed as close as Miami, 90 miles away.

Baró and Zayas, 75, live only blocks from the pile of concrete that is Estadio Latinoamericano, once the home of the Sugar Kings and the stadium where Industriales, Havana’s National Series team, now plays. Zayas makes frequent trips to the stadium during the season, and Baró did, too, until leg trouble forced him to hold a cane in each hand to get around.

In Zayas’s living room, a wall of photographs pays tribute to the great Cuban baseball players of the past, many of them his friends. Among them are Cookie Rojas, who played for the Sugar Kings; Luis Tiant; and Camilo Pascual.

“There is much history here,” Zayas said, puffing on a cigar. “But for me, the greatest part of my career was the Sugar Kings.”


The Sugar Kings evolved from the Havana Cubans, a Class B affiliate of the Washington Senators that joined the Florida International League in 1946. Ahead of the 1954 season, Bobby Maduro, a Cuban entrepreneur, bought the team, and the Sugar Kings made their debut in the International League that summer.

They wore blue and red, a combination of the colors of the top Cuban league teams of the time, Havana and Almendares. At Estadio Latinoamericano, then known as the Gran Estadio, the Sugar Kings sometimes drew 30,000 fans — an impressive feat for a minor league team.

“I can tell you that it was very different than playing in Omaha,” Baró said.

Sugar Kings games grew famous for exotic pregame entertainment that included beauty pageants, fashion shows and clowns, and always live music. And with the Cuban league playing its season in the winter, it left the summer spotlight to the Sugar Kings, who came to be known as the Cuban Sugar Kings to represent the entire island.

“Everyone loved us,” said Zayas, the Sugar Kings’ second baseman in 1958. “I think I must have had 20 girlfriends that year.”

Baró, who also played during parts of 1954 and 1956 for the team, said there was a song written about him with one line declaring, “Some men can give you beautiful children, but only Baró can give you a hit.”

There was plenty of talent, too. Mike Cuellar started for the Sugar Kings and later won 185 games and a Cy Young Award in the major leagues, and Leo Cardenas played 16 seasons in the majors after wearing the Sugar Kings uniform for a time. A young Tiant, winner of 229 games in the majors, failed to make the team.

As to whether the city of Havana might have been on a path to the major leagues — a goal Maduro often talked about — it is worth noting that Montreal and Toronto, Canadian cities with International League teams, had major league teams by the 1970s. Instead, Cuba was enveloped by a civil war and then cold war politics.

Fulgencio Batista, defeated by Castro’s rebels, fled the country Jan. 1, 1959. Revolutionary fever reached its peak at the Gran Estadio that year
at midnight on July 26 — the Castro- and Che
Guevara-led movement was celebrated on the July 26 anniversary of the rebels’ first attack — during a game against the Rochester Red Wings. Revelry included fireworks and gunfire, and stray bullets grazed two members of the teams.

The Red Wings’ third-base coach, Frank Verdi, was struck, as was Cardenas, the Sugar Kings’ shortstop. Neither was seriously injured, but the game and the series were canceled.

“It was an itchy time,” said Rojas, who played for the Sugar Kings in 1959 and 1960 and is now a broadcaster for the Miami Marlins. “You never really knew what was going to happen.”

The season, though, continued, and that fall, the Sugar Kings had their greatest success when they claimed the International League crown. They then faced the American Association champion Minneapolis Millers, a team that included Carl Yastrzemski, in what was known as the Little World Series. The seven-game series, played in Cuba because of the cold in Minnesota, was attended by Castro and won by the Sugar Kings in seven games.

The team began the next season in Havana, but during a July trip in Miami, after the diplomatic situation between the United States and Cuba became untenable, the team was moved to Jersey City. The franchise lasted only a season and a half there before moving to Jacksonville, Fla., and folding a few years later.

As relations between the United States and Cuba continued to deteriorate, the baseball commissioner, Ford Frick, advised American players not to play in the Cuban winter league in 1960. On Jan. 3, 1961, the two countries severed diplomatic ties for good, leaving Cuban baseball players with a decision many still struggle with.

Chasing their major league dreams would come at the cost of leaving their country forever. Baró and Zayas chose to stay. Rojas left Cuba with his family for the United States.

“My career was in the United States, so I went,” said Rojas, who played 16 seasons in the majors.

Zayas said: “The door was open to the big leagues, and I had to give that up, which was very, very difficult. But I knew that I could not live anywhere but Cuba.”

He added that a Ku Klux Klan rally he witnessed during a season in Savannah, Ga., also weighed on him.

Baró and Zayas finished their careers in the Mexican league before returning to Cuba, where Baró managed in the National Series and Zayas, who was married at Estadio Latinoamericano in 2001, was a coach for the Cuban national team until last year.

Today, Havana has few reminders of the Sugar Kings. Signs of baseball surrounding Estadio Latinoamericano are dedicated to the Industriales. One apartment building across the street is painted in the Industriales’ colors, blue and white. The Sugar Kings are a faded memory.

Sigfredo Barros, the longtime baseball writer for Granma, Cuba’s communist newspaper, said: “The Cuban revolution was a success, and we forgot the professionals. We started to love the National Series.”

Baró said he gave away his Sugar Kings hats and jerseys over the years. All that remains from Zayas’s stint with the team is a single photograph the size of a playing card, so worn that some parts are no longer visible.

They watched the World Baseball Classic intently this month, cheering on their countrymen in their quest to compete with major leaguers (Cuba was eliminated in the second round). They, too, embraced the National Series and maintain a fierce national pride. But sometimes, just for a moment, they let their imaginations wander.

“We were a Triple-A team, and we were a big deal,” Zayas said. “Just think if we were a major league team.”

Then, in English, he added, “Oh, man.”

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