A review by Dick Cluster for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
I’M SITTING in the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana during the championship round of the Cuban baseball season in the spring of 1992. One of the grandstand orators so typical of Caribbean baseball crowds is holding forth on topics like who ought to be selected for that year’s National Team, why the manager should have called for a hit-and-run, who wasn’t in position to take a cut-off throw, as well as asides about daily life in that moment of Cuban history. The comment I’ll never forget, though, is not one of the opinions but the punch line: y eso lo sabe hasta un chileno que no sepa donde está la primera base — “and anybody knows that, even a Chilean who doesn’t know where to find first base.”
This was one of my first indications of how much — not just for Cuba but for all the países peloteros, all the baseball-playing Spanish-speaking nations of the Caribbean rim — the sport of pitcher and catcher, diamond and outfield, fielder and baserunner is perceived as an integral part of their cultures, a piece of what makes their people who they are. Whatever they share with that far-off Chilean, baseball is a part of what makes them distinct. The fact that their national sport happens to have evolved in the northern neighbor is almost an afterthought. I doubt that it was in the mind of that grandstand orator in 1992 at all. Though the word béisbol was imported along with the game, in common speech in Cuba and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico the game is always la pelota, which is simply the Spanish word for ball.
Yet the game’s origin matters too. Baseball has a place in the complicated love-hate relationship, power dynamics, understandings, and misunderstandings between those south of our border and ourselves. Some two decades later, I was reading through two collections of Dominican short stories, all related to baseball. One story was by the poet Alexis Gómez Rosa, who spent many years living and writing (in Spanish) in New York. In “The Real Thing” (titled in English), Gómez Rosa tells the life story of a radio announcer who got his start by imitating the play-by-play of legendary announcers such as Buck Canel and Rafael Rubí, calling imaginary games from the Dominican leagues and the US World Series, speaking into a guava branch instead of a microphone. In the story, baseball and its metaphors are entwined with Dominican political history, the US invasion of 1965, and the announcer’s eventual death at the hands of a corrupt Dominican officer. I was also struck by the aptly named “Sacrifice,” in which Sandra Tavárez draws on baseball and its terminology for a contemporary dilemma of gender, as a woman has to decide whether to stay on the island with her boyfriend and his two baseball-obsessed teenage sons or follow her diplomat parents to a life abroad. Attending a ball game turns out to be the test. José Bobadilla’s “The Strange Game of the Men in Blue,” meanwhile, is an imaginary foundation myth, the introduction of the sport to an unnamed Caribbean country by the US army — which is not how it happened at all.
The question of how it really happened brings us back to Cuba. The earliest baseball games in the Spanish-speaking world took place on the island in the mid-1860s, when it was still a colony of Spain. This was two decades after the game had evolved out of British and American predecessors such as rounders and one o’ cat in the environs of New York City. The sport came to Cuba primarily via middle- and upper-class Cubans returning from study at Fordham and other Catholic colleges in the United States. Its rapid spread throughout the island was due in part to the fact that the new sport arrived just as long-simmering sentiments against both Spanish colonialism and slavery were erupting into open rebellion, sparking the Ten Years’ War (1868–’78) that pitted an uneasy coalition of Cuban planters, other white Cubans of all classes, free people of color, and escaped slaves against the Spanish imperial army. Both then and in the decades to follow, Cubans latched onto baseball as a modern, democratic, healthy, sportsmanlike, and distinctly non-Spanish entertainment, one that baseball’s boosters explicitly contrasted to the bullfight that they condemned as old-world, old-fashioned, bloodthirsty, hierarchical, and unfair.
The sport soon spread among people all classes and origins. Professional teams were founded in the cities of Havana and Matanzas, and makeshift clubs flourished from docks to sugar mills throughout the island, while publications such as El Pitcher and El Base-ball covered and promoted the game. Spanish authorities tried on a few occasions to ban baseball completely, but in vain. By the 1890s, a visiting Spanish poet reported that “[e]veryone was at baseball — men and women, old and young, masters and servants […] I had a presentiment that Spain had died for Cuba.”
When the final Cuban war for independence broke out (1895–’98), Spanish authorities again instituted a ban, and this time professional ballplayers were among those who flocked to join the rebellion. Three members of the pitching staff of the Almendares Azules became rebel army officers, as did players from the other clubs. Emilio Sabourín, player-manager of the rival Havana club, was arrested for his pro-independence activities and exiled to a prison camp in Spanish Morocco, where he died.
Thus, by the time US troops intervened in the Cuban-Spanish conflict in 1898, baseball was already firmly established as the island’s nationalist pastime, however North American its pedigree. When the yanqui troops ended their occupation of Cuba in 1902, the Platt Amendment (inserting a perpetual US right of intervention into the new Cuban constitution) was seen as an imposition they left behind. La pelota was not.
The Cuban struggle for independence also facilitated the sport’s introduction to neighboring countries and peoples. From the 1860s to the 1890s, tens of thousands of Cubans left the island to escape Spanish political repression or economic devastation. Some settled in Tampa or New York, others in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the Atlantic coasts of Mexico and Venezuela. As veteran Venezuelan sportswriter Juan Vené has put it, Cuba was
the cradle of the those who played the major role in introducing baseball to the rest of our countries […] that [Cuban] blend of indigenous Tainos with Spaniards and African blacks, living ninety miles of Caribbean waters off the coast of Florida, those cheerful and talkative Caribbeans, extroverted and emigrant as people who are born and grow up on islands tend to be.
Sugar planters or sugar mill mechanics, doctors or dockworkers, students of professions or professional shortstops, they brought baseball knowledge, equipment, and especially enthusiasm to the cane fields surrounding San Pedro de Macorís and the streets of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, to the Yucatán Peninsula and the port of Veracruz in Mexico, and to Venezuela and Puerto Rico as well.
In Venezuela, therefore, the game was already well ensconced when, in 1902, the first series between a local team and one from outside the country was played: the Caracas team club versus crew members of a US gunboat, the USSMarietta, cruising the Caribbean in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. The sailors won the first game 16-3, and Caracas won the second 27-17, thanks in part to a grand slam by Cuban shortstop Emérito Argudín, a former Havana college player who had arrived in 1898 and founded a weekly newspaper devoted to the sport. The game was played near the ship’s anchorage in the port of La Guaira, in an improvised stadium where, according to Venezuelan baseball historian Javier González, “vendors sold fish patties and sugar water with lemon, and great quantities of beer were drunk in the makeshift stands.” The victory in the second game, especially, “unleashed an unprecedented enthusiasm for baseball in the state of Vargas,” the future home of the legendary La Guaira Sharks.
Only in Panama and Nicaragua did baseball have purely North American roots. The sport probably came to Panama (then still part of Colombia) via Americans crossing the isthmus during the 1849 California Gold Rush, or in the following decade with US railroad builders, travelers, and crews. Nicaragua, most likely the last Spanish-speaking country to take up the sport, seems to have acquired it, fittingly, from the cradle of the “New York game.” In Bluefields on the Caribbean coast, a lumber exporter named Albert Adlesberg sent back to his home town of New York City for baseball equipment, and by 1889 he had launched several teams.
From then on, the sport was deeply enmeshed in the region’s culture, and sometimes its politics. Always, of course, the victory of national teams in international tournaments was an occasion for intense national pride. Cuba was the perennial powerhouse, but Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic vied fiercely for Caribbean-wide titles too. During the tie-breaking final game of the 1941 Baseball World Cup (a Caribbean event long preceding the current Baseball World Classic), all schools and most shops in Venezuela were closed, the national government cabinet meeting was postponed, and the entire country listened to the radio broadcast from Havana. The victorious Venezuelan underdogs, the first such club to win a national championship, enshrined ever-after as the “Heroes of ’41,” were received with a valedictory address and poem (“Romance del Campeonato”) by the popular writer and politician Andrés Eloy Blanco.
Two rather more partisan examples of the sport’s role in internal politics come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. In the 1920s, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, Yucatán’s popularly elected socialist governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto undertook radical reforms to break the stranglehold of the region’s plantation aristocracy and empower the Mayan-descended farmworker recently freed from their condition as serfs. The Socialist Party’s base organization created a special sports section headed by a teacher of baseball, provided team travel subsidies to further break down the isolation of the countryside, distributed over $20,000 worth of baseball equipment, and organized ball clubs in more than 70 percent of the state’s communities. Team names included Emiliano Zapata, The Martyrs of Chicago (after the executed Haymarket demonstrators), and Red Yucatán. The sport was linked to ancient Mayan games played in the ball courts being unearthed in the ruins of Chichén Itzá and other sites, and again it was contrasted with the bullfight, a symbol of the Spanish conquest and the pre-revolution era.
On the right, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo organized a famous all-star team in 1937. After renaming Santo Domingo as Ciudad Trujillo in 1936, he was determined that the city should not lose another national championship to either Santiago de los Caballeros or San Pedro de Macorís. Therefore he decreed that for the 1937 season two rival teams of the capital (think Yankees and Dodgers in 1950s New York) should be combined into a single team, Los Dragones (Dragons). He gave the general manager unlimited funds to hire talent from all over the Caribbean as well as stars from the US Negro Leagues. The result was a powerhouse Dragones team managed by a Cuban and made up of Americans, Cubans, one Puerto Rican (Pedro “Petrucho” Cepeda, father of future San Francisco Giants’s great Orlando Cepeda), and a sole Dominican. The players were frequently monitored by armed guards, and once before a crucial game they were jailed overnight to keep them away from the city’s bars and other temptations. Ciudad Trujillo narrowly won the championship, the dictator won bragging rights, and the relieved foreign players (including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell) left the next day.
In North America, aside from the classic 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat,” baseball has found a literary home mostly in novels. In Latin America, by contrast, there are practically no baseball novels, despite the number of prominent novelists who have been great baseball fans — Mexico’s Juan Rulfo, Cuba’s Leonardo Padura and Arturo Arango, Nicaragua’s Sergio Ramírez, and Puerto Rico’s Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá. Baseball does play a certain role in Padura’s Heretics(primarily in the form of a ball signed by the legendary Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso) and in one climactic scene of Rodríguez Juliá’s The Pool (where a boy and his father attend a game in the San Juan stadium, and a microcosm of class, race, and international hierarchy emerges before the boy’s eyes).
One reason for this lack of novels, I suspect, is that, for a long time, Latin American high culture looked toward Europe while its popular culture, at least in the Caribbean and Central America, looked toward the United States. So writing about baseball was no way to make one’s literary mark as a “serious” writer. Similarly, the publishing big shots and tastemakers resided in Madrid, Barcelona, or Buenos Aires, not in baseball capitals like Havana, Santo Domingo, Caracas, or San Juan. Also, to the extent that US baseball fiction could have influenced Latin American writing, the dominance of Spanish publishing again raised an obstacle. According to the late Mexican dramatist Vicente Leñero, author of the one-act plays Aut at Third and Fielder of Destiny, the translations he encountered, done in Spain by translators as remote from the game as the emblematic Chilean who didn’t know where to find first base, were laughable at best.
There is a stronger tradition of baseball poetry, including the Cuban Nicolás Guillén’s long elegy to the star pitcher and position player Martín Dihigo, the Mexican Alberto Blanco’s epic “La vida en el diamante” (“Life on the Diamond”), and Nicaraguan Horacio Peña’s book-length Poem for a Man Called Roberto Clemente. But what has saved Latin American baseball fiction is that prose writers and poets too have allowed their passion for the game to be expressed in short stories.
I had read a few such stories by Sergio Ramírez, published in the United States in Nick Caistor’s translations in the 1980s when Ramírez was Nicaragua’s vice-president in the first Sandinista administration. What set me off in a search for more was finding, at the Havana Book Fair in 2014, an anthology of 26 Cuban stories called Escribas en el Estadio (Scribes in the Stadium). While all touching, in some way, on baseball, the stories covered the complete gamut of styles and themes in contemporary Cuban writing. There were five or six that I especially loved, and I wondered what else might be out there in the other baseball-playing countries. That’s what led me, finally, to editing and translating Kill the Ámpaya!, a collection of 18 pieces from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and Nicaragua, published earlier this year by Mandel Vilar Press, which includes most of the writers mentioned above plus others such as Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Carmen Hernández Peña, and more.
Speaking of publishing, let me end by pointing out the crucial role of at least one case of Latin American state support for the arts. In 2008 and 2009, observing that “baseball has been an inseparable part of Dominican national identity” yet there had been an “almost inexplicable absence of a body of writing that would make use of literary situations that emerge from this sport,” the Secretariat of Culture of the Dominican Republic sponsored two prize contests for such stories, the winners of which were later published in the two collections I mentioned at the outset of this essay. The title of the first book, Jonrón 600, honors Sammy Sosa’s career home run total having exceeded that milestone. The second volume, published in 2012, looks to the future rather than the past. It’s called Círculo de espera, which means “on-deck circle,” encouraging us to imagine the writers of the near future rubbing dirt into their hands, taking their warmup swings, getting ready to step into the box and hammer out more literary clutch hits.