A report by Jonathan Blitzer for The New Yorker.
Emilio N. Cordova, who died on Saturday in Santo Domingo, at the age of ninety, used to carry around business cards with his job title printed beneath his name: “Immortal Sports Historian.” Cuqui, as he was known to all of his colleagues and friends, was not a historian by training or by profession, at least not in any conventional sense. Yet “immortal sports historian” still seemed to be the closest approximation of who he was, in stature and expertise. As Rob Ruck, an old friend of his and a historian at the University of Pittsburgh, once told me, “I doubt there’s anybody anywhere who knows more about the history of baseball in a country than Cuqui Cordova does about baseball in the Dominican Republic.”
When I first met him, several years ago, he was as much a part of Dominican baseball lore as he was a chronicler of it. His apartment, in an upscale neighborhood of Santo Domingo, was a museum in its own right, with materials and curios that would be the envy of any archivist. Dozens of file cabinets brimmed with decades-old newspaper clippings, photographs, and scorecards—in some cases alphabetized by players’ last names, in others by year. Photographs of stars posing with him covered the walls, from Hank Aaron to Dave Winfield. I remember seeing a ball signed by Joe DiMaggio, addressed, “To Cookie.” As Cordova once told me, “I’m older than some of the archives in this country.”
A former public-relations executive at Shell Oil Company in the Dominican Republic, where he was born and raised, Cordova had written about baseball since he was fifteen. After a brief stint in the U.S.—followed, years later, by a month spent in prison, in the early nineteen-fifties, as a political dissident under the reign of dictator Rafael Trujillo—he began writing a weekly column in the country’s paper of record. The column was called “The Baseball of Yesterday”; the year was 1968. Fourteen years later, he added another column to his repertoire, “The Tuesday Chronicle,” about the history of sports in the Dominican Republic. When I last saw him, in 2015, he was still publishing the columns (“That’s 2,303 pieces,” he told me), as well as hosting two weekly television shows, mostly about baseball. In his downtime, he was putting the finishing touches on his twenty-second book, as part of his ongoing collection of unparalleled monographs on Dominican baseball. The man was obsessed.
We met because of my own smaller-scale obsession. I was writing a story about a four-month stretch, in the spring and summer of 1937, when the legendary American pitcher Satchel Paige, the crowning star of the segregated Negro Leagues, played professional baseball in the Dominican Republic. The occasion was a national baseball tournament called the Championship for the Reëlection of Rafael Trujillo. An enterprising Trujillo loyalist was managing one of the teams, called the Dragons, which was representing the capital, then known as Ciudad Trujillo; since white players, with much pricier big-league contracts, were too expensive to lure, the man travelled to the U.S. to recruit players from the American Negro Leagues. Before long, the Dominican teams were in an arms race for black American talent, and some of the most decorated names in baseball—Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson—left for the Caribbean, effectively ending the Negro League season. At one point, the U.S. Secretary of State tried to intercede with the Dominican government to halt the exodus. He failed, and the tournament proceeded—forty-some games over the span of three and a half months. It is said to be the best baseball ever played.
Sports are only as memorable as the people who remember them. Early in my research, I received a fateful piece of advice from Rob Ruck, the historian, who’d written about the 1937 tournament in a book titled “The Tropic of Baseball.” “You have to find Cuqui,” he told me. Like so many writers and researchers before me, I made the pilgrimage to his house, one February morning. He greeted me there in his trademark style—a light blazer with broad lapels, suspenders, and a dress shirt unbuttoned to his chest. “Let’s go have lunch,” he said. His wife, Mercedes, and son Emilio joined us at a nearby Italian restaurant, where we were treated like dignitaries. When we finished, a car whisked us away to a television studio, where Cuqui hosted the live broadcast of one of his weekly shows. Would I mind coming along with him? Of course I didn’t mind; I was in the presence of someone from a bygone era, a gentleman of the old school, who was also, improbably, a man of the people, a keeper of the country’s sporting flame. At the studio, the cameraman greeted him as “Don Cuqui.”
In front of the cameras, he was as natural and chatty as he’d been at lunch. He had all of the statistics committed to memory. Without checking notes or pausing to recollect the particulars, he cited Josh Gibson’s average, Paige’s won-lost record and earned-run average, and the street locations of the three stadiums where the tournament’s games had been played. There was literally no one else, anywhere, who had this kind of information, and I later learned that he’d amassed it, years before, from newspaper box scores and actual handwritten scorecards from each of the games. Then, without warning, he called me on as his guest. I was miked up and given a chair. “So, what brings you to Santo Domingo?” he asked, with a wink. I gave a comparatively paltry account of the 1937 championship series, and described the story I hoped to do on the subject. The brushback pitch: “I’m not sure you’re going to be able to do it,” he said. “I’ve seen all the materials there are, and it’ll be hard.” This was the veteran player hazing the wide-eyed rookie; even that felt right, true to form.
Cuqui’s mischief paled beside his generosity. For the next week, he opened up his house to me and let me pore over his materials. Mercedes would bring me lemonade every couple of hours. Cuqui sat at his desk, working on his weekly columns, which he did by typewriter. (He later drove them in to the newspaper office himself, complete with accompanying photographs and captions.) One day, while I was taking photographs of old scorecards, he announced that he was inviting a friend over to chat. The man’s name was Freddy Gómez. He was several years older than Cuqui, and, as a teen-ager during the 1937 championship series, he’d attended a number of tournament games. For an hour, the three of us spoke. Gomez’s memory was sharp, like Cuqui’s; they amicably tussled over details, such as the name of the proprietor of the hotel where most of the ballplayers stayed, or the route the players took each weekend to walk to the local ballpark.
At the end of each of Cuqui’s published monographs was a running list of what had come before and what he planned to publish next. By late last year, he’d written four more, and there were twenty-five additional books in the offing. He had decided on the subjects and already assigned full titles. I remembered seeing, in his home office, the fattening files with accumulated source material for many of them. After I returned to New York, he called me regularly, around holidays (to wish me and my family well) or out of the blue (to confirm that my address hadn’t changed). Every four months or so, for the past five years, a large manila envelope would arrive in the mail. His business card was taped to the top right corner, in the place reserved for his return address. Inside was a monograph, inscribed with a dedication, in black marker, that read, “Your friend, as always. CUQUI.”