The Americas 57.4 (2001) 623-626
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Inside Cuban Baseball
Roberto González Echevarría begins his wonderful book by tracing the Caribbean passion for baseball all the way back to the conquistador Alonso de Ojeda, who is said to have thrown an orange that cleared the 250-foot Giralda Tower in Seville. The Pride of Havana combines erudition with a love of baseball that shines through on every page. The book resists the clichés (especially the temptation to see baseball as a metaphor for life itself) that mar most baseball writing by intellectuals. González Echevarría celebrates instead the sheer physical pleasure of the game, and the rich tradition of Cuban baseball. Some readers may learn more than they want to know about the statistics of Cuban players through the generations, but in an age when even as venerable a publication as The Sporting News no longer prints box scores, this reviewer was grateful for each earned run average and runs batted in total that González Echevarría provides.
The main body of the book focuses on the century between the first baseball game in Cuba and the Revolution in 1959. The final chapter analyzes baseball after the Revolution. Throughout, González Echevarría keeps in view his central argument "that American culture is one of the fundamental components of Cuban culture, even when historically there have been concerted and painful attempts to fight it off or deny it" (p. 12).
Baseball was brought to Cuba in 1864 by three young Cubans who had learned the game as students in Alabama. Initially played exclusively by upper class Cubans, baseball quickly gained a popular following, and by the time of the second war of independence, the sport had become intimately connected with Cuba's rejection of Spain and Spanish culture. González Echevarría celebrates the pioneers of Cuban baseball while documenting the institutionalized apartheid practiced by the amateur [End Page 623] clubs that dominated baseball until after the Spanish-American War. The book offers poignant evidence of the ways in which racism affected baseball and Cuban society as a whole. Racism in the U.S. also figures prominently in this account.
The tie between baseball and the Cuban nation that was forged during the wars of independence continued to grow stronger under the Republic. Independence ushered in what González Echevarría calls the "golden age" of Cuban baseball, from 1898 to the early 1930s. During this period the island became a center for tourism, and not only Cuban baseball but also Cuban music and dance gained international recognition. Professional baseball saw the emergence of great players such as Adolfo (the "Havana Perfecto," or Pride of Havana) Luque, Miguel Angel (Pan de Flauta) González, Cristóbal Torriente, and Martín (El Inmortal) Dihigo. The golden age also saw a proliferation throughout the island of semipro and sugarmill clubs whose quality of play rivaled and on occasion surpassed that of the professionals. These clubs continue to be the stuff of legend in Cuba, and some of their players--Orestes (Minnie) Miñoso and Pedro (Preston) Gómez are among the most notable examples--went on to successful major league careers.
González Echevarría, whose father and grandfather were associated with the Central San Agustín team as player and general manager, skillfully places the history of baseball within the larger social and economic history of Cuba. He reflects on the ritualization of leisure on the sugarmills in general, and on rural Cubans' passion for baseball during the free time following the harvest in particular.
Extending Fernando Ortiz's analysis of the divergent histories of sugar and tobacco in Cuba...