- The Cause of BaseballBaseball and Nation-Building in Revolutionary Cuba
Sports have long been a source of national pride for Cubans. Today, in a country lacking shopping malls and other commercial forms of entertainment, youths can be found playing pick-up games of soccer, volleyball, and baseball at any given hour of the day or night. Older aficionados gather at places such as the famous Esquina Caliente, or “Hot Corner,” in Havana’s Central Park to discuss and debate the particulars of sporting events. While Cubans have embraced niche sports like chess and fencing, baseball has always occupied a rarified stratum in Cuba’s sporting culture despite its historical association with American imperialism. This has continued to be the case despite drastic changes to the way the game was organized and presented to the Cuban public after 1959. In the wake of the Revolution, the sport came to have great importance to the state as a symbol of revolutionary ideals and defiance. The nature of the game leant itself to politicization by state actors. British anthropologist Thomas F. Carter writes that, “like all sports, baseball is all about the increasingly refined and controlled movement of bodies—a concern of all state-building projects as well.”1 In order to better capture the hearts and minds of the Cuban public, the revolutionary government set about shaping baseball into a spectacle that was equal parts training program and patriotic theater.
Postrevolutionary Cuban baseball, rather than a game that was integrated with its American counterpart as a sort of farm system for potential major leaguers, became an insular system, retaining its finest players to represent Cuban self-sacrifice and patriotic fervor. Even the biggest stars renounced the material rewards of professionalism in favor of the purity of amateur play. Furthermore, producing athletes who could compete on the international stage served as proof that the island nation stood on equal ground with the United States, the country against which Cubans measured their progress and standing in the world. The idealistic image of Cuban players as altruistic defenders [End Page 53] of national honor has been challenged, however, by the Cuban stars who have heeded the siren call of American Major League Baseball and the wealth it bestows on the select few with the physical gifts to compete in its ranks.
The flow of Cuban baseball talent to the US market is, in part, an expression of the persistent bond between the two countries, cemented by a shared history and passion for the game of baseball. This connection posed a conundrum to Cuban revolutionaries who sought to reshape the game to conform to the revolutionary national project despite its history as an American invention.
Baseball Between Empires, 1860–1959
As Louis Pérez argues in On Becoming Cuban, the United States had an integral role in the formation of a Cuban national identity as the island distanced itself from Spanish norms in the nineteenth century. Pérez writes, “The two cultures converged on each other, interacting and merging, and fused in dynamic adaptation and accommodation. Cubans and North Americans occupied a place in each other’s imagination and in their respective fantasies about each other.”2 US material culture had flooded Cuba well before the American military intervention of 1898. American capital and consumer products steadily poured into Cuba, bringing with them myriad cultural trappings.3 Among the many American institutions introduced to Cuba was baseball, a sport that was burgeoning into an iconic American cultural touchstone. Cubans’ enthusiastic embrace of baseball was a product of this affinity for all things American. According to Thomas Carter, the game was introduced to Cuba by university students returning home from the US in the 1860s—around the same time that the sport was becoming the national pastime in the United States itself.4 Long covetous of Spain’s remaining Caribbean colonies, the US saw Cubans’ adoption of baseball as a sign of America’s waxing influence in the region and the hemisphere as a whole. Robert Elias observes that “baseball was used to sell and export the American dream. It took its place in the globalization of the world, even if Americanization...