Crossing the color line—again

Cuba, baseball and Obama

by Dell Franklin

GAME TIME—President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba applaud a run by the Tampa Bay Rays during an exhibition baseball game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

GAME TIME—President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba applaud a run by the Tampa Bay Rays during an exhibition baseball game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

I was four when we lived in Havana, and though I recall nothing concrete, there are swirling images of bright colors and energy and activity and non-stop, fast-talking voices and rousing music. My father was playing professional baseball in Cuba during the winter after a season in Tampico, Mexico, where he played after leaving the big leagues for better money.

On my wall is a small black-and-white framed photo of dad with his teammates on his Cuban team, the only American among black and lighter-skinned men of Spanish ancestry against a backdrop of a rickety stadium. A man of high passion and strong opinion, dad loved Cuba and had already learned the language while in Mexico. As a man raised in the Great Depression and serving in World War II, he was convinced the secret to life was making the best of every situation, to ignore hardship and differences in culture and concentrate on the joy of relating to people and their customs.

Dad remembered Fidel Castro as a polite kid wanting to be a ball player and working out with his team and having a “decent glove as an infielder for a tall gangly kid, but couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle as a hitter.”

He talked of the fans: “It was love-hate. They were rabid, much more so than American fans, even New York and Detroit and Philly fans, who were real wolves. Cuban fans bet on games, bet on innings, bet on at-bats. The cities and towns practically closed down when there was a game. They came to the park or listened on radio. They were rough on you if you didn’t produce, and if you were an American with a big name and came down and laid an egg, didn’t come through in the clutch, they would literally run you out of town. I was fortunate to play well down there until the malaria I got from the South Pacific during the war recurred.”

Mother said: “The Cuban people were very warm and good-hearted. No matter how poor they were they seemed good-natured and happy about what they had, there was a spirit and a soul about them, they were not afraid to reach out and embrace you. At night, Murray and I would go out after the games, very late, because it was so exciting, and also we had not seen each other for almost two years while he was away during the war, and we would go to the cantinas and clubs, and there was always music, and the people loved to dance, and we loved to dance, the parks were always full of people playing games or playing music, there was so much life and excitement in Havana, it was a city of ongoing festivity that never shut down.”

CULTURE.murray in cuba

Murray Franklin, back row, second from right, an infielder who played with a Cuban team in the late 1940s, said this about Cuban baseball fans: They were rabid, much more so than American fans, even New York and Detroit and Philly fans, who were real wolves. Photo courtesy of Dell Franklin

Dad talked of his teammates and players such as Minnie Minoso and Sandy Consuegra and many others, the black ones like Minoso not allowed to play ball in America no matter how gifted they were, while the lighter skinned Cubans were allowed to play before the color line was broken by Jackie Robinson. Minoso finally established an illustrious career in the big leagues in his 30s.

COMMENT.MURRAY @ BAT

Murray Franklin at bat in his Cuban team uniform.

Dad said: “The Cubans played with a different emotion, what you would call flair. You could call them showboats. They came from a different background, a different culture. What I learned about them was that if you made an effort to learn their language and made an effort to be friendly they would do anything for you and were very loyal, they would take you into their homes and no matter how poor they were or how little they had in their pantries, they would serve you their last plate of rice and black beans, because you were a guest, and they liked you. They had this inborn quality of thinking about you first, a trait I find very rare and good in people and which I tried to copy as a man, because, in the end, it serves everybody better to share what they have. You are always learning in life, and my experience in Cuba taught me humility, even though I was a pretty humble guy to begin with and always appreciated what I had.”

***

Cuban baseball players risk their lives to come to America to play the great game, possibly to live in freedom, make real money, and compete against the best to show us just how great they really are. They play with a different rhythm and instinct pleasantly devoid of over-coaching and over-training, like kids growing up in the sandlots and dirt parks a century ago, like Cobb and Ruth and the Gas House Gang; so unlike the controlling and insane supervision and overexposure of American Little League and the structured and robotic techniques taught to and applied by American players along with the new metrics moving them around by front office stooges and automat coaches like chess pieces.

Cuban ballplayers are colorful, ours are not.

Imagine the culture shock of Cuban ballplayers coming to America and facing the vastness of our country, the huge shiny powerful cars marauding our massive highways, the sudden big money, the freedom, the incredible hi-tech toys and the splendor of even our minor league systems, much less the luxury of the big leagues. Imagine their reaction to the tight-lipped grimness of the baseball tradition in America…

…And then imagine our players, raised in a culture of over-abundance and entitlement if you are a big league prospect, the best food and equipment and stadiums and pampering, and going to Cuba and playing ball there, seemingly for a pittance, in seedy surroundings, for love of the game and patriotic reasons of one-upmanship on a country like ours.

Baseball, our great game, is their great game also, and now our President, Barack Obama, is trying to renew relations with Cuba, recently by using baseball as a sort of bridge to build a new relationship of visiting each other and sharing.

Meanwhile, politicians on the right squawk sanctimoniously of how Cuba is a Communist country punishing its people and denying them human rights, while at the same time these very same hypocrites wish to deny women in our country the right to make their own decisions on abortion, seek to deny black people the right to vote, try to destroy the first health care provider in our country primarily for the poor, and hang on to a cold war mentality that has long ago dissolved, and a bombastic occupational foreign policy that has failed miserably and infuriated most of the world.

We negotiate trade and exchange tourism with Vietnam and China, supposed enemies, and seem to have no problem with their regimes, or their propaganda against America, and they seem to have no problem with our history of exploiting Latin and South American governments for decades, assassinating their leaders and replacing them with any ruthless despot who would do what we told them for military support while these military puppets and millionaire aristocrats tossed crumbs to their impoverished people and jailed or murdered them if they rebelled.

And for what?

What Obama is trying to explain to the mindless knuckleheads in this country is that what he is doing is about people—their people and our people. It is about allowing their people to taste a little of what we have while we taste a little of what they have, and in the process we can learn a little something about each other without trying to turn their country into South Florida. It is about no longer demanding THEY change before WE concede even to talk to them because of their terrible record on human rights, or about us imposing our political philosophy and ideology on them, or boycotting their goods and placing embargoes and strangling their economy and rendering their people poorer than they already are.

And for what?

Cuba is a proud country with as many social ills as we have, but what it is really about is Cubans and Americans, the lot of whom, if we ever met, would probably like each other, and have a great time together, if we just for a minute allowed ourselves to have a few beers and forget about politics and history and perhaps watch a baseball game together, whether it be here or there. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., and spent many years of his life active in baseball, teaching, coaching and playing, learning from all-time greats and keeping a wary eye on how the game is played. More of his work can be read on his website, dellfranklin.com

 

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