Ibsen Martinez

Latin Baseball: A Frontier Story

Ibsen Martinez*
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"Cuban independentists... got to favoring baseball over bullfights.... The crowd attending a bullfight dutifully had to pay homage to Spanish colonial authorities."
The Pride of Havana" (Oxford University Press, 1999), by Roberto González Echevarría, offers an impressive collection of penetrating ideas about certain sports in Latin American culture.

Imagine a history of the Cuban national pastime written by a Cuban-born distinguished professor of Hispanic literature at Yale who has also been a semipro catcher and you will only have an inkling of what this wonderful book can convey.

Addressing the "cultural imperialism" issue, for example, Professor González Echevarría writes: "Though an island, Cuba is really a frontier. In colonial times it was the first border betwen the Old and the New worlds, later the embattled line betwen the Spanish Empire and the other europeans powers. Since the nineteenth century, and most poignantly in the last forty years, it has been either a bridge or a wall between itself and the United States. Crossings in either direction have always entailed a more or less radical transformation, at times to sharpen the differences, at others to erase them, or, more often than not, to mask them. Though this play of transformations, fueled by powerful feelings of attraction or rejection, finds a stage in politics, literature, and the arts, its most visible and telling exhibition is found in popular culture and sports, particularly baseball and music."

 

Don't miss Roberto González Echevarría's latest NYTimes op-ed piece, Jan. 11, 2006, "Castro at the Bat".

González Echevarría then goes on to affirm that his book is, therefore, "a partial history of a border, an account of the transformations that occur in that border." The main thesis of this most illuminating book is—let me quote one more time professor González Echevarría's own words—"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. [...] Baseball is the clearest indication of this, but not the only one. It is a process in which the antagonist is absorbed instead of repelled, which shows that in any relationship of cultures, even rejection is mutually influencing, because cultures are dynamic ensembles."1

While today many baseball fans in the Caribbean Basin assume the game was brought to our countries as a result of countless early 20th-century U.S. military interventions in the region, the proven fact is that it was not a U.S. Marine Corps serviceman who first took baseball to Cuba.

Nemesio Guilló, who is believed to have brought the first bat and baseball to the island in 1864—while the American Civil Secession raged and Cubans were still subjects of the Spanish king—was one of three well-to-do young Cuban men sent by their parents to Mobile, Alabama in 1858 to study at Springhill College. One of the other two was Nemesio's brother, Ernesto.

According to González Echeverría, the Guilló brothers and a number of their contemporaries had, by 1868, founded a baseball team—the Habana Base Ball Club— that allegedly defeated the crew of an American schooner anchored at the Matanzas's harbor for repairs. The team did not have much time to celebrate this exploit and actually had to go underground because the first and ill-fated Cuban War of Independence—called "the Ten Years War (1868-1878)—broke out and the Spanish colonial authorities outlawed the game.

It is easy to imagine the Spaniards' motives for this ban: Cuban independentist young men and women got to favoring baseball over bullfights. In those times, and at certain precise moments of this ageless ritual, the crowd attending a bullfight dutifully had to pay homage to Spanish colonial authorities.

Putting aside all the fun and excitement a baseball game can provide, Cubans committed to their independence from Spain seemed to find in baseball a symbol of freedom and egalitarianism and, probably, democracy too.

Many Cubans had to flee their country because of the ruthless methods unleashed by the colonial Spanish troops against the rebels. Some escaped war and turmoil by migrating with their families to the Dominican Republic. "Young Dominicans emulated them—writes Rob Buck in The Tropic of Baseball—and joined with compatriots who had studied in the United States to establish a self-organized matrix of teams and tournaments well in place before the U.S. Marines arrived in 1916 for their eight-year occupation."

I was raised during the fifties in various oil-fields all over Eastern Venezuela and all around the Maracaibo Lake basin, where baseball is part of everyday life.

Like many other Venezuelans of my age, I grew up in the belief that the game had been brought to my country by American oilmen. In fact, and as if following step-by-step Mr. Nemesio Guilló's example, it was a Venezuelan bunch of "merry pranksters", the offspring of rich coffee-trading Caracas' families who, during the last decades of the 19th century, first introduced the game in my country... with a little help from Cuban cigar manufacturer, don Emilio Cramer of Havana.

In 1911, Ralph Arnold, a noteworthy American geologist who led the first comprehensive geological survey of Venezuela, arrived in an impoverished, malaria-plagued country. Mr. Arnold's work helped Venezuela to become one of the biggest oil exporting countries of the 20th century. He was amazed to find that Venezuelans had been playing baseball ever since the 1890s.

At the time of his arrival, Venezuela was a poor country ravaged by the endless civil wars that had been going on all through the 19th century. Here, as almost elsewhere in the region, there was no sports tradition. We only had a very degraded form of rodeo... and occasional bullfighting, but none is exactly what you'd call a sport. As elsewhere, here too the forerunners of the game belonged in the élite. But the poor soon learned everything about the game by intently watching the rich play it.

Later on, all along the first half of the 20th century, a kind of cross-pollination put Caribbean and Mexico's professional baseball leagues in permanent contact with the U.S. Black Leagues, a kind of relationship that surely is worth attention.

If the rise and fall of black professional baseball can give us a window into important issues of African American history, this cross-pollination betwen black leagues and the Cuban, Venezuelan, Dominican Republic and Mexican professional leagues can provide a window on the Spanish speaking Caribbean Basin modern cultures. For one thing, long before the 1947 landmark Jackie Robinson-Brooklyn Dodgers breakthrough major league contract, many African Americans were playing side by side with American white players in the integrated Mexican and Venezuelan leagues.

Take strategy, take surprise plays. The guile, hustling and cunning typical of black league baseball were rapidly absorbed by the Cubans and Dominicans who came to the United States to play in those leagues. These strategies, this playful ethos involved in playing on the brink of the rules, once back in Cuba or Venezuela, began to be called "pelota caribe"—"Caribbean ball"—an allusion to the bold and guileful Carib aborigines who, long before Columbus arrived oin the continent, came out of the Amazonian jungles and daringly took to the sea in wooden canoes from what now is Eastern Venezuela up to the Greater Antilles and subjugated the island tribes.

Hiding the ball is perhaps one of the most difficult tricks of the pelota caribe repertoire. It entails cutting behind a runner in the bases and steal an out.

My countryman, Oswaldo "Ozzie" Guillén, used to look awful in the end-of-season stats, but he could make odd plays nobody else would make. He reportedly made the hidden-ball trick twice in two days, against the same team! His controversial "small ball" managing that helped the Chicago White Sox swiftly win the 2005 World Series is, in my view, simply the quintessential pelota caribe frame of mind that evolved from the now long vanished U.S. black professional leagues.

Reading out loud the names and surnames of any U.S. professional line-up you can get a sense of the place that this more than a century old "border story" occupies in the cultural history of both the United States and its neighbors.

"Whatever the reasons", writes Milton Jamail in Full Count, "the talent pool for baseball in the United States clearly is shrinking, thus making it necessary to look elsewhere for players. [...] Statistics provided by the baseball industry show that almost 35 percent of players in professional baseball at all levels, from rookie to big league, were born outside the United States.(Puerto Rico is included in this figure.) Baseball clearly is no longer just a U.S. sport."

I think he is right. Baseball is today an international sport that is played at its highest level by many Latin Americans in the United States. Cuba's participation in the forthcoming World Baseball Classic would salute good old Nemesio Guilló, the founding father of Latin American baseball.


Footnotes
1.

Roberto González Echevarría', The Pride of Havana, A History of Cuban Baseball, Oxford University Press. New York. 1999. P.12.


* Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.
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