By Guest Writer Pat Doyle
The recent two-game series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team evoked memories of the days when Havana was a part of organized baseball in America. For fifteen years Havana was home to teams in the Florida International League (1946-1953) and then the International League (1954-1960).
It took a former player, one Fidel Castro, to close the island to professional baseball and to shut off the stream of talented players who brought their unique flair for the game. Only in the last decade has a trickle of native Cuban talent reemerged.
The incident most widely associated with the end of professional baseball in Cuba occurred forty years ago this season. With the assistance of one of the main participants in the event, we now return to that season.
On January 1, 1959, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista flew to exile in the Dominican Republic and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro took over the government. In the days and months following the overthrow, the Cuban populace celebrated their liberation, and their merriment made its way to the Gran Stadium, the home of the Havana's Sugar Kings.
The Sugar Kings were an independently owned team stocked with players from the Cincinnati Reds organization. As their 1959 season passed its mid-point, a late July homestand included a visit by the Rochester Red Wings, a long-time International League member and St. Louis Cardinal affiliate. On Saturday, July 25, the regularly scheduled game between the two teams was preceded by the completion of a game suspended by curfew during the Red Wings' previous visit. The final two innings of that game were played and Havana emerged victorious, 1-0.
The second game began late and continued far into the night. As midnight struck, a military and civilian celebration exploded into lights, flags, music, and gunfire. After moments of uncertainty and fear among the players, the mayhem gradually subsided and the game continued. Extra innings were required after the score was tied by Havana in the ninth inning. Rochester took the lead in the top of the eleventh inning on a Billy Harrell home run, but the Sugar Kings responded quickly with a double from the bat of Jesse Gonder. As Gonder ran towards second base, Rochester manager Ellis "Cot" Deal noticed that Gonder had missed first base. Deal immediately confronted first base umpire Frank Guzzetta who, as part of a three-man umpiring crew, was running toward second base and did not see Gonder failing to touch first base.
The debate between Deal and Guzzetta escalated to Deal's giving the umpire the choke sign. Guzzetta's response was immediate, and Deal was out of the game as the crowd again increased its din and gunfire continued.
In his memoirs, 50 Years in Baseball, Deal describes the scene as he departed. "The noise was tumultuous as I walked to our dugout and turned over the lineup cards and handling of the club to Frank Verdi, my player-coach". Following Deal's departure, the game continued and Gonder scored to tie the game and take it to the twelfth inning.
With Verdi now coaching at third base for Rochester, catcher Dick Rand led off the twelfth with a ground out to Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas. Before the next pitch could be thrown, shots again rang out in the stadium. Within seconds both Verdi in the coach's box and Cardenas at shortstop dropped to the ground in pain. Verdi, the first struck, was hit in the head. Through great fortune, Verdi was wearing a plastic batting liner inside his cap that deflected the bullet through the lower portion of his ear and onto his shoulder. Stunned but unhurt by the .45 slug, Verdi was asked by a screaming umpire Ed Vargo if he was O.K. At the same time, shortstop Cardenas was shaking off the pain from a bullet which grazed his right shoulder. The umpires immediately called the game and players, coaches, and umpires made a mad dash for their respective clubhouses as the shooting continued.
Following the game, the umpires called league president Frank Shaughnessy for a ruling about playing the game scheduled for later that day. The Sugar Kings wanted to replay the incomplete game as part of a Sunday doubleheader. But Deal and Red Wing General Manager George Sisler, Jr., had already decided their course of action, consequences notwithstanding. In his book, Deal relates his words to the team, "'Gentlemen, pack your bags. We are not going out there this afternoon'". Despite efforts by Cuban officials to play, Deal and Sisler were firm and, after spending a tense night at the hotel, flew with the team to Miami on Sunday evening. Deal and Verdi, who by then had only a slight headache, sat together on the plane. In Cot's words, "We sat quietly for a while, both pondering the seriousness of what we had just experienced. 'I just thought of something', Frank said gravely, 'you don't wear an insert in your cap - and if you had been standing where I had been standing.Do you realize that getting the thumb might have saved your life!'". Though his response was unrecorded, one senses that Cot Deal was very much aware of that fact.
Less than a week later, with the team in last place, Deal resigned as Red Wing manager and was hired by the Cincinnati Reds as pitching coach. Coincidence once again entered the picture, as he was now working for the same organization that he had managed against a week earlier in Havana. The following season, 1960, he and Cardenas were members of the Cincinnati Reds.
The Sugar Kings continued in Havana for another year. However, the effects of the revolution and strained international relations prompted their departure, and the franchise shifted to Jersey City on July 13, 1960. For fifteen and one-half seasons, the Habaneros, their horns, marimbas, and voices filled Gran Stadium. It ended too soon and with pain, but it was loud and exhilarating while it lasted.
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