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On Historical Grounds

The Baseball Half-Century of Conrado Marrero
By Peter C. Bjarkman

They were certainly one of the more forgettable big league outfits when it comes to tallying up league pennants won, Hall-of-Fame idols produced, or even first-division finishes clinched. "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" was their backhanded epitaph. But when it came to local color and a cast of unforgettable diamond characters, they nonetheless had a niche all their own. They were the stumblebum Washington Senators (aka Washington Nationals) managed by redoubtable Bucky Harris (who served usually lackluster teams in the nation's capital for eighteen seasons spread over nearly four decades) and owned and operated by penny-pinching octogenarian Clark Griffith-a dinosaur among club owners who still made his living strictly on gate receipts. And they were also an outfit that gained considerable notoriety as the laughingstock depository for superscout Joe Cambria's irrepressible imported band of carefree and colorful "Cubanolas."

Erstwhile Baltimore laundryman and small-time minor league tycoon, Cambria turned to scouting for Griffith in the thirties and was soon filling his boss's low-budget rosters with a collection of both promising and mediocre low-salaried Cuban recruits. The ball club once crammed its lineups with as many as forty-nine Cubans in a single season (1952, with four of them on the parent club), and it has been estimated that as many as four hundred Cubans had signed with the organization by the time it moved off to Minnesota in 1961. Mid-century Washington baseball historian Morris Bealle once observed (in his underground classic The Washington Senators, self-published in 1947) that "Papa Joe" had overall not done so badly as Clark Griffith's "one-man scouting force" but that he would soon do even better if he could somehow get over his apparent predilection for Cubanolas among the numerous recruits he signed-usually for a song and a one-way ticket off the island.

The Cambria-Cuban connection reached its apogee at the century's midpoint. The first bird dog to wander the sugarcane trail of the Caribbean islands, Cambria set up shop in Havana in the late thirties. He held endless tryout camps on his adopted island for the next three decades, flailed the Cuban bushes for any native talent that displayed a strong arm or quick bat and a willingness to sign for peanuts, and thus provided the cash-strapped Washington ball club with a steady supply of raw imports that helped to keep expenses down, though the ultimate result was usually mediocre teams that rarely challenged for the league pennant. Cambria's first notable recruit was a slugging Cuban third baseman named Roberto ("Bobby") Estalella who banged big league pitching well enough to hang out with the sad-sack Senators, Browns, and Athletics for nine seasons (he was a lifetime .282 hitter) but whose lead glove also meant he had to be eventually shifted to the outfield for his own physical safety.

Other Cambria island recruits of note would eventually include fifties-era mound stars Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos, plus stateside worthies Mickey Vernon, Early Wynn, Eddie Yost, and Gil Coan. The Cambria resume is also filled with dozens of lesser Cubanolas-the most memorable being Sandalio "Sandy" Consuegra, Carlos Paula, Roberto Ortiz, Conrado Marrero, Julio Moreno, Raul Sánchez, Juan Delis, Zoilo Versalles, Willie Miranda, José Valdivielso, and future big league skipper Preston Gómez, all of whom tasted various-sized cups of big league coffee in Washington and points north and west during the decade and a half following the nation's second great war. Cambria's most legendary recruit ironically turns out to be a mere myth, as there is no truth whatsoever to numerous popular accounts of Papa Joe's pursuit and near-signing of a fastballing Havana prospect in the mid-forties named Fidel Castro (see EFQ, vol. 16, no. 3 for this author's recent account of the misbegotten Castro pitching legend). The Cambria-Senators pipeline was indeed a tantalizing sidebar to baseball's golden age fifties. In retrospect it was also a tame foreshadow of the explosive stateside interest in Cuban baseball which would return with something of a vengeance a full half-century later.

Joe Cambria may have missed out on one overblown phenom named Fidel Castro, but he hit the mark squarely when it came to the pursuit and signing of another colorful cigar-puffing mound legend whose heroic stature in today's Cuba is nearly as large as that of the Maximum Leader himself. Foremost on the local-color scale among Papa Joe's fabulous fifties Washington recruits was a junkballing, stogie-smoking roly-poly known in his homeland by such poetic handles as El Guajiro de Labertino (The Labertino Peasant or Labertino Hillbilly), El Premier (Grade A) and El Curveador (The Curveballer). Those Cuban nicknames were quickly matched by Washington's epithet-wielding sports hacks who came up with such beauties as Conrado the Conqueror, the Cuban Perfecto (referring to a popular cigar brand), or simply Chico-that most timeworn and degrading pseudonym for Latin ballplayers of almost any era. He pitched for only five seasons in the big time and lost more games (forty) than he won (thirty-nine). His reputation was that of a mystifying craftsman who tantalized hitters with offspeed deliveries and was always far more successful against less-talented AL clubs. (Marrero outright owned Mr. Mack's weak-hitting Athletics, as well as the pathetic Browns in St. Louis and dysfunctional Tigers of Detroit.) And he bore the further reputation of a spunky artisan who proved most unhittable in early-season outings, when coming fresh off a full winter league season back home in Havana and thus seemingly several weeks if not months ahead of the still-rusty springtime hitters.

Conrado Marrero inevitably became simply Connie for Washington ball fans and beat writers (just as fellow Cubans Roberto Ortiz and Roberto Estalella inevitably became Bobby while Miguel Angel González and Miguel Guerra likewise became Mike to the monolingual and condescending stateside sportswriters). Whatever the designation, it is today hardly a household name anywhere north of Miami. Yet for Cuban fans Marrero still remains the closest thing there is to a native big league legend. Indeed Adolfo Luque enjoyed greater big league successes back in the twenties and thirties with nearly two hundred National League victories and a dominant 1923 season in Cincinnati. Blackball legend Martín Dihigo built a legacy in the Cuban and Mexican winter circuits and the U. S. Negro leagues sufficient to merit a permanent home in Cooperstown. Pascual, Ramos, Miñoso, Campaneris, and Versalles were all more accomplished major leaguers. And Cuban-born José Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro are modern-era stars of far loftier proportion. But none before or since has matched Conrado Marrero's combined fame in Las Grandes Ligas (the U. S. major leagues) and unsurpassed baseball stature on the island, for Marrero is the most celebrated and admired amateur pitcher in the century-long saga of Cuba's own national game.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2000 issue.

PETER C. BJARKMAN's continuous travels during the past year have taken him to Havana (thrice), Cienfuegos, Cuba's Bay of Pigs, Pinar del Río, Budapest, Poland, Austria, Prague, Croatia, Montenegro/Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Canwest Global Park in Winnipeg, but rarely to any of the luxury-box-outfitted shopping malls and theme parks which corporate Major League Baseball today tries to market as legitimate replacements for rapidly vanishing North American ballparks.

© 2000 Peter C. Bjarkman

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