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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

The Cuban Comet
By Peter C. Bjarkman

One of baseball's prize Horatio Alger tales is that of a player whose parents were so poor he didn't start school until he was ten, who had to quit four years later to go to work, cutting sugar cane with a machete. —A. S. "Doc" Young

 

Standing at the two extreme poles of the four decades marking Fidel Castro's ongoing Communist experiment in Cuba, Orlando "El Duque" Hernández and Orestes "The Cuban Comet" Miñoso easily remain the two most recognizable Cubans to have carried the big league banner of the world's most baseball-crazed country. Among the one hundred and fifty odd islanders who have to date performed on big league diamonds, it is Hernández and Miñoso who most clearly evoke the image of Cuban baseball in the minds of North American baseball fans. "El Duque's" considerable notoriety in recent seasons has admittedly come largely through politically charged circumstances. A four-season 45–33 pitching record with the perennial World Series entrants is hardly the stuff of baseball legend. Miñoso's reputation, by contrast, was always hard-earned on the field of play and had nothing to do with the ongoing history of political tensions between the world's foremost ballplaying nations.

Miñoso is arguably the only Cuban-bred player to ever attain legitimate big league star status, though a half-dozen others have come close. Orlando Hernández and half-brother Livan Hernández have together enjoyed their moments of glory, mostly in the World Series postseason spotlight. Both have earned cherished October MVP trophies for their efforts on championship clubs. But in both cases, celebrity status as escapees from Castro's island—purported heroes of the anti-Castro crusade, who each supposedly risked life and limb for the cherished freedom to play for countless millions of dollars in corporate big league baseball—has seemed to color the picture. At any rate, the celebrity stars of both Hernández brothers have faded quite rapidly after a single autumn of performing brilliantly on the postseason center stage.

A quarter-century earlier, Luis Tiant was perhaps a more legitimate star-quality Cuban pitcher. Tiant won better than 225 games and is unsurpassed as the all-time Latin big league strikeout leader. But even Tiant, in the end, was always overshadowed during an epoch overflowing with quality pitching stars—some of them fellow Latinos like Juan Marichal, Camilo Pascual, and Mike Cuellar. Tiant also earned his grandest moment in the sun on the World Series stage, and again this came in circumstances relating rather directly to Cuban-American cold war politics. The primary drama surrounding Tiant during the 1975 Boston-Cincinnati World Series was seemingly the one concerning an emotional reunion with his Negro-league-legend father, freed for the occasion by a calculating President Castro among much propagandistic hoopla.

Pascual was still another talented Cuban big leaguer emerging from the same era as Miñoso himself. Many would argue that Pascual was over the long haul a better big league hurler than Tiant, even if the record doesn't easily back such a claim. Pascual was doomed to play for much of his career with a woeful team in Washington, and when he finally did approach star status, it was while laboring for a Minnesota franchise that stirred altogether little national attention. Fellow Cubans Tony Oliva (a two-time AL batting champ) and Zoilo Versalles (a league MVP) suffered equally from the same Minnesota "small market" syndrome. Had Versalles earned an MVP trophy with the Yankees or had Oliva registered a pair of batting titles with the Dodgers or Cubs or even the Tigers, both might be remembered today in much the same light as Roberto Clemente or Marichal. Certainly they were both rather substantial players. Yet neither quite earned superstar status on a national level.

Tony Pérez comes perhaps closest to earning the legitimate badge of Cuban big league star. But Pérez always lived in the distinct shadow of Big Red Machine teammates Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Johnny Bench. Pérez may now be a certified Cooperstown Hall of Famer, yet he was often only an afterthought in Cincinnati during the glory seasons of championship play under mentor Sparky Anderson in the early seventies. And Pérez is also robbed of the honor by a technicality that attaches equally to Oliva, Versalles, Oakland A's speedster Bert Campaneris, Cuellar—a Cy Young winner in Baltimore who rivals Tiant as the best Cuban big league hurler of the sixties and seventies—and even others like Tony Taylor and Tony González with the 1960s Phillies, and later both José Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro: Members of this considerable contingent were all born on Cuban soil, yet none played much baseball on the now-Communist island before fleeing their homeland. Thus, these players do not hold the same allure for fans back in Havana or Matanzas or Cienfuegos as did Dolf Luque or Mike González in the 1920s and 1930s, Miñoso and Willie Miranda in the 1950s, or even the political defectors of the late 1990s. Miñoso's claim as the only true Cuban big leaguer of legitimate superstar proportion is based in large part on the fact that "The Cuban Comet" was both a first-rank U.S. big leaguer and a winter-season headliner back on his native island—at one and the same time.

Ironically, from the perspective of North American baseball fans, the two greatest Cuban stars of the first half of the twentieth century both played in relative obscurity, yet for starkly contrasting reasons. MartĚn Dihigo—the greatest all-around Cuban ballplayer and for some the greatest talent ever to step on a pro or amateur diamond in any league or any era—was barred from baseball's biggest stage by his ebony skin color. (Dihigo's saga, told in detail, was the cover story of EFQ vol. 18, no. 2.) Dolf Luque—playing in the same era, but blessed with different skin—knew the taste of big league action but was nonetheless also a victim of an equally insidious reigning prejudice. Luque fell casualty to a stereotype (the hot-blooded Latino warrior with limited command of the game's fine points) that attached to so many fiery Spanish-speaking ball-players of an earlier era. Despite one of the greatest single-season performances in National League history (twenty-seven wins with the 1923 Reds) and a host of other achievements (the first Latin to win twenty in a season or one hundred in a career), Luque was never taken very seriously as a first-rate big leaguer.

Miñoso—despite his somewhat-demeaning name and his flashy image—was never ignored like Dihigo or dismissed like Luque. His status was as huge in Chicago (or nearly so), and sometimes in Cleveland, as it always was back in Havana. The batting and baserunning star of the "Go-Go" White Sox was one of the most popular diamond figures of his era. The reading on Miñoso was never that he was simply a one-dimensional player, a charge frequently leveled or a suspicion frequently held when discussing Latin American players. Rather, the consensus on Miñoso was more often that he never got his full due. This was never more true than at the end of his stellar debut season, when he was edged out in sportswriter balloting by New York's inferior Gil McDougald for the league's cherished top rookie honors.

But Miñoso was never altogether free from career-diminishing stereotypes, either. Part of the reason may have been the lack of a legitimizing postseason stage. Year after year Miñoso's teams were kept from October baseball by Casey Stengel's dynasty Yankees. If Miñoso lived in the shadow of New York's "M Boys" (Mantle and McDougald) during hard-fought American League seasons, he was even more severely diminished by the Yankee presence when World Series play rolled into view.

And by a cruel trick of fate, when the Indians (1954) and White Sox (1959) did make their single World Series appearances of the decade, in both cases Miñoso had been robbed of his own opportunity by an untimely trade. But there may have been an even more insidious reason for the remarkable Cuban's inability to reach the full-fledged stardom he deserved: The Go-Go image of flair and flash that was such a big part of Miñoso's impressive résumé was also in the end a rather inhibiting factor. It was precisely that flashy image that may have diverted much attention from the true level of Miñoso's big league skills. And the late-career publicity stunts that brought him back to appear in a fourth and fifth decade didn't help, serving only to cheapen Miñoso's already substantial image by clouding it with further cheesy showmanship.

In the end Minnie Miñoso was perceived as more of a folk hero than a true diamond idol. At least this was true for his North American fans. Cubans back on his native island always cherished Miñoso as a true star of the grandest proportions—one of the stellar exemplars of their deeply ingrained baseball heritage.


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2002 issue.

—EFQ

PETER C. BJARKMAN is a leading authority on Cuban baseball and has traveled extensively throughout Cuba over the past five years. His coffee-table volume with Mark Rucker (Smoke—The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball) has been widely praised as an unmatched pictorial record of island baseball, and his forthcoming encyclopedic history of Cuban baseball will be published by McFarland in late 2002. Bjarkman's previous essays on Cuba's national pastime in EFQ have included stories on the diamond exploits of Fidel Castro (vol. 16, no. 3), Conrado Marrero (vol. 17, no. 1), and Martín Dihigo (vol. 18, no. 2).

© 2002 Peter C. Bjarkman

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