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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Adolfo Luque: The Original "Pride of Havana"
By Peter C. Bjarkman

Baseball was already a fixture on the Cuban scene by the early 1870s and it had arrived burdened with its own homegrown Cuban apostles and its own full-blown and homespun creation myths. If American sailors truly had any hand in introducing a fledgling North American pastime to Cuban longshoremen and dockhands at Matanzas harbor sometime in 1866 (as persistent legend relates), the baseball already being played on the island in years immediately following the U.S. Civil War was definitely not an exclusive Yankee import.

For starters, it is well documented that a pair of Havana-bred brothers named Guilló (often spelled Guillot) had returned home from Mobile, Alabama's Springhill College as early as 1864 with bats and balls stuffed in their luggage; soon thereafter, Nemesio and Ernesto Guilló were organizing impromptu pickup matches among former schoolmates in the central Havana barrio of Vedado. Within a mere handful of summers (1871) the first native Cuban baseballerˇone "Steve" Bellán, who had earlier joined the college nine at Fordham Universityˇhad also gained a toehold within American professional ranks as an infielder with the Troy (NY) Hay-makers ball club of the then "major league" National Association. Although it would be another four decades (in 1911, to be precise) before any more Cubans would follow Bellán into the true "big leagues" of the north, Havana was nonetheless already featuring its own professional circuit before the end of the 1870s, a mere two years after the founding of North America's venerable and still-standing National League.

Despite this primitive-era debut of island baseball and the surprisingly early trickle of Cuban players northward, there was but a single CubanˇAdolfo Luque (LOO-kay), a fireplug right-hander who debuted with Boston's National Leaguers in 1914 and was already a veteran mound-corps mainstay with the Cincinnati club when the infamous 1919 Black Sox World Series rolled aroundˇwho garnered even moderate attention in the U.S. big leagues during pro baseball's initial three-quarters of a century. Racial barriers had almost everything to do with this, of course. The grandest of the early Cuban hurling and slugging phenoms were simply too black in skin pigment to ever penetrate America's lily white national sport during this time, with the overtly racist Adrian "Cap" Anson setting the tone against nonwhite ballplayers in the late nineteenth century and the iron-fisted Kenesaw Mountain Landis reinforcing the unwritten prohibition during his twenty-five-year tenure (1920–1944) as baseball's first commissioner.

Apart from Luque, the few dozen Cubans who worked their way north between the careers of turn-of-the-century superstar Nap Lajoie and racial pioneer Jackie Robinson were either brief curiosities in organized baseball (journeymen players like receiver Miguel Angel "Mike" González with the National League Boston and St. Louis outfits, and erratic outfielder Armando Marsans with Cincinnati) or else passing shadows who barely tasted the proverbial cup of big league coffee (altogether forgettable names like Rafael Almeida, Angel Aragón, José Acosta, and Oscar Tuero). Numerous othersˇincluding some of the most famous and talented back home in Havanaˇtoured with black barnstorming outfits that rarely if ever passed before the eyes of a white baseball press.

Luqueˇby contrastˇwas something altogether special, the first legitimate Cuban star to play in the U.S. majors. His big league credentials would by career's end nearly approximate the numbers posted by many of his contemporaries destined for Cooperstown enshrinement, and twice (with the Reds in 1919 and the Giants in 1933) he experienced the pinnacle of World Series victory. As a near two-hundred-game winner, he blazed trails that no other Latin ballplayer would approximate for decades. And back in Cuba he generated a feverish following for the big league game and in the process carved out as well a lasting loyalty for "our beloved Reds" ("nuestros queridos rojos") among baseball-crazed Habaneros.

Yet, for all his achievements, Luque's career was destined to be cursed by the fate that eventually became a personal calling card for nearly all early Latin ballplayers blessed with the necessary talent (and appropriate skin tone) to make their way to the baseball big time. Among North American fans and writers, Dolf Luque would always remain a familiar stereotypeˇa hot-headed, ill-tempered, cartoon-like figure rather than a genuine baseball hero. At least this was the case at all stops north of Key West or Miami.


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2003 issue.

—EFQ

 

PETER C. BJARKMAN is a leading authority on Cuban baseball and has traveled extensively throughout Cuba over the past six years. His coffee-table pictorial 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 new encyclopedic history of Cuban baseball will be published by McFarland in late 2003. Bjarkman's previous essays on Cuba's national pastime in EFQ have included cover stories on the diamond exploits of Conrado Marrero (vol. 17, no. 1), Martîn Dihigo (vol. 18, no. 2), and Minnie Miñoso (vol. 19, no.1), and his debunking of the myth surrounding Fidel Castro's alleged pitching prowess appeared in EFQ 16:3.

© 2003 Peter C. Bjarkman

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