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Cuban Baseball Yesterday

View historical footage of Cuban baseball.
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JUNE 1866
Caribbean baseball apparently born when sailors from American naval ship, anchored at port in Matanzas Bay, demonstrated diamond play for crowd of Cuban dock hands employed loading sugar cane onto North American vessels. Cubans reportedly joke that American instructors seemed highly motivated by desire to sell baseball equipment to their raw diamond recruits. One competing account of baseball's Cuban origins suggests it was actually Nemesio Guillot, an upperclass youth educated in the United States, who first introduced equipment and demonstrations of this popular Yankee sport upon his return in 1864 to his native Havana.

APRIL 1871
Cuban Esteban "Steve" Bellán mans third base, second base, and outfield for Troy Haymakers during inaugural season of National Association, baseball's first recognized big-league circuit. Bellán, who acquired his diamond skills while studying at Fordham University and was a fancy fielder if light hitter over three professional seasons, thus becomes first official Latin American major-league ballplayer.

DECEMBER 27, 1874
Only eight years after game's reported introduction in Matanzas, city known as "Athens of Cuba" hosts Havana in first recorded organized ballgame between native Cuban teams. Playing for Club Havana are two early giants of Cuban baseball, ex-big-leaguer Steve Bellán and patriot Emilio Sabourín, later the organizing genius behind Cuba's own professional league. Bellán plays third base and Sabourín scores eight runs for Havana during 51-9 rout of talent-thin Matanzas ballclub.

DECEMBER 29, 1878
Professional Baseball League of Cuba begins play in Havana, making Cuban League world's second oldest professional baseball organization, trailing North America's National League in seniority by only two seasons. Havana wins first game 21-20 over Almendares in contest featuring ten men to a side (extra position was "right short"). Inaugural Cuban championship consist of only three clubs - Havana, Matanzas, Almendares - and Havana wins trophy with 4-0-1 record behind leadership of manager and captain Steve Bellán.

NOVEMBER 23, 1879
American George McCullar, catcher for Colón, hits first Cuban League home run in 13-8 victory over Havana.

DECEMBER 25, 1879
Pitcher Carlos Maciá of Almendares is credited with first attempt to bunt not for sacrifice but for base hit. Maciá's unique play comes full dozen seasons before same strategy introduced in U.S. with John McGraw and Baltimore Orioles.

JANUARY 21, 1882
First switch-hitter recorded in Cuban baseball is José María Teuma of Club Fé, who played all nine positions, posting 4-3 pitching record and .225 batting mark over seven (then brief) seasons. Same winter witnesses apparent single-game world record of sixty errors committed in Cuban semi-pro contest between Club Caridad (39 miscues) and Club Ultimatum (21). It seems safe to assume ballplayers at the sloppy Havana spectacle wore no fielding gloves during their crude rag-tag match.

FEBRUARY 2, 1886
Carlos Maciá, Almendares pitcher, blanks Club Fé 16-0 in first recorded Cuban League shutout. Maciá allowed three base hits.

Official statistics kept for the first time in Cuban League and Wenceslao Gálvez is first batting champion (.345). Gálvez three years later publishes El Baseball en Cuba, Cuban baseball's first known history.

Cuban Giants appear as first salaried all-Negro team, but popular touring ballclub ironically contains on its roster not a single native-born Cuban. Club is formed by Frank P. Thompson, head waiter at Hotel Argyle in Babylon, New York, who recruited pro players from Philadelphia Keystones to work as waiters and entertain guests with ballplaying. More ballplayers were added from Philadelphia

Cubans introduced baseball in Mexico and Puerto Rico, as well as in Dominican Republic. For efforts in spreading game Cubans deserve designation as "the apostles of baseball."

First touring big leaguers visit Cuba for winter exhibitions (October 25-November 8). John McGraw is among group of barnstormers called All-American, who post a 5-0 record, but only with help of Cuban reinforcements provided by local promoter Eduardo Laborde to fill out Americans' short roster.

Almendares, under manager Ramón Gutiérrez, wins its first league championship with 17-7-1 record. With arrival of Almendares as legitimate challenger to Club Havana, greatest rivalry in Cuban baseball is born.

Matanzas-born black Cuban hurler of José Méndez - later immortalized by New York Giant manager John McGraw as "Cuba's Black Diamond" - records string of impressive performances against touring Cincinnati Reds. Wiry 20-year-old phenom first posts 1-0 one-hit victory over stunned National Leaguers; two weeks later Méndez throws seven innings of shutout relief plus second nine-inning scoreless performance as starter - a total of 25 scoreless innings against befuddled big-league visitors. Competing against Negro league stars during U.S. tour the following fall, Méndez again distinguishes himself with outstanding 44-2 mound record.

New York Giants with John McGraw are one of three professional North American teams which renew wintertime ballplaying visits to Cuba. Cuban ace of José Méndez beats Philadelphia twice but also loses once to Phillies and twice to Giants (including head-to-head with Christy Mathewson).

At season's end, Cincinnati hurler Dolf Luque owns major-league-leading won-lost record of 27-8 and ERA mark of 1.93, still top single-season record ever posted by Latin American big-league pitcher.

JANUARY 2, 1929
Outfielder James "Cool Papa" Bell, U.S. Negro leaguer playing for Cienfuegos, becomes the first slugger to connect for three homers in single game during Cuban professional play. Bell's feat occurs at Aida Park in 15-11 slugfest victory over Havana.

MARCH 1931
Brooklyn Dodgers make brief spring training exhibition appearance in Havana, playing five games in La Tropical Stadium. Dolf Luque is on Brooklyn roster and hurls all three Dodgers victories.

SEPTEMBER 16, 1936
Black Cuban Hall of Famer Martín Dihigo pitches first professional no-hit, no-run game on Mexican soil, a 4-0 victory over Nogales in Veracruz.

Havana host second-ever world amateur championships and defeats Nicaraguan and U.S. teams for country's first world title. Cuba also hosts three of next four events and captures three of those championships.

OCTOBER 9, 1946
Team of National League All-Stars begins a seven-game exhibition schedule against the Cuban National All-Star team in Havana. NL team, featuring Buddy Kerr and Sid Gordon of New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers Eddie Stanky and Ralph Branca, wins opening game of tour, 3-2.

OCTOBER 26, 1946
Record 31,000 fans (estimated) attend inaugural game at new Gran Estadio del Cerro in Havana, watching Almendares defeat Cienfuegos 9-1. At the time, this was the largest crowed ever to witness a professional baseball game in Cuba.

AUGUST 21, 1948
Representatives of Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, meeting in Havana, agree to stage four-country round-robin twelve-game tournament to be known as "Serie del Caribe" (Caribbean Series) and launched in Cuba during February 1949. This series, the highlight of winter-league play, will continue uninterrupted through 1960 (Series XII), later be reinstituted (1970), and survive to the present. In addition to the four founding countries, the Dominican Republic (replacing Cuba) and Mexico (replacing Panama) also later participate on regular basis.

FEBRUARY 6, 1950
Seventh no-hitter of Cuban baseball history is pitched by Rogelio "Limonar" Martínez in 3-0 Marianao victory over Almendares.

Minnie Miñoso of Chicago White Sox wins The Sporting News American League Rookie of the Year award.

JULY 25, 1959
Fidel Castro supporters, enjoying raucous "July 26th Celebration" in Havana's El Gran Estadio del Cerro (El Cerro Stadium), halt International League contest between Rochester Red Wings and Havana Sugar Kings with several random gunshots from grandstands. Rochester third bas coach Frank Verdi and Havana shortstop Leo Cárdenas both suffer minor flesh wounds during infamous incident, causing Red Wings manager Cot Deal to pull his team from field and retreat to downtown hotel. International League officials promptly cancel remainder of Sugar Kings' homestand and will eventually relocate franchise to Jersey City during middle of 1960 season.

JULY 13, 1960
Havana Sugar Kings franchise is shifted by International League to new home as Jersey City Reds, ending professional organized baseball in Cuba. Ballclub is playing in Miami at time and all 11 native Cuban players (Raúl Sánchez, Orlando Peña, Andrés Ayón, Mile Cuéllar, Borrego Alvarez, Leo Cárdenas, Joaquín Azcue, Daniel Morejón, Cookie Rojas, Orlando Tanner, and Enrique Izquierdo) decide to remain with team in its new home. Manager Tony Castaños returns to Cuba and is replaced by fellow Cuban Nap Reyes.

First season of new Cuban League (amateur) is held with Occidentals (18-9) as champion. Erwin Walter (.367) wins first batting title and Rolando Valdés (3) is home run leader.

MAY 20, 1964
Cuban pitcher José Ramón López (Monterrey) records 16 strikeouts, nine in succession in 5-2 victory over Mexico City Red Devils, tying short-lived Mexican League record set in 1959 by Dominican Diomedes "Guayubín" Olivo (Poza Rica).

FEBRUARY 21, 1965
Cuban Leaguer Inocente Miranda (Azucareros) plays entire game at first base without touching ball, an event that has occurred only five times in major-league history.

JAN. 16 AND 25, 1966
Most overlooked performance in international baseball history occurs in Cuban League when righthander Aquino Abreu (Azucareros) hurls back-to-back no-hitters (versus Occidentals and Industriales) to match Johnny Vander Meer's more famed big-league feat.

AUGUST 13, 1966
Cuban League strikeout king José Ramón López establishes all-time standard of 309 strikeouts for single season, reaching 309 in game against Reynosa. López, while striking out a dozen batters, loses contest by 2-0 score.

AUGUST 8, 1977
Black Cuban star Martín Dihigo, considered by most as greatest all-round Negro leagues performer, is voted into Cooperstown by BWAA Veterans Committee. Dihigo thus becomes second Latin hall of famer and first player ever enshrined in three different halls (Cuba, Mexico, U.S.).

APRIL 12, 1980
For only time in Cuban League history, two players from same team smack grand slams in same innings. Rey Vicente Anglada and Jorge Beltrán (Habana) accomplish feat on same day that Don Money and Cecil Cooper (Milwaukee Brewers) also pull it off in major leagues.

JANUARY 31, 1984
Cuban League enjoys game with fewest-ever hits when lefty Jorge Luís Valdés (Henequeneros) throws no-hitter against Villa Clara, while opposing moundsman Reynaldo Santana allows only two safeties in 1-0 loss.

Lázaro Vargas (Industriales) sets Cuban League consecutive-game hitting streak standard with base hits in 31 straight games.

DECEMBER 9, 1986
Batters for Las Villas in Cuban League bash ten consecutive singles against pitchers from Agropecuarios, matching feat not performed in major leagues since June 2, 1901.

FEBRUARY 11, 1987
Outfielder Luís Ulacia (Camagueyanos) becomes first and only Cuban League player to smack home runs from both side of plate in same game.

AUGUST 22, 1987
Cuba rebounds from early-round loss to USA to defeat Americans 13-9 in dramatic come-from-behind championship match of Pan American Games at Indianapolis.

MARCH 3, 1988
Rare event occurs in Cuban League when Camaguey defeats Las Villas three times in same day. First loss for Las Villas results from previous night's contest which extends past midnight, while other two come in afternoon doubleheader.

AUGUST 22, 1989
Righthander Lázaro Valle hurls eight-inning perfect game (11-0) against South Korea while striking out 13 of 24 batters.

Omar Linares bats better than .400 for third time in Cuban League play to win his third batting title. Linares is already widely considered in amateur baseball circles and among professional scouts as "the best third baseman on the planet."

JULY 1991
Catcher José Delgado smacks dramatic tenth-inning single to salvage 5-4 win over Japan in finals of 10th Intercontinental Cup in Barcelona, clinching Cuba's fifth straight IC championship. Lefty Omar Ajete is also tournament hero with 0.00 ERA in preliminary round, ninth-inning save in 2-1 semifinal victory over Chinese Taipei, and starting role in gold medal game.

Cuba captures first-ever Olympic baseball gold medal competition with undefeated record (8-0) and 11-1 triumph over Chinese Taipei in finals. Pitchers Omar Ajete and Giorge Diaz and slugger Omar Linares are Cuban gold medal heroes.

MARCH 1994
Lázaro Junco, Cuba's all-time longball slugger, wins eighth Cuban League home run Crown. Junco retires with Cuba's career longball record of 405 (later surpassed by Orestes Kindelán).

AUGUST 31, 1995
Pedro Luís Lazo tosses no-hitter and strikes out 17 as Cuba defeats USA 5-0 in semifinals of World University Games at Fukuoka, Japan.

JULY 1996
Cuba (9-0 for tournament) once again dominates international amateur scene by breezing to victory in Summer Olympics at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. Cuba defeats Japan 13-9 in gold medal game and Omar Linares (8) and Orestes Kindelán (9) perform awesome two-week display of aluminum-bat home run slugging. Kindelán blasts longest four-bagger ever witnessed in Fulton County Stadium.

APRIL 8, 1997
Omar Linares of Pinar del Río slugs four homers in one game at Captain San Luís Stadium, becoming only third player to accomplish feat at any level in Cuban amateur or professional baseball.

AUGUST 10, 1997
Japan surprises Cuba 11-2 in finals of Intercontinental Cup at Barcelona, ending ten-year Cuban domination in international senior tournaments plus string of seven straight Cuban titles in Intercontinental Cup competition. Loss on heels of 1996 Olympic victory shocks Cuban fans and INDER officials and leads to changes in both the format of the Cuban League and leadership of the Cuban national team.

Livan Hernández stars in World Series for Florida Marlins and refocuses attention of U.S. fans on proud legacy of Cuban baseball. World Series MVP performance by Hernández also creates considerable stir among fans back in Cuba.

APRIL 1998
José Ibar wins 20 games on mound for Club Havana and becomes first pitcher in modern-era Cuban League with 20 victories in single season. Pinar del Río behind slugger Omar Linares and mound ace Pedro Luís Lazo captures Cuban League championship for second straight year.

JUNE 1998
Orlando "El Duque" Hernández makes major-league debut with New York Yankees. Half-brother of Livan Hernández, "El Duque" left Cuba in December 1997 and signed with New York in February after tryout session at Caribbean Series in Venezuela.

Cuba recaptures long-standing reputation for international domination by winning IBA World Championships in Italy, posting unbeaten 9-0 record in tournament and defeating South Korea 7-1 in finals. Cuba's stars are ageless Omar Linares, slugger Orestes Kindelán and pitcher José Contreras, who hurled title game five-hitter.

MARCH 28, 1999
Major leaguers appear in Cuba for the first time in 40 years for historic meeting between Baltimore Orioles and Cuban National Team before 55,000-plus frenzied fans in Estadio Latinoamericano. Omar Linares singles home the tying run in the eighth but the major leaguers finally prevail 3-2 after 11 thrill-packed innings.

MAY 3, 1999
Two triples by shortstop Danel Castro, a ninth-inning round-tripper and joyous dance around the basepaths by DH Andy Morales, and 6 2/3 innings of hitless relief hurling by Norge Vera highlight a stunning 12-6 romp by the Cuban national team in their rematch with the Baltimore Orioles in Camden Yards. The game - the first-ever meeting on U.S. soil between a Castro-era Cuban team and a major-league ballclub - establishes Cuban League credibility and sets off wild celebrations throughout the streets of Havana.


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