Review of Last Seasons in Havana

Brioso, César. Last Seasons in Havana: The Castro Revolution and the End of Professional Baseball In Cuba.  Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. Pp. 271. Bibliography, epilogue, index, notes and preface. $29.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.

César Brioso takes the history of baseball in Cuba — and the events that resulted in Fidel Castro’s power grab in 1959 — very personally.

And, with good reason. Brioso, 53, was born in Havana and came to the United States when he was five months old, traveling with his parents and paternal grandparents via the Camarioca Boatlift in November 1965. His uncle, René Higinio Brioso, was a bus driver in Havana who was imprisoned by the Castro regime in April 1959.

University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

While it may be personal, Brioso is all business when recounting the final years of professional baseball in Cuba. In Last Seasons in Havana: The Castro Revolution and the End of Professional Baseball In Cuba, he uses skills gleaned from a longtime career as a sportswriter, editor and digital producer to produce a balanced, clear-eyed look at sports and politics in Cuba during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The result is a satisfying look at a country that remains an enigma, even in the post-Castro era.

Brioso, currently a digital producer for USA Today Sports, has written about the history of baseball in Cuba before. In his 2015 debut, Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and The Cuban League, Brioso examined the memorable 1947 pennant race and series in the Cuban League between archrivals Almendares and Habana. This was followed by the Brooklyn Dodgers coming to Havana for spring training, bringing along Jackie Robinson, who was preparing to break the color line in modern-day major league baseball. Brioso’s blog, Cuba Béisbol, also examines the rich history of baseball on the island since the Cuban League’s founding in 1878.

The 1947 season was lightning in a bottle for baseball, but Cuba had been integrated for years. An equally permanent change was brewing in Cuba, as revolutionary rumblings during the 1950s evolved and grew, with Castro and his rebels building momentum against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Brioso focuses on the last two seasons of the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League (1958-1959) and the last three seasons of the Cuban League (1958-1961).

Last Seasons in Havana opens dramatically, with nearly sixty men scattered around El Gran Stadium in Havana on opening night for the Sugar Kings. The men were waiting for a flashlight signal from a building beyond the outfield fence, indicating that an assassination plot against Batista had succeeded. Given that signal, the men would leave the stadium, retrieve weapons hidden across the street from the ballpark, and storm a nearby police armory. It never happened. Batista took a different route that night and the ambush failed.

Action on the field, however, was competitive. Many major leaguers came south for the winter months to play in Cuba, including Tommy Lasorda, Don Zimmer, Joe Black, Brooks Robinson, Hoyt Wilhelm and Ken Boyer (p. 51). Before a spring training game in 1981, Lasorda, then managing the Los Angeles Dodgers, could be heard conversing in fluent Spanish to his Latin American players. A fan asked, “Tommy, where did you learn to speak Spanish so well?” and Lasorda responded, “in Havana,” referencing his days in the Cuban League in the early 1950s and then again for the Almendares Scorpions during the 1958-1959 season. Major leaguers born in Cuba, who also played in either the Cuban League or the International League included Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, Camilo Pascual, Miguel “Mike” Cuellar, Octavio “Cookie” Rojas, and Luis Tiant.

Landing an International League franchise in Havana beginning in 1954 was a plum for Cuban baseball fans. Havana was a city with rabid baseball fans, swanky hotels and casinos, and warm, tropical weather. Baseball men like Bobby Maduro, who owned the Sugar Kings, believed it was only a matter of time before major league baseball expanded internationally and awarded a franchise to Havana.The good times, Brioso writes, “would not last as political tensions continued” in Cuba (p. 81). By 1958, Batista had suspended constitutional guarantees, while newspapers and television stations operated under strict censorship guidelines. “Havana was a city wracked by acts of sabotage, armed conflicts, and sporadic bombings,” Brioso writes (p. 88). International League officials were growing more uncomfortable sending teams to Havana, and there was even talk of shifting the franchise to the U.S. mainland. When Batista left Cuba on New Year’s Day in 1959, Castro consolidated his power and swept into Havana. Baseball continued, but “gun-toting rebels became a common sight” at El Gran Stadium (p. 109). Still, tensions “eased dramatically” after Castro came to power (p. 123).

An unsung hero in this book might be Camilo Pascual. While it is true the right-hander’s 174-170 pitching record in the majors may seem pedestrian, he owned a wicked curveball and won 20 games twice. The five-time All-Star also led the American League in complete games three times and compiled 36 shutouts, leading the league twice. He was even more effective in the Cuban League, going 15-5 in the 1959-1960 season with a 2.03 ERA and a league-leading 163 strikeouts.

Brioso gives full coverage to the long-standing myth about Castro’s ability as a baseball player, which has fed the “what-if” mill of history. In a March 7, 1959, column in The Washington Post, columnist Bob Addie quoted Washington Senators scout Joe Cambria, who said Castro would “never get higher than Class B Ball.” Addie, who also contributed to The Sporting News, embellished his observation by adding that “the history of Cuba might have been changed had Castro turned out to be a good college pitcher.” (p. 126). Major leaguer Don Hoak added to the hoax in a Sport magazine article in June 1964, claiming he batted against Castro in a Cuban League game during the 1950-1951 season. However, Hoak only played in the Cuban League during the 1953-1954 season, when Castro was imprisoned (p. 126).The final piece of speculation was unearthed by respected baseball historian Roberto Gonzàlez Echevarrìa, who found a box score in the Nov. 28, 1946, edition of the El Mundo newspaper that listed a University of Havana pitcher as “F. Castro,” as the loser in an intramural game at the college.

He may not have excelled on the mound, but Castro was undoubtedly a huge baseball fan. He threw out the first pitch for the Sugar Kings in their 1959 opener and reveled in the team winning the International League title and then defeating the American Association’s Minneapolis Millers in the Junior World Series. That glow of victory did not last long, as political events in Cuba “took a sinister turn” as Castro and the Communists in his regime tightened their grip on the country (p. 158). Eventually, the Sugar Kings were transferred to Jersey City, New Jersey, and the Cuban League was supplanted by a state-sponsored amateur program. Maduro, who was forced to give up the Sugar Kings when they moved to New Jersey, regained control when he moved to the United States. He moved the franchise to Jacksonville, Florida, and enjoyed immediate success before selling the team and eventually moving into the commissioner’s office in the mid-1960s.

Brioso graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Florida in 1988. Before settling in with USA Today, he worked in sports as a writer or editor at the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel, Ocala Star-Banner and the Tampa Tribune. Brioso is also a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. For Last Seasons in Havana, Brioso conducted more than 20 interviews with former players, Maduro’s son, and even a man who spent a year as the batboy for the transplanted Sugar Kings in Jersey City. Former major leaguers interviewed included Orlando Peña, Pedro Ramos, Rojas and Tiant. There are extensive end notes for each chapter, and Brioso’s bibliography draws from books, newspapers and magazines. He cites authors such as Echevarrìa, Peter C. Bjarkman, Jorge S. Figueredo, Lou Hernandez and Angel Torres, all well-versed in the history of Cuban baseball. Brioso’s prose is straightforward, and he tells his stories without being flashy or flowery. He allows the story to tell itself, and that makes for smooth reading.

Last Seasons in Havana is a much-needed addition to baseball history. Many Cuban stars have emerged since the 1990s, including Yasiel Puig, Jose Fernandez, Jose Abreu, Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Livan Hernandez and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. All of these players defected to the United States from Cuba.The complete history of Cuban baseball may never be known, but Brioso has cracked open the door with some valuable information and insights.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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