Peter C. Bjarkman. Fidel Castro and Baseball: The Untold Story. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019. 364 pp.
Reviewed by Michael T. Wood
Peter C. Bjarkman was a giant in the field of sport history. Over the course of his prodigious career, Bjarkman authored over 40 books and contributed chapters and articles to edited collections. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) honored him with its prestigious Henry Chadwick Award in 2017. I first encountered his work in graduate school when I read Baseball with a Latin Beat (McFarland, 1994). His A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) is widely considered a definitive work on the subject. Sadly, Bjarkman passed away in 2018. At that time, he had a manuscript ready for publication and another work progress. This is a review of the former, Fidel Castro and Baseball: The Untold Story, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2019.
As the title suggests, Fidel Castro and Baseball examines the complicated and, according to Bjarkman, often misunderstood relationship the former Cuban leader had with baseball. From his perspective, many scholars and writers, particularly in recent works, repackaged or produced flawed interpretations of Castro, the Cuban Revolution, and Cuban baseball for a variety of reasons, ranging from uncritical use of sources to lingering Cold War antipathy. Whatever the underlying reason(s), Bjarkman asserted they have given rise to myths surrounding Castro and Cuban baseball, such as Castro as a professional pitching prospect, that Castro destroyed Cuban baseball, and that Castro degraded Cuban baseball by using it for political propaganda. Further, he argued that these myths blurred perceptions of Castro and Cuban baseball, especially from the U.S. point of view, which limited understandings of both.
Bjarkman challenged these myths in Fidel Castro and Baseball, devoting the first of the book’s three sections to myths surrounding Castro and the Cuban Revolution generally, the origin of the Castro as a pitching prospect myth, and Castro’s integration of the pitching prospect myth into his public image after the Revolution. He took a nuanced, and somewhat sympathetic, approach to Castro and the Cuban Revolution, rejecting Cold War-influenced interpretations that have suggested that Castro and his contemporaries acting in bad faith or betrayed the original goals of the revolt against Fulgencio Batista. Instead, Bjarkman traced the evolution of Castro’s rhetoric and actions before and after 1959, leaving the impression that waging an insurgency was far different from organizing and defending a revolutionary government. In effect, Castro and his contemporaries made decisions based on and in response to a range of variables rather than just ideology, although ideology played a significant role in shaping both the decisions made and the decision-making process.
Bjarkman then turned his attention to one of the most pervasive myths about Castro: the professional pitching prospect turned Marxist rebel leader. Like most myths, there was a seed of truth to it. While at the University of Havana, Castro played several sports including pitching as a freshman for the law school’s intramural baseball team. Supposedly on a lark, Castro attended one of Washington Senators scout Joe Cambria’s mass tryouts, but was never considered a serious pro prospect. As for the myth, Bjarkman attributed its genesis to an interview of Don Hoak, a former major league baseball player, conducted by journalist Myon Cope, which was published in Sport magazine in June 1964. In what Bjarkman terms “Hoak’s Hoax,” Hoak fabricated a story of a young Castro taking the mound and pitching to him while Hoak played in Havana around 1950 or 1951. Even though this story could be easily debunked, journalists, writers, and even historians repeated and embellished it. Castro never really denied this growing myth because it was useful to his ends. After the Revolution’s victory, he recognized the importance of baseball in Cuban culture and attempted to incorporate it in the new order. The famed or infamous “Barbubos” exhibition game on July 24, 1959, with Castro on the mound, was a good example of these efforts. This myth became part of historical memory, a popular counterfactual, and reinforced the link between the Revolution’s leader and the most popular sport on the island.
The second section addresses the myths of Castro solely destroying Cuban baseball after the Revolution and how Castro “politicized” the sport. At times, this section felt like Bjarkman’s response or counterargument to recent works on Cuban baseball, particularly César Brioso’s Havana Hardball (University Press of Florida, 2015). Rather than blaming Castro and the Revolution for the end of the Cuban League and the Havana Sugar Kings leaving for New Jersey, Bjarkman outlined the financial toll and trend in low attendance for the Cuban League and the Sugar Kings, efforts made by Castro and the new government to keep the Sugar Kings in Havana, and moves made by Organized Baseball that left the situation in Cuban untenable. When confronted with this and other challenges, Castro and his contemporaries chose to shift Cuban baseball from an U.S.-dominated, capitalist model to a socialist one. In February 1961, all Cuban sports were reorganized under INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educación Física y Recreación), a government agency that oversaw all sports on the island. The professional Cuban League gave way to an amateur National Series in 1962, though Bjarkman argued this was more of a rhetorical shift since Cuban ballplayers received considerable government subsidies. Castro and Revolutionary Cuba also mobilized sports, especially baseball, as a tool of soft power. After a few transitional years, the Cuban national baseball team dominated in international competitions from the late-1960s to the 1990s. Ultimately, Bjarkman contended that the end of professional and Organized Baseball on the island did not kill Cuban baseball; the system transformed to a socialist model, enjoyed international success, and, along with educational and health care reforms, was hailed as one of the most successful programs of Revolutionary Cuba.
The third and final section posits that Cuban baseball’s decline occurred after Cuba’s special period. The fall of the Soviet Union strained Cuba’s economic and financial situation in the early 1990s. Cuts in funding and resources coincided with increased “baseball diplomacy” and contact with Major League Baseball (MLB). Bjarkman observed an uptick in Cuban ballplayer defections during this time. From the 1960s forward, Cuban baseball players participated in and symbolized the Revolution. Defecting, especially during the special period, came with a sense of betrayal and condemnations, but Cuban ballplayers made individual decisions based on personal and social pressures. Major League Baseball capitalized on this situation through increased scouting, the facilitation of defections, and, by the 2010s, a closer cooperation with the Cuban government. Bjarkman noted the final irony of the socialist baseball system created under Castro after 1961 – it developed some of the best baseball teams in the world, but then had many of its best players leave for MLB’s capitalist system, which led to a decline in the overall quality of Cuban baseball.
Overall, Bjarkman’s Fidel Castro and Baseball accomplished its goals of debunking myths and providing a deeper interpretation of Castro’s relationship with baseball. The thorough treatment of the first myth – Castro as a professional pitching prospect – alone makes this book a needed and useful addition to the literature on Cuban baseball, but Bjarkman extended the same care with all his other arguments as well. Throughout the book, he never strayed too far from bringing his interpretation in conversation with other works, at times praising them and at other times sharply critiquing them. Admittedly, after reading and revisiting it, Fidel Castro and Baseball left me with a bittersweet feeling because I realized this would most likely be Bjarkman’s last statement in a conversation, and historiography, that he in many ways started.
Michael T. Wood teaches sport-related courses as an instructor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama. His research focuses primarily on American football played between teams from the U.S. South and Havana in the first half of the twentieth century. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.