Longtime USA Today sports writer/producer César Brioso (Last Seasons in Havana: The Castro Revolution and the End of Professional Baseball in Cuba) joins the show to explore the rich parallel histories of America’s and Cuba’s shared national pastime – and the colorful period of the late 1950s/early 1960s when it appeared baseball in the island nation was mainstreaming its way into eventual US major league status.
During much of the ‘50s, baseball in pre‑Castro Cuba was enjoying a golden age. The Cuban League – founded in 1878, just two years after the formation of the National League – was thriving under the auspices of American organized baseball. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, players regularly came from the US major, minor and Negro leagues to play in what was the country’s wholly integrated winter baseball league. In addition, native-born Cuban teams routinely dominated annual Caribbean Series regional tournaments.
In 1946, Havana’s El Gran Estadio del Cerro became home to its own “regular season” US-domiciled (Class C Florida League) minor league franchise called the Sugar Kings. By 1954, the club had grown to become a competitive member of the AAA International League as an official affiliate of the National League’s Cincinnati Reds (featuring future major league standouts such as Leo Cárdenas, Mike Cuellar, Vic Davalillo, Julián Javier, and Cookie Rojas) – eventually culminating in league and Junior World Series (over the AAA American Association’s Minneapolis Millers) titles in 1959.
The impact of the Sugar Kings’ championships that year went far beyond mere baseball titles; they became de facto moments of national civic pride, as well as indisputable evidence that Havana and Cuba were more than ready for and deserving of a place in America’s major leagues.
Of course, the club’s achievements fatefully coincided with – and were ultimately undermined by – the events that year of the Fidel Castro-led Communist revolution over Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
By the end of 1960, the baseball landscape in the country looked much different: professional play was converted to an amateur state-sponsored model; American players stopped participating in the winter Cuban League; and the International League extracted the Sugar Kings from Havana and moved them to US soil, where they became the soon-to-be forgotten (after the 1961 season) Jersey City (NJ) Jerseys.