Fidel Castro’s death over the weekend has, not surprisingly, led to a lot of commentary about the contradictions presented by Cuba’s late dictator. The best and most thorough example I’ve seen so far is the Miami Herald’s extensive, incredibly researched and no doubt long-in-advance written obituary of Castro. Go read it in full if the topic interests you, but nowhere will you read a better handling of the life of the man who cloaked brutal dictatorial autocracy in hopeful, revolutionary rhetoric of societal transformation. The brutality he achieved was manifest. The transformation was noticeable in places, but almost always greatly overstated by those who would defend him and, ultimately, inextricable from the oppression.
Castro’s legacy in our area of interest, baseball and sports in general, is something of a microcosm of all of this.
As Peter C. Bjarkman’s article about Castro and baseball over at The Society for American Baseball Research from last March* reveals, unlike a lot of dictators who use sports solely as propaganda, Castro had a genuine love for baseball. He never played it at a high level — those often-repeated stories of him getting a tryout for the Washington Senators are completely bogus — but he certainly enjoyed it a way that, say, East German officials did not enjoy swimming and Soviet officials did not enjoy hockey. Yet, like his communist counterparts, Castro unquestionably used baseball for propaganda purposes. Primarily as a means of showing up the United States:
But Fidel’s consuming interest and latent talent was never foremost in baseball itself. His strong identification with the native game after the 1959 Revolution – he followed the Sugar Kings as dedicated fan, staged exhibitions before Cuban League games, and played frequent pickup games with numerous close comrades – was perhaps more than anything else an inevitable acknowledgment of his country’s national sport and its widespread hold on the Cuban citizenry. It was also a calculated step toward utilizing baseball as a means of besting the hated imperialists at their own game. And baseball was early on also seen by the Maximum Leader as an instrument of revolutionary politics – a means to build revolutionary spirit at home and to construct ongoing (and headline-grabbing) international propaganda triumphs abroad.
Yet, as Bjarkman argues pretty convincingly, Castro’s use of baseball revitalized the sport in Cuba in many ways. For baseball purposes, Cuba had increasingly become the playground for the Major Leagues, with the Reds Triple-A team playing in Havana and the Cuban Winter League serving as a greater professional training ground and showcase. It was not anywhere near as fully developed on the amateur level as it would later become, however. Professionally, baseball collapsed in Cuba post-revolution, as Castro kicked out American interests and banned all professional sports. But it began to thrive on an amateur level after that, with the game coming to play a far greater role in the lives of everyday Cubans than it ever had before. The fruits of that transformation can be seen in virtually ever neighborhood and village in Cuba. It can be seen in Cuba’s long (though now somewhat waning) period of international amateur dominance. It can be seen in the country’s development of scores of elite ballplayers who began to make their way into the majors in serious numbers in the 1990s and are coming still.
Which, of course, is no defense of Castro or his methods. While amateur baseball may have thrived as an institution, the institution has long been itself a source of control and, often, oppression. Oppression of both the boys and men who played it as well as their families and friends. An elite young ballplayer could be a hero in Cuba, but his life and fate was in Castro’s hands. The institution Castro created has led to some Cuban-born players making millions, but it also put them in a position where their choices were few and the making of them led to suffering. For others, it put their very lives risk. For others still, it made them victims of human trafficking or extortion plots or worse.
Castro may have helped create the means for baseball to grow and advance in Cuba, but his brutal rule arrested the development and limited that advancement of the game’s top players and sent them hurtling into chaotic uncertainty. It was used as a lever to control them and their loved ones. And, as we have read about time and again in stories of ballplayers who attempted to defect, the politics of baseball and freedom under Castro could and did land people in prison and almost certainly cost many their lives. As time goes on and more is learned about the Castro regime, we’ll no doubt hear more about how the players who did not rise to the top were likewise harmed as Castro’s simultaneous passion for and propagandist use of baseball manifested itself.
As with almost everything about Castro’s legacy, there are elements of his baseball legacy which someone, if they were so inclined, could point to and characterize as a positive thing. But to do so without including the oppression and brutality of Castro’s autocratic regime is to fail to tell the whole story. Nothing occurs in a vacuum and, by definition, no dictator’s ends are achieved without tyranny, thus tainting those ends. Tallying pros and cons is an exercise in false equivalency when the cons are counted in human lives.
*Bjarkman’s article was summarized in today’s New York Times.