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Today in Baseball History: Fidel Castro, baseball and the Havana Sugar Kings


On March 26, 1960, there a scheduled exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds was canceled. But it wasn’t banged because of rain. The game — scheduled to be played in Havana, Cuba, but moved to Miami — was relocated because Orioles president Lee MacPhail’s fear for his players safety due to political unrest on the island. Political unrest that continued to reverberate — and would continue to reverberate — from the Cuban Revolution.

Fidel Castro’s forces toppled the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s eve 1958. The situation on the ground in Cuba — and the relationship between the new Cuban government and the United States — was, to say the least, fluid, throughout 1959 and into early 1960. While the United States had backed Batista and, in the words of President Kennedy in 1963, had “created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it” due to its policies toward Cuba in the previous decades, the Castro regime and the U.S. were not yet sworn enemies during this time. The U.S. was willing to recognize Castro as the country’s leader and Castro was still feeling out the two world super powers in an effort to determine whether, political ideology aside, aligning with the Soviet Union or the U.S. would be better for its own interests. Things were tense, but Cuba had not yet fully been swept up into the Cold War as it would later become.

Against that backdrop, minor league baseball continued to be played in Cuba. And not Cuban minor league baseball. It was minor league baseball affiliated with the U.S. major leagues, with the Havana Sugar Kings — the Cincinnati Reds’ Triple-A affiliate since 1954 — playing in the International League. They were just like a Triple-A team based in Buffalo, Richmond or Rochester. And speaking of Rochester, a series between the Red Wings and the Sugar Kings that went down in 1959 gives a bit of a glimpse into how chaotic that 1959 season really was.

Castro was himself a Sugar Kings fan and would often attend games, both before and after the revolution. While those stories you sometimes hear about Castro getting a tryout with the Washington Senators are completely bogus, he did in fact play baseball in college and would put together pickup games even after taking power. On on July 24, 1959 he put together an exhibition game between his own pickup team Los Barbudos (“The Bearded Ones”) and a military police team, playing just before a Red Wings-Sugar Kings game. Castro pitched two innings and struck out two. The next night the Red Wings and Sugar Kings played again, and the game went late. When it hit midnight — making it July 26, which is the anniversary of Castro’s July 26, 1953 attack on the army barracks in Santiago, which gave rise to the name of his political movement — the crowd went nuts in celebration, with many fans firing guns into the air. Rochester third base coach Frank Verdi and Havana shortstop Leo Cárdenas ended up with flesh wounds.

Somehow, however, the Sugar Kings played out the 1959 season. And they didn’t mail it in: they finished third in the IL with a record of 80-73, which qualified them for the four-team IL playoffs. They upset the second place Columbus Jets and fourth place Richmond Virginians to win the league championship and then beat the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in a seven game Junior World Series to claim the Triple-A championship (see the photo above). Not bad for a team that found itself, quite literally, in the middle of a revolution.

The Sugar Kings would not weather the 1960 season as well. Tensions between Castro and the United States heightened during the year. As Castro made it clear he was leading far more in the direction of the Soviets than the U.S., it was feared that he would nationalize U.S. industries. Which is exactly what he did in August 1960. The owners of the Sugar Kings — at the direction of MLB commissioner Ford Frick — had pulled up stakes the month before, however, moving the team to Jersey City in the middle of the season. Soon after the nationalization move, the Eisenhower administration froze all Cuban assets on American soil, severed diplomatic ties, and that was basically that.

The former Sugar Kings would play as the Jersey City Jerseys through the 1961 season before being sold to the Cleveland Indians, who moved them to Jacksonville, Florida, where they became the Jacksonville Suns. After the 1968 season the Suns, by then a Mets affiliate, were moved to Norfolk. The Norfolk Tides, now the top affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.

Those Orioles — who, again, on this date in 1960, refused to take the field for that exhibition game due to political unrest — would go on to play a significant role in Cuban baseball once again. That came on March 28 and then again on May 3, 1999, when they played two exhibition games against the Cuban national baseball team. The first game took place in Havana, while the second was held in Baltimore. The March game was the first time a big league had team played in Cuba since 1959. The Orioles won the first game, which was held in Havana, by a score of 3–2 in extra innings. The Cuban national team defeated the Orioles 12–6 in the second game. The series introduced José Contreras to U.S. baseball fans. Contreras, of course, would defect in 2002 and star for the Yankees, White Sox, Rockies, Phillies and Pirates, retiring after the 2013 season.

The series was also highly controversial. It was protested and derided by the Cuban-American community as a propaganda ploy by the Castro regime, aided by Bud Selig and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who sat beside Castro at the games in Havana. MLB umpire Rich Garcia, who is of Cuban descent, opposed the series and the MLB umpire union filed a grievance attempting to block them from being sent to umpire the game in Cuba.

Since then Cuban-American relations have thawed and then frozen, off-and-on, depending on who was president at a given time. On the baseball side, Cuban-American relations have normalized to some degree, with a path to Cuba players in the U.S. being created, primarily as a means of thwarting human traffickers, who have exploited ballplayers and their families for years. The story of baseball in Cuba, as always, continues.


Also today in baseball history:


1955: Yankee manager Casey Stengel is arrested after he allegedly curses at and kicks a newspaper photographer during an exhibition game in St. Petersburg:


1976: The American League votes to expand to Toronto, awarding a franchise to a group led by Labatt Brewing Company. The rights to the team were purchased for $7 million.

1979: The Padres and Giants announce that they will play an exhibition series in 1980 in Tokyo. Giants owner Bob Lurie lets his players decide if they actually want to do it, however, and they reject the idea.

1984: Jackie Robinson is posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. In 2020 President Trump would give the same award to a man who lost his job as a sports commentator due to racist comments.

Today in Baseball History: The Yankees become The Yankees

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the Cubs became the Cubs. In the course of that post I talked about how fluid and casual team nicknaming was in the early 20th century. Sometimes the press named a team, informally, and it stuck. Sometimes the team’s owner switched the name back and forth multiple times. It was sort of all over the place.

That was true, too, of baseball’s most storied and, let’s be honest, stuffy organization, the New York Yankees. Rather than proclaim, from on high, what their name — what their brand — would be, they got their name through the same haphazard way so many other teams did. But, on this date in 1913, they became the Yankees for good. Let’s talk about how they finally got there.

They didn’t start in New York, actually. They started in Baltimore, as the Orioles. But they weren’t even the original Baltimore Orioles. That ream was a National League club — led by John McGraw — that the National League contracted along with the Cleveland Spiders following the 1899 season. McGraw cooled his heels in St. Louis In 1900 but then, the following year, the upstart Western League, led by Ban Johnson, upgraded itself to self-proclaimed major league status and reformed as the American League. They put a team in Baltimore, called itself the Orioles and brought John McGraw back via the offering of an ownership stake.

Ban Johnson and McGraw didn’t get along too well and they were in pretty constant dispute. Johnson also didn’t think too much of Baltimore as an AL city and wanted to move the team to New York — Manhattan, specifically — to compete head-to-head with the New York Giants. McGraw, seeing the writing on the wall, but not wanting to let Johnson tell him where to go, left the Orioles in the middle of the 1902 season and joined the New York Giants as their manager and part-owner. Ever the pain-in-the butt, he gave his ownership interest in the Orioles to the Giants, which was a problem given that they were a member of the rival league which wanted to see the AL crushed and eliminated. Add that to the list of many AL-NL disagreements bubbling up at the time.

It was all solved, for the most part, after the 1902 season when the AL and NL entered into what amounted to a peace treaty. They stopped the widespread practice of teams poaching each other’s players and settled various ownership and territorial disputes like the one between the Giants and the Orioles. Finally, as a part of that agreement, the NL agreed to let Johnson to move the Orioles to New York for the 1903 season. What the Giants would not permit, however, is the new AL club to play in the Polo Grounds, so they had to find a new ballpark.

The New York club hastily constructed a new wooden park seating about 16,000 fans on the west side of Broadway between 165th and 168th streets. It was originally called American League Park and housed The New York Americans Baseball Club. The place would eventually be nicknamed Hilltop Park because of its relatively high elevation compared to the rest of Manhattan. The Americans eventually came to be called the Highlanders. For years most people believed that that was solely because they played on literal high land, but more recent research reveals that it was at least in part a play on the last name of the team’s president, Joe Gordon, combined with a reference to the famous British military unit, the Gordon Highlanders. Either way, the Highlanders they were throughout the oughts.

The Polo Grounds was devastated by a fire in 1911 and needed to be rebuilt. Despite their past disagreements, the Highlanders generously allowed the Giants to share their home at Hilltop Park while the Polo Grounds were being rebuilt. McGraw and his club remembered this kindness two years later when they allowed the Highlanders, who were looking for a new place to play given that Hilltop Park was already falling apart, to move into the rebuilt Polo Grounds.

By then the whole “Gordon Highlanders” thing was no longer as amusing as it had initially been. Between that and the team literally abandoning the high ground between 165th and 168th streets, the name “Highlanders” was not really apt. As noted above, teams often had a lot of nicknames, and the Highlander’s third name — apart from that and “Americans” — was the “Yankees.” With a new home in 1913, the club decided to formally adopt it. They played their first game as The New York Yankees on April 10, 1913. 107 years ago today. They lost to Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators (Americans? Nationals? It was confusing!) 2-1.

What’s a “Yankee” anyway?

In the 19th and early 20th century it referred broadly to residents of New England those descended from the original English settlers of the region. This is how Mark Twain used the word in his novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” During the Civil War it was used broadly to anyone from up north and, when not referring to the baseball team, is still used that way today. But where did the word actually come from?

Most people who think they have an idea about it are wrong. It’s often told that the word “Yankee” is an anglicization of any number of Native American words — like “eankke” or “y’an-gee” or some such — with the story often having it be an honorary term bestowed by Native American warriors on European settlers who fought bravely. Not surprisingly, linguists have debunked that self-serving notion. There is no evidence for it at all, actually.

The best accepted theory, among linguists and historians anyway, is that it’s of Dutch origin. Sometimes used as a term of derision toward Dutch colonists after England took possession of what is now New York or, possibly, a term of derision used by Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam toward English colonists in neighboring Connecticut. From Wikipedia:

Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks argue that the term comes from the Dutch name Janke, a diminutive form of Jan (John) which would be Anglicized as “Yankee” due to the Dutch pronunciation of J as the English Y. Quinion and Hanks posit that it was “used as a nickname for a Dutch-speaking American in colonial times” and could have grown to include non-Dutch colonists, as well. Alternatively, the Dutch given names Jan and Kees have long been common, and the two are sometimes combined into a single name (e.g., Jan Kees de Jager). Its Anglicized spelling Yankee could, in this way, have been used to mock Dutch colonists. The chosen name Jan Kees may have been partly inspired by a dialectal rendition of Jan Kaas (“John Cheese”), the generic nickname that Southern Dutch used for Dutch people living in the North.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives its origin as around 1683, when English colonists used it insultingly in reference to Dutch colonists (especially freebooters). Linguist Jan de Vries notes that there was mention of a pirate named Dutch Yanky in the 17th century. The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760) contains the passage, “Haul forward thy chair again, take thy berth, and proceed with thy story in a direct course, without yawing like a Dutch yanky.” According to this theory, Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam started using the term against the English colonists of neighboring Connecticut.

That’s a lot to take in, but know that the name “Yankees” can, basically, be traced back to people calling each other names. Which, with all due respect to my Yankee fan friends, I must say is not the most inappropriate baseball team name out there.


Also today in baseball history:


1947: Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American in the modern major leagues when the Dodgers purchase his contract from Montreal. He’ll make his big league debut five days later.

1962: Dodger Stadium opens in Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. The Dodgers lose to the Reds 6-3.

1962: The Houston Colt .45s play the first major league game in Texas, beating the Chicago Cubs 11-2.  Of note:

1964: With the Mets having moved to Shea Stadium, demolition begins on the Polo Grounds to clear the way for a housing project.

1971: Veterans Stadium in Philly sees its first game ever played. The Phillies beat Montreal 4-1.

1973: Kansas City’s new Royals Stadium — now Kauffman Stadium — debuts as the Royals beat the Rangers 12-1.

1981:  In his first game for Chicago, Carlton Fisk hits a three-run home run in the eighth inning to lead the White Sox to a 5-3 victory over his his old team, the Red Sox, at Fenway Park.

1989: Ken Griffey, Jr. hits his first major league home run in Seattle’s 6-5 win over the White Sox.