By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
The scene isn't Havana's Gran Stadium in the 1950s but rather Little Havana's Riverside Park on a recent Saturday morning. And these aren't legendary players from Cuba's last, great golden age of professional baseball. They're kids, ages eight to ten, members of los Cubanos Libres, or the Free Cubans, a baseball academy.
The Free Cubans, founded in 1970 by a group of retired ballplayers, re-creates the look and feel of the defunct Cuban League of the 1940s and '50s. As with American youth leagues, players compete in divisions according to their age. Instead of being sponsored by the local hardware store or supermarket and playing for the "Little Yankees" or "Little Indians," though, they play for the city of Havana or neighboring Almendares. Parents pay a monthly fee, and replica jerseys, true to the originals in color, style, and lettering, are purchased from the academy. Los Cubanos Libres flourished in the 1970s and '80s, when it had almost 200 students playing for one of four teams -- Cienfuegos and Marianao, in addition to Havana and Almendares -- in three different age groups. Many of the alums went on to play college baseball, some signed professional contracts, a couple eventually made it to the majors, and one -- Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers -- is a potential Hall of Famer.
The academy, virtually unknown to non-Cubans, was a vital, symbolic link to the island's prerevolutionary baseball culture. Like every exile institution that traded on the past -- Cuban radio stations that revived their call letters on the South Florida dial or Cuban food brands transplanted from the island that found their way onto bodega shelves, for example -- Los Cubanos Libres was, at once, a nostalgic reminder of what were considered better days and a practical adaptation to life in America.
But that was then. In recent years, as memory of the Cuban League has receded and the demographics of Little Havana have changed, the academy's enrollment has shrunk to a handful. To the outside observer, things don't look good. But don't tell that to Vicente Lopez, the man who has run Los Cubanos since its inception. Lopez, a onetime pitching star in Cuba, knows a thing or two about comebacks. And survival.
His mind, as sharp as his curve ball once was, recalls every stop on his 15-year professional baseball odyssey: ten seasons in the Cuban League, ten summers in the Mexican League, minor-league stints in South Florida, Fort Worth, Newport News, and Mobile. Ask Vicente Lopez which game he remembers best and he'll answer without hesitation: August 16, 1956. On that day, as a 29-year-old pitcher for the Mexico City Red Devils, pitching in the Parque del Seguro Social, he outlasted fellow Cuban star Julio "Jiquí" Moreno and the Yucatan Lions 2-1, giving Mexico City the league title. "The Reds had never won a championship," Lopez says, "and the fans went crazy."
Baseball in Latin America was (and is) like that: more religion than recreation. Men like Lopez were its high priests.
Indeed, Lopez -- whose baseball life spans both sides of the Florida Straits, who competed with and against two generations of legendary Cuban and American ballplayers, and who, as a youth-league coach, has taught hundreds, maybe even thousands, of South Florida youngsters to play the game -- just may be, as Yogi Berra might say, the most famous local baseball man nobody knows about.
Nobody, that is, except his contemporaries and the people in his neighborhood. "Maestro!" shouts an elderly Cuban man, walking briskly past the courtyard of the apartment building Lopez currently calls home, "como se siente?" Lopez, wearing a uniform of burgundy cotton pajamas and black loafers, ponders the question: How is he feeling? "Well," he says in the same even tone of voice in which he once must have addressed managers who visited him on the mound during a game, wanting to know the same thing, "I feel better. Getting stronger all the time." The man waves, smiles, and is gone.
"The doctors found a polyp on my colon," Lopez explains stoically. "They snipped two inches." He'll soon begin chemotherapy. "I'm lucky," he says. "With Jiquí, the surgeons just closed him back up. They couldn't do anything for him." Moreno, Lopez's sometime pitching rival and longtime friend, succumbed to cancer in 1987.
"Did you know Adrian Zabala passed away recently?" he asks a young man sitting in the courtyard. He smiles at his own mention of the great Cuban lefty from the 1940s. "He was one hell of a pitcher." He sighs. "Not like today's pitchers. They don't know how to finish. Nobody goes nine innings anymore."
Vicente Lopez was born in the Havana suburb of Cotorro in 1926 and was instantly thrust into the national obsession with beísbol. "In Cuba," Lopez remembers, "everybody was a ballplayer."
Certainly, it must have seemed that way. The game had been introduced to the island in the 19th Century, with the first contest between organized teams reputed to have occurred in 1874, in the province of Matanzas, east of Havana. Baseball, in the context of Cuba's ongoing fight for independence -- the Cubans fought two wars against Spain in the late 19th Century -- became a symbol of resistance to colonial oppression, not so much the national pastime as the national identity.
"Every town had a local team," says Lopez, "and we would play clubs from surrounding towns, places like Santa Maria and Cuatro Caminos. Some players distinguished themselves more than others, but we were all pretty good."
Lopez, a tall, thin right-hander with a developing curve ball, was better than most and became a much-sought-after player in Cuba's so-called Juvenile League and later in the renowned Amateur League. He entered the latter in 1946, when he joined Club Central Hershey ("like the chocolate"), a top-flight sugar-mill team. The invitation did not come easily. "They watched me win one game 5-1, then another 3-1," says Lopez. "But it wasn't until I pitched against Deportivo Rosario [the team that eventually won the Amateur League championship that year] that they offered me a contract." In the game, Lopez had dominated the league's powerhouse, beating them 2-0 and striking out 18 batters. Hershey had signed one sweet pitcher.
The Amateur League in baseball-crazed Cuba was a breeding ground for future stars and closely followed by fans and professional scouts alike. Lopez made the most of the spotlight. In 1948, Club Hershey won the championship by a half game, a statistical anomaly explained by the fact that a contest earlier in the season ended in a scoreless tie and was never made up. The game remains memorable to the man who hurled it. "Ten innings against Regla [a town across the bay from Havana], and I struck out 18," Lopez grins.
His curve ball was by now a wicked thing, a you-can-see-it-but-you-can't-hit-it devil of a pitch that fooled, froze, and generally tormented batters. At age 21, Lopez was not only an accomplished pitcher but also a tough competitor, one whose age and boyish looks belied a steely demeanor. "He was inscrutable," recalls Cuban baseball expert Charles Monfort, who personally witnessed every Cuban League season between 1930 and 1961. "Inside, he might have been nervous, but you'd never see it on the mound."
The Brooklyn Dodgers liked what they saw of the young Cuban on the mound and signed him to a minor-league contract after the 1948 amateur season. In Cuba, Lopez would pitch for Almendares, the professional Cuban League club with which the Dodgers had recently signed a working agreement, essentially turning the franchise into a Brooklyn farm team.
The Almendares Blues (or Scorpions, as they were also called) was one of four teams in the Cuban League, along with the Havana Reds (or Lions), the Cienfuegos Elephants, and the Marianao Tigers. The teams were all based in and around the capital city and played their games in Havana's new Gran Stadium, a gorgeous 35,000-seat ballpark built just before the 1946-47 season. "The Gran Stadium cost $2 million, in 1946 money," recalls Julio Sanchez, for years a popular broadcaster and sports journalist in Havana. "It had nothing but unobstructed views."
The Cuban League season consisted of roughly 70 games played between October and February, a period during which the island's baseball fans followed the exploits of their favorite players with an intensity rarely seen in the United States. Indeed, one need only consider Almendares's team slogan to gauge the depth of feeling among its faithful: "He who defeats Almendares," warned the famous refrain, "dies!"
Not that Cienfuegos or Marianao ever had much to worry about. During the 1940s and early '50s and for most of the Cuban League's existence, the championship usually was won by either Almendares or its archrival, Havana. Or, as Agapito Mayor, a star pitcher for Almendares in the 1940s and early '50s, still likes to boast: "We'd lose some games, sure, but we won a lot more than we ever lost. A lot more."
This was the team, then, that Vicente Lopez, Dodger recruit, joined for the 1948-49 season. He pitched mostly in relief that year, winning no games and losing one, but he nevertheless impressed his teammates. "Vicente, even as a kid, was a great pitcher," remembers Andres Fleitas, the catcher on that Almendares team. "He had a great curve, a formidable changeup, and he was gutsy. He had courage on the mound."
Not that the 1948-49 Blues needed much help from a rookie. In addition to Fleitas and Mayor, the team featured Conrado Marrero, one of the finest pitchers ever to play in the Cuban League; a slick-fielding shortstop named Willie Miranda; and talented Negro League outfielders Sam Jethro and Monte Irvin. All would eventually play in the majors, Jethro and Irvin becoming two of the first African-Americans to crack organized baseball's color line. (Another player, first-baseman Chuck Connors, would make it big not in baseball but on television, as The Rifleman). Almendares took the title.
Afterward, Lopez took to the road, packing his bags for Miami and the Florida International League, where he would pitch for the Dodgers' Class B team, the Sun Sox. Given his limited action during the Cuban League season -- he pitched a total of 11 innings -- he knew this would count as his real professional debut. The Dodgers would be watching. Lopez did not disappoint, pitching well enough to win 18 games that season.
His most significant victory that year, historically and personally, may have come on opening day, when Lopez was given the honor of christening Miami's new stadium. Built at the corner of NW 10th Avenue and 23rd Street in Allapattah, Miami Stadium was a gem of a ballpark. "I know of no more beautiful stadium in the country," declared major league Baseball Commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler. Certainly, its parquet floors in the clubhouse and an elevator that carried reporters up to the press box were not standard amenities in minor-league parks.
And on opening day, it had Vicente Lopez, pitching for the hometown team against the Havana Cubans. Lopez and the Sun Sox won 6-1. It was a big win, because, Lopez says, "the Cubans were the best team in that league."
In 1950, Lopez returned to South Florida for his second and, he hoped, last season with the Class B Sun Sox. If he pitched anywhere as well as he had in '49, the Dodgers would have to promote him. He did not dare dream aloud, but he could almost smell the pizza baking in Brooklyn.
Opposing batters smelled only failure. Lopez tore through the Florida International League that season, winning twenty games and losing only six. Most impressive, however, was the manner in which he finished the campaign, pitching five successive shutouts, including three in the league playoffs to give Miami the championship. "I set two league records that year," beams Lopez, "17 consecutive victories and 46 scoreless innings in a row." The last two shutouts came against the Havana Cubans, perennial contenders and a team that, in the opinion of many, was only a notch below major-league caliber.
The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had lost the 1950 National League pennant to the Philadelphia Phillies by only two games and who had only two reliable starting pitchers in their rotation, took note. That winter, a month and a half into the Cuban League season, they notified Lopez that they wanted to see him pitch a particular Sunday game, against Cienfuegos and another ascending star in the Dodger system, Joe Black. "[Black and I] were both supposed to go to Dodger training camp the following spring," Lopez remembers.
It had been a meteoric rise. Less than three years earlier, he had pitched Central Hershey to a Cuban Amateur League title. Now, Lopez appeared to be on the brink of the major leagues, only a few months away from possibly joining countrymen like Conrado Marrero and Julio Moreno in the Show.
Almendares and Cienfuegos met December 17 at the Gran Stadium. Both Lopez and Black, a powerfully built, African-American fireballer, pitched as if the future depended upon it, because theirs did. Inning after inning, they matched each other, pitching brilliantly, forcing the opposition to scratch for runs, allowing one, then two, but no more. "I pitched ten innings," Lopez says with a mixture of pride and regret, "and left the game in a 2-2 tie." He had also, he realized, thrown out his arm. Brooklyn would have to wait. (Black would join the Dodgers the following year, in 1952, winning 15 games and leading Brooklyn to the World Series.)
In the spring of 1951, Lopez, then 24 years old, reported to Fort Worth, the Dodger affiliate in the Class AA Texas League. It was a promotion but not the one he'd wanted. Texas was not nearly as hospitable as South Florida, where at least some Cubans resided. "All I knew how to say in English were baseball phrases and how to ask for food," remembers Lopez, who, truth be told, never learned to say much more than that.
Early in the year, the Cuban pitcher thought his arm had healed completely. "I beat Dallas 6-0; then I beat San Antonio 8-0," he recalls, pulling box scores from his memory. "I had my velocity back. Everything was working." Until a game against Oklahoma City. "I was winning by something like 4-0 or 5-0 in the fourth inning, and then, all of a sudden, I couldn't reach home plate with my pitches." He shakes his head. "They had to take me out of the game. I didn't even qualify for the victory." He hadn't pitched enough innings.
To make it to the majors, a ballplayer, regardless of how much skill he possesses, also needs a little luck. Vicente Lopez's ran out that day in 1951. And he probably knew it even then. "Before I hurt my arm," he says more than 50 years later, reaching up instinctively toward his right shoulder with his left hand, "I was a competitive pitcher. I could be beaten, but I could also beat the best on any day."
No more. He stayed in baseball -- what else did he know to do? -- but not as a big-time prospect. Instead, he became a career minor-leaguer, bouncing from team to team, content simply to stay in the game and make a living. He returned to the Miami Sun Sox in 1952 and pitched solidly before being sent to Newport News, Virginia, later in the year. In 1953, he turned up in Mobile, Alabama, pitching briefly in the Southern Association, then with his hometown Havana Cubans. Somewhere along the way, the Dodgers cut him loose.
Still, he persisted, making it in 1954 to the newly inaugurated Havana Sugar Kings, Cuba's entry in the Class AAA International league. Technically, it was the closest Lopez would ever get to the majors, but he was no longer the one the scouts had their eyes on. So the Sugar Kings sold his contract to a team from Mexico City. "The Mexican League wanted to enter major-league baseball," Lopez explains, recalling a popular rumor that circulated in the mid-1950s, "so other teams sold a lot of ballplayers over there."
There would still be memorable days: the afternoon in 1956 when he defeated Moreno and Yucatan for the championship; the following year, a victory in the prestigious Caribbean Series as a member of the Cuban team. But mostly, Lopez would endure as a journeyman, pitching in Cuba in the winter and Mexico in the summer, getting by on guile and that once-majestic curve ball, its effectiveness compromised by the lack of an adequate fastball to go with it.
His desire, though, remained. "Once, when Vicente was playing in Mexico," Andres Fleitas recalls, "his manager said to me, 'You know, this guy's pretty good, but he wants to tell me when he's going to pitch.' Vicente would say to him, 'Hey, it's my day today.'"
Lopez pitched in Cuba until 1958, eventually playing with all four teams in the professional league. To hear him tell it, he got out just in time: "When Fidel came to power [in 1959], I said, 'That's it. I'm not pitching any more.'" He cites the antics the revolution and its maximum leader visited upon the game as a motivating factor.
Two incidents, both occurring during the 1959 International League season, are infamous. The first took place shortly after midnight on July 26, during an extra-inning contest involving the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings. Some time during the 11th inning, celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks by Fidel Castro -- the symbolic origin of the revolution -- broke out just beyond the stadium walls in Havana. During the festivities, stray bullets found two human targets inside: Rochester's third-base coach and Sugar King shortstop Leo Cardenas (who later played in the majors). Neither man was seriously hurt, but the incident resulted in the Red Wings' immediate departure from the island. Other International League teams expressed concern over playing in Cuba. Still, the season continued.
Two months later, the Minneapolis Millers traveled to Havana to play the Sugar Kings for the league title. The Cubans led the best-of-seven series handily, three games to one, when the Millers staged a fierce comeback, winning the next two games and forcing a final and deciding game. On hand for that contest was Castro, who, as the story goes, made his way out to the Minneapolis bullpen before the game, eyed the opposition, patted the large revolver he wore on his hip and said simply, "Tonight, we win." Havana did, indeed, win that night, in spectacular late-inning fashion and, it is believed, without any help from the Millers, who were only too glad to get the hell out of Cuba.
The well-publicized episodes marked the beginning of the end for professional baseball on the island. The following year, halfway through the 1960 season, the International League, claiming it could no longer guarantee the safety of its players inside Cuba, relocated the Havana franchise to Jersey City, New Jersey, where it quickly withered and died. The Cuban League, in existence since 1878, outlived the Sugar Kings by only a few months, folding after the 1960-61 season. Cuban-born Ivan Davis, who played for Almendares during that final campaign and who would eventually distinguish himself as an umpire in post-revolutionary amateur Cuban baseball, says the end of the professional league came as no surprise. "Almost everyone realized it would be the last season for those teams," Davis remembers. "The following year, all professional sports were outlawed."
By that time, however, Lopez was pitching exclusively in Mexico during the summers, with an occasional few months of winter work in places like Nicaragua, where he played briefly in 1963. The last few seasons took their toll on his arm and on his lifetime record. He lost more often than at any time in his career. Indeed, he lost much more often than he won. He was traded in 1964 from Puebla, a good Mexican League team that would finish only three games out of first place, to Monterrey, a sixth-place team. He didn't pitch well for either. And then, because he would soon be 38 years old and because he knew that the little bit of magic he had once had in that right arm was gone, he quit.
He had a wife and daughter. Responsibility, exile, and, for the first time, nonbaseball labor beckoned. He didn't have the connections some former Cuban major leaguers enjoyed. Nor, up until now, had he missed them. "I never worked [at any other job] while I played ball," he says with satisfaction.
So, in 1964, the ex-baseball star took a job as an inventory clerk at a food warehouse in Dania. "They would bring lobster, crab, beef, vegetables, produce, whatever, and we would sort it out and send it to the restaurants in the New England Oyster House chain," he remembers. "All to make a lousy dollar an hour. It seems crazy that people would work for so little, but we did." He would work there for the next 20 years. Coworkers wondered what it had been like to play baseball in front of tens of thousands of people, asked about games they had seen him pitch in Cuba, and told their friends they knew Vicente Lopez, "el pelotero."
At age 40, Lopez found himself in the same position as many of his Cuban ballplaying contemporaries: exiled in South Florida, his career over, with little opportunity to exploit his previous fame. Joe DiMaggio shilled for New York-area banks and sold coffeemakers. Ted Williams hawked sporting goods for Sears, Roebuck & Co. What could Vicente Lopez, who, on the island of Cuba, had been as well-known as those players, do?
In 1970, he started Los Cubanos Libres. At the time, Lopez recalls, there was only one other venture like it in Miami, the Latino-American Baseball Academy, which had been founded by Carlos "Patato" Pascual, brother of Minnesota Twins star Camilo Pascual and himself a veteran of both the Cuban League and the major leagues.
Lopez operated the academy with the help of other former Cuban ballplayers, among them Moreno, Sandalio Consuegra (a star pitcher in Cuba and, briefly, in the majors), and Ray Blanco. The business was an instant success. Cuban-exile parents who had grown up marveling at the feats of Lopez, Moreno, and the academy's other coaches eagerly signed up their children, hoping the old pros might make big leaguers out of them. "We had 200 kids," exclaims Lopez, thinking back to the academy's early days. "Every team would play a double-header."
One of those kids was Rafael Palmeiro, the Texas Rangers slugger who, at the beginning of this major-league season, is only 53 home runs shy of 500 for his career. "I played for Vicente in the early '70s," recalls Palmeiro, talking on a cell phone from the Rangers' spring training facility in Port Charlotte. "I started when I was about nine," he says nostalgically, "and played until I was twelve or so."
Lopez has followed his onetime pupil's career. "We were all so happy when he was signed to a professional contract," he says. "He's a tremendous hitter. You know the only reason he's not a superstar? He's too quiet. He'll hit a home run, round the bases with his head down, and go back to the dugout." Lopez smiles. It isn't a criticism.
"Look, it's Vicente!" screams the small group of eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds gathered at Riverside Park in Little Havana for the weekly Saturday-morning game between Havana and Almendares. It's Lopez's first visit to the park in almost seven weeks. Dressed in black slacks and a short-sleeve sport shirt, he steps gingerly behind his walker, a collapsible device he's been learning to navigate (in a few days, he will have ditched it). "Oye, Dormilón," he calls out to one of the late arrivals, referring to the small, slender boy by his nickname, "Sleepyhead." The boy covers his face with his glove in mock shame. A few old men, regular spectators from the neighborhood, spot the ailing ballplayer and cross the street to say hello.
Lopez surveys the field. There won't be enough players for a regulation game today, so the kids will have to settle for an improvised contest in which adults pitch and catch. The academy's enrollment is more diverse than it once was: All the children are Hispanic but not exclusively Cuban anymore, and there's even a girl. It's also smaller than it has ever been. Some children stopped coming during Lopez's illness. But the pitcher turned teacher says the trouble started even before that, when rival academies raided his talent pool and stole his players. He won't mention the culprits by name, but the subject angers him. "You would have never seen something like that years ago," Lopez observes. "The guys who ran [the various schools] were different. They had played together. They were men."
In Lopez's absence, a few of the parents have stepped in, trying to hold the academy together, until its founder, and only employee, feels well enough to return. For the past two months, Norma Alvarez, whose grandson plays in the academy, has been coming to Riverside Park six days a week, keeping score and offering encouragement to the rag-tag squad of Reds and Blues. "Listen to me," she implores when their minds and bodies wander from the game, "Vicente is going to get a report on how each of you is doing!"
Lopez would like to get back as soon as possible. He misses prepping the field, throwing batting practice, and umpiring. Friends tell him to take it easy. But don't they know? Vicente Lopez has never liked taking himself out of a game.