|Claim to fame||Earliest baseball league to be fully racially integrated|
|No. of teams||Usually 4|
The Cuban League was one of the earliest and longest lasting professional baseball leagues outside the United States, operating in Cuba from 1878 to 1961. The schedule usually operated during the winter months, so the league was sometimes known as the "Cuban Winter League." It was always a small league, generally 3 to 5 teams, and was centered in Havana, though it sometimes included teams from outlying cities such as Matanzas or Santa Clara. The league became racially integrated in 1900, and during the first half of the 20th century the Cuban League was a premier venue for black and white players to meet. Many great black Northern American players competed in Cuba alongside native black and white Cuban stars such as José Méndez, Cristóbal Torriente, Adolfo Luque, and Martín Dihigo. After 1947, the Cuban League entered into an agreement with Major League Baseball and was used for player development. Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, however, tensions rose with the new Communist government, and in March 1961 the government decreed the abolition of professional baseball.
The first game in what became known as the Cuban League took place in Havana on December 29, 1878. Esteban Bellán, the first Latin American to play professionally in the United States, was captain (playing manager) of Habana while the opposing Almendares was captained by Carlos Zaldo. (Almendares was a suburb just outside old Havana.) Habana won the first game 21-20. The only other team in the league was Matanzas. In that first season, only four games were scheduled for each team, with the season lasting through February. Habana won the first championship with a record of 4-0-1.
Early baseball in Cuba, as in the United States, was an amateur sport first organized by gentlemen's athletic clubs. Games were played on Sundays and were typically preceded by a picnic and followed by a dance. A unique feature of early Cuban baseball is that teams played with 10 players per side. The tenth player was a "right shortstop", playing halfway between the first and second bases.
By the mid-1880s, the best-known players were becoming celebrities and baseball began to become professional, as players jumped from team to team and Americans were sometimes brought in as reinforcements. The gradual development of professionalism that took place in Cuba during the 1880s and 1890s echoed the development of professionalism in the United States two decades earlier in the National Association of Base Ball Players, which ultimately led to the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. In Cuba, however, the clubs that wished to remain amateur broke off from the Cuban League.
Baseball in Cuba became associated with Cuban identity and nationalism. González Echevarría notes, "Baseball was a sport played in defiance of Spanish authorities, who viewed this American invention as vaguely secessionist and dangerously violent because of the use of sticks. A ban was issued in 1869, just as the Ten Years' War was starting." Several of the sponsors of early baseball teams were also supporters of the revolutionary cause. A number of ballplayers fought against Spain in the Cuban War of Independence (1895-98), and at least three lost their lives: Emilio Sabourín, Juan Manuel Pastoriza, and Ricardo Cabaleiro.
During the 19th century the Cuban League remained a segregated, whites-only institution. However, black Cubans were developing their baseball skills playing for semi-professional and sugarmill teams. The Cuban War of Independence brought Cuban blacks and whites together in a common cause and created the pressures that ultimately brought integration.
The other great legacy of 19th century Cuban League baseball was the enduring rivalry between Habana and Almendares. This rivalry began before the formation of the Cuban League and survived after its end, lasting for nearly a century. Growing up in Havana (and, indeed, in much of Cuba) meant choosing between Habana and Almendares.
The year 1900 brought fundamental change to the Cuban League. In the aftermath of the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War, pressures mounted for racial integration of the league. Led by promoters and entrepreneurs such as Abel Linares and Tinti Molina, the league integrated in 1900 with the admission of an all-black club, San Francisco, and the admission of non-white players to some of the other clubs. When San Francisco easily took the pennant, the other clubs quickly began bidding for the top black players. These changes also marked the recognition of the league's status as a fully professional institution.
These changes did not occur without opposition and controversy. At least one team owner sold his interest rather than invest in an integrated enterprise. Several of the players from the upper classes moved to amateur leagues, which continued to compete behind walls of racial segregation.
The next major change came in 1907 when the Fe team began loading up with black American stars, such as Rube Foster, Home Run Johnson, Pete Hill, and Bill Monroe. Soon the other teams were also bringing in the Negro league stars, culminating in the 1912 Habana, which easily took the title with a team featuring Hall-of-Famers Joe Williams, John Henry Lloyd, and Pete Hill, as well as Home Run Johnson and Cuban stars Julián Castillo, Carlos Morán, and Luis Padrón. According to González Echevarría, "These teams were clearly of major-league quality, combining the cream of Negro baseball with the best Cuba had to offer, and a few white major leaguers to boot." Only Almendares was able to remain competitive for a while without American reinforcements, relying on its strong core of Cuban-born pitchers including Hall-of-Famer José Méndez, Eustaquio Pedroso, and José Muñoz.
As the Cuban League strengthened, it began doing much better in its now regular competitions against major league teams. In 1908 Méndez blanked the Cincinnati Reds for 25 consecutive innings, including a 1-hit, 9-strikeout shutout. In 1910 the Cuban teams beat the World Series champion Philadelphia Athletics 6 games to 4, leading the embarrassed Commissioner to issue a ban on post-season exhibition games by the reigning World Series champion.
During the 1910s a number of white Cuban players began to break into major league ranks, including the outstanding Cincinnati Reds pitcher Dolf Luque, catcher Mike González, and outfielder Armando Marsans. Black Cuban players competed regularly in the Negro leagues, where Cristóbal Torriente and José Méndez became stars. During the 1920s the Cuban League reached its apex in quality, as top Negro league stars such as Oscar Charleston, Jud Wilson, John Henry Lloyd, Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles, Satchel Paige, Bill Foster, and Willie Wells played alongside great Cuban stars such as Martín Dihigo, Cristóbal Torriente, Alejandro Oms, Bernardo Baró, Dolf Luque, and Manuel Cueto. Researchers have estimated that for several seasons the quality of play in the Cuban League probably equaled that of the major leagues.
Following the death in 1930 of Cuban League owner Abel Linares, the economic depression of the early 1930s, and the 1933 political uprising that overthrew President Gerardo Machado, the Cuban League found itself in difficult circumstances. The 1933-34 season was cancelled, and when it returned the following season it was without American players or some of the biggest Cuban-born stars, such as Martín Dihigo. Gradually, though, the league regained its strength and before the 1930s had ended, the league had enjoyed dramatic play from Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Willie Wells, Ray Brown, Roberto (Bobby) Estalella, Lázaro Salazar, Alejandro Carrasquel, Ray Dandridge, and Sam Bankhead.
During World War II, travel restrictions cut off most of the supply of U.S. players. However, Cuba's own talent flourished as players such as Manuel (Cocaína) Garcia, Alejandro Crespo, Silvio García, and Claro Duany starred. After the war, attendance flourished as several exciting pennant races took place, especially the 1946-47 campaign, which many consider to be the greatest pennant race in Cuban League history. American players, such as Dick Sisler, Lou Klein, Max Lanier, and Sal Maglie, returned to Cuba and participated alongside new Cuban stars such as Orestes (Minnie) Miñoso, Connie Marrero, Julio Moreno, and Sandalio (Sandy) Consuegra. In 1946 a modern, new stadium opened in Havana, Gran Stadium (now known as Latin American Stadium), with a capacity for 35,000 spectators.
In the aftermath of the Mexican League's efforts in 1945 to sign major league players, U.S. organized baseball engaged in an effort to control the flow of players in Cuba and the other Caribbean leagues. This effort culminated in a 1947 agreement between the Cuban League and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues to bring top minor league and new major league players to Cuba for winter league play. The next season a second league--the Players' Federation--was formed, consisting largely of players who were outlawed by organized baseball for their play in the Mexican League. This new league, however, proved not to be viable and lasted only one season.
Throughout the 1950s baseball flourished under the new arrangements. Cuba performed very well in the annual Caribbean Series, and also fielded a summer team, the Havana Sugar Kings, at first in the Florida International League, and later in the International League. Stars of the 1950s included Minnie Miñoso, Pedro Formental, Rocky Nelson, Camilo Pascual, Sandy Amorós, and Pedro Ramos. However, with the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the days of professional baseball in Cuba were numbered. In March 1961, one month after the end of the 1960-61 Cuban League season, the government decreed the abolition of professional baseball. Many of the professional players became exiles in the United States or other Latin American countries. In Cuba baseball lived on in the form of an amateur Cuban national baseball system including the Cuban National Series, as the government reformed the system to focus on national goals.