Fidel Castro, the father of communist Cuba who led the country as Prime Minister from 1959 to 1976 and then as President from 1976 to 2008, died on Friday. He was 90.
Castro’s legacy in political history is well-documented. Even in death, it will not be reflected kindly. His beliefs and methods were at the center of many painful moments for families from Cuba, and they were the source of much discussion even during his final hours. In fact, Castro was just in the sports headlines on Friday when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick continued to defend Castro’s legacy despite his oversight of an oppressive regime that would seemingly contradict Kaepernick’s recent protests.
That would be Castro’s final connection to sports in America. As most baseball fans know though, it was far from his first connection. Castro’s love for baseball was also well known, and if you believe certain myths his baseball talents very nearly brought him to the U.S., which could have changed the course of history forever.
As the story goes, Castro was a pitcher at the University of Havana when he began drawing the attention of scouts in the United States in the late 1940s. From that point forward though there are conflicting versions of Castro’s true appeal as a pitching prospect and the lengths some major league teams reportedly went to scout him.
In one version of the story, a scout reported of Castro:“Lots of enthusiasm, not much of an arm. Suggest he go into another business.”
In another version, though, various teams were said to have sent some players down for a batting practice to test him (during one of which Castro struck out future Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg). According to some versions, Castro was offered a tryout with either the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Washington Senators, or the New York Yankees, but failed to make the cut–and, in bitterness and resentment, became intensely anti-American.
In another version, he was actually accepted by the New York Giants in 1949 (or in 1951) and was offered a contract, but turned down the offer to get his law degree and go into politics instead.
The idea Castro might have attracted interest lends plausibility to the idea he could have made a career in baseball. It would also suggest any pursuit of the sport beyond these reported tryouts could have significantly altered his life’s path, therefore altering millions of other lives as well.
But that doesn’t mean it’s true. As Snopes.com noted in 2012, Yale professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria went to great lengths to dismiss this myth in his book Cuba’s history in baseball.
Although this legend has an aura of plausibility to Americans in that baseball has long flourished in Cuba, and Castro has been a very visible supporter of (and pseudo-participant in) the sport, it is neither true nor credible, as Cubans have always been aware. Castro never had a tryout with a major-league baseball team, never played the sport professionally, and didn’t come close to possessing skills which would attract the interest of a big-league team. As Yale professor Roberto González Echevarría noted in his history of Cuban baseball, the claim that Castro was a star pitcher at the University of Havana and turned down a $5,000 bonus offer from the New York Giants in 1951 to pursue a law degree is nothing more than a reporter’s fabrication.
There are some interesting excerpts from that story that are worth reading. The main takeaway though is that Castro’s baseball dreams were simply that.
Of course, Castro’s relationship with the United States would go on to have a major impact on Cuban born players chasing the dream of playing in MLB. Many have and will continue to flourish after defying his reign and defecting from Cuba, but it’s difficult not to consider how different Castro’s legacy would be in sports and in general had he ruled differently, or maybe not ruled at all.
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