Ralph Carhart with Martin Dihigo Jr. (All photos courtesy of Ralph Carhart)
Now that diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba have been re-established and our sanctions and embargoes against the Caribbean country have eased, American residents are flooding to the nation by the thousands.
They’re doing so for a variety of reasons, from visiting long-separated family to tourism and sight-seeing in a country that has, to a large extent, been off-limits to Americans, who previously had to jump through countless bureaucratic and legal loops just to get permission to travel to Cuba.
Among those throngs making the voyage are dozens of baseball enthusiasts, historians and researchers, who have been salivating for decades about the possibility of witnessing stellar Cuban baseball first-hand and studying the history of a sport that’s almost a religion in the island nation.
Count Ralph Carhart among those baseball fanatics. Carhart, who frequently attends the SABR Jerry Malloy conference, has for several years been undertaking one of the most ambitious projects among today’s baseball fandom — the Hall Ball.
For those readers of this humble blog who haven’t spoken with Ralph or heard about the Hall Ball via word of mouth, the project is pretty amazing — he’s currently trying to meet every living Hall of Fame member and having his picture taken with them with the Hall Ball. He’s also trying to visit the graves of as many deceased HOFers as possible and getting his photo taken with relatives of or people close to those members of the hallowed Hall.
That includes Negro Leaguers, whose living ranks are obviously thinning at increasing rates as time progresses, which means Ralph is hurriedly reaching out to relatives or others who knew the men (or, in the case of Effa Manley, the woman). When he’s finished with his mission — which has taken five years up to this point, and who knows how many more — Ralph will donate the horsehide sphere, the photos and other mementos from his quest to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
A memorial to Cuban baseball players in Cristobal Colon Cemetery.
Mendez was a stellar pitcher the brash owner of the legendary New York Cubans (a naturally suitable team moniker); Dihigo was a multi-position (pitcher, second baseman and others) superstar; and Torriente was one of the greatest outfielders in not only the Negro Leagues, but in all of baseball, regardless of era or color.
On a mission, Ralph traveled to Cuba in February 2014 for two reasons — catch a whole bunch of Cuban league games, and get signatures for Dihigo and Mendez. Torriente isn’t buried in Cuba, a major discovery for Ralph and baseball history that will be discussed later.
Ralph took a plane out of Mexico to Cuba, where he stayed for 10 days, criss-crossing the now-accessible country. Because historical and archival records in Cuba are scattered and spotty, it was something of a challenge to nail down where each HOFer was interred.
First up: Jose Mendez. Ralph tracked the New York Cubans legend to Havana’s Cristobal Colon Cemetery, where the graves and plots are packed in tightly and space is at a premium.
Mendez was initially interred at his family’s plot, which consists of an above-ground crypt, where each deceased family member is placed in a box inside the crypt, and every time another family member passes, the one previous is moved down a level to make room for the current coffin. In addition, other star baseball players have been interred at the Mendez family plot.
But what’s even more fascinating is that upon Mendez’ death, the legend’s ashes were buried in his family crypt but moved, with ceremony, to another monument, this one erected by the Cuban government in the 1950s to honor all baseball players from the island.
Ralph also visited Dihigo’s grave in the city of Cruces, which is about a two- or three-hour drive from Havana. He was able to meet up with Martin Dihigo Jr. at the cemetery; the junior Dihigo also played ball in the States, but he quit because the racism he experienced Stateside was unbearable.
Martin Jr. is in the process of establishing a museum honoring his father and other figures in and aspects of Cuban baseball. Ralph said he was emotionally blown away by the experience of standing at the Hall of Famer’s grave with Dihigo’s son.
“It was an absolutely profound moment,” he said. “It was so moving for me to be there.”
But it wasn’t just the dead to which Ralph paid reverence while he was in Cuba — he was also able to attend a slew of Cuban league games, an experience that was especially powerful because the 16-team circuit was undertaking its postseason playoffs. He was able to catch contests at five stadiums scattered across various provinces.
“It was extremely exciting,” he says. “Every game is extremely relevant to the postseason.”
Ralph says Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother who’s now running the country after his autocratic sibling’s retirement, used to command the country’s military, but he was also heavily involved in the nation’s baseball program.
At a Mantanzas Cuban League game.
And the program, including the Cuban league, is significantly different in terms of structure and finances; because of the country’s communist economy, the baseball league, like most other industries, is heavily subsidized by the state.
That system is actually beneficial to the average hardball fan in Cuba — ticket prices to games are extremely low, and, unlike in the States, the players received salaries commensurate with every other citizen! No mega-contracts! No thousands of dollars per pitch or at bat!
“Baseball players make the same as everyone else,” Ralph says. “Because the economic stratification isn’t there, and because players workout and train with average residents, the connection between the fans and the players is there. It’s very special.
“For most of Latin America,” he adds, “soccer is king, but not in Cuba. Baseball is their sport.”
In addition, while traveling the island nation, Ralph was able to witness the socioeconomic condition in the country beyond just baseball, and he says the experience was both impressive and depressing.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and 1990s, Ralph says, Cuba lost its massive financial aid from the superpower. To compensate, the country opened up to tourism, at least a little bit — or as much as the frosty relations with the U.S. allowed.
But that still didn’t offset the lack of economic resources suffered by the nation, and that crisis trickled down to the masses.
“Coming to Cuba is like going back in time,” he says. “It’s an old place, and nothing has changed much since the [Marxist] revolution [in the 1950s], basically. To be in that setting, even for just a short time, was really amazing. Just to see that was really eye-opening.”
On the other hand …
“There’s no question the majority of people of poverty,” he adds, “but there are some things Castro got right. There’s low crime, and there’s a high literacy rate.”
But that started to change in the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War between the superpowers, when economic desperation led to the opening up of tourism, which, actually, lead to an uptick in crime.
A baseball mural in Cuba.
All of these factors — economic issues, the transition of power between the Castro brothers, the increase in tourism and in crime, the normalization of relations with the U.S. — has placed the status of Cuban baseball somewhat up in the air, Ralph says.
“I don’t know if you can answer that question,” he says when asked about the future of baseball there. “Cuban baseball was already in flux. They’re considering that problem, even thinking about downsizing the league.”
There’s speculation among media scribes and other pundits about the possibility of Cuban baseball eventually receiving both administrative and financial help from Major League Baseball. But that would be a ways down the road and only if relations between the country continue to thaw, and the further influx of American influence and culture might affect Cuba’s proud identity and its baseball system.
“Like all things in Cuba,” he adds, “[the politics and economics] is a mix — there’s some good and some bad. It’s a double-edged sword. That’s going to be a big question going forward.”
And what about the potential for being a watershed for new study and research into Cuban baseball history?
“In terms of research, it can only be good,” he says. “It should lead to the opening of doors, the opening of possibilities. You’ll be able to find things you couldn’t find before.”
Then, naturally, there’s the impact his trip had on the Hall Ball — and him personally.
“Beyond the importance the trip had on my project, my life quest,” he says, “it was just a very profound experience. I was very fortunate.”
For more information on the Hall Ball or to donate to the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.thehallball.sportspalooza.com.
This will hopefully be one of several posts about how the opening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. will have — and is already having — on the status of Cuban baseball and the study of the history and tradition of the sport in a country that holds dear, almost as a religion.