This is an addendum to my previous post about Bill Greason and his tenure with the Rochester Red Wings; that piece was already too lengthy without this little nugget, and this isn’t directly related to the Negro Leagues, so I decided to break it out into a separate article. …
During Greason’s stint with the Wings in the late 1950s – specifically, summer 1959 – Greason was present when one of his teammates became a victim of the chaos of the Cuban Revolution.
Well, his level of victimization wasn’t very high – especially compared to the thousands of Cubans who lost their lives during the churning turmoil of Castro and his communists’ takeover of the island nation – but the incident does make for a nice little yarn.
So … Frank Verdi spent a virtual lifetime in the sport of baseball. During his 18 seasons as a player, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native spent almost all of his playing career – minus a single inning with the Yankees in 1953 – in the minors, but he went on to become a highly regarded manager in minor-league and independent ball. Overall, Verdi enjoyed a 24-year managerial career in the American pastime.
However, in 1959, Verdi was a 33-year-old infielder with the Red Wings; overall, he spent three years playing for the Wings, 1957-59. Greason was largely a relief pitcher during the 1959 campaign, and the Wings finished the campaign with a mark of 74-80 in the International League.
Meanwhile, the Cuban Revolution was entering its final stages. Fulgencio Batista, who, beginning in 1952, ruled the country under a corrupt, repressive, military dictatorship – with U.S. support for his authoritarian regime, part of a disconcerting but thoroughly unsurprising and hypocritical pattern of behavior by the alleged democratic “city on a hill” – fled Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959 as the forces of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other rebels closed in on Havana and seized control of most of the country.
By mid-summer 1959 – roughly a half-dozen years since the beginning stages of Castro’s movement – Castro and his forces had saturated the national capital of Havana, and on July 26 a massive, raucous parade in Havana celebrated the day the Castro-guided governmental Cabinet had just declared the “Day of Rebellion.”
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, April 5, 1958.
Here’s how the New York Times of July 27, 1959, described the scene in the city:
“Cuba’s bedraggled but proud rebel army paraded today in happy confusion before its idolized leader, Dr. Fidel Castro.
“It was as gay and casual a military event as had ever been witnessed here and a highlight of an immensely busy day of celebration …
“Marchers forced their way through cheering crowds along the wide Prado promenade and past the national capitol …
“Church bells tolled, white pigeons and balloons were released and the crowd sang the ‘Rebel Hymn’ and the Cuban National Anthem. Machetes were raised in the air. …
“Tens of thousands of Cubans filled the area in front of the capitol and along the Prado. They shouted, cheered and waved.
“The ‘guajiros’ (peasants), today’s guests of honor, unsheathed their long, sharp machetes. The steel blades glittered in the sun as they saluted Dr. Castro and the passing troops. …
“Bearded rebel soldiers and policemen fought hard to keep the pressing crowds from closing in on the parade route. They finally lost the battle and, toward the end, there was just enough room in the center of the Prado for the passage of two calvarymen abreast.
“A police motorcycle caught fire in front of the viewing stand and, a little later, a helicopter made a forced landing in the middle of the crowd.
“A yellow biplane flew over the capital [sic] with a stuntman atop the wings. Jet and propellor-driven fighter planes swooped low over the parade area. Another aircraft released small black and red parachutes, the colors of the revolution.”
Now we’ll shift to another thread in the tapestry of this historical snapshot – the Havana Sugar Kings. The Sugar Kings began their existence in 1946 as the Havana Cubans, when they played in the Class C (eventually Class B later) Florida International League.
In 1953, the club was purchased by Roberto “Bobby” Maduro, who changed the team name to the Havana Sugar Kings and, concurrently, purchased the rights to the Class AAA International League franchise previously located in Springfield, Mass., then shifted the franchise to his rebranded Sugar Kings in Havana, where the team became a top-tier farm team in the Cincinnati Redlegs system.
While apparently Maduro and the Sugar Kings supporters in Cuba harbored hopes that Havana could eventually be home to a franchise in Major League Baseball, for a half-dozen years the Sugar Kings were a thriving, colorful component of the International League, and as such, they and the Red Wings became quite familiar with each other over those years.
Hopping back to Stateside and, more precisely, upstate New York, the Red Wings (along with the other IL teams) warily watched the unfolding drama in Cuba with keen interest tempered with a healthy dose of anxiety and a smidge of trepidation.
During the first several months in 1958, for example, while the IL was collectively in spring training and preparing for the upcoming campaign, hands were wringing and metaphorical bullets were being sweated as executives, management and players eyed the continuing violence and upheaval in Cuba.
In late March 1958, various IL officials, from both the league office and member teams, toured Cuba to scope out the scene in an effort to assuage fears and move forward with IL games being played in Havana, especially with a Cuban presidential election scheduled for that June, the Castro-led rebels continuing their increasingly successful guerilla war and Batista clinging to power.
An ensuing league-wide meeting in Miami with Maduro and other Cuban representatives soothed American fears and produced a commitment to keep the Sugar Kings in the league and to move ahead play in Havana as scheduled. Discussions continued, however, as IL officials continued to monitor the sociopolitical landscape in Cuba, with an April 10, 1958, Associated Press citing league officials issuing the caveat that the IL’s position and plans could be altered if “conditions [in Cuba] materially changed.” When IL president Frank Shaughnessy was then asked what he’d consider a material change, he ominously answered “shooting people down there.”
Put a pin in that sentiment for now.
Other interested observers also weighed in on the volatile situation in Cuba, including Cleveland Indians general manager Frank Lane, who had recently visited the island nation to survey and assess the atmosphere there.
The Sporting News of Jan. 14, 1959 ran a long article about Lane’s evaluation, as well as his overall support for encouraging Cubans and Latin Americans to continue cultivating a passion for baseball and to strengthen their relationship with American baseball teams, officials and players.
Lane said he didn’t believe communism would take over Cuba, adding that the further flourishing of baseball on the island would help prevent the proliferation of far-left political forces there.
However, Lane also told TSN writer Hal Lebovitz that he (Lane) didn’t think Castro would attempt to install communism under his (Castro’s) administration, adding that Castro would only serve to benefit baseball in Cuba, and that the Cuban Winter League would continue to thrive.
“From the standpoint of relationships between our country and those in Latin America,” Lebovitz quoted Lane as saying, “it gives them [Cubans] an opportunity to understand us [Americans] better. They see our young men play ball with their natives and it builds up a feeling of friendliness. It’s the finest way to bring countries with alleged communist tendencies a picture of how well-treated their sons are by Americans.”
Lane also said he felt perfectly safe while in Cuba, with mobs of looters presenting more of a challenge than Castro’s forces, who spent more focus on tracking down Batista supporters than harassing foreign visitors.
“They were very polite and refused to take advantage of their sudden power,” Lane asserted about Castro’s men.
Lane added: “I don’t know if [Castro will] be able to carry out his intentions but if he does, Cuba will be a better place.”
Nostradamus, Lane was not, obviously.
Meanwhile, Wings players and managers were in spring training in spring ’58 in Daytona Beach as the diplomatic grappling persisted, with a regular-season series in Havana slated for April 20-21, just a matter of weeks away.
During the first week of April, a Democrat & Chronicle reporter quizzed several Rochester players and officials about the Wings’ impending regular-season series in Havana against the Sugar Kings, and some of them weren’t exactly overflowing with enthusiasm.
Eddie Stevens, a first baseman who’d played in the majors for six seasons in the late 1940s to 1950 but was in 1959 in the middle of a lengthy career second act in the minors, expressed some apprehension.
“I’m really leery right now,” Stevens said. “I can’t see walking into something like a revolution. But if we gotta go, we gotta go.”
Said another player, Tommy Burgess, when he was asked if particularly wanted to go to the island nation to play: “Positively no. I’m playing in the outfield, which makes me a very big target. How about my life insurance in a revolution? But I guess, in the final analysis, I’ll go if I have to.”
Pitcher Dick Ricketts also brought insurance into the matter, telling the paper that he had “double indemnity” coverage before adding that “if my insurance is no good, I don’t want to play there.” Fellow flinger Kelton Russell chipped in with some sly sarcasm, noting that if he’s having a rough day on the mound, “I sure don’t need to complicate it with a bullet in the back. Those bullets don’t know whether you’re neutral.”
(One player, pitcher and one-time New York Yankee Bob Kuzava, didn’t like playing in Havana under normal conditions because of the island’s culinary customs: “I don’t believe the eating conditions permit a player to play at top efficiency.”)
Bill Greason, the subject of my previous post who spurred my research on this matter, was also asked his opinion. His answer was characteristically understated for a World War II and Korean War veteran who survived the hellish battle on Iwo Jima.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Greason said. “I’ll go with the team. It wouldn’t be right to say I wouldn’t go.”
Then there was Frank Verdi, the subject of this post. What did he say about playing in Cuba?
“I very definitely do not care to play baseball in Havana with all the difficulties they are having there,” Verdi said.
Keep another pin in that point No. 2.
An emergency league meeting in Miami in mid-April settled the situation when IL executives decided to take out a $1 million insurance policy on the first four league teams to play in Havana that season. With that, the season progressed with the Sugar Kings and their much-liked owner Bobby Maduro still in the International.
But even with a resolution in place for the time being, it remained an uneasy, fragile sense of calm in the baseball world. With Batista showing a willingness to crack down on the rebellion with violence, and the rebels tenaciously persisting with their attacks on the government forces, no one was under any illusions that everything was A-OK, as D&C sportswriter Paul Pinckney noted in an April 16, 1958, column.
“No matter how minute,” Pinckney penned, “one explosive incident while Havana is entertaining International League rivals will blow the island capital off the baseball map.
“For many months, long before the political unrest there brought on armed revolt, I.L. officials had been masking in the public prints their true feelings about the Havana membership.
“Only their respect and admiration for Roberto (Bobby) Maduro … sidetracked abortive moves to drop the Cubans and admit a United States city into the oldest minor league in the game.”
The Wings ended up venturing to Havana for their three-game series against the Sugar Kings as scheduled April 20-21; they swept a doubleheader on the first day and lost to the Kings the second day. It seems the games went off without any significant hitches.
The Rochester club made a second voyage to Cuba that season; in August they lost a series in Havana with one of the Wings’ worst outings of the year. However, once again, the trip went smoothly.
Jump ahead to the 1959 campaign, and the Cuban civil war was lurching to a conclusion – the aforementioned victory by Castro and his followers following Batista’s abdication and flight from the country – leaving the International League and its member teams again coping with the ongoing dilemma of what to do with the Sugar Kings’ membership in the IL.
Maduro spent the first few months of 1959 on a lobbying blitz, traveling to various meetings and engaging in discussions with IL officials to convince the league that all was well in Havana, that they needn’t fret about the Sugar Kings, and that Castro was fully on board with preserving the Kings’ operations as well as the team’s league membership.
As part of his PR barrage, Maduro ventured to the Great White North to huddle with other IL executives at the league’s mid-winter meetings in late January, at which time he seemed to indicate that he and Castro were good buds. According to The Sporting News, Maduro went as far as to claim that if Castro and his troops had not been successful in giving Batista the boot, the Sugar Kings would have bolted to Jersey City already. It was Castro’s backing, Maduro asserted, that were keeping the Kings on solid ground.
By all appearances, IL execs readily bought Maduro’s claims. Reported the TSN:
“Maduro came here [to Montreal] prepared to defend Havana’s because of criticism from Buffalo [and that city’s IL members, the Bisons] that there is still danger of more shootings and unrest. However, no defense was necessary.
“The support was so heavily in his favor that President Frank Shaughnessy did not call for a vote on whether the franchise should be shifted. As it turned out, the Cuban situation was only a minor part of the meeting. …
“Maduro, who has always kept free of political entanglements, said he had been given assurances of complete cooperation by Felipe Guerra, Cuba’s new sports director. In fact, Maduro gave the impression that he could write his own ticket with the new government.”
TSN reporter Cy Kritzer further quoted Maduro himself on the issue of the Sugar Kings fitting into the new political landscape in Cuba.
“I have kept out of politics and intend to do so,” Maduro said. “I have worked always for the good of Cuba and not for any particular government.”
Maduro added that the new regime’s crackdown on numbers running, betting parlors and other illicit gambling operations would also boost the team’s fortunes.
The Cuban owner doubled down on the “Castro is a swell guy” line roughly two months later, when Sporting News scribe Jimmy Burns reported on the IL Miami Marlins exhibition series in Moron, Cuba.
“If Batista had remained in power,” Maduro told Burns, “baseball was finished in Havana.”
As the ’59 season commenced, Maduro made public reassurances that his team would remain in both the Cuban capital and the International League. In late April he told the New York Times, following a reported three-and-a-half-hour conference with Castro, who was now in power in the country, that the new leader and he had agreed to keep the franchise running as it was, with a plan for retaining its locale and its affiliation with organized baseball. Castro also arranged a $70,000 infusion of cash to Maduro’s team on behalf of the government.
(In fact – and this isn’t a joke – an AP story around that time even states that Castro said he’d even take the mound and pitch for the Sugar Kings if it would help keep the club in Havana. In addition to, you know, the civil war, the Kings were battling poor attendance, and Castro struck on the brilliant idea to boost turnout at games by letting him play. That didn’t happen, it looks like, but Castro did pitch in exhibitions at Gran Stadium, and he was also caught sitting in the Kings’ dugout during games.)
Such reports, coincidentally, came out just as the Red Wings were in Havana for a four-game set with the Sugar Kings. As far as the happenings on the field went, the teams split the series, and, to harken back a little to my previous post, Bill Greason contributed a stellar showing on the mound for the April 24 game. In four-plus innings of long relief, the former Negro Leaguer and future minister hurled one-hit ball. He replaced another former Negro League star, injured starter Marshall Bridges, who’d played for the Memphis Red Sox and would eventually spend parts or all of seven seasons in the majors.
Oh, and Frank Verdi – remember him? – clubbed two doubles and swiped a base. Unfortunately, the Wings lost, 1-0, succumbing to their lack of offense and a brilliant performance by Havana righty Vicente Amor on the mound.
D&C writer George Beahon was on the scene covering the whole experience. (You see, 60-plus years ago, when newspapers were daily, were dozens and dozens of pages thick and actually had lots of money, they sent their sports reporters wherever the home teams were playing to cover it. Life as a sportswriter in 1959 was pretty sweet. Today, of course, the D&C is about eight pages thick each day and couldn’t care less about the Wings, or the hockey Rochester Americans, because the paper is funneling all its meager resources into making sure the Bills are covered ad nauseum. But anyway …)
Emblematic of the Cuban people’s apparent distaste for attending Kings games was the fact that the four games against the Wings at Gran Stadium generated so little money at the gate that the Havana club was unable to pay a locally mandated $800-per-game guarantee to the visiting team.
In his coverage of the series, Beahon reported the news about the agreement between Castro (whose official title at the time was prime minister) and Maduro to keep the Sugar Kings in Havana – the discussion between the two had taken place in New York City, where Castro was giving speeches and pressing the flesh at the United Nations – as well as Castro’s offer to pitch for Maduro’s team.
In the April 23 edition of the Rochester paper, Beahon quoted what Castro reportedly had told Maduro in reaction to news reports that the Havana franchise was headed to New Jersey.
“I will solve their problems,” Castro reportedly told Maduro. “The Cubans can not [sic] leave Havana. If necessary, I’ll pitch for them.” (Insert eyeroll here.)
Beahon went on to quote Maduro, who indicated that Castro was willing to ask the leaders of the country’s economic industries – namely, sugar, beer and tobacco – to help by, among other actions, subsidizing the team’s broadcasting costs.
In a corresponding column, Beahon gushed about Cuba under Castro post-Batista. Pointing to factors like reduced food prices and costs of living for the country’s people; the end of the Batista regime’s often violent and murderous suppression of dissent; the crackdown on the corrupt black market economy; lowered or eliminated taxes and surcharges; the jovial, even helpful attitude of Castro’s soldiers; and an overall more welcoming atmosphere for tourists, Beahon painted a lovely picture of the current scene in Havana.
But that would eventually change, of course.
Two days later, in the April 25 issue, Beahon elaborated by further quoting Maduro, who said thusly:
“[Castro] and I spent over two hours alone in his hotel apartment. He threw everybody else out. … he wanted to get this baseball business straightened out. He said it would have been terrible if we had to move.”
Repeating that Castro would help the team sort out its broadcasting rights issues, Maduro also said Castro told him that Castro would be willing to establish a local player-development commission to continue to grow baseball in Cuba, with a possible goal of joining the American major leagues at some point.
“He repeatedly told me we would have no more problems with our franchise in Havana,” Maduro said.
But again, that would change.
And the reversal of the Sugar Kings’ fortunes began to unfold within a few months, because by July, apparently, Maduro was doing a fair amount of backpedaling from his public pronouncements in February and April by now claiming that he was prepared to unload the Sugar Kings if the 1959 season kept the franchise in the red.
The Miami Herald broke the story about Maduro’s comments about selling the team, and The Sporting News followed up on the matter. The media outlet reported that Maduro claimed the Sugar Kings were perpetual and perennial money losers while members of the International League, even with successful seasons on the field.
Apparently in May-ish – just a month after his proclamations of confidence – Maduro was ready to sell the Sugar Kings until Castro reportedly stepped in proactively to keep the Havana ball team going in Cuba. Maduro said he and Castro agreed that the Cuban regime shouldn’t directly subsidize the team, so alternate, more indirect means of support were undertaken.
For example, the Cuban Tourist Commission anted up some money, and Camilo Cienfuegos, the chief of the Cuban army, ponied up $10,000 for tickets for soldiers. In addition, the Sugar Institute purchased radio time to promote the team. Unfortunately, Maduro said, those funding infusions were already almost gone.
We now arrive where we started, in July ’59, when the Red Wings returned to Cuba for another series with the Sugar Kings as Castro continued to solidify his grasp on power and the atmosphere in Havana was becoming a little more fevered.
It’s July 26, and the scene on that day in Havana was as described in the previously cited article in the July 27, 1959, issue of the New York Times – festive to the edge of pandemonium.
Along with the parade, the plane stunts, the parachuters, the white pigeons and the balloons, and the surging, shrieking crowds jamming the streets of the nation’s capital, a baseball game was getting underway at Gran Stadium, where the Sugar Kings were hosting a Red Wings aggregation that somehow had to adjust to the swirling furor.
Just like what was transpiring out in the streets, inside the stadium crowds were celebrating the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution that had swept out the despotic, repressive, US-backed Batista regime and ushered in what would soon become the despotic, repressive, US-hated Communist regime.
By the end of the day, Paul Pinckney’s prophecy – that baseball in Cuba might be altered with a single calamitous event – would be proven quite accurate.
Because, with the score between the Wings and the Kings knotted at 4-4 in the 11th inning (some media reports said 12th inning), a few of those jubilant attendees packing Gran Stadium got a little reckless with their firearms.
And in one of the zaniest and frightening occurrences in baseball history, poor Frank Verdi – the minor league lifer and, on this night, the Wings’ third base coach – took a bullet to his noggin.
Don’t worry, he was fine – his headgear, coupled with an additional lining of rubber and plastic, deflected the .45-caliber bullet enough to prevent any real injury – and was checked out at Anglo-American Hospital and was released without being admitted to the facility. In fact, he was with his teammates when they skeedadled via plane for the mainland the next morning.
As it turned out, Verdi, who was left with some burning on his ear and shoulder after the grazing, had actually replaced Wings manager Cot Deal in the third-base coaching box; Deal had been ejected from the game for arguing a call earlier on. In fact, Deal later told Beahon that getting tossed by umpire Frank Guzzetta probably saved Deal’s life. The manager said that unlike Verdi, he wasn’t wearing a plastic liner in his cap and, unlike Verdi, he might have been killed by that stray bullet.
It’s an event that, even absent the particulars of that exact location and moment in time and, would seem patently bananas. But these weren’t dull times, and it certainly wasn’t a dull place.
Here’s how Beahon described it in his same-day coverage of the game:
“At midnight, the stadium erupted with side tommy gun chattering and rockets blaring off. There was firing inside and outside of the park.
“Verdi was standing in the third base coaching box. Suddenly, he wobbled and grabbed his head. Players and umpires surrounded him. He was not hospitalized.”
An ensuing United Press International article elaborated with further details about the hair-raising incident, including that Verdi was pegged in the right temple.
“If that bullet had been two inches to the left, all the team would have had to chip in five bucks apiece for flowers,” Verdo told the UPI reporter, who described Verdi as “still shaken.”
Later, The Sporting News interviewed Verdi about the incident while the Rochester club was held over in the Miami airport, and the Wings coach related his experiences with lingering amazement. Reported TSN:
“No one ever brought back a souvenir from Havana such as the one displayed by Frank Verdi, Rochester infielder …
“Verdi stuck his finger through a hole made in his cap by a stray bullet during a Rochester-Havana game … at Gran Stadium.
“‘I don’t think I would be talking to you if the bullet had hit squarely,’ he declared.
“Verdi was hit by the bullet during gunfire by celebrating soldiers in the stands, while he was subbing as third-base coach for ousted manager Cot Deal.
“‘I was wearing a rubber and plastic lining in my cap,’ said Verdi. ‘It saved my life. I have a wife and four kids at home. So as far as I’m concerned, I’ve had it in Havana. We went there to play ball, not to get shot at.”
Right after the shooting, umpires Frank Guzzetta and Harry Schwartz ordered the game suspended and telephoned IL president Shaughnessy with a full report. The UPI article went on to relate the event further:
“A Red Wings spokesman said more than 500 Rebel soldiers poured onto the playing field at the stroke of midnight Saturday, signaling the beginning of a July 26th celebration commemorating the attack on Moncada army headquarters that launched the revolution in 1953. He said the soldiers fired machine guns, rifles and pistols into the air and ‘everything was in a terrible state of confusion.’
“Police reported that 17 people were treated for bullet wounds in Havana early yesterday morning.”
Verdi wasn’t the only one to be grazed by a slug of lead – Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas also was struck by another errant bullet, causing a flesh wound in his shoulder that wasn’t serious.
For another perspective of the bizarre, unnerving experience, we’ll briefly go back momentarily to the guy who was the inspiration for these last two blog posts, I didn’t know about the Red Wings-Cuban-Verdi tale until after I interviewed Bill Greason at the Malloy conference this past June, so I didn’t ask him about the Cuban affair.
However, Greason was asked about the incident for an article in June in “Rickwood Tales,” the newsletter for the Friends of Rickwood Field, and here’s how he remembered the mishap:
“We were playing in Havana, Cuba on the night that Fidel (Castro) took over Havana. He came to the ballpark with some of his troops; and they were celebrating — firing those weapons into the air. One of them (a bullet) clipped one player’s ears. They had a big writeup about it when we got back home. … They were just celebrating the liberation. I think the leader of that nation had been Batista. That’s pretty good for 94 years old [Greason’s age]! (Laughing).”
The fallout from the incident in Gran Stadium was practically instantaneous and decidedly grim. Right after the shooting, Deal pulled his coaches and players off the field, and soon Red Wings players refused to play the remaining two games of their series with the Sugar Kings in Cuba.
As the Rochester team took off from Havana for Miami the next morning, Maduro stewed and steamed about the Wings’ stance and subsequent departure. He grumbled to Beahon that the Wings had used the shooting incident as an excuse to cut off a Rochester losing skein and avoid two more potential losses in a scheduled doubleheader in Havana.
Noting that the Wings’ early exit from Cuba could have negative repercussions from Castro, Beahon wrote that everyone wrote that all parties involved would try to save face with the new Cuban premier. Maduro claimed that “Rochester’s refusal to play today will damage baseball in Cuba, in our league, and baseball everywhere.”
The reverberations of the ugly incident rippled through the rest of the International League, including in Richmond, Va., where Laurence Leonard, a columnist for the News Leader newspaper, quickly chipped in his two cents. His words resonated partially because Richmond was home to the Richmond Virginians, another IL club at the time.
While Leonard started his column with the qualification that there “is no desire to become an alarmist,” then proceeded to ring alarms, asserting that “the time has come, it appears, for the International League to give thought, and very serious thought, to pulling out of Havana.”
Leonard added: “When players are fired upon, it’s time for action. …
“Cuban revolutions, uprisings or whatever you want to call them, may be all right by the Cubans. But why should baseball players be subjected to them?
“The Cubans … may claim things are orderly in Havana, but shooting in a ball park doesn’t indicate it. The Cubans may be willing to risk their valuable players to possible injury. That doesn’t mean other teams in the league have to do the same thing.”
Meanwhile, within a day or two Shaughnessy attempted to restore order and confidence among league teams and players, many of whom were reportedly unnerved by the shooting incident, to say the least. Shaughnessy firmly stated that despite the unrest and severe trepidation throughout the league, the IL would go ahead with its 1959 schedule, including all contests in Havana, noting that no one within the league had issued or submitted any formal complaints, requests or protests concerning the prospect of going through with the schedule.
Two days after the incident at Gran Stadium, the new Cuban government – either out of embarrassment or diplomatic calculation, or both – responded to the criticism and skepticism expressed by Leonard and other critics by taking steps to mitigate the potentially severe damage done to the new regime’s image by the mishap.
The country’s national sports director, a military man named Guerra Matos, extended an apology to the Red Wings, and officials attempted to reassure International League officials and teams that any future IL series in Havana would be completely safe for players, managers, coaches and staff.
Within two days, though, the beleaguered Maduro seems to have seen the writing on the wall, or at least a first draft, so to speak, of that writing; apparently tiring of losing money and walking on political and economic pins and needles in Cuba under the new regime, Maduro announced that he now was prepared to sell the Sugar Kings if he ended up enduring more red ink in 1959 after completing that season.
Maduro’s exclamation prompted Castro to commit more aid to the team.
“The Sugar Kings are a part of the Cuban people,” Castro was quoted as saying in the July 29, 1959 Sporting News. “It is important for us to have a connection with Triple-A ball.”
But such a connection rapidly became increasingly untenable as the Castro regime ramped up the level of bellicosity with America and its allies and the amount of boldness Castro and his cohorts displayed in reshaping the Caribbean island.
While Castro and his cohorts at first disassociated themselves from the idea that they espoused communism or similar far-left ideologies – especially while the revolution and civil war were being waged – it wasn’t long after the Castro administration took control of the government that their intentions were indeed to implement a communist system were made career as the regime nationalized several industries — including, most prominently, American ones — and the economy as a whole and began to engage in the same type of authoritarian crackdowns on dissent that the Batista government had employed.
Such developments, as history bore out, were received with a blend of reproach and fear by America and its allies, a reaction that led to several of the sort of recklessly impetuous recriminations (the calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion) or nerve wracking brinkmanship (the missile crisis) that came to define a Cold War that was increasingly being waged on several continents. Overall, the U.S. placed a stifling economic embargo on Cuba that’s existed, to varying degrees, for decades ever since, formally signaling that Cuba was persona non grata to America.
Meanwhile, between the domestic policies of the Castro government and the severe souring of international relations, professional baseball in Cuba was snuffed out. The storied, venerated Cuban Winter League and other intra-national baseball traditions were terminated on the island, and Bobby Maduro was compelled to sell his beloved Sugar Kings, who as an International League franchise moved to Jersey City and abandoned the Havana background they had called home for more than a decade.
Moreover, the Castro regime, placing singular emphasis on the Cuban national team, banned Cuban beisbol players from leaving the country to pursue other, possibly professional baseball opportunities abroad. With that, the tradition of supremely talented Cuban stars playing pro ball that began with Negro League stars like Jose Mendez, Cristobal Torriente, Martin Dihigo, Alejandro Oms, Luis Tiant Sr. and Minnie Minoso dropped to a trickle.
The restricting of Cuba’s rich baseball tradition spurred derision from some in the States, where journalists viewed the revolution and its social, political and economic fallout on the island with an increasingly jaundiced eye.
The Washington Post, in an editorial published in the paper’s Nov. 15, 1960, issued under the headline, “Psychopath’s Delight,” framed the drastic shriveling of big-time baseball in Cuba as a microcosm of the steep fallout from Castro’s assumption of power in the Caribbean nation.
“No one should be surprised at the news from Havana that Cuban baseball – or beisbol as the bearded beatniks down there prefer to spell it – is a casualty of the revolution,” the paper stated. “The Cuban Winter League which in former years drew great crowds to the island’s fine ball parks is rapidly going broke.”
The editorial listed several factors in the sport’s seeming demise in Cuba – the MLB ban on American players competing in Cuba, the migration of the Sugar Kings to New Jersey, the depressed post-revolution Cuban economy, even the American embargo’s blocking of the importation of baseballs for play – but said the issue ran even deeper than those developments.
The editorial’s writers went as far as engaging in stereotypes and obliquely racist images of Latinos to make their point, arguing, somewhat speciously, that Cubans traditionally used baseball as an outlet for their alleged natural hot-headedness and proclivity for violence.
“Baseball basically, if we may put it that way, has always been a substitute for aggression,” the editorial claimed. “… But Cubans have no need for such a substitute. Dr. Castro has given them the real thing.
“When Cubans feel hostile and aggressive – and they do sometimes, you know – they just hold a public trial, quite possibly in a ball park, and send a batch of their compatriots before a firing squad. Naturally, that takes care of their inner tensions, at any rate for the moment. There is nothing, not even a ball game with Cuban pitchers, quite like a round of executions for producing a deep sense of psychic satisfaction.”
Just four days before that editorial, the New York Times ran a news story about the implosion of the Cuban baseball scene, asserting, “Baseball, once the favorite sport in this island, is about to become a casualty of the Cuban revolution.
“Baseball parks are empty of spectators. No longer do small boys play ball in vacant lots, and no longer is the latest score the top news of the day. …
“The poor attendance at the nightly games here is caused by a combination of factors, according to sports writers.
“The middle and upper classes, who were always the most ardent baseball fans on the island, have been stripped of their possessions by the Castro regime. There is a lack of good American players. And the continual marching and drilling of the civilian militia composed of workers and students that leaves them no time for recreation.”
As stated previously, by the end of the 1950s, and as the country barreled along into its transition from faux democracy to communist dictatorship post-revolution, the Havana Sugar Kings were nearing their brief but tumultuous existence in Cuba.
However, Maduro’s squad went out with quite a bang – after finishing third in the IL in the regular season, they won the league playoffs to claim the IL crown. The Havana squad then outlasted the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in the Junior World Series in seven games in the Kings’ penultimate season in Cuba.
Despite this final flourish of greatness, the Sugar Kings’ days in Cuba were rapidly nearing a dour conclusion, and the franchise headed north in the middle of the 1960 season. Upon arriving in Jersey City in summer of that year, the franchise was renamed the Jerseys and took its place in the International League as the Reds’ AAA affiliate.
For his part, Maduro forlornly lamented the move to the States of the club that had been his baby in his beloved homeland for many quality years. In comments to the UPI in July 1960, Maduro said the franchise’s shift would portend the irreversible decay of baseball on the island.
“The International League is making a big mistake,” Maduro said. “Baseball was a strong link between the Cuban and American peoples, and it should never have been broken.”
Maduro further noted, though, that the Sugar Kings were awash in debt in Havana and claimed that he stood to lose even more money than he already had during his years owning the team.
Another person who didn’t receive the news of the team’s transfer was Castro himself, who, as he moved to consolidate power and establish a dictatorial communist regime, placed the move within the context of already-worsening relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
“American players when they came here got nothing but respect and admiration,” Castro declared defiantly. “The people [of Cuba] treated them cordially and there is no record of attacks on players of any kind. But violating all codes of sportsmanship, they now take away our franchise.
“It is another aggression they’ve committed,” he added. “We never told our players not to play in the United States in spite of attacks against us there.”
All along, though, both before and after the revolution, the sagas of baseball in Cuba and the man whose vision and viciousness radically altered the country’s destiny have always been entwined.
In his 2001 book, “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball,” Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria examined, among other topics, how deeply Castro and his regime impacted the sport of baseball on the island.
Asserting that few, if any, political leaders have exerted as much influence on their national sports as Castro, Echevarria stated that while it might be tempting to reduce post-revolution Cuban baseball and Castro’s passion for the sport to the realm of humor (especially given the very tragic conditions, economic devastation and violent suppression that caused, fueled and resulted from the revolution), the sport’s national standing post-Castro is neither frivolous nor insignificant.
“[B]ecause of the historical depth and relevance of baseball in Cuban culture and history, the commander in chief’s relationship to the national sport is no trivial matter,” he wrote. “Fidel Castro’s role in the sport during the revolutionary period is necessarily an important subject. In a sense it defines baseball in Cuba from 1959 until today …
“Given the inordinate length of Fidel Castro’s tenure in power, it is impossible to find even a close second in this aspect of his performance, and only the most ludicrous hypothetical comparisons come to mind.”
Echevarria stressed that baseball had been ingrained in the national ethos of Cuba and embedded in citizens’ personalities and lives from the nation’s inception after throwing off Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century. And naturally, as a Cuban himself, Castro possessed and nurtured his own love for the game.
“It is for all these reasons that the commander in chief wears not only his olive green military hat but symbolically a baseball cap as well,” Echevarria wrote. “He embodies the nation, and with it the martial yet ludic physical spirit of sport.”
Those long-standing situations – the national passion for the sport and its new leader’s devotion to baseball – made it not only natural and quite imperative to somehow retain the saturating presence of beisbol in Cuba.
In an article in the fall 2012 issue of NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture titled, “The Cause of Baseball: Baseball and Nation-Building in Revolutionary Cuba,” Kyle T. Doherty elaborated on the situation.
“While Cubans have embraced niche sports like chess and fencing, baseball has always occupied a rarified stratum in Cuba’s sporting culture despite its historical association with American imperialism,” Doherty stated. “This has continued to be the case despite drastic changes to the way the game was organized and presented to the Cuban public after 1959. In the wake of the Revolution, the sport came to have great importance to the state as a symbol of revolutionary ideals and defiance. The nature of the game [leant] itself to politicization by state actors. … In order to better capture the hearts and minds of the Cuban public, the revolutionary government set about shaping baseball into a spectacle that was equal parts training program and patriotic theater.”
Given the wide-scale overhaul of the nation’s government and economy from a system dominated by private corporations, corrupt capitalism, powerful business magnates and organized crime to one driven by the nationalization of the island’s biggest industries (especially of the ones formerly run by U.S. corporations that bore a paternalistic and parasitic view of Cuba and its people), the eradication of the wealthy classes and the suppression of dissent, the re-imagining of the national sport meant the elimination of the professional baseball that was owned by private interests and operated on the money-making motive.
“The end of professional Cuban baseball signaled the state’s appropriation of the sport into an important facet of the Revolution’s mission to promote ideals of self- sacrifice and egalitarianism,” Doherty wrote.
“For the revolutionary government, professionalism was but another way to promote inequalities, allowing the wealthy elite to field teams to perform for their amusement, while society’s less fortunate lacked access to modern stadiums, equipment, and instruction in the game,” he added.
So, then, came the departure of the Havana Sugar Kings and their beloved owner, Bobby Maduro, roughly one year after the military forces of the new Castro regime collided with the national sport in the festivities in July 1959 that resulted in poor Frank Verdi getting his head dinged by a soldier’s errant bullet. As baseball was nationalized and all U.S. influences were ejected and purged in Cuba, so went any involvement of America’s “Organized Baseball” on the island.
Also resulting from the remaking of Cuban baseball was the end of the storied Cuban Winter League, which folded after the 1960-61 season. The Cuban League had been launched in 1878 and had become the world’s first fully integrated professional baseball circuit, making its demise all the more heartbreaking.
For decades the Cuban League had blended the best in native talent of both races with the best of American talent, both Black and white, to form a multi-cultural, highly competitive and relatively lucrative enterprise for all involved.
The league was an egalitarian, culturally unparalleled venture in which the cream of the baseball crop rose to the top without regard to race, nationality or creed. It was an ultimate irony that such a democratic, multicultural endeavor was eliminated by a man and a regime that supposedly wanted to impose equality and fairness for all.
“When Almendares and Cienfuegos played the final game of the 1960-61 season it was obvious to people running the Cuban League that there would not be a championship the next year,” wrote Echevarria. “I do not think that anyone thought that professional baseball as it was known in Cuba was finished for good. As with everything else, changes appeared to be provisional, soon to be reversed when the new regime collapsed or was forced to correct its policies drastically. The revolutionaries were improvising under pressure. Most of those (of us) who left early believed that normalcy would return in the not too distant future … But the revolutionary leaders had other plans …”
The creation in February 1961 the INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes Educacion Fisica y Recreacion) proved key; “In March,” wrote Echevarria, it decreed the abolition of professional baseball, and plans to hold a national amateur championship were laid out.”
In the place of the Cuban League and Organized Baseball under Castro rose a national amateur system and network that cultivated the best Cuban prospects with the goal of forming the strongest Cuban national team as possible, one that would ideally put American baseball to shame. In place of professional teams (and the illicit gambling rings that swirled around those franchises) formed institutional teams from schools and colleges.
A key facet of the Castro regime’s overhaul of baseball structure and culture was spreading the sport into every corner of the island as a way to promote national unity, physical fitness and pride.
“Postrevolutionary [sic] Cuban baseball,” Doherty stated, “… became an insular system, retaining its finest players to represent Cuban self-sacrifice and patriotic fervor. Even the biggest stars renounced the material rewards of professionalism in favor of the purity of amateur play. Furthermore, producing athletes who could compete on the international stage served as proof that the island nation stood on equal ground with the United States, the country against which Cubans measured their progress and standing in the world. …
“The Castro government set to work transforming the game into a far-reaching state institution whose goal was both to inculcate revolutionary ideals through sports and to field all-star teams to represent the country on the international stage. Creating this revolutionary baseball apparatus required a host of changes. The revolutionary government promoted the sport as a quintessentially Cuban and nationalist pursuit.”
He added that a “principal goal of these reforms was to bring sports into the long-neglected Cuban hinterland. This new attention given to sports infrastructure in underdeveloped provinces marked a democratization of the game.”
And, of course, “[v]ictory in international competitions became the primary focus of the Cuban baseball apparatus,” stated Doherty. “The newly dominant Cuban national team was an ambassador for the Revolution— a demonstration of the nation’s vigor and also of a break with Cuba’s undistinguished performances in prerevolutionary international athletic competitions.”
Added Echevarria: “To the revolutionaries the notion of beating the United States at its own game became a cherished dream, even if it meant perpetuating an undeniable American influence. To common people the game was too deeply ingrained in everything a boy learned as soon as he was able to socialize and satisfy the need to play, to be easily abandoned. Memories of past games, even local or provincial, were too profound and could not be erased. So the decision had to be made very soon after 1959 to continue Cuba’s commitment to baseball.”
Echevarria continued, noting that the remaking of Cuban baseball established “something that many Cubans seemed to have wanted for a long time: a national championship that involved all regions of the island and that also broke down the racial apartheid of amateur baseball. To tie all this to the forging of a new sense of national identity, invested in the revolutionary government and its leaders, was a consciously followed plan that met with great success in many areas, but not without the same cost to human freedom and individual self-determination as in all other aspects of Cuban life.”
But what about the Sugar Kings and their owner themselves? All in all, the fate of the Sugar Kings, as well as professional baseball as a whole in Cuba, painted a dismal portrait of a country being dragged through more trauma, violence and decades as an international pariah.
Unfortunately, the roving IL franchise wouldn’t find any stability in New Jersey; after posting losing records in 1960 and ’61 and reaping scant success at the turnstiles, the Jerseys folded at the close of 1961.
The franchise rights were then purchased by the Cleveland Indians, who used them to launch a new club, the Jacksonville Suns, in Florida and entered the new team in the IL. The club lasted in Jacksonville through the 1968 campaign, but moved to Norfolk, Va., before the start of the ’69 season to become the Tidewater Tides, who have subsequently become stalwart members of the AAA-level IL. The franchise adjusted its moniker in 1993 and now exists as the Norfolk Tides. (The Virginia club will come up a little later in this post.)
Much of the background on the Havana Sugar Kings that I’ve included in this piece was culled from an excellently detailed article by John Harris and John J. Burbridge Jr. in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the Sunshine State, from 2016.
In the article, Harris and Burbridge ruminated on the Sugar Kings’ place in Cuban history and whether things could have been different for the country’s baseball fortunes.
“If the Sugar Kings were allowed to stay in Cuba,” they posed, “would this have been a mechanism for better relations between the United States and Cuba? Probably not, but the question is worth asking.”
Harris and Burbridge wrote that, despite the team’s tragic exit from their home country amidst historic upheaval in Cuba, “their years in Havana are quite uplifting.” They asserted that the Kings’ ability to win championships in 1959 while revolution swirled all around them “an amazing story.”
“The Sugar Kings were a team of destiny intertwined with something larger than themselves,” the pair penned. “Were they the best minor league baseball team in 1959? Probably not, but external developments created a much bigger stage on which they performed and triumphed.
“It is ironic that a team embodying a shared aspect of distinct cultures became the object destroyed by those cultures,” they continued. “The Sugar Kings were a team that straddled eras, an experiment with one shining moment but unfortunately never given the chance to fulfill its potential.”
Harris and Burbridge asserted that out of the Sugar Kings’ remarkable tale, Bobby Maduro made the best memories and deserves better recognition and plaudits for his ability to steer the franchise through the chaos.
While his team tried to settle in at its new home in the States, Maduro did his best to maintain his home and his prospects in Cuba. However, Maduro saw most of his business holdings be seized by the Castro government, which was in the process of nationalizing most of the Cuban economy and redistributing the wealth of the country’s wealthiest property owners and businessmen.
After losing his business assets and any real hope for socioeconomic survival in Cuba, Maduro found himself practically forced to leave his homeland for brighter prospects in the U.S., but it wasn’t to be – mounting debt and finances bathed in red led Maduro to divest his majority share in the Suns.
Following that, he returned as the Suns’ GM in 1964, but the sinking Jacksonville franchise folded the following year, causing Maduro to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. Saddled with mountains of debt, Maduro secured scouting/consulting jobs with the Dodgers and the Cardinals, followed by many years working for Major League Baseball’s Commissioner’s Office as the director of MLB’s Office of Inter-American Relations, from which he helped coordinate Organized Baseball’s relations with Latin American leagues and other baseball activities.
Maduro engaged in a few other job positions and business pursuits to make ends meet before passing away in 1986 in Miami at the age of 70, but by then he was starting to receive recognition for his monumental contributions to international baseball and to the development of strong connections in the sport between Latin America and the U.S.; he was inducted into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985, and the city of Miami renamed a 13,500-seat ballpark Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium in 1987.
In a bio on Maduro for the SABR Biography Project, Rory Costello wrote that “[a]long with all of the wonderful Cuban players over the years, Roberto Maduro de Lima helped weave baseball tightly into his homeland’s fabric. Yet few if any men in the game’s history have had such a broad worldview.”
Costello also included a quote from Maduro’s son, Bobby Maduro Jr.: “He was a national treasure in Cuba. He loved baseball. He loved el cubanismo.”
As far as the Rochester Red Wings go, my hometown team never returned to Cuba to play a professional or league game of baseball again. The Wings finished the 1959 season six games under .500 and worked through several more mediocre seasons before winning a league championship in 1964. They shifted their major league affiliation from the Cardinals to the Orioles in 1961, to the Twins in 2002, and to the Nationals in 2021, with the multiple championships and loaded roster in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Frank Verdi rebounded quite nicely from getting shot in the head and enjoyed roughly three more total decades in professional baseball, mostly in the minors, in various leagues and at various levels, either as a player, coach, player-coach, player-manager or manager. That included a brief stint skippering the Red Wings in the 1980s. Verdi retired in 1995 and was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in 2008. As colleague Eric Vickrey wrote in a SABR biography of the ol’ skipper, “Figuratively speaking, Verdi gave his life to baseball.”
Verdi passed away in July 2010, and by all reports, Verdi in later life lamented the fact that he never got a chance to pilot a major-league team, a feeling re-asserted by Vickrey in his SABR bio on the manager. In the bio, Vickrey quoted Marshall Brant, who played for Verdi’s Columbus Clippers squad in 1981–82. The Triple-A Clips are a longtime International League franchise that won the league championship in ’81 under Verdi.
“He always wanted a shot to manage or coach in the big leagues,” Vickrey quoted Brant as saying. “He was just jinxed for whatever reason. Maybe he rubbed some people the wrong way. He was not always politically correct.”
Vickrey also included comments from Mike Bruhert, who pitched for a Tidewater Tides club managed by Verdi. (The franchise is now dubbed the Norfolk Tides.)
“Frank was tough but had a big heart,” Bruhert said, according to Vickrey. He was one of a kind. If you played hard, you played, and if you didn’t play hard, you didn’t play.”