Cuba's digital destination
It was mid-November and ninety degrees in Havana, but I was as cool as coco-glacé inside the air-conditioned bedroom of the former Tropicana model, Alicia Figueroa. This was our first meeting and Alicia paced as she talked on the telephone to a representative from Cubacel, the state-run cell phone company. She had just come in from Merida, where she lived with her husband, Mario Menendez, publisher of a popular leftist daily, as part of a delegation that was to attend Cuba’s yearly Havana International Exposition. The feria, as this trade show was called, seemed an ironic thing for a country that supposedly allows no private enterprise. It was a standard capitalist showcase for food products, furniture, cars, and electronics from Cuba’s trading partners, as well as items like lamps, handbags, and shoes that were manufactured locally. The feria opened the day after my meeting with Alicia, and she had many things to arrange and many old friends to contact before she had to appear at the convention center, a sprawling late-1970s complex set among the modern mansions of Havana’s Siboney neighborhood.
“Forgive me for this, but if I don’t activate my cellular, I’ll be stuck out there incommunicado,” said Alicia of the glamorous but remote neighborhood where Alberto Ardura built himself a house in 1958 (it now serves as a government guest house). An expert multi-tasker, the former model flitted around the bedroom of the apartment she still kept in Havana as she was put on hold, applying eyeliner, drinking coffee, chatting with a friend and former Tropicana dancer, Leowaldo Fornieles, who had dropped by to say hello.
I had much to do that morning; but doing anything in Cuba generally involves a great deal of waiting. So I entertained myself by talking to Fornieles, a rail-thin, red-cheeked chatterbox whose carriage unmistakably denoted him as a former dancer. Like most Tropicana old-timers, Fornieles had a treasure trove of impressions and almost-forgotten tales. “Marlon Brando was at the bar one night and in the dressing room all the girls were going crazy,” he told me. “Rodney told them, ‘Dejenlo tranquilo putas! [Leave him alone, whores!]’ He called the girls ‘putas,’ but he meant it without ill will. He loved the girls. Brando had already won the Oscar [in 1954, for On the Waterfront], but he was crazy for Cuban music and he flew down to find a tumbadora. That night he even tried to buy one off of Armando Romeu! In the end he left Tropicana without the drum, but he left for Club 21 with two of the most beautiful modelos, Berta Rosen and Sandra Taylor.” (Ofelia had forgotten about the Brando event until her memory was jostled by Fornieles’s recollection. When I told her about it, she said that she and Martín had failed to see Brando that night, but they had heard that the star had come to Tropicana dressed in a flowered shirt and casual slacks. “We had a closet full of men’s jackets and ties for that purpose. But I don’t think anyone went up to Marlon Brando and told him to improve his outfit.”)
“Oh, those were such beautiful days! We had so much fun,” said Fornieles, sighing. From a frayed blue airline shoulder bag he produced photographs of himself beside Leonela González. “That was the party after we returned from performing at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. It went on all afternoon and into the evening. When we got on the plane to go, Rodney offered a prize to the person who was best dressed for the airplane ride. Leonela was wearing a suit with two fur pieces, one on each shoulder—of course she won.”
In the days to come Fornieles would introduce me to several other Tropicana performers, such as Gladys González, a member of the dance pair Gladys and Fredy, as well as a male hustler who used to hang around the bar and pick up tourists and asked to be identified only as Pepe. Pepe’s stories ranged from the titillating (“the house knew what we were up to, and they encouraged us to be there”) to the positively scandalous. (“The one guy you had to watch out for was Papo Batista, the president’s son. If he took a shine to you, te ponia en candela!” which roughly means, “you’d be in big trouble.”) But those and other tales of gossip were still days away when I sat on Alicia’s leopard-print bedspread. Then Fornieles was eager to talk about himself.
“I was in the chorus for… oh, had to be five years, or more! I worked with Roderico, with Tomás [Morales]. I was in the show that went to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, I worked with Rosita Fornés, also with Celia Cruz in Bongo congo, which went to the Miami auditorium after the revolution in fifty-nine. My brother was there at the time, he was a pitcher with the Red Sox, and I called him in Boston, because you know in those days”—he lowered his voice—“everyone was staying. It was the time. So I asked my brother what to do and he said, ‘Don’t be crazy! Now that Batista’s gone is when we should go back. I’m returning after the baseball season.’” Fornieles seemed to disappear into his chair as he talked of his brother, right-handed pitcher Jose Miguel “Mike” Fornieles, who was with the Boston Red Sox at the time, but began his major league career in September 1952 by pitching a one-hit game for the Washington Senators. Fornieles played next for the White Sox and then the Orioles, finally joining the Red Sox in 1957. This was at a time when the sheer number of Cuban players in the majors, and the number of American pros who played in Cuba during the winter season, made the difference between the two countries’ baseball leagues practically inconsequential. America’s national pastime is also Cuba’s obsession. For nearly a century it joined the two countries more than anything else.
Baseball made its way to Cuba sometime around the mid-1860s or the 1870s, roughly thirty years after it was supposed to have begun in the United States. It was brought to Havana by middle- and upper-class Cubans who were studying in the United States. Both Estéban Bellán, who played on Fordham University’s baseball team in 1871, and Nemiso Guillo, who was at the University of Alabama roughly ten years earlier, are anecdotally credited with being the first to return to the island with bats and balls in their suitcases. The presence of American sailors and businessmen led to the game’s rapid dissemination across the island. According to historian Roberto González Echevarría, whose book The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball provides a thorough account of the subject, so popular was baseball in Cuba in the 1890s that guides for visitors included the location of the baseball clubs, complete with ballrooms for dancing the danzón. By the time of the war with Spain in 1898 and the four subsequent years of United States occupation, there already existed a Cuban baseball league (official statistics were kept as of the 1885–86 season); Cuban players were in the major leagues; and American teams like the Negro Leagues’ Cuban X-Giants (González Echeverría reports that the use of the word Cuban in the name of this most famous of the Negro League teams is a sign of the early influence of Cuba on United States baseball) and a barnstorming team of major leaguers called the All Americans were coming to Havana to play against the Cubans.
By 1920, the two nations’ baseball communities were as inextricably intertwined as the cork and rubber inside a baseball. Regular visits to Havana by Negro and major league teams such as the Cuban X-Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, and both the Philadelphia Phillies and Athletics continued. Charles Stoneham and John McGraw brought the New York Giants down regularly, possibly so they could spend time at Havana’s Oriental Park, which they had purchased in 1919. Babe Ruth arrived in October of 1920 for the beginning of the Liga Nacional de Base Ball de la Republica de Cuba’s regular season—it was the year that he had hit fifty-four home runs for the New York Yankees—and made two thousand dollars a game playing with the Giants against the Havana teams Habana and Almendares. (It was reported that “the Babe,” an avid gambler, lost most of his earnings betting on jai alai.)
Because Cuban teams were not racially segregated, when American players began regularly going south for la Liga’s winter season, Havana became the first arena for integrated baseball. Years before Jackie Robinson broke through the color line in Brooklyn, players such as Ty Cobb and Carl Hubbell faced Cubans of all races and members of the Negro Leagues in Havana. “If a proving ground was necessary to show that blacks could compete with whites, that the two could co-exist on the same squad, or to dispel any racial shibboleth,” wrote Rob Ruck in the fifth edition of Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, “Caribbean baseball was just that.” Nonetheless, Cuban players who played together in the winter season suddenly found themselves segregated when they went north. The contradiction, wrote Ruck, was not lost on the American public.
In the 1930s and 1940s, both the Major League and the Negro Leagues were filled with Cubans. Some were exceptional athletes, heroes on both sides of the Straits of Florida. Matanzas native Martín Dihigo, who played in the Negro Leagues for twelve years, became a member of the halls of fame of the United States, Cuba, and Mexico. The website of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, names Dihigo “perhaps the most versatile player in baseball history.” Almendares pitcher Adolfo Luque had twenty seasons with teams such as the Cincinnati Reds, where in 1923 he had a 27 and 8 record and a 1.93 ERA, considered to be one of the best records of any pitcher in major league history. In the United States he was known as both the “Havana perfecto” and “The Pride of Havana.” (Ofelia also remembered that he was the subject of a rumba entitled “Papa Montero,” and that he was famous in Cuba for losing his temper and breaking Casey Stengel’s nose during a Giants-Reds game.) In addition to these standouts, there was a constant flow of players between the countries. The Washington Senators actively began recruiting in Havana following the 1933 World Series, when Luque’s relief stint at the mound shut out the Senators in the seventh game.
Yet perhaps the most important connection between Cuban and American baseball was eventually formed in the minor leagues. In 1954, the Havana Sugar Kings were established as an AAA International League team affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. It was considered by many to be the first step towards the establishment of a Cuban-based major league franchise. Though the Sugar Kings’ roster included many Americans as well as players from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and Panama, the team reveled in the association with Cuba. On the road in their first season, it brought along its own eleven-piece charanga band, which played whenever the team was at bat. In October of 1959, almost ten months after Batista had fled the island, the Sugar Kings won the Minor League World Series in Havana. Fidel Castro threw out the first ball in front of thirty thousand cheering supporters who gave him a standing ovation.