Havana's Forgotten Baseball Team Played A Key Role In U.S.-Cuba Relations

Once the Sugar Kings were relocated, "everything went to hell."
Members of the Havana Sugar Kings, a Cuban-based minor league team, during a game in 1957.
Members of the Havana Sugar Kings, a Cuban-based minor league team, during a game in 1957.
Transcendental Graphics via Getty Images

When President Barack Obama becomes the first sitting American president to visit Cuba since 1928 next week, the venue where he will take the next major step toward rebuilding ties will be the same place where the countries' relationship melted down nearly six decades ago.

Naturally, it’s a baseball stadium.

The Estadio Latinoamericano, which will host a Tuesday evening game between Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays and the once-vaunted Cuban national team (with Obama in attendance), was once home to a long-forgotten relic of Cuban and American baseball history: the Havana Sugar Kings, the first, and only, Cuban club to reach the Triple-A level of MLB’s minor leagues.

Sixty-two years ago next month, when the stadium was still known as the Gran Estadio de la Habana, 25,000 fans packed the stands to watch the Sugar Kings battle the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening game of the International League season.

It was a promising time for baseball, for Cuban-American relations, and, when it comes to the Sugar Kings, the prospect of bringing an actual Major League club to Havana.

Instead, the Sugar Kings became a political pawn, one of the last ripped threads in an increasingly fraught relationship. Instead of becoming a Major League club, the Sugar Kings were forcibly relocated to New Jersey in 1960, thanks to intervention from the American government and baseball’s commissioner.

Two years later, the United States enacted its trade embargo of Cuba, freezing the relationship that Obama is now trying to thaw. But while it remains the most politically contentious issue between the two countries, a series of moves from both sides led up to that final damning act. And the removal of the Sugar Kings, given the symbolic significance of baseball in each country, was among the most important moments in the destruction of their relationship.

“The moment they took away the Sugar Kings from Havana, everything went to hell,” Manuel Barcia, a Cuban-born professor at the University of Leeds who is currently authoring a book about the Sugar Kings, told The Huffington Post. “Everything went south, because there was nothing else in common between the USA and Cuba.”

“The moment they took away the Sugar Kings from Havana, everything went to hell."”

Baseball is a shared cultural experience for Cuba and America, and it has often exemplified the relations between Washington and Havana. The Sugar Kings were no different when they were established in 1954, a year after Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement launched its revolution against American-allied president Fulgencio Batista.

American ambassador Arthur Gardner was in attendance when the team played its first game on April 23, 1954, at the Gran Estadio in the Cuban capital. “Cuban representation on the diamond is not only good for baseball, it is good for hemisphere relations,” The New York Times wrote in the next day’s paper.

Over the next six years, the Sugar Kings -- a team with a distinctly local flavor -- developed into a steady supplier of Cuban Major League talent, sending players like slick-fielding shortstop Leonardo Cardenas and future MLB All-Stars Cookie Rojas and Mike Cuellar to the big leagues. Though the team often featured American and other Latin players alongside Cubans, it became one of the biggest symbols of national baseball pride, proof that the island's talent could compete with -- and beat -- that from its much larger neighbor.

When the Dodgers and Giants left New York in 1957 for Los Angeles and San Francisco, it set the stage for rapid Major League expansion -- and in Havana, Sugar Kings owner Bobby Maduro and other baseball boosters saw an opportunity.

“Havana, as a baseball hotbed, and at that time one of the largest cities in the western hemisphere outside the U.S., certainly considered itself ready” for a Major League franchise, said Peter Bjarkman, an author and Cuban baseball historian.

Even in the Sugar Kings’ final days, with the U.S.-Cuba relationship falling apart for good, Maduro assured Cubans that top-tier professional baseball was coming to the island.

But before MLB could start plotting a major league team in the heart of Havana, the Cuban revolution engulfed the Sugar Kings.

A ticket for a 1955 game between the Columbus Clippers and Havana Sugar Kings.
A ticket for a 1955 game between the Columbus Clippers and Havana Sugar Kings.
Transcendental Graphics via Getty Images

Batista fled Castro’s rebels on the first day of 1959, months before the International League season was set to begin. By that March, political turmoil and violence had begun to cause rumblings that the Sugar Kings wouldn’t play that season.

Maduro met with Castro for three-and-a-half hours in early April 1959, then greeted the media to put any speculation about the team’s future to rest.

The Sugar Kings would stay in Havana permanently, Maduro said.

But that July, pro-Castro troops preparing to celebrate the anniversary of Cuban independence unloaded their weapons into the air outside the Gran Estadio, unwittingly showering the stadium with falling bullets. The Sugar Kings were locked in an extra innings battle with the Rochester Red Wings that night, and the gunfire sent players scattering off the field. Bullets struck Sugar Kings shortstop Leo Cardenas and Red Wings third base coach Frank Verdi. The Red Wings refused to show up for the series finale and flew back to the U.S the next day.

The Sugar Kings rebounded from the incident to finish the season third in the International League standings before winning a playoff series that earned them a berth in the Little World Series, a competition between the champions of the International League and American Association, another minor league.

They defeated the Minneapolis Millers to win the series title -- another victory over American baseball for Cubans to celebrate -- and even resumed play in the International League the next April. But the shooting incident, along with the continued tension in relations between Washington and Havana, eventually overtook baseball.

The Eisenhower administration, seeking to exert leverage over Castro, a devout fan of the Sugar Kings and baseball generally, turned the sport into its own political tool. The Americans pressured MLB commissioner Ford Frick to relocate the Sugar Kings from Havana. In July 1960, Frank Shaughnessy, the league's president, announced that the team was moving to New Jersey immediately.

The Sugar Kings played their final game on July 14, 1960, in Miami. They arrived in Jersey City at 6.30 a.m. the next day, where a raucous celebration awaited the new baseball team. Thousands of New Jerseyites flocked to the streets to welcome the “Jerseys,” as the team would be known, but their interest soon waned. Before the 1962 season, the Jerseys were sold and relocated to Jacksonville, Florida.

“One of the things they both had in common, Cuba and the United States, was baseball”

Castro was appalled. He told Frick and the Americans that he would pay the team’s debts to keep them in Havana, and when the team left anyway, the Cuban leader accused the U.S. of overstepping “all codes of sportsmanship,” according to author Steven Kinzer’s account in The Brothers, his book about the former secretary of state John Foster Dulles and his brother, ex-CIA director Alan Dulles. Frick also banned Major Leaguers from playing in Cuba's winter league, effectively gutting one of the best and most popular offseason leagues in the Caribbean.

“This notion you hear... that Fidel Castro killed baseball with the revolution, maybe indirectly that's true. But Washington and Major League Baseball had a huge hand in pulling professional baseball out of there,” Bjarkman said. “Fidel did not do that himself.”

“It was something of a last point of contact between Cuba and the United States before the embargo,” Barcia added. “It was one of the last ways of communicating. One of the things they both had in common, Cuba and the United States, was baseball.”

As the U.S. government escalated its campaign to isolate and dispose of Castro -- culminating in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 embargo -- Castro insulated Cuban baseball further in response. He banned professional sports in the country and prohibited Cuban players from leaving for pro leagues in overseas. The Cubans who were already in Major League Baseball, as well as those who’d followed the Sugar Kings to New Jersey, weren’t allowed to return to the island to play for the national team.

Cubans didn’t seem to mind. The wealth of the country's talent that had once spread to America now stayed home, and the red-clad national team turned into a regional powerhouse that won numerous international tournaments. Cuban league teams like Industriales -- whom Barcia described as “the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball” -- became incredibly popular.

“That concept of baseball as being the face of the nation goes back before Fidel,” Bjarkman said. “He just exploited that further after the revolution.”

But the Caribbean country's baseball, and the way that Cubans looked at their sport, began to change in the 1990s, when players like Livan and Orlando Hernandez, brothers who defected to the United States and then won World Series titles as pitchers with the Florida Marlins and New York Yankees, became American stars. Additional defections followed.

It has had profound effects, both on the once-proud national team, which Bjarkman said is now roughly equivalent to a Double-A squad, and on attitudes among Cubans.

Sugar Kings manager Regino Otero argues with an umpire during a 1955 game in Havana.
Sugar Kings manager Regino Otero argues with an umpire during a 1955 game in Havana.
Transcendental Graphics via Getty Images

“The Cuban fans are now shifting their attitude, and they're taking pride in Cubans in the Major Leagues,” Bjarkman said. “The Cuban government has not made that transition, and I don't know how quickly they'll make that transition.”

Obama's swift moves to further open relations between the U.S. and Cuba will certainly continue to change those attitudes, especially if the Cuban government begins to transition in its approach to baseball as well.

But the president will see few signs of the Sugar Kings in Havana next week, Bjarkman said. Cubans are far more invested in the national and local teams than in a short-lived minor league side that existed before most of them were born. And it’s unlikely that there will be another team like the Sugar Kings in Havana any time soon. Baseball’s landscape has shifted so dramatically, and Cuba is so far behind economically, that even a small minor league team in the Cuban capital is hard to envision.

“You can't even finance a Double-A team without TV and major corporate sponsorships and corporations buying season boxes, while people in Havana go to baseball games for 13 cents,” Bjarkman said. ”I'm not saying it can't happen down the road, but... it's going to take 5, 10, 15 years to rebuild most of the [baseball] infrastructure in Havana.”

Major League Baseball first returned to Cuba in 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles played the national team in Havana. But Obama's attendance, and the shifting relationship between the two countries, could spark major changes in the way they approach baseball.

“Hopefully, it’s going to open the floodgates,” Barcia said of Obama's visit.