What do you do when you have just overthrown the Cuban government? If you are Fidel Castro – you start a barnstorming baseball team!
Five days after Castro had seized power in Cuba, members of Castro’s guerilla army – known as the 26th of July Movement – were invited to attend a Havana Cuba Sugar Kings game for free. These guerillas were known as “Barbudos” – the bearded ones – and beard length was a point of pride as it was used to determine length of time served in the movement. The crowd stood to sing the July 26 movement’s anthem and gave a long standing ovation to the guerrillas. Soldiers and players mingled. When Carlos Paula hit a home run, one of the Barbudos jumped onto the field and embraced him. It was a time of celebration at Gran Stadium (now Estadio Latinoamericano). Baseball was again at the heart of Cuba’s nationalism, even though Fidel had yet to reach Havana.
Castro knew how important baseball was and how integral it was to Cuba’s social fabric. One of his first acts as President was to pledge to underwrite the debt of the Havana Cuba Sugar Kings. With the Sugar Kings perched at the top of the International League standings (on their way to an eventual title), Fidel made it clear that he wanted the pride of Cuban baseball to continue, “even if I have to pitch.” To raise money for this cause, the barnstorming baseball team played exhibition games and donated the proceeds to the Sugar Kings. The team consisted mostly of members of the 26th of July movement. The team was aptly named “Los Barbudos” (The Bearded Ones).
Fidel was a long-time baseball fan and often attended Sugar Kings games at Gran Stadium. In fact, Castro had been a pitcher during his days at the University of Havana. On July 24th, 1959, Castro staged an exhibition game between Los Barbudos and the Cuban National Police prior to a game between the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings.
The organizers of the event decided that Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos (Fidel’s right hand man, next to Ché of course) could represent the Police as a pitcher. The “Hero of Yaguajay” (as Cienfuegos was known) refused, stating “I won’t be against Fidel, in life or in baseball.” Barbudos used Cienfuegos as their catcher and he ended up being Fidel’s battery mate, taking over from Guerra Matos (who was the country’s Sports Director).
The team was managed by Eduardo Castellano and included such players as Raul Catala, Laudelio Reyes, Alfredo Carvajal, Ilcibiades Santos, Ruben Tamayo, Ronaldo Sanchez, Amador Torres, Ramiro Rodriguez, Sergio Garcia and Bernardo Hechavarria, who later went on to play professional ball.
The beards gave the team a distinct House of David look and were a peculiarity since beards were out of fashion at the time. A program guide published by a cracker factory features Fidel on the cover clad in a Barbudos uniform. The caption reads “FIDEL CASTRO RUZ: star pitcher of the glorious Cuba Libre Club.”
Fidel ended up pitching 1 scoreless inning for Barbudos in this exhibition, in front of 26,532 fans (many of them Castro supporters), the largest crowd of the year for an International League game. It was said that Castro sported an impressive loopy curveball. The Sporting News reported that Castro pitched one inning and struck out two, partly with the aid of the umpire. “When the umpire called the batter out on a high, inside pitch, Castro dashed to the plate and shook hands with the ump.”
The following day, mayhem ensued. The next game of the series between Rochester and Havana happened to fall on the eve of the anniversary of the 26th of July movement. When the clock struck midnight to mark the anniversary, fans erupted in singing, dancing, flag-waving and gunfire. The random gunfire continued throughout the rest of the game, which was eventually called – but not before the Cuban shortstop and Rochester’s third base coach had been shot. League officials cancelled the remaining games of Havana’s homestand.
That Barbudos team boosted the popularity of the national sport for Cubans and they helped to strengthen the roots so that the sport became a right of the people. EL MIEDO A LOS BARBUDOS! THE FEAR OF THE BEARDED.
Listen to the Los Barbudos theme song:
As an aside, there is a long standing rumour that Fidel Castro was scouted and offered professional contracts by the Washington Senators and the New York Giants. This is false. 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 book “The History of Cuban Baseball”:
I have written a book that I hope will correct some of the views Americans and others have of Cuban baseball. To me, the most vexing example of how lightly and condescendingly the history of Latin baseball is dealt with in the United States involves a story about Fidel Castro that I would like to set straight here once and for all.
Every time I mentioned that I was writing a book about Cuban baseball, the first thing Americans said had to do with Fidel’s (which is how we Cubans call him, never “Castro”) alleged prowess in the sport, and the irony that, had he been signed by the Senators or the Giants, there would have been no Cuban Revolution.
The whole thing is a fabrication by an American journalist whose name is now lost, and it is never told in Cuba because everyone would know it to be false.
Let it be known here that Fidel Castro was never scouted by any major-league team, and is not known to have enjoyed the kind of success in baseball that could have brought a scout’s attention to him. In a country where sports coverage was broad and thorough, in a city such as Havana with a half-dozen major newspapers (plus dozens of minor ones) and with organized leagues at all levels, there is no record that Fidel Castro ever played, much less starred, on any team. No one has produced even one team picture with Fidel Castro in it. I have found the box score of an intramural game played between the Law and the Business Schools at the University of Havana where a certain F. Castro pitched and lost, 5-4, in late November 1946; this is likely to be the only published box score in which the future dictator appears (El Mundo, November 28, 1946). Cubans know that Fidel Castro was no ballplayer, though he dressed himself in the uniform of a spurious, tongue-in-cheek team called Barbudos (Bearded Ones) after he came to power in 1959 and played a few exhibition games. There was no doubt then about his making any team in Cuba. Given a whole country to toy with, Fidel Castro realized the dream of most middle-aged Cuban men by pulling on a uniform and “playing” a few innings.
Below are some photographs from the game:
Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro take in a game at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. Photo via Dave Hoekstra