Jackie Robinson, who is he?
A ridiculous question. Everyone knows he is a great ballplayer but more importantly a man who through his own personal strength and perserverence overcame abuse and ridicule to pave the way for all black players in the Major Leagues and for Civil Rights thoughout the United States.
Barbaro Garbey, who is he?
Few may know. He will be remembered in Detroit as a member of the 1984 World Championship team. However, ask a Cuban ball fan or even the current crop of refugee major league players and they will say, as many do about Robinson, he was “The First One”.
Garbey is indeed, the first one. Garbey is the first post-Castro Cuban star to play in the Major Leauges. Unlike Robinson, Garbey is not the gentleman and folk-hero – he is much more controversial. Here is his story, in brief blog friendly form.
Garbey, born in Santiago de Cuba was born into an athletic family. His siblings were Olypians of some reknown. Garbey, at only 20, became a star with the Santiago National Series club, the Orientales of the Selectiva as well as the famous Cuban National team. However, in 1976 with a bright future, Garbey disappeared. He is in none of the records for the next few years. This is typical in Cuba with defectors such as the Hernandez’, Alexei Ramirez and other Cuban stars that have made their way into pro leagues. However, no one knew where Garbey was.
Then one day in 1980 Garbey showed up in Florida after getting off a raft and making an asylum claim on the Freedom Flotilla. Garbey, now 24 had been out of baseball for sometime but the Detroit Tigers took a chance on the exotic curiosity from this mysterious and sinister island only a few hundred kilometres from the Florida Keys.
After three very successful years in the Tigers farm system Garbey got a shot at the big leagues with the powerhouse 1984 Detroit Tigers. Garbey had a solid Rookie season appearing in 110 games. In typical Cuban fashion he was very versatile. Normally a DH, he played every positon except catcher, short stop and pitcher. Garbey was probably ready to be called up in 1983, he was tearing up AAA pitching in Evansville, when it was discovered where his missing years were.
While serving a suspension and drawing attention for the ensuing criminal investigation – Garbey had hit a fan with a bat in a post-game altercation in Louisville – a story broke that Garbey had been involved in a gambling scam in Cuba. Cuban ballplayers are paid very litte, they make the same salary as the people watching them. Cuban baseball is considered amateur but it really isn’t. Cuban ballplayers do not have day jobs. The teams are not business entities but rather provincially sponsored clubs. The players, even if they are Olympic champions or National team standouts they will not receive remuneration until their playing days are over. At which time they may get a modest house and a Lada automobile. Gambling and point shaving have found their way into the Cuban game.
Recently being in Cuba and seeing a society that does not function on a supply and demand system it is strange and hard to imagine how gambling would infiltrate the sport. Nonetheless, Cuban baseball was cleansed in the later 1970’s of the gamblers and many players and coaches were jailed, banned for life and stricken from the record books. This again is hard to imagine. It would be similar to looking at a box score from the 1975 World Series and having Pete Rose’s name and his actions blacked out.
Anyways, when the story broke about Garbey’s involvement in the gambling scam the American League had a mixed reaction. They wouldn’t let him play in the AL for the year but also patted him on the back for disclosing.
There have been similar scams in Cuban with similar results, but due to the difficulty to find information it is hard to verify claims.
Back to Barbaro. He faded out quickly and never had the success he did as a rookie. He suffered from injuries and played parts of only 2 more seasons in the majors. At the age of 31 he played his last game for the Texas Rangers in 1988. Since then he has been a minor league hitting coach and continues to preach sound fundamental baseball, the Cuban way, to his teams.