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THE PRIDE OF HAVANA: A History of Cuban Baseball;\o7 By Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria; (Oxford University Press: 464 pp., $35)\f7

May 02, 1999|TOM MILLER | Tom Miller is the author of "Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro's Cuba" (Basic Books). He worked as a consultant to ESPN in Havana when the Baltimore Orioles played in March

Baseball has always enjoyed a prominent position in American history. In timelines, it corresponds with developments in transportation, industrialization, westward expansion and corporate mergers. In Cuba, however, the sport doesn't parallel history: It is entwined with it. The same impulses that gave rapid popularity to Cuban baseball during its initial era from the mid-1860s to the first U.S. occupation in 1898 likewise inspired breakthroughs in music, dance and literature. On the surface, their game appears just like ours--three strikes yer out, a neatly executed double-play, going, going, gone!--yet as Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria explains in "Pride of Havana," the game in Cuba spread with the enthusiasm for independence from Spain, and to play second base was to similarly oppose colonial rule.

That the publication of "Pride of Havana" and other forthcoming books on the same subject coincides with all the commotion about the Cuba-Baltimore series is mere happenstance. These books have been long in the making, yet one is perplexed that there has been virtually nothing written about Cuban baseball in this country in the past. In "The Pride of Havana" (the name comes from a nickname for Dolf Luque, the well-known Cuban player-coach-manager who spent the years 1914-'35 in the Majors), Gonzalez Echevarria gives us an extraordinarily complete history of the game on the island. I say extraordinarily not just for its breadth and depth but because of its excruciating chronological detail, sometimes game-by-game, inning-by-inning, batter-by-batter, pitch-by-pitch. The author, a professor at Yale noted for his writing on the broad range of Spanish-language literature, presents a clear and present danger to readers: Prepare yourself not just for the broad sweep of Cuban baseball--a story as compelling as any to come off the island--but also for stultifying detail that on occasion makes "The Pride of Havana" read like a prose version of the statistic-laden "Baseball Encyclopedia."

"Pride" begins with an account of the Tuesday, Feb. 25, 1947, game between Cuba's two leading teams, an event the author considers the pivotal contest in the nation's history. It not only pitted the two grand old men of Cuban baseball, Dolf Luque and Mike Gonzalez, against each other in a strategy-filled contest as managers, it also represented the last game truly independent from American influence. Before the victory by Almendares over Havana, Cuban baseball developed on its own: Its leagues were haphazardly arranged, almost anarchic at times; its players were free agents who could walk across the street for a better deal; seasons were often inexplicably canceled in the home stretch; and owners traded their teams and even stadiums as one might trade properties in a Monopoly game. This made for an altogether enjoyable sport, confusing only in the way Southern California's freeways are to outsiders but innately understood and appreciated by the natives. Beginning the next season, however, an accord between the United States and reluctant baseball interests in Cuba regulated who could play how many games of winter ball in Cuba, formalized relations between teams on the island and in the States and, in effect, made baseball in Cuba beholden to U.S. sports management. It was baseball's Platt Amendment.

Baseball in Cuba began during our Civil War, as near as the author can determine, when Nenesio Guillo returned home from college in the States in 1864 with a ball and a bat, "the first to be seen in Cuba." Guillo and a couple of other U.S.-schooled chums started playing almost immediately, and the game spread from there. It took off so fast that within 15 years ballplayers from the States traveled to Cuba to play, a pattern that has continued to the present (albeit fairly irregularly and low-key in the Castro years). Baseball was played by the U.S. military occupying force, whose presence from 1898 forward included ballgames against Cubans.

In its initial decades, organized baseball was usually played on Sundays, "between the city and the countryside, between art and nature." After a game, "a sumptuous dinner and dance" took place "at which the players celebrated with each other with toasts and bantered about the game . . . often reading poems and other literary texts." Cuba's struggle for independence was, in part, a "conflict between the modern spirit guiding the Creole elite . . . and the backward spirit of the mother country." In other words, baseball versus bullfighting. Guess who won.

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