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From The Press Box

by: Amaury Pi-González

Sixty-two years before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues, with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Cuban Giants were the first salaried African-American professional baseball club in the United States. The team got its name because they played in Cuba during the winter of 1885-1886. There are 21 countries in Latin America, including Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean. All the players with the Cuban Giants were born in Cuba.

Throughout history, Cuba has been the first Latin American country with proven baseball talent. Not only the Cuban Giants ball club, but many US-born black players (who could not play in the US because of segregation) went to Cuba and played there and were welcome there. Cuba, the country, has always been linked with the origins of American baseball. Anybody who researches baseball history will find that the Cuban League was one of the oldest baseball leagues in the world. For decades, American major leagues kept black players off their roster. They were integrated into Cuba after the Spanish-American War in 1900. This increased after Cuba won its independence from Spain in 1902.

Esteban Bellán, a Cuban-born player of white skin, was the first Latino to play in a US-organized professional baseball league in 1871 with the Troy Haymakers; Bellán later served as player-manager in 1878 for the home Havana side and led his team to three championships in 1878-1879, 1879-80 and 1882-83. As a winter league in Cuba, the season begins in late winter one year and ends during early winter of the next.

As a young kid in Cuba, I remember going with my father to the Cuban Winter League games and watching such stars as Cuban-born Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, the first black Latino player in MLB with the Cleveland Indians as a rookie in 1949, who later found his stardom with the Chicago White Sox. Miñoso played with the Marianao Tigers.  Many US born black players went to Cuba to play in this popular league. With the Cienfuegos Elephants, I remember outfielders Lou Jackson and Jim Williams, both African-American players. Cienfuegos had such established Cuban major league stars as Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos.

At the end of the 2023 season, there were dozens of Cuban players in the major leagues; many established stars and among the best, like Yordán Alvarez, José Abreu, Adolis García, Randy Arozarena, Yandi Díaz, Aroldis Chapman, Luis Robert Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

The great Willie Mays signed with the Almendares Alacranes, (one of the most popular teams in Cuba) in the winter of 1950, but he would never go to play in Cuba (then as a top prospect) because the United States Army drafted him to serve in the Korean War.

Quote: “I played in Cuba; it was the best winter league back then, not only because of talent, but they paid the best”  -Bill Werle, told me personally. He pitched in the majors with the Pirates, Cardinals, and Red Sox. Born in Oakland, he lived in the Bay Area and worked as a major league scout for various organizations after he retired. Bill pitched in Cuba for the Marianao Tigers and won a championship in 1957-58 season.

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