Nothing less than the history of
baseball has fallen victim to the crossfire between the United
States and Castro's Cuba
Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo
Durocher, left, shakes hands with Jackie Robinson of the
Montreal Royals before an exhibition game in Cuba on
March 31, 1947.
Jackie Robinson, top photo, of
the Montreal Royals looks over a roster of Brooklyn
Dodgers players while training in Havana in
Cuba produced many great Major
League players in the 1960s and '70s, including Tony
Perez who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in
The U.S. Negro Leagues were
stocked with Cubans such as Martin Dihigo a Hall of
Famer in four countries.
George W. Bush would love to be the president who finally
topples the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. He would also
probably not mind winning Florida by a somewhat more
comfortable margin in 2004, or seeing his brother Jeb get
re-elected governor this November.
With these goals as a backdrop, the Bush administration
launched a crackdown last July on Americans who have the bad
manners to spend money in Cuba -- 766 unlucky travellers were
fined up to $7,500 for violating the Trading With the Enemy
Act in 2001, up from just 188 during Bill Clinton's final year
as president. By punishing a tiny fraction of the estimated
200,000-plus Americans who visit the communist island each
year, Bush hopes to inflict indirect damage on the
septuagenarian tyrant who has confounded no fewer than eight
of his previous U.S. counterparts.
Which brings us to the revered Cuban baseball historian
Severo Nieto. Nieto is certainly among the most peculiar and
unsung victims of the long standoff between the United States
and the Castro regime. While perhaps less spectacular and
certainly less harrowing than many tales of repression
emanating from Cuba, Nieto's story brings to light a sad and
often unexamined effect not just of Castro's tyranny but of
American policy: how the U.S. embargo has the effect of
starving both sides of meaningful and important
The apolitical Nieto, who is a few years older than El
Jefe, basically invented Cuban baseball research in 1955 when
he co-authored the country's first baseball encyclopedia,
labouriously reconstructing the statistical record of the
professional league's first 78 years out of a mountain of
newspaper clippings, program scraps and his own scorecards.
Since that debut, Nieto has been on one of the longest losing
streaks in modern publishing history. He has spent a
half-century documenting Cuba's tremendously rich professional
past in more than a dozen books, but not a single one has been
published in any country.
"I tried several times," Nieto told me in his cluttered
Havana apartment four years ago, "but they say it's difficult
now in Cuba because we don't have any paper."
Castro has been overseeing one of the world's most
politically selective paper shortages for decades, reserving
precious pulp for odes to Cuba's famed amateur athletic
accomplishments while rejecting books that glorify anything
about the pre-revolution era.
Cubans are not the only ones who suffer from this
revisionist whitewashing. Americans want access to the
archives, because the history of the two countries'
professional baseball development is closely intertwined.
Indeed, the story of the U.S. national pastime is inextricably
linked to Cuba.
Long before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier (after
the Dodgers' 1947 spring training in Havana, incidentally),
Cuba was the only place where the best white major leaguers --
Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth -- played against some
of the top black talent of their era. The U.S. Negro Leagues
were stocked with such Cubans as Martin Dihigo (a Hall of
Famer in four separate countries) and black U.S. stars from
Josh Gibson to James "Cool Papa" Bell and Buck Leonard, who
spent their winters starring in the competitive winter league
During the tumultuous 1950s, the Cuban Sugar Kings served
as the AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds in the summer,
while winter-league fans could watch the likes of Brooks
Robinson and Jim Bunning duke it out with Cuban stars Minnie
Minoso and Camilo Pascual.
U.S. scouts, led by Papa Joe Cambria of the woeful and
heavily Cuban Washington Senators, fought over a talent pool
that would produce many of the names that defined Major League
Baseball in the 1960s and '70s -- Hall of Famer Tony Perez,
three-time batting champion Tony Oliva, 1965 MVP Zoilo
Versailles, three-time world champion Bert Campaneris,
cigar-chomping pitcher Luis Tiant and 1969 Cy Young Award
winner Mike Cuellar.
Even with a flurry of recent books about Cuban baseball,
such as Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria's The Pride of Havana and
Milton Jamail's Full Count, the historical record remains a
gaping hole, one that Nieto is uniquely positioned to help
"Very little information is available at this time. It's
truly one of the last frontiers of baseball research," says
Steve Wilson, senior editor of the McFarland & Co.
publishing house, which bills itself as the largest publisher
of serious baseball non-fiction. "Nieto's painstaking research
over several decades has resulted in a tremendous store of
information about this relatively unexplored area of baseball
The prospect of getting their hands on Nieto's unpublished
treasure trove -- which includes such books as Big League
Teams in Cuba, Martin Dihigo, El Maestro and Professional
Baseball in Cuba, 1878-1961 -- has left American baseball
historians salivating. Yet none of his work has ever seen the
light of day across the Florida Straits. The main obstacle to
the consummation has been a heartbreaking communications gap,
created by two governments that have been unable to budge from
positions of mutual hostility.
It's easy -- and not necessarily wrong -- to think of the
U.S. embargo of Cuba primarily in economic and political
terms: Washington hopes to starve Castro and his government to
death, or at least to the point of collapse. But after 40
years, it's transparently clear that people such as Nieto are
bearing the burden, impoverished as much by their removal from
an international community of cultural and intellectual
exchange as by their banishment from economic trade with the
When I visited Nieto, his most prized possessions were not
his various signed baseballs or ancient game programs, but
rather letters from Americans expressing interest in his
research. He proudly showed me carefully preserved
correspondence from Jay Berman, a historian of the Pacific
Coast League, and a number of historian-authors -- John
Holway, Peter Bjarkman, Larry Lester -- as well as the
publisher McFarland & Co. When I asked why these
encouraging notes hadn't led to anything concrete, he shrugged
and motioned to the telephone. "I can't call them," he
Most Cubans cannot make international telephone calls from
their homes. Many can't receive them. Wilson of McFarland
& Co. summarized the problem succinctly: "Mr. Nieto speaks
no English and is, we are told, hard of hearing, so we have
not tried to communicate by phone. Mail to and from Cuba is
unreliable and e-mail non-existent."
In the end, the only real way for Nieto to communicate with
his suitors and potential collaborators is for them to visit
him in Cuba. That's especially unlikely to happen any time
soon. The White House has plans to tighten the embargo.
Lawbreakers like me who go to Cuba are sent letters
demanding the names and addresses of every place they slept
and a full accounting of any money spent, upon penalty of
prosecution. (In my case, I gave the authorities a very
partial list and said that my non-American wife paid for all
our expenses. After that, I never heard anything back.)
Havana is seething with Cubans trying to pump dollars from
tourists. Walk through the central city as a blond man in a
white T-shirt and you'll spend your days hearing the hissing
"kss-kss!" sound of people trying to grab your attention. It
isn't all about money scams, cheap cigars and prostitutes.
Just as often --maybe more often -- the approaching strangers
and instant friends just want to talk, to practise their
foreign languages, to pepper you with questions about the
Who really killed Tupac? What are the lyrics to that Rage
Against the Machine song and what do they mean? How are the
people doing in Budapest and Prague now? Do American girls
like Cuban men? Why does your country keep insisting on the
bloqueo? How famous is Gloria Estefan? Why isn't Luis Tiant in
the Hall of Fame? These are all questions I heard during my
There are many things in Havana to be shocked by: the
rotted buildings, the child prostitution, the high price of
Cuban beer, the suffocating role of the state in virtually all
human transactions. But the thing I found most appalling was
the culture of information. Or, more precisely, the lack
The daily newspaper, Granma, is thin, horribly written, and
used primarily for toilet paper (what with the shortages and
all). The director of Cuba's sports Hall of Fame could not
tell me how many members it had. It took me a week of asking
dedicated baseball fans to find out how one could obtain a
schedule for coming games. Periodical libraries -- filled with
glorious back issues of Havana's handsome and competitive
round-the-clock newspapers from before the Second World War --
are off-limits to most Cubans.
Though people are generally smart and jaded enough to tune
out the government's propaganda, they don't have much of
anything to replace it with, except for the odd BBC broadcast
and contact with foreign tourists. Every conversation with an
American about the United States undermines Fidel Castro by
definition, because it surely contradicts the banal lies he
and his media mouth on a daily basis.
For Nieto, you can see the visceral pleasure and national
pride in his eyes when he meets someone who knows even a
little about Cuba's baseball greats: such legendary players as
the pitcher Dolf Luque, who passed for white and won 194 games
in a 20-year Major League career with the Reds, Dodgers and
Giants, and managed several of Cuba's most legendary teams;
pitcher José Mendez ("El Diamante Negro"), who threw 25
shutout innings against visiting big-league teams in 1908; and
Cocaina Garcia, a fat, little left-handed junkballer who
starred both on the mound and in the outfield for decades.
Yet despite his joy at meeting like minds from the United
States, Nieto has no way of knowing whether at least some of
Castro's depictions of Americans as vicious capitalist sharks
are true. Like several people who have met Nieto, I implored
him to make me a copy of one of his books on a floppy disk (he
has an ancient computer), so I could show it around to people
at U.S. publishing houses. He clearly wanted to, but said that
his son Eduardo, who lives in Spain, kept warning him about
getting ripped off by greedy, back-stabbing Americans. At the
end of our meeting, he finally agreed to have a relative of
his bring me some disks on a coming trip to Los Angeles. I
never heard from Nieto or his family again.
Other visitors tell similar stories. "Nieto had a friend
who attended the Atlanta Olympics and I was supposed to meet
him on the State House steps, but I was late because of
traffic and missed him," said baseball historian John Holway,
author of the Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues. "I
left messages for him at the press centre and wrote to Nieto
to apologize, but he didn't answer."
Jay Berman, a retired California State University at
Fullerton journalism professor and a charter member of the
Pacific Coast League Historical Society, said he was finally
able to bring back five of Nieto's disks a year ago, which he
sent off to McFarland & Co., the baseball book publisher.
"I think Nieto and his work could help finish up a lot of
questions," Berman said. "But because he is 79 years old
there's a very real question as to how much longer he's going
to be able to.... That's part of the frustration of the whole
McFarland & Co.'s Steve Wilson says that, after
"several years of active, fruitful discussions with Mr. Nieto,
primarily through intermediaries including his son," his
publishing house is now "hopeful that a book may eventually
result." No details are forthcoming, though the company plans
to bring out two other major volumes on Cuban baseball history
over the next two years.
For now, Nieto just continues to get older, while his
historian colleagues in the United States become far more wary
of travelling to Cuba because of Bush's policy of tightening
the embargo yet again.
"I talked with a friend in Havana yesterday," Berman told
me. "He says he's well aware of the crackdown and is
suggesting to American friends that they stay away until after
Jeb Bush is re-elected."
Does the diplomatic standoff leave any room for hope?
Members of the Cuba Working Group say yes, they plan to
reintroduce a bill overturning the travel ban this spring.
Maybe a politician running against the Cuban American National
Foundation will actually win a Florida election.
Perhaps Severo Nieto's long-suppressed works will finally
be published in the United States and in his native Cuba, to
great acclaim --the literary equivalent of a last-chance,
game-winning home run. But such moments are rare enough in
baseball, let alone in life itself.