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Top 10 Plays in U.S.-Cuba Baseball Diplomacy

The historic U.S.-Cuba baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team is part of a 150-year-history of sports diplomacy.
Boys Playing Stickball, Havana, Cuba, 1999. Photo: Cliff (Flickr) August 12, 2010

Cuba and the U.S. have not always seen eye-to-eye. But the two countries have long shared a love for baseball, which each claims as its national pastime.

Similar to how Ping-Pong diplomacy broke the ice between the U.S. and China in the 1970s, baseball helped thaw relations with Cuba ahead of President Barack Obama's historic visit to the island. He and Cuban President Raúl Castro both attended a March 22 game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team.

More than a game, baseball has served as a conduit for numerous diplomatic and cultural exchanges over the past 150 years. Here’s a look at the history of U.S.-Cuba relations through a sporting lens with 10 notable baseball moments between the former Cold War foes:

1868: The first documented episode of U.S.-Cuba baseball diplomacy occurred in 1868 between the crew of a docked American ship and the Havana Base Ball Club, which had been founded that year by Nemesio Guilló, who is credited with bringing baseball to Cuba after he learned the sport while attending high school in Alabama. “Though not political in nature, this game loosely constitutes the first documented episode of U.S.-Cuba ‘baseball diplomacy,’” according to “Baseball Diplomacy,” by Justin Turner.

1886: The first visit of an MLB team to Cuba was in 1886 when the Philadelphia Athletics toured the island. This opened the door for more MLB teams in the 1890s, which came as U.S. companies were also seeking a foothold on the Spanish-controlled island, according to “The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad,” by Robert Elias. Cubans embraced baseball as an egalitarian symbol of freedom and democracy, blurring the line between sport and politics and spurring Spain to ban baseball competitions more than once, according to Elias.

1911: The first Cubans to play in the Majors were Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, who both signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 1911. The Reds would later also sign Major League Baseball’s first star Cuban: pitcher Adolfo Luque, who became the first Latin American to play in and win a World Series.

1946: Cuba fielded its first MLB-affiliated team in 1946 with the creation of the Havana Cubans, a minor league club connected to the Washington Senators. The team dominated their division, establishing a crucial link between the U.S. and Cuba just as Mexico’s professional league was starting to challenge MLB dominance, according to Turner. “Joining forces with Organized Baseball reinforced the idea that Cuban baseball was on par with the major league level and further encouraged hopes that Cuba would one day be home to a major league franchise of its own,” wrote Turner.

1959: Cuban baseball reached its professional high-point with the victory of the Havana Sugar Kings at the 1959 Little World Series, a pro-ball match-up between the champion of the Sugar Kings' International League and the American Association minor league. Spectators at the game included Fidel Castro, who had just taken power as prime minister in the Cuban Revolution. The following year, Castro nationalized all industry in Cuba and soon also abolished professional sport on the island. The Sugar Kings moved to New Jersey.

1979: After the deep freeze of the 1960s, numerous initiatives in baseball diplomacy were undertaken throughout the 1970s, with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saying in 1975 he was “for a [MLB] baseball team going eventually.” In 1977, a delegation of Houston Astros coaches and players traveled to Cuba to conduct free baseball clinics, and the same year Cuba’s prominence in U.S. baseball was acknowledged with the induction of Cuban-born pitcher Martín Dihigo into the Hall of Fame – a first for any Cuban player. The efforts culminated in 1979, when Team USA set foot in Cuba for the first time in 37 years to play in the Intercontinental Cup.

1999: The first MLB team to play in Cuba since 1959 was the Baltimore Orioles, whose 1999 game in Havana against a Cuban all-star team was decades in the making. “That game won’t be matched in terms of baseball diplomacy,” says Cuba baseball historian Peter C. Bjarkman. It marked a significant détente from 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton toughened the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in the wake of the Cuban Air Force shooting down two Cessna planes operated by a Miami-based anti-Castro group. Three years later, once Clinton had eased travel restrictions, the Orioles were granted permission to pursue a game in Havana before a crowd that would include Fidel Castro and former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

2006: Permission for Cuba to play in the inaugural World Baseball Classic of 2006 in the U.S. was initially denied by the administration of President George W. Bush on concern that Cuban spies might accompany the team. Only after Cuba agreed to donate any potential profits to victims of Hurricane Katrina – which served as a workaround to the U.S. embargo – did the U.S. Treasury Department permit the communist nation to play in the 16-team tournament. Cuba advanced to the championship final held in San Diego, losing to Japan.

2012: After a 16-year hiatus, college teams from the U.S. and Cuba resumed an annual baseball series that had stopped when diplomatic relations broke down in 1996. The renewed 2012 series was held in Havana, and since then has rotated annually between countries. “That renewal of the All-Star series was another step towards diplomacy between the US and Cuba for baseball,” says Bjarkman, the historian and author of “A History of Cuban Baseball 1864-2006.”

2016: The March 22 game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team marked the first time in 17 years that a Major League Baseball (MLB) team has played on the island, and perhaps the first time ever that a baseball game between the two nations had presidents from both countries in attendance. “It’s a hugely symbolic and significant event,” says Bjarkman. “It shows an effort on the part of Cuba for allowing the game to take place that they want to open up relations. It’s also an effort of the Obama administration to change the Cold War status of Cuba.” The March 22 game came months after Castro’s government allowed MLB to conduct a goodwill tour on the island with defectors including José Abreu of the Chicago White Sox and Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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Kurczy is a special correspondent to AQ.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Baseball, U.S.-Cuba