The two-game series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team last spring evoked memories of the days when Havana was a part of organized professional baseball. For fifteen years Havana was home to teams in the Florida International League (1946-1953) and then in the International League (1954-1960).
It took a former amateur player, one Fidel Castro, to close the island to professional baseball and to shut off the stream of talented players who brought their unique flair to the game. Only in the last decade has the trickle of native Cuban talent reemerged.
The incident most widely associated with the end of the Cubans/Sugar Kings occurred forty years ago this past season. With the assistance of one of the main participants in the event, we now return to that season.
On January 1, 1959, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista flew to exile in the Dominican Republic and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro took over the government. In the days and months following the overthrow, the Cuban populace celebrated their liberation from dictatorship and their merriment made its way to Gran Stadium, the home of Havana's Sugar Kings.
The Sugar Kings were an independently owned team stocked with players from the Cincinnati Reds organization. The roster featured future major leaguers Luis Arroyo, Mike Cuellar, Tony Gonzalez, Jesse Gonder, Orlando Pena, and Leo Cardenas. They were supported by former major leaguers Sandy Consuegra and Raul Sanchez and a cast of career minor leaguers, most of whom were native Cubans.
As the 1959 season passed its mid-point, a late-July homestand included a visit by the Rochester Red Wings, a second-division team nearing the end of its three decade association with the St. Louis Cardinals. On Saturday, July 25, the regularly scheduled night game between Havana and Rochester was preceded by the completion of a game suspended by curfew during the Red Wings' previous visit. The final two innings of that game were played and Havana emerged victorious, 1-0.
The scheduled game began late and continued far into the night. As midnight struck, a military and civilian celebration exploded into lights, flags, music, and gunfire. Initial emotions of uncertainty and fear arose among the players and eased only slightly as the mayhem subsided. The game, once restarted, continued into extra innings as Havana tied it in the ninth inning. Rochester took the lead in the top of the eleventh inning on a Billy Harrell home run, but the Sugar Kings responded quickly with a double from the bat of Jesse Gonder. As Gonder ran toward second base, Rochester manager Ellis "Cot" Deal noticed that Gonder had missed first base. Deal immediately confronted first base umpire Frank Guzzetta who, as part of a
three-man umpiring crew, was running toward second base ahead of Gonder and did not watch the runner behind him.
The debate between Deal and Guzzetta escalated to Deal's giving the umpire the choke sign. Guzzetta's response was immediate and Deal was out of the game as the crowd again increased its din to the accompaniment of increasing gunfire.
In his memoirs entitled 50 Years in Baseball, Deal describes the scene as he departed. "The noise was tumultuous as I walked to our dugout and turned over the lineup cards and handling of the club to Frank Verdi, my player-coach". Following Deal's departure, the game continued and Gonder was driven home to tie the score and take the game into the twelfth inning.
With Verdi now coaching at third base for Rochester, catcher Dick Rand led off the twelfth with a ground out to Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas. Before the next pitch was thrown, shots rang out again in the stadium. Within seconds both Verdi in the coach's box and Cardenas at shortstop dropped to the ground in pain. Verdi, the first struck, was hit in the head. Through great good fortune, he was wearing the plastic batting liner he used while playing in the game earlier and the bullet deflected off the liner, through the lower portion of his ear, and onto his shoulder. Stunned but not seriously injured by the .45 slug, Verdi was asked by screaming umpire Ed Vargo if he was O.K. At the same time, shortstop Cardenas was shaking off the pain from a bullet which grazed his right shoulder. The umpires immediately called the game and players, coaches, and umpires made a mad dash for their respective clubhouses as the shooting continued.
Following the game, the umpires called league president Frank Shaughnessy for a ruling about playing the game scheduled for Sunday afternoon. The Sugar Kings wanted to replay the incomplete game as part of a Sunday doubleheader. But Deal and Red Wing General manager George Sisler, Jr., had already decided their course of action, consequences notwithstanding. In his book, Deal relates his words to the team, "'Gentlemen, pack your bags. We are not going out there this afternoon'". Despite pressure from Cuban officials to play, Deal and Sisler remained firm and, after spending a tense night at the hotel, flew with the team to Miami on Sunday evening. Deal and Verdi, who by then had only a slight headache, sat together on the plane. In Cot's words, "We sat quietly for a while, both pondering the seriousness of what we had just experienced. 'I just thought of something', Frank said gravely, "you don't wear an insert in your cap - and if you had been standing where I had been standing... Do you realize that getting the thumb might have saved your life!'". Though his response was unrecorded, one senses that Cot Deal was very much aware of that fact.
Less than a week later, with the team in last place, Deal resigned as Red Wing manager and was hired by the Cincinnati Reds as pitching coach to replace Clyde King. Ironically, King had vacated that post to become Deal's successor as Red Wing manager. Deal, on another coincidental note, joined the parent club of the Havana Sugar Kings and less than a year later he was joined on the Reds by shortstop Leo Cardenas.
The Sugar Kings continued in Havana for another year. However, the effects of the revolution and strained international relations prompted their departure, and the franchise was shifted to Jersey City on July 13, 1960. For fifteen and one-half seasons, the Habaneros, their horns, marimbas, and voices filled Gran Stadium. It ended too soon and with pain, but it was loud and exhilarating while it lasted.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Cot Deal played for twenty seasons, including stops with the Red Sox and Cardinals. After leaving Rochester he continued to coach in the big leagues and manage in the minors for a number of teams. He retired in 1989 and now lives in Oklahoma City. His assistance in putting this story together was invaluable and is deeply appreciated.
Frank Verdi played 1916 games in the minors and one in the majors, as a two-inning replacement for Phil Rizzuto. After a lengthy career as minor league manager, he too has retired.
Jesse Gonder went on to an eight-year major league career, including a stint as one of the early New York Mets.
Leo Cardenas became the Reds' regular shortstop for eight seasons and continued as a solid player with four other teams before retiring in 1975.
Pat Doyle was the Red Wings' radio statistician and teletype operator from 1959 to 1961. He is retired from the pharmaceutical business and operates a minor league player research firm.