When the Rochester Red Wings headed to Havana for a four game series against the homestanding Sugar Kings, July 24-26, 1959, they had every reason to expect a raucous crowd. July 26 was an important holiday in revolutionary Cuba. It marked the anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks, the start of the insurrection. Before the Red Wings even took the field on Friday night they got a taste of what the atmosphere would be like. There was a pre-game exhibition between Los Barbudos (the bearded ones) and a military police team. Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary leader who later became head of the armed forces, was the beardos shortstop. On the mound was El Comandante himself.
Here’s how the Chicago Tribune described the scene:
“HAVANA, Cuba, July 24 — Fidel Castro made his debut as a revolutionary pitcher Friday night before a crowd of 23,000 at Havana stadium. He pitched to three men, striking out two. The third hit to the first baseman.
“The crowd, which included President Osvaldo Dorticos, arose and sang the 26th of July victory march as Castro went to the mound in the third inning. In the second half of the inning, Castro hit to the shortstop and was thrown out at first base.
“He was presented a check for the proceeds of the game receipts by Bobby Maduro, manager of the Havana Cuban Sugar Kings, for his agrarian reform fund. Several Cuban firms also gave him checks for the fund.”
The Havana Sugar Kings got their start in 1946 when they were called the Havana Cubans and were members of the Class C Florida International League. Maduro bought the team in 1954, changed the name to the Sugar Kings and brought them into the Class AAA International League. They became an affiliate of the Cincinnati Redlegs.
The Batista government was ousted in January 1959. Castro was a Sugar Kings fan and it didn’t take long for him to arrange a meeting with Maduro. Castro supported Maduro’s plans to bring Major League Baseball to Cuba. He guaranteed the Sugar Kings a home in Havana and offered the franchise a $70,000 cash injection to help get their finances in order.
It turns out raucous was an understatement of what the Red Wings would encounter in Havana. The Saturday night game extended into extra innings and, as the clock ticked past midnight marking the beginning of the anniversary celebration, all hell broke loose. A United Press International wire dispatch recounted the scene:
“A Red Wing spokesman said more the 500 Rebel soldiers poured onto the playing field at the stroke of midnight Saturday, signalling the beginning of a July 26th celebration commemorating the attack on Moncada Army Headquarters that launched the revolution in 1953. He said the soldiers fired machine guns, rifles and pistols into the air and ‘everything was in a terrible state of confusion.’
”Police reported that 17 people were treated for bullet wounds in Havana early Sunday morning.”
The Red Wings third base coach Frank Verdi took a stray bullet, as did the Sugar Kings shortstop Leonardo Cardenas. Neither was seriously injured. That was the end of the Saturday night game and the Sunday doubleheader was cancelled as well. The UPI report suggests that the Sugar Kings thought the Red Wings had ‘chickened out.’ “They accused the Red Wings of using an ‘unimportant incident’ to get out of playing yesterday’s double-header ‘because we are hot and they are cold.’ They pointed out Cardenas, one of their own players, also was hit by a bullet ‘and didn’t complain.’”
It was not the last time that the Sugar Kings would get hot during the 1959 season. They ended up finishing third with a 80-73 record. In the playoffs they swept second-place Columbus in four straight, then beat Richmond four games to two for the International League title. That put them in what was called the Junior World Series against the champions of the American Association, the Minneapolis Millers, a team that included future Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski.
When the series moved to Havana, 35,000 fans were in the stands, Fidel threw out the first ball, and Che Guevara watched from his box seat. When the Sugar Kings won on a walk off in game seven, the Gran Stadium field was again flooded with celebrating players, fans and soldiers. This time, nobody got shot.
The 1959 Sugar Kings had no less than 22 players who would go on to make the majors. Ted Wieand was ace of the pitching staff, winning 16 games. He was not that successful at the next level, making six appearances as a relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds and suffering an ERA of 9.95. Rogelio Alvarez led the Havana squad with 22 home runs. He also met with limited success in Cincinnati, playing parts of two seasons and accumulating a .211 batting average.
But several other Sugar Kings has long and successful major league careers including:
- MIke Cuellar, who was Cuban, pitched in the major league for 18 years and was a member of the 1970 Baltimore Orioles championship team. He won 20 or more games four times and was the co-Cy Young Award winner in 1969. With the ‘59 Sugar Kings he had a 10-11 record and a .476 ERA.
- Leo Cardenas, also from Cuba, had a 15-year major league career. The first eight years were with Cincinnati. He was a five-time all-star, a Gold Glove winner and was inducted into the Cincinnati Red Hall of Fame.
- Luis Arroyo has an eight year major league career, the last four with the New York Yankees. He was the first Puerto Rican Yankee. The two-time all-star was a member of the 1961 World Champion Yankees. He led the American League in saves that year.
- Another Cuban player Cookie Rojas had a 15 year major league career, including extended stints with the Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals. He was a five-time all star and is a member of the Royals Hall of Fame. He later went on to become a major league manager with the California Angels and Florida Marlins. He currently is a color commentator for the Marlins.
Despite their success on the field, politics caught up with the Sugar Kings. The following year, Castro began to nationalize U.S. owned businesses in Cuba. Under pressure from the State Department, Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick arranged a mid-season move of the franchise to Jersey City where they became a short-lived team called the Jersey City Jerseys.
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