Top 100 Teams
Florida International League
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Esteban Bellan, who played from 1871-1873 in the National Association, was the first Cuban to play organized ball in the United States. Later, the first 20th century players of note in the majors were Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, who played for Cincinnati in 1911. The Reds manager that year was Clark Griffith, who in later years as owner of the Washington Senators employed more Cubans than the other 15 major league clubs combined. However, most Cuban ballplayers were content to play in strong local leagues, which began in the nineteenth century.
Major league teams had traveled to Cuba for exhibition games for 20 years when an effort was made to bring minor league baseball to the island. In the fall of 1929, the six-team Class B Southeastern League decided to expand. The league, comprised of Jacksonville, Tampa, Montgomery, Pensacola, Selma and Columbus (GA), proposed to add Miami and Havana. To aid teams in their travel plans, Pan-American Airways offered an attractive rate to fly the teams from Miami to Havana. The National Association approved the expansion, but their National Board of Arbitration refused to compel players to travel by plane should they not desire to do so. This point was addressed because aviation was in its infancy - few people had ever been in a plane, let alone one flying over open water.
Despite this roadblock, plans seemed to go smoothly for the new Havana franchise. Hotel man Charles Griner, former owner of the Jacksonville club, reported that he had completed negotiations to operate Havana. However, between the National Association convention in December and the next league meeting in February, plans for Miami collapsed and the eighth franchise was now slated for St. Petersburg. This would make flying to Havana less likely as the nearest club would now be Tampa. However, league president Cliff Green, an enthusiastic supporter of Havana, said he believed that the P & O Steamship Line, which had regular Tampa-Havana runs, could be used. Two weeks later, on March 11, 1930, Green announced that St. Petersburg had withdrawn its application, leaving Havana out in the cold. Green talked of adding Havana in 1931, but by then the Great Depression had set in and the league was struggling to survive. It finally went out of business midway through the 1932 season.
Havana finally got minor league baseball in 1946 with the formation of the Class C Florida International League. In addition to the Cuban entry, the circuit consisted of teams in Tampa, Miami, Miami Beach, West Palm Beach and Lakeland. The president of the Havana Cubans was former outfielder Merito Acosta, who had played for Griffith’s Washington Senators (1913-18) and for the American Association’s Louisville club (1919-28). In addition, Acosta was a star player and a manager in the Cuban League and was the only player in Cuban League history to execute an unassisted triple play (1918). He was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955. Havana’s manager was ex-minor league and Cuban League infielder Oscar Rodriguez, elected to the Cuban Hall of Fame in 1961.
In the league’s first year, Havana proved to be the best of the bunch, winning the pennant by seven games over Tampa despite having 17 wins thrown out for using ineligible players. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to West Palm Beach, three games to two.
In 1947, the team moved from old Tropical Park to the new Gran Estadio de la Habana with a seating capacity of 32,000, twice that of their old facility. Their relationship with Washington became a formal working agreement with Calvin Griffith becoming the Havana vice-president.
On the field in 1947, the Cubans once again proved to be the best. Chased by a strong Tampa team that clung to their heels for the entire summer, Havana eventually prevailed by a slim two game margin. In the playoffs, the Cubans defeated Miami three games to two before dusting the Tampa Smokers four games to none in the finals. Despite their gaudy record, not one Havana player made the Florida International League all-star team.
Although the 1947 Havana Cubans led the circuit with a .268 average, the forte of this team was pitching. Collectively, the club allowed their opponents only 399 runs, nearly 200 less than the next best team. Individually, the team was led by Connie Marrero, who won the pitching Triple Crown (25-6, 1.66 ERA, 251 SO). Additionally, he walked only 46 in 271 IP. In his three years with the Cubans, 1947-48-49, Marrero won 70, lost 25 and had ERAs of 1.66, 1.67 and 1.53. Peter Bjarkman in his book Smoke, The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball, says Marrero’s “greatest fame was not as a charismatic Washington Senators junkballer in the 1950s but as an amateur on the world stage a decade earlier. He reached heroic status on his native island especially during epic battles in 1941-42 between Cuba and Venezuela, losing a gold medal match in 1941, then gaining revenge with a brilliant shutout the following October.” Marrero was 36 in 1947, making him a 39-year old rookie when he arrived in Washington in 1950. He went 39-40 for the Senators from 1950-54.
Another 1947 Cubans pitching star was right-hander Julio (Jiqui) Moreno with a 19-4, 2.13 record. Moreno pitched for the Senators from 1950-53 with an 18-22 record. He concluded a 21-year pro career with 11 seasons in the Mexican League from 1956-66. Fernando Rodriguez, who had a 6-6, 3.62 record, reached the majors as a 34-year-old rookie reliever with the 1958 Chicago Cubs. In the 1950s, he was known as “The Count” because of his extensive off-the-field wardrobe.
The only 1947 Havana batter with significant major league action was Jose Zardon, who batted .290 in 54 games for the 1945 Senators.
From 1948-1950, the Havana Cubans continued to dominate the Florida International League, winning the flag each year to give them five in a row. Following the 1953 season, the team migrated to the prestigious Class AAA International League. Here, the Sugar Kings, as they were now known, culminated the decade with a playoff win in 1959. In the ensuing Junior World Series against the American Association champion Minneapolis Millers, the Sugar Kings prevailed four games to three. During the final two games, played in Havana, the gunfire of Castro’s revolutionaries added to the excitement. Halfway through the following season, with most foreign businesses in Castro’s control, Havana’s baseball team was moved to Jersey City, effectively ending Cuba’s participation in Organized Baseball.
After Castro’s revolution, some Cuban players left the country for good, some stayed in their native land. Of the 1947 Havana players who reached the majors, Moreno and Zardon settled in Miami, where Moreno died in 1987. Marrero, Rodriguez and C Luis Suarez remained in Cuba.
Today, with the emphasis on individual Cuban players such as Livan and Orlando Hernandez, it is important to remember the contributions of Cuban teams and players of the past. More specifically, to remember that one of these teams - the Havana Cubans of 1947 - was among the 100 best minor league teams of all time.
|1947 Florida International League Standings|
|TAMPA||104||48||.684||2.0||W. PALM BEACH||68||86||.442||39.0|
|1947 Havana Cubans batting statistics|
|Miguel Lastra (Tampa)||2B||106||433||54||97||40||16||0||0||32||44||16||.224|
|1947 Havana Cubans pitching statistics|