On July 26, 1953, a band of roughly 150 revolutionaries followed a young, bearded, charismatic leader to the southeast coast of their nation and the Moncada Barracks in the city of Santiago de Cuba. Their plan was to seize the installation named for a general whose heroics helped free the country from Spain more than five decades earlier. At dawn, they raided. The attack failed in its objective of the day but succeeded in igniting another revolution.
The Minors and the island
The International League was a circuit fitting its moniker in the 1950s when three of its eight clubs played outside the United States. In Canada were the Montreal Royals and Toronto Maple Leafs. And in Cuba, beginning in 1954, were the Havana Sugar Kings.
Today, Estadio Latinamericano is the largest baseball-specific facility in Latin America with a capacity of 55,000. In 1959, when it was known as Gran Stadium, the ballpark was much the same, but the clubs that traveled to play the home team weren't Serie Nacional squads like today. They came from the United States and Canada to face the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Redlegs (a name Havana's parent club preferred over "Reds" from 1954-58, possibly due to the latter term's connection to communism, ironically enough).
"I had the opportunity when I first got in the game to work for the Columbus team and [general manager] George Sisler and then, when I came into the league office, work for [league president] Harold Cooper -- both of those men knew firsthand about that Cuba time period," current International League president Randy Mobley said. "It was interesting just to hear them talk about how everyone looked forward to that trip to Cuba, from the accommodations to the food to just the overall setting of the ballpark, the passion of the fans."
Havana fans were baseball-mad. They were boisterous. They came in massive numbers with crowds reportedly exceeding 30,000 at times, a total that is nearly two times the size of today's largest Minor League parks.
"I can tell you that it was very different than playing in Omaha," Asdrubal Baró, one of the last living Sugar Kings in Cuba, told The New York Times in 2013.
On one of their wildest nights, the Sugar Kings faithful helped set in motion a chain of events that led to affiliated ball's departure from the island.
Frank Verdi played more than 1,900 games in the Minor Leagues -- and one in the Majors -- but the moment for which he may be most known came in a game when he didn't play.
Verdi wasn't sure he was going to be able to make the Cuba trip. It was mid-July 1959 and the infielder, in his 13th Minor League season, was dealing with dizzy spells from a pitch he took to the head two weeks earlier. Verdi knew he wouldn't be playing for his Rochester Red Wings during their visit to Havana. He just wanted to be there.
"George Sisler was the general manager of the team at that time," Mobley said of his former boss. "[Verdi] was begging George to let him go on the trip, and finally [Sisler] relented and allowed him to go, but he was not active at that point."
Cuba was transformed over the six years that followed the failed assault on the Moncada Barracks. The bearded rebel led his guerrilla forces through a bloody conflict that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro and his leftist movement took power on the first day of 1959. That same day, Batista fled the island with a personal fortune and never came back. Dawn was breaking on Cuba's communist chapter.
Verdi's wish to be with his team in Havana wasn't unique. Havana was every IL team's favorite destination. But when the Red Wings arrived for a four-game, three-day series from July 24-26, 1959, Cuba wasn't the same. And it wasn't just baseball that awaited.
Bullets and baseball
Prior to the Red Wings-Sugar Kings' Friday night opener, Gran Stadium hosted an exhibition game featuring Castro himself, three months after his infamous trip to Washington and New York. "El Comandante" pitched two innings against a team of military police that cemented his (likely exaggerated) legacy as a once-promising star on the diamond. Donning the uniform of his pickup team Los Barbudos ("The Bearded Ones"), Castro reportedly struck out a pair, one of which came via a generous call from the home plate umpire, according to an account from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Estadio Latinamericano, formerly Gran Stadium, hosted the Tampa Bay Rays for a 2016 exhibition game. (AP)
One night later, a raucous crowd that reportedly reached more than 35,000 packed Gran Stadium. Among the throng were "fatigue-garbed infantrymen stationed all around the ballpark," according to the New York Daily News. The ingredients for chaos were in place. The tinderbox just needed a spark.
All could've been avoided if not for Rogelio "Borrego" Alvarez. Rochester appeared set to close out a tight road win, carrying a 3-1 lead to the bottom of the ninth. But with two outs and a runner at first, Alvarez crushed a game-tying homer to force extra innings.
The night drew late. The clock struck midnight -- six years to the day that Castro's revolution was sparked.
Cuban baseball historian Peter C. Bjarkman described the next moments in a retelling of the incident: "[P]ress box spotlights focused on a giant Cuban flag in center field and the Cuban anthem was played slowly and reverently. As soon as stadium lighting was rekindled, however, all hell broke loose and the air was suddenly filled with spasms of celebratory gunfire launched from both inside and outside the ballpark."
All hell was breaking loose -- for the first time.
"Bullets were flying out of the sky everywhere, thousands of 'em," Verdi told the Daily News in a 1999 interview. "We didn't know what the hell was happening. Only later did we learn July 26 was their independence day, the anniversary of the revolution. Players were diving for cover everywhere. There was a Jeep that was used for driving the pitchers in from the bullpen and that's where I took cover with a bunch of other guys."
After a few frantic moments, the situation calmed and the game resumed. Rochester regained the lead in the 11th on Billy Harrell's homer, but it was short-lived. Havana catcher Jesse Gonder led off the bottom of the inning with a hit down the left field line and raced into second. The knock was pivotal in more ways than just a momentum swing.
Red Wings manager Cot Deal recounted in his 1992 book that he believed Gonder missed first base. The umpire crew to whom he voiced his displeasure disagreed, likely mindful of the ramifications of reversing a call that would draw the ire of a fervent crowd already threatening to boil over. Deal was ejected. Gonder later scored. The game went to the 12th knotted at 4-4.
When Rochester went to the bat rack, Verdi headed to the third base coach's box, a place where his manager normally would have been. Verdi put on a cap that contained a protective liner, an addition he'd picked up after the beaning.
"With two out, Dick Rand hit a grounder to short for us," Verdi told the Daily News. "Leo Cardenas, the Kings' shortstop, fielded it, threw to first and I started walking off the field. I turned to the outfield and bang, down I went. All I could think of is that I got hit by Alvarez's throw back to third base! The third base umpire is standing over me, yelling 'Frank! Frank! Are you all right?' I felt this burning pain on the side of me head and thought I'd been beaned again. Then they found the .45-caliber bullet lying next to me."
Sporadic gunfire had kicked up again, and both Verdi and Cardenas -- who started a 16-year Major League career the following season -- were caught in the crosshairs. The Red Wings' fill-in coach was struck in the head by a falling bullet that glanced off the shell inside his cap and hit him in the shoulder, knocking him down. The normalcy of extra innings, the last fraying thread holding the night together, instantly disappeared. The game was suspended. Rochester players carried Verdi to the clubhouse. The next day, IL president Frank Shaughnessy canceled a scheduled doubleheader, and the Red Wings fled Cuba.
The story was front-page news in the U.S. the following morning.
"I don't know if I would be talking to you had the bullet hit squarely," Verdi told the Associated Press. "Look, I have a wife and four kids at home, and so far as this town is concerned, I've had it. We came here to play ball, not to be shot at."
The incident was the first chip to fall in a series of events over the next year that prompted the International League to vacate Cuba. Despite pressure to leave, Sugar Kings owner Bobby Maduro kept his team in place. It didn't go down quietly. Havana won the league title in 1959, its final full season, and took down the American Association-champion Minneapolis Millers in seven games in the Junior World Series for the IL's first crown in six years.
The end of an era
By the middle of 1960, the Sugar Kings were no more. One year after Verdi and Cardenas became unlikely catalysts, Castro declared Cuba a communist state and began confiscating American property on the island. Minor League Baseball decided it was time to go.
"On July 13, 1960, the Buffalo Bisons flew out of Havana amid huge, black clouds of smoke billowing from the U.S. oil refineries blown up by Castro," the Daily News reported 40 years later.
In the middle of the season, Havana's team left the island, never to return. The Sugar Kings set up shop in Jersey City, New Jersey, where they stayed through 1961.
"During my involvement with the league, we've never had to -- based on best I can recall, you know I can't even recall in other leagues where you're moving a team midseason," Mobley said. "Certainly, the history of the industry is dotted with that, but … this might have been the last team to do that. It certainly hasn't happened recently. To think about having to do that and to find a facility where you're going to go play midseason and everything that is involved with that is kind of bizarre in itself."
American sanctions against Cuba grew in 1960-61, turning into Proclamation 3447, the Embargo on All Trade with Cuba signed by President John F. Kennedy on Feb. 3, 1962. Eight months later, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the planet to the brink of nuclear war.
"When it got to the point that it did, it probably wasn't a difficult decision to make at that time [to move the team], but I've got to believe because it had been so successful and was so popular -- not only locally but for people in the States to travel down -- it had to be a painful decision," Mobley said. "I would guess it was probably an easy decision but a very painful one to have to make."
The Minor Leagues have never returned to Cuba. Affiliated baseball has for fleeting moments. The Baltimore Orioles squared off against the Cuban National Team in a 1999 exhibition. The Tampa Bay Rays did the same last year, with President Barack Obama and Castro's brother and current Cuban President Raul Castro in attendance, after the Obama administration announced plans to normalize relations.
What the future holds
In a roundabout way, that 1959 beanball saved two lives and altered countless more. Had Verdi not taken a pitch to the head, he would've been active, would not have been in the coach's box or had the liner to protect him. Had Deal not been ejected, the bullet may have found him in that box -- without any liner. With U.S.-Cuba relations collapsing, affiliated baseball likely would've exited the country in short order anyway, but the departure may not have been as hasty or left as many questions about the market that got away. Havana's IL sister cities in Montreal and Toronto received big league clubs. Might Cuba's capital have followed?
A mural of Fidel Castro on a wall outside of Estadio Latinamericano in Havana. (AP)
"Had things been able to continue, what would the status of things be at this point?" Mobley asked. "Would the economy down there have adjusted and progressed to the degree that it would have allowed for a Major League team to eventually come in there? You never know, but it's certainly something you wonder about. The one thing you can't question is the passion that the people had then and continue to have for the game."
Mobley sees hope for affiliated baseball's eventual return to an island that has embraced it like few other places.
"I do think we will see that," he said. "I don't know when. I don't know what league, what classification, what level it might be, but I think there are things that we talk about today within the industry that got talked about back there in the late-'50s and '60s that would have a different effect now, just talking about the travel, the ease or difficulty of players getting in and out of countries. That's much different today than it was then.
"We're not just dealing with U.S. citizens trying to get into a country -- we're dealing with multinationals. You may have a roster of players from six, seven different countries. That would have to be a consideration. You really get down into the weeds -- player development really seems to swing a much bigger hammer today than it did back then. Are Major League organizations going to look favorably upon players traveling there or not so much? There are different ingredients in the mix today than there were back then. All of those things would have to be discussed and thought through."