Fidel Castro, who died Friday at 90, was an avid baseball fan and fancied himself as a possible major-leaguer.
Reports of his baseball prowess are conflicting, but the former dictator was named the country’s best schoolboy athlete as a basketball player in Cuba’s capital city, Havana, according to The Associated Press.
Former major league third baseman Don Hoak wrote a 1964 Sport magazine article, “The Day I Batted Against Castro,” about facing the young pitcher in early 1950s Cuba. Castro was the subject of a 2006 novel by Tim Wendel, “Castro’s Curveball.” The book’s character encounters Castro pitching in the winter league in 1947.
Castro excelled at baseball, but The Associated Press said the legend that he was scouted by MLB is untrue. Baseball’s influence waned after the Cuban revolution in 1959 when the leader took power.
The Havana Sugar Kings, affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators, thrived in minor league baseball from 1946 until moving to Jersey City, New Jersey, on July 8, 1960, under directions from baseball commissioner Ford Frick after Castro began nationalizing U.S. enterprises.
Castro suspended the Cuban winter league in 1961 while outlawing professional sports outright. Amateur baseball thrived, however, and Cuba has won three gold medals and two silver medals in baseball since the sport entered the Olympics in 1992. Professionally, Cubans who tried to leave the island to play in MLB were treated like the rest of the population — labeled defectors and barred from returning to their homeland under Castro.
Major League Baseball returned to Cuba in 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles played in goodwill games in Havana. Last season, the Tampa Bay Rays faced the Cuban National Team in March. President Barack Obama attended the game, orchestrated by the U.S. and Castro’s brother, Raúl Castro. Fidel didn’t attend, but he wrote in an editorial that “We don’t need the empire to give us anything.”
— Kieran Lynch and Mike Ruiz