Cuba’s impact on Washington Senators history

By César Brioso

The long-distance call interrupted Clark Griffith’s card game at the Washington Senators’ spring training park in Orlando, Fla. It was scout Joe Cambria on the line, calling from Cuba … and reversing the charges.

“Listen,” Cambria told a surprised Griffith. “I’m in Cuba and I got a good piece of seaweed, but I’m broke and can’t bring him over. I need some money.”

“Seaweed,” in Cambria’s vernacular, meant a new ballplayer. And the player Cambria wanted to sign and bring to spring training was Roberto Ortiz.

The notoriously frugal Griffith wired the requested money to Cambria, who brought the then-21-year-old Ortiz to camp, where he joined fellow Cubans Roberto Estalella and René Monteagudo in preparing for the 1939 major-league season. Only Estalella made the team that season, but soon Ortiz, Monteagudo and a host of Cuban players would become regular contributors in Washington.

Making Cuban Senators

The scene described in the pages of The Sporting News illustrates how Cambria and Griffith led the way in bringing a flood of Cuban players to the major leagues during the 1940s and 1950s. Of the 51 Cuban-born players to make their major-league debuts between 1935 and 1956, 32 (63 percent) did so with the Senators. Before Estalella debuted with the Senators on Sept. 7, 1935, only 19 Cubans had played in the majors since 1871.

The high-water mark for Cuban representation on the Senators’ roster came in 1944, when nine Cubanos played in Washington, including Fermín Guerra, Preston Gómez, Gilberto Torres, Monteagudo and Ortiz. During the 1950s, it was common for there to be at least five Cuban-born players on the Senators in any given season.

But there was a dichotomy of the Cuban players’ experiences with the Senators. On one hand, scores of Cuban players were given opportunities by the team – Cambria is credited with signing as many as 400 Cubans for Washington – but Cambria got their signatures on contracts at rock-bottom prices.

“Papa Joe” Cambria

“Papa Joe,” as he came to be known in Cuba, was a ubiquitous presence on the island. And many viewed him as the baseball equivalent of an ivory hunter. Carteles magazine sportswriter Jess Losada “acidly referred to him as the Christopher Columbus of baseball, denoting his thirst for and taking of the island’s treasures,” Cuban baseball historian Roberto González Echevarría noted in his 2001 book, Pride of Havana.

“Joe Cambria was a guy … who looked like he was 200 years old and wore a little hat and he signed everybody,” said Orlando Peña, who pitched 14 seasons in the majors. “He didn’t give bonuses to anybody. He wouldn’t even give away shoes.”

Cambria’s mass signings also set loose unsuspecting players into the minor leagues, ill-prepared for life in a foreign country and without the tools to deal with the prejudices they would encounter in the Jim Crow South and elsewhere in the United States.

Despite Cambria’s reputation, many Cuban players have defended him. “We call him ‘Papa Joe,’ because really, to most of us, he was like a father,” Julio Bécquer, who was signed by Cambria in 1951 and played seven seasons in the majors, told ESPN in 2002. “If we have any problems, well, we go to Papa Joe. … If you go to his office you would always see seven or eight or 10 players around him all the time. … He helped many, many, many players.”

Scouting Cuban Fields

Cambria spent the 1940s and 1950s packing the Washington farm system with Cuban players. Twelve reached the majors during the 1940s and 20 more made The Show during the 1950s. Among those to make their major-league debut in the ’50s was Carlos Paula, who finally integrated the Senators in 1954, seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.

“There’s a story that [Cambria] arrives at José Martí Airport and when he gets into a taxi, the driver puts his arm [on the seat] and asked where to?’” Peña said. “Joe Cambria sees the driver has a strong arm and asks him, ‘Didn’t you play baseball?’ … Who was it? Carlos Paula, and Cambria signed him right there.”

Along with Paula’s opportunity to play in the majors came caricatured depictions in the U.S. press that included the questioning of his intelligence and quoting him in broken English. Washington Post columnist Bob Addie at various times noted that “modesty is not one of Paula’s virtues,” and that Paula “while he had brains he never even used, was truly a colorful character.” In a Sporting News feature on the Cuban outfielder, Addie quoted Paula as saying, “Me like Yonkkiss, when keed. … When real leetle keed, me like Baby Root and Lou Garage. Me say some day me play for Yonkkiss.”

Portrayals in the press that would be unthinkable today were common then. Look no further than Griffith’s signing of Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida for the Cincinnati Reds in 1911. In the immediate aftermath of their signing, the press rushed to assure white fans that Marsans and Almeida were not black. The Cincinnati Enquirer, for example, described the pair thusly: “We have in our midst two descendants of a noble Spanish race, with no ignoble African blood. … Permit me to introduce two of the purest bars of Castilian soap that ever floated to these shores.”

Cuban Arrivals and Departures

The Cuban players who arrived on U.S. shores during the 1950s produced not only the largest group to reach the majors but perhaps the most talented overall. It included Cuban Winter League stars, such as Julio Moreno, Conrado Marrero, Sandalio Consuegra, Rafael Noble, Willy Miranda, Raúl Sánchez, Miguel Fornieles, Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Humberto Fernández and Zoilo Versalles.

Pascual went on to become a seven-time All-Star while winning 174 games with a 3.63 career ERA. Ramos, who won 117 games and surrendered at least one memorable home run – a mammoth Mickey Mantle blast that came within 18 inches of leaving Yankees Stadium in 1956 – also was part of the only All-Cuban triple play (along with Julio Bécquer and José Valdivielso) in 1960. And Versalles became an All-Star and American League MVP after the Senators moved to Minneapolis as the Minnesota Twins.

But just as the major-league impact of Cuban players was on the rise – in 1959, Cubans easily represented the largest contingent of Latin American–born players in the majors – the Castro Revolution changed everything. In the three years after Fidel Castro came to power on Jan. 1, 1959, baseball in Cuba became irrevocably transformed.

The Class AAA Havana Sugar Kings had to be relocated to Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1960. The Cuban League, in existence since 1878, concluded its final season in February 1961, shortly after which the Castro regime decreed the abolition of professional baseball. And as access to Cuban talent became cut off, the number of Cubans in the majors dwindled over the following decades.

“Unfortunately, that man showed up and destroyed baseball in Cuba,” said Cuban Baseball Hall of Famer Andrés Fleitas, who never reached the majors but played four seasons with the Senators’ Double-A club in Chattanooga, Tenn., from 1948-1951. “He destroyed everything.”

Featured Image: Diamond Images

Inset Image: Bettman 

César Brioso is a digital producer for USA TODAY Sports and author of Havana Hardball. His new book, Last Seasons in Havana, is scheduled for publication in March 2019.