That’s the number of Cubans from the major leagues enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Tony Pérez stands alone as the only Cuban major leaguer with a plaque among baseball’s immortals in Cooperstown. Given the long history of Cubans and baseball, which dates back to the 1860s, and the many talented Cuban players who have played in the Major Leagues, Tony Pérez’s status as the lone representative of the island’s rich baseball history (with Martín Dihigo, José Méndez and Cristóbal Torriente representing the Negro Leagues) is both astonishing and revealing.
Pérez’s journey from Central Violeta in Camaguey to being a major cog in Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine – rife with both political and racial tensions – reveals how hard and lonely the road was from Cuba to Cooperstown.
The Road from Central Violeta
Central Violeta where Atanasio Pérez was born in 1942 was sugar cane country. Everyone who worked the cane fields knew that cutting cane was grueling work for little pay. Called “Tany” by his family, Pérez found a way to play baseball with his childhood friends in spite of his poor economic circumstances. Cigar cartons were transformed into gloves. A broom handle or any long stick served as bat. Any round object—even rocks—became the ball.
“We were just happy to play, no matter how or what happens. No matter what the situation,” Pérez recalled. “We didn’t have enough money to buy baseballs. But we have fun and playing baseball to me was the greatest thing that can happen any day, any time.”
Tany and his dad would listen to Cuban league games on the radio. One player in particular captivated him, Minnie Miñoso.
“We follow the winter ball where four teams played in Havana, and we hear the games on the radio and follow one of my heroes. Everybody wanted to be like Minnie Miñoso.”
But in the mid-1940s when Miñoso first made an impression in the Cuban league, the only destination for a black Cuban was the Negro Leagues. So when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, it opened new opportunities for black Cubans.
For the first half of the 20th century, baseball’s color line restricted access. A Cuban player had to not only be talented but also had to be viewed by team officials as possessing a light enough skin color to sign. This meant Cuban greats such as José Méndez, Cristobal Torriente, and Martin Dihigo would perform in the Negro Leagues since they were black. A Cuban like Adolfo Luque who could pass both the racial litmus test and become a big-time performer in the major leagues—playing on two World Series championship teams—was rare.
Minnie Miñoso made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians on April 19, 1949, about a month before Pérez turned seven years old. Miñoso became a bigger hero to Cubans after being traded to the Chicago White Sox and becoming a star in the 1950s. For youngsters on the island like Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva and Pérez, Minnie was their Jackie Robinson.
Cincinnati Reds scout Tony Pacheco spotted a tall, lanky Tany Pérez playing baseball in one of Cuba’s sugar leagues. Impressed with what he saw, Pacheco signed a 17-year-old Pérez in March 1960.
It was during spring training in Florida that he became “Tony” Pérez. Some didn’t take the time to learn the pronunciation of his or other Latino players’ names, instead using Anglo versions of their names. All the Americans in camp, from the coaches to fellow players, called him “Tony” instead of “Tany,” one of his first reality checks about life in the United States as a Latino.
Pérez was assigned to Geneva in the New York-Penn League. In Geneva and the minor league stops over the next four years Pérez was exposed to the best and worst of race relations in the United States as organized baseball was still integrating many minor league towns, spring training camps, and clubhouses.
Racial Geography Lessons
The Cincinnati Reds made an effort to soften the shock for their Cuban prospects.
“I was lucky, I went to Geneva, New York. I went with six guys from Cuba on the team. We got some warm welcome from families in Geneva who helped us. And a family, a guy from Puerto Rico and Cuba, they helped us. They took care of us when we in Geneva and we don’t have too many problems. They made us feel at home. I still remember those people because they really helped me and the other guys.”
But everywhere was not Geneva and not everyone was welcoming.
Assigned to Rocky Mount in the Carolina League, Jim Crow segregation was an eye-opener for Pérez.
“I experienced that when I play in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in ’62 because they still had segregation. You cannot go in a restaurant and go in the any place that says ‘white only’ and things like that.”
“I came from Cuba and that’s the way it used to be here. And people accepted it. I mean, you don’t like it. I don’t like it. But I just followed that because I want to play baseball, and I don’t want anything to get in my way to my dream, you know to get to the big leagues.”
The road to the big leagues became even more challenging for young Cuban players when U.S.-Cuban relations deteriorated in the early 1960s.
A Political Division
Pérez had signed with Cincinnati just over a year after Fidel Castro had taken power in Cuba (January 1959). Pérez and other Cubans would ultimately face a choice unlike any other group of ballplayers had ever encountered: remaining in the U.S. to play professional baseball or giving that up and returning to Cuba to stay with their family.
“Well I was there in ’59. I hadn’t signed to play professional baseball yet, but I was on my way up to sign. And when he [Castro] took over, most the people over there liked him. But after that it changed, we got problems with the United States, and then everything broke down.”
“When he didn’t want no more professional baseball then we leave the country. I mean in ’61 we left the country and a lot of the professional players left. I was one of them because I wanted to keep playing baseball. And I cannot go back to Cuba because there was no more professional baseball there.”
“But the thing I most regret was I had to leave my family behind me. And I didn’t see my family for a long time. I left my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters there and it took ten years for me to see them again and that was hard.”
Playing with Macon in the Sally League in 1963 stuck with Pérez. Fans yelled at him from the stands. Opposing team players tried to get under his skin.
“It was hard. I didn’t like it. I heard the other teams and they called, ‘Hey Perez, where’s your green card?’ and all that.”
The green card comment was particularly biting. Due to the blockade, Cubans like Pérez could not return to their native land so they were more exiles than immigrants at that point.
Making it Big
Racial discrimination and an ocean’s-width separation from family would have slowed most from achieving their big league dreams. Neither the camaraderie of the road or the comforts of home were available to Cuban players; they had to fight for both in making a new land their home.
Tony Pérez’s performance in the major leagues would prove his resilience, character and strength: a 23-year career where he knocked 379 home runs, drove in 1,652 runs and was a seven-time All-Star. Those accomplishments and the leadership of representation demonstrated throughout his career earned him a plaque in the Hall of Fame as the lone Cuban representative from the major leagues.
Featured Image: Jim McIsaac / Getty Images Sport