The Cuban Senators
By Matt Welch
Special to ESPN.com
February of 1961 should have been the high point of first baseman Julio Bécquer's life.
At age 29, the Havana native was in the prime of his career, having just led the highly competitive Cuban winter league in home runs and RBIs, beating out the likes of Minnie Minóso, Tony Gonzáles and Leo Cárdenas, and falling just one homer short of the all-time winter-ball record. The summer before, Bécquer had by far his best season in five years with Major League Baseball's Washington Senators, and for once the team didn't finish in last place. He was a newlywed, still handsome as a devil, and the racial segregation that had stymied his early stateside career was on the wane.
American baseball changed in 1961, too. Expansion brought in two new American League teams (to be matched the following year in the National League), and extended the season to 162 games. The Senators of Washington -- "first in war, first in peace, last in the American League" -- pulled up stakes after 60 inglorious years and relocated to Minnesota, where they became the Twins and started winning, behind such Cuban stars as Pascual, Zolio Versalles and Tony Oliva.
A new expansion team (now known as the Texas Rangers) took the departed Senators' name and stadium in 1962, and maintained the city's traditional position in the AL cellar. But the new team couldn't replace the odd spectacle of the old Sens, who were a team full of mixed-race Cuban ballplayers laughing through the 1950s smack dab in the U.S. capital, while their mother country experienced coups, revolutions ... and some of the best baseball ever played in the Caribbean.
Bécquer was one of tens of thousands caught in the cracks between history's shifting tectonic plates in 1961. Within weeks of winning the Cuban winter league home run crown, the smooth-fielding first baseman was out of a job, separated from his wife, and alienated from his homeland. He only played 69 more games in the majors, and never again set foot inside Cuba.
"It was a very very hard decision, because I'd just got married, and I had to leave my wife behind," said Bécquer, now a 70-year-old Minneapolis retiree, during a recent phone interview. "It was not a political decision or anything like that, it was just like, I mean, what are we going to do if we go back to Cuba? There was no professional baseball, we are professional baseball players -- what are we going to do?"
And with that, Bécquer let loose a long cackle. For this story has a happy ending, as the sound of his wife's laughter in the background can attest. The couple was reunited thanks to the two controversial men most responsible for making Washington, D.C., an unlikely capital of Cuban baseball in the 1950s: Senators/Twins owner Calvin Griffith and his superscout Papa Joe Cambria.
Papa Joe and the spendthrift Griffiths
Clark Griffith switched to the Washington Senators (who were then usually called the "Nationals") in 1912, bought the franchise in 1919, won a World Series in 1924, and AL championships in 1925 and 1933. After the 1934 squad finished a disappointing seventh, Griffith dismantled the team, selling his own son-in-law, Hall-of-Fame player/manager Joe Cronin, to Boston, and embracing a penny-pinching approach that eventually became synonymous with the name "Griffith."
Right around this time, the chief Senator hired minor league club-owner Joe Cambria to be his main scout, and instructed the Italian-born Baltimore laundryman to mine the cheap and abundant talent vein in Cuba. Cambria did not disappoint. Over the next 26 years, while the parent club finished over .500 just four times, he signed an estimated 400 Cubans to the Senators organization, beginning with Bobby Estalella and ending, spectacularly, with Tony Oliva.
This is not an unanimous opinion. Though he was popular enough to have a cigar brand named after him in Cuba, Papa Joe was criticized on both sides of the Florida Straits for being an "ivory hunter" who plucked gullible kids from the sugar fields for ridiculously low prices, without preparing them for the harsh realities of Jim Crow America.
Roberto Gonzáles Echevarría, whose "The Pride of Havana" is the best of a recent flurry of books about Cuban baseball, described Cambria as a "cagey man" whose "operations had become notorious and controversial" by the post-war era, when Cambria owned the minor-league Havana Cubans, a "string of bars," and a restaurant/crash pad called "Triple A" beyond the center field scoreboard of Havana's Gran Stadium.
"No, no, no, no!" Bécquer protested, when presented with these criticisms. "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."
Especially Bécquer. After fleeing the island in 1961, Bécquer reported to camp for the expansion Los Angeles Angels, and found himself buried behind a mountain of muscle at first base -- Steve Bilko, Ted Kluszewski and Lee Thomas, who would combine for 59 home runs that season. The team demoted him to Class AAA Buffalo, where he received a phone call from Twins owner Calvin Griffith. Calvin had taken over the team after Clark's death in 1955 and invited Bécquer to rejoin the franchise. Griffith personally handled all of Bécquer's visa problems, and when the first baseman complained of missing his new bride, "He said, 'Don't you worry about anything. Your wife will be here.' That's it."
Back in Cuba, "Joe Cambria spent one month -- one month! -- every day with my wife, and he put my wife on the plane," Bécquer said. "I mean, that is incredible."
By 1950, a total of 43 Cubans and 11 other Latinos had appeared in the Major Leagues, only one of which (Luque) could rightfully be called a star, historian Samuel Regalado wrote in his 1998 book "Viva Baseball." The floodgates really opened after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947; in 1950-55 alone, 42 Latinos made their debut, including such non-Caucasian stars as Minóso, Puerto Rico's Roberto Clemente, and Mexico's Bobby Avila.
Black and brown Cubans always had known they could compete against the big-leaguers -- off-season barnstorming teams featuring the likes of Ty Cobb and Eddie Plank had been shut out several times by black pitcher José Méndez the first two decades of the 20th century, and there was enough island talent to fill the rosters of more than a dozen Negro League teams who had the word "Cubans" in their names (one Cuban Negro Leagues star, Martín Dihigo, was dominating enough to be elected to the Halls of Fame in the United States, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela).
White bread baseball was suddenly full of color and spice, and nowhere more so than in Washington, D.C.
'Pedro Ramos always carried a gun'
By most descriptions, the 1950s Senators were a loose and entertaining bunch, which probably helped take the sting out of their .416 winning percentage for the decade. About the only positive on-field accomplishment anyone seems to recall was an all-Cuban triple play (Ramos to Bécquer to José Valdivieslo) turned against Whitey Herzog of the Kansas City A's.
The rest is a comedy of futility and weird behavior, usually starring wild-hearted control pitcher Pedro Ramos. Ramos led the league in losses four consecutive years (1958-61), a record matched only by Phil Niekro. He has the lowest all-time winning percentage (.421) among pitchers with more than 275 decisions. His American League record of allowing 43 home runs in a season stood for 40 years. Mickey Mantle -- who Ramos, an outstanding athlete, was always challenging to a race -- once hit a home run off him that came within 18 inches of exiting Yankee Stadium. He hit 15 home runs of his own, beat Richie Ashburn in a sprint, tried to throw a ball to the roof of the Astrodome, and helped the Yankees win the 1964 pennant as a late-season acquisition. He did jail time in the 1980s on drugs and weapons charges, and now owns a cigar factory in Nicaragua. "These guys used to pitch about a thousand innings a year," Bécquer said. "Ramos used to win 15 games in winter ball ... then he'd go up here and pitch every four days in the United States. ... And Camilo did the same thing. Those guys would never lose their turn, never get a sore arm."
In fact, even while being the butt of AL jokes, many of the Senators' Cubans were winning hard-fought championships for high-level winter teams that included American stars like Brooks Robinson and Jim Bunning. Bécquer's Mariano team was the only Cuban team to win both the winter league and the entire Caribbean World Series (against Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Panama) in consecutive years, and might well have beaten the Senators in head-to-head competition. "Well, it could have been close," Bécquer reckoned.
Though he still had to suffer through the mindless indignity of segregation at spring training in Florida, Bécquer said life in Washington, D.C. was perfectly comfortable for dark-skinned ballplayers with Spanish accents. "We had no problems whatsoever," he remembered. "None. Zero. I'd go anywhere. I'd do anything. I was well-liked."
Players who liked music could walk one block from Griffith Stadium and see some of the best jazz musicians and touring Cuban acts the 1950s had to offer. "I'd see everybody who was everybody at that time in jazz and big-band: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and all that sort of thing. Every week was some big name coming to Washington," he said.
Spanish-speaking diplomats often came down for home games -- "I knew one of the chefs at the embassy, so sometimes we'd go to lunch ... and have a great time!" -- and on the road, "there was always a colony of Spanish people, so every city we'd go we would find some Spanish families."
Bécquer, like most of the Cubans on the Senators, had played virtually all of his minor league career in the U.S. on teams featuring several of his compatriots, which made it that much easier to adapt to American idiosyncracies, such as racism. "We didn't like it, but it was either that, or go back to Cuba. That was our choice. We either adjust, or leave," he said. "And in all the years that I was with the organization, we were always treated first-class. ... I can say right now, emphatically, that we never had any problems concerning race, or any problems with anybody mentioning that we were speaking Spanish."
In 1962, the long-suffering Senators franchise which was then in Minnesota and called the Twins won 91 games, ushering in an era when the Twins would lead the league in attendance 10 straight years, reach the 1965 World Series, and contend annually for the pennant. Pascual led the league in strikeouts three straight years. Versalles became the first Cuban to win the Most Valuable Player Award. And Tony Oliva thundered onto the scene with batting titles in his first two full years. The boys from Havana were laughingstocks no more.
Vic Power and Don Mincher had first base fairly well sewed up, and Harmon Killebrew's legs were giving out, so Bécquer played out his final days in the Mexican League. But Calvin Griffith hadn't forgotten him. At the end of the 1963 season, the miserly owner called his old first baseman in Mexico. "At that time I needed about a week to qualify for my pension, which at that time I wasn't even aware of," Bécquer said. "And he said 'You better qualify for your pension, I want you to fly here right away, and I want to reinstate you on the club until you qualify."
"Everybody likes to talk about Griffith on a certain level, but you can see, and I can tell you many, many, many other things, that he and Joe Cambria did for us."
Matt Welch, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, traveled to Cuba in the late 1990s to watch baseball and interview current and former ballplayers