A History of Cuban Baseball
"I had heard that Cubans are a deeply religious people. In two days in Cuba I have learned that baseball is their religion." - Samuel Harold Lacy, Legendary Afro-American sports journalist from Baltimore
Baseball was introduced to Cuba in the 1860s by Cuban students returning from colleges in the United States and American sailors who ported in the country. The sport spread quickly across the island nation after its introduction, with student Nemesio Guilló receiving credit for the game's growth in the mid-19th century. Nemesio and his brother Ernesto attended Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Alabama and both returned to Cuba in 1864. The two formed a baseball team in Cuba in 1868, the Havana Base Ball Club.
Bullfighting was very famous in Cuba at that time, but this activity began to be replaced by the new sport that required greater power of concentration and that it was not as cruel as the bullfighting.
In Matanzas as well as in Habana the game started to spread quickly. In 1868, during the first Cuban War of Independence against its Spanish rulers, Spanish authorities banned the sport in the island. On October 1st of that year, Francisco de Lersundi, General Captain of the island, passed a law banning the baseball practice throughout the national territory because he considered it "an anti-Spanish game with insurrection tendencies, opposed to the language and favored the lack of affection to Spain...". As such, baseball became symbolic of freedom and egalitarianism to the Cuban people.
The ban also prompted Esteban Bellán to join the semipro Troy Haymakers. He became the first Latin American player to play in an Organized League in the United States. Bellán started playing baseball for the Fordham Rose Hill Baseball Club, while attending Fordham University (1863–1868). He also played for the Unions of Morrisania, a New York City team. Bellán played for the Haymakers until 1862; in 1861 this team had joined the National Association.
After the execution of the medical students in Habana in 1871, several rich families sent their children to study to schools and universities in the United States. Nemesio Guilló - one of the founders of Cuban baseball - and José Dolores Amieva, along with his two brothers, were part of this wave that introduced the techniques in Cuba and helped to promote the sport they knew in America.
They created a team in Matanzas and began to play in wastelands. The historic stadium Palmar del Junco in Pueblo Nuevo, Matanzas was built soon after and it was considered as the first of its kind in the island. It was also where the first official baseball game took place in Cuba on December 27, 1874.
It was the first recorded organized game in the country. The historic had the Matanzas Baseball Club taking on the Habana Baseball Club.
According to a report in the El Artista newspaper published in Habana city four days later, the Habana team won by 51-9 points supported by pitcher Ricardo Mora and hitter Esteban Bellán, of the Mutual Baseball Club of New York.
The game finished at 5:35 minutes that afternoon, and the dark did not allow the hame to continue. Pitcher Ricardo Mora started and ended the game, he also hit a home run.
In the historic game, Bellán became the first Cuban and Latin American player to hit three home runs in a game. According to the report signed by a sport editor named Henry, a large audience witnessed the game and the simple uniform of the Habana Club team drew peoples attention.
Three years later, in 1877, the first "international" game with an American team was held at the same Palmar de Junco Stadium in Matanzas.
In 1878 the passion for baseball emerged among Cuban people. The Cuban Professional League was created the same year. In the beginning, the Cuban League consisted of three teams: Almendares, Habana, and Matanzas. In that first season every team played the other two teams four times each. Habana ended up winning the first championship. The teams were composed of amateurs and were all-white, however, professionalism gradually took hold as teams bid on players to pry them from their rivals.
Baseball quickly became the king of sports in the island. Stadiums were built everywhere in Habana, where dozens of enthusiasts came to see baseball games in places like Canteras de Medina, Melitón, Hacendados, Placer de Peñalver, and Quinta de Torrecillas in Puentes Grandes.
By 1886 The Sport, a Cuban magazine, was already publishing the following "Baseball is today, without distinction of classes, age, and sex, the preferred diversion of all."
What would later become one of the most beautiful, powerful, and controversial stories ever seen in sports, the history of Cuban baseball, had started.
First Organized Baseball Game Played in Cuba
December 27, 1874, Palmar de Junco Stadium, Matanzas
(Photos: BaseballdeCuba Archives)