The Cuba Diaries: How a Dead Hall of Fame Was Brought Back to Life

After more than 50 years, Cuba once again honors its baseball immortals thanks to a daring group of baseball historians, journalists, and filmmakers.

Feb 4 2015, 4:00pm

Image via WikiMedia Commons

Editor's Note: VICE Sports senior staff writer Jorge Arangure Jr. recently went on a reporting trip to Cuba. "The Cuba Diaries" series is a collection of his stories while exploring the country.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana was only half full for a game between the home team Industriales and the visiting Ciego de Avila. The atmosphere for Cuban baseball games can often be crazy, loud, and all the other stereotypical things you hear about Latin American sporting events, but not now, not here, not for this game. This feels more like a midweek small market game in the U.S.

Cheering comes in spurts, but mostly the crowd watches quietly and intently as the home team batters poor Ciego. During the middle innings, I walk through the stands. This is the second game I'm attending in Cuba and I'm not sure if and when I'll get an opportunity to see another one. I want to experience every bit of it, from the vendors selling roasted pork sandwiches to the newspaper reporters sitting in the lower level press section to the fans in the seats. On my excursion, I walk by fathers and sons; past mothers and daughters; and through clusters of teenagers out on dates.

Read More: The Cuba Diaries: One Day with a Havana Sports Fan

It is during this stroll that I spot a man with whom I've been wanting to speak. He sits in the lower level stands, near the press area adjacent to the visiting team dugout. There is nothing particularly extraordinary about him in appearance: he is middle-aged, bookish with glasses, and is wearing a red polo shirt.

But several days prior, he had been introduced to me as a rather important figure in Cuban baseball, a historian whose contributions have helped bring the national sport into the modern era.

Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano. Image via WikiMedia Commons

Felix Julio Alfonso Lopez is one of 13 historians, journalists, and academics who helped resurrect the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame, which had been dormant for more than 50 years. While Cubans have excelled in the sport both at home and abroad during that time, there was no mechanism designed to help recognize their accomplishments.

I ask him how it's possible that Cuba—a place where baseball is a national passion—has not had a Hall of Fame for so long, and he tells me a story that encapsulates perfectly the Cuba of the past 50 years: a place founded by revolution; entrenched in a socialist system; and now mired with a drastic need to modernize.

The first Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame opened in 1939, and each year after that a new class of players was elected until 1960, which of course was the year after the Cuban revolution drastically changed the entire country. What worked against the Hall was that its official name was the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame for Professional Baseball—under Fidel Castro's rule, professionalism in sports was abolished. Cuba's major league was shut down, and so too was the Hall of Fame dedicated to celebrate paid baseball players.

The new regime became more interested in building powerful national teams to compete internationally in major tournaments, and was less interested in celebrating individual accomplishments.

"From that point there was a very large parenthesis opened, too long really, 54 years, and for one reason or another, there was never an attempt to re-establish this institution," Alfonso Lopez said in Spanish.

But Lopez, along with his 12 cohorts, fought to re-establish the Hall of Fame. Their belief was that Cuban society had evolved enough that this type of place could exist once again. So the historian became part of history.

On November 8, 2014, a new class of 10 players, five from the pre-revolution professional league (Esteban Bellan, Camilo Pascual, Orestes "Minnie" Minoso, Amado Maestri, and Conrado Marrero), and five from the amateur post-revolution Serie Nacional (Omar Linares, Luis Giraldo Casanova, Braudilio Vinent, Orestes Kindelan, and Antonio Muñiz), were elected into Cuba's Hall of Fame for the first time since 1960.

"This is the new story that we've started to write and that we hope can continue to be written, so that every year there will be a new class elected to repair that unjust history of neglect that for more than 50 years allowed other countries, who have less of a baseball tradition than Cuba, to have a hall of fame while we didn't," Alfonso Lopez said. "We couldn't allow ourselves to fall further behind because of that. We are in a very important moment of transition and openness in our society given that there's now the possibility that Cuban players can play professionally in other countries. This is all forming part of a new era in Cuban baseball in which fortunately we've had an opportunity to be protagonists."

A group of Cuban children playing stickball in Havana. Image via WikiMedia Commons

The story of the Hall of Fame's resurrection begins unremarkably enough with a series of social gatherings nearly five years ago. Every so often, the group of 13 men gathered to discuss their love of Cuban baseball. These men had decided to meet in the first place because each of them had an important role in the game. They were brought together by filmmaker Ian Padron, whose 2008 landmark documentary Fuera de Liga helped bring Major League Baseball to a national Cuban audience.

What made these gatherings so unique and interesting was the group itself. For example, Ismael Sene was a collector of MLB memorabilia in Cuba, and Rolando Sanchez was known to have the most important collection of Cuban baseball memorabilia, which he stored in his house. Young journalists like Sigfredo Barros (Granma), Raiko Martin (Juventud Rebelde), Joel Garcia (Trabajadores), and veteran newspaper man Victor Joaquin Ortega had all written about the game. Alfonso Lopez had studied Cuban baseball history almost his entire life, even after he had gotten his Ph.D. in historical sciences and was named the vice dean of the Colegio Universitario San Geronimo de Habana.

"We had no institutional backing," Alfonso Lopez said. "We were the ones who fought for this project. We became the institution. We took the initiative to push this project to administrators to show them the importance of why we needed to have this."

He added: "We said that no more time should pass without Cuba having a baseball hall of fame. It's something we owed to the country. It was something dedicated to the memory of Cuban baseball that was lost but that needed to be rescued."

Eventually, the group invited members of the Cuban Baseball Federation to attend the meetings. Slowly, their movement began to gain the support of others within the Cuban national baseball structure. Finally, they were given the go-ahead to come up with an organizational plan.

After several meetings, they came up with a basic outline of how the Hall of Fame would function: Initially, 10 players (five pre-revolution, five post-revolution) would be elected every year by a 25-person committee comprised of journalists (broadcast and print) and academics, who would review nominations that came in from each province. Players would be eligible for election five years after retirement, and would stay on the ballot for 15 years.

Each committee member would serve a two-year term. After that two-year term a brand new set of committee members would be elected. The goal was to make the process more inclusive. No one person, or set of persons, would have too much power. In other words, they wanted to make the process as different as possible from the American system in which the Baseball Writers Association of America elects players to the Baseball Hall of Fame, usually with controversial results. Curiously enough, in socialist Cuba they decided on the most democratic way to elect Hall of Famers.

"For us it was very important that the election was very transparent and just and most importantly reflective of what happens on the field," Alfonso Lopez said. "There have been many injustices committed in Cooperstown, with Cubans in particular. There are three currently that have been waiting years to get into Cooperstown: Minoso, Luis Tiant, and Tony Oliva, and they can't get the votes. And we ask ourselves 'how is that possible?' We don't want that to happen here."

Secondly, the group had to determine what to do about exiles. Yet, surprisingly, that never became a contentious topic. Almost immediately it was determined that everyone—whether they had left Cuba illegally or whether they had stayed and played in the Serie Nacional—would be eligible.

The Cuban Sports Ministry and the Cuban Baseball Federation agreed to these parameters, which may be indicative of the Cuban government's new mindset toward the U.S.

"The only merit for someone to be elected into the Hall of Fame will be their athletic accomplishments," Alfonso Lopez said. "We aren't interested in other factors. We only will measure on merit. Jose Contreras, Orlando 'El Duque' Hernandez, Jose Abreu, who is starting to make history in the MLB, will all be eligible in the future. Same as the players who play in Cuba, or those who are allowed to play in Japan or Korea or any other place."

The ultimate goal is to open a Hall of Fame Museum that includes not only memorabilia but also a national baseball archive, movie theater, and youth field. Initially, the group hoped to build the structure near Pueblo Nuevo, Matanzas, at the Palmar del Junco stadium where the first official game in Cuba was played in 1874. But there were no funds and no infrastructure for this type of project there.

Now, the group is eyeing the Vedado Tennis Club site in Havana, where one of the more storied amateur teams in Cuba originated. Unfortunately the site is in such disrepair that it will take at least a couple of years for any museum to open there if the group receives approval and funding. Once built, the museum will be filled entirely through donations of memorabilia, uniforms, hats, equipment etc. Currently, there is no such national collection of baseball artifacts.

For now, the group will be content to honor Cuba's baseball past by continuing to elect Hall of Famers. This year's elected group was honored on December 28 during Serie Nacional All Star game festivities.

"I believe that it was a truly historic day," Alfonso Lopez said. "Like I said in an interview for Cuban television, it's as if a 50-year-old spell had been broken that had kept Cuban baseball from electing their best players into that Hall of Fame. It's like if a door had been opened where these historic players would be allowed to enter on a red carpet. Now that door has been opened forever. It's a door that's been opened for everyone to enter. It's a house that has room for everyone."

You can see Alfonso Lopez's pride and joy in his eyes when he recounts that day. It was more than just a memorable day for Cuban baseball. It was a grand day for the entire country. It was yet another sign that the country was progressing toward a new future where institutions like these could exist.

Toward the end of our conversation, we hear a loud crack of the bat. One of the Industriales has hit the ball into the gap. Alfonso Lopez peers toward the field and excitedly watches the player slide into second base with a double. For all of the work he has done to preserve Cuban baseball's past, he remains as enthusiastic as anyone about its present and future.