Following on from our recent guide on football in Cuba. Football is currently going through its own mini-revolution in Cuba with more and more of the younger generation choosing to kick a ball rather than swing at one. However, baseball has long been the sport of choice in Cuba and is still an extremely popular sport on the island. So here’s the low down on baseball in Cuba.
History of baseball in Cuba
You can trace the entire history of baseball in Cuba back to one man – a chap named Nemesio Guillot. Way back in the 1860s as an upper-class youngster in Cuba, he was sent to the United States to study. Upon his return, he brought back two items, a baseball bat and a ball. He soon founded the first baseball team in Cuba, the Havana Baseball Club. The popularity of the sport spread quickly and by the 1870s baseball was the most popular sport on the island. Cuba quickly boasted the best league in terms of quality in Latin America. However, due to the first Cuban War of Independence the Spanish authorities decided to ban the sport completely. This ban prompted Esteban Bellán, one of the finest Cuban players at the time to stay in the United States after his studies, and he subsequently became the first Latin American player to appear in Major League Baseball.
For the next eighty years or so, baseball continued to thrive. Everyone was picking up a baseball bat! Several hundred amateur baseball clubs were playing each other in various different leagues and championships throughout the island, and it was helping to bring communities together. Baseball really was the heart and soul for so many Cuban towns and villages. However the financial gains of playing baseball in Cuba were extremely minimal, and as players became more exposed to professional leagues abroad. More and more opportunities were offered to the players which gave them the possibility of earning more money, especially in the United States. Unfortunately during the 1960s, the Cuban government abolished all professional sports on the island. Despite the ban, baseball was already a huge part of Cuban culture and an amateur league was formed instead.
Post-revolutionary baseball in Cuba
However post-revolutionary Cuba began to embrace the sport again. Baseball became a symbol of strength and excellence and a great way to encourage nationalism, but there was a catch! The Cuban government decided to replace the former professional baseball system and replace it with the new Cuban National Series; which was an amateur baseball league instead. This change was owing to a socialist model of sports that would prioritize national ideals rather than money. Cuba developed a world-class amateur baseball team, but the star players were reportedly only paid around $2,000 annually (around 1% of what a star player at the NY Yankees would get paid). Heads were again turned towards the prospect of higher wages in the United States, which led to many players defecting in search of better living standards and a higher pay packet.
What about baseball in Cuba in more recent times?
The Cuban national team racked up an astonishing twenty-five Baseball World Cup trophies, including nine consecutively between 1984 and 2005. Unfortunately, they haven’t quite produced the same level of quality since then. They disappointingly finished seventh in the most recent World Baseball Classic. This could well be down to a number of prominent Cuban baseball players defecting to play in MLB, which of course means they can no longer represent Cuba on the international stage.
The Cuban National Series is still the primary domestic baseball competition in Cuba, but is now run as a professional league. The league has 16 teams which are split into regional sub-leagues and games are played from early August until late January. At the end of the regular season, the best six teams enter a post-season tournament in January to decide the overall league champions. The most successful team in its history is Havana based Industriales. They’ve traditionally been the best team in Cuba and are by far the most successful team in the National Series, winning twelve championships.
Some encouraging news though, Major League Baseball recently announced an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation that will allow Cuban players to play in MLB without having to defect providing Cuban baseball players with a safe and legal path to sign with a Major League Club. Hopefully, this agreement will help further the development of baseball in the country, and we’re certainly looking forward to catching a game in Cuba soon.