Hardball diplomacy

Bowie Kuhn once told his son Stephen that he wanted his tenure as Commissioner of Baseball to be remembered for two things: “opening Cooperstown to Negro League players because he so appreciated their accomplishments,” and for “increasing the international breadth of the game.” He had a golden opportunity to make history in the latter category but, as Bob Uecker might say, his pitch was juuust a bit inside.

In 1999, Peter Angelos arranged for a home and home series between the Orioles and a Cuban team. It was the first time a major league club had played in Cuba since the Dodgers and Reds played two games 40 years prior. But this delay wasn’t due to a lack of effort.

Let’s go back in the history of sports diplomacy. In April of 1971, the United States Table Tennis team and accompanying journalists became the first American sports delegation to set foot in the Chinese capital since 1949. The Chinese team visited America a year later and a new term was born: Ping Pong Diplomacy. Russian and Canadian hockey fans may remember their Summit Series of 1972.

Less than a month after the table tennis team visited Beijing, San Diego Padres manager Preston Gomez told reporters that he wanted to have a Cuban tour of major leaguers. It would be an opportunity for players such as Tony Oliva, Tony Perez and Tony Taylor to visit their homeland for the first time in a decade. (Incidentally, Gomez’s given first name was Pedro, but there were a handful of Pedro Gomezes in Cuban baseball at the time, so a sportswriter hung Preston on him. Preston was the name of a sugar mill in his hometown. It’d be like naming a Detroit–area player Buick McKenzie.) Gomez said that Kuhn was on board but that they were awaiting State Department approval. Reportedly, the trip was eventually canceled because of protests by Cuban exiles in South Florida.

To say that the two countries hadn’t seen eye to eye since the Cuban Revolution is an understatement. There had been no diplomatic relations since 1961. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, it was practically a fad to skyjack planes to Cuba. In 1969, there were 70 successful skyjackings worldwide; 58 went to Cuba. In 1970, 54 hijackings—31 to Cuba. In 1971, 22 hijackings—13 to Cuba. In November of 1972, three men successfully hijacked a Southern Airways DC-9 from Birmingham to multiple locations in the United States, one Canadian city and finally to Cuba with $2 million and 10 parachutes. At McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, the FBI shot out the tires and the plane finally landed on a partially foam-covered runway in Havana. The three hijackers were seized by the Cubans, as was the $2 million. This incident led to a brief treaty between the U.S. and Cuba to extradite hijackers.

In late September of 1974, Senators Jacob Javits and Claiborne Pell landed in Havana. As young TV producer Barry Jagoda watched footage of this, he had an idea. If ping pong diplomacy helped open up China, why not try baseball diplomacy with Cuba? He discussed this idea with his friend and fellow producer Richard Cohen. Cohen liked the idea, and they spent over $10,000 of their own money to try and bring this idea to fruition.

One of their first steps was to take this idea to Bowie Kuhn. Jagoda expected Kuhn to be like his media image: a stuffy conservative type. But he was pleasantly surprised at the commissioner’s enthusiasm for the idea. He agreed to look into it.

At a dinner party hosted by NBC president Herb Schlosser around the holidays, Kuhn approached Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about a possible Cuba-US game. (Interesting aside: later that year, Kuhn and Schlosser would watch the very first episode of Saturday Night Live together as they stayed in Boston for the World Series. It took a while, but the episode eventually had the commissioner laughing. Thought Schlosser, “Well, if he liked it, it’s going to have a wider audience than most people think.”) Kuhn then sent a follow up letter to Kissinger. Kuhn had some connections in the State Department. He knew Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs William D. Rogers. Both were Princeton alums and Rogers had worked at Arnold & Porter with Paul Porter, who was one of Kuhn’s legal idols.

Preston Gomez had a hand in the planned trip, acting as a go-between between Kuhn and Cuba. Meanwhile, Jagoda and Cohen were doing some negotiating of their own. They traveled to Havana by way of the Czechoslovakian Embassy and met with officials from INDER, the Cuban sports governing body. The two of them borrowed a typewriter and typed up a proposal under a palm tree outside the Hotel Nacional.

The process moved forward. Kuhn met with the Cubans in Mexico City, who wanted to play a game in Havana on March 29. Kuhn thought that Cuba was open to letting their players eventually play in the majors. Back in the State Department, however, Kissinger was against the Cuba trip, though he wanted to hear staffer Lawrence Eagleburger and Rogers’ arguments for it. Rogers argued that a baseball game against Cuba would be similar to ping pong diplomacy. The US would also have a chance to win—America’s record against communist sports teams wasn’t good at the time. Kissinger nixed the idea, thinking that the game would be politically inappropriate.

In 1975, Cuban/American baseball relations took another tentative step forward when Luis Tiant‘s parents attended the World Series. This visit came about because George McGovern passed a letter from Senator Edward Brooke to Fidel Castro when the erstwhile presidential candidate met the Cuban leader in May. Luis Sr. (a former Negro League pitcher) and Isabella arrived in Boston in August and stayed in the United States until they passed away a day apart the next December. They saw their son pitch a major league game for the first time in his career that started in 1964. Two more fruitful results of the meeting that McGovern held was an invitation for a baseball team to come to Havana and the return of $2 million to Southern Airways.

Kuhn again asked Rogers for permission for a game in ’76 in light of Castro’s invitation for an American team. A game in Santo Domingo was also discussed as part of the trip. Kuhn proposed a game in Havana in the last two weeks of March in 1976. Players would come from the 17 teams that train in Florida. Most likely, there would have been 14 American Leaguers selected by Lee MacPhail and the same number of National Leaguers selected by Chub Feeney.

Rogers argued for the trip. He felt that it would be a nice gesture after Cuba returned $2 million in Southern Airways ransom money. After a few weeks without hearing back from him, Kuhn prodded Rogers and hoped that Kissinger could announce the Cuba trip two weeks later at the All-Star game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, through their television connections, Jagoda and Cohen were able to meet with Roone Arledge of ABC. Arledge was interested in buying the rights to at least one game and showing it on “Wide World of Sports.”

In October, Kuhn met again with INDER officials Jorge Bango and Fabio Ruiz in Mexico City for another attempt at an international game. But the game was overtaken by international events. It was canceled by the State Department because of Cuba’s involvement in Angola, support for Puerto Rican independence, and their support of an Arab-backed UN resolution calling Zionism racism. With an upcoming primary fight against Ronald Reagan, President Ford didn’t want to be seen as soft on Cuba.

But private parties tried to keep hardball diplomacy alive. Thanks to diplomatic connections, an Albany, New York travel agent named Vince Bytner was able to get folks to and from Cuba. Bill Veeck was interested in going to Cuba to scout for the Chicago White Sox in October of 1976. Bytner had friends at Cuba’s UN mission who thought that it was a misconception that the Cubans wouldn’t allow their players to play in America, and Preston Gomez thought that there were at least a dozen a major league-level players in Cuba. These claims always need to be taken with a grain of salt, but Barbaro Garbey turned out to be one. He was one of the Cubans allowed to flee in the Mariel boatlift after his involvement in a run-shaving scandal.

Because of the trade embargo, Cuba switched from wooden bats to aluminum bats after the 1975 season. Barry Jagoda told me that foul balls were thrown back on to the field due to an embargo-induced shortage. Veeck went to Cuba in 1977 and was convinced that the Cubans wouldn’t allow their players to go pro.

In February of 1977, Bill Moyers interviewed Castro for “60 Minutes.” Castro expressed a desire to see the New York Yankees come to Cuba to play. But Kuhn nixed the Yankee trip. Baltimore GM Hank Peters said that other teams didn’t want the Yankees to get their foot in the door first. McGovern said that the Dodgers were interested in an island trip. Later, Gabe Paul, George Steinbrenner and Whitey Ford traveled to Cuba. Steinbrenner thought that a Cuba-US game would be more of a cultural exchange than an opportunity to scout the Cuban players. According to him, the Cubans wouldn’t free their players for another 10 years.

George McGovern met again in April with Castro. Castro was pliant regarding his previous position that he wanted the Yankees to visit Cuba. Upon his return to the mainland, McGovern called the commissioner and extended Castro’s invitation to Kuhn to send an All-Star team to Cuba in the fall or next spring.

Kuhn returned once again to Mexico City with the State Department’s blessing to meet the Cubans. According to Ruiz, Kuhn never said that it would be a deal breaker if the Cubans wouldn’t allow their players to become professionals. Ruiz said that the Americans had known since 1975 that the Cubans wouldn’t allow their players to go to the bigs. That wasn’t the impression that Kuhn gave William Rogers back then.

Regardless, Kuhn vetoed a plan to send an All-Star team to Cuba because Castro won’t make Cuban players eligible for the draft. Two congressmen (Downey and Richardson of NY) criticized Kuhn’s cancellation. Others didn’t want it to happen in the first place. Preston Gomez was leery of a Cuba trip because of what Cuban exiles in Miami might do.

That was the last serious attempt to send a team of major leaguers to Cuba for many years. In November of 1977, some players and coaches of the Houston Astros went to Havana and gave a clinic to Cuban players, but no games were played. The next spring, the Cleveland Indians looked to play a Cuban team in Tucson. Kuhn referred them to the Executive Council and nothing happened. Hall of Fame umpire Jocko Conlan wrote a letter to The Sporting News calling Castro a murderer and protesting the Indians’ plan. There were talks to bring a Cuban team to Montreal to play the Expos in August, but those went nowhere. Finally, in March of 1982, the Seattle Mariners had scheduled an exhibition series against a Cuban all-star team but it was canceled due to Cuban-American protests.

Major leaguers probably would have played in Cuba 21 years before the Orioles’ trip were it not for Kuhn’s veto. Nevertheless, Jagoda said that he understood why Kuhn, a corporate lawyer by trade, called the trip off. Kuhn was a businessman, not a diplomat. But imagine if a series had happened. Never mind the political ramifications—Americans might have had a chance to see players like Antonio Munoz, Wilfredo “El Hombre Hit” Sanchez and Changa Mederos.

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