The Tampa-Cuba baseball connection dates back more than a century

YBOR CITY — The Tampa Bay Rays made baseball history in March when they took on the Cuban national team before a Havana crowd that included Cuban leader Raul Castro and President Barack Obama.

But this was hardly the only time Tampa and Cuban squads have shared a baseball diamond.

Teams representing the two have battled since the 1880s.

For instance, in the 1940s and 1950s, a minor league baseball rivalry between the Tampa Smokers and Havana Cubanos was so fierce that Elizabeth McCoy, curator at the Ybor City Museum State Park, compares it to the modern Florida-Florida State football games.

“Tampa has a lot of people living here who were not born here, so (they) may not be aware of this baseball connection with Cuba,” McCoy said. “That is our job at the museum — to teach about it.”

The museum starts the lessons with a free, public lecture on the topic at 5:30 p.m. Friday (Oct. 21) at the Cuban Club.

The keynote speaker will be Roberto González Echevarría, author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.

A professor of Hispanic and comparative literature at Yale University, González Echevarría is a Cuban native who played baseball on the island and then later moved to Tampa, where he joined an Ybor City semi-pro baseball team.

“He is the perfect person to talk about this,” McCoy said. “He has his firsthand experiences and knowledge of the nuances of Tampa and Cuban baseball.”

It was in the late 1880s that a team from Cuba first travelled to Ybor City, recently founded in part by Cuban immigrants. They took on a squad representing El Liceo Cubano, a social center for immigrants from the Cuba.

The Tampa-Cuba baseball rivalry was born.

Over the ensuing decades, Cuban and Tampa semi-pro teams competed in scrimmages. A Tampa all-star lineup would tour Cuba in a barnstorming session.

Minor league games between the Smokers and Cubanos from 1946 to 1954, when the teams were part of the Florida International League, regularly sold out the 8,000-seat Plant Field in Tampa and 30,000 Gran Stadium in Havana.

“This was a giant rivalry,” McCoy said. “Fans really looked forward to the games. You had a lot of fans in Tampa from Cuba and with family in Cuba.”

The Friday lecture is a part of the museum’s yearlong “Traces of Cuba” exhibit.

Its purpose is to highlight “the aspects of modern Tampa culture that harken back to that historic relationship with Cuba,” said Chantal Hevia, president of the Ybor museum.

“Look around and it’s easy to see,” she said. “Our food, architecture, fashion, festivities, all have a trace of Cuba.”

González Echevarría noticed this familiarity when he and his parents relocated to Tampa from Cuba in 1959 as political exiles from Fidel Castro’s revolution.

“The transition was traumatic but was smoother because so much of Cuba’s culture was a part of Tampa,” said González Echevarría, now 72.

Regular baseball games between Tampa and Cuba had been halted by this time due to the revolution, but ties remained through former Cuban players living in the city.

Among them was Eleno Agapito Mayor, a left-handed pitcher in Cuba from the 1930s to 1950s.

It was Mayor who saw potential in González Echevarría and found him a spot on a Tampa semi-pro team.

And it was Mayor who later proved a valuable source for González Echevarría’s history book on Cuban baseball that was published in 1999.

But as proven by the Rays trip to Havana, the history of Tampa-Cuba baseball is still being written, Ybor museum president Hevia said.

“History is living,” she said. “I look forward to watching more added to the history.”

Paul Guzzo, Tampa Bay Times

October 17, 2016

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