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The rich history of baseball in Cuba

February 24, 2023

Baseball is said to have been introduced in Cuba in 1864 by students returning from the U.S. The first official game on record on the island happened a decade later at Estado Palmar de Junco in Matanzas, which is considered the oldest active baseball stadium in the world. Thus began an all-consuming national passion.

The Cuban League, a winter circuit, was established in 1878 and operated until 1961, when Fidel Castro replaced professional sports on the island with an amateur system. Cuba went on to dominate international play for decades. And though defections over the years have diminished the quality of competition on the island, the sport remains integral to Cuban society and identity.

Here is an overview of the rich -- and at times, tumultuous -- history of Cuban baseball.

Total Major Leaguers all time: 381 (including the Negro Leagues)

World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) ranking: 8th

Last World Baseball Classic appearance: 2017

Best WBC finish: 2006, runner-up

Top league: Serie Nacional de Béisbol

Cuba’s top competitive baseball circuit is the Serie Nacional, or National Series, an amateur league that consists of 16 teams. It was established in 1961, after Fidel Castro abolished professional sports on the island.

Top current Major Leaguers

Yordan Alvarez

Alvarez has emerged as one of the premier sluggers in the game. The native of Las Tunas burst onto the scene with the Astros in 2019 and was named AL Rookie of the Year unanimously after posting a .313 batting average with 27 home runs and a 1.067 OPS in 87 games. He had his best season yet in 2022, a year in which he finished third in the AL in homers (37), fourth in batting average (.306) and fifth in RBIs (97) in 135 games, while helping Houston raise the World Series trophy.

José Abreu

Now that Abreu has joined Alvarez in Houston, the Astros boast two of the top Cuban players in the league. The veteran Abreu has been one of the most consistently productive hitters in the Majors since making his debut with the White Sox in 2014. He was named the AL Rookie of the Year in '14 and the AL MVP in '20. The 36-year-old first baseman and Cienfuegos native is also a three-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger winner.

Luis Robert

Injuries have hampered Robert in his Major League career, yet the White Sox infielder remains one of the most exciting young players in the game. In 2020, the Guantanamo native was the runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year Award and won a Gold Glove. In 222 Major League games, he has clobbered 36 home runs, driven in 130 runs and owns an .808 OPS. Robert, along with his teammate Yoán Moncada, are the two current Major Leaguers set to play for Team Cuba in the World Baseball Classic.

Famous players

Martín Dihigo

Knowing during his career as “El Maestro” and “El Inmortal," Dihigo became a Cuban national hero for his exploits as a five-tool, two-way player. Though the color line barred him from playing the American or National Leagues, Dihigo played year round, starring in Cuba and the Negro Leagues, as well as in Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 and has the distinction of being the only person immortalized in the Hall of Fames of the U.S., Cuba and Mexico.

Martín Dihigo became a Cuban national hero for his exploits as a five-tool, two-way player.

Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso

The first Afro-Latino player in AL/NL history when he debuted with Cleveland in 1949, Miñoso had a career slash line of .299/.387/.461 with 195 home runs, 216 stolen bases, 1,089 RBIs and 1,227 runs scored in parts of 20 seasons. He hit above .300 eight times, and he was a seven-time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glove winner. Miñoso, who has been referred to as “the Latino Jackie Robinson,” was inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously in 2021.

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Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso was the first Afro-Latino player in AL/NL history when he debuted with Cleveland in 1949.

Tony Pérez

With his run-producing prowess -- he ranks 32nd on the all-time RBI list with 1,652 -- Camaguey-born Pérez was key cog of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine that won four National League pennants and two World Series titles in the 1970s. The right-handed-hitting corner infielder won a third championship as a member of the Phillies in 1983. A seven-time All-Star, Pérez was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

The Hernández Brothers

In what were high-profile defections, half-brothers Liván and Orlando “El Duque” Hernández fled Cuba in the 1990s within two years of each other, and both found success in the Majors soon after. Liván was named the World Series MVP for the champion Florida Marlins in 1997. The following year, Orlando and his high leg kick featured prominently in the Yankees’ rotation that helped the Bombers secure the second championship of their late-90s dynasty. Between the two of them, they won 268 games and struck out 3,062 batters in the Majors.

The Gurriels

Brothers Yuli and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. were mostly unknown to MLB fans until they defected in 2016, but both belong to one of Cuba’s most distinguished baseball families. Their father, Lourdes Gurriel Sr., was known as the “Man of the Big Moments” in Cuba for his exploits on the international stage. Before he was a two-time world champion with the Astros and an AL batting champion and Gold Glove winner, Yuli was considered the best player in Cuba, where he slashed .337/.421/.582 in 15 seasons in the Serie Nacional as a third baseman and was a cornerstone of the national team.

Future Cuban star?

Oscar Colas

White Sox No. 2 prospect Colas, a native of Havana, slashed .314/.371/.524 with 23 home runs across three levels in 2022, while making the jump from High-A to Triple-A Charlotte, which earned him an invitation of Major League camp. The left-handed-hitting outfielder, who is ranked No. 85 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list heading into 2023, has a chance to make the Opening Day roster with a strong Cactus League showing.

Major moment in Cuban baseball history

Baseball debuted as a full medal sport at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, where a Cuban team that included Orlando Hernández, as well as Gurriel Sr. and Omar Linares -- a Cuban legend at third base -- went undefeated in nine games to capture the gold.

As an encore, Cuba would capture gold at the 1996 Games in Atlanta while going undefeated once again.

Historic MLB moment:

On March 28, 1999, an MLB team played in Cuba for the first time in 40 years when the Baltimore Orioles faced Cuba’s national team in an exhibition game at Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano. The Orioles won, 3-2, with a Harold Baines go-ahead single in the top of the 11th inning.

On the mound for the Cuban team that day? Future Major Leaguer Jose Contreras, who won a World Series ring with the Chicago White Sox in 2005 during an 11-year big league career.