By Joe Connor | MLB.com
With Cuba having recently marked the 45th anniversary of its revolution, MLB.com contributor Joe Connor visited this Caribbean baseball hotbed for more than three weeks. He visited their academies, sports institutes and ballparks across the country’s 14 provinces.
It takes only a minute or two to realize that former Washington Senators right-hander Conrado Marrero, still kicking as he approaches his 93rd birthday, is arguably the George Burns of Cuba.
Like cigars? Marrero would give the late Burns—the famous American comedian who lived until he was 100—a run for his money. The former right-hander says he smokes seven to eight cigars a day. But why not? After all, no country produces better cigars than Cuba. And while the cigars may not be too great for Marrero’s lungs, they certainly haven’t affected his mind.
As a story-teller, Marrero defines total recall. There was the time in 1951 when Marrero’s Senators played the New York Giants in an exhibition game in Orlando, Fla., and the always-curious Cuban had always wanted to track down the Giants’ Monte Irvin to ask him an important question.
“He was a great hitter to right field and there was the short home run porch at the Polo Grounds,” recalled Marrero, between puffs of a Cervantes Cuban cigar at his Havana apartment where he lives with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “So before the game I asked him, ‘Monte, we’re playing here now. I’d like to see you hit a ball to left field for once.’”
The ballpark in Florida was large and expansive yet Irvin agreed he would try to drive the ball to left field.
“I was sitting down the left field corner,” Marrero said. “And in his first at-bat, bam, he hit a home run. When the game was over, I walked up to him again and said, ‘You hit the ball to left (field) like you promised.’ That’s the last time we saw each other.”
More than 50 years after that exchange, Marrero and the Hall of Famer Irvin are expected to reunite this March thanks largely to a Canadian company that every year shuttles fans to the Caribbean’s baseball hotbed for a week’s worth of Cuban National League games. The company also arranges meetings for fans to mingle with a cast of characters, including Marrero and Martin Dihigo Jr., who once plowed the minors with teenagers Pete Rose and Tony Perez and is the only son of Cuba’s “El Inmortal,” the late Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo.
Marrero and Dihigo each experienced varying levels of success during their playing careers, yet both remain transfixed on baseball to this day.
The 5-foot-7 Marrero enjoyed a five-year career with the Senators from 1950-54, his best season coming in 1952 when he posted an 11-8 record and a 2.88 ERA. Born in the small town of Sagua La Grande, Marrero said he began playing baseball at eight but didn’t reach the professional ranks until he was 27. Marrero said his greatest moment came when he tossed a no-hitter in the minor leagues. But what the cigar-smoking Cuban remembers most are the memories.
Like the time in Detroit when the Senators were visiting the Tigers and staying at the same hotel as President Dwight Eisenhower. On one particular morning, Marrero shared an elevator with a young Detroit-area newspaper writer.
“The journalist says to me, ‘Connie, did you see Eisenhower?’” recounted Marrero. “I replied, ‘Oh, that guy? He kept me up all night! He never let me sleep!”
Continued Marrero: “The journalist then says, ‘You know Eisenhower?’” To which I replied, ‘Oh yeah, we used to play golf together.’”
The elevator reached the lobby and Marrero exited, assuming the young journalist understood he was simply joking and making small talk. Apparently, the young writer didn’t, because the next day Marrero’s comments were in the newspaper.
Dihigo only played in the minor leagues, as leg injuries eventually cut short his career. But what he is most proud of are the memorable times he shared with his friends, including Perez, Gus Gil and Tony Oliva, all of whom played in the Major Leagues in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“I used to have to pay for [Oliva’s] breakfast, his dinner, his everything, because he didn’t speak English,” Dihigo says, laughing.
Although his father is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Dihigo Jr. has never made the pilgrimage there. He was just five when his father’s legendary career ended.
Dihigo Sr. played from 1923-1947, but because of his skin color he could find work only in the Negro Leagues, in which by age 21 he was an all-star and home run champion. Later he evolved into a stellar third baseman and pitcher.
When Johnny Mize batted behind Dihigo in the Dominican Winter League coming off a 1937 Major League season in which he’d posted a 1.022 on-base percentage, Mize claimed pitchers were more afraid of facing Dihigo, intentionally walking “El Inmortal” to face Mize instead. In 1977, Dihigo became the first Cuban elected to the Hall of Fame. Dihigo was also enshrined in the Cuban, Mexican and Venezuelan baseball halls of fame.
His legacy graces much of Cuba’s landscape, including his Cruces gravesite and the small town’s countryside ballpark. And within the next few years, the Cuban government plans to unveil yet another life-sized statue of the Hall of Famer on the Prado in Cruces.
Last March, officials from the Hall of Fame visited Cruces, his adopted hometown, although Dihigo was actually born in Matanzas province.
Said his son of the Hall of Fame exchange: “It was something beautiful. We just talked baseball. It meant a lot to me and to my grandson and granddaughter.”
Joe Connor is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.