MIAMI - A 1935 Havana baseball team jersey worn in a game. A payroll detailing how a young Tommy Lasorda made about $1,400 for four months of pitching in the Cuban Professional League. A silver coffee pot given to Leo Cardenas for the 1968 All-Star Game. Sandy Amoros’ spikes.
These and hundreds of other items are part of an extensive collection of Cuban baseball memorabilia owned by a Miami body builder-turned-cop.
And yes, Orestes Chavez realizes he’s sitting on a gold mine, but he isn’t interested in selling - at least not yet.
“It’s not so much the money,” said Chavez, 41. “This stuff belongs in a museum.”
He’s declined offers of as much as $15,000 for one uniform and $1 million for the entire collection from a group that included sports agent Juan Iglesias. Chavez declined the latter offer because, he said, the group planned to auction off the collection in parts.
“I’m very sentimental and I fall in love with stuff,” Chavez said. “It took me almost 20 years to build this and they wanted to break it up? I couldn’t sleep at night. That’s a lot of money.”
The tradition of baseball in Cuba is long and distinguished. The sport was brought to Cuba by American sailors who stopped in the Caribbean island’s ports in the mid-1860s.
Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida were the first Cubans to play in the majors in 1911. Many followed, though greats such as Martin Dihigo were forced to play in the Negro Leagues because they were black. American Negro Leaguers such as Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson also played in Cuba.
Cuba was a winter training ground for many major leaguers - from Ty Cobb to Don Zimmer to Bob Allison - who played on the island during its four-month professional season, from October to February. Babe Ruth visited Cuba as part of a barnstorming tour in 1920, and the Brooklyn Dodgers - with Jackie Robinson - held part of spring training there in 1947. Club teams played year-round and employed the island’s best players.
But when Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and began building his communist government, he disbanded the Cuban Professional League. Players stopped flocking to the United States, and major leaguers stopped coming to Cuba in the off-season.
As years passed, the remnants of Cuban baseball glory disappeared, or were just misplaced, scattered throughout the island and other countries as Cubans fled Castro’s regime. As the economy worsened, uniforms and jerseys of classic Cuban teams were used as everyday clothing, Chavez said.
Chavez, a native of Cuba who arrived in the United States in 1967, began collecting baseball cards of Cuban players. Soon his interest expanded to jerseys and uniforms, and later to all types of Cuban baseball collectibles.
Chavez, a stocky, affable sort, began making friends with former players, from speedster Angel Scull to Minnie Minoso, a former Chicago White Sox. Players sold him some memorabilia, and his connections with others helped him build his vast collection.
“They’d rather make a few hundred dollars,” Chavez said. “To them, this is garbage. To me, this is a treasure.”
He also scoured the Internet, kept in contact with people who make regular trips to Cuba and communicated with collectors through e-mail and telephone calls.
He has reams of black-and-white photos of team after team, with rare images of legends such as Dihigo, a Hall of Famer considered by many to be the greatest Cuban player ever, and Adolfo Luque, a member of the 1919 Cincinnati Reds world champions.
Chavez owns old contracts, disciplinary letters, laundry slips, programs and game-used bats. There’s even a menu of the fare offered at a celebration dinner for the 1941 professional league championship, signed by several players.
“It’s really unprecedented,” Iglesias said. “Since it was all pre-Castro, it’s unbelievable to obtain that size collection.”
Chavez’s prize possessions are the game-worn uniforms, which range from the four Cuban professional teams - Havana, Almendares, Cienfuegos and Marianao - to club teams to major-league jerseys worn by Preston Gomez, a former San Diego Padres manager, batting champ Tony Oliva and pitcher Livan Hernandez of the Expos, a close friend of Chavez.
Most of the early Cuban uniforms are heavy wool and still bear their original maker’s tag. The 1935 Havana uniform is repaired with a piece of a sugar sack, the serial number still visible on the patch.
“Every jersey tells a story,” said Chavez, who keeps his treasures tucked away in a bank.
Memorabilia authenticator David Bushing said there is a potential market for Chavez’s collection, but suggests that it belongs in a museum in Miami.
“I’ve never heard anybody even specializing in Cuban ballplayers. As a collection it’s unique,” Bushing said. “The value is there, but the collecting public has to get an education. If you educate people about it, the collecting fraternity will follow.”
Chavez is holding on to his collection for now; he knows the scarcity of the items increases its value almost daily. He’s sure to make more than the $1 million he once turned down - if he ever decides to part with his memorabilia.
“I want to see this all in one place,” he said, “where everybody can go and visit.”