Rough Diamond

A Cuban embezzler built it, anti-Batista guerrillas trained in it, Nicaraguan refugees lived in it, and Frank Robinson played baseball in it. Now somebody has to step to the plate and save Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium.

Arriving as early as 6:00 p.m., the first of 13,007 fans -- the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game in Florida -- paid as little as 74 cents apiece to slip through the twenty turnstiles outside baseball's newest palace. "One red-neck with the accent of South Georgia homefolks approached the stadium from the flank, ran smack into a head-on view of the sign out front," reported Miami Daily News columnist Morris McLemore the next day. "His jaw went slack as he craned to read 'Miami Stadium' in letters 20 feet high. He grabbed his missus by the arm and muttered, 'Gawd, Martha, neon!'"

Most holders of the $1.25 reserved tickets (which had sold out in four days) arrived closer to 7:00. Some 75 ushers whisked them through the lobby past the potted palms and flowers and the hand-painted murals of sports scenes. After pausing to take in the playing field's perfect dimensions -- 330 feet down the left- and right-field foul lines, 400 feet to straight-away center -- more than one box-seat holder ducked into the private cocktail lounge for a drink.

Those who remained in their seats took note that no supporting columns blocked the view of the playing field of smooth Bermuda grass that had been carved and transplanted from a golf course. They marveled at the electronic scoreboard and at the 40-foot-high wall in center field that, in a nod to Fenway Park in Boston, became known as the Green Monster. Gazing skyward, they could see clouds through the nearly completed cantilevered roof, and, perhaps, the gaggle of electricians scrambling to light all 612 reflectors in the 200-foot light towers, the best lighting system in any park in America.

Perched atop the roof, 83 feet above the field, the press box was equipped with thirteen different booths. Hungry reporters could snack between innings in a private lounge complete with kitchen and bar. McLemore of the Daily News thirsted for the spigot of beer that was slated to arrive within a few days. Women, of course, were not allowed.

While the visiting Havana Cubans dressed in their hotel, the Miami Sun Sox, their Class B Florida International League rivals, buttoned their jerseys in the home clubhouse, which included a team lounge. Spikes clacking along the parquet floor, the Sox marched through a tunnel carved from coral rock to their spacious dugout, which, like the stadium, was topped with a cantilevered roof.

After a military drill by the Greater Miami Boys Drum and Bugle Corps, seventeen-year-old Jose Aleman, Jr., whose dying father had given him the Sun Sox and the two-million-dollar stadium as a gift, offered the services of his ballpark to the City of Miami. Mayor Bob Floyd eagerly accepted. Baseball Commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler declared that he knew of "no more beautiful park anywhere than this new Miami Stadium."

An organ played the national anthem as Native American soprano Princess Wah Nese Red Rock provided the words, and Manuel Velazquez, the Cuban consul general, threw out the first ball. The managers exchanged lineups at home plate, the umpire shouted "Play ball!" and the second-place Sun Sox raced out of their spiffy dugout and whipped the first-place Cubans by a score of 6-1. As Herald sports editor Jimmy Burns declared in the next day's paper: "It was truly the greatest night in Miami's baseball history."

Jose Aleman, Sr., the man who bankrolled Miami Stadium, was born into politics. According to the Miami Herald, his father was a "revered hero of the Cuban emancipation and a minister of education in Cuba's early days." Having been schooled in the United States, Aleman Sr. returned to Cuba after the death of his father and took a job as a clerk in the education ministry.

Laboring first in near obscurity under Pres. Fulgencio Batista, Aleman ultimately rose to a cabinet position in the administration of Pres. Ramón Grau-San Martin. With unrestricted access to the Cuban Treasury, Aleman's net worth began to multiply exponentially. Hiding behind shadow corporations, he purchased at least three cattle ranches in Cuba, as well as sugar mills, mines, and other holdings. He also managed to consolidate control of the funds of three other ministries, as well as the Lottery Revenue fund and the Special Works fund.

In the summer of 1947, some of that money found its way onto Confite, a tiny island off Cuba's north coast. With the blessing of President Grau, Aleman was financing the training and arming of a ragtag collection of 1200 soldiers. Their mission: to invade the Dominican Republic and topple dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. But when the U.S government caught wind of the plan, Grau was pressured to abort the invasion. He complied, ordering his navy to surround Confite and capture the troops. Among the adventurers who escaped by jumping into the Bay of Nipe and swimming to shore was a young University of Havana law student named Fidel Castro.

Word of the aborted invasion leaked out, and Aleman found himself cast in the role of scapegoat. Grau stripped him of his cabinet position in 1948 and he fled with his wife and daughter, and his son by a previous marriage, to a mansion he had bought on Pine Tree Drive in Miami Beach. He purchased more than $20 million in Dade County property. His holdings grew to include several apartments in Miami Beach, luxury hotels, parking garages, and the lower half of Key Biscayne. He also bought a stake in the Miami Sun Sox baseball club, and soon became majority owner.

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