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.

Alema#n remained a Cuban senator, often voting in absentia. He also maintained his access to the Cuban Treasury. Time magazine reported in 1950 that on the afternoon of October 10, 1948, Aleman and his "henchmen" had driven Ministry of Education trucks up to the Cuban Treasury building in Havana. "'What are you going to do, rob the Treasury?' joshed a guard. '?Quien sabe? Who knows?' replied the baby-faced Aleman. Forthwith his men scooped pesos, francs, escudos, lire, rubles, pounds sterling and about $19 million in U.S. currency into the suitcases. The trucks made straight for the airfield where a chartered DC-3 stood waiting."

Ed Little, a former Sun Sox catcher who now lives on a ranch in Colorado, says he was with Aleman on that October day. "I was one of them! Back in those days, they kept the money in Cuba in the safe sort of loosely. We put $19 million in the suitcases. The U.S. Customs department, with all kinds of glee, confiscated all the rubles and the pesos and all the other foreign currency that we had. But they weren't allowed to take the U.S currency, and we carried in $19 million in cash!"

With money literally lying around his Miami Beach mansion -- Little says much of the cash was stashed in boxes and suitcases -- Aleman was open to investment possibilities. A new stadium for his baseball team was an attractive option. Miami Field, the only ballpark in town, had been ruined by the expansion of the neighboring Orange Bowl. New ramps outside the football stadium cut the distance from home plate to straight-away center field from 375 feet to a far-too-close 280. "I don't know exactly what can be done, but some solution probably will have to be worked out," City of Miami Welfare Director Jesse Yarborough had told the Herald in 1947, "since the stadium changes would make the baseball diamond inadequate."

Henry B. Taber, a sports promoter from Buffalo, introduced Aleman to the city, and the Sun Sox owner told Miami commissioners he'd be willing to swap a nice piece of property on Flagler Street for some land to build a ballpark. The city offered him fifteen acres in Allapattah that had long been earmarked for a sports stadium of some kind, and Aleman accepted the trade. On the Flagler property, the city built the Dade County Auditorium. In Allapattah, Aleman began building Miami Stadium.

The first published estimate of construction costs was $500,000. Before the stadium was completed, the bill skyrocketed. Aleman spared no expense: Huge tresses for the roof were assembled in Alabama and shipped down by rail, intact. More than 200 houses could have been built with the concrete poured into the foundation. Aleman approved architectural designs that placed 137 rooms on the stadium's four levels, some of them outfitted with private showers. He demanded that the stadium be ready for business only nine months after construction commenced.

As Miami Stadium's silhouette was ascending above the low-lying Allapattah skyline, Jose Aleman, Jr., was studying at the University of Miami and trying out for the varsity baseball squad. By opening night, the young student was the owner of Miami Stadium and of the team that called it home. Al Rubio, the Sun Sox general manager at the time, puts it succinctly: "The son liked baseball, so Aleman built him the stadium."

It wasn't the first gift the father lavished on his only son. Aleman kept young Jose well stocked with spending money and foreign cars to impress his friends. "The kid had every toy you could ever want," remembers Sonny Hirsch, who served as a bat boy on opening night and later as general manager of one of the several minor league teams that occupied the stadium. (Hirsch now broadcasts Miami Hurricanes football play-by-play on WIOD radio.) "At seventeen he had the biggest back yard in the world. How many other kids have a whole stadium to play with?"

Jose Sr., only 44 but stricken with leukemia, died less than seven months after opening night, leaving his son much of the family fortune.

At first Miami Stadium flourished. More than 100,000 people saw Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and other top stars play in ten major league exhibition games in the spring of 1950. Columnists nationwide celebrated the new baseball paradise in the tropics. "There isn't a more modern, more completely equipped ballpark in the land, major or minor," purred John Carmichael of the Chicago Daily News. The home team excelled that season: The Sun Sox defeated Havana to win the 1950 International League championship.

By 1952, though, attendance had dipped while expenses remained high. A year later the stadium ledger sheet showed more than $100,000 in the red, and the Sun Sox lost an additional $40,000. The crowds dropped off so sharply that in 1954 the Sun Sox chose to return to cramped Miami Field, preaching publicly that the move would bring their fans closer to the players.

Aleman had already sold his share of the team. He was hemorrhaging money, and the novelty of owning a baseball club had long worn off. Lacking a tenant and in desperate need of cash, he put Miami Stadium on the market in 1955. The asking price: $950,000.

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