Three Strikes and It's Out

Florida International University goes to bat for Little Havana's Casa del Bisbol Cubano

Home-run king Tony Oliva's Minnesota Twins jersey is there. So is the glove that Kansas City Royals great Cookie Rojas used in 1967, when he played all nine positions. Then there are the shoes Oakland A's speedster Bert Campaneris wore to steal 62 bases in 1968, the home-run ball Phillies slugger Dick Sisler sent flying from Cuba's famed La Tropical stadium in 1946, and the perfect horsehide the Twins Camilo Pascual used to pitch strikeout number 2000 in 1967.

Little Havana's Casa del Beisbol Cubano is closing for good. Its collection is boxed and stored in closets. After fourteen years as a rarely visited shrine to Cuban major-leaguers as well as legends who never left the island, the museum will move in January to a tiny but more sophisticated space at Florida International University's baseball stadium.

The casa officially opened in 1985 but its founders, the Federation of ex-Professional Cuban Baseball Players in Exile, couldn't afford a full-time curator. For more than a decade the obscure sanctuary at 1376 SW Fourth St. has been accessible to visitors only on weekends, and only by appointment. "It was never really open to the public. We've never had the support we needed to keep it alive," says 64-year-old Hector Maestri, former federation president and an ex-pitcher for the Cienfuegos Elephants, one of the four teams that made up Cuba's professional league before the 1959 revolution.

Baseball, which was born in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839, arrived in Cuba when American sailors docked at the port of Matanzas during the 1860s. By 1871 Esteban Bellan had become the first Cuban to play organized baseball in the United States. Bellan played for the Troy Haymakers and another nine called, oddly, New York Mutual. The first American professional team was founded in Cincinnati in 1876; two years later Cubans created a professional league that included the Almendares Scorpions and the Havana Lions, the island's top rivals.

The sport became a form of protest against the repressive Spanish regime that ruled until 1898. The Spanish even deported enthusiasts. Interestingly Cuban baseball was free of the color lines that stained the American game's past. By the 1930s black American ballplayers such as Josh Gibson, Jimmy "Cool Papa" Bell, Oscar Charleston, and Buck Leonard had played on the island. Cuba's baseball hall of fame opened in 1939, just three years after the Cooperstown facility.

The old Cuban league's last game was played in February 1961; the four teams were then dissolved and the hall of fame was dismantled.

But in 1979 eleven former Cuban pros gathered to try to salvage their homeland's baseball past. That year about 80 veteran players from across the United States played the first official old-timers game. In 1983 onetime Chicago White Sox rookie of the year Minnie Minoso and Pascual were inducted into the new hall. In all 149 players have followed them into the exiled hall of fame. "Cuba is and has always been an inexhaustible fountain for ballplayers, regardless of politics," says Charles Monfort, baseball collector and hall-of-fame contributor.

In 1985 the federation bought the Little Havana house for about $55,000. Members used proceeds from the annual veterans' games and induction ceremonies, as well as donations and yearly $25 membership fees, to pay $500 per month for the mortgage.

The museum sputtered along until 1995, when federation member Ralph Maya convinced the Marlins to sponsor the all-star game. On July 24 of that year Tony Oliva, the Houston Astros' Cesar Cedeno, former Reds star Tony Perez (now a Marlins executive), and a host of others faced off in replica Almendares and Havana uniforms at Joe Robbie Stadium. They earned $4500. Recently fundraising interest has waned. "The reaction hasn't been very good," Maya says. "For the most part people don't really care about old-time baseball. They want to know who's number one."

Several attempts to rescue the casa have failed. Both the Marlins and Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez showed interest in helping, then dropped the idea. "Huizenga wanted to put the collection in Pro Player [stadium] but nothing ever came of it," says current federation president Wilfredo Calvino. "Then in 1997 Raul said he would find us a place. We've waited far too long and he hasn't been able to resolve anything." Martinez acknowledged the attempt. Huizenga couldn't be reached for comment.

Now FIU baseball coach Danny Price thinks he can pull it off. He's been considering the idea of a Latin American baseball museum for ten years. "It occurred to me one day sitting at [Bobby Maduro] stadium with Tony Perez and Camilo Pascual," Price says. I suddenly realized I was sitting with two legends. My instinct was to run to the closest pay phone and call up a buddy to say, 'Hey, you won't guess who I was just with.'"

Price reached Calvino this past April. A mutual friend, Marcelino Regalado, introduced them. "I had no idea that Danny had wanted to do this for so long," Regalado comments. "He didn't know I had the connections."

By late April Calvino had reached an agreement with FIU. The university will house the museum indefinitely; the federation will maintain control. Price also plans to stage a "Legends of Cuba" game each year at the university. Hall of fame induction ceremonies will be celebrated there as well. "We want the whole package," Price says.

Casa del Beisbol Cubano's admittedly modest collection will be housed in a 30-by-20-foot room that is being renovated as part of a $4.5 million makeover of the FIU stadium. Price hopes the display will be ready for public viewing by January 2000.

"What good is having a museum if people can't see the stuff?" Price asks. "We're going to make it so that people can walk through history."

lissette_corsa@miaminewtimes.com

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