By Ryan Yousefi
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Vicente Lopez was born in the Havana suburb of Cotorro, in 1926, and instantly thrust into the national obsession with béisbol. "In Cuba," remembers Lopez, "everybody was a ballplayer."
Certainly it must have seemed that way. The game had been introduced to the island in the Nineteenth Century, with the first contest between organized teams reputed to have occurred in 1874, in the province of Matanzas, east of Havana. Baseball, in the context of Cuba's ongoing fight for independence -- the Cubans fought two separate wars against Spain in the late Nineteenth Century -- became a symbol of resistance to colonial oppression, not so much the national pastime as the national identity.
"Every town had a local team," says Lopez, "and we would play clubs from surrounding towns, places like Santa Maria and Cuatro Caminos. Some players distinguished themselves more than others, but we were all pretty good."
Lopez, a tall, thin right-hander with a developing curve ball, was better than most and became a much-sought-after player in Cuba's so-called Juvenile League, and later, in the renowned Amateur League. He entered the latter in 1946, when he was recommended to Club Central Hershey ("like the chocolate"), a top-flight sugarmill team. The invitation to join the club did not come easily. "They watched me win one game 5-1, then another 3-1," says Lopez. "But it wasn't until I pitched against Deportivo Rosario [the team that eventually won the Amateur League championship that year] that they offered me a contract." In the game, Lopez had dominated the league's powerhouse, beating the team 2-0 and striking out eighteen batters. Hershey had signed one sweet pitcher.
The Amateur League in baseball-crazed Cuba was a breeding ground for future stars and closely followed by fans and professional scouts alike. Lopez made the most of the spotlight. In 1948 Club Hershey won the championship by a half game, a statistical anomaly explained by the fact that a contest earlier in the season ended in a scoreless tie and was never made up. The game, nevertheless, remains memorable to the man who hurled it. "Ten innings against Regla [a town across the bay from Havana] and I struck out eighteen," grins Lopez.
His curve ball was by now a wicked thing, a slow, serpentine devil of a pitch that fooled, froze, and generally tormented batters. At 21, Lopez was not only an accomplished pitcher -- tremendo lanzador -- but a tough competitor, one whose age and boyish looks belied a steely demeanor. "He was inscrutable," recalls lifelong Cuban baseball fan Charles Monfort, who witnessed every Cuban League season between 1930 and 1961. "Inside, he might have been nervous, but you'd never see it on the mound."
The Brooklyn Dodgers liked what they saw on the mound, and signed the young Cuban to a minor-league contract following the 1948 amateur season. In Cuba, Lopez would pitch for Almendares, the Cuban League club with which the Dodgers had recently signed a working agreement, essentially turning the franchise into a Brooklyn farm team.
The Almendares Blues (or Scorpions, as they were also called) was one of four teams in the Cuban League, along with the Havana Reds (or Lions), the Cienfuegos Elephants, and the Marianao Tigers. The teams were all based in and around the capital city and played their games in Havana's brand-new Gran Stadium, a gorgeous 35,000-seat ballpark built just prior to the 1946-47 season. "The Gran Stadium cost two million dollars, in 1946 money," recalls Julio Sanchez, for years a popular broadcaster and sports journalist in Havana. "It had nothing but unobstructed views."
The Cuban League season consisted of roughly 70 games played between October and February, a period during which the island's baseball fans followed the exploits of their favorite players with an intensity rarely seen in the United States. Indeed one need only consider Almendares's team slogan to gauge the depth of feeling among its faithful: "He who defeats Almendares," warned the famous refrain, "dies!"
Not that Cienfuegos or Marianao ever had much to worry about. During the Forties and early Fifties, and for most of the Cuban League's existence, the championship usually was won by either Almendares or its archrival, Havana. Or, as Agapito Mayor, a star pitcher for Almendares in the Forties and early Fifties, still likes to boast: "We'd lose some games, sure, but we won a lot more than we ever lost. A lot more."
This was the team, then, that Vicente Lopez, Dodger recruit, joined for the 1948-49 season. He pitched mostly in relief that year, winning no games and losing one, but he nevertheless impressed his teammates. "Vicente, even as a kid, was a great pitcher," remembers Andres Fleitas, the catcher on that Almendares team, who now lives in Miami. "He had a great curve, a formidable changeup [a pitch similar to a curve], and he was gutsy. He had courage on the mound."
The 1948-49 Blues, though, didn't need much help from the rookie. In addition to Fleitas and Mayor, the team featured Conrado Marrero, one of the finest pitchers ever to play in the Cuban League; a slick-fielding shortstop named Willie Miranda; and talented Negro League outfielders Sam Jethro and Monte Irvin. All would eventually play in the majors, Jethro and Irvin becoming two of the first African Americans to crack organized baseball's color line. (Another player, first baseman Chuck Connors, would make it big not in baseball but on television, as The Rifleman.) Almendares took the title.