My late father would often relate this story. He was listening to the game on the radio in Havana and then all hell broke loose.
From 1954 to 1960, Havana had a AAA franchise in what they used to call The International League. It included Toronto and Montreal. The Havana team was the Reds’ AAA franchise at the time. Therefore, Cuban fans had a chance to see young future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson who broke in the majors in 1958.
It’s worth noting that having a AAA franchise in the late 1950’s was more than a passion for baseball. It was further evidence that the island’s economy could support a minor league team with ticket sales, radio and TV programming. Remember that Havana had to compete with other US cities for that franchise.
In the early hours of July 26, 1960, my father and lots of Cuban fans were caught up in an extra inning game between Havana and Rochester. The game included future major leaguers like Mike Cuellar, Luis Arroyo, Leo Cardenas, Elio Chacon, and Cookie Rojas.
This is what happened:
Shortly after midnight the morning of July 26, while the Sugar Kings and Rochester Red Wings were in the 11th inning of a game at Gran Stadium, demonstrations began in the streets of Havana, marking the anniversary of the 1953 attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba by a band of rebels led by Fidel Castro, an event viewed as the conception of the eventual revolution.
During the course of the this observance, a wild burst of gunfire broke out, and a pair of stray bullets found their way inside the ball park, striking Rochester’s Frank Verdi, who was coaching third at the time, and Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas.
Neither Verdi nor Cardenas was seriously injured, but the incident nearly ended professional baseball in Cuba. The Red Wings left the country immediately, refusing to play the final game of the series, and they and other International League teams expressed fear and reluctance at returning to Cuba.
It was over for the Havana Sugar Kings. They eventually moved to Jersey City. The professional league played one more winter season but professional baseball ended that night Castro showed up at the stadium.
What was my father thinking that night? He was not thinking about leaving Cuba and settling in the US. Like many Cubans, he probably thought that there’d be a solution to this mess.
A few years later, we landed in the US. My brother and I then started collecting baseball cards, including many of those who were playing that night.