President Obama’s visit to hobnob with his new BFF, Raul Castro, sparked nostalgia about Cuba’s history in professional baseball and its big league dreams in the 1950s that never came to fruition, and likely never will.
From 1954 into the 1960 season, the Havana Sugar Kings played in the Class AAA International League, which stretched northward through Richmond all the way to Montreal and Toronto. Many players well-remembered — including Luis Arroyo, Mike Cuellar and Cookie Rojas – played for Havana.
The franchise is now in Norfolk, after a couple of detours. By edict of the baseball commissioner (under pressure from the Eisenhower administration), the Sugar Kings were relocated to Jersey City in July 1960. Fidel Castro, who offered to subsidize the team’s losses, took it personally.
“The moment they took away the Sugar Kings from Havana, everything went to hell,” Manuel Barcia, a Cuban-born professor working in England, told The Huffington Post. “Everything went south, because there was nothing else in common between the USA and Cuba.”
The Lords of Baseball (love that dated term) thought a team in Jersey City would draw fans still angry about the Dodgers and Giants sneaking off to the West Coast. The Lords of Baseball, as always, got it wrong. By 1962 the team was in Jacksonville playing as the Suns, eventually as the Mets’ top farm club. But the marriage didn’t last. In 1969 the franchise was on the move yet again.
The sports editor of Norfolk’s big newspaper, George McClelland, knew people in the Mets’ organization and brokered the move by persuading city fathers to commit to a new stadium. George has passed away; his legacy is a lovely family and thousands of newspaper stories. He always left the pressbox early, saying the same thing: “Your story may be better, but mine’s done.”