Because Guillot attended college in the United States and returned to Havana in 1866 swinging a baseball bat, beisbol was born.
Or so goes one version.
There are other yarns about how baseball got to Latin America. Invading Marines took it to Nicaragua, for example. American oilmen brought it to Mexico. In the case of Cuba, which was playing ball only 10 years after the United States, the game may have arrived when American sailors docked in the port of Matanzas and started playing, prompting Cuban spectators to try their hand.
Playing baseball also became a form of protest in a Cuba ruled by Spain, so the Spanish authorities attempted to suppress local enthusiasm for the alien sport.
Many pro-independence Cubans who played baseball were deported to Spanish enclaves in far-off Morocco. Many others found refuge in the Dominican Republic and nations like Colombia and Venezuela, all of which now have citizens playing baseball with major league teams like the Florida Marlins and the Cleveland Indians.
While American merchants and seamen, students and prospectors, and especially the U.S. Marine Corps, helped spread the sport in Latin America, those involved in professional baseball acknowledge that zealous Cubans played a key role.
``The Cubans were the missionaries of baseball. They spread it like it was a religion, like the friars spread the Catholic faith in the days of the conquistadores,'' said Oscar Fuentes, a baseball scout, using his cellular phone in heavy traffic in Caracas.
His country, with a population of 20.2 million, has 33 players in Major League Baseball -- second only to the Dominican Republic, which has 7.5 million residents and an amazing 81 major league players.
``The Cubans gave the countries around the Caribbean rim many things, including cigars . . . but best of all they gave us baseball,'' Fuentes said.
The first Cuban to play pro ball in the United States was Esteban ``Steve'' Bellan, a catcher for the Troy, N.Y., Haymakers in the 1870s. Sixty Cubans played in the majors when Castro came to power in 1959. Only eight Cuban-born players -- Hernandez, Rey Ordoñez of the Mets, Rafael Palmeiro of the Orioles, Ariel Prieto and Jose Canseco of the Oakland A's, Osvaldo Fernandez of the Giants, and Tony Fossas and Eli Marrero of the Cardinals -- play now.
Until 1947, there was only a trickle of Latin American players in the majors because of the color barrier. But that year, when Jackie Robinson was hired to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the door was opened to a surge of international players.
Of the 12,000 men to make it to the majors by the 1990s, 600 were Latin Americans. At the end of this season, there were 184 players born in Latin America with major league teams.
Latin American teams sometimes did not belong only to a city. They were the personal standard bearers of dictatorships, making for unusual league play, says Francisco Chamorro, editor of El Nuevo Diario in Managua, who bats left handed.
``The thing I remember about the [Anastasio] Somoza days,'' he says, talking about the deposed Nicaraguan dictator, ``is that he had a team, the Cinco Estrellas. So if you opposed Somoza, you rooted for the other Managua team, the Boers, when the teams played each other.''
The Boers still play. The Cinco Estrellas are gone. So are the Dantos, organized by the Sandinistas, whose candidate for president lost to Chamorro's aunt, Violeta Chamorro.
In the Dominican Republic, dictator Rafael Trujillo not only sponsored teams, he also had stadiums named after him, where the crowds had to shout his name. When a Cuban team came close to defeating a squad bearing the Trujillo name, he ordered some of its members arrested to prevent the victory.
In Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, local squads saw invitations to play against occupying U.S. Marines as an opportunity to assert their nationalism and promote patriotism, Chamorro said.
But no one in the Dominican Republic, says Tony Ortega, a sports broadcaster in Santo Domingo, would say anything bad about baseball -- the United States yes, baseball no.
``You could shout, `Yanquis out,' '' he says, ``but you could not knock the New York Yankees. Politics was one thing, but baseball was sacred.''
Rene Francisco, a Lake Worth resident who scouts for the Atlanta Braves in the Dominican Republic, says that major league demand for ballplayers changes lives in the Caribbean country.
``Kids play it all over the country,'' Francisco said. ``Little kids play it with a stick, plus a cap off a plastic bottle. Many American teams have academies with 30-man rosters . . .
``In the academies they learn English. They get an education. Even if they don't make it to the U.S.A., they get it better in life.''
Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald
Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald