Would Ted Williams Have Moved to Cuba?

By Bill Nowlin *

“I’ll tell you something I haven’t told many people. If Castro hadn’t taken over Cuba, I wouldn’t be in Florida today. I’d be living in Cuba. That’s right. I had a spot picked out at Varadero Beach. I had plans to fish all those miles of bonefish flats. I couldn’t go there now, but that’s one of my dreams that didn’t come true — living at Varadero Beach and fishing those bonefish flats.”

-Interview with Jim Hardie in The News (October 30, 1988) when Ted was 69 and had just sold his house and boat in Islamorada to move to Citrus Hills. “It got so there were more boats than fish in the Keys. All gone downhill.”

Ted retained a few Cuban connections of sorts. In 1999 I began working on a long-term project, interviewing people who work in and around Boston’s Fenway Park. Naturally, I included the usher who works the section where I have my season tickets. He is Rodolfo Cid and he began working as an usher at Fenway on Opening Day in 1975. Cid is a Cuban refugee, who left the island in 1962 with his family after a short stay in jail and after seeing his young daughter marching in the street singing the “Internationale.” During the interview, he told me that as a young employee of the railroad he had used his rail pass to travel halfway across Cuba in March 1946 to catch the two spring training games between the Washington Senators and the Boston Red Sox. And he wasn’t disappointed: he’d seen Ted Williams hit a home run.

When I traveled to Cuba for a week of baseball in March 2001 with Cubaball Tours, I decided to research more about this two-game weekend visit in 1946. I’d read the Boston Globe’s accounts and they didn’t mention any home run by Ted. In Havana, I visited the Biblioteca Nacional and got myself a library card. I don’t really read or speak Spanish very effectively, never having studied it and just having picked up what rudimentary skills I have while traveling. The woman who issued me the card, though, was a baseball fan and she pointed me in the right direction.

The Senators, fairly frequent visitors to Cuba in those days, arrived on the 7th of March and held a practice on the 8th. The Red Sox came in on a charter flight at 5 PM on the 8th. Informacion wrote that Williams was the “atracción máxima” of the two-game series. Considered the best hitter in the American League, Williams (“el formidable jonronero”) had returned to baseball after serving three years in the armed forces of “Tio Samuel.” This newspaper ran a large cartoon on the sports page depicting an attractive young woman hiking up her skirt to put on her silk stockings, telling a Cuban ballplayer, “De eso nada, ahora estoy con las grandes ligas.

Eddie Collins traveled with the Red Sox party, as did manager Joe Cronin and AL president William Harridge. The Red Sox player contingent was, in alphabetical order: Ernie Andres, Paul Campbell, Dominic DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Danny Doyle, Boo Ferriss, Andy Gilbert, Mickey Harris, Tex Hughson, Sam Mele, Catfish Metkovich, Eddie Pellagrini, Johnny Pesky, Freddie Pytlak, Charlie Wagner, and Ted Williams. Coaches Paul Schreiber and Larry Woodall joined the party, led by traveling secretary Tom Dowd. Eddie Collins traveled with the Red Sox as did manager Joe Cronin and American League president William Harridge. Commissioner Chandler was present as well.

Collins, in remarks at the airport, said he was happy to return to Havana, where he had visited often as a player with Connie Mack’s Athletics. Collins, who had signed Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr for the Red Sox, also remembered by name Armando Marsans as one of the greatest outfielders he’d seen, pitcher José Méndez and a few others. Información’s sportswriter felt the Red Sox had a good chance for the pennant in ’46 with the Pesky/Doerr combination at second, Williams back with Dom DiMaggio in the outfield, the addition of Rudy York at first and some good pitchers in Ferriss, Hughson, Harris, and Dobson.

The first exhibition game was scheduled for Saturday, March 9 and the gates opened at noon. Game time was 3 PM at Grand Stadium Cerveza Tropical, a capacious ballpark in downtown Havana. That evening at 9 PM, Gavilán Kid (known in the U.S. as Kid Gavilan) boxed against Sosa (any relation to Sammy? wouldn’t that be something?) at the Palacio de los Deportes. Gavilán won on points. Rodolfo Cid grew up with Gavilán as a neighbor in Camagüey.

In the ballgame, though, despite an eight-run Boston fourth inning, Washington won the game 10-9 with a dramatic six-run bottom of the ninth, the big blow a Robertson triple. Earlier in the game, Williams, Pesky, and Doerr had all tripled as well. Pitching for Boston were Dobson, Brown, and Wagner. Wagner took the loss. Max Wilson, whose major league career record was 0-1, got the win in this one. The Sox earned nine runs on 10 hits, but the Senators had 15 hits and that all-important 10th run. Ted was the only Boston player with more than one hit; he went 3-for-4 in the game with one “carrera empujada” (run batted in). Time of the game was two hours and 55 minutes.

The stadium opened at noon the next day — Sunday — for Clark Griffith Day ceremonies. The Red Sox came back on and beat the Senators 7-3. This time Boston scored first, with three runs in the third, adding single runs in the fourth, fifth, eighth, and ninth. Williams had yet another triple, as did Dom DiMaggio. Rodolfo Cid’s memory was incorrect. Ted had tripled in both games but not hit any homers during the actual contest. News coverage in Hoy, the paper of the Communist Party, indicated “Ted Williams bateó un tribey y dos hits, y en las prácticas al bate se llevo en claro la cerca del right en tres occasiones, una de ellas por sobre la valla anunciadora, en un batazo de proporciones similar al famoso homer de Dick Sisler.” Perhaps it was one of those batting practice drives that Rodolfo Cid recalled. Those three balls Ted hit out of the park in right field would have been tremendous drives. This was a huge park (Tropical still stands today, used as a track and field and soccer facility).

Ted’s triple in game two was hit off Wolff, deep to left field right down the line and, following as it did an error, as Heath dropped Campbell’s fly to left, kicked off the three-run third inning rally. Doerr followed with a double right down the line as well, and then Dominic singled to right. The paper acknowledged that Ted had just one hit, 1-for-5 on the day, “pero eso fue un largo triple por lo último del left field que inició el rally de tres carreras.” It was Dom’s day, 3-for-5 — also hitting a triple and driving in two. Doerr got that double and a single in five trips to the plate. Hughson, Ferriss, and Harris pitched, with Tex Hughson picking up the win, and Wolff bore the loss. Pesky and Doerr were cited for their defense. Cuba Deportiva said that Williams made a beautiful catch of a foul fly early in the game. The game lasted but 2:05.

This wasn’t the Red Sox’ first visit to Cuba. In 1941, they’d played three games against the world champion Cincinnati Reds on March 28, 29, & 30. Boston won the first game 9-2, but then lost the next two 6-3 and 2-1. All three games were also played at Tropical. Ted was supposed to make the trip, but at the last minute he did not. Preceding the three contests against the Reds, Boston played a local Cuban team and was defeated 2-1. Juan Decall, who strung telephone wires for a living, only gave up the one run on a Stan Spence sacrifice fly. The Boston press praised the level of play and noted that the local crowd was “highly enthusiastic…so exultant at the finish they threw seat cushions onto the field, an old Havana custom.” (Some of us recall Seat Cushion Night at Fenway Park a few decades later. That was a disaster never to be repeated.)

The Boston Red Sox were being courted by the University of Havana, which was hoping that the Red Sox would hold their regular spring training at the high quality university facilities beginning in 1943. As it happens, war broke out and the Red Sox found themselves training much closer to home, ironically at another school of higher learning — Tufts College in Medford, Massachusetts.

Ted Williams is still remembered in Cuba today. I’d heard that his photograph still hung in the lobby of the Hotel Sevilla, where the Sox had stayed in 1946. The Mexican League magnate Bernardo Pasquel frequented the lobby during the Sox stay, and roamed the corridors buttonholing Red Sox stars. Pasquel’s brother Jorge had reportedly cabled just hours earlier to make an offer to Williams of a tax-free $100,000, for three seasons in Mexico.

Bernardo Pasquel asked one of the writers who accompanied the Red Sox to introduce him to Williams. Ted and Pasquel sat down to chat in the bar “Criollo”, when Joe Cronin strode up and inserted himself in the conversation, saying, “I’m the manager of this gentleman. You should be talking to me, not to him.” Pasquel turned to Williams and asked, “¿Y usted es un hombre libre?” (“Are you a free man?”) Pasquel didn’t wait for a reply but told Cronin that he wanted to talk with Mr. Williams and that if he did not sign to play with Boston, he would make a great offer to Williams.

Ted replied that he was glad that baseball was so well established in Mexico that they wished to compete against U. S. baseball, but that before he made the trip to Havana he had indeed signed to play for Boston. Ted spoke for himself and the writer for Bohemia said that Cronin left like “un perro de presa” (“a bird dog”).

Ted’s photo does indeed still grace the lobby of the Sevilla early in the 21st century, as part of a photo gallery of hotel guests which also includes Joe Louis, Perez Prado, Errol Flynn, Georges Simenon, Luis Angel Firpo, Graham Greene, Enrico Caruso, Gloria Swanson, Santos Traficante, Irenee Dupont, and Al Capone.

I asked bookstall vendors at the Plaza de Armas if anyone had photos of Ted for sale. I already owned Ted’s sole Cuban baseball card (the 1947 Propagandas Montiel card) and a Cuban magazine which had featured Ted. I was able to purchase a print of Ted visiting the original Sloppy Joe’s, a 1950s photo. Sloppy Joe’s was owned by Jose Abeal Y Otero, a Spaniard who had come to Cuba in 1906.

Later, at the home of a Cuban baseball aficionado, I was able to buy an original photo of Ted in the batter’s box at Tropical during those 1946 games against the Senators. Ted posed as well for Informacion’s Ramon Fernández at Tropical and Mark Rucker later supplied me with a copy of that photograph.

A photograph of Ted also hangs in the Hotel Nacional.

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