Opinion

A Cigar With the Oldest Living Former Major Leaguer

Nearly 100, Cuban Conrado Marrero hosts his number one fanatico, a visitor from Vancouver.

By Tom Hawthorn, 4 Mar 2011, TheTyee.ca

Baseball player Conrado Marrero's hands with ball

The hands, today, of former all-star pitcher Conrado Marrero.

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Conrado Marrero is a prisoner of his second-floor apartment, the 28 steps from the street a barrier for a man who can barely walk. He is hard of hearing and nearly blind, treacherous afflictions on Havana streets, a jumble of broken concrete and uneven asphalt.

A short, stocky man in his prime, Marrero is now but a wisp, shrunken in stature though still sharp of mind. He was once an all-star pitcher for the Washington Senators, hobnobbing in the grandstand with Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower after being assigned to protect them from foul balls.

At 99, he is all but forgotten by the baseball fraternity. Marrero remains isolated from old rivals and teammates, not to mention baseball fans, by a conflict pitting his island homeland against another baseball-loving nation. Along the Straits of Florida, the Cold War continues on and on, still undecided though long into extra innings.

Marrero lives a dozen blocks from the massive Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana's Cerro barrio. He shares a Spartan three-room apartment with his grandson's family and two tenants. The address is Ayuntamiento 205, the same published in the Boston Red Sox team directory in 1961 when he was a scout. Marrero is listed in the Havana telephone book, but hardly anyone calls.

That might change in the coming months, as the recent death in California of Tony Malinosky, at age 101, leaves Marrero as the oldest-living former major leaguer. That is a title all ballplayers seek -- and none wish to relinquish.

The president and his top fanatico

Sitting on a battered sofa in the modest apartment, Marrero was asked how it felt to be the oldest survivor of his peers.

"I am now president of the living ones," he pronounced, a cigar clenched between fingers.

Marrero was visited recently by two dozen touring baseball fans from the north, a group organized by Kit Krieger of Vancouver, who has made it his cause to ensure the old ballplayer be remembered. Krieger, 62, solicits letters from other retired players, which he delivers personally. One of the latest batches of notes was written by Duane Pillette, 88, a former pitcher with the St. Louis Browns, a team long since moved to Baltimore, who told Marrero he remembered him as "a little guy with a heart shaped like a baseball." The testimonials revive the old man, whose memories of home runs and strikeouts remain vivid six decades later.

Each year, Krieger leads a pilgrimage of baseball fanaticos to Cuba to see the game played in a more pristine state. Instead of advertisements for Coca-Cola, outfield walls are painted with revolutionary slogans. Instead of blaring rock 'n roll between innings, hometown fans honk horns and bang on makeshift musical instruments, such as the Industriales fan at the estadio who beats on two upside-down frying pans whose handles are attached to a tray he wears around his neck. In America, ball players are millionaires who live in gated communities. In Cuba, peloteras are celebrated athletes who live in the neighbourhood.

The Cuban authorities at times seem wary of Krieger and his entourage, as they suspect the motivations in an era where several star players have been lured away from the Cuban system by the promise of millions to be had in the major leagues. Yet Krieger is keen on the game as it is played in Cuba, where players wear the uniform of the province of their birth, where there are no trades, where the sport is religion in a country that officially has none but in which every citizen is an adherent. As Marrero once said, "Baseball in Cuba is life itself."

Baseball player Conrado Marrero in 1938

Marrero, with a ladykiller's mustache, was a star pitcher for Cienfuegos in 1940.

Others have tracked down Marrero over the years, but none has ever cared so much about bridging the divide that has kept him cut off. Krieger has tried unsuccessfully to get baseball to provide Marrero a modest pension. He has also sought assistance from the emergency fund established to help ball players in need. In both cases he was turned down, as the Americans involved did not wish to confront the U.S. Treasury Department's restrictions on dealing with Cuba and Cubans.

Instead, Krieger raises funds privately by selling copies of Marrero's autograph gathered before he lost his sight. Many of those who have taken a Cubaball Tour, who call themselves Cubaballistas, also make donations. The Victoria artist Susan Underwood has donated 20 lithograph prints of Marrero, which sell for $50, all proceeds to the old player.

Amid the complications of a geopolitical standoff, a remarkable friendship has been forged between Krieger and Marrero -- one Canadian, the other Cuban; one of Jewish heritage, the other Catholic; one a retired teacher, the other a retired athlete; one who speaks pidgin Spanish, the other pidgin English. The language they share is baseball.

Ageless

Marrero becomes a centenarian next month. For years, his birth date was in dispute, as he shaved years from his advanced age so as to not scare off potential diamond employers. A 1952 Saturday Evening Post article noted the pitcher was "positively 35, absolutely 37, indisputably 43, and definitely 42." A pre-revolutionary passport gives his birth date as April 25, 1911. He was born on a farm known as El Laberinto in the district of Sagua la Grande on the island's north coast in the old province of Las Villas, now Villa Clara province. Marrero told me he learned to throw as a boy by tossing ripened oranges against tree trunks. As a young man he played for a local industrial team, handling infield chores. A bad hop resulting in a black eye convinced him to become a fulltime pitcher.

While locals knew him as a talented hurler, he did not join a prominent club until signed to the amateur Cienfuegos team at age 27 in 1938. He soon after stunned the Universidad team by pitching a no-hitter. He was a versatile athlete and a devious thrower, relying on trick pitches to fool opposing batters in what was Cuba's premier circuit.

For five seasons, he led the amateur league in innings pitched. In 1942, he completed 26 of 27 games he started. His record was 22-5 and his earned-run average was a stunning 1.22. To top it off, he pitched Cuba to the world amateur championship that year and was named the most popular player in baseball by readers of Carteles magazine.

A major league rookie at 39

He signed his first professional contract at age 35 in 1947, when he joined the minor-league Havana Cubans. He won 70 games against 25 losses in three seasons. In winter, he pitched for Almendares in a four-club circuit in which all games were played in Havana, in those days a Sin City on the Sea. One of his teammates was Monte Irvin, an African-American slugger who found in Cuba a land where the colour of his skin mattered less than the colour of the pesos in his wallet. (Irvin returned to Cuba with Krieger in 2004, ending a 50-year hiatus to reunite with Marrero. He recalled entire blocks where the street level businesses were bars, while brothels handled customers upstairs.)

Baseball player Conrado Marrero's passport

Marreros' passport, with a photo from his playing days.

Marrero was never a great physical specimen, looking no more consequential than a "Spanish grocer" in the memorable phrase of one sports historian. He was listed as 5-foot-7, but was likely two inches shorter. His playing weight was 165 pounds, though most of that seemed to hang low in his torso and hips. Some said the stubby pitcher looked like he had been buried to his knees on the mound.

Four days before his 39th birthday, at an age when most athletes have retired, Marrero made his major league debut with the Washington Senators. He spent five seasons with the American League club, a mediocre squad that in those years never finished higher than fifth place in an eight-team circuit.

A legend in Cuba, he was unknown in America. Back home he was known as El Premier ("Number One") and El Curveador ("The Curveballer") and, especially, as El Guajiro ("The Hillbilly"). The sophisticates of Havana thought his language and behaviour that of the rube, though they acknowledged he was wily hick. Reporters stateside found good copy in Marrero, who was never without a cigar and whose thick accent made him ripe for parody as a stereotype. Marshall Smith, writing for Life magazine, said his pitching motion "resembles an orangutan heaving a 16-pound shot put." Felipe Alou, a Dominican, said Marrero's windup "looked like a cross between a windmill gone berserk and a mallard duck trying to fly backwards."

An all-star at 40

In a game in Washington's Griffith Stadium in 1951, he limited the Philadelphia Athletics to a pair of walks and a single hit -- a home run by Barney McCosky. Asked after the game what he had been throwing, Marrero replied, "Everything but my cigar." The game was played the day after his 40th birthday. He was named to the all-star team that season, the oldest player to that time to make his all-star debut.

Marrero relied on a steady diet of curveballs and knucklers and sliders, the latter driving the greatest hitters of the era to distraction. He was called "the slow-ball señor."

His record for five seasons in the majors was a mediocre 39-40, though consideration of his age and the weakness of his supporting cast makes one wonder how he would have fared had he pitched during his athletic peak.

Baseball player Conrado Marrero trading card

Marrero was featured in a 1953 Topps baseball card, issued during his time with the Washington Senators.

After being released by Washington, he returned to Havana as a starter for the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League, one level below the majors. He did not hang up his glove until age 46. He worked as a scout and coach, staying on the island after the 1959 revolution. He became more isolated in the decades that followed, political tensions keeping him from the fraternity of those who played the summer game at the highest level.

His mural graces a wall in a ceremonial room beneath the grandstand behind home plate at the Estadio. His image has also appeared on a Cuban commemorative postage sheet. This year, the Cuban National Series dedicated its all-star game to Marrero. Despite the attention, not all Cubans are aware of his longevity. While in Havana, I found an old news photograph of Marrero amidst a dusty stack of paraphernalia in a shop on Obispo. The proprietor insisted Marrero was long dead and remained unconvinced even when another customer confirmed having read a report about Marrero's well-being in Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper.

Permanent box scores

It has not been in the interest of the Cuban regime to promote Marrero's legacy, as his glories date to the era of what Fidel Castro has referred to as "slave baseball," when players were bound to teams by contracts. For many years, he received a paltry pension, though it has recently been raised to $150 convertible pesos (about $160) each month.

Marrero listens to Cuban baseball games on the radio every afternoon and on television each night. His mind remains sharp and his memory impressive.

World's oldest major league baseball player in 2011

Photo of Marrero taken this year during a visit by Krieger and fellow fanaticos.

This year, Krieger also brought Marrero a score sheet from a game that he had pitched in 1951. He reminded him that he beat the Yankees, 7-3. He told him that Joe DiMaggio played and asked whether he had hit a home run.

"He was a pinch-hitter," Marrero immediately replied. "Struck out."

He was right.

"That day, I got something like three hits," he added.

The boxscore showed he had only a single, but the pitcher also walked and took first base on a failed sacrifice bunt. He got on base three times, scoring twice.

These annual memory tests would seem cruel if Marrero did not perform so well.

Get Obama on the phone

Krieger is registrar of the B.C. College of Teachers, the professional regulatory body. He taught social studies in West Vancouver high schools for years. A self-described Trudeau Liberal, he first traveled to Cuba on an exchange more than a decade ago. A baseball nut, he attended a game, finding in Cuba a game played outside the shadow of commerce, evoking a nostalgia for a sport that back home seemed more elite than popular.

As a teenager, he worked as the attendant for the visitor's clubhouse at Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium. In 1968, at age 19, he talked Vancouver Mounties manager Mickey Vernon into letting him start the final game of the season. (Two factors likely made this possible -- Vernon, who died in 2008, was an all-round good guy, known in his playing days as the "Gentleman First Baseman," and Krieger promised to stack the grandstand with fellow students from the University of British Columbia.) His teammates-for-a-day did not appreciate being part of a baseball stunt. Before the game, Krieger's catcher promised retribution if one of his pitches broke a finger. As it turned out, the young left-hander held his own, surrendering a lone run in three innings and even managing a strikeout. (He did violate an unwritten rule of baseball etiquette by apologizing after hitting a batter with one of his pitches.) That was the culmination of his professional career.

Over the past decade, Krieger has compiled a cache of letters from Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Sid Hudson, Harmon Killebrew, Minnie Miñoso, Tom Lasorda, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Bobby Shantz, George Kell and Mickey Vernon, the kindly manager who had let Krieger pitch and who had been Marrero's first baseman in Washington. All express their deep affection for a man none of them has seen for more than a half-century.

Marrero is proud to have lived long enough to be the oldest former major leaguer.

"We have to call the American president," he said, "and tell him I am the oldest."

Each year, Krieger solicits a promise from the old man to stay alive another year. He presented him gifts of rum, cigars and Spanish red wine. In exchange, Krieger jokingly asks Marrero to deliver the eulogy when his own time comes.

A grateful Marrero quips, "Cigars do not keep you alive. Food keeps you alive."

Krieger then leaned forward to kiss the old man on the top of his balding head, where he long ago wore the W of Washington.  [Tyee]

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