Castro was soon throwing out ceremonial pitches and popping up in locker rooms across Cuba. In September of that year, for example, he made his presence known at what was called the Little World Series. The series pitted the Cuban Sugar Kings, a Triple-A team that played American and Canadian minor league teams, against a Minneapolis team, and, given the sorry state of Minnesota weather at the time, the final five games of the series were held in Havana. "He came to every game," recalled Preston Gomez, 76, who managed the Sugar Kings and ultimately joined the major leagues. "He was a big fan."
Like most Cuban boys, Castro grew up playing baseball and other sports. In fact, he was named the best athlete of his Jesuit boarding school, where his 1945 yearbook shows him in a basketball rather than baseball uniform.
Castro went on to the Univer-sity of Havana, and was said to have been a good enough pitcher to catch the eye of one or two scouts who scoured Cuba for major league talent.
"Oh yes, he played for Havana University," Juan Brejio says as if stating that, oh yes, the sky is blue.
Which it is today as Brejio, 68, a baseball trainer, spends an afternoon watching students practice on the storied Palmar del Junco field in a province east of Havana.
This is the spiritual home of baseball in Cuba, the very site where, as the commemorative plaque says, the "primer juego de pelota organizada efectuado en Cuba," the first organized game of baseball was played in Cuba. In 1874, Cuban history has it, a baseball club from Havana traveled here to Matanzas province to challenge another club.
Brejio can tell you that story, as well as the equally well-known one about Castro's own playing days.
"He was a good pitcher," Brejio says.
But this is where things start to get dicey.
On Nov. 28, 1946, the newspaper El Mundo printed a box score of an intramural game at the University of Havana, Law School vs. Business School. The future lawyers lost 5 to 4, and there is nothing interesting about this except for the one line in the box score that identifies the losing pitcher:
Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria unearthed this nugget of nearly lost history, but goes slightly crazy over the subject that it raises.
"To me, it's as if people were interested in Hitler's architectural drawings or paintings," declares the author of the new book "The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball" (Oxford University Press). "It's bull--. It's trivial. Who cares? It's not important. It's not true. Just drop it."
Gonzalez Echevarria is a professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale University. But like many an intellectual, his heart belongs to baseball. As George Will has his woebegone Chicago Cubs and Doris Kearns Goodwin her lost Brooklyn Dodgers, Gonzalez Echevarria is forever a Habanista, as the fans of the Habana Leones (Havana Lions) of his youth were known. His family were among the many who went into exile in the United States after the revolution, but Gonzalez Echevarria never forgot the baseball he left behind in Cuba.
It takes Gonzalez Echevarria just six pages into his 464-page history to raise -- and squash -- the issue of Fidel Castro's alleged pitching prowess. Castro indeed was a student at the University of Havana from 1945 to 1950, when he graduated with a law degree.
Gonzalez Echevarria says his extensive research for the book found nothing to document that Castro was a serious pitcher, only that sole box score of an unimportant intramural game. And who knows, he further speculates; that could have been some other F. Castro -- say a Felix, a Francisco or a Felipe.
"Believe me, Havana was a city with six major newspapers," Gonzalez Echevarria says. "No one has come up with a picture of Fidel Castro in a baseball uniform. There would be a picture, or box scores. There would be records."
Instead, there is lore.
The Fidel-on-the-mound stories take on several guises. There is the one of Castro as almost a Washington Senator rather than a Cuban dictator -- a tidy parallel, of course. But the scout who supposedly considered Castro, Joe Cambria, is long dead.
Then there is the story that the New York Giants in 1949 offered Fidel the then-grand sum of $4,000 or $5,000 to sign; he rejected the riches for the rebellion.
Both of these stories have been repeated so often they have become shiny with the veneer of something like truth. Often, they're printed with no attribution.
Livan Hernandez was a defector from Cuba who had played in the Cuban National League. This was a personal affront to Fidel Castro, who prided himself in the excellence of Cuban baseball and had almost pitched his way into the U.S. major leagues in 1956. Fidel had struck out Tommy Lasorda in an exhibition game attended by scouts from the Washington Senators in the days before they became the Twins.
-- From the book "Ay, Cuba!" (St. Martin's Press, 1999), by NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu
"That's not true," Lasorda says today.