In 1950, three minor-league ballplayers and their families left a brisk October in upstate New York and Minnesota and fled south.
In Miami, they boarded ship and made a short ocean crossing, landing in Havana, a stunningly cosmopolitan city defined by beaches and surrounding countryside.
The idea was simplicity itself: They would play baseball in Cuba all winter, dazzle the locals, and fine-tune their games for the major leagues. In between games they'd fish for red snapper in the gulf, gamble at casinos, and drink and dance at the Tropicana and Marmante nightclubs. And they'd get paid the princely sum of $1,000 a month.
But the reality wasn't that simple. Shortly after arriving in Havana, the three ballplayers discovered that the Cuban league, as old as the American major leagues, was intense and competitive. These players -- Cubans, Latinos and American blacks -- could rifle throws from center field, race around the bases, scorch fastballs across the plate. These guys could play.
"When I first went down there, I thought, `This will be a breeze,' " said John "Spider" Jorgensen, a nimble second baseman for the Minneapolis Millers when he received a telegram offering him a chance to play in Cuba.
"Then, it settled in your mind pretty quickly that you have to produce. They were pretty good ballplayers. They played year-round."
Jorgensen was joined by catcher Del Wilber -- my grandfather -- and knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, as well as six other Americans, on the Havana Reds club in the Cuban Professional League. Rich in history and tradition, the league had four teams that each could carry nine Americans on a roster of 25.
Wilber had been playing for the Rochester Red Wings, then an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Wilhelm for the Millers, a New York Giants farm club.
Yearning for a spot on the Cardinals, Wilber gladly traded selling Pontiacs during the off-season for playing baseball in a foreign country -- and for more money than he made while catching in Rochester.
"It wasn't taxable. On top of that, we spent the winter in Cuba," said Wilber, then a 31-year-old who had spent four earlier seasons as a backup catcher with the Cardinals. "It was a good deal."
The Americans found themselves playing with such Cuban greats as Orestes "Minnie" Minoso and Adrian Zabala, Conrado Marrero and Silvio Garcia.
They also competed against black players from the States -- still a rarity in the majors, even after Jackie Robinson opened the door in 1947.
"The quality of ball was high," said Mark Rucker, author of the coming book, "Smoke: The Romance of Cuban Baseball" (Total Sports). "Many Negro leaguers played there. There was no discrimination. They were treated well."
That diverse background of players created a subtly different game.
Pitchers like Morrero, known as un guajiro lepero (a cagey, tricky, devious hick), confounded American power hitters with sliders and curveballs. Right-handed power hitter Garcia smacked the ball with ferocious consistency to right field and batted .347. Edmundo Amoros, who played his first season in Cuba that year and frustrated opponents with speed and hitting, would eventually play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The dimensions of Cuba's spacious park were unique: 340 feet down the lines, 375 in the power alleys, 450 in center (by comparison, Camden Yards is 410 to center). Deep fences and humid weather limited home runs. In 72 games, the league leader hit only eight.
The tough pitching and competition were so intense that Wilber said he burned out during the 72-game, four-month marathon, struggling at the plate and eventually losing his starting job.
But it wasn't just the games that wore the players down. The Cuban fans were merciless.
When Wilber had trouble catching Wilhelm's knuckleball, the fans whistled relentlessly while waving white handkerchiefs. Fans loudly scolded slumping players or those who earned reputations as lazy drunkards.
All four of the league's teams played in Havana, creating fierce loyalties in neighborhoods for the Reds (or Lions), the Almendares Blues (Scorpions), the Cienfuegos Elephants and the Marianao Tigers. A cab driver would take Wilber's wife, Taffy, anywhere but refused to carry the ballplayer. Why? The cabbie was a Blues fan.
The professional league games were played at the Gran Estadio de la Habana, a modern ballpark built during Cuba's post-war boom. On Sundays, when all four clubs played, Cubans would overflow the park, drinking beer and rum, lounging during the lazy afternoons and cool evenings that often culminated in a game between the longtime rivals, Havana Reds and Almendares Blues.
In the stands, the Americans recalled, a group of men traded papers and signaled other fans. "They just stood there in the stands taking bets," said Wilber, 80, who lives in St. Louis.