For ballplayer in '50s, Havana slice of paradise

May 02, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

It was referred to in the travel brochures as the "Paris of the Americas" -- an idyllic island of sun, sea and sand, where the plazas were filled with laughter and the spirit of the Cuban people lent an enticing, keep-the-party-going kind of happiness to the setting.

That's all gone now, a country entrapped by an over-the-hill communist dictator who claims a passion for baseball, but was nothing more than a Mickey Mouse pitcher and, to make the picture complete, even wore a wristwatch when he was playing.

Jimmy Williams, with an extensive professional baseball past, doesn't know enough about the politics, the resulting turmoil, to discuss the international implications, except he remembers Cuba with the fondest of recollections. He was there playing in the Cuban Winter League when the revolution occurred, the season of 1959.

"Cuban baseball was as close to major-league quality as you could get," he said from his home in Joppa. "It was better than Triple-A because all the players had Triple-A experience and many of the Cuban players already were in the big leagues -- names like [Pedro] Ramos and [Camilo] Pascual and Willie Miranda, plus others."

It was the best off-season job a player could have, paying around $1,500 per month, similar to Triple-A salary. The Cuban experience was a joy to behold because of combining pleasure with earning a livelihood. Williams, who spent eight seasons as an Orioles coach after a highly regarded career as a minor-league player and manager, reflects on the winter of '59 in Cuba with the fondest of recollection, and regrets it was the last time he was there.

"I drove from Spokane, Wash., to Key West, Fla. -- you can't go much farther than that and be in the continental U.S.," he recalled. "It was all pre-arranged. At Key West, I put my car on a ferry boat, had a stateroom and then, after arriving in Havana, there was a representative of the club to show you the house where you'd be living."

The area, called Club Nautico, was where prominent doctors and lawyers lived during summer vacations. But this was wintertime for the players and they made use of the same beachside facilities. Maid service was available for $1 a day and all games were played at Havana Park, which meant the players, their wives and families had ample time for fun and socializing.

"This meant you put your uniform in one locker and it stayed there the entire season. You didn't have to travel all over the island, pack and unpack, but stayed right there in Havana. It was the ultimate winter baseball adventure. I can say that with some awareness because I also played in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama and the Dominican Republic."

Williams insists the players had the highest respect for the way the Cuban residents made them feel at home. "They were great fans, understood the nuances of the game and because of them I enjoyed that winter more than anything I can imagine."

He remembers a New Year's Eve party when the guests heard airplane engines roaring overhead, leaving nearby Columbia Airport, and being told it was deposed leader Fulgencio Batista fleeing the country.

"Every now and then, you might have heard a little gunfire, but we never felt we were in jeopardy. I remember on New Year's Day seeing a young man waving a Castro flag and I didn't know what to make of it."

The revolution didn't curtail the winter baseball season, but it was the last one to be played. And, for that, Williams holds regret. Wives of the players spent part of their time on a white sand beach, east of the city as he remembers, picking up magnificent shells and turning them into decorative jewerly boxes as gifts for friends.

"The beach looked like grains of sugar it was so white," Williams said. "And shopping in Havana was reasonable and interesting. It was just the greatest setup a player could have. I heard Jack Brandt, who played there one year, call it `paradise' because you could play baseball under first-rate conditions and also fish, golf, visit the nightclubs and enjoy yourself with wonderful hosts."

Something usually as insignificant as listening to the ballpark PA system play a jazz combo's version of the "Continental" made an impression on Williams.

"They knew how much I liked to hear it," he said, "so I never came on the field when they didn't have it playing as kind of a welcome."

He remembers once going Christmas shopping with Rocky Nelson and their wives. They got into downtown Havana and traffic was knotted; horns blowing and total paralysis. Suddenly, almost by magic, a young man took the car, parked it and said, "No charge," but Williams gave him a sizable tip when, three hours later, the car was ready for their return trip, rescued from the same maze of congestion.

"I never saw kids running the streets in Cuba," he said. "They were well-disciplined children. That impressed me. Girls and boys all dressed in school uniforms. The people made you feel good just being around them."

There were four winter-league teams -- Almendares, Mariano, Havana and Cienfuegos, and there was always an all-star game played between the U.S. imports and the Cubans. The American squad in 1959 included Charlie Lau, Jim Baxes, Albie Pearson, Nelson, Buddy Peterson, Charley Rabe, Bob Shaw, Bob Allison, Willie Tasby, John Burkhardt, Art Fowler, Pidge Brownie, John Goryl, Tommy Lasorda, Dick Brown and Williams.

After the revolution, government services were interrupted. Williams said the Christmas cards they mailed weren't delivered until the following June, and friends asked if they were sent late for the previous year or early for the next year. He let them guess.

Cuba has never been the same, but Jimmy Williams' treasured memories remain -- playing baseball in as comfortable an environment as he could ever imagine.

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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